25 July, 2008

The generally slow-paced life in India, the Delhi heat, and the fact that I am nearing the end of my journey (not to mention the slow internet) makes me more nostalgic, more indulgent, less likely to post on this blog every single day. Things come up, sometimes things so subtle and indescribable you cannot write about them because writing would be expressing it, and that would certainly fall short of the experience.

I have decided not to put up any artwork on this blog until August, because that is when I will be working on that part.

I visited some art galleries on Wednesday. I first went to the India Habitat Center, and saw two shows. The first was called the “Elements” and was a group exhibition of fifteen prominent Indian artists. As I wrote later in the guestbook, I had come to look at contemporary Indian art, and the exhibition was simply superb. Photography was not allowed – I wish you could have seen the thoughtful and mind-blowing sculpture of Sweta, or the expressionism of Naresh Verma, or the whimsical (but truly marvelous) collages of Harpreet Singh.

I asked the artists there how to get to the National Gallery of Modern Art. It seemed only a select few even knew it existed, because the auto driver had been clueless earlier when I got in and announced its name. They explained to me what to tell the auto.

Next I saw an exhibit of photography by Tarun Chhabra. He had documented the life of street children in India, and while there was celebration of love and brotherhood, overall it was very melancholic – a plea for attention and action to the viewer who may have the power to alleviate the dire conditions the kids were in.

I next looked at an exhibit by Bipin Martha, whose watercolors were way more exciting for me than the oil paintings. This is because they were of the common Indian people - fresher, more spontaneous and original. The oils were elaborate and painstaking renditions of Hindu gods. Here photography was allowed.

I went to the NGMA and was a little disappointed because the “modern” art included paintings by British artists in India in the 18th century but there was no M.F.Hussain. I was trying to recall all definitions of “modern” – was it modern as in contemporary (It can’t have been!), was it modern as in Modernism? In that case did 1750s fit in? Maybe it did in visual arts… maybe I was only looking at it from the background of my architecture education.

There was a video about lighting in art to make it theatrical. There was in it something about capturing the vitality of the city in the swift strokes of the pencil or paintbrush. This was interesting to me.

I was especially impressed by the Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil who had been painting in the early colonial India – it amazed me that a woman Indian artist could have been doing the work she did back then. She seemed ahead of her times, really. Amrita had traveled to Paris and had painted the Notre Dame!

I also really liked the watercolors of Ramkinker Vaij – am I biased or what?

That evening I met up with my friend from Princeton, Aman, who lives here in Delhi. Aman suggested we have dinner at Dilli Haat, this very traditional and touristy market with small crafts shops from all the states of India, and food stalls representing all the states also. It’s a special project funded by the government. It was a really good dinner of paratha, some sort of kebabs, and “fresh-lime soda,” a drink that Indian froofroos love.

We caught up and talked about our lives. Aman’s mother is an artist. I found particularly interesting the story that a few years ago she was invited by the French government for a residency in Paris for three months. According to Aman she had a great time but made little art. He said she claims to have internalized the experience and is just waiting to express it now. I could relate to that so very much it made me really happy. A professional artist was going through the same dilemma as me, it seemed: whether to go out and take in the city, or spend time locked up in a studio working to express. It put me at ease a little. Fortunately I will have time to finish up my artwork once I get back to Karachi.

The other really interesting thing he said was about the Muslims in India. He said he fears that India is not moving fast enough to address the problem of minorities, and of religious ethnic clashes. It made me wonder whether the creation of Pakistan was after all a good thing and whether, if Pakistan had not been created and I had grown up as an Indian Muslim, I would be a Princeton student writing about my painting project right now…

We went to a hookah bar, and because it was late by the time we were done I spent the night at Aman’s place. Next morning I went to see the Kutb Minaar and the ruins around it. It was the perfect place to sit and sketch in charcoal, but I could do little of that because I was disheveled (had not changed since the day before), and the heat of the sun overhead was so intense it made me sweat.

When I got back to my hotel room, I caught up with emails, read about my zees in Forbes this fall, and emailed them. It’s difficult to do all that when the internet is so moody.

23 July, 2008

I visited Laxmi Narayan Mandir (temple) which is dedicated to various Hindu gods. I had to deposit shoes, camera, bag and cell phone outside and enter having been “physically and mentally” cleansed. The temple is also known as the Birla Mandir. It was built in 1938 and was inaugurated by Gandhi. I read about the meaning and history of the swastika sign and was ironically reminded of other places the symbol was used. I looked at all the murals and read their English captions and the messages were very similar to all religious messages – piety, self-sacrifice, peace, abstinence, wariness of the senses.

The most spiritual experience for me was walking into a God’s room, which had mirrors on all the walls. It seemed to be a pentagonal room. The statue of the decorated god was in it, but when I walked in I seemed to be very much in the center of the small room. I could see myself all around me and, not just that, I could see myself from the side and from the back and from various other angles. I was alone in the room. I moved around to see what I looked like, and it was a strange feeling of detached observation. I was thinking about the idea that the divine is within us…

Once again, there were tourists from Europe and America, dressed in Indian clothes, accompanied by a tour guide, being led through the temple. When I tried to enter the souvenir shop marked “For Visitors from Abroad” the man outside stopped me and said “This is not the temple – it is only for them,” indicating with a look that the items in there may be overpriced. I thought, thank you for making me feel so at home, and left obligingly.

I next went to Humayun’s tomb. Built in 1572 by Hamida Banu Begum, his grieving widow, the tomb is a precursor to the Taj Mahal. It displays a marked Persian influence in Indian architecture. Large quantities of white marble and red sandstone have been used and the tomb is called “Dormitory of the Mughals” because it has over 100 graves. I entered one of the smaller structures on the side which was completely deserted. I climbed up broken steps (which had grass, squirrels and insects on them) and emerged very high up inside an alcove from where I had a very good view. The place was quiet and cool and I could have sat there for a long time.

It was generally very warm but, just as I was leaving, it became cloudy and fat drops of rain began to fall uncertainly. It must have rained only for ten minutes but it was beautiful.

I had been told to definitely see Nizam uddin Aulia’s shrine, so I headed off for that. It seemed a different world. I had entered a Muslim neighborhood. The Muslims here were much more markedly muslim-looking that those in Pakistan: clad in traditional shalwar-kameez, with a white cap on each man’s head, and each woman with her head covered. I was not that middle-aged woman, deep in love and adoration for the saint, here to fulfill her promise to visit him and ask him to cure her sick son. I was not the old couple who had wanted to come here all their life and pay their respects, and today their wish had been granted. I was merely curious and personally, I thought it was a little unclean. Also, the head of the mosque asking me for money didn’t leave a good impression on me. What excited me much more was to see the great poet Mirza Ghalib’s tomb close by. I have always thought that he should have been Pakistan’s national poet, but of course he wasn’t very religious so that’s a problem.

I decided to have food at a small restaurant in that area, and was happy to find the food tasted great and was very cheap. And though it later made me sick, at the time the world seemed like a very nice place.

22 July, 2008

I woke up with a sore throat and a slight fever on Sunday. I took immediate measures – got standard fever pills, took a cold shower, had hot clear vegetable soup, and when I felt better I went out into the burning heat of Delhi which was soothing. I had some errands to run – groceries, sending faxes, etc. Later that day, Uday took me and his friend Parth to watch a play at the India Habitat Centre.
Photos from the day can be found on Flickr.com by clicking here.

The Inida Habitat Centre is a dynamic center for the arts, with exhibitions, auditoriums, outdoor spaces, etc, and I definitely want to go back there to see everything. Particularly, its architecture struck me. In it I could read elements of modernism – the bridges reminded me of Groupius’s Dessau Bauhaus building, and the windows, with their use of pattern and color, reminded me of a Kandinsky painting, and the fusion of brick, concrete and other materials was very Venturi.

The play was being performed on the special occasion of the Columbian Independence day, and was an Indian adaptation of Gabriel García Márquez’s Eréndira and her Heartless Grandmother. It very powerful in execution, and moved me with its drama, passion, music and inherent tragedy. It was performed by a group of actors who would change roles, and orchestrate scenes through narration, dance, and by using techniques to created movement on the stage. The play was full of color and had beautiful costumes, masks, and symbols that could take you on a flight of imagination because they were so loaded with meaning. It was almost like watching the fireworks at Versailles, and like that time, this great performance created a bond between those who experienced it.

The auditorium was full of “froofroos,” a term coined by Parth for rich, well-dressed (usually in traditional clothing), educated Indians, who are progressive, who love the arts, and who, according to him, love the Pakistanis. We made fun of how the froofroos were a little pretentious, but then admitted that it was not a derogatory term and that we were froofroos too.

Yesterday I went to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (mosque), the Gandhi Darshan and Mandi House, where there are some art galleries. It was a long day, and I beat the heat by stopping to drink water, or lemonade that I got from a street vendor. Later I wanted something else to read (after my iPod met its tragic fate, I have turned to reading on the metro etc.), so I bought a copy of Uday’s mother’s latest book Weed - “We are Kashmir’s weeds. Wild, unwanted children.” I can’t wait to start reading it.

The Jama Masjid is enormous, gorgeous, and ornate, and it was a great delight to experience its architecture, complete with skillful technique, choice of material, and the exquisite use of color, on this day. I climbed up the minaar (tower) and the view was comparable to the Eiffel Tower’s. Here I could recognize landmarks in the city and study the cityscape as a whole. I was interested in the tops of buildings, and how they meet the sky, and Delhi is as interesting as Paris in that regard. I am excited to work on a related study.

I wanted to go next to the Gandhi Darshan, but the auto drivers didn’t quite know what that was. So I asked for Firoz Shah Kotla, thinking I could walk from there, and showed it to the driver on a map. That was a mistake, because he thought I had no idea what I was doing, and started off on a long, patronizing speech about ho I should go to the tourism office and ask them to help me out. I said okay and left. I had learnt a lesson. I went to another auto driver and just said Firoz Shah Kotla. It was perfect. I also realized that I had just to go ask for a ticket in Hindi, and I would get the rate for Indians (Rs. 5 as opposed to Rs. 100 for foreigners), because clearly I am not white and therefore not a foreigner!

The Kotla was something I stumbled on, but it turned out that these were ruins from the citadel built by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 1351. It was a strange experience to walk through the complex – many of the arches reminded me of the Roman arches we had studied at Princeton. These were different but worked on the same concept of arranging stone so it is in perfect compression. It felt bizarre that these structures had survived for so many years. Architecture, like poetry, really is a way for transient humans to immortalize themselves; I thought maybe I should become an architect.

The Gandhi Darshan was located near the bank of the Yamuna River and there was a museum with a chronological presentation of Gandhi’s life. I have been a great fan of Gandhi, ever since I read outside the textbooks taught in Pakistan. His vision of non-violent civil-disobedience got a great nation its independence, and to the end of his life, he worked for humanity. I spent a lot of time reading about his early life, which I knew very little about.

During the day, to cover short distances, I rode the bicycle carts (I don’t know what they are called). You see them all over the city, and yet I felt at first it would be wrong to ride one, because it’s human labor that pulls you along while you sit and enjoy the view. Something about it seemed very colonial – or like a remnant of the caste system, far from equality. However, with the intense heat, and with so many of them looking to earn a living I fell for it and hopped on. It was a bumpy ride but an excellent opportunity for photography. I don’t know if I should have done that though…

Photos from the day can be found on Flickr.com by clicking here.

20 July, 2008

Yesterday, I met up with Uday.

I first met Uday four years ago at the Mahindra United World College of India at Pune, where I was representing Pakistan at the peace conference organized by Youth Initiative for Peace. We became really close friends, and I want to think that our friendship is a microcosm of the peace, friendship and love we wish to see in the entire subcontinent.
[Find more pictures from the day on Flickr.com by clicking here]

In the morning I went to visit Aastha Chauhan, an artist at the Khoj International Artists Association. This workshop focuses on alternative forms of art, such as video, photography, mixed media, etc. Aaastha, however, had endless resources and some very good advice for me. She shared with me magazines and catalogues that had listings of Delhi art galleries, pointing out some significant ones. She also gave me copies of the Khoj yearbooks, and I was most excited to read about the community-based arts initiatives that Khoj had undertaken. Aastha recommended that I limit myself to some area of focus, just like I had done in Paris (rooftops and their conversation with the sky, roman sculptures, and windows). She suggested the Metro, which is a very new phenomenon in Delhi, as a subject for study. She also suggested walking along the Yamuna River and seeing what comes off that.

Though I agreed with her on the point that my subject matter needs to be narrowed down with some restrictions, I still thought that my watercolor sketches, even of famous landmarks like the Red Fort, can help contextualize them, and shed new light on them. Further, even though these landmarks may have been documented before, I would be experiencing them as they exist in the world today. I was thinking of Van Gogh’s church at Auvers-sur-Oise – a common subject with an entirely new treatment in painting technique.

The Khoj workshop is located in Khirkee Village. It was a long journey on the auto and I took some pictures on the way. It was almost like a ride in Universal Studios, and as I sped through the city, through small rickety streets and broad boulevards, and composed frames for photos shots, I felt elated.

Uday picked me up from Khirkee village and we went for lunch at a South Indian restaurant. The food was very good (read: spicy) and at the end we were given small bowls with hot water and a slice of lemon in it, to clean our fingers. We should really introduce those in Pakistan too!

We went next to Sanskriti Museum of Everyday Art. It was a beautiful establishment located in a remote area in south Delhi. It houses exhibitions and also serves as a space to organize workshops in the arts. There was a beautiful and extensive exhibit of terracotta art from different parts of India. There was also a textile exhibit which was very fascinating. But what struck me most of all was the heavily guarded, extremely well-preserved museum of “everyday art” in India. That section was closed and they opened it especially for us when Uday went and told them I had come all the way from Karachi.

We had ten minutes and the lady was a very friendly guide. The exhibit inside those gates was one of the most exquisite I have ever seen in my life. Though photography was not allowed, I spent a few moments later just to register it so that I would never forget it. There were household items that I recognized because my great grandmother might have owned some version of them. But these were many times more detailed, well-designed, ornate, or ostentatious. The delicate wood carvings were so unimaginably beautiful that it didn’t seem like the work of humans.

Later we went for a while to Uday’s house, which is located in a grand estate (with servants, gardens, ponds, walkways, amphitheatre and all!) in a serene suburb of Delhi.

We were short of time to we went, according to plan, to a mandir (temple) he really likes. It was indeed a very spiritual experience, although here too I didn’t think I should have taken pictures. It was interesting to see ardent believers making rounds of the shrine in extreme devotion and humble submission. They were lighting lamps inside coconuts and “feeding” the god this fire. I stood there, barefoot, and the warmth of the hot stone floor was very soothing. Tomorrow evening I am going to watch a play with Uday and his friend.

Later I was on my own and I wanted to get out, so I went to check out Chandni Chowk (every time I read Chandni Chowk, I am reminded of the first part of the movie Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Ghum – never ended up watching the whole three-hour movie!): a historic Indian market with vendors and people and haggling (and lights at night). It was a good walk, and I failed to muster enough courage to walk into a shabby restaurant. I had seen that universal McDonald’s sign and it anchored me in place on that chaotic street. A stranger I was, but I recognized it and it recognized me.

On the way back to the hotel, I ended up helping locals with their Metro routes!

I will now get back to my book. Ivan Karamazov is almost certainly doomed. The prosecutor is making his closing speech. How will it all end?