I had a chance (or if you want to speak about privilege let’s say so) to visit India – motherland to our spirituality, land where all world major religions come from. In March 2014, my long-dreamed wish to discover this subcontinent came true. This tour, indeed not very long, as I have stayed in the country for 21 days only, lead me from dusty Rajasthan to tropical West Bengal, crossing Hindustan from west to east at it’s northern part through Gangetic Plains. The discovery of all those jewels you find in books on splendour of Hindustani past both Muslim and Hindu was my principal aim. Honestly, I was more looking to experience the great oriental dream and had no idea of getting deeply in Indian present I thought to prefer to today India it’s glorious colonial passé.
Just imagine for a second that the first thing I saw, after about four hours drive through waking-up country, was the Taj Mahal. You’d expect it to be a beginning of a great journey to this past I came to look for, a revival of this great oriental dream I’ve got so obsessed with, because this is what the promises about travelling to India are.
I must admit not feeling very comfortable about this Taj-Mahal-let’s-have-a-coctail-dear India experience at all. I found this bright white marble thing at the back of the mogul garden quite bad taste first comparing it to some kind of a huge wedding cake, the air was thick and sky not clear, my smiling-shiny-happy-oriental-dream Indians seemed to me just all too aggressive and ugly, no flowers in gardens, no lovely tiger cub to come and pet with. Where has the hell my rainbow India disappeared?
Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Amer and Jaipur were all the same: a symbol of my disappointment with this Hindustan where no elephant was waiting for me at the hotel entrance and no twenty Euro peacock feather dress adorn with diamonds possible to find. Despite my state of mind, I enjoyed the beauty of architecture we could admire everywhere we got. Dusk at Mehtab Bagh with all the Taj Mahal complex spreading in front of your eyes over the Yamuna river – breathtaking! Red Fort of Agra – splendid! Getting lost within Fatehpur Sikri abandoned city complex – an unique experience! Amer and Jaipur palaces – wonderful! I started to accept the reality of this land when we arrived to Jodhpur – The Sun City. The one I was looking forward to see the most of all, woke me suddenly up to this touching and unique contemporary India, where perfume of spices mix together with smell of excrements, and where bird singing appears within hysterical horn blowing of cars and rickshaws: this two faced India you expect but still you only want to see the beautiful side of it only. Awaken, I could now experience again all what country has offered me until now, to understand it’s value, and digest it once memory-filtered .
I always considered the memory work to be the most important part of experiencing and understanding things that happen. The reason why I never sketch in open-air is that when attired by something I just feel too impressed and can’t work immediately. Taking pictures is so useful for people easily disturbed by beauty of things. Getting back home with more than 3000 shots, each bearing a short story, I started this memory work and little by little the most important visual stimulations just appeared up over the other ones and begun to paint this interior added-value >carnet de voyage< compositions.
The big Taj Mahal image – on the river as seen from Red Fort ( this story touched me with it’s cruelty ) was one of the first paintings I worked on. Funny. I nevertheless think that this irony is quiet a nice satisfaction to the Taj and to myself as well.
Some time later – oil painings were what I worked on, still being Taj-themed, one in french manner, picturing view from my hotel room where the white silhouette of the building appears upon a wet garden entitled: l’Hôtel and the second one, influenced by Constable showing the view on banks of Yamuna river with Taj Mahal reflecting in the water – composition that re-interpretes my first taj art effort in ink.
I arrived to Rajasthani capital Jaipur in the evening after stopping shortly in Bharatpur for a lunch in one of local Maharajah’s white palaces, decorated heavily with flower ornament murals and sumptuous furniture. With thali meal served on a huge silver plate in front of me, this almost ridiculously opulent immersion into the lifestyle of Rajputana aristocracy surprised me so much, that the only way to deal with was to play the game and immerse into the role I was expected to take in such a situation. I did right because with every new stage of the voyage within the fairy ‘Land of Kings’ this repeated regularly for almost a week spent in this dusty and dry state, the largest in India.
Amer seemed to be very promising when seen from the platform which serves to comfortably get on the back of a elephant so one does not have to climb on huge animal. The ascension of the hill up which the amber-coloured fort stands on, is traditionally done on the back of elephant, and it is thank to this big and slow mammal the ride is far from being comfortable. Well, you wanted to play maharajah, you got it; and all this comes with. Still this is quiet dreamy India, protected by huge yellowish walls.
Jaipur is another story. There is this City palace, nice but not even a shade of what Amer fort is, fascinating observatory, so ingenious and beautiful, and of course streets: straight and long, looking all the same: orange-pinkish walls with orange-pinkish gates, behind each gate there is another gate or another straight long street; original because from time to time a spectacular folly-building comes to amuse one’s sight. Here we’ve experienced crowd for a first time. It is surely not the crowd of Chandni Chowk in Delhi or Chowringhee in Kolkata, but still… I’ve got lot of lecture just before going to India; both Pierre Loti and Henri Michaux I’ve read shortly before leaving for tropics were impressed by this phenomenon. Michaux stays: ‘A Hindi crowd is always astonishing. It’s everyone for himself. Just like in Varanasi, in the Ganges, everyone for himself, focused on his own salvation.’ Streets of the walled city are crowded from early morning to dusk. It’s even worst in the new city where traffic jams are constant all day, except for Holi festival; in the morning the city seems to be a desert. Streets are empty, from time to time there are some youngsters on motorbike passing around or group of boys and young man giving the portion of colourful fun expected by tourists certainly disappointed by this calm which got nothing to do with raw celebrations around bonfires from yesterday evening.
Then Jodhpur, five hours from Jaipur by train, just at the limits of Thar desert is incredible! It’s magnificent fort looking like big hard rock from outside hides splendid palace all made of Brussels-lice-like sculpted stone. From here, silent desert is only few kilometres far. Passing through this poor land for six hours by car is like climbing the stairways to heaven. So exceptional, so touching! Indian desert is full of life. Black-buck antelopes, woman walking beside the road bearing jars on their heads in the middle of nowhere just like shepherds with their animals. We are heading to visit some villages of past glory with houses painted in exterior and interior. People are nice, some first of rare smiles one can get in India cheered me up. White Pushkar, one of holy places of Hinduism, build around a sacred pool not far from vibrant city of Ajmer, ( home to a shrine of muslim saint Mo-inuddin Chishti) seems not to escape to mass tourism, not to the domestic only. Hebrew inscriptions more numerous than those English and French ones cover main street of Pushkar, in Ajmer white Muslim crowd in the street leading to the mosque makes of walking quiet a hectic experience. It’s completely full in here! But what a pleasure to enter to the Sufi shrine filled with perfume of roses and jasmine!
After one week spent by touring Rajasthan, on second day of Holi festival we reached Delhi by express train from Jaipur at around 10 am. The fact there are many birds in India everywhere was clear to me despite I haven’t seen any vulture I desired to spot so desperately yet but rich avifauna of Delhi truly surprised me. The sky of this huge vibrant capital is never clear not only because of smog and pollution but there always is a bird or rather few flying about your head. Numerous kites and pigeons overflying monuments are a nice metaphor to the people of this double-faced capital. Those kites made me think of sage Jungle book character Cheel. People say there is nothing to see in Delhi, but such statements are not true at all. There is plenty to be seen, to wonder and to learn in Delhi. Of course not every place of tourist interest really is interesting, but wonders of ancient capitals dropped here and there within the city are amazing. You feel like an early XIX century explorer when taking a walk in masterfully composed Lodi Gardens or getting lost in a bush of Mehrauli archaeological park and bazaars of Delhi surely are a true vanity fair.
Yes, the oriental dream is still alive, to my big surprise. Places like Haridwar, Srinagar or Lucknow, this tourist forgotten city, has revealed it to me in all it’s splendour. Stuffed by Shia Islam monuments and gardens, the old city of opulent nawabs has so much to offer. And it has offered me since the first moment I stepped out of the train. Three days of pure pleasure before leaving to Varanasi. The mythical holy city of Hindus. And what a surprise there.
I was warned by someone who’s told me: >Varanasi is a strange place, as soon as you’re there your only thought is to get out of it, but as soon as you’re off it your only wish is to come back.< An absolute true! There is nothing more peaceful than morning or evening boat ride on Ganges when ghats are veiled in this grey-blueish and grey-purple mist; nothing more seducing than evening aarti accompanied by music, lights and flowers floating down the river stream; well, in Varanasi stairways to heaven lead down to the river, because as soon as one climb them up back to the Shiva city he sudenly found himself in hell on earth. I barely could have ever find more hysterical place than this. Only wish is to get back to ghats, to observe river and people bathing. There is this western obsession to make of live on ghats a performance, and tourists are so intrusive to hygiene they consider to be very intimate in Europe, Japan or America. I admit I did the same. You can’t not to do so. Watching people wash themselves becomes the show one gets here as it is almost impossible to get into the temples within the city. Westerners become rude and immoral, they might be hypnotised or under spell of such intimate behaviour of Indian people, everything is done openly from teeth-washing to waiting for death on stairs in some corner or under some tree; even cremation act – and this is the point tourist are most disrespectful- is done on eyes of everyone who passes by. Privacy of hygiene and dying sacredly intimate in our culture is what excites tourists from western world. They can not imagine the violation of their privacy by someone who’d introduce himself to their bathroom to take picture or to make a whole show about a member or their family being buried – but everyone does the same. It is an excitement about death that push some of them to climb to the terraces upon burning ghats to observe death bodies being consumed by fire. I did not – it was impossible to me to even pass the burning ghat closely. I saw some poor man body being half burned by fire because of insufficiency of wood, so his members only were flushed into the river where I could spot a Sadhu corps (certainly not well attached to the stone that should keep it under water) floating by the boat. Well not all of us tourist have left our moral at home and not all of us act disrespectfully when abroad. At the end leaving Varanasi was releasing, but after couple of days missing Varanasi phase started.
Discovering colonial, so westernised, Kolkata – diving into the Indian dream again in all those Bengali villages of vivid green charm, adorned with palm trees and banana plants, rice and wheat fields the sky reflects lime green palette of, small lakes mirroring all this particular little world and it’s lyrical sunsets particularly touching and beautiful – I loved it all – even this immense marble Victoria monument, massive and sovereign just as the first empress of India used to be. Intellectual capital of India has it’s own charm. Welcoming atmosphere is palpable at every of her many neighbourhoods so divers but all equally populous. Spiritual centre of the city is Kalighat, quiet a nice quarter with this original temple dedicated to terrible female deity of time, and death. It’s almost impossible to see the three eyed idol with golden tongue so numerous are both her devotees and her guardians in the interior of temple covered with hundreds of bells. Rush about the blessing from goddess is almost as intense as rush about transporting stuff (you always wonder what’ inside of numerous boxes and parcels) at Armenian street – one of crowdiest streets ever can experience. Leading from University on Mahatma Ghandi Road to the Hooghly river and it’s ghats where is nice to sit and observe men in the sunset, huge Howrah bridge connecting Kolkata to the railway station (of the same name as the engineer work of art) at the opposite river bank.