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  • Writer's pictureAnna Crichton

“…but Ma’am, if we drew cartoons we’d get put in jail.”

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

It’s getting cooler, very comfortably – 26 degrees once the sun is up and a very sleepable 12 degrees at night. But it’s also the start of the wedding season and to kick it off the whole of Varanasi celebrates their weddings with noise – percussion, cymbals, drums, trumpets, loudspeakers projecting the noise into every corner, ill fitting glitzy uniforms and hats adorn skinny weathered village men paid to shamble with their instruments behind the bridal procession. 

I’m beginning to become a little apprehensive about returning to all the responsibilities that go with running a household, a dog – the domestic and the work routine – the grownupness of it all. It will have been nearly three months here in Varanasi of little verbal communication, lots of emotional self reliance, no routine (except Papaya every morning), I’ve been able to focus solely on making the ‘Abstract Embroidery and Woodblocking in Varanasi’ project happen. The time here at Kriti residency has been a retreat from everything that is familiar, including family and friends. I see why these times are valuable for trust in oneself to cope alone and to see if the creative drive is alive and well without the usual infrastructure. At least my sometime ‘less than tactful’ ways have not had many opportunities to embarrass anyone. 

The cliched expression – ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ rings very true, and I hope I can find some sense of equilibrium amongst the multi-tasking that is my freelance artist life in New Zealand.

Being here is not like settling into a remote cave, I can walk out the gate and be thrown into the inexhaustible theatre of life, gather it all up in memories for a time when I might grumble about the state of potholes on the road, about a bus not being on time, about the cafe coffee not being hot enough. 

I want to include this long paragraph from ‘The City of Light’ written by the scholarly Diana Eck, she can explain the simple daily pleasures of the Banarsis (Varanasi dweller)

   ‘There is a special spirit among people who call themselves Barnasis, whether they are rickshaw pullers, merchants in the market, or the old aristocracy. It is the art of living, both passionate and carefree. They call it masti (“joie de vivre”), Mauj (“delight, festivity”) and phakkarpan (“carefreeness”). It is enjoyment of life without ostentation. Most of it’s pleasures are simple: a morning bath in the Ganges, clean and plain clothing, simple Dahl and rice, a boat ride to the far sandy bank of the river for a morning walk. A small parcel of delicate milk sweets, layered with pistachio and covered with thin silver paper, a mouthful of pan, betel nuts  and other condiments, wrapped in the tenderest and most succulent pan leaves, a tall frothy draft of thandai, laced with intoxicating bhang (legal marijuana paste) – these are the finest pleasures of the day. In the evening, there will be the clang of temple bells, and perhaps, later, some music. It is an ambiance of urbanity, good living, and culture, all of which comes to be synonymous with the word “Banarsi”.

I’m still on the search for perfect rickshaw canvas back flaps and have just today sourced (well..rather sliced off) three canvas’s that are now soaking in detergent laden water, the water is black. I find myself looking for canvas’s like a photographer looks for a good shot. I feel my reputation as a canvas trader is getting geographically wider and wider. On three occasions in different parts of the city I’ve been recognised, grinned and pointed at – I’ve felt a bit guilty about swiping off their back flaps, but have been reassured that the 150 rupees I’m paying them for a piece of dirty, shabby, canvas happily stupefies the drivers.

I spent a couple of hours this morning with my main embroiderer Ramesh and his translator son Bintu. I gave him three new designs to embroider, Ramesh likes to know what the stories are behind the embroideries so I explain them carefully and honestly to his son Bintu, who then explains them to his father. But, I have a feeling that Bintu’s explanations to his father are heavily edited – for the subject matter of these works are tough, bloody, and delicate, and would not make comfortable dinner table conversation. The ‘Mother India’ embroidery is a collection of breasts, both big and small (old and very, very, young) echoing the struggle of feeding and nurturing this giant population. Bintu told me he’d told his father they were hats. I can now see why they are not stuffed in the way I wanted them stuffed. In another – ‘Female Infanticide’ – Bintu told his father it was a design of someone who had a sick stomach – close.

I gave a ‘show and tell’ to the art students at The Faculty of Applied Arts, Benares Hindu University, yesterday – showed a powerpoint of my satirical illustration/caricature work and the creative process involved. Showed them a caricature of Trump – they will love whoever their adored president Modi loves, Modi passionately embraced Trump in a long bear hug shown widely on TV and in the newspapers – now Trump has millions of new fans. 

A student said he would be too scared to draw cartoons or caricatures of public or political figures as he would be likely to end up in jail, as what happened to a local cartoonist for ‘representing a chief minister in an obscene way’ just a couple of weeks ago. 

I’ve always been a bit cynical of ‘woo woo’ pursuits, but tomorrow I have an appointment with a recommended Indian astrologer, a fortune teller perhaps, he’s older, has been studying Indian astrology his whole life – he needs my birthdate, place and time of birth, and height. I’m told he will read my face. 

Winter has come suddenly along with the fashion of men wearing sparkly, synthetic wool knitted vests in colours of pale pinks, baby blues, pale yellows – at night they twinkle under lights. They look outrageous with those heavy black moustaches. 

It’s time to rinse those canvas flaps and hang them up. And I won’t let you know if my life predictions include winning Lotto.


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