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. 


  1. Excellent, as always! Loved the paintings on the side of the Lakshman Jhula police station and the last, melancholic, interrupted painting.

    1. I visited the Jhula again and the interrupted painting is still in monochrome. He had enough time and clout by the time of the festival; I'm sure he could have completed it. Better this way. Thanks Nisha.

  2. Two fabulous blogs Sajish ..I want to be there already. Amazing pictures the writing as always. But it more the journey you take me on with it that makes all the difference :-)..

    1. Thank you Flev. Of course we will visit the Ashram and these spots in September. I'm sure Ashwin is bringing his camera. :) Plenty for the lens.

  3. Fab post, loved reading it!

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  5. I enjoyed very much reading this post because I just discovered 4 TONA pictures in Lagos,Portugal. Love it. Thanks. Sept.27th 2017