Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 3 9 October - 16 October 2018
Kwality Wall’s I’m starting to better understand how things work here. Three weeks pass before I notice the lightbox above the entrance to Afsar Khan’s little market. Printed legibly on the red plexiglass sheet for all to see is the store’s name: Kwality Wall’s. After years of searching for walls, I almost overlooked this one. I joyfully open the door, my entrée given added lustre by the loud jingling of the store bell. Afsar Khan, seated behind the counter in crisp white Islamic dress, looks up absent-mindedly. Now that I know the name of the store, I might use it as a title for my work, I tell him. He looks as if he’s just woken up and doesn’t comprehend what I’m saying. ‘You know,’ I go on, ‘the wall drawings.’ I’d like to slap him on the shoulder as a comrade in arms and congratulate him on what now unites us, because that’s what Kwality Wall’s do. He explains drily that the store has been called that since it was founded in 2011. That was the year I was drawing on walls in Rio de Janeiro, I want to say, but hold back, so as not to dredge up memories of his own distant travels – that time in the outback of Australia when he was nearly killed. He’d
also like to visit Amsterdam and Groningen some time because he’s heard it’s nice there. I secretly reflect on my beloved Brazil, where I drew in a favela for months. Toward the end of my stay, I met a blind Brazilian named Armando who described what the chalk drawings looked like according to him.* Afsar smiles with the same distracted look as before as he plucks out grime from between the keys of his calculator. ‘I saw your wall drawings,’ he says and leaves it at that. I walk toward the shelves, which are filled with a gigantic assortment of flavour enhancers, and grab a bottle of water from the refrigerated section like always. I imagine myself as part of a schtick in which a wall drawer ‒ of course! ‒ buys his groceries at a store called ‘quality wall’. I’m starting to better understand how things work here. Against the wall behind the counter is a small exemplar that does the store name justice. The quality mini-wall is tiled in natural grey stone and measures approximately three by four-and-a-half feet – precisely big enough for a drawing. Afsar sees me staring at it and I ask whether this is the Kwality Wall the store derives its name from. Nodding and shaking his head he grumbles something about a ‘decoration wall’ and looks at me as if I’m not right in mine. Maybe he finds me a
rare bird after all and I need to back off a bit. I don’t dare ask if I can draw behind the counter, out of both reverence and a fear of disqualifying myself or becoming sidelined. That restrained grin just now told me enough. I’m reminded again about that ill-fated trip to Australia; it must have left scars. I sense a certain wariness in his distracted gaze, or at least vigilance. I shyly pay for my water, and with the same hand he used in the early days to genially give me a thumbs up, he signals that it’s time for me to leave. A true Dutchman would read that as: now, shove off. My earlier joy descends into uncertainty: what does he really mean? There’s a yawning chasm between the excitement I felt when I entered and the uncertainty that now takes hold of me. I was feeling at ease but apparently I haven’t even arrived yet. ‘Hey,’ he calls out after me, ‘Kwality Wall’s is the brand name of the largest ice cream manufacturer in India; all of the neighbourhood stores and carts that sell cornettoes are called that.’ Chagrined, I walk toward the exit and am startled to death when the store bell jingles. My hand is now clammy from the condensation on the water bottle, or is it sweat? I suddenly see countless Kwality Wall’s; they’re everywhere. ‘Watch out: it gets slippery when it rains,’ I hear him say. He wasn’t gesturing for me to get
out! He was pointing to the sky to warn me that the streets get slick in the rain, telling me to be careful; what a sweetheart. The asphalt has small cobblestones worked into it that provide traction when itâ€™s wet. They stick up a few millimetres above the road surface and are evenly situated about ten centimetres apart. I feel the protruding stones through the soles of my shoes as I head off to work. Embedded along the side of the road is a glazed tile basin where the inhabitants of the dirt road bathe and get their drinking water. They have ingeniously installed a mobile handpump on a copper pipe sticking out over the floor tiles, where the water flows out when they move the pump handle back and forth. You also have water haulers, who fill two buckets to the rim, then hang them on either end of a yoke they carry on their shoulders. But they donâ€™t work for free, so most of the locals lug the full buckets, jerrycans and plastic barrels of water back to their homes themselves. I stroll back and forth along the dirt street, where Iâ€™ve already drawn on four homes and am starting to feel at home. As the drawing work has gradually been incorporated into the neighbourhood rhythm, children no longer swarm around me like a volley of stray missiles. Little Sajid comes up alongside me. Since, as
far as he can tell, I’m not doing anything, he gleefully squeals: ‘Art project finished?’ ‘The project is always ongoing,’ I say. ‘Not finished?’ he asks, just as gleefully. I see that he has my telephone number on the back of his hand. He says he got it from Sahil, who I heedlessly tweeted yesterday. Sahil is a nice guy with moustache fuzz, the most avid interrogator in the neighbourhood, and he has since sent me dozens of apps. He had asked, ‘What are you doing for Durga Puja?’ The annual Hindu celebration and ceremonial offering erupts in four days, whereupon the five-armed goddess Durga Puja takes over everything and everybody. To be honest, I’ve been dreading the festivities; they turn the city upside down for ten days and supposedly it’s impossible to get around. I wonder whether I’ll be able to continue drawing and consider taking a long, contemplative train ride to the north of India, right through Kwality-Wall-land, to Uttarakhand, where the Ganges originates – to the starting point of the longest line running through this country. Maybe that’s overambitious, but so is staying here.
* Rio de Janeiro Drawings, depicting daily life in the neighbourhood between Rua Santa Cristina and Rua Benjamin Constant, was published in 2016 (ROMA Publication # 271).
‘It is an art project,’ intones a raspy voice just beside me. An old man with a sagging face and beady eyes has apparently been standing next to me for a while without me noticing. I must look like a ghost to him, covered as I am from head to toe in chalk dust. ‘Every day drawing,’ he smiles good-naturedly, and his cheeks bulge out as if stuffed with gobstoppers. ‘Hobby, hobby?’ he asks, seeking confirmation. And since my visa states that I am a tourist, I answer that drawing is my vacation pastime. Why not, actually? It does make me relaxed. But I’ve hardly been living like a tourist; I
haven’t been venturing out much. It might even be a stretch to say that I’m visiting the city; it’s more about working hard and surviving. So I then say, fairly resolutely, ‘This is my work.’ He stares at me as if I don’t look like someone who brings in the dough making chalk drawings. It always is a miracle, that making money, I think to myself. ‘It’s also partly my hobby,’ I say, to partially concede his point. He practically gasps for air. ‘Would you like to teach me?’ he asks, and his pitch-black eyes start to glow. ‘You have to learn by doing,’ I confide to him, to which he nods in agreement.
The drawings all retain their individuality; it doesn’t matter whether they were made in Rio de Janeiro, Calcutta or Ghent. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no requirement for them to adapt or develop; sometimes they might even regress. All that matters is that they keep going. They are nevertheless subject to change. Variations emerge on the fly, as I’m drawing, without premeditation. On a wall along the dirt road, I suggest a slight bulge between the straight chalk lines. It’s a sly reference to the many askew walls that populate the street.
Hidden from view, behind a black steel gate, is a welding firm. The dirt road ends there. Heavily weighted down rickshaws with trailers on the front manoeuvre their loads of steel and iron through the narrow street. Small lorries have to fold in their rearview mirrors to enter the site and even then itâ€™s amazing they donâ€™t brush against the homes or drawings.â€Š
People cook on wood fires in their homes, which is accompanied by choking clouds of smoke. What’s more, it’s muggy, windless and hot, with the threat of rain. If I leave prematurely, though, there’s a good chance the children or washerwomen will damage the drawing before it’s finished.
The drawing survived the predicted nightly rain shower and none of the residents took it into their head to run their hands over the chalk â€“ not even the severely autistic, seven-year-old son of the rickshaw driver, the man who tried to rob me last week. Whenever I see him cycling past, we both still fold our hands together, thus warding off the evil of humankind.â€Š
The drawing on the dirt road and the drawing I made on the green building are close together.â€Š
A chunk of rubble the size of a hefty book smashes to pieces on the ground beside me. I jump out of my skin, unable to figure out exactly what happened. It could have been a meteor strike; anything’s possible in Calcutta. But it’s a block of asphalt the rickshaw driver’s son has dropped from the top floor of a building across the way, missing by a hair the one-and-a-halfyear-old tyke playing next to me with cardboard soapboxes. The family pulls the boy immediately in off the roof and lays into him, but he just loves all the
attention and keeps grinning crazily at the angry people around him.â€Š
The trouble with Praneet has been laid to rest. Instead of sending him an email, I make a drawing around his letter box.â€Š
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 3 CARF, India, September-December 2018