Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Finding Tona: A Crisscross Tale of Street Art from Rishikesh

This is a rather long post. It might make a bit more sense if you read this after you read the post about Beatles Ashram.
12th March 2015
After exploring the Beatles Ashram, I reached Ram Jhula and decided to walk along the riverside path to Laxman Jhula instead of crossing the Ram Jhula and taking a tuk-tuk to my hotel. Turned out to be a good decision.

Some part of the path is concreted but a good bit of it is thankfully left unpaved. I saw a perfume seller trying to persuade a foreigner by offering a liberal dash of scent. As I walked past, I heard him say "with this kind of perfume, I would not need to shower for a week." I smiled at that comment and moved on without paying much attention to the people involved in the conversation.

The route is picturesque with the Ganga flowing by your left and a few old buildings, tea stalls, and trees to your right; punctuated by the sounds of birds, the river, and the occasional bike that would whizz past amid a sprinkling of people and cows that prefer this route.

I stopped at a tea shop near this street seller taking a siesta. 

One chaay (tea) became two, as I sat around watching people walk past in no particular hurry. Rishikesh is one of the few places in this country where foreigners can outnumber Indians – truly a melting pot of the world.

A short while later, I came across a few people keenly watching someone at work. What I saw was new to me and I stood there taking pictures while an artist belted out stencil work using spray paint on a rusted makeshift gate of a makeshift temple managed by a yoga guru/baba.

 Baba watching the work taking shape.

Someone tried to take a picture of the artist and he pulled up the scarf covering his face and warned the person not to put it up on facebook. "It’s gonna cost me a lot," he said and went back to work.

We thought it was over by the time it reached this stage.

Nope, there was one more layer of white, and the signature "Tona". Couple of people in the audience said "Tona" and he turned back and repeated "yes, Tona, that's my name, hee hee."

With the Baba.
By the time he was done, there was a huge round of applause from a dozen strong audience. He laughed and said "That’s nice. Normally, I have the cops coming after me."   

"These stencils take me a month to make, and I can use it for only about 2-3 months. It’s tough work." Photoshop? someone asked. "No Photoshop. Photoshop means no mistakes. I make them by hand. I like mistakes." He passed around small sticker strips with his art to those who were interested.

Tona is from Hamburg, Germany, a "homeless" guy in this world by his own admission, who gets by somehow. He arrived in India a few months ago with 300 euros (or was it 600, I forget) in hand and has traveled places including Pondicherry and Kathmandu. The bulk of his expenses are for the paint which he gets from outside the country – and he uses it to paint spots that he likes, free of cost, of course. 

A couple of us walked with him for a while in the direction of Laxman Jhula striking up a good conversation, but finally it was just the two of us. He was in Rishikesh for the International Street Art Festival starting in two days (16th of March) and he kept telling people to visit their office which will open on that day next to Laxman Jhula. About 10 artists were supposed to participate in it. He had arrived early in Rishikesh to find good spots to paint on the big day. 

As we walked along the busy Rishikesh street, he suddenly stopped next to a gate which was locked. "This would be a good place to paint." I asked the guys in the shop opposite to it and was told that the owners were not there that day. We moved ahead, till we reached an ashram which had a nice cemented spot right in the front. 

Tona asked me if I can talk to the keeper of the ashram, which I did, and I was told to speak to the Big Guru. He seemed alright when we showed him the pictures of paintings of kids on the camera and I gave an all-ok sign to Tona. He was happy at finding a good location, but our excitement was short lived as I heard the booming voice of the Big Guru in the back ground “bachoon ka nahin, sadhu santon ka tasveer banana. Yeh punya kshethr hain” - Not pictures of kids, make paintings of holy men. This is a holy place.

Disappointed, we moved on. I asked Tona who those kids that star in his paintings were, and he said “these are pictures of street children that I took in my travels. I put them back on the street.” 

The shopkeeper that we spoke to next, instantly agreed. There was a problem as there was little room to stand and paint. It was next to a small bridge, and you could easily fall into the ditch if you’re not careful. He didn't seem to care one bitsy

Soon a crowd formed and we created a traffic block, because, believe it or not, jeeps and cars ply on these streets.

After the work was over, he went on with his task of documenting it with a DSLR and a GoPro. A hotel owner walked up to him and said that he had a property that could use Tona's art in its interiors.

Tona: "It’s your property. You paint."
The guy didn’t get it. "You don’t understand. It’s only a few kilometers away. We’ll take you in a car."
"No, you don’t understand. It’s your property. You paint."
He persisted. “We’ll pay you well. Money, money."
"I don’t do business. I do art. No business. We have a Street Art festival coming up in two days. You can come to our Laxman Jhula office. Lot of artists. May be, you will find people willing to paint for you.”

With that, he picked up his bags and started walking. The hotel owner stood there with a perplexed look on his face wondering what kind of an animal he just spoke to. 

Walking ahead Laxman Jhula, he asked me if he was keeping me from something. I said it was one of those days when I had nothing to do. “Oh, that means I found you work on your off day – managing permissions”, and we both laughed.

The next spot he found was an abandoned broken down building next to a tea stall. I was apprehensive when he was about to start work and told him we’ll check with some people. He refused as he was confident…whatever he did there would only make the place better. I could not but agree. 

Cleaning up for the stencil touch:

This cop seemed to contemplate for a while if he should get involved from a "legal" angle.

That reminded me of his story of his first brush with law enforcement in Rishikesh earlier in the day. He was painting at a nice spot below the Ram Jhula when cops arrived, grabbed his arm, and yanked him out of his reverie. Obviously, you cannot paint on government property without permission. After taking a picture of his passport on a mobile phone, the cops asked him to pay a fine of one thousand rupees. He responded saying that he will pay the fine provided he gets to complete the painting!!

The cops were at a loss (and all the talk of blacklisting him from India, forgotten), which is when he showed them his previous works on his camera. Impressed with what they saw, and convinced that he was no desecrator, they came up with a win-win proposal. They will let him go free without fine on one condition – he will have to make a stencil painting on the police station wall!!! If there ever was pardon deal tailor-made for Tona, this was it!

Meanwhile, the crowd swelled at our current location.

Listening to the audience was fun. One guy was like "Finally, there will be something good to look at. Earlier it was only dirt." To which one guy responded "yeh to kya hain, agar dum hain to haath se bana ke dikha" - "This is nothing. If he has it in him, he should paint with just his hands (without stencils)". I couldn't believe the guy just said that.

Semi-drunk, that fellow was the local opinion-leader/clown of sorts - the type you will find in any part of the world. Throughout the exercise, he tried irritating Tona with his stupid wisecracks drawing cheer from a few of his loyal fan following. "Theek se banana, nahin toh maar khaayega" -  "Make it properly, else you will be thrashed" - all these spiced up with a good measure of maa ki and behen ki and LKB swear words.
It's amazing that leg pullers don't understand that the first thing foreigners learn in any language are the swear words. The gentleman next to Tona is our subject of discussion.

After the work was done, the village idiot persisted…"I India…you Tona from where?" Tona made a punching gesture in the air, still laughing, "I from Germany. We fight a lot". The guy seemed to back off a bit turning to his friends saying "Germany saala" before coming back with some more nonsensical blah blah. 

"You make too much fun. And you don't like kids, do you?" Tona said, before lowering the back of his trousers a bit and pointing to his boxers which had prints on it that said Shut Up - "You see what’s written there? It says shut up," he said, before picking up his bags. That gesture was a one-two knockout punch. The village idiot walked away mumbling something, but was visibly a defeated man in front of his friends, despite all the fcuked up bravado he was displaying right until that moment. 
We went our way talking about his art and fellow artists, like Tofu. "This is how we communicate," he said while pasting his small sticker on a random lamp post. "They will know I was here." 
This painting, below the Laxman Jhula, was done by one of his friends. Strangely, I had never noticed it before.

We crossed the Jhula and stopped at a spot where he already had permission to paint.

To kids who would laugh at his short name, he would say yes, Jaadu Tona, remember? and laugh along.
When that was done, it was around 6 in the evening. Having skipped lunch thanks to the Beatles' affair, my tummy was growling, and I asked him if we could eat something before we proceed. "There is still light. I have to paint as long as there is light. After that, food, somewhere cheap and nice." I did not argue with that; he was on art steroids and I was enjoying it to the hilt.

We walked a bit before we reached this spot below Hari Om Guest House. The owner wasn't there, so we called him up, and he asked us to hold on for five minutes.
Every now and then, Tona would lift up his T-shirt, smell it, and give a disgusted expression. "This perfume really stinks. He just sprayed it on me without waiting for me to give a go-ahead." I recalled the not-taking-a-shower-for-a-week comment and laughed. It was him then, and our paths had crossed earlier that day, but I had not known it then. 

The owner arrived in a few minutes and agreed wholeheartedly to the idea, and the last piece for the day was born in about 25 minutes.
While working on this one, he received a call from the organizers of the festival and he was rather curt in his reply. After disconnecting the call he told me, "This is my day at work - something I enjoy doing....not organizing festivals. I got out of organizing things, for a day, just so that I can paint." (Later, after having dinner, he called up the person and apologized.)

We had a long conversation over dinner before saying goodbyes. About religion, Rishikesh, his real name, the Baba...a lot of things. I asked him how he convinced the Baba of the makeshift temple. He said:
It was easy. I walked up to him and said "I would like to paint your gate". To which the Baba said "of course, I know you like to paint my gate." He said that he does stencil art. Baba replied, "of course, I know you do stencil art." The sort of Baba who "knows it all". Wink.
We exchanged numbers, and I promised to meet him at the festival and moved on to my tavern, happy to have the best day in years.

13 March 2015
As luck would have it, I went to check out the Neer Waterfalls near Rishikesh and managed to kill my phone and sim card in a single go after wading into hip-deep water to take a picture; forgetting that the phone was in the pocket of my trousers. 

14 March 2015

The Street Art Festival in Rishikesh
Jonas Böttger landed at Dehradun airport by afternoon. We were supposed to go on a trek together the next day. I asked him in the evening if we would like to go on a short walk to Laxman Jhula. I told him about the street art festival, and he was game any day, with or without the street art. 

Without the phone, I could not call Tona up, and the first few artists I met did not seem to know his whereabouts. Till I met Pan Trinity Das.
Borrowed from the previous blog:

Pan: Yeah, Tona is is painting the police station near the Jhula.
Me: What??? But I thought he painted the police station two days ago.
Pan: Yeah, but he is painting a bigger one this time.
Me: Really? He’s crazy! I’ll go check it out.

Why would Tona Paint the same police station again? Twas beyond me. Anyway, we decided to walk from Laxman Jhula to Ram Jhula, where the police station was situated. I told Jonas about how I met Tona and pointed out his works on the way.
Btw, this is the same location where I took the first photo in this blog post, only from the other side. Tona was ambushed by the perfume seller just here, right after he finished this work. On my onward journey I had walked past without looking back just laughing at his comment; else we would have made our acquaintance here.

Anyway, we reached the Ram Jhula police station and asked the cops about the artist who painted on their walls. They told us that Tona was painting at the Laxman Jhula police station. And we were like whattttt??? We had passed that police station on our way, but we had not seen him there. 

In the left corner is the painting brokered by the cops as part of the settlement.

Disappointed, I asked Jonas if he would like to see the aarti at Paramarth Niketan, and he said yes. We went there, took a couple of pictures, and started our walk back to Laxman Jhula. How I cursed my dead phone that day!

There are no streetlights on the route to Laxman Jhula and it was getting dark at around 7 in the evening. We reached the place where I had first met Tona....and there he was...chitchatting with the the exact same spot. 

And, he was in fact painting the Laxman Jhula police station. He had started the work late in the day and hoped to complete it in a few days. It was dark so we could not take a picture, but I promised myself to visit the place again, after the trek.

While walking back he commented, "I hate people who come to Rishikesh to take something out of it. Yoga, spirituality, finding themselves...all of it." There were a few more complaints, and I noticed that the chirpy, happy guy in him was missing. He apologized for his foul mood and said he was feeling terrible because of something that happened during that day. 

Another artist (work pictured below) had an unfinished work near Laxman Jhula. "Intricate work of Ganesha using fine brushes, involving a lot of detail. Starting with the body of Ganesha on the wall to the trunk flowing onto the floor. All gone now." 
I asked, what do you mean, all gone now? 
"Whitewashed, for the festival. And I have been feeling low ever since I saw that spot today. There are so many vacant spots in Rishikesh, why over a good work, finished or unfinished?"  I am not an artist but I felt bad too.

After crossing Laxman Jhula, he showed me the whitewashed spot. It was my heart's turn to sink. It was the same spot where Pan had started his new work. Not to blame anyone - not the organizers; not any individual - the fact remained that a good work was gone. And I had never seen it, and strangely enough, that made it even worse.

19th March, 2015 (Six days later)
After a lovely snow trek that lasted a few days, we reached Rishikesh again on the 19th. I dropped my luggage, freshened up, and was back at the Laxman Jhula to see the outcome of the street art festival (about 20 artists ended up contributing). The visual treat is for you guys!

What looked like this a few days back...
....had become this. And you have not seen it all.
The team from Delhi Street Art, I guess.


Stairway to Heaven.
Pan's work, behind the street vendor!

I liked this one the best. A close-up shot to follow. The artist goes by the name Anpu.
Aptly titled too.
A collaborative effort: Tona + Anpu.
Another one by ARTistLove
I saw 3 or 4 works that had the Tona signature. He sure was prolific during those few days. Having witnessed his speed and passion for the craft, I'm not surprised.
And this is what he painted on the walls of the Laxman Jhula police station!

That's it folks; the end of a rather looong post. Good luck Tona, Pan Trinity Das, Anpu, ARTistLove and to all the artists who bring in more strokes of beauty into this colorful world. You make it Holy!

To borrow the words from the Cathedral, May you love, may you inspire, may you create! And....may there be light for as long as you wish to paint! To sign off, this is the painting below Ram Jhula that Tona started but was not able to complete due to legal intervention. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Beatles – Their Ashram and Their Cathedral

I had four days to kill in Rishikesh before the start of a trek up in the snowy hills. On that particular day, I decided to roam around a bit on foot and explore Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's abandoned ashram more popularly known as The Beatles' Ashram because of its one-time residents who were here in the late 60s. 

I crossed the narrow Ram Jhula (jhula = swing), an iron suspension bridge over the River Ganga, and took a right turn, walking past the Geeta Bhavans, the Paramarth Niketan and other ashrams, and 100s of stores selling anything ranging from food, yoga, and massage, to pilgrimware, music CDs, and enlightenment

After a kilometer or so, the dirt road veered to the left, just after the Last Chance café – an inexpensive lodge with 5 rooms and ten dormitory beds, "good vibrations," and a guitarist who sat strumming in a corner to complete the Bohemian picture. 

I walked in and said hello to Manjeet, the owner of the joint, who I knew through a common friend. He told me to not give any money to get into the “Beatles” Ashram but to use his name as reference. I agreed, thanked him and moved ahead.

A little while later I found myself staring at the dilapidated buildings of the Beatles' Ashram from outside the walls of the compound.

The backdrop
In the winter of 1968, the Beatles quartet stayed at the ashram along with the Beach Boys, Mia Farrow, and a whole lot of heavyweights, practicing transcendental meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The stay here led The Beetles to write dozens of songs that were featured in their White Album. Their stay also signaled the lighting of the beacons of Rishikesh to hippies from every nook and corner of the world.

The Beatles' affair with Rishikesh and their Guru did not last longer than a few weeks and the band publicly denounced the Maharishi in London, three months down the line. The break-up was sparked by rumors of Maharishi’s sexual advances towards a woman. Lennon recounted later in the book “Lennon Remembers”
[So we went to see the Maharishi, the whole gang of us the next day charged down to his hut, his very rich-looking bungalow in the mountains. And I was the spokesperson–as usual, when the dirty work came, I actually had to be leader, whatever the scene was, when it came to the nitty gritty I had to do the speaking. And I said, “We’re leaving.”

“Why” Hee-hee* all that shit. 

And I said “Well, if you’re so cosmic, you will know why. …. He said “I don’t know why, you must tell me” And I kept saying “You know why” –and he gave me a look like, “I’ll kill you bastard.” ]
Maharishi was also known as the laughing guru because of his giggles.

No one knows the truth of those accusations, but decades later Harrison and McCartney did patch up with Maharishi after they were convinced that he was innocent. Maharishi left India for Switzerland and then to Italy and Austria before settling in the Netherlands. The government took over the Ashram land in the early eighties after a legal battle and included it in the Rajaji National Park, downing shutters on one hell of an era.

All said, this post is not exactly about the Mahirishi or the band or even the structures left untended, overgrown by weeds, trees, and creepers. Or maybe, it is about all of it and a little bit more.

The Body
There was a security staff sitting behind the locked entrance with a sign that says entry is not permitted.
The sign in Hindi said “Aam aadmi ka pravesh varjith hain” - transliterated as "entry banned for the common man". Entering the place is not easy, as in speak “friend” and enter, but it is not difficult either. Cough, cough.
I’m not aam aadmi anyway! ;)

Once inside, I walked walk up the winding concrete path lined with a few cement benches and rather unique looking dome structures before reaching the main gate of the Ashram.

After crossing the main gate, I entered the first dome structure (numbered 9*) on the right. These self-contained meditation houses lined with stones on their exterior, have two floors, a staircase, and a toilet. 
I should have known the writing on the wall by this time, but I did not.
 I took the stairs with the imaginary railings to get to the first floor…
...and one look at the artwork on the interior of the dome and I was bowled over.
*This dome (number 9) is where Lennon meditated, if the stories are to be believed.
The domes were all over the place. Almost all of them had serial numbers on their entrances. I saw one that was marked 75. I’m sure there are a lot more of them. Apparently, these are also referred to as "magic eggs." Meditating inside one of these eggs is supposed to take you to higher realms without the support of chemicals. Chemicals were something The Beatles too were keen to move away from. 
Having seen enough of the stone covered domes engulfed by the forest, I walked to the main building that I had seen from the entrance. That one is a beauty with enough fan labor in the rooms on the first floor and above that will take you hours to appreciate. Check these out.

The following three pics are parts of a single work on a long wall. I did not have enough room to get a single long shot.


This is one of my favorites because of its simplicity.
Imagine with a typo, couldn't let it go!

And then, you come across the handiwork of unimaginative people just writing their names without even the faintest thought of a message. Like this crap below.
Look what you've done
You made a fool out of someone

You would also want to punch some faces - belonging to those who scribble their names in the middle of a classic piece. I'm sure these are the types who shit in the center of their dining tables at home when everyone is about to eat.

Anyway, after spending a lot of time in the main building, I decided to explore the left wing of the ashram.

Gutted or not, art was everywhere.
I wonder who built this staircase. One person can barely walk up this one (and I am not bulky). 

After walking past the Shivling and the gutted building, through an outgrowth of trees and shrubs, I saw some glimmer of promise.
...and walked into The Beatles Cathedral Gallery. See for yourself!
I entered the gallery which must have been a prayer hall of sorts decades ago. The silence of the place was broken by my loud "Holy Shit" - thrice to no one in particular as I stood amazed by the sheer magnetism of the transformed hall. I sensed some movement and looked around to see a lady sitting on the floor of the stage looking back at the source of the sound. I mumbled something like "sorry, this just is sooo cool" and turned my attention to the art around.

Fab Four!

Sell peace like soap!

Sarah was the person who turned around and looked when I swore as I entered the Cathedral. This Canadian is one of the artists making this place a fountainhead of music, peace, and love. Sarah at work!
Here's a brief story of the Cathedral. All the names mentioned in this lovely message rang a bell. Except Pan Trinity Das. Strange name. I made a mental note to google him or her out, but forgot to do it that night.

After getting out of the cathedral, I walked a little bit and came across this structure which looked like a hybrid of a Ziggurat and something else I'm yet to put a finger on. This building with four floors was a focal point of the ashram when it was alive. 
I walked into each of its rooms, most of which housed a delightful reward or two.

The long corridor. The construction, quite literally, is way out of civil engineering books.


I walked up to the terrace and realized that there are two of these ziggurats, the one behind slightly taller than the first. The terrace also gives you a nice view of the Rishikesh skyline.

On the terrace, there were these huge "eggs," which served as water tanks in the past! 

These structures look like the relics of another civilization; definitely not the construction style of the second half of the twentieth century (even for an ashram).
I do have a sharper version of the pic below, but this is much more fun!

Particularly reassuring. :)

Having explored as much of the two buildings as possible within the time, I walked out. Here's a view from the side, so you get an idea of its architecture. 
And finally, a better shot from behind the building, from near the edge of the ashram perimeter.
A locked rusty gate announced the end of the adventure for the day.Or did it?

While walking back, I noticed a curious structure behind the second ziggurat and decided to take a closer look. 

Two stone paved paths diverged from a cairn.
I took the path to the left and soon found myself at another prayer hall, one in a much worse shape than the cathedral.

Near the entrance of the hall, both to the left and right, I noticed passageways. I took the one on the left and noticed that the temperature dipped by a few degrees as soon as I got inside it. 

On either side of this passage, there were numerous small rooms with just enough space for a person to lie down or may be sit and meditate. Weird shape. In any place other than this, I would have thought of these enclosures as solitary torture chambers.
The passage on the right side was similar in architecture, but was paved with stones. This ashram must have used up the bulk of the pebbles and round stones in the river when it was being built.

Interior of the spaces on the right.
It was a network of passages which branched away from a T-junction at the end. I did not venture further since it was dark inside the "tunnels" - Yes, I am ophiophobic, like a lot of people!
Under whatever powers vested in me, I hereby name this place, The Lair of The Balrog. :)
Having had my fill, I made a slow exit, making it a point to tell some people that I met (who seemed confused by the sheer scale of the place), where they could hunt for thrills.  

On the way out, I did come across a few more delights (some scatological, some others).

I think the reference here is to Ringo’s departure after ten days of stay at the Ashram complaining that he cannot handle spicy food. 

Happiness is a warm gun...

Paul’s emergency lyrics cupboard.  
The last letter in this postbox that stands near the entrance must have been dropped in 1980 or so, 35 years ago.

After that day, I had many conversations about the ashram...some said that it should be made into a monument and be preserved by the government. I disagree. It's good the way it is. No government preservation can tap into the collective spirit and the creativity energy that you find in this place now. And if the creepers claim it completely before the free spirits, so be it.

Finding Tona and Pan (Two days later)
It was evening. I walked down to the Laxman Jhula to see what was happening at the International Street Art Festival. I asked around for Tona, but the first few artists that I met did not seem to know him or his whereabouts. 

Then I stumbled upon someone about to start his work near the Jhula and here’s how the conversation went.


Pan: Yeah, Tona is is painting the police station near the Jhula.Me: What??? But I thought he painted the police station two days ago.Pan: Yeah, but he is painting a bigger one this time.Me: Really? He’s crazy! I’ll go check it out. Btw, good luck with your work. Where are you from?Pan: From Canada, but settled in the US. My wife is also part of this.
Me: From Canada? Is her name Sarah? (Silly, but yes, she was the only Canadian artist in Rishikesh that I had met.)
Pan: No, not Sarah. Sarah is actually part of the Beatles Cathedral Gallery Project. 
Me: I know. I was there at the Cathedral two days ago. Truly awesome work!
Pan: Thank you, it is actually my project.
Me: Shitttttttttt! Seriously? Can I take your picture?
Pan: Sure! [Click] Btw, we are reworking the Cathedral in a few days, after this festival is over. So what you saw this week will become the “before” piece.

And, in his sticker was printed #ARTBYPANTRINITYDAS. Here's a picture of Pan Trinity Das, the man I wanted to google but ended up meeting on the streets of Rishikesh.  

I promised to visit the cathedral after my trek got over to get the “after” piece; and moved on in search of Tona and his street art.
Hey..wait a minute…Who is Tona? Watch this space.