Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 5
23 October 6 November 2018
Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 5 23 October - 6 November 2018
SUNDAY The city is a deep reservoir of poetry for those who don’t have to live there. On Sundays I leave the chalk and level behind and wander through the city. I feel awkward without my work tools; it’s the only day of the week I have no good reason to be here. My eyes dart around, searching for drawing locations. The sun shines on the cars, buses and rattling rickshaws that ride right on top of one another, emitting a deafening cacophony over the city. Seen from a distance, though, with all that noise quieted down, they chug along the five-lane roads at an agreeable pace. I shut my eyes tight against the abundance of light and swirling dust, and also because it lessens the noise somehow. The long drawing sessions have caused me to turn inward and I’ve become unaccustomed to distant views, as if I live in the dark all week. To some extent this is true; on workdays I see very little because I stand in one spot the entire day, seemingly transfixed, drawing on walls as if possessed by some dark force. The elderly woman from the dirt street tried to keep me there with her gaze. Bound or chained or captured by her stare,
what’s the difference? I was not allowed to leave until her home had been chalked completely over. She kept pointing out the uncovered sections and I would act as if they had escaped my notice. I followed her pointers obediently and scrupulously, refusing only a few, even when the drawing was long finished. The refusals concerned areas where the concrete was too brittle for the chalk to take hold or where long, rusty nails stuck out from the wall and it was simply too dangerous to keep drawing there. When it dawned on her what the issue was, she clawed the nails out from the wall one by one. What choice did I have but to yield to her tyranny? When I finished, she shoved the nails back into the holes with sardonic glee, as if skewering tiny black flies. I have just encountered a selection of much bigger holes under a flyover, black caves inhabited by refugees, displaced persons and literal outcasts. The sound of a heavily beating heart rises out of the mansized openings, as if someone were sleeping there: badum, ba-dum, ba-dum. I can barely summon the courage to peer into the darkness, ashamed that it might have been more desire than fate that drew me here. Because of my northern European appearance, I do not have the option of observing surreptitiously. I brace
myself for someone to pop up out of those depths, for our eyes to meet and them to ask me what I’m doing here. Not until I’m past the danger zone do I register what the sound was: ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dumpa-dum is the sound the traffic makes as it runs over the concrete panels of the flyover, whose superconducting steel skeleton connects all of the dwellings underneath together. It’s called the Maa Flyover, a traffic artery nearly five kilometres long cutting through the busiest part of the city like a poisonous snake. The flyover is painted in a dark-blue diamond pattern, like scales, in an attempt to give it the allure of an elevated bridge. For many people, it also serves as a roof over their residence, their stall, their store, school or business. There is even a mosque at the point where it meets Karl Marx Sarani, the major thoroughfare that crosses under the Maa Flyover near the racecourse. That’s where I now find myself. The call to prayer blares from the speakers; a criss-crossing mass of people walks in every direction; rickshaw drivers, running barefoot, draw their loads nimbly between the motorized vehicles; and along the berm, a narrow dirt strip separating all that bustling activity from the chic hippodrome, skittish ponies are ridden by jockeys dressed up like pirates. The rickshaw drivers, the jockeys, the children – they all storm at me
in unison; I would’ve been crushed if I hadn’t moved out of the way. It wasn’t until afterwards, as I caught my breath under the shade of a banyan tree, that it occurred to me that the Maa Flyover was the beating heart of Calcutta I’d been searching for all this time. It is no small miracle that I manage to produce drawings in a city I have such difficulty embracing, I muse, as I continue my walk sunk deep in thought. I like the residents of the dirt street. I feel comfortable among them, which is a great achievement. I consider myself fortunate not to have to stare the beast in the mouth on a daily basis. The atmosphere under the Maa Flyover feels like the gates of hell; what on earth would a drawer like me do there? It’s home to a ruthless monster one would do well to steer clear of. And it’s not just under the bridge that life’s so rough, but on my street too. There’s a leper who regularly sits and begs next to the electrical store, along the terracotta wall where I got into trouble a few weeks ago. He raises his right arm, with its missing hand, in appeal, dangling a money pouch from his crippled left hand for you to throw money into. At the Gurusaday intersection, just a kilometre away from me, a beggar missing both hands holds his pouch in his mouth. This city is renowned for tending to lepers; Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1976 for her work here. Yet Calcutta is also a city in which lepers hide their illness from others as long as possible because ‘discovery’ still leads to expulsion. I thought the disease had been eradicated, or that maybe just a few cases existed that were treated in specialized hospitals, certainly not that the dying walked around on the streets with beggar’s pouches in their mouths. The preponderance of poverty does not mean, though, that people are unhappy. Most of the people I meet are poor and genuinely friendly. Once a person falls victim to disease, however, the poverty becomes harrowing. It’s true that the people from the dirt street often ask me for something to eat or for money. Their street is part of a network of streets in the southern district of Ballygunge around Palm Avenue, where the wealthy live. There’s always some spare change to be had somewhere, even though the air-conditioned fourwheel drives travel much too fast and honk at everything in their way. In affluent circles, where I hardly ever find myself at the moment, people look down on ‘the poor’. They like to warn you that they’re unclean, aggressive and dangerous. That first quality is hardly surprising; I too find myself at the end of a day
digging the dirt out from under my fingernails and washing off a mixture of chalk powder, dirt and dust. At a visit to an art bookstore from the ‘interactive list’, a compilation of handy tips and contacts from CARF, the reaction to my ‘kind of work’ was not exactly positive. When I told the owner about my drawings on the street, she sighed, ‘Ah, experimental art.’ Someone can come right out and say that to you without losing face. ‘There is nothing experimental about my chalk drawings; people were drawing with chalk well before the advent of printing,’ I couldn’t help saying. My eyes ran over the backs of the books neatly arranged in alphabetical order on the shelves. I remember that I need to make a greater effort to interest the ‘well-off’ in my project and ask if I might also draw on their houses. Excluding them would be prejudiced and regrettable because they are an equally intrinsic part of the city. The owner makes a face when I tell her about how I was almost hit on the head by a chunk of asphalt. Still, there was no getting her business card or address, not even when I said I’d be happy to keep her updated on the Art Project. She didn’t even ask for my telephone number – and I thought calling people up was national pastime numero uno.
As I continue my Sunday walk, I notice that all of the apartment buildings have security guards. They’re as natural a part of the scenery as the trees planted at fancy locations. The people living along the dirt street are just lucky they live in the shadow of an apartment complex. One thing I’ve learned is that luck is more important than wealth and you mustn’t believe that rich people always have it easy. Some of the luxury apartments have palm trees on their roofs with rupiahs growing on them; I can see the notes fluttering when I look up from the street. ‘Up there where they live in the clouds’ are probably clubs, too, and swimming pools and cocktail bars. What else are you supposed to do with all that money? You have to belong to clubs. It’s high time I got in touch with the Dutch consul again. The guy is keeping things very mysterious; my last message to him met with utter silence. Perhaps he’s off again to his favourite hangout overseas or maybe he’s just fooling around on the roofs of Calcutta. Diplomacy can be very demanding, I’m sure – I mustn’t be so irreverent. The day I arrived, right after my flight, I had walked to the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club, steeped in old-time British ambiance. I approached them with a naïve but sincere question about whether I could
run laps there in the mornings. In the months leading up to my Indian adventure, I had deduced from Google Maps that there was very little green space in my soonto-be surroundings, except for a classic clay track around a sports field ringed with trees. A cinder track would be a good solution for my jogging addiction. ‘Pleased to meet you; I’m a junkie,’ I said to the ‘Sports Director’ in my most cheerful manner, not a word of it untrue; I actually began shaking as I was saying it. I was clearly in desperate need of an arduous running session and filled with self-pity. ‘The only way to use the sports facilities,’ the director informed me pointedly, ‘is with an introduction and then it will still take a long time before you become a full member and are allowed to run laps.’ ‘You’re the only person I know,’ I piped up. ‘I mean, I’m standing here with someone who could introduce me…,’ but he showed no mercy. When people deny my request for drawing at a particular site, I can shake it off, because making art doesn’t produce endorphins. But now my world collapsed. The man was outfitted from top to toe in his club uniform, and with his pompousness and insensitivity to my cri de coeur, it was as if we were performing in a play, as if it weren’t real. It gradually dawned on me, though, that my exercise routine was going to be sidelined for two-and-
a-half months because of this costumed pill. It remains the biggest let-down I’ve had so far. Upon reflection, I should’ve taken a lesson from the director of the cricket club and had myself introduced at the art bookstore. But by whom? By the extremely explicit rickshaw driver maybe? It is as easy to enjoy life on the streets as it is difficult to open doors in the upper echelons. There is an utter lack of aggression, except for maybe some nonverbal communication between the rickshaw driver and his son. The last time I ran into him he grabbed my arm in that forceful manner of his and I was almost happy about how that put an end to our hypocritical exchanges. Other than that, it’s only the street dogs that occasionally fight. A random soldier with a torn ear might roam around wagging its tail or an entire platoon might lie peacefully in dreamland across the pavement, back to back, legs splayed in complete abandon: the picture of surrender, potency and forbearance. The city is a huge reservoir of poetry for those who can walk through it without having to live there.
The drawing on the old lady’s home takes a full three days. She helpfully points out to me the places I’ve ‘forgotten’ and I allow myself to be guided by her vision. It is an enjoyable game, a dialogue based on the universal language of images. The old she-devil mercilessly shuns all aesthetics, which justifies my drawing beyond the point of beauty to the very point when not one chalk line more will fit.
Because the rickshaw driver has been behaving better, I cautiously start on a drawing on his house.
If I’m away for a bit, the residents use the occasion to hang up their laundry.
In an idle hour, I do a drawing on the right-hand gate wall across from the electrical store. It was at the request of the young owner, who’s eager to spotlight things.
It’s early in the morning when I arrive at the Maa Flyover; people are still sleeping. I walk straight to one of the concrete posts and start drawing on it. It’s pretty much the same drawing I did yesterday across from the electrical store, because repetition is comforting.
A girl is catching the chalk powder raining down from the drawing in a plastic bag. The kids gathered around me all indicate that they want chalk. When I finish the drawing, I ask them to stand in a line. I give each of them a stick of chalk, one by one, until I start to recognize some of the hands and realize the line has become a circle.
The inhabitant likes the idea of me making a drawing on her living room wall.
The upper right-hand corner of the drawing is left open to accommodate the washing line.
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 and Sumantra Mukherjee © Bart Lodewijks, 2018