Painting a religious mural in India’s oldest, most holy city is not a task to be taken lightly. Firstly one must gain permission and be culturally sensitive – especially when painting on the side of a temple, overlooking the sacred Ganga, in a city that’s devoted to the Lord Shiva himself – the very God your canvas is dedicated to. Secondly one must acquire brushes and paint. Forget spray paint, and no one has even heard of acrylic. Thick enamel it is, the kind you would paint a boat with. Thirdly you must draft up your concept. It must comply with Hindu belief or you’re gonna have some angry Indians on your hands. This can be tricky as in Hinduism there are literally thousands of Gods with what seems like infinite variations of every story, depending on who you are talking to.
With these things in check I was ready to paint the god of art, music and knowledge, Saraswati.
In my past experience painting murals, once you get going it’s more or less straightforward. Not the case in Varanasi. I realised this on my first day painting, arriving to find a kid shaving men’s heads right in front on the spot I was going to paint. A long line of scantily clad moustached men waited to be freed of hair for some greater purpose. Despite my pleas they were not going to relocate, so in true Indian fashion the hairdresser and I worked back to back. He stepping in my paint, I trodding in his pile of black hairs (which inevitably got in to my paint and was eventually encrusted in the mural).
Then there was the crowd. Some people in India seem to have a different idea about personal space than what I’m used to. Often I felt a breath on my neck and would turn around to find a crowd of men gathered, uncomfortably close. “Oh yes very nice,” “God bless you,” they would say with sideways head wobbles. At times they could be annoying, stating the obvious, critiquing or even trying to take my brush and make alterations themselves, but I met some of the nicest, open and most hospitable men painting that bright orange wall. Most of the bystanders offered nothing but praise, Chai, and even a little statue of Ganesh that sat next to our paints, offering divine inspiration. Several newspapers and even a radio station visited. We made the second page of the Hindustan Times and in true journalistic fashion they fabricated half of what we actually said.
Beggars and pushers I expected, tugging on my t-shirt, distracting me from my work with “Hey mun, you from country? Want something?” But I did not expect animals. Turned out a cow was a frequent visitor to the spot as he washed the dishes of a near by food stall with his slobbery tongue. More than once my Slovakian painting companion Stefan had to chase it out of our paints. Then there were the ducks who liked to walk around my ankles.
Beggars, pushers and animals can be dealt with a raised voice and angry gestures but there is no scaring away the heat and smell of Varanasi. Summer was approaching and with the temperature rising so did the stench. Varanasi is holy not only because of Shiva but because it’s where people go to die, or rather to be cremated. Not cremated in a behind closed doors, first world sense, but out in the open, on piles of wood, for all to see, 24 hours a day. Our mural happened to be located about 200 metres from where the bodies are burned, and if the wind was blowing down river the smoke and smell from the pyre wafted through the air.
Still it wasn’t that bad til I got food poisoning.
The first bout came on after just one day of painting. I had just laid an under coat when I was forced to retire to my hotel. For four days I lay in bed, occasionally getting up from long stupors to dispel anything I tried to put in. Even water would not stay down. Shitting and vomiting at the same time can be an enlightening experience. Needless to say a sure way to lose a lot of weight very quickly.
On the 5th day, after sleeping for more than 24 hours straight I decided to get up and paint. I took some painkillers, forced down some lentil soup and got to it. Four days later I was finished painting and found myself in hospital being pumped full of liquid and nutrients. Unable to hold any food or water, then painting like I was possessed had put me in bad shape. My blood pressure dropped dangerously low to a point where I could not get out of bed. With the aid of my girlfriend I got to a doctor who immediately hooked me to an IV, pumping me full of liquid vitamins and antibiotics.
Still it was worth it, even after all that. Not because I left my mark on Varanasi, but for the experience and opportunity to paint in that most sacred of places. A week after I left Varanasi Stefan was forced to paint over my portion of the mural anyway. Despite being approved it apparently didn’t sit with the mythology the mural was supposed to depict. I was reminded of a very important lesson and ancient Indian proverb, one that the country seems to reverbrate. “Everything is temporary and the only constant is change.”
Nothing is exempt from this rule, not our artwork, not ourselves.
Check out more murals in India here.