Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 4 16 October - 23 October 2018
ONCE MORE I’m getting worse at adjusting I’m now obsessed with the idea of completing a drawing on the façade of the grocery store, despite the fact that the premise – the whole point of the exercise – is based on my misunderstanding of the name of the business. ‘Kwality Wall’s is just one of our suppliers,’ says Afsar Khan, with a noticeable lack of zeal. ‘And, by the way, people here call the store “Once More”.’ Only then do I notice Once More written in smaller letters under the Kwality Wall’s logo. This sub-slogan of India’s largest ice cream manufacturer seems to be urging me to kick it up a notch, but I’m too embarrassed to ask Afsar Kahn if I can draw on his wall. I still sense a certain reserve behind his well-publicized geniality, as if he does not fully trust my motives. So, I put my bold plans on ice for the time-being, which is probably for the best, since I have a mountain of work awaiting me along the dirt road, where nearly the entire population has asked for a drawing. Due to the increased workload, the trip to Uttarakhand is now in danger of being abandoned. This
is not such a tragedy; the source of the Ganges surely won’t dry up anytime soon and I can always visit it later (perhaps in a subsequent life), whereas the situation in the dirt street is constantly subject to change. I respect the residents there, who manage to keep it clean in spite of the difficulties associated with living on dirt. They are glad to have me there. I don’t have to show proof of my identity as I would in the train and am safe from the hazards of moving long distances in this country. I dream at night of my postponed train journey, in which I suddenly have five arms for colouring the cities along the train route white: Bardhaman, Gaya, Allahabad, Lucknow and Uttarakhand. The dream feels more like an omen. It’s better for me to remain in the dirt street: spares me a lot of work and it’s safer. Last night there was a terrible train accident in Amritsar, not far from Uttarakhand. Tayock, a Bengali whose house in the dirt street I’m drawing on, shows me the dramatic scenes on his phone. Fifty people on and near the train tracks were killed as they stood watching the burning of an effigy of Ravana, a figure in Hindu mythology. I shudder as I watch the images of the train cleaving through a mass of people at high speed. Tayock pats me on the back when he sees me turn white. Here too in Calcutta, the train tracks are barely barricaded,
with people fearlessly crossing the line of death. The rail lines serve as an open-air public toilet, with people peeing and pooing, and accidents on a weekly basis. Itâ€™s strange to think how easily I can continue drawing in the face of horrifying news. Yet even with profound experiences I draw on; that way I keep one foot firmly planted in my own safe world. At the end of the dirt street, a skittish goat awaits his end. The cruel but undeniable truth is that as long as an animal is kept alive, its meat wonâ€™t spoil. The animal stands there in full sun, tied with a rope to a six-foot fence buttressed with rusty sheets. The gaps in the metal construction afford a view into another era, in which the little goat may might enjoyed a better life. What I can see stirs the imagination. A somewhat overgrown fairytale castle sits in the middle of a field, proof positive that this was once a centre of court life. You glean a taste of that allure even in the dirt street, in the dignity reflected in the daily sweeping practice and bolt upright carriage of people hauling water. The palace is dilapidated but apparently still inhabitable, judging from the security guard lazing in a wicker garden chair under a shady tree. It even has a lawn, the green I miss so dearly here in Calcutta. I capture lazybonesâ€™ attention by rapping softly on the steal sheet. If I managed to gain
access to this fantasy world, maybe I’d be able to touch the heart of Calcutta with a line of chalk. I must be mindful of the formalities and tread carefully because the property is in forfeiture, I stress to myself. The guard shuffles over and cancels out my audacious plan from a distance. He shakes his head – it’s a definite, unIndian, No – and indicates with an imitative motion of his hand that any back-and-forth scrawling of chalk on a wall is not allowed here. He’s already seen me at work then and knew why I was approaching him. His uniform is decorated with a couple of stripes – the more stripes, the higher the rank, I grin to myself. I act as if his sign language is mumbo-jumbo to me and humbly reply, ‘Thank you, thank you,’ as the smell of the rusty fence crawls up my nose and the goat gives me encouraging head-butts against my leg, at which point the guard points to the house, shakes his head so adamantly No and wags so aggressively with his index finger that I lose my smile and the goat cowers away, to the extent possible. It would be clear to even the most stubborn idiot that the property behind the fence is not to be entered. It’s the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve been denied access to a location. I try to remain calm but find myself panicked, as if the guard had yanked the
emergency cord on the train and brought my Art Project to a creaking stop. I’m forced to get out in a place where there’s nothing for me. When my feet hit the ground, clouds of dust spiral up, the dust I’m so intimately familiar with, that permeates my pores and, to a large extent, comprises the world. The house floats in the sunlight like a massive corner, the grass sways in the garden, yellow foliage swirls through the air. It’s as if the building has transformed into a castle in the air and will presently meld into the clouds and simply float away. In the meantime, the Hindu festival continues to be celebrated with loud drumbeating, jangling bells and hordes of people swarming from every nook and cranny. This all clashes tremendously with my own irreligiosity and feebly developed sense of spirituality. At times the festivities remind me of carnival in Venlo, where I once even made it all the way to junior prince for my parish. That triumphant wielding of a sceptre in a costume complete with a pheasant-feathered hat and a gorgeous velvet cape with ornate collar stands as the unquestionable highpoint of my youth. I never became a big partier, though; on the contrary, I clear out any time I see a throbbing mass of people start to form. But
Durga Puja has a deeper significance in people’s lives here than any bacchanal celebration, even if it is commercially exploited to the same extent. And there are many people who observe it fanatically yet modestly, more in line with my persistent drawing. If I were Hindu, I too wouldn’t let anything or anyone stand in my way; I’d beat on drums and jangle bells, if that’s what it takes to coerce happiness. The inhabitants of the dirt street are predominantly Muslim, so Durga Puja mostly passes them by. The occasional parade float may ride down the paved main road and I’ll catch a glimpse of the five-armed goddess, but I’m more intrigued by the woman living in the fairytale castle, who is always slipping out of view behind a wall. My plan to draw on the house may have vanished into thin air but the guard is still there; nothing has changed on the outside. Tayock, whose English is pretty good and who appears to be the owner of the now much-less-skittish goat eating leaves from my hand, invites me to dinner later. ‘Do you eat meat?’ he asks. I go to Afsar Khan’s to buy a present for him, salted biscuits and sweet drinks. The meal is delicious. Tayock tells me as he gnaws on a bone that the inhabitant of the fairy-tale house is a
single mother who manages to pay the guard despite her limited budget; that she does so for personal security, to protect her family from all the unsavoury types who, he says with sadness in his eyes, populate the night in such large numbers. I pay extra attention as I walk home in the dark afterwards, noticing with a shock that the goat isn’t there anymore. I may not have the nerve to ask Afsar Khan if I can draw on the store façade, but I do manage to sound out his brother William about the idea. The brothers look alike, with a similar build and good nature, but William is a new face for me, as I obviously am for him. When he sticks out his hand amicably a second time to compliment me on my drawings as we introduce ourselves, I take the plunge. As coolly as possible, I say that a drawing might look good on the front of their store and that, what’s more, I have an idea for one. I apologize immediately for not having included his brother, since he must have final say as the one running the store. That turns out not to be the case; William is the older of the two. ‘Aha,’ I say jokingly, ‘the little brother still has a lot to learn from the big brother.’ This comment is met with a resounding laugh and he grants me permission without a second thought. In my joy, I
buy up half the store – well, at least my bag is bulging when I carry it back outside. I put the work on the dirt street on hold and rush to the grocery store. I also scrap my plans for going to the closing ceremony of Durga Puja that afternoon. Nobody will miss me at the ritual immersion of the idols in the Ganges; the store is now much more important. The blue-painted door to the warehouse is partially covered in half-torn posters; it’s like leafing through a history book as I draw. I work as one possessed, since this could well be the crowning piece of the project; that’s how much esteem I hold for the family Khan. A lot of people come to watch. I’m definitely back on the main street, where it all started a month ago. I imagine people are talking about me in the store, not just the customers, but the two brothers as well. Afsar Khan pulls up on his futuristic scooter. His forehead is beaded with sweat and he looks stressed. ‘We’re painting over the door on Sunday,’ he says, and drives off.
The resident of the smallest apartment in the dirt street is an elderly woman who still has a strong lust for life. She grabs my arm – not as violently as the rickshaw driver, who moreover lives across from her, had a couple of weeks ago, but still… Without wasting words, she forces me to take her home under my arm. Okay, I think to myself, I’ll give you your way, out of respect for my elders. She keeps an eye on me the entire time I’m drawing, as if I’m her personal prisoner. I feel as if what she’d really like to do is tie me to her house with a rope. The rickshaw driver then gets involved; he pulls me with his distinctive vehemence toward his house,
where I’m expected to start drawing right away. ‘You have to be nice,’ I tell him commandingly and am fortunately able to make him understand he has to wait his turn. The apartment I’m drawing on is small and I finish quickly, but the old hag shakes her head officiously, No, pulling some housewares out of the way, items that had been blocking my way. Apparently I’m supposed to continue drawing until I drop dead. I’ll get her, I think, and decide to chalk the whole house white, like in the cities of Bardhaman, Gaya, Allahabad, Lucknow and Uttarakhand.
It’s curious to note that the questions elicited by the drawing are devoid of spirituality or mysticism, whereas the exact opposite might have been expected here. Every last one is concise and rational, and they are repeated in endless succession. ‘Where are you from? What is your telephone number? Where are you staying? What is your name? Are you married? What are you drawing? Why are you drawing? What are you doing next? Do you speak Hindi? When are you leaving? How much to you make? Who’s paying you, or is it a hobby?’ When I tell people about the uselessness of art and transience of chalk and say that what I value
are the interpersonal interactions, it never satisfies them. Instead, they repeat the same questions, three times over if need be, whether they’re Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. Drawing seems to only be considered legitimate if it is a function of ‘something’ or serves a higher purpose, the latter of which is naturally ruled out in my case. The culture I’ve now been steeped in for a month has a more rational relationship to my work than I would have previously thought. Yet it’s completely different here than in the orderly Northern European cities or even compared to easy-going Rio de Janeiro. People stand just ten to twenty centimetres away when
they talk to me, possibly as a result of the high population density. The lack of privacy on the street is exhausting, with everybodyâ€™s endless, well-intentioned interference. Iâ€™m getting worse at adjusting.
Colophon Bart Lodewijks - Calcutta Drawings Drawings, text, photographs: Bart Lodewijks Editing: Danielle van Zuijlen Dutch-English translation: Nina Woodson Image processing: Huig Bartels Design: Roger Willems and Dongyoung Lee Publisher: Roma Publications This project was possible thanks to the support of CARF, Calcutta; Mondriaan Fund, Amsterdam Special thanks to Praneet Soi Â© Bart Lodewijks, 2018
Bart Lodewijks - Calcutta Drawings 4 CARF, India, September-December 2018