Amritsari Kitsch

Kitsch finds a hearty welcome in rural Punjab. Every time I’ve driven through the Punjabi countryside I’ve seen it with my own eyes: two storeyed houses with a giant concrete eagle perched on top, a house sporting a helicopter as a headdress, a water tank shaped like an elephant in full ceremonial regalia, a roadside dhaba announced by fibreglass dragons. In cities this is toned down to mere bling. But not entirely.

Surely it is kitsch when a flower stall displays a large bouquet of plastic flowers among the roses and marigolds? Or when the window display at a restaurant leaves you confused about what might be on the menu? Glad to see a warm Punjabi heart beating in there.

On the road

We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.

I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.

Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.

An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.

Days and nights

The first thing that strikes you about nights in China is how well-lit they are. After all, the magic of bright lights cannot have escaped a civilization which descends from the one that invented fireworks. I walked along a river and took this photo of a completely still evening.

Eateries are kitsch country. Wouldn’t your ice cream taste much better with a bunny in pain holding a plastic cone? And isn’t it necessary to create a garden, complete with butterflies in a restaurant?

Daylight reveals a more refined touch. Equally kitschy perhaps, but understated. One side of the river wears the look of a traditional garden, complete with weeping willows drooping down to the water, magpies in trees, banked moss, and flowers drying in the late autumn. A crew boats along the river, picking up trash and cleaning it. I’m always amazed by the fact that China, whose citizens litter as thoughtlessly as Indians, has conscientious cleaners who keep public places clean all the time. Money has to be invested in cleaning, and there has to be accountability at work. Magic works in strange ways.

Stop before crossing the border

Our roadship took a long time to pull out of the gravitational attraction of Chandigarh. After a couple of hours dodging the motorbikes and tractors in its accretion zone, we were poised to take off into the hills. But then Soni ran out of fuel. “You have to eat before you leave Punjab,” he told us, “There’s no food after this.” We coasted to a halt outside a dhaba which looked like it came out of the sets of Jab We Met. An ensemble from rural Punjab was captured in the middle of a bhangra right in front of the dhaba.

We stretched our legs and The Young Niece strolled in to check for a fix of her sugary aerated drink. The rest of us got our caffeine with less added calories. I paused at the gate to take a photo. There was a pair of strangely understated lions welcoming you into the establishment. It seemed that The Family had convinced The Young Niece to try out the lassi instead of the usual bottled drink. Since 10% of Punjab has diabetes, I’m not sure that the calorie content was lower, but at least this drink had some protein in it.

I strolled around the courtyard looking for the toilets. The dhaba seemed to be a franchise, with several different shops set up within it. At one I found this wonderful statue of a well-educated specimen of the genus Pan. I wasn’t sure whether a smile on the face of a chimp was supposed to be reassuring or threatening. It wasn’t showing its teeth, but I thought it wise to retreat after taking a quick photo.

A second gate was flanked by horses ready to set out on a wedding procession. It seemed to be taking some time saying goodbye to a strawberry man. Is that a better argument, or a sweeter one, than a straw man? A sugar high from a sweet and milky tea can set you thinking of strange things.

The Family wanted to take a look at the food shops around the entrance. Before I could enter, I found a sign which caught me. Kitsch is not just visual. The idea of a chocolate paan is as kitschy as that of the chimpanzee reading a book. Soni had finished his breakfast. He complained that the parathas were not as good as they were the last time he stopped here. We belted up. Nothing stood between us and the hills now.

Delhi to Chandigarh: highway kitsch

For most of the distance between Delhi and Chandigarh, you would follow National Highway 44. It turns out that this is the highway of kitsch. Finding a three-headed dragon in a parking lot, I asked The Young Niece whether it was from Harry Potter. The answer was definitely “No. Harry Potter only has a three headed dog.” This was a friendly dragon, and probably not called Fluffy. She posed under the dragon with an ice cream cone in her hand (which did not melt under its hot breath).

Much before that, before we had left the gravitational attraction of Delhi, we passed this wonderfully kitschy temple. The dwarapala of classic temple architecture have been replaced by giant statues of Ram and Hanuman. I took the photo as our car flew down the highway. Later, looking at the picture I was not sure whether the structure just behind the dwarapala is a dhaba or a temple. The triple spired structure behind the cube is definitely a temple, but, going by the signboards, the cube is probably a dhaba.

Our flight had landed in Delhi just after ten, and now it was getting to be time for lunch. The distance between the airport in Delhi and the center of Chandigarh can be covered in about four and a half hours, not counting a halt for food. The road is lined with dhabas, but most are empty of clients. It seems that opening a roadside eatery is a popular business, but not one which is highly remunerative. All the crowds seem to stop at places which are full of kitsch like the three-headed dragon.

That dhaba also had toilets which were guarded by these statues in armour: another touch which was right out of an alternate world Harry Potter. “Of course,” I told The Family, “in this part of the world it has to be Hari Puttar.” Reassured, I walked into the clean loo. The Lotus tried to put forward a different theory of the origins of these statues, but I think the Hari Puttar story is too colourful to be wrong.

Even the divider between the states of Haryana and Punjab is kitschy. Just after Amabala (or before, if you are coming from Chandigarh) is this amazing state border. The highway passed below a complicated arch with the name of the state written on it in large friendly letters. On the divider was a tall pole holding up something which looked like a conch shell disguised as a submarine. Some day in the future all this might look like classic art. I wonder what the kitsch of that time might be.

Garhmukteshwar to Haldwani

Cycle in a field

A fast drive through Uttar Pradesh is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sensual overload. You can drive for hours without seeing people. There are signs of humanity all around you: bicycles abandoned for a while, tilled fields, well laid out lines of trees marking land boundaries, but no people.

Line of trees

And then you come into a small town, where there will be a great bustle of cars and scooters, of people selling food, or just standing around and chatting. In the little time that I spent taking this panoramic shot of an unremarkable cross road, a small crowd gathered around me. Their pride in their town was reinforced by looking, over and over, at my photo on the tiny LCD screen of my camera. Or maybe I was misreading their interest, maybe they looked at the photo so intently because they wanted to see what a fresh eye found in this familiar chowk.

Dusty crossroads

The countryside is not wild at all. There are seldom many birds apart from the usual crows and magpie robins. One of the most remarkable exceptions was a skyful of pariah kites, cheel, as we passed the enormous garbage dump outside Rampur. There will be a few butterflies, like this Cabbage White. Uttar Pradesh is densely populated, contrary to what your eyes tell you. These are the subtle signs you need to read.

Indian cabbage white butterfly

Occassionally you might see someone selling fresh produce by the wayside. Perhaps cabbages, perhaps guavas. I always thought that guavas served out by roadside fruit sellers with rock salt was peculiarly Indian, until I bought exactly the same combination from an old lady in Vietnam.

Red guava

Restaurant kitsch Interestingly, there is not too much roadside commerce. Other states have many more fruit sellers by the road. But then they have many more people on the road. It is interesting to ask why. I have different answers from different people. Some say that people take buses between villages and towns, and these do not stop randomly at roadsides. Maybe. Another person put it down to lawlessness. That’s unlikely to be generally true. Relative lack of affluence is another theory. Maybe partly. Perhaps it is a combination of these and more.

So you will have to get into a town to eat. Even the tired, dusty, small towns often have a reasonable restaurant or two. We walked into one in Rampur and had pretty good dal, roti and tandoori chicken. And, of course, remarkable kitsch.