India doesn’t let you go.
I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about India that holds onto you, because there is so much grabbing your attention at every moment.
Scotland holds my heart and soul and won’t let go. India has my senses. The smells, the sounds, the sights, the tastes, all of it. Touch? Yes, I guess that’s the heat and the dust.
I’ve been here two weeks or so – a few days in Delhi, and then back up to the Himalayas, to the small mountain village, Gunehar, I spent in a month in last year. I’m here this time ostensibly for another of Frank Schlichtmann’s art projects, this time filling a forest-based ‘gallery’, called In The Woods. In actuality I’m here to write the book I didn’t get round to last year about the ShopArt ArtShop project. It’s a different kind of book than I’m used to – almost a travelogue, with a lot of focus on the artists and their art, as well as the village itself and the area around here, which is endlessly fascinating.
Here are some of the sights of this recent trip, and you’ll have to imagine the sounds and tastes and smells. The temperature was well in the 40s (centigrade) in Delhi (that’s 110-120+ in fahrenheit). Deliciously cooler in the mountains, mostly in the mid to high 20s (80-90F) during the day, which is much more the kind of summer temperature I’m used to.
There are many ‘must-sees’ in Delhi, and I’m yet to experience more of them in July when I return there. One is the National Museum, which houses the most extraordinary collection of historical artefacts – so overwhelming was the experience of the history and craftsmanship that we had to take a break and go for a walk outside at one point. You would be hard-pushed to see it all in a day. Goddesses abound, some pieces in excess of 5,000 years old.
The Lodhi Gardens in the centre of the city offer a cooling green belt where Delhi-ites jog, walk their dogs, meditate and do yoga. It’s also the site of several massive Mughal ruins. The Mughal Empire ruled India, Pakistan and Afghanistan from the early 1500s through to the mid 1800s when they were eventually routed by the British.
Paharganj is an enormous market area near Delhi railway station. It also dates from the Mughal era. It’s loaded to its alley-wayed gunnels with restaurants, shops, hotels and hostels and is a backpacker’s mecca.
Gunehar (sort-of pronounced ‘goo-neer’) has a population of 2,000, although it’s hard to see where they all are, tucked as they are into the hills here. You can see that it must be so at 8am when all the school children descend on the market square to catch their school buses. There are a good few hundreds of them, and that’s not counting those who go to the actual Gunehar schools up the hill behind the village. The local government schools aren’t held in high esteem, so anyone who can afford to sends their children to private schools, many of which aren’t a lot better. This is the village square and the view from my guest house room. The beautifully painted building opposite was one of last year’s ShopArt projects. Three school buses arrive in this small square every weekday morning, and Saturdays, and manage to turn around!
I’ve had a few outings from the village, to nearby Andreta, which is a growing centre for arts about 45 minutes away by car, mostly pottery. Mary and Mini Singh are central figures in the community with their very famous Andretta Pottery. Mary’s also a writer and I was invited to join a very inspirational group of mostly Indian women writers for lunch at her house one day. Below is local Indian poet Monisha Mukunda and English-born Mary Singh of Andretta Pottery.
And finally to In The Woods, and our artists and their art. It’s been so wonderful to meet up again with the brilliant and very lovely Mudita Bandhari, who was here at ShopArt last year. She has a whole new collection of exhibits for this festival, shipped from her studio (below) in Indore in central India.
Joining again this year is Bianca Ballantyne, a local painter, whose work I love.
Note that not a single nail was put into a single tree, or anything similar. All the works are delicately strung by thin wires.
Photographer Ratika Singh has exhibited a wonderful set of prints that are so very India, among them a bus, goats, and bamboo scaffolding:
Oh and I got to visit what’s pretty much my favourite spot in these parts, the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery of English-born Tenzin Palmo. I hope to visit again this week, and possibly even to finally meet Tenzin Palmo herself.
When you come here from the West, from our neat, clean footpaths where we responsibly bag our doggy-doo; where the traffic sticks to its designated side of the road (be that left or right – in India, it’s left, mostly); where the origin of our food is generally to be relied upon; where livestock don’t roam where they please and baboons don’t run across the road in front of you; where small, hungry children don’t accost you at traffic lights to sell you a pen or a bunch of jasmine or a cheap, plastic window-cleaning tool; it’s easy to be overwhelmed by deprivations of internet and electricity and hot water and much more. You really do have to just let it all go and just be here. Because there are miracles in all this chaos, there is certainly the greatest majesty in these mountains, and there is incredibly beauty in the simplicity of life here, and that is truly to be celebrated and relished.
It’s good for the soul. There’s nowhere like here.