Bart Lodewijks Calcutta Drawings 7 22 November - 5 December 2018
Dear Roger: I have had to return home earlier than planned. Chances are I’ve been infected with an intestinal parasite for some time now. I do not feel at all well, but I hope that will be remedied once we find the right medication. Even as I lie here sick on the sofa, though, my mind is full of ideas. I want to turn my Calcutta adventures into a play in which I tell about all the various places my work went up, and as part of that, I’d like to hand out copies of the e-book to the audience. Maybe that’s something we could work on together. Calcutta Drawings continues on in that sense, just like all my projects. Calcutta is now part of a drawing around the world.
TOUCHED IN THE HEART Undermined by cramps and nausea, I cannot draw on the streets anymore; the pain can only be managed by lying still. I wonder how successful I’ve been in touching the heart of the city with a line of chalk, as I resolved to do when I first arrived. ‘The places where you were drawing are not located under the Maa Flyover, but under the Kona Expy flyover to the west of that.’ It’s the Dutch consul himself, pointing out the geographic discrepancies of my project to me in perfectly formed English sentences. The fact that I’m unable to accurately name the places I spent so much time makes me blush with shame. I’m seated across from a friendly, broad-shouldered Indian man of about fifty, who observes me with interest. It’s a meeting I’ve long looked forward to, but I had hoped it would be conducted in Dutch. Everyone I’ve met so far has spoken English to me, and their Indian accents haven’t always been so easy to follow. ‘I should point
out that I am an honorary consul and not a consul,’ he continues. ‘Honorary consuls are not paid; it is an unofficial position. And they do not necessarily possess the nationality of the country they represent or speak that country’s language.’ I feel self-conscious in front of this exceedingly well-informed man. The noise from outside doesn’t penetrate through to his air-conditioned office, and framed by four walls, the world looks different than where I’ve spent the past few months. In a week, I’ll be unexpectedly returning home. Undermined by cramps and nausea, I cannot draw on the streets anymore; the pain can only be managed by lying still. Moving as little as possible but bursting with thoughts, I listen to the man I sought out for so long. All that remains of me after two-and-a-half months of drawing in Calcutta is a weakened, somewhat disoriented, subject of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. ‘When the project started, I contacted your office because I wanted to keep CARF, the organization that invited me, out of trouble,’ I say, explaining the original reason for my visit. ‘CARF thought I should stop drawing on the street, since it might cause problems for them.’ ‘Why did they invite you then?’ he interrupts. ‘I don’t know, but since I wanted to continue drawing on
the street and didn’t want to antagonize my host, I contacted you, so that if there were any problems with the police, irate property owners or disgruntled residents, the consulate could intervene.’ The consul drums his fingers on the shiny surface of his desk, the allegorical rhythm reminding me of the galloping racehorses at the hippodrome. ‘Your secretary replied that you were “currently overseas” and that you would be in touch once you were back in India,’ I continue. ‘I thought you were somewhere without access to internet or telephones.’ ‘Your message landed in the wrong mailbox,’ he explains. ‘I’m sorry I discovered that so late. But given your imminent departure, I cannot help you anymore anyway – or am I mistaken?’ He stops rapping on the tabletop and the conversation comes to a halting stop. ‘Did you actually encounter any trouble during your stay?’ he starts up again. ‘I coped with all of the obstacles on my own, so the need for calling in help became less imperative,’ I reply. The fact is I never felt totally alone; I derived great support from my writing, as if surrounded by a small cadre of readers. ‘In difficult situations, I would be shown the way out by a protector,’ I pipe up mysteriously. It sounds silly, but my tone is serious. The consul leaves it at that.
‘I was curious about where your distant travels took you,’ I continue. ‘If I had any time left, I was also hoping to take a trip. I’m intrigued by the notion of places without internet or telephone. In the evenings, I would imagine all sorts of oversea regions and set out there in my mind. The closest archipelago shut off from the outside world is North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. Is that where you were?’ Without waiting for an answer, I proceed: ‘On November 17 the island’s inhabitants killed the young missionary John Allen Chau with arrows; did you know that? Speaking of trouble, that sounds like a really tough place. But what appeals to me about John Allen Chau is that he pursued his mission all on his own. The courage that took! It’s just too bad his ministering angel abandoned him,’ I say, as if I knew Chau in person. The consul laughs every now and then as I rattle on. Obviously he hadn’t been to Sentinel Island, but merely on a business trip to some neighbouring country. To Dutch ears the phrase ‘currently overseas’ comes across as somewhat archaic, which had put me off track. As a result, I failed to place him in the context of the hectic era in which we live and instead waited patiently for his return. Not having heard anything from him for months,
I imagined the fine sir shipwrecked on the reefs off the Sentinelese coast, where the same fate awaited him as Chau. I eventually abandoned all hope of ever meeting him, even though I couldnâ€™t get him out of my mind. Bit by bit he transformed into a useful conceit, a fictional character I could evoke at will whenever the occasion demanded it, like a child might have an imaginary friend to guide them through rough times. This fictional consul became my personal ambassador as I travelled through the city. Any sign of danger and heâ€™d whisper guidance on how to get out of it in one piece. There was that time a shopkeeper told me I could draw on the long terra-cotta wall that his shack abutted. I had a sense something was not quite right, and sure enough, no sooner was I done than it became apparent the wall belonged to a rich family who might not approve at all of a drawing on their property. In the commotion, I asked the daughter of the house if she liked art. Now, while it seems as if the right words just sprung to mind, in actuality it was my emissary who planted that placating language in my mouth. The family did like art and I was left alone. A few weeks later, in the flowing grass of the hippodrome, I imagined I saw my ambassador walking toward me, straight out of my fantasy world. But no such luck: it was another
dignitary rushing toward me from a distance, a powerhungry stooge hell bent on chasing me off. Through all this, I had lost sight of the fact that my self-appointed patron saint was a human being of flesh and blood and was therefore astounded when I heard from him for real and he invited me to the consulate. My fabricated character popped like a soap bubble, as if my imaginary world had been pierced by the tip of an arrow, and I was once again utterly alone. Even though the original intent behind the visit has been superseded by real-life events, I still cannot get over the fact that the eminent consul has asked me to meet him. ‘I have taken some marvellous walking tours,’ I resume the discussion awkwardly, ‘but I wonder whether you enjoy hiking.’ The consul wrinkles his brow in thought. He probably gets around by car and has an entirely different perception of the city than I do. ‘There are street name signs missing all over the city,’ I say, as if revealing some dark secret. He looks at me in surprise. Is that right? I hear him think. And because there were no street names, it was impossible for me to know where I was, I want to add, but hold my tongue because it sounds so trifling. The drawing locations are crosslinked in a densely veined streetscape in my head,
charted on a map that cannot be unfolded, where no one but I know the way. Because I walked everywhere, I got to know the city step by step, but the overtaxed roads, the chaotic marketplaces, the busy traffic junctions, the omnipresent noise, the overkill of information and the lack of street names did not make it any easier. ‘It’s a miracle I found my way back to my apartment each time,’ I say. I don’t tell him how I’m really doing; that I’m disoriented and broken and struggling to sit up straight. For weeks now, a severe case of the runs has had me heavily reliant on sanitary facilities, which are acutely lacking here. The public toilets are so filthy that you run a high risk of catching some horrible disease. It is cold comfort to know that excessive use of them produces some resistance, especially since I am far from reaching that point. The misfortune started that very first day under the flyover. If I were to tell the consul about everything I’d seen and smelled there, he’d run screaming from the room. I remember seeing a cleaner in bare feet, whistling as he mopped the urine and excrement off the floor of a public lavatory. His shoes, a simple pair of flip-flops, sat neatly on a cardboard box so they wouldn’t get dirty. The consulate smells of apple-scented disinfectant cleaner, the same synthetic
odour meant to drive out the smell in public toilets. I don’t dare tell the consul this, though, both out of reverence and because I’m afraid it might insult him. I feel, in a way, that my nose has made life impossible for me. ‘Your visit is refreshing compared to those Dutch trade missions that travel only from the airport to the hotel and back. Those people have no idea where they are. You made it deep into the city for someone who did not know the way – you do realize that.’ The consul leans back in his chair and looks at me with slight admiration. His words have the intended effect: I feel instantly at ease and it no longer matters that the names of the streets eluded me or that I mixed up the flyovers. Of much greater importance than geographical accuracy is an accuracy of mind that brings places close together. ‘If you did not know exactly where you were drawing,’ continues the consul, interrupting my thoughts, ‘how did you end up under the bridge?’ A brief silence follows as I plumb my memory; it’s almost as if my mental cogs work better in a noisy environment, where people are shouting at one another and you could be run over at any moment. ‘No one asked about the names of the locations,’ I say diffidently. ‘Maybe you were
drawing under the Vidyasagar Setu – that could have been what happened in your case. The Kona Expy is the highway that runs over the Hastings district and the new bridge is an extension of that,’ the consul reasons, as a network of possible routes forms on his forehead. ‘I can certainly talk about all the places I’ve been but then we have to go out and see them,’ I suggest. He glances at his watch and says, ‘Do you have time this afternoon to have lunch at my house? I still have some work to do this morning and we can converse more leisurely there.’ A relaxed smile forms on his face: ‘In the meantime, you are certainly welcome to draw on the walls of the consulate if you want. Wouldn’t that surprise my colleagues in New Delhi.’ The table in his luxury flat is lavishly laid out and the conversation proceeds smoothly from where we left off. ‘So, the people under the flyover showed you where you could draw?’ ‘Yes. I got to know the city from the inside out.’ ‘Who were these people?’ he asks intently. ‘All gangsters,’ I answer without a moment’s hesitation. I can still hear Arkam saying, ‘We are all gangsters.’ The consul chuckles, ‘That is extremely funny.’ ‘No matter how poor people are, I’ve noticed that they always look well-kept,’ I add hastily. ‘Most of the families under the
bridge are honest and conscientious, even if they do live on dirt and have a tough life. Their living areas are marked off with four posts in the ground, but the people wear gorgeous saris and there are textiles hanging everywhere to dry on washing lines. I would walk through there, usually covered in chalk powder from drawing. The atmosphere is paradisiacal, accompanied by unimaginable poverty. It smells of apple soap,’ I now feel free to tell him. ‘Where could that have been?’ he asks himself pensively. ‘The Maa Flyover starts at the EM Bypass and ends at Park Circus, four kilometres away from your Kona Expy. All government buildings, so both the Maa Flyover and your highway, are painted in blue-and-white blocks, the colours of the political party to which Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, belongs.’ The crux of the matter, then, is that the road network comes across as a single entity because of the blue-andwhite diamond pattern but is, of course, made up of numerous pieces and their accompanying names. Thankful for the information I look at the consul seated across from me. ‘During one of my breaks under the bridge, I ran into a group of blue men in a dark corner,’ I say. I omit the fact that I was desperately searching for a
toilet. ‘They were crouched on the ground, eating rice bare-chested. “Why are you blue?” I asked.’ The consul looks at me as if prepared for the worst. ‘And?’ he enquires expectantly. ‘They were responsible for paint maintenance on government buildings. They paint without shirts on because they don’t want their clothes to get covered in blue and white paint spatters. It’s easier to get paint stains off your skin than out of your clothes.’ The consul smiles and admits that he’d never known such a group existed. ‘They must have wondered who you were, the only white person there – covered in chalk,’ he says. In that sense, I fall into the same category as the blue men, I think to myself and laugh. ‘You know about the Dalits?’ he asks seriously. I know the word from books, but no one calls themselves that on the streets. ‘The Dalits are the untouchables, a group of the population fundamentally designated as inferior,’ he holds forth. ‘At least sixteen percent of the people in India are Dalit, or outcaste. All told that adds up to some 213 million people, a large percentage of whom live in Calcutta.’ He pauses to give me a chance to apprehend the notion of 213 million people falling outside the system. ‘So as to have some kind of roof over their heads, many of them live under flyovers and bridges, where it is dry and shady. They shouldn’t be
confused with the impoverished priests and beggars you have undoubtedly also come across.’ ‘No one was begging,’ I protest, in defence of my tribe, which has suddenly acquired a name and is considerably larger than I thought. ‘A Dalit is not likely to beg,’ he replies. ‘He occupies an entirely different position. The name comes from the Sanskrit word “dal,” which translates to “he who is broken.”’ I smile: ‘broken’, that’s exactly how I have felt since working under the bridge. ‘Gandhi accorded these people a different status and called them “children of God”,’ he concludes. ‘Most of them just used their first name or were introduced to me by the job they held in the community,’ I say. I think of Raja, the former security guard for the chief minister; Praveen, the skittish jockey in his red kit; the ex-cage fighter who performed a child-like dance before my eyes; the down-and-out sailor who proudly called himself ‘champion of smoking, gobbling, spitting, and fucking’; the kidnapper who I secretly snapped a photo of to send home in case I were to disappear without a trace. And, of course, the blue men. One of them showed me an amazingly detailed work drawing of the chequered flyover, a cubistic depiction indicating which sections still needed to be painted. ‘Learned that in prison,’ he told me
proudly. All those people live outside the system? ‘Weren’t you afraid?’ the consul’s voice intrudes. It takes me a minute to register the question. ‘I was afraid of parasites, bacteria, spoiled food and frightful diseases – all the things you cannot see with the naked eye. But a knock on the back of the head with a metal rod could have also been fatal,’ I concede. ‘I was prepared every single day for something to go wrong, but in hindsight I had nothing to fear from those people. Except for one time last week, when I was drawing under the bridge at dusk. The gangsters had set up a pot to cook food in; everyone was in a good mood, like they usually are at the end of the day. Until suddenly two Muslim clerics sprung out of a dark corner, gunning for me. I saw the gangsters all look my way in unison and took it as a very bad sign. The cat-like way the two were approaching had something aberrant about it; instead of coming straight at me, they manoeuvred along some invisible twisting path.’ ‘Wait a second. Let’s go out to the veranda and finish the story there,’ the consul suggests. He slides open the glass door and all the sounds and smells of the city come roaring toward me. Once we are seated he proffers a cigar box. ‘I don’t smoke,’ I say. ‘I now find myself in
the enviable position of being able to listen to your story without having to be your guardian angel,’ he says. ‘You do not have any objection to me lighting up, do you?’ I shake my head and say, ‘In one of my blogs I made up a conversation between the two of us in which you light up a cigar while we look out over the city, a little bit like this. I can recall the exact wording: “Maybe we’d light up a cigar and he’d reveal the inner workings of diplomatic relationships and the institutions in India, while I would reciprocate by telling him all about the world of chalk.”’ He draws on his Corona and blows the smoke circumspectly out. ‘Carry on about those two clerics and tell me all about the world of chalk,’ he says. ‘You do in fact play the role of guardian angel in my story,’ I continue carefully. ‘The clerics came right up to me and started waving their arms wildly, looking at the chalk pieces as if they were ammunition. I was to stop drawing effective immediately, which pretty much runs counter to everything I stand for.’ ‘Yes, we have established that,’ the consul says affably. ‘The two guys said simply “Stop” and didn’t ask any questions. I steeled myself to defend my mission, because I wasn’t about to get thrown out of the ring so easily. In fact, at that moment, I felt as relegated to the defiance of the other as John Allen Chau on Sentinel Island. Until a
barely audible voice whispered in my ear to get out of there. Still, if Arkam hadn’t raced up and told me the two clerics were from the Muslim Brotherhood, I might not have heeded that voice so quickly. “Leave now!” he said and only then did I decide to listen to the warnings. I sauntered off as if I couldn’t care less, but my heart was pounding in my throat.’ ‘Am I to understand that the voice represented me?’ the consul asks, subdued. ‘Yes,’ I affirm, ‘you were the guardian angel, in conjunction with Arkam.’ ‘In hindsight, I should have never been drawing there at the edge of the flyover within view of the street,’ I explain further. ‘A group of women seated a short distance away had also seen the two men coming and whispered to me as I passed: “They are from the mosque, money, mosque, money, go, go, go.” They rubbed their fingers together as if to indicate that enormous sums were involved and whispered: “Don’t come back.” Those warnings came from people I was fond of, doing this out of concern for me, not out of self-interest. It appeared I no longer needed a personal ambassador and could relieve you of your...’ ‘So, in that sense,’ the consul interjects, ‘the timing was perfect for us to only just now meet in person. Any earlier would have been a shame for your story, right?’
I shift back and forth in my chair and look out over the city, which appears so much safer from up here than on the ground, as it emits a satisfied hum routinely punctuated by the hoarse shriek of a horn. The consul relights his cigar (which is an elaborate ritual). My heartbeat, the lives of the people living under the bridge, the relentless symphony of traffic driving over the flyover, oblivious to the people living under the road deck – everything continues apace. The world will eventually be subsumed by the noise produced in Calcutta. I want to plug my ears but realize just in time how ridiculous it would look. Etched against the horizon is the river and its two bridges: one of them the Vidyasagar Setu, under which I was drawing according to the consul. I wonder how successful I’ve been in touching the heart of the city with a line of chalk, as I resolved to do when I first arrived. The city has certainly touched me. The consul watches me as I ponder all this. I expect him to ask if everything is all right but instead he says, ‘Are you free this evening? There is an opening at the Indian Museum. They are going to be auctioning artworks by prisoners.” The consul’s chauffeur brings his white Mercedes to a perfect stop in front of the red carpet leading to the entrance of the museum. The consul and I exit and walk
toward the wide-open doors of the spectacularly lit white building as a swarm of photographers snaps pictures of us and the other guests. Arrayed on the grass of the museum’s open courtyard are easels exhibiting the works of art. I find it difficult to reconcile the smartly attired guests sipping wine with my impressions of the city. There’s a full moon in the sky, as if collaged there specially for the occasion. Three journalists descend on the consul, who is immune to all the fuss, and he introduces me as a famous artist ‘from overseas’ who has travelled here from the far-off Netherlands, winking at me when he utters the archaic words that bind us. His pronouncement works like an arrow to direct all the attention toward me. The camera flashes form a plane with me at the centre. A journalist from the Indian Telegraph tugs at my sleeve and fires off a round of questions: ‘What is your name?’ ‘Bart Lodewijks.’ ‘Where were you born?’ ‘In the Netherlands.’ ‘Where in the Netherlands?’ ‘Uhm, doesn’t really matter...’ ‘I would still like to know the name of your birthplace.’ ‘Weurt, it’s located...’ ‘Weurt, how do you spell that?’ ‘W E U R T. It’s close to Nijmegen...’ ‘Nijmegen. Is that where you studied?’ ‘No. That was in Breda and in Amsterdam, but I am...’ ‘Where do you live now?’ ‘Just
below Ghent, in Belgium. I ended up there...’ ‘Where did you start drawing?’ ‘In Glasgow, when I...’ ‘Why there?’ ‘My wife was studying there. We moved there together...’ ‘Where was she studying?’ ‘The art academy, but she was more...’ ‘What’s your wife’s name?’ ‘Danielle.’ ‘Are you married?’ ‘Yes, we’ve been...’ ‘Was the marriage for love or arranged?’ ‘Love, when we...’ ‘Do you have children?’ ‘Yes, two young daughters, Annelouk and Lieve. They are both...’ ‘Does your wife work?’ ‘Hey! What sort of interviews do you usually conduct? You won’t let me finish any of my answers,’ I finally interrupt him. ‘I interview criminals, bandits, kidnappers, gangsters and that sort.’ The consul, who has come back to join us, breaks out laughing upon hearing the word ‘gangsters’. ‘Let us go look at some of this art by gangsters,’ he proposes cheerfully. We walk past the drawings and paintings depicting buildings in Calcutta. The journalist tells us that he is here to report on the artwork of criminals. ‘Can you say something about the art?’ he asks me. I stop at a painting showing the clearly recognizable blue and white diamonds of the Maa Flyover. ‘Do you know where this is?’ I ask, turning toward the consul. He narrows his eyes and says resolutely, ‘Near the blue men.’ The journalist’s eyes open wide, ‘Blue men?’ ‘Yes,’ says the consul, ‘there
are blue men living under the Vidyasagar Setu; just ask the artist.â€™ The journalist points his microphone back toward me and before he even asks a single question, I fire away.â€Š
Through the â€˜window,â€™ you have a view into the living room of Mrs Brusanara, who has lived here her entire life. The lorry in the background is one of the few places where people can escape from public view; it is sometimes used for a quick shag.
The Brusanara home has no other concrete walls besides the brick one. This site has multiple homes spread across it with walls you cannot see that are there nonetheless. Brusanara’s neighbour has a plot measuring three-by-three metres, with a stick in every corner to indicate the living area. I can’t get enough of those invisible walls; they are the chalk lines of Calcutta that have always been there.
The wall encompassing the Dutch consulate is purposely pockmarked with rough cement so that nobody tries to post flyers or draw on it.
My simple chalk line causes quite a stir and elicits countless questions. Everyone â€“ from the passers-by to the neighbours to the consular staff â€“ is of the opinion that I should have chosen another wall, one with a smoother, thus more suitable, drawing surface.
The doorman at the consulate asks if I have brought any gifts from the Netherlands. It is presumably customary to distribute any gifts brought by foreign guests amongst the personnel.
My â€˜giftâ€™ of a chalk drawing apparently does not count, since it exists only on the walls of the consulate and cannot be taken home. So, I present the doorman with the most precious thing I have: a full box of chalk.
The staff of the consulate want to cut back the palm fronds to clear the entire wall for drawing. â€Š
I think back to the first chalk lines I drew in Calcutta, when the neighbourhood children wanted to pluck a plant out of the wall because it was interfering with my drawing. At the consulate, I repeat my original assertion: â€˜You should let living things live.â€™
I enjoy drawing in the houses of the well-to-do, preferably in private spaces. Strangely enough, I hadnâ€™t had the opportunity in Calcutta, despite the fact that rich people do live there. Until I met an American couple who embraced my chalk drawings.â€Š
The drawing I produce in the Americans’ apartment is a continuation of the one I made under the bridge. Sometimes they are home while I work, but often I’m alone with their dogs Hiroji and Gremolina.
Inside these four walls of the apartment, I am better able to concentrate than on the street. With the exception of the sound of dogs shifting positions and chalk scraping against a wall, it is quiet for the first time in forever. No constant beeping; no jumping out of the way to save my skin; no one pestering me with questions and comments; I just have to be careful not to knock anything over. â€Š
Itâ€™s my last day in Calcutta: tomorrow I return home. My arms are heavy and I spend more time looking at the drawing than making strokes. The living room is as still as a sheet of paper. A massive oblong of sunlight moves with the sun, encroaching ever closer toward me. I watch from inside the room as it touches the drawing: a gentle collision that brings my project to a close.
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, 2018-2019
Bart Lodewijks - Calcutta Drawings 7 CARF, India, September-December 2018