Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 6 6 November - 15 November 2018
THE TRIUMPH OF LIGHT OVER DARKNESS I wish you a very good future and hope you will become the new chief minister I return every day to the people living under the Maa Flyover – a morning walk of about an hour, cutting through narrow alleyways where merchants hawk their chickens and goats and you can’t escape the smell of excrement, urine, meat and blood emitted by the slaughtered livestock, with the occasional hint of synthetic spray paint from the make-shift auto workshops already operating at this early hour. The journey also carries me past colourful fruit stalls and an intoxicating Hindu flower market, where women string together golden flowers ‒ gorgeous orange posies, arrayed on blankets like the crowns of kings ‒ into chains and garlands. The heart is called a ‘scent’ in Sanskrit and I understand why. The heart beats on the
street; everything is open and exposed and permeated with scent. Preparations are underway for the Hindu festival Divali – the celebration of the triumph of good over evil, light conquering darkness. It’s about time, I mumble to myself as I arrive at the Maa Flyover. As dusk falls and I traverse the same path in reverse after a day of drawing, many women are wearing the marigolds around their necks and men too amble colourfully around. Three drag queens blow kisses at passers-by, as the keepers of both sexes. In the yellow glow of lanterns and flickering tea lights, the vendor stalls throw long shadows across the tarmac and walls. The shadows are there every night, of course, but under the spell of Divali it becomes a shadow play pregnant with meaning. I’ve landed in a world I never knew existed – all of it very real. Divali is a deeply entrenched religious reality for the people here. I walk through it all with this sensible head of mine, formed in the idea that everything in the world needs a rational explanation. This is no dream, just look: the people greet me with the same negative nod I’ve been receiving for two months now. I’ve become so accustomed to the greeting that I bobble along with them as if it were the height of normalcy; no one has a monopoly on truth. I feel a bit like a child appropriating the grownups’ language, with
all the ensuing confusion and astonishment. When I showed my face again on the dirt street after a week’s absence, everybody was thrilled, the rickshaw driver above all. They thought the bird had flown the coop. The elderly woman served me a warm meal in her tiny dwelling, propped so full of pots, plastic buckets and clothing there’s not an inch of space left. I had to take a seat on the edge of her bed, the only spot in the entire place free of stuff, where I was to remain until I had eaten every last grain of rice on my plate. The street looked tidy. It occurred to me that my structured drawings had prompted a clean-up operation, though I would never have wanted such a thing. I just want to accept people as they are, not turn their lives upside down. The street, then, was in tip-top shape, much as I had encountered it in September – though at the time it was as if the untidiness had drawn me. Now I would’ve walked right past it. During our meal together, the old woman tells me that everyone in the street goes by the last name Sheikh, except for the inhabitants of the presumed fairytale castle and Tayock, the Bengali with whom I dispatched that goat during Durga Puja. The Sheikhs have lived there for eighty years. The old woman explains that she
owns another house, as well, about a forty-minute walk from here, but she prefers living â€˜on the dirtâ€™ near her family, with her four sons, including the rickshaw driver and his crazy son. She presents it as though she chooses this humble life over one of luxury. Why would she shun her second home as a residence? I imagine it before me: sparkling glazed tile floors and carved wood furniture, and thereâ€™s bound to be a chrome mirror on the wall. All that grotesqueness made her so unhappy and lonely that she returned to her familiar dirt street. I try to find out whether there could be any truth to these musings but fail to get a firm answer, which only causes my imagination to run away with itself. I imagine British colonial shutters on the house, with those horizontal, balsa wood slats that rattle at the slightest breath of wind. In the garden, I imagine a stately banyan, the tree species with aerial roots so loved by Buddha because it was under such a tree that he attained enlightenment. Oh, to draw in a place like that, where luxuriance is borne with humility. I would like to descend upon it and fill the interior with chalk lines so as to banish the darkness from the lives of the Sheikh family, for there inevitably is some. I sleep restfully that night, contented, with a peaceful feeling in my heart. I dream that the kisses the
cross-dressers blew at me are a sign that I should give myself a break and allow myself to relax. When I wake up, it dawns on me how much I long to return to a world that I know. The pervasive poverty is getting under my skin, and with every move I make, I suffer along just a bit more with the people living on the streets. But perhaps I’m the only one suffering… It almost seems as if most of the people accept their lot and make the best of it. If you ask them if they’re happy, the answer is a unanimous ‘Yes’, and they go on to praise Calcutta as the best place on earth, even if they’ve never stepped foot out of it. We have a view, say the people living under the Maa Flyover; and it’s true that despite their pitiable situation they’re less packed in than the average city resident here. The society seems designed in such a way that people can live a reasonably happy, stable life. They aren’t in danger of becoming worse off at any point, but any chance of betterment or personal growth is positively out of the question too. Rich or poor, or somewhere in between, it makes no difference. I guess that if you’re born on the dirt street, you’re stuck there for the rest of your life; there’s no going backwards or forwards. The leaders are born in the upper rungs of society and
subjects from the lower ranks will never be admitted. The lower classes must be under such tremendous moral pressure that most of them would never dream of trying to advance themselves. Yet despite all this, the prevailing attitude is one of seize the day, with people supporting one another, proclaiming bonds and putting each other in their place. It takes all they have to deal with everyone around them, with barely any time or space to look beyond their day-to-day reality. The society is completely compartmentalized. Traffic isn’t the only thing at a standstill; just about everything is locked down tight. It’s like the majority of people have absolutely no say over their own lives. I’ve been hovering for three weeks now between nausea and being sick and am shocked to see how many products in my refrigerator are out of date, by anywhere from a couple of days to a month or more. The shops, too, are filled with expired products. Most food products here are stamped with the date the article was packed and lack a best-by date – that’s left to your own good sense. Spoiled food is the public health’s silent killer number one, if you ask me. I have no idea what people are serving me when I eat out and about. I’m getting slightly sicker every day and, given that I have to keep
eating, the chance of recovery is nil. Just like all the locals, I’ll have to soldier on and cannot allow myself to be picky. It really can’t get much worse with my digestive system anyway and I’ve abandoned any illusion of getting better: the sensible thing to do is make the best of it. This morning as I approach, there is a tonne of activity under the Maa Flyover. Dotting the sandy surface near the pier where I made the first drawing are a host of emaciated people lying unprotected on the ground, wearing nothing more than loin cloths. Stray dogs run between them, along with bookies and gamblers on their way to the horse races. A rickshaw driver cycles happily past on his way to the market with twenty live chickens dangling by their feet from his handlebars. Street children grab onto me and beg for chalk. I look for Praveen Upadnaya, the Nepalese jockey who offered me protection last week, but there’s no sign of him. With his red piratical garb, leanness and wild flashing eyes, he frightened me at first. He shouted at me and demanded that I call him ‘brother’. But what a blessing that I ran into him. As a jockey, Praveen garners respect in the urban jungle under the bridge. ‘Our Nepali guy,’ a nice-looking young man,
who later introduced himself as Akram the horse groom, had proudly called out. When I had finished the drawing on the pier, Praveen insisted that the two of us visit the hippodrome, his workplace. I wanted nothing more than to enter that enormous field, a mega-track existing in utter contrast to this densely populated city. I dusted off the chalk powder from my clothes so as to look somewhat presentable. The last time I entered club territory I had my work duds on and was sent packing. Could it have been my lack of proper attire that made the sports director so averse to making introductions for me at the club? As Praveen and I stood in the flowing grass, a white-clad gentleman appeared in the distance. The consul! I thought in excitement: my guardian angel from the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He was walking straight towards me, but his face spelled trouble; he was clearly not impressed by our spontaneous visit. But the consul is too important to concern himself with visits to the hippodrome, flashed through my mind. He must be an amicable sort, otherwise he would have fobbed me off in our correspondence. Why in the hell am I so eager to meet the only other Dutch person here? Could I be homesick?
At second glance, I thought maybe I recognized in this now halted man the sports director of the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club, the man who had mercilessly denied me access that very first day of my sojourn. This guy was the same sort of authoritarian type, but then with a moustache. In the end, he turned out to be a glorified security guard here to exercise his authority, power hungry. Words ensued between this ‘dignitary’ and Praveen. I tried to intervene but gained no traction. ‘He says he is my employee but I don’t know him,’ sniped the moustached man, growling at me to get out. Praveen was grabbed by two other security guards who’d been hastily summoned. Apparently I should count myself lucky I came off without a scratch. When I looked back, I saw Praveen repelling one of the guards with the palm of his hand; then he was carried off. ‘This is India,’ he called out to me before disappearing from sight. Divali is still in the air when yet another celebration rolls around. This time it’s my own birthday: word has somehow gotten out on the dirt street. It’s also the birthday of the daughter of the family that lives in the pink house. Her name if Afra Sheikh. We have a combined birthday party: she’s 18 and I’m 46. The neighbours have decorated the street and installed
speakers. Appetizers are served throughout the evening and everybody dances. I give her the book I made three years ago about my stay in Rio de Janeiro as a gift and inscribe it with: Dear Afra, Congratulations with your 18th birthday on the eleventh of the eleventh. I wish you a very good future and hope you will become the new chief minister. It is a great honour to draw in the street of your family. This book is about another dirt road where I made drawings. I spent one summer and two winters in this street in Rio de Janeiro. It pleases me to give this story to you and your family.
The rickshaw driver is excited when I finally draw on his house, even though I suspect him of destroying my earlier drawing attempts with a bucket of water in one of his foul moods. I get to work under the watchful eye of his mother. Yesterday I visited her second home, which looks the same as the house in the dirt street but is in a worse location. No banyan tree, no chrome mirror, no balsa wood slats clattering in their grooves. The house verges on a canal and is reflected in its inky, black water.â€Š
Every so often, I have to stop drawing because the autistic son of the rickshaw driver clamps onto my legs. He rubs the chalk lines away with his hands and ignores my attempts to stop him by rapping him on the fingers. I’m at a complete loss as to how to get through to the boy; the only thing that works is ignoring him. It’s like a contest in autistic behaviour: I draw stubbornly on and he does everything in his power to thwart me and my work. The drawing has now been appended with prints of his childish hand and I let him have his way, as if I couldn’t care less, yet my heart bleeds. Suddenly he stops, as abruptly as he started. He sits there, two feet
away, staring at me with an idiotic look on his face for the rest of the afternoon. It’s the greatest possible sanction in his power. His grandmother strokes his head, but any time I look his way, he rushes over and throws his arms around my legs again. Because I’m afraid he might bite me, I push him away, but carefully, since I don’t want to hurt him. He takes up his safe set distance again, puts his hand to his mouth and ridicules me with curses I can’t quite place.
The concrete pier I draw on is part of a dwelling under the authority of a wrinkled lady with piercing blue eyes. Sheâ€™s lived in the place for fifty years and in that sense has more right to it than the entire Maa Flyover, which only opened in 2015. Since then all and sundry have trampled through her living room, including now an artist. She doesnâ€™t seem to mind. Under the bridge, the boundaries between public and private space are more diffuse than elsewhere in the city. No line has been drawn.
‘They are all gangsters,’ says Akram, who seems wiser and is better dressed than the other men under the bridge. ‘The fat one there is the boss; he’s a kidnapper. And that one is gone.’ Akram points to a heavily built man wobbling on his legs, who looks a bit batty. ‘He was a soldier and cage fighter and has lost his cognitive powers and ability to speak.’ The former bantam immediately starts humming a song and dancing as if he were a child. ‘The old man with the beard was a sailor and speaks every language. He smokes, gobbles, fucks and drinks everything he can get his hands on.’ ‘I am an all-rounder,’ bellows the sailor through a mouth blood-
red from chewing betel nuts, which make one slightly euphoric and suppress hunger.
‘And that giant there is Raja; he was the chief minister’s security guard. If you get Raja’s telephone number, your safety is guaranteed.’ I look at the villain’s faces, not entirely at ease, and the men nod in acknowledgement. They didn’t just end up under the bridge; they earned their place. Raja scribbles his phone number on a piece of paper and hands it to me. He shows me a photo on his phone of him standing next to Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal. ‘Problems,’ he says to me, gesturing that I should call him in that case. I understand: I grab my phone and call him to say I’m surrounded by gangsters. Raja shows my number to the
gangsters and they all begin to shake with laughter. They clear the way for me, as if with that call Iâ€™ve cemented my place and can draw in peace from now on.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 and Sumantra Mukherjee ÂŠ Bart Lodewijks, 2018
Bart Lodewijks - Calcutta Drawings 6 CARF, India, September-December 2018