India 2016 - Very Bazaars!


 
Our shopping spree began in Udaipur at the Ganesh Handicraft Emporium. We initially felt like we were on a secret treasure trail when following directions down a narrow winding alley way leading to a small wooden door. We cautiously entered what appeared to be a workroom with numerous sewing machines dwarfed by mounds of material and piles of threads – unbeknown to us, we had been directed to the Emporium’s back entrance! 






This little workshop opened out onto a Pandora’s box of countless rooms and courtyards, each one displaying a different selection of artisanal goods – from elaborately carved wooden furniture to a multitude of colourful ornaments, together with mountains of handwoven bedlinen, cushion covers and table cloths … plus arrays of tunics, scarves, saris, trousers/pyjamas!   




























It was a true treasure trove, as described on their brightly coloured business card adorned with international media recommending this incredible Emporium – Condé Nast Traveller, New York Times Magazine, Frommer’s, to name just a few. Displays of photographs and newspaper clippings proudly presented its notable clients, including those who were on film location in this attractive region, such as Pierce Brosnan during ‘Octopussy’ and Judi Dench for ‘The Marigold Hotel’. And of course clients equally included those in the world of interior design and fashion, namely Tricia Guild and Tory Birch, together with Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
I felt like a child in toy shop excitedly overwhelmed by the incredible selection of merchandise, with varied patterns and designs in every colour of the rainbow. It was easy to imagine what fun it would be working as a buyer for a store such as Anthropology – yet another renowned client!








India 2016 – Udaipur




Udaipur was the next ‘port of call’ on our agenda after a pleasantly hassle-free plane journey – the friendly airport staff were more interested in our family and life history versus the usual interrogation of weight, liquids et al. Our flight even included a rather tasty ‘Thali’ lunch, to rival most Western Indian restaurants.
Our driver Laxmi was promptly awaiting our arrival at Udaipur airport; his calm composure belied the fact that he had taken the longer route to Udaipur, driving 663km in 24 hours! 

Udaipur seemed to be more of a town than a city with a distinct slower pace, in sharp contrast to the hustle and bustle of Delhi. It still had a vibrant ambiance with industrious-looking locals going about their daily life.



We soon found tranquillity at the City Palace, a towering fortified building on the bank of Lake Pichola – one of Udaipur’s three manmade lakes, for which it is famed. This is where we embarked on a sunset cruise witnessing grandiose palaces with elaborately carved sandstone turrets, pillars and arched windows, which glowed in the pinky light of the late afternoon sun. 

City Palace
 










   





Our little boat made its way past the ornate buildings and wide stairways, known as ‘ghats’, towards the small island of Jag Mandir dominated by a 17th century water palace. 

We alighted to explore the courtyard of this charming little fortress turned boutique hotel, which had formerly served as a refuge for Shah Jahan when exiled by his father, and later for the British during the Indian Rebellion in 1857. 
 

Jag Mandir














 
Our hotel, Udai Khoti, was rather traditional in style, yet a little tired and whimsical in parts, which somehow added to its charm, together with the mischievous monkeys roaming freely! We braved the rather cool night air to have an aperitif at the roof terrace restaurant, whose haphazard service added to the whimsy, and equally confirmed our decision to dine at the highly recommended Ambrai lakeside restaurant – a truly memorable experience. 

Udai Khoti
 
However, the roof top restaurant still remained rather present, generating loud crashes and bumps of earthquake proportions in the early hours of the morning – our ‘prime lake view room’ was in fact located directly under the restaurant kitchen. We were thankfully able to move to a garden room the following morning, but tranquility came with a price – smelly drains! We decided that sleep was more important, and happily set off on foot to visit the City Palace with our guide. 

We stopped en route at the elaborately carved Jagdish Temple perched on a high terrace and topped with an extremely tall pyramidal bell tower. The temple was reached by a very steep staircase guarded by two large stone elephants.  
As we wandered barefoot into the temple we were met by a group of cross-legged worshippers chanting and playing musical instruments, creating a very spiritual ambiance. 

Jagdish Temple


I was equally fascinated by the temple’s soup kitchen in an adjoining courtyard, where many of the city’s poor sat on their haunches for their free daily meal, seemingly unperturbed by the many visitors to the temple.



This poverty was ironically juxtaposed with the opulence that greeted us at the City Palace – built by Maharana Udai Singh in the 16th century and elaborately developed in style and size by succeeding Maharanas. We wandered through beautiful courtyards and climbed winding stone staircases leading to countless rooms sumptuously bedecked with colourful mosaics and fanciful furniture – including an elaborate swing. 



 

The crystal gallery, with its 19th century works from across the globe – including beds, tables, and sofas made entirely of glass – was fascinating albeit incredibly ostentatious, particularly as the collection has never been used. This is out of respect for the deceased Maharana of Mewar, who unfortunately died before his order of crystal arrived from England, which subsequently remained in its packaging for about 100 years.

Our fascinating tour was followed by lunch in a little garden restaurant overlooking the main street, which was dotted with artisanal shops tempting us with their colourful wares. These attractive displays persuaded us to spend the rest of the day perusing the creative merchandise. This turned out be quite a spree and thus merits a separate 'chapter' entitled ‘Very Bazaars’! 




India 2016 - Delhi





This long-awaited trip to India was to honour my Mother’s 80th birthday, and equally to fulfill a mutual curiosity for this fascinating country. Our inaugural trip, visiting the Indian states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, was rich with colourful experiences in every sense of the word … pungent fragrances, mouth-watering flavours, combined with incredible contrasts and whimsy… leaving me inspired, as well as touched by the gentility and generosity of the people we encountered at every level.



Our first stop was Delhi, a busy, bustling city shrouded in a hazy smog, like a perpetual dawn.

Everyone seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere; the traffic appeared gridlocked, but the persistent horns and daring manoeuvres somehow managed to keep it flowing. 

The variety of vehicles was fascinating, and it seemed to be a challenge as to how heavy a load one could carry, albeit through necessity. Bicycle rickshaws were piled ridiculously high with enough cargo to fill a small truck; and old rusty scooters commonly served as the family car.

 



The infrastructure was a mixture of old decaying buildings, alongside half-finished new construction. The latter provided work for those inhabited under bright blue tarpaulins, lining the roadsides like collapsed market stalls. This was clearly home for many, whose washing line was the central barrier dividing the dual carriageway, where dust and exhaust fumes sadly negated the efforts of laundering.


'Sacred’ cows roamed through the slow-moving traffic, abandoned for their inutility, being either a male calf or an old milkless cow – both would probably die, either from starvation, dehydration or choke on the piles of rubbish they foraged.

 
Our first historical site was the Qutb Minar complex, where we gazed up in admiration at the tallest brick minaret in the world, standing 73 metres high. I’m always astounded by the workmanship of such ancient buildings and monuments, curious to know exactly how the bricks or rocks were mounted to such great heights, in the absence of modern day technology all those years ago (825 to be precise).




The next stop was Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation site, Raj Ghat, which seemed to radiate a tranquil spiritual ambiance, with a simplicity that reflected the humility of this heroic pacifist.


 





An equally memorable, yet sharply contrasting experience was our bicycle rickshaw ride around Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. Built in the 17th century, it is one of India’s oldest, as well as largest and busiest, wholesale markets. 









 














The market’s narrow lanes were lined with tiny shop fronts and open kiosks selling everything from live hens in cages (ready to be selected and publicly beheaded) to gaudy religious paraphernalia and multicoloured saris, intricately brocaded. 





We hung on tightly to our rickety rickshaw as it was deftly manoevred through a chaotic traffic of people, animals, scooters and overburdened market trolleys.

  
We saw shoes being shined with quasi antique equipment; and a smart barber shop, straight out of the last century, was equally doing a busy trade. Its pristine white tiles looked all the more sanitary, juxtaposed with the blackened disused car parts neatly stacked on the neighbouring stall.

This was all accompanied by a mixture of aromas - from urine to incense, including the aroma of sweet fried delicacies - and an orchestra of ubiquitous horns and rickshaw bells, together with cries of vendors and echoing calls to prayer from nearby minarets.




Feeling rather dazed and stimulated post-rickshaw, we soon found ourselves respectfully barefooted and shrouded in long robes, to visit the oldest and largest mosque in India – Jama Masjid, established by Shah Jahan in the 17th century.

 
The mosque's red sandstone prayer hall, flanked by two towering minarets, with high cusped arches and marble domes, is orientated towards Mecca to the west. This is perfectly logical, given India’s geographical location, but my British/Western education still made me stop and think.



Its massive courtyard accommodates up to 25,000 worshippers, and the huge flights of stairs to each of its three grandiose gates provide additional kneeling space for the faithful during key Islamic festivals.








I was surprised to learn, and also witness, that the principal tourists in India are Indian nationals versus international tourists from abroad. It made our trip seem all the more authentic, reminiscent of a past gone era, when Western gentlemen and women overseas were a rare phenomenon.










After a wealth of new experiences in this bustling city, we were pleased to return to the peaceful surroundings of our boutique hotel, where we relaxed before enjoying a delicious ‘Thali’. This selection of subtly spiced dishes, with a host of exotic and fascinating ingredients, somewhat echoed my first impressions of this captivating Indian capital.



CUBAN ART


CUBAN ART

Our experience of the Cuban art world began at the Museo de Arte Colonial whose collection of colonial furniture and decorative arts was appropriately displayed in a beautifully restored 1720 mansion. We wandered from room to room admiring the treasures, as though we were guests in a private home. The museum was truly like a hidden secret known to just a handful of visitors, who were greatly out-numbered by eager curators with their animated knowledge of colonial art.


Likewise, the vast museum of fine arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) was incredibly quiet the morning we viewed its impressive collection of Cuban art. The museum is housed in the Palacio de Bellas Artes, albeit far from palatial being built in 1954, thus mid-century modern in style, i.e. rectilinear/curvilinear concrete.
The art collection is mostly that of 20th century local artists. Their work conveys the impassioned social message of the Cuban vanguard movement, promoting the rights of the rural poor versus the ruling elite. These artists were very much influenced by their diverse heritage – African, European, American and Asian – as well as the modernism (surrealism, cubism and primitivism) that they had embraced when travelling further afield to Europe, encountering the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and Dali amongst others.

El Terco Mundo


One such artist, whose work caught my attention, was Wifredo Lam (1902-1982). His unique style echoes the spirit of the Afro-Cuban culture and was equally inspired by some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century. Lam’s work reveals his desire to paint what he considered to be the real Cuba ‘beyond cha-cha-cha … to paint the drama of the country … by expressing the negro spirit … like a Trojan horse … to disturb the dreams of the exploiters …’.
This is highlighted in Lam’s ‘Jungle’, which is often compared to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (exhibited in MOMA, NYC), and we could equally see his message in ‘El Tercer Mundo’ (Third World) where the haphazard human-like forms create a macabre scene of starving underclasses. 


In sharp contrast, the bold hues of works by renowned muralist Amelia Peláez (1896-1968) attractively portray still life. I was rather impressed by her Cuban women and her colourful portrayal of the popular political activist José Marti, recognised by his distinctive moustache. 

José Marti
Las Mujeres
Landscape of Havana


The collage-like ‘Landscape of Havana’ by René Portocarrero (1912 – 1985) is one of a series of ‘cityscapes’, whose intricate details and multi-coloured palette are an eye-catching representation of Havana.


Conversely, the intertwined sweeping brush strokes of the dramatic ‘Rapto de las Mulatas’ (Rape of the Mulatas) by Carlos Enriquez (1900 – 1957) illustrate and emphasize the violent scene, reminiscent of the mythical ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’. The ironically entitled ‘Campesinos Felices’ (Happy Peasants) by Enriquez dares to criticize Batista’s repressive régime of the 30s, revealing the misery of the impoverished Cuban peasants, comparable to the horror of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’.

Rapto de las Mulatas
Campesinos Felices

A less macabre more cheerful favourite was ‘La Gitana Tropical’ (The Tropical Gipsy) by Victor Manuel (1897 – 1969), otherwise known as ‘La Gioconda Americana’ (The American Mona Lisa). 

Primavera o Descanso
La Gitana Tropical

















The elongated rounded limbs in ‘Primavera o Descanso’ (Spring or Rest), by Jorge Arche (1905 – 1956), clearly show that this principally self-taught artist was influenced by the masters – from Raphael and Modigliani to Diego Rivera.

Guajiros
‘Guajiros’ (Farmers), by comic artist Edouardo Abela (1902 – 1982), equally shows a style influenced by Mexican muralists and renaissance artists. 

The striking and relatively recent pop art of Raul Martínez (1927 – 1995) colourfully depicts Cuban culture and social transformation, versus material consumerism normally associated with this art genre. Martínez’s work features political leaders (‘Rosas y Estrellas’ – Stars and Roses) alongside people from everyday life, such as Cuban laborers and his own friends and acquaintances.

Rosas y Estrellas
Following the Cuban revolution (1953-59), the restrictions imposed by the new Castro government led to a mass exodus of intellectuals and artists from Cuba. However, those left behind were in fact offered financial support by the government, provided they promoted the prevailing political standpoint. Following the loss of Soviet support in 1989, and the subsequent ‘Special Period’ (a euphemism for Cuba’s economic crisis), the Cuban government began programmes to stimulate the tourist trade, which consequently gave art more visibility.
Artists began to express their feelings and emotions about themselves versus politics and society. This revolutionised the Cuban art world, whereby the predominant Conceptual art (where the idea or concept behind the work is more important than the finished art object) was replaced by Figurative art – any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world, particularly to the human figure. This was certainly a catalyst for freedom of expression. 

‘Every Cuban is an artist and every home is an art gallery’ wrote Rachel Weiss in ‘To and from Utopia in the New Cuban Art’.

This was very much apparent when wandering around the little side streets in Old Havana, where open doorways were commonplace, either for reasons of sociability or to welcome passers-by into a private art studio/gallery. ‘Estudio de Pintura Martalena’ lured us with its brightly coloured works of art adorning the exterior walls of what then appeared to be Martalena’s home and art gallery. Her vast repertoire included many self-portraits, featuring images of Frida Kahlo, appearing like Martalena’s alter ego. 

Estudio de Pintura Martalena

Another artist, Pablo Avila, and his wife Marta, warmly greeted us like guests visiting their own home. Their gallery displayed a selection of Pablo’s work alongside that of various Cuban artists.
 






Pablo happened to be giving an English lesson to two redheaded students – models versus painters – whose stunning looks are undoubtedly the subject of many a painting.




Freedom of expression was certainly at its height at ‘Fabrica de Arte Cubano’ where provocative works of art adorned the vast former factory walls. The daring repertoire of Argentinian born Israeli and Cuba resident,  Enrique Rottenberg, was very much exemplary of his style, considered to be ‘controversial, satirical, manic-melancholic, lewd, empathic, alarming’.
Rottenberg’s recent work, entitled ‘Utopia’, consists of photo installations depicting marginalised minorities, which he represents in the ironically entitled ‘Men of Color’.
 
Men of Color
Modern Cuban art visibly reflects the general thoughts and feelings of Cuban society at large – their transition from years of suppression to a new found freedom, with great hope for a brighter future.