The Great Indian Monsoon Trick

Back in the day, June was about two events: school re-opening (always on 13th), and arrival of the great Indian monsoon.

The catharsis monsoons provide is much like a revolution. Months of heavy heat and yellow dust finally give way to thundering, dark skies, gusty winds, perceptible drops in temperature and finally, rain. Dull brown transforms to glistening green-blue. Oppressive ennui melts into gutters overflowing with rain water. The smell of earth in rain makes you stop and inhale. And.Inhale.And.Inhale. Inhale the romance. Just to clarify, my paean to the monsoons is simply me being Indian. Kalidasa wrote Ritusamhara in praise of Indian seasons way back in 5th century CE, royal workshops over hundreds of years churned miniature paintings with lightning bolts, dancing peacocks and lovers in trysts. Rains seep through and soak classical, folk and popular music and art. Indeed Indian children grew up learning rhymes like Ye Re Ye Re Pausa, Tula Deto Paisa; a Marathi rhyme where a child is bribing rains to make an appearance. [It’s another thing that english medium children like me also learnt Rain Rain Go Away, Little Johnny Wants To Play, never questioning the absurdity of the rhyme in rain deprived India where children, parents and grandparents wait eagerly for the rains precisely to play *in*them.]


Monsoons are to Mumbai what winter is to Delhi. The incessant downpour (never a drizzle) can dampen many a faint heart. It is not like Mumbaikars like the omnipresent damp ceilings, swollen, peeling wall plaster, constant dripping outside, fungus infested leather shoes inside, water logging, trains stopping, or tragically wilting biscuits. Mumbaikars dislike all of the above. However miraculously,  an ingrained affinity

img_4334for the monsoon despite all its rigours is the litmus test of a true-blue Mumbaikar. I firmly believe that the wild, slate grey Arabian Sea has a role to play in that. If I’d get a penny for each time I played hookey from college while it was raining just to walk along Juhu beach, eat vada pav watching the crashing waves of Marine Drive, sing songs sitting on the rocks of Versova Beach, head for picnics (yes) to Madh Island, I’d have enough to afford a 2BHK in Andheri. I’ve waded through knee deep water just for fun, celebrated rainy day holidays and religiously bought rainy shoes and gum boots, both of which were utterly useless in the face of ferocious MumbaiMonsoons. (this is an absolute favorite song on the season and my city.)


Dehradoon, a hill town nestled up in the Himalayas where most of my summers were spent, puts on the most dramatic son-et-lumiere shows to showcase its monsoons. The lightning and thunder take on a booming entity of their own in Doon valley where trees sparkle anew with the rains. Of course, with the first thunder-clap you can be sure the
electricity will be out for 3-4-5-6-who knows how many hours, but who cares? I remember sitting in our veranda making paper boats to sail in little rivulets that cropped img_4336up magically everywhere in this hilly town. Those rains that bestowed upon us hard, heavy hail were deemed extra special because that was the closest we ever got to snow. (Hail surprisingly tastes just like ice was what we re-learnt every year.) Steaming ginger tea, nani’s  piping hot pakodas, samosas and rain dances on terraces.


Any passage on monsoons would be incomplete without mentioning Kerela – the place where the monsoon is born. The exact shade of emerald-green that the tea estates of Munnar glimmer with when freshly drenched is indescribable. As is the havoc that rain infused breeze wrecks on your senses when it carries fragrances from spice plantations of black pepper, cinnamon, coffee, cardamoms. The swollen fierce rivers that flow in all their might, the leeches and mosquitoes that dance in great delight. The waterfalls that appear suddenly everywhere, the backwater boats that take you there.


My heart doesn’t do calisthenics when it rains in New York. There’s no magic. No petrichor. No kids dancing. There’s no feeling of deliverance with rains – and that’s borderline unsettling, alienating almost. And maybe that’s why there is something visceral about how much I miss India, and its incredible monsoon..starting June 13th.

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Lippan/Chittar Kaam-Mud and Mirror Work

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Lippan/Chittar  Kaam, also known as Mud and Mirror work, is a traditional mural folk art form from Gujarat, a western border state of India. Gujarat’s Rann of Kutch (The Great Salt Desert) that lies between India and Pakistan is home to several desert communities, many of which do this mud relief work in their own distinct style. One such, the nomadic Rabari people, are especially associated with it. Desert life is tough, but the indomitable spirit of human beings is perspicuously at display in the art these people choose to create, despite harsh, inhospitable environs. Lippan Kaam is usually done inside, and sometimes, outside the mud huts (bhungas) in far-flung villages.

Traditionally, a mixture of camel dung which is rich in fibre is mixed with mud and molded between fingers before being stuck directly on walls. Kutchi motifs such as peacocks, birds, animals, human figures, trees and geometric patterns are sculpted freehand in bas-relief. Muslim communities stick to geometric patterns since depiction of human or animal form is considered un-Islamic. Each pattern in embellished with mirrors (aabhla), of various sizes and shapes – round, diamond & triangular. Authentic Mud and Mirror work is almost always colored in white clay, or at best, in shades of neutrals. The white comes from the sand of the Rann desert, rich as it is in salt content.

With increasing numbers now living in concrete homes, and with the younger generation trading traditional arts and crafts for lucrative city jobs, the preponderance of Lippan Kaam is decreasing in villages (see video below). However the upside to the story is that the art form has gathered some traction over the years, and made an entrance into mainstream art world of India. Onwards from bhungas into fancy city homes and spas… and now, Manhattan!

This is my first attempt at Lippan Kaam and I’ve attempted to stay as authentic as possible, trying to retain the rustic look and white tones these murals sport. Since the designs are traditionally handmade, their lines are seldom precise and the end result is almost never factory-like perfect. I love these little nuances, and incorporating them in my work was important to me. But there are a few adaptations made, mostly with regards to the materials used. A detailed list is given in the end. This artwork has been created on Hardboard so it can be mounted on walls.

img_2689To start, I researched traditional motifs and patterns and came up with a final design; a process that involved multiple iterations. Then, after applying two layers of Gesso to the hardboard, it was painted with thin acrylic paint. The decision of staying with a white palette was one I took rather early on and that helped with planning the work as it proceeded. Once the acrylic dried out, the design was penciled.

With the design traced, I glued-in mirrors. All circular mirrors used are glass mirrors whereas the other shapes are cut out of Tim Holtz Mirror sheets. I loved working with the latter because of the freedom of being able to craft out any shape, and also, because the sheets come with a transparent cover which is very convenient when working alongside materials like clay and color. It keeps the mirrored surface free from fingerprints, colors etc.

Apoxie® Sculpt substituted regular clay for two reasons. One, it  offers the benefits of sculpting clay and two, it has the adhesive power of epoxy so I did not need glue to stick clay to the board. It is  smooth and putty-like in consistency, relatively simple to mix and use, even for first timers like me.

The Apoxie self-hardens (no baking required) and cures hard in 24 hours to appear with a semi-gloss finish. [Tip: I mixed small batches at a time, covering small portions of the larger design, since leaving epoxy out for long durations makes it hard and unwieldy.] The clay work was followed by sticking of cowrie shells. This is entirely my touch, don’t think shells are traditionally Lippan Kaam materials.

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I’ll be honest, coloring was the trickiest part, for multiple reasons. First of all, conjuring multiple shades of white/neutrals was more difficult than I’d anticipated. Trickier still was avoiding coloring over tiny mirrors. Tedious. And last but not the least, ensuring that details of clay designs stay visible (and not get washed out by white acrylic color) took most time. If you look closely, I applied a wash in terracotta color over these just to give the details a pop, and followed that with a super diluted wash of white acrylic, in-line with the white overall look. Very. Tedious.

Once any art work is nearly done, the last bit is all about refining – bringing out the hits and covering the misses. In this case, since I intentionally wanted to leave the work rustic, this last step was more about drawing lines on where to stop..despite instinctively wanting to go on.

The end result is here for you to see.. I love it since it’s a little piece of the Rann hanging on my wall. The interesting thing is, while I lived in India, I knew not much about its rich artistic heritage. However post settling abroad, I feel a need to connect to my roots be it the philosophy, religion, sociology, arts or crafts. Don’t be surprised if they make an appearance here, often!

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List of Materials used:

– Apoxie Sculpt 1 Lb. White

Round Glass Mirrors, Assorted Sizes, 25-Pack

Mosaic Mercantile 8-Ounce Adhesive

100 Pcs Bulk Cut Sea Shell Beads Cowrie Craft

White acrylic paint and Gesso. Any good brand will do, I used Liquitex and Blick

Here are two links. 1: shows a village woman, Valuben, making this work of art the traditional way. 2: is a short read on the Rabari people.

Hope you enjoy!

1:

 2: http://www.kashgar.com.au/articles/the-rabari-people-of-northwest-india