The north is different, people are physically different, a bit sturdier in general and the clothing tends towards more solid colors. Men wrap their heads in woolen scarves and their clothes are thick to ward off the cold. Many have adopted western garb and there are many western-style clothing stores. I was really pleased to buy a fitted short wool jacket that they tailored to fit me beautifully.
Bhagya, Ajai and Anjali arriving at the fair
Although there was much to see and experience at the Indian Art Fair, my main experiences were with people I met and former students and SAIC grads I was able to see, like Bani Abidi, who had a fantastic new book launch with Raking Leaves, and Sumakshi Singh, whose installation at Religare was a walk-in illuminated manuscript she had painted and folded so that it only worked dimensionally through a video camera lens, which projected the “correct” perspective and included the viewer as part of the image.
Sumakshi Singh's installation at Religare
I was disappointed that I missed Bani’s talk about her book at the British Council, having got the wrong time. But Courtney Ziegler, another former SAIC student who is currently in Delhi and I had a delightful time having tea in a small side street, in a café that probably never had women in it, but tolerated us because clearly we were foreigners. The dim light softened the old cracked tiled walls and cast a golden glow on the rosy brick skin color of the handsome young man who served us. We bought samosas to snack on the way out. Bani invited us to join her and about a dozen friends for dinner afterwards in a nearby restaurant where the waiters seemed to descend by the dozens, heaping yet more food on our plates. Bani’s friends were a humorous and witty bunch. I had to listen carefully to get the good natured teasing that flew around the table.
Dinner with Bani and friends
Another highlight was a studio visit with the Raqs Media Collective, a three person collaborative group that has worked together for 20 years. They described their daily routine to me of meeting over endless cups of tea in their studio and discussing while recording and emailing on their laptops, maintaining an ever growing archive of their thoughts and activities. Particularly interesting to me is their practice of requiring any dissenter to propose an alternative to a plan, thus rendering any negative immediately useful and positive.
On another night we were at the Sheridan Hotel the reception for Meerha Mukherjee sculptures from the 50’s. After viewing the exhibition, I sat down and started drawing a Sikh man wearing a turban when Nidhi and Ruchin approached me, curious to see what I was drawing. As they were artists and former students of Sumakshi Singh’s, we exchanged information. I had a wonderful studio visit with them as they are both deeply immersed in preparing for a March exhibition in Mumbai.
Such a beautiful spacious place, the buildings built harmoniously with the land and trees, quiet despite the proximity to MG road’s dense traffic and the Metro. There were only a small handful of other artists in residence, all of them women, most my age or older, three other Americans, two Australians, one Swiss, and one Latvian. Each artist has a private spacious 2 floored apartment for sleeping and working, with balcony and front and back entrance open to the grounds. I frequently saw peacocks on the grounds, as well as many other birds I did not recognize, and monkey families paroled the road into the grounds.
It was slow going for me in the studio. A looming deadline combined with so much stimulation from the fair, meetings and travels through the city presented a big challenge to focus. It wasn’t until my last day that anything started to happen.
Akshay Raj Singh Rathore
Flora and Zephyr
A few days into my stay, a Delhi based artist, Akshay Raj Singh Rathore, began working on a month long “architectural dig”. Two men were engaged in digging a 15 x 10 foot pit, six feet deep, in which Akshay will install his clay modeling of contemporary everyday objects. Akshay and his wife Flora are planning a major farming restoration project, including the distribution of heritage seeds and the planting of indigenous trees in his childhood village. We spent a few afternoons discussing some of India’s severe environmental issues, including monoculture agribusiness, the effects of Monsanto, endemic malnutrition, lack of clean water and the explosion of new construction. Delhi based Khoj Foundation, which is supporting his village project, has been programming a number of workshops for artists, activists and intellectuals who wish to actively engage with India’s environmental challenges.
Sufi Singing at Nazruddin’s Tomb
At the entrance to Nizamuddin's Tomb
Buying Puja Offerings
Ruchin and Nidhi took me to hear the Sufi singing at Nizamuddin Auliya’s Tomb. We drove in dense traffic from the Saket Metro, where they picked me up, for some time in dense traffic, laughing as I practiced the Hindi swear words they taught me. The narrow lanes and white interior alleys of the Temple grounds were lined with vendors and beggars. Right before the entrance to the Tomb, Ruchin bought several plates of flowers and incense as offerings. Only men are allowed to enter into the tomb interior, but many women sat just outside the entrance, reverentially touching the surrounding architecture, where many sacred strands hung as prayer offerings. We waited quite a while for the singing to begin, seated on two facing carpets with an opening between them, where we were were joined by their friends.The singers, a group of around 8 men, were seated facing the tomb. Two played the harmonium, one percussion instrument, and all of them sang. The eldest collected the money offerings from the seated listeners, and also found places to sit for latecomers he seemed to know. He sang also, in a high sweet melodious tone.
Ruchin and Nidhi
The songs were quite long, perhaps 20 minutes or more each, and verses seemed to repeat, with new improvisational flourishes each time. The percussionist played complex rhythms that sped up, climaxed and quieted. Nidhi translated a few of the lyrics for me, which throbbed with longing for ecstatic love for God. I really wished I could have sung with them, carried by the full bodied sound.
Afterwards we drove for a long way looking for an open restaurant and found one near Jain University, which was about to close at 11 pm, where we joked and laughed and ate udipi style dosai.
Bunty and me
Courtney and I met at Rajiv Chowk Metro Station to do some shooting. Almost immediately we were befriended by a Sikh gentleman, Bunty, who decided to take us under his wing. We were never sure if he was taking commissions from the shops he took us to, as he never asked us for money. He said his day job is teaching children but they were on holiday that day. He really wanted to take us to his temple and though we were a bit grumpy from bargaining with shopkeepers and I was chafing to get back to the studio, but we relented, and took a bike rickshaw, the three of us adding to the burden of the older gentleman who propelled us forward. We were so glad we did. The Temple is a lovely white marble structure surrounded by greenery. After you check your shoes (for free, which includes shoe shine) and wash your hands and feet you mount the steps to the vast, cool interior. Amplified live prayer music flowed, singing and percussion by three men at the central shrine, or tomb, opulent in gold leaf. Believers streamed into the temple and prostrated themselves before it, making money offerings into several locked coffers. Bunty took us upstairs where readers kept the text alive by volunteering to read aloud the giant sacred texts.
Bunty then led us outside to the courtyard and beautiful pool for ritual bathing and back indoors to a vast cafeteria where people sat in neat rows on the floor eating from metal trays. Bunty explained that everyone ate for free, no matter how rich or poor, that the Sikh belief was that all are equal and that sitting in straight rows best demonstrated equality. We then were led into the cavernous kitchen, where vats of food, dahl and mixed vegetables, were ladled into serving basins. Women sat on dais, on one side patting the dough into round patties for chappati, on the other at the grill where they flipped them effortlessly into huge plastic baskets to be distributed in the cafeteria. The music was constant and lent all their actions a sense of ritual.
Shopping with Swamiprobuddhananda
On my last day at Sanskritti, a Vedanta retreat took place. Feeling really torn between spending some last hours painting, knowing I needed to go back into the city to shop for gifts and wanting to spend time talking to Akshay and his wife Flora about their upcoming project, I decided to forego the retreat. To my great surprise, Swamiji and I had a chance to talk at the end of the day, after the retreat, and were soon laughing heartily together. He was interested in going shopping also, so he and two other monks from his ashram took a bone shaking taxi together into the city. I was quite giddy in his company (how often does one go shopping with a Swamiji?) but he was a clear headed and resourceful shopper, guiding me to the right shops for my purchases.