Impressions of India: a Residency at Sanskriti Kendra, an Artists’ Retreat Near New Delhi
Arriving in New Delhi
Early in December, 2016, I traveled from the United States to Germany, then Switzerland and finally to India for a residency at Sanskriti Kendra, an artists’ retreat.
A relative had warned me that I would experience culture shock going from Switzerland to India. He was right! After leaving baggage claim at the New Delhi airport around five in the morning, I looked for a place to exchange my American dollars and Euros into the new Indian currency. I had been confident that I would have no trouble exchanging currency in Switzerland–it is, after all, the banking capital of the world. Apparently it’s difficult to find a bank anywhere, including Switzerland, that will exchange any currency for the new Indian currency.
The first kiosk I went to at the New Delhi airport was closed, in spite of a sign stating that it was open 24 hours. There was a line at a currency exchange kiosk that was open. A couple, casually drinking their morning chai, operated the place. When I finally got to the front of the line I was told that I could only exchange 70 Euros (I had to show my passport first). When I asked how long it would be before I could exchange more money I was told “in one week.”
On leaving the terminal I was relieved to see a small man in a burgundy turban holding a sign with my name on it, along with Sanskriti, in bold type. The first thing that I noticed on leaving New Delhi airport was the smog. It was still dark outside and the smog was suffocatingly close, burning eyes and throat like imperceptible needles. The taxi driver, who spoke little English, took the handle of my luggage and hurried towards the airport parking lot, striding ahead of me. I climbed into the passenger seat thinking, I suppose, that I would see more of the city from this vantage point. What I did see, in the early dawn haze, was how often we came close to having an accident. The city was already bustling with cars, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians and even a cow or two, vying for space on the roads that, even when, as was rarely the case, they were marked, lanes were completely ignored. My driver, horn honking almost incessantly, zigzagged through the traffic, getting perilously close to vehicles and pedestrians, with me fearing for my life.
Sanskriti Kendra, An Artists’ Retreat
Amazingly, we arrived unscathed at the gates of the Sanskriti Kendra outside of New Delhi. Dragging my oversized luggage (slightly lighter now than it was before twenty-three tubes of oil paint were confiscated by an over-zealous Eurowings employee en route to Geneva from Hamburg a week or so earlier), I headed across the deserted campus. Like a ghost, a man emerged from the smog.
It was beginning to grow light by this time, but still the smog hung heavy and acrid in the air. The man unceremoniously took my bag and walked me to my quarters in a two story building. It was painted, I soon learned, the same butterscotch color as all the other buildings on the campus, a similar color to the packed earth around us. Later I discovered that the patches of grass throughout the four acre campus are kept green by a crew of workers who stand for hours, hose in hand, watering them.
I unpacked my luggage–art supplies, what was left of them–in the white-painted studio on the ground level, and clothes in the bedroom above. After traveling since early on Thursday morning, I was happy to have running water in which to wash my face and brush my teeth. My greeter had shown me the filtered water in the tiny kitchen area downstairs but, in my enthusiasm, I used the water from the faucet forgetting, for a moment, the warnings about water in India. Luckily, I suffered no consequences from my omission.
I had been told to appear for breakfast at 8:30 a.m. Passing the spacious ceramics studios and numerous sculptures and other artifacts scattered around the manicured grounds, I arrived in the dining room. To my surprise I was the only person eating breakfast that morning. The meals on Turkish Airlines had been adequate but small and I hadn’t eaten in the four hour layover in Istanbul, so I was hungry and the food tasted delicious. After eating I returned to my room and, exhausted from a sleepless night on the airplane, I fell asleep. I was awakened by a voice calling from downstairs announcing lunch.
By now the smog had lifted. The winter sun shone down on me as I walked to the dining room.
At lunch there were numerous people, none of whom were residents. They were, among others, employees preparing for an event in the amphitheater that evening. The event was the convocation of a women’s educational program.
I had noticed several men hanging garlands of fresh flowers–marigolds and crysanthemums–and lanterns from the trees. I thought that perhaps they were in celebration of the holidays. But the following morning the garlands and lanterns were removed and I later found the petals displayed on the grounds in a large copper vessel.
Lunch was a delicious buffet-style Indian meal of which I ate very little having over indulged at breakfast time.
After meetings with various staff members to fill out paperwork and learn how to establish an internet connection (which generally worked if I set up my computer right outside the office building), I explored the campus.
There are three museums with an impressive collection of Indian textiles, Indian ceramics and a museum of “everyday art” and a library. These are part of the compound established in 1993. During my stroll around the property, I met the founder, a retired businessman, who told me about the evolution of the Sanskriti Kendra to which he had donated his extensive art collection. I was invited to attend the opening of an exhibition of art by prison inmates in one of the art galleries the following morning. Eager to get to New Delhi to buy art supplies, I hesitated.
The following morning I slept late and made it to breakfast with a few minutes to spare. Delicious, fresh papaya was a breakfast staple throughout my two-week stay. One morning I was amused to find, along with my papaya, dainty cucumber and tomato sandwiches made with thinly sliced white bread, crusts removed. How very English, I mused. The slightly spicy spread on the bread (definitely not Marmite!) was the only thing that distinguished my sandwiches from the ones I remember eating during an English high tea. At lunch time on Christmas day, after a typical Indian meal, Christmas pudding was served, another reminder of a British colonial past.
Strokes of Emancipation
I ended up attending the opening of the prisoner’s art exhibition, Strokes of Emancipation. From the accompanying video documentation I learned that those in the art program took art classes daily, all day. I was surprised to see their first names used both in the video and the labels with the art; and no attempt was made to disguise their faces and voices in the video. This would not be the case in the United States where protecting individual’s rights are important. Some of the art was quite good and, I gathered from the video, it was proving to be enormously therapeutic for these men, some of whom were spending time in jail for murder. As I watched the video I sipped the delicious sweet chai that became my beverage of choice. I also ate an assortment of deep fried finger foods, ruining my appetite for lunch.
On Christmas day I hired a taxi to take me to Central Market. Another hair-raising ride ensued. The market was crowded and colorful in spite of the grey pall of smog that lingered all day. I bought art supplies but was out of luck when I attempted to buy a SIM card for my cell phone. (This is a viable solution if one’s carrier doesn’t service areas outside of North America.)
To purchase a SIM card these days, one must present a passport, plus a passport photo. I had neither with me. Hence, a day or two later, I embarked on another frightening ride, this time in an Uber vehicle. When I searched for a seat belt I was told that the use of seat belts isn’t mandatory in India. In fact I rarely saw, on any of my rides, evidence of law and order enforcement of any kind.
I took advantage of my driver’s English-speaking ability on one of my shopping trips, chatting with him when it felt safe to do so (at red lights and traffic jams). One of the questions I asked him was why so many of the signs are in English, when only a few people seem to speak English. He explained that East Indians can all read English, even if they can’t speak it.
My Uber driver interrupted our conversation to point out the distant minaret of Qutb Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world and second highest minaret in India. It marks the site of the first Muslim kingdom in North India, established in 1193. Qutb Minar, along with the ancient and medieval monuments surrounding it, form the Qutb complex, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Qutb Minar is surrounded by several historically significant monuments. These are historically connected with the tower and include the Iron Pillar of Delhi, Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque, Alai Darwaza, the Tomb of Iltutmish, Alai Minar, Ala-ud-din’s Madrasa and Tomb, and the Tomb of Imam Zamin.
Salaam Baalak Trust
A couple of days after Christmas I worked with teenaged girls at a girls’ shelter administered by Salaam Baalak Trust. The girls and I discussed the problems of water and air pollution both in the United States and India. One of the girls mentioned the Yamuna River, the most polluted body of water in India. Following the discussion, I had the girls do drawings of both the problems and possible solutions.
While we worked in the library, we could see and hear a Christmas concert complete with nativity scene enactment (to Hark the Herald Angels Sing) and Santa’s arrival to the enthusiastic singing of Jingle Bells. For a moment I wondered where I was! In spite of the distractions, my students were respectful and responsive.
Afterwards a staff member drove back to Sanskriti with me, stopping once at a gated apartment building to pick up a check from someone sponsoring an educational program. As the driver negotiated the traffic, my companion and I talked about Salaam Baalak Trust’s impressive record. There’s a boy’s shelter also and both shelters have full-time counselors on staff to deal with the trauma that all these youngsters have suffered. I learned that their approach is “unconditional love, with clear boundaries.”
As an example of their success, I was told about one girl who came to the shelter thirteen years ago. Multi-talented and ambitious, she’s now training to become a fashion designer. Her goal: to buy a house so she can get her homeless mother off the streets. Hearing this I thought back to the atmosphere of genuine warmth and caring that I had witnessed throughout the afternoon.
Having been dropped off near the entrance of the gated and guarded community of which Sanskriti is a part, I was struck again by the abject poverty that extends up to the gates. After announcing myself to the guard, I walked along the road leading to Sanskriti and saw mansions set back from the road. They were surrounded by high walls and large properties. I was reminded of the South Africa I grew up in—Alexander Township, a shanty town with its sprawl of squatters’ huts, was only a relatively short drive from the prosperous (and segregated) Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg. It’s encouraging to know that there are committed people and organizations, like Salaam Baalak Trust, working to create positive change in India.
India Fellow Social Leadership Program
Another of these groups is the India Fellow Social Leadership program. A number of young people were attending a ten-day seminar at the Sanskriti Kendra as part of their thirteen month training with the India Fellow program. Some of these young men and women befriended me and I learned that they have degrees in, for instance, chemistry and engineering and are bent on learning how to apply their education in a way that contributes to the greater good of Indian society.
Sanctuary, East and West
It took time to do the research and gather the supplies needed to start work on my project. I had heard that Indian time is different from American time, and in all aspects, except road traffic speed, it is; unless there’s a traffic jam when everything comes to a stop in an impossible bottleneck. The problems with the new Indian currency add to the general lack of speed and efficiency. Slow and erratic WiFi doesn’t help and, every day at least once at Sanskriti, the electricity went out for a minute or two.
On the afternoon following Saturday morning’s art opening I met with Dr. Jain, an authority on Indian folk art who, among other accomplishments, wrote a monograph on the Italian critic and curator Germano Celant. Dr. Jain is a part-time consultant at Sanskriti, advising residents on practical aspects of their projects. I needed handmade paper and he immediately put me in touch with someone who manufactures and sells it.
I also obtained his permission to climb the trees to take samples of leaves from them. (I ended up getting a couple of gardeners to help gather leaves from the taller trees.) There are numerous species of trees on the property growing out of the packed earth, labeled in both Hindi and English. The trees, the colors of the flowers and the women’s saris as well as the color of the earth at Sanskriti, inspired my project. This project will be part of my show, Sanctuary, East and West at St Petersburg’s Studio@620, opening in mid-May, 2017.
Throughout the balance of my residency, I worked to incorporate images of the leaves in a series of mixed media works on handmade paper. My focus moved from the polluted Yamuna River, which I saw only from a bridge as I was transported in a taxi over it, to the the tap water that a Westerner dare not drink. Also the polluted air of which I was almost constantly aware. (I was told it was a particularity bad year for air pollution in New Delhi, a city of over twenty million people.) Learn more about my work at the Sanskriti Kendra.
Birds and Animals
One morning, I drew back the curtains to see a family of five peacocks strutting around the lotus pond in front of my studio stopping, once in a while, to drink from the pond. I was told that I had missed seeing the monkeys that are common in the area. And, although they’re not on Sanskriti property, Brahman bulls are a common sight—there was one sunning itself on the sidewalk after I left the Taj Mahal to return to the parking lot. I watched as a man stooped to greet the bull by placing both his fists on its forehead before continuing along the sidewalk.
The Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal was spectacular. The scale makes it impossible for photographs to do it justice. I was inspired by the intricate patterns of inlaid marble throughout the buildings and by the exquisite Arabic calligraphy on the ancient documents in the museum — some of which are simply work orders for artisans employed in the mausoleum’s construction. (Scroll down for images of the Taj Mahal.)
During the first days of my stay I had been told that Hindi is a gentle language without words for harsh remonstration. Indeed, I was impressed by the genuine kindness and warmth of the people I met. Starting with the man, born and raised in India, now living in Milan, who sat next to me on the flight from Geneva to New Delhi to the man, a pediatric neurologist now living in the United States, who sat next to me on my return flight, everyone I spent time with was kind and gentle. Perhaps, more than anything, it will be the people of India that draw me back to their subcontinent.
Return to Florida
The day after I visited the Taj Mahal I left India, my imagination ignited by a kaleidoscope of images and experiences. While I was reluctant to leave the peace and calm of the Sanskriti Kendra, I looked forward, after almost five weeks of cold weather, to the warmth of a Florida winter.
I am grateful to Creative Pinellas and the Pinellas County Board of Commissioners for the Individual Artist’s Grant that made my trip possible. As a follow-up I am scheduled to be interviewed in early March by Barbara St. Clair, Executive Director of Creative Pinellas. The podcast to be featured on the Creative Pinellas website.