Walking, waking

When The Family told me I was looking like a couch potato, sprawled across a sofa, remote in hand, binge watching Network, I realized it was true, and I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I’d stopped going out in the wave of omicron infections which swept the neighbourhood. But that had passed in two weeks. It was time for a walk again. So, after finishing my meetings in the afternoon I went out for a walk from Kala Ghoda to VT through the small lanes that thread the old business area of Mumbai. Right at the start I realized that the city was recovering well from the pandemic. The stock exchange and the high court must have just closed for the day, and the streets were filled with brokers and lawyers having a small celebratory snack.

Business was starting up again. The numbness after the horrendous second wave seems to have disappeared after third. The city is almost fully vaccinated, and the lesson that vaccines protect effectively has been learnt. A new shop was being built in this road behind the stock exchange. I looked at the moon gates under construction. They looked incongruous in the four-storeyed Art Deco building called Seksaria Chambers. As soon as you look up you see the clean sweeping lines, the beautiful geometric detailing, the simple but elegant rectangular windows of this 1930s era style. Some changes have accumulated on the upper floors: box grills around windows, ugly air conditioning units, but unlike the street level, the architecture is still visible. Just across the road is a building in which the grand sweep of the Arts Moderne style of Surya Mahal is hidden behind boxy windows tacked on later. Interestingly, the architects in Mumbai often used corrugated metal to protect against rain. That feature is still visible at the top of the buildings.

I went around the stock exchange on a road which is lined with more Art Deco on one side and the old style traditional architecture on the other. Fort Chambers C has a delightful terrace grille just above the street level. Just across from it is a nameless but wonderful old building. I often stop to admire the structure: cast iron beams and pillars bear the load of a superstructure made from wood and sheet metal. The metal has been worked to reproduce the look of traditional wooden fretwork. I wish this modernization of the traditional style had been worked out fully. But, like its contemporary cousin, Art Nouveau in the west, it was arrested by the new construction techniques that were invented in the next decade. Just before the style died, it began to take on the more minimal looks that you see in the balconies just across from it (the last photo in the set above). This T-junction in the road is one of my favourite places to stand and muse about the turns that architecture never took.

This area is deserted enough in the evenings for guerilla artists to constantly try something new. The last months have been quiet, though I did find one piece of street art which I hadn’t seen before.

I stopped to pick up a coffee before walking on. Some months ago I’d photographed a restaurant which I thought had closed forever (photo on the left above). Now it has opened again. The place has a new signboard, and every surface has been repainted. I take it to be a hopeful sign. The city seems to be coming back to life.

Walking on I came to an older part of town, perhaps half a century older. The two parts are separated by a Parsi memorial in the center of a cross road. On Sundays the junction becomes a cricket ground. Now it was a place full of hawkers and scooter repairmen. I threaded between them to take a photo of one of the Parsi sphinxes around it. I’d never noticed before that its flowing moustache and beard hide a receding chin.

This the older part is Bora Bazaar, an area built before the spaces around it were cleared for the new construction during the cotton boom caused by the American civil war. Today I was not interested in the monumental offices and government buildings that came with the boom. Instead I looked at the homes built by the newly rich. In the 1880s, as F. W. Stevens and his ilk were developing the Indo-Saracenic style (you can see a bit of it in a dome of the GPO in a photo below), the native Indian architecture had already started on the upward expansion that Mumbai still retains. Four and five stories became more common as the traditional stone was replaced by lighter brick. These brick walls still carried the lovely ornate wooden box balconies that you see across western India. Notice the beautiful traditional roof line in the photo, raised high above the street. The regular rows of simple rectangular windows on the side face are innovations adopted in the city from the British. This was a lovely new style, which I wish had developed into the 21st century. The wooden window frames migrated for a while into Mumbai’s Art Deco style, but eventually disappeared as pre-fab elements became available.

The roads were beginning to empty out. The pandemic mentality is not completely gone. People still go home early. A last chai, a vada pav before the commute, and then cross the road to CST to catch a train; that’s the to-do list for most people. I could just walk back home. This had been better than binge watching an inane serial.

Rearrangment – перестройка

Sitting in the Berlin apartment of my old professor, The Family and I described our discovery of the artistic ferment in the city. The photographers, painters, and craftsmen in the weekend’s art market by the Spree, the murals on the walls of tall apartment blocks, the reimagining of the Berlin Wall as a canvas for the ideas of a triumphant philosophy, its connection with the quadriga on the Brandenburger Gate. I thought that all this was as much street art as that which was made and remade on walls at the Mauerpark, Rosenthaler Strasse, or Urban Spree, or even on some walls on their road. My professor and his wife are the post-war generation of thinkers: steeped in the ideas of internationalism and a certain classic aesthetics. They disagreed with the equivalences I made. The best of part of such intellectual disagreement is that it allows you to sharpen your ideas. That’s what this post is about.

I don’t think it was a disagreement over commissioned or guerilla art. They quite enjoy Banksy, but they also loved the works of anonymous Bihari folk artists who’d been commissioned by the state government to paint on certain stretches of walls. It may be that the durability of the piece was an issue. I was unwilling to yield this ground. Durability is a concern in the commerce surrounding art. Insistence on it would leave out the most spectacular works of Cai Guo-Qiang: the fireworks displays which are incredible pieces of street art. There is a documentary called “Stairway to Heaven” on his art which is available on Netflix, and several video recordings on YouTube. They bear the same relation to the work that my photos of murals do.

Were they trying to distinguish between artistic intent and accident? I wouldn’t disagree with this criterion. Leonardo da Vinci advised: “‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.” But for every artist, including perhaps all photographers, the accident is the seed around which the artist’s intention crystallises. The bombed out Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on Ku’damm in Berlin has mosaics which are now visible from the street. Is this street art? I believe not. The intention of the bombing raid was not to convert the church into a piece of art. It can’t even be compared to Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is only in the imputation of artistic intent to works that people might differ.

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So let me just stick to a simple definition of art: any deliberate attempt to please the senses. And go with a simple definition of street art: any art that is freely available to a passerby. I give you some of my favourites in the slideshow above.

Light and dark

A simple piece of artwork that I saw on a little walk around town last week is a pointer to a long story of trafficking. The short version of it is here. Or you can read the complementary long version here. As more people die of the pandemic, more children are orphaned, and the problem is bound to grow, unless action is taken.

Light tourism

Naini Tal’s Mall Road is usually a gelid mass of tourists, pulsating with impatience. On this day, when the second wave of the pandemic was just beginning to swell, we made up about ten percent of the tourists here. That gave us an opportunity to see the town’s own life, but I wish we had done this at a better time. The Naini Tal district was hit hard by this wave; two weeks after we left, newspapers reported 50% positivity among the COVID-19 tests performed here. Now, as I look back at this featured photo, I know that we did a good thing by not walking through the doors of the billiard club, and not just because of the awful apostrophe.

Like good tourists, we walked up and down Mall Road for an hour, stopping to buy chocolates (the chocolatiers insisted on masking inside the shops), most memorably in the flavour of paan, have an old style espresso, drink a glass of buransh, admire the logo of Himjoli, and stop at a cafe for lunch on a terrace overlooking the lovely lake.

A lovely new thing on Mall Road was street art, possibly from the festival that the city held in December 2019. The subjects were street cleaners, often totally faceless employees of the city. Mall Road is too cramped for good photos of such large pieces of art. If you back away enough to remove distortions of perspective, then there is too much activity between you and the subject. So I had to make do, and tried to correct the perspective later in software. I like the one where a small crowd of women are waiting for a bus home in front of one of the murals, but I can see the 50% positivity rate right in this one photo.

There is still a whiff of the middle of the twentieth century in some bit of Mall Road. The ornate wooden building of the library right next to the lake was closed, but the scooters parked next to the post box was straight out of the 1960s. I don’t think my nieces even know how to send what we used to be call the post in those days. I knew instantly what that man crossing the road with a tin box on his head was carrying. The lettering on the box confirmed it: he was a door-to-door salesman carrying cream rolls and pastries. If it was not for large-scale tourism, Naini Tal could have been the best of two worlds, all the advantages of the current century, the relative prosperity and instant communication, with the charm of the previous century.

Reluctantly leaving heaven

Some parts of heaven are dangerous now, dilapidated, ready to fall. Still, the magic draws people from across the world. Many have left elaborate artwork on the walls. Perhaps inspired by them, others have sketched outlines of work elsewhere. We walked through the parts of the abandoned Swarg Ashram which were built after the famous visit by the Beatles.

There are two apartment blocks next to each other. They looked dilapidated. Unlike in the bungalows, there were no signs warning us off. But maybe that only meant that the blocks just haven’t been inspected recently? We peered through doors and windows. They are one-bedroom apartments, of a size which is larger than most one-bedrooms in Mumbai. Some of the walls reminded me of the overused word palimpsest. Perhaps a graffiti wall is as good a descriptor. Some of the sketches were good, perhaps the artists could have developed them into paintings if they had materials.

These blocks date from the seventies, when the Maharishi Mahesh yogi’s business venture was beginning to boom. For the pioneer of the yoga and guru industry, he has little name recognition now. For that matter, even the Beatles are fading. I was in a lift a couple of years ago with a older person, when the door opened and a bunch of kids with phones and earbuds came in chattering. “Have you tried out the Beatles?” one asked. Some of the others looked puzzled. The experimenter said “Ancient group, interesting music.” One of the others explained, “Yes a singing group like Abba, with three members. One was called Paul.” The lift door opened, and they left. We two, grizzled veterans, looked at each other, eyebrows raised.

There were a lot of really interesting paintings inside. I inspected the outer walls. There were no large cracks. There could be a danger of falling blocks of plaster, but perhaps we could risk quick forays into the buildings. We darted through the doorways which gaped open. In and out quickly, a few times. Then I noticed that there are no cracks in the internal plaster either, no bulges. We were not going to risk the stairs, but spending a little longer exploring inside may not be dangerous. We found a large number of very expertly executed pieces inside. Some of them really worth your time.

Even apart from the paintings, the remains of the ashram were beautiful, quiet and peaceful. The silence was broken now and then by the cackling of tree pies, and the deeper calls of hornbills. We were reluctant to leave. The canteen did not have anything other than chai and small snacks. If it had, we would have stayed longer.

In Heaven

Heaven is abandoned. The Family and I walk through the shaded path where immortals once strolled, and speculate about when everyone moved away. There’s still magic here. A small group of hip city youngsters give us lessons on how to take selfies. The Family gives me a warning look, and I behave. I move where they ask us to go, let them suggest how to strike an attitude, thank them as they go away. Human contact with strangers after a year can be disconcerting for everyone, even in Swarg Ashram, which was briefly, half a century ago, the most famous place on earth. That’s when the Beatles spent time here, between releasing the contents of Magical Mystery Tour and the white album.

The bungalows next to the yoga center carry warning signs. I’m used to distancing now, and I manage to peer in, let my camera do the walking. Nice murals. Not half a century old, I think. By far not, The Family agrees. A signboard says this is where “distinguished visitors” stayed. The Beatles would count. So would Mia Farrow. Peter Saltzman talks about listening to George Harrison play the sitar on a rooftop terrace. That would be one of these, I guess.

An abandoned garden and what looks like two apartment blocks lie between this line of bungalows and the distant cliff edge overlooking the Ganga and Rishikesh. Peter Saltzman mentioned a place overlooking the river where the Beatles sat and worked on the words and music for songs which eventually appeared in the white album. The Family has already crossed the garden. I follow. We laugh at a sign that says “Do not write on walls.”

We skirt the apartment blocks for now. I spot a couple come out to the path from behind a little house. “Let’s go there”, I suggest. The Family’s okay with it. Temple, or meditation center, you take your pick. I walk through the door, and some dark chambers to the paved area behind. Beyond it I see an open space overlooking the river. I walk out to stand there. Mentally I subtract the apartments, keep the bungalows. I try to match the description I remember from Peter Saltzman’s interviews. This must be it. This is where the Beatles came repeatedly during those weeks to put words to ob la di. This is where the music for Dear Prudence came together. There is magic here. Briefly the tiny blue flowers on the ground look like the Himalayan Gentian.

In my life

When you pay your money, walk through gates at the side of a road which winds through a forest, and you see a sign announcing a tiger reserve, you may be a little surprised if you thought you were visiting the ruins of the Swarg Ashram, the place where the Beatles composed large parts of their best album. That was the opinion then, and it remained the opinion of fans when the queen of England was fifty years older. Are you in the right place?

The disorientation persists as you walk up a steep paved path, with a high wall on one side. A large butterfly stares at you as you pass. I haven’t been in a tiger reserve like this. Perhaps you need your elephant and gun. Perhaps, in case of accident, you should always bring your mom. But continue, look around round, look around round round.

Strange. The path leads past a ruined bungalow. No Bill, no children asking if to kill was not a sin. The ruin is full of interesting looking graffiti, so we walked in to look. But it is only a distraction, perhaps a structure built and abandoned by the forest department which now owns this land.

I’m at the top of the slide. I stop and I turn and I go for a ride. “Right?” The Family suggested, and I agreed. Into the helter skelter maze of strange domed structures. A notice tells us that they were built as meditation huts in 1978. We walk into one: a round room on the ground floor, a tiny toilet and bath on one side, and stairs going up the wall to a domed platform, presumably the place where you sit to meditate. The first one we walked into had some beautiful work on the walls. The dome had an interesting piece in colour, which was very hard to take a look at because the stairs were not terribly safe. I stood on one of the safe lower rungs, stuck my phone up, and took a panorama. Unfortunately the phone needed more of a revolution than my precarious perch would allow.

We followed the path through these domed apartments, and saw the Ganga in front of us. Lovely view of Rishikesh on the other side. The place where there river turns is Triveni ghat, where the arti takes place in the evening. We seemed to have reached a dead end. It was time to follow the signs to the canteen and get our bearings.

The canteen was attached to some kind of an art gallery; I like the view through a series of doors which is an unmistakable sign that of one. The displayed work was not a surprise. They were photos of the Beatles in the ashram taken by Paul Saltzman. It was late in the morning, and getting warm. We hadn’t found the Swarg Ashram yet. We had a tea and went is search of Swarg.

Doorways in The Door

Haridwar means the door to Hari. And Hari is another name for Vishnu. Just before the river Ganga exits the Himalayas through Haridwar, it flows past the town of Rishikesh. On left bank of the Ganga, away from the recent expansion of the town, we stood inside the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s abandoned ashram, known locally as the Beatles ashram, and The Family took this photo of Rishikesh. The Maharishi leveraged the visit by the Beatles in 1968 into global stardom, and may well have a claim to be the person who firmly placed yoga and meditation in world culture. The ashram was abandoned some time after his move to Switzerland, and is now in the care of the forest department of the state. There was a coronavirus surge during our visit to this region, and we decided that abandoned open spaces were the safest. There were many visitors to the ashram, but it is large enough that it never felt crowded.

If you are not distracted by the strange ruins of the domed apartments that an entrepreneur built in the 1970s for the hordes of well-heeled peace seekers who never turned up, then the first thing you’ll find are the kitchens and the yoga hall of the ashram. They are full of graffiti and artwork by visitors who ignored the sign which urges them not to write on walls. From the weathering of the works, and some dated signatures, it is clear that people are still using these ruins as a canvas. Others works, especially the ones which give prominence to the Maharishi, are quite weathered, and possibly date from the 1970s. Twitter launched in 2006, so the work you see in the photo above cannot be more than 15 years old. That tells us how quickly the weather affects the paintings.

These four pieces come from the kitchen. The maharishi is painted on to a crumbling wall. I wish the person who’d started the Jai Gurudeva painting had gone on to finish it. I can imagine that the sun will be marvelous in full colour. Given its location, it is almost certainly a reference to Lennon’s 1968 composition Across the Universe.

The rest of these paintings come from the large yoga hall just beyond the utility complex. This is really the central vista of the ashram as it once was, with the main visitors’ buildings placed around a quadrangle with this hall at one corner. The architecture tells us how savvy the Maharishi was; yoga was the magnet to draw people in, but a good holiday in lovely surroundings was what you remembered after you left. Good enough to draw you back, or to have you recommend it to friends. Even though the Beatles left after a spat, their visit was good enough advertisement. I love walking through recently abandoned buildings, and this one was specially inviting, with its vibrant artwork, and the doors and windows reduced to specters which allow the inside to merge with the outside.

As we left the building we heard the squawks of a trio of oriental pied hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) which we had seen flying around. I’m not yet good enough at identifying birds entirely by sound. Just my luck then, not to have my camera when these things were flapping about asking for their photos to be taken. I was reduced to using my phone. The result is not great, but it does allow you to identify the bird with certainty: the cylindrical casque above the beak with a black patch at its tip, the white tip to the tail and the pale blue throat patch. “Nice place,” The Family murmured, perhaps echoing the hundreds of paying customers who came here in the 60s and 70s. A rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda) cackled with laughter as it flew past us.

Hanuman

Uttarakhand is heavily forested, and forests in this region have monkeys. One of the largest is the species of the hanuman langur called the Nepal gray langur (Semnopithecus schistaceus). I saw the individual in the featured photo during a walk at an altitude of about 2400 meters, inside the Binsar National Park. The seven species of hanuman, genus Semnopithecus, which are found in India separate into distinct geographical ranges, with little overlap. At this altitude, and this far north, the Nepal gray langur is the only one that is found. As I concentrated on taking photos of this troupe of leaf eaters, I missed a photo op which will probably never recur: two yellow throated martens (Martes flavigula) pulled themselves up the cliff next to the road I was on, sat on the edge and stared at me for a long time. They were gone by the time I mentally kicked myself into swinging my camera round to photograph them. They are shy and swift, and because of that are hard to photograph, in spite of being fairly common in these forests. The longer you live the more regrets you have.

Watching the troupe I was reminded of the graffiti I’d seen in Haridwar a couple of days earlier, when I visited the abandoned ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I found a photo on my phone (above). It is a lovely piece of art, but it does not show the Nepal gray langur. This species holds its tail above, and parallel to, their bodies when they walk. The tail is long, and the tip can project forward ahead of the head. The drooping tail that the artwork shows belongs to the southern plains gray langur (Semnopithecus johnii) whose range is far to the south.

Once upon a time

Apollo 8. The Mexico City olympics. Martin Luther King Jr. Prague spring. The My Lai massacre. Dakar and Minerva sink. Mauritius becomes independent. The Baader Meinhof gang. Daniel Cohn Bendit. The Beatles learn meditation with the Maharishi. Yes, that’s the most famous yoga center of 1968, fifty three years later. This is inside the ruins of the Maharishi’s abandoned ashram. I don’t know how old these murals are. There are murals from the 1970s sharing space with at least one from a couple of years ago.

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