I'm a freelance writer and editor currently based in New Delhi. I have previously worked at The Caravan and Time Out Delhi. More about me here.

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Child Speak/Woman Song

Vasundhara Tewari Broota at Shridharani Gallery ♦

barootaMuch like her paintings, the title of Vasundhara Tewari Broota’s current show at Triveni suggests more than it says outright. However, as is evidenced from the catalogue essay by Gayatri Sinha, Broota has a lot to say – this time about childhood, and the woman as a mother and an artist. While her work still carries a lot of intellectual weight, these paintings are a little more relaxed than her previous work – allowing her painterly abilities to shine through with more spontaneity.

The oil and acrylic on canvas paintings in this show appear simpler, bolder and more organised than some of Broota’s earlier work; yet, under blocks of bright colour lurk multiple tones and hues. The surfaces of her paintings are reticulated to lend the paintings a plastic texture and a feeling of depth despite their smoothness; in Rope Song, the blue background surges with aquatic intensity.

Abstract backgrounds merge and overwhelm narrative figures. The paintings make use of symbols in an iconic fashion – almost like a child’s first alphabet book. Letters and numbers suggest the imposition of meanings upon the female figures. With numbers appearing in blocks over a dreamlike landscape, Structure and Play suggests the potential years of life proceeding from childhood. A progression of female nudes in A Journey in Time recalls the tension of the identities of mother and child, with the linking metaphor of crescent and full moons.

Broota’s paintings range from being carefully chaotic (Running) to having a vibrant equilibrium (Shining Through). Her paintings invite analysis while coquettishly escaping from it. Perhaps Broota’s relationship to her paintings is best seen in the self-reflexive diptych Flight in Turbulence. In the right-hand panel, the gun-sight mirrors the viewer’s eye, trained on the centre of the canvas. One bird from the abstracted flock is in high naturalistic detail – it just slips out of the central range. It’s a reminder that whatever you look at becomes frozen with meaning, while what you ignores flies off into the background. Broota lets her subjects flirt with such tension in “Child Speak/Woman Song”, creating works with a complex life of their own.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, 2008.

Published: December 18, 2008

Stirring the pot

Delhi’s culinary melange ♦

Part of a Time Out Delhi food cover story, this is a short history of Delhi food, plus a guide to eating in the old city (published in 2008). Read the story as a PDF, find the text reproduced below, or download the PDF here.

(Pairs well with this story on old Delhi drinks.)

Great cities are defined, at least to some degree, by great cuisines: either through an easily available and intrinsic tradition, or through making choices available that draw the culinary traveller from far and wide. Paris and Shanghai are examples of the former, London and New York perhaps of the latter. We’ve checked off the monuments and the Metro in our own Delhi, we’re well-stocked with netas, bade baap ka betas and SUVs, but what do we have to offer in terms of a culinary narrative? In a city as old as ours, surely our food isn’t only about butter chicken, qorma and kababs?

Some of the earliest accounts of food in Delhi come from the fourteenth century traveller Ibn Battuta’s writing. In her The Essential Delhi Cookbook, Priti Narain (who is herself from a Kayasth Mathur Delhi family) paraphrases Battuta’s descriptions of Sultanate feasts. She writes that these rulers brought with them the habit of communal dining, with people seated hierarchically. Battuta also describes beginning the meal with a sharbat and ending it with paan. But then, written traces of “Sultanate food” pretty much disappear.

According to educator and activist Sohail Hashmi, Delhi court cuisine was an amalgam of Central Asian (Turkic, Persian etc) and local techniques. As he said, “In Central Asia, most food is cooked on spits or in ovens and in animal fat. You have very limited use of spices. The chunks of meat are large and not as soft as we cook them. When the Central Asians came, the tradition of bhun-na, using ghee as an agent, was added. These two mixed to create what we know today as Mughlai food.”

While most scholars and foodies claim that what we call Mughlai is possibly more influenced by Awadhi or Nizami cuisine than what the Mughals ate, there are references to food and cooking in various Mughal documents: the Baburnama, the Ain-i-Akbari and other, less formal sources. A section of the Baburnama describes how Babur brought certain fruits like melons and grapes to India. (It appears the ruler missed these so much that he once became teary-eyed upon cutting open a melon.) It also talks of the local edible flora and fauna and describes concoctions like murabba. The Ain-i-Akbari has a section with price lists for various foodstuffs, as well as full recipes with measurements of several dishes.

Much of the variety of these ingredients has disappeared. Hashmi told us how many saag varieties are no longer cooked, or indeed, aren’t even available anymore. The Ain-i-Akbari’s regional specifications of goat and lamb varieties seem unimaginably exotic today. Other ingredients, which we take completely for granted, are newer additions. Narain writes that potatoes only came to North India by about 1830. Tomatoes came only about 20 years after that. Chillies were introduced to South India by the Portuguese in the 1500s, but probably took longer to reach Delhi, as they are not mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari.

While Muslim cuisine is perhaps the best recorded, Delhi cuisine was and is made up of the traditions of several communities. Delhi’s sizeable Kayasth community were scribes and officials in the imperial courts and, as such, their food habits were heavily influenced by Muslim ones. There was also an inventive vegetarian tradition: Narain mentions several dishes that featured vegetables masquerading as meat. Kayasth recipes and menu plans could be found – along with Muslim ones – in Urdu cookbooks that were possibly originally put together by housewives. Indeed, Mathur found some of her recipes in these unfortunately no-longer-available treasure troves.

Banias, particularly Marwaris, and Khatris are chiefly responsible for Delhi’s vegetarian traditions. The hallowed tradition of Delhi chaat may have come from the Bania community, according to several sources. Hashmi is of the opinion that khomchawalas (gents carrying their wares in baskets on their heads) would hawk their kulfi and chaat from store to store, and the storekeepers would call them over to keep the snack train going. Or, the khomchawalas would be called home for family feasts. These street traditions continue alongside their non-vegetarian counterparts in the walled city. The newer tradition of Punjabi and frontier food and the attendant popularity of chicken and tandoori items have been added to the mix since Partition.

Uniformly, every food-lover or scholar we spoke to said that the best examples of any of Delhi’s cuisines – whether from the “traditional” resident communities of the sheher or newer migrant ones – can be found in people’s homes. We can’t provide you with a list of people’s phone numbers, obviously. But if you start in the old city, a quick course in the evolution of our city’s khana is possible. We’ve compiled a list of some of the best, most authentic, most inventive or just most popular places to eat out in purani Dilli, as well as a list of caterers and bawarchis to start with. Happy exploring.


Al Jawahar Jawahar’s new and old branches serve “Mughlai” (kababs and oily curries) in a slightly more laid-back fashion than Karim’s. According to Hashmi, Jawahar was founded by a family of butchers; food critic Marryam Reshii holds that their cuts are better than Karim’s. 65 Bazaar Matia Mahal, opposite Gate 1, Jama Masjid (2326-9241); metro Chawri Bazaar. Daily 7am-midnight. Meal for two Rs. 300.

Kallu Nihari Beloved nihariwala of Delhi foodies (and their patron saint, writer Rahul Verma) – but you’ll have to get there early; this stuff runs out fast. Verma suggests Haji Noora ki nihari at Bara Hindu Rao for a spicier version of the dish. Kallu: 180 Chhatta Lal Mian, Jama Masjid, approach via Churiwalan and ask for Tiraha Behram Khan; Metro Chawri Bazaar; daily 5-7pm. Haji Noora ki nihari: 3576 Bara Hindu Rao, Thelewali Gali, Sangtarashan; daily 6-8am, 6-9pm.

Karim’s Hotel The classic, if only by virtue of reputation. While Charmaine O’Brien mentions in her book Flavours of Delhi that the Karim progenitor was an Arabian soldier-turned-personal cook for Babur, Hashmi told us that “Karim has very cleverly invented himself. It is in Gali Kababian – this is a family of kababchis who then said, ‘shahi hain’.” Whatever the true story, it won’t make a jot of difference to the popularity of the famous burras. 16 Gali Kababian, Bazaar Matia Mahal, opposite Gate 1, Jama Masjid (2326-9880); Metro Chawri Bazaar; Daily 7am-midnight; Meal for two Rs 300.

Super Meat Stall Avtar Singh’s family used to sell swords in the underground market at gurudwara Sis Ganj. In 1966, Singh’s grandfather and father set up Super Meat Stall, popularly known as “Super Meat Wale”. Try their hot, spicy curries of mutton pieces or keema with phulkas, or the mutton pulao with gravy. 937 HC Sen Road, Chandni Chowk, near Fountain, next to HSBC ATM (6990-2920); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 10am-9pm.

Ustad Moinudeen Rahul Verma’s pick of the kababchis. He vouched that “the seekh kabab is very soft, not rubbery like you get in most places”. And it’s not made of mutton. Gali Qasim Jaan, Lal Kuan, in front of Hamdard Dawakhana; Metro Chawri Bazaar; daily noon-8.30pm.

Vegetarian meals

Adarsh Bhojanalaya The few sit-down places to eat ghar ka khana out in the old city are Marwari-style bhojanalayas. Verma recommended Adarsh to us, despite its lack of good seating. Order the separate special tadka along with your unlimited thali. Verma also recommends nearby Annapurna. We also like New Soni’s thali of unlimited dal, aloo-tamatar and phulka and limited daily sabzi, raita and sweet. Adarsh: 483 Haider Quli Corner, below Andhra Bank, Chandni Chowk (2398-7576); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 10.30am-6pm, 6-11pm. Annapurna Guest House: 680 Church Mission Road, Fatehpuri (2396-6680); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 10.30am-3pm, 6.30 -11pm. New Soni: 5568 Nai Sarak (2393-6143); Metro Chandni Chowk; Mon-Sat 11am-4pm, 7pm- 11pm.

Chacha Di Hatti This chhole-bhatura wala staple is not strictly within the old city, but according to Verma, Kamala Nagar was where the first generation of migrants out of purani Dilli shifted to in the 1950s. Limited supply, so get there early. 32 Bungalow Road, Delhi University, behind Kirori Mal College; Metro Vishwavidyalaya. Daily 9.30am-3pm.

Kake Di Hatti This nondescript but famous eatery was started about 63 years ago by owner Gurdeep Singh’s great-grandfather. Kake’s lunch thali is minimal but memorable, the rotis simply enormous, the dal makhani legendary, and the 11 kinds of stuffed paratha less greasy than the ones in Parathewali Gali. 654 Church Mission Road, Fatehpuri (98109-09754); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 7.30am-12.30pm.

Makhan Lal Tikka Ram This one is the place to try a Delhi breakfast favourite: bedmi-aloo. Almost before you enter the old city from the north, in the midst of the auto parts market opposite St James Church, is a little shop whose board reads “Makhan Lal Tika Ram – mltr”, but which has for years been known as Mitthan Ki Bedmi (despite the fact that the gentleman at the counter insists that Mitthan’s sweet shop closed down circa 1975 and all that remains of it is Mitthan Motors three shops down). Strictly speaking, it’s a sweet-shop, but it has a tiny balcony into which you can cram yourself (along with about seven other people) and eat fantastic bedmis (Rs 7 a plate). Served with a mixed aloo-chhole ki sabzi and khatte aam ki launji, two of these are a meal. Try their matthri and nagori-halwa as well. If you’re in the Chawri Bazaar area, try Ram Swarup’s or Shyam Sweets for more of the same. If you’re closer to Chandni Chowk, head to Shiv Mishtan Bhandar – an institution as much for its bedmi as for its political celebrity client list. MLTR: 1259- 60 Bara Bazaar, Kashmere Gate (3255-9415); Metro Kashmere Gate; daily 5.30am-10.30pm. Ram Swarup: 3284 Bazaar Sita Ram (2395-5569); Metro Chawri Bazaar; daily 6am-10pm. Shyam Sweets: 114 Chowk Barshabulla, Chawri Bazaar (2326-8087); Metro Chawri Bazaar; daily 6.30am-10pm. Shiv Mishtan Bhandar: 375 Kucha Ghasi Ram, Chandni Chowk (2392- 1406); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 6am-10pm.

Nirmal Restaurant Try this alternative to the famous fried breads at Pandit Babu Ram Devi Dayal and its ilk in Parathewali Gali. “Asha Ram ke parathe” (named for the original owner three generations ago) are richly stuffed and include some of the best paneer parathas (Rs 16) around. Even better, there are three large rooms to eat in – with a view across the Town Hall chowk. 756 Chandni Chowk, opposite Town Hall; Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 6.30am-midnight. Pandit Babu Ram Devi Dayal Parathewali Gali, Chandni Chowk (98116- 02460); Metro Chandni Chowk; Daily 9am-midnight.

Snacks and chaat

Ashok Chaat Bhandar This award-winning chaatwala (as opposed to the other Ashok across the road) has kalmi vada and kachalu chutney to make the chaat pop with flavour. 3611 Hauz Qazi Chowk, entrance of Bazaar Sita Ram (2382-7740), Metro Chawri Bazaar, daily 11am-9pm.

Natraj Café Known locally as “bank ki pakodi”, the dahi bhallas (Rs 20) served here are well-known beyond the walled city as well. The dahi is the winning factor: it’s perfectly balanced between sweet and tangy. They do aloo tikkis in desi ghee as well and have a full menu and upstairs seating every day but Sunday. 1396 Chandni Chowk, next to Central Bank of India (6576-4631, 98111- 67400); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 10am-7pm.

Padam Chaat Bhandar Caterer Gunjan Goela’s favorite golgappas, served, as she put it, “with nakhra”. Usually stationed nearby, just outside Naugharana, is another golguppa cart with colourful palak and chukandar golguppas. Outside Baraf Wali Gali, Kinari Bazaar, Metro Chandni Chowk; Mon- Sat noon-8pm.

Sultan Kullewala Kulle is a true Delhi snack invented about 50 years ago. Today, Sultan’s grandson Sanjay sells the chaat in a busy gali. The chaat itself is a basket of peeled potato, filled with anardana, boiled channa and fine strips of ginger, and the whole sprinkled with a number of homemade masalas. Be warned though, when Sanjay asks you how spicy you like your kulle, say medium, unless you’re readying for a blast. Cheera Khana, Roshan Pura, Nai Sarak (2328-2848). m Chawri Bazaar. Mon-Sat 1-6pm. Rs 20 for eight.


Afreen & Zayed Sweets One of a couple of shahi tukda walas around the Jama Masjid/Matia Mahal area. Delhi’s most unholy triumvirate: bread, cream and a swimming pool of ghee. Near Hussain Chicken Corner, Jama Masjid (93502-17460); Metro Chawri Bazaar. Daily noon-midnight.

Daulat Ki Chaat No, not chaat, and it isn’t sold by a man named Daulat, but this soft whipped milk topped with kesar-flavoured whipped milk, ground brown sugar, pista and varq is the Chandni Chowk foodie’s holy grail. Monu Singh and his khomcha can be found Mon-Sat 9am-7pm at Dariba Kalan; Sun 9am-7pm at the intersection of Parathewali Gali and Kinari Bazaar (98731-32271/98738- 41912). Rs 10 per plate.

Deepak Dewan Fruit Cream This sweet little red cart can be found floating around Dariba and Kinari Bazaar. Within it is the most delicious thing: pieces of banana, pineapple and apple sunk in soft cream. Daily noon- 8pm. Rs 10 per cup.

Giani Di Hatti Started in 1951 by Lyallpur immigrant Giani Gurcharan Singh, this rabri falooda joint soon expanded to shakes, moong dal halwa and ice cream. Pretty soon it expanded to other parts of the city as well. Church Mission Road, Fatehpuri (2393- 6174); Metro Chandni Chowk; Daily 11am-midnight. Also caters.

Hazari Lal Jain Stop by here for all your khurchan, malai roll and malai laddoo needs. 2225 Kinari Bazaar, Chandni Chowk (2325- 3992); Metro Chandni Chowk. Mon- Sat 7am-midnight.

Lala Duli Chand Naresh Gupta Across the street from better-known and older Kuremal’s kulfi dukaan. According to the attendant at Duli’s, these two shops (and a few others in the area) supply much of Delhi with kulfi. Duli supplies to the Ashok Hotel, the Taj, Bengali Market and Sagar and is 40 years old, he told us. There are 76 items on their menu card – not bad for a room with a freezer and a couple of plastic chairs. Don’t miss their fantastic stuffed kulfis (apple, orange, mango, kiwi and more). Duli Chand: 934 Kucha Pati Ram, Bazaar Sita Ram (2323-5926, 98102-02990); Metro Chawri Bazaar; daily noon- 8pm. Kuremal Mohanlal Kulfiwale: 1165-66 Kucha Pati Ram, Bazaar Sita Ram (2323-2430, 98105- 40105); Metro Chawri Bazaar; Mon- Sat noon-8pm.

Old Famous Jalebiwala The name speaks for itself at this century-old counter. They also have samosas, but it’s the rope-like jalebis (even bigger jalebas available on request) that steal the show. 1795 Chandni Chowk, corner of Dariba (2325-6973, 98110-20546); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 8am-10pm.

Halwais Shahjahanabad boasts of several historical sweet shops – from well-known Ghantewala (established in 1790) on Chandni Chowk itself to Shireen Bhawan tucked away in Chitli Qabar. In between are Annapurna Bhandar (the second Bengali sweets shop in sheher, established after Kamala Sweets closed in 1940), Chaina Ram in Fatehpuri, Kanwarji’s (from 1830, known for its dalbiji) and others. Traditional Delhi sweets that are commonly available are pista or kaju lauj, habshi halwa (brown, burnt-milk halwa), gond halwa and laddoo, sohan halwa and ghee ghewar (in the winter). Ghantewala: 1862 Chandni Chowk (2328-0490); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 8am- 9pm. Shireen Bhawan: 1466 Chitli Qabar, Jama Masjid (98187- 93124); Metro Chawri Bazaar; daily 8am-9pm. Annapurna Bhandar: 1463 Chandni Chowk (2396- 2050, 2386-8466); Metro Chandni Chowk; Mon-Sat 8am-8.30pm, Sun 8am-noon. Chaina Ram Sindhi Halwai: 6499-6470 Fatehpuri Chowk, Fatehpuri (2395-0747); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 7am- 8.30pm. Kanwarji’s: 1972-73 Chandni Chowk, corner of Parathewali Gali (2326-1318); Metro Chandni Chowk; daily 9am-9pm.

Catering and cooking

Besides the fact that several of the chaatwalas and halwais that we’ve listed above will cater events (just call and ask), there are a number of bawarchis and caterers who cook for parties. You’ll have to go once to discuss your requirements – you’ll be given a shopping list and you’ll have to come back to pick up your food. We’ve been assured the effort is worth it.

Babu Khan South Delhi’s old standby for biryani, supposed to be descended from Shahjahan’s bawarchis. Good in a pinch. Matka Pir, next to Pragati Maidan (2337- 1454); Metro Pragati Maidan; daily 8am-8pm.

Gunjan Goela Daughter of an old Delhi family, Goela caters sheher ka khana for weddings and parties. She can also arrange khomchawallas for chaat and desserts from the old city. Call (98113- 49055, 92120-35323).

Hakim Bawarchi Makes excellent biryani and qorma and comes recommended by both Goela and Verma. Rodgran, Lal Kuan. Head past the Hamdard Dawakhana, reach a corner with a man selling gajak, turn left and ask; Metro Chawri Bazaar.

Idris Sohail Hashmi recommended Idris’ qorma and biryani to us. Churiwalan, opposite Metro Guest House, 639 Churiwalan, near Jama Masjid; Metro Chawri Bazaar.

SM Zaki Based in Civil Lines. Recommended by Goela. Qorma, biryani and nihari for under ten people. Call (98991-06206).

(Pairs well with this story on old Delhi drinks.)

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, November 2008.

Published: November 14, 2008

Ten spiritual trails

Exploring Delhi’s religious landmarks ♦

Excerpt from a Time Out Delhi cover package from October 2008. Read the excerpt below, download it as a PDF, or read text of the individual stories on Old Delhi walks or Delhi’s cemeteries.

Published: October 13, 2008

Graveyard shift

Exploring Delhi’s burial grounds ♦

spiritual trails

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi’s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Click to read with pictures.








Delhi War Cemetery

Headstones in neat lines mark the graves of mostly Christian soldiers (though we did find a Jewish doctor) who died during World War II, with the soldier’s number, rank and regimental seal engraved on it. A tall, colonnaded entrance plaza has, on one side, a book with the names of 25,000 Hindu and Sikh soldiers and airmen who died in WWII. The other end contains an engraved plaque with the names of soldiers, buried in Meerut, who died in WWI. The graveyard is maintained by the army and managed by the Commonwealth Graves Association, and is a peaceful, tidy place with trellises and benches to sit on. Behind this is the in-use, hodgepodge Cantonment Cemetery, under the Delhi Cemeteries Committee. Just ahead of Brar Square, to the right, Cantonment, Dhaula Kuan.

Rajpura (Mutiny) Cemetery

This early nineteenth-century cemetery was on the original ASI list of protected sites, but only one of the old gateways remains and the graves are much newer. Encroached upon and poorly maintained. Across from Maurice Nagar/Vijaynagar Bus stand, near Miranda House, Delhi University. Metro Vishwavidyalaya.

Nicholson’s Cemetery

Though this British cemetery from 1857 was cleaned up in 2006 with considerable fanfare, it is in less than perfect shape today. Washing hangs on the railings surrounding John Nicholson’s grave. The monument to the Corcoran family (which helped finance St Mary’s Church) is falling apart. A pile of tombstones lies heaped near the entrance. What the graveyard is wonderful for, though, is browsing through Delhi’s who’s who of 150 years ago. Boulevard Road, near ISBT. Metro Kashmere Gate.

Skinner Family Cemetery

This small plot within the compound of St James Church holds the remains of James “Sikandar” Skinner, who built the church, as well as the graves of several of his family members. Well-maintained, but small. William Fraser and Thomas Metcalfe are buried nearby. St James Church, Kashmere Gate. Metro Kashmere Gate.

Lothian Road Cemetery

According to INTACH, this 1806 cemetery is the first British one in Delhi. In a pocket of raised land next to Kashmere Gate, this graveyard – though gated – is not locked, and has not aged gracefully. There are constructions inside and the ground is filthy. The most notable grave is the tomb of one Thomas Dunnes, constructed by Skinner. Lothian Road, Kashmere Gate (next to the Post Office). Metro Kashmere Gate.

New Delhi Cemetery

This Mansingh Road cemetery dating from 1920 is a landmark, mostly because of the convenient flower sellers outside. The entry gate has recently broken down. The cemetery contains some interesting graves from the mid- 1900s, but is mostly full of more recent burials. Behind this, the Parsi Cemetery and Jewish Cemetery are better maintained and the strongest visual presence of these small communities in Delhi. Corner of Shahjahan Road and Humayun Road, off the Taj Mahal Hotel roundabout.

Indian Christian Cemetery

This serene cemetery is a bit of calm in Paharganj. It is a modern cemetery and is quite well maintained and in use. Nehru Bazar, Paharganj. Metro New Delhi Railway Station.

Karbala Aliganj

This area around Lodhi Colony and Jorbagh, originally known as Aliganj, has several Shi’a sites. The Karbala graveyard is largely swallowed up by the Rajdhani Nursery, and the remainder is overgrown with tall weeds. However, Tazia processions from Shahjahanabad, Nizamuddin and Mehrauli still visit here during Muharram. The wall was built in the late eighteenth century. When we visited, the gate just before Rajdhani was overgrown and recent rain made walking through the nursery towards the mosque within difficult. The eastern gate, through which lies the tomb of Mah Khanam, seems to be sheltering some furniture makers. Off Jorbagh Road, near the Aurobindo Marg intersection.

Cryptic clues

D’Eremao Armenian Cemetery, Kishanganj

A visit to Kishanganj unearthed quite a cryptful of worms, though we found only the ruins of what may be Delhi’s earliest Christian cemetery. Referred to as the “D’Eremao cemetery” by the ASI, this site is documented as having several Armenian Christian graves from the 1700s.

Mesrovb Jacob Seth, who visited Kishanganj in 1919, described it thus in his 1937 book Armenians in India: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day: “deserted and snake-infested cemetery… in a jungle about 15 minutes drive from the Ganesh Flour Mills in Subzimundi.” He goes on to say that “after a long and tedious drive, over trackless fields, in a bone-shaking country carriage… we were determined to see the place with the sole object of rescuing from oblivion the landmarks of the Armenians at Delhi… There are in all 24 graves, with tombstones… the oldest bearing the date 1782. In that isolated cemetery lies interred the Carmelite monk, Father Gregorio… who baptised the famous Begum Samru of Sardhana on the 7th May 1781, at Agra.”

We arrived in Kishanganj over crowded Old Rohtak Road rather than trackless fields. The wide dome (topped by a square cross and four minarets) of the Armenian Chapel peeps out of a well-established basti called the Kishanganj Christian Complex. A sign above the door reads “Armenian Chapel” and lists worship timings. In another wall is a stone, which reads “Armenian Cemetry, Rama Park, Kishanganj Delhi-6, Trustee: Armenian Association, 5 Outram Road, Calcutta- 16”. We didn’t see any graves though.

The minute we started taking pictures, the sleepy basti erupted. Eventually we were shepherded to the house of one Vinod Dayal, from one of the families who live here. Dayal told us that both he and this compound had been here for a long time – the latter perhaps since before 1947. According to Delhi High Court records, the chapel at Partition was under the aegis of the Armenian Association, whose representative allegedly allowed uprooted Delhi Christians to stay in the compound. Though in 2007 the High Court ruled in favour of a government order issued by the ASI to vacate the premises, the community seems to be thriving.

According to Dayal, the Armenian church in Kolkata used to take care of the property until the 1960s, but now the community holds Sunday services for “Methodists, Catholics and all Christians”. Interestingly, the website of the Armenian Holy Church of Nazareth in Kolkata makes mention of the chapel, saying that it “will soon have work commence on it”.

As we walked back to the main road from the other side of the chapel, we suddenly came upon a few extremely weathered graves, some of them piled with bricks, boxes and other junk. Dayal was emphatic that the Christian Complex was in no way related to the D’Eremao cemetery, but – no matter how long ago – it certainly was.

Metro Sabzimandi or Kishanganj Ring Railroad station. Ask for Christian Complex.

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi‘s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Read more here.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2008.


Published: October 6, 2008

Age and beauty

The walled city oozes so much spiritual history, every gali could turn into a trail. Here are four roads less travelled ♦

spiritual trails

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi’s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Click to read with pictures.








Older Delhi

The pre-Shahjahanabad tour.

The walled city hides several sacred sites that predate Shahjahan’s imperial city. Four major ones are relatively close together and can be visited in one go.

The Turkman Gate area gets its name from the Shah Turkman Dargah, but locals know the grave complex of this Sufi saint – Shamsul- Arifin, also called Biyaban – as “Dada Pir”. Start at Turkman Gate and take the Bazaar Sitaram lane to the left of it. Ask for Basti Dada Pir and Mohalla Qabristan. The complex is tucked away to the right of the main road. The graveyard is on two levels: an upper concrete-covered level with half-sunken graves (including a sinking, inscribed marble tomb and an elevated grave) and a little mosque and adjacent dargah down a flight of stairs. According to Lucy Peck (in Delhi: A Thousand Years of Building, Roli, 2005), the different levels might be due to burials taking place one on top of the other over the years.

A gentleman we met there, who said his family had been taking care of the place for generations, told us that Shah Turkman (who he referred to as “aap”) came from Turkmenistan and is still commemorated during his urs, when people come from as far as Pakistan to venerate him (he died in 1240). Certainly the dargah was nicely decked up with tinsel and petals, the newer little mosque next door is studded with broken tiles, and the courtyard – though home to a family of cats, quite a bit of rubbish, and the caretaking family’s side business in machine parts – is a peaceful final resting place for “the dada of all pirs”.

Return to and continue up Bazaar Sitaram until you see the glimpse of a mosque to your left. Up a steep flight of stairs is the Kalan Masjid or “Big Mosque”, built by Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s prime minister Khan-i-Jehan Junan Shah in 1387. One of seven mosques built by Khan-i-Jehan (and his mother, according to a signboard inside), this one was repaired 12 years ago and is in good condition, rather gaudily painted in bright blue, purple, turquoise and green. There’s a marble courtyard fountain with goldfish swimming in the placid green water. When we visited, there were a few kids playing and a friendly mullah, who took us up to the fourth-floor roof, which is studded with the 30 wide gumbads – quite a surreal setting. The view from this tall mosque is breathtaking; we could see Rashtrapati Bhavan from one side and several interesting mosques poking through the spread of Turkman Gate on the other.

Continue up the main road, taking the second right to “Bulbul-i-khana”, where – at the very end of the gali – you’ll find Razia Sultan’s tomb, or “Rani-Saji ki dargah”. Razia Sultan was a follower of Shah Turkman, and her burial site is allegedly the place where he used to sit – though conflicting reports saythat she is buried in Haryana, where she died in 1240.There are two worn away graves in the centre of a courtyard; the one nearer the little modern masjid is supposedly Razia’s, and the one beside that, her sister’s. The gate to the small complex is locked except during namaaz times, but ask at the Farsi printing shop next door and someone will open it.

Go back to the main road, take a rickshaw up to Hauz Qazi and Lal Kuan, and ask for “Gali Batashan” in the Naya Bans paan market. Up this colourful street brimming with toffees, batasha, mishri and other sweets is the Hauzwali Masjid or “Masjid-i-Khari Baoli”, which was built around 1540-50. This smallish mosque has wide, low-sprung arches and gets its name from a tank within the complex. The sky-blue building looks a bit like a sarai; indeed, there was a man sleeping inside. In the courtyard, a couple of labourers, taking advantage of the quiet spot, told us that the mosque is mostly frequented by Bengalis working in the area.

The masjids the queens built

Not all the religious sites here were endowed by men.

We did a quick roundup of several Shahjahanabad mosques that were built by women. It’s possible to visit all of them in one, only slightly hectic trip.

Starting at the south end of Ansari Road, take an auto to Zinat-ul-Masjid (Khairati Ghat, Daryaganj), which abuts the city wall (and is just visible from the Ring Road). This serene mosque has rather tall minarets and is also referred to as the Ghata (cloud) Masjid, according to an INTACH board outside. The mosque was built in 1707 by Zinat-al-Nisa, Aurangzeb’s daughter, and is supposed to have been the Emperor’s final resting place until 1857, when his remains were moved and the mosque was appropriated for military purposes. The mosque is in good condition and, as a bonus, has its original sandstone exposed. The red stone is beautifully juxtaposed with striped black-and-white gumbads and, despite a rubbish-filled tank and several little buildings nestling up to its sides, the building is very striking.

From here, take an auto or a rickshaw to the Lal Qila parking lot, next to which is the petite Sunehri Masjid (next to Delhi gate of Red Fort). There are other Sunehri Masjids in Delhi, but this one was built in 1751 by Qudsia Begum, a former dancing girl who married Mohammad Shah Rangila and was the mother of Ahmad Shah. This diminutive mosque – which survived 1857 while the larger Akbarabadi Masjid (built next to Jama Masjid by one of Shahjahan’s wives) did not – has elegant details, like an entry gateway that is reminiscent of a miniaturised version of the Red Fort’s main ramparts, and has its warm yellow stone exposed. It’s in far better condition than the ruins in Qudsia Bagh in Civil Lines, also built by “Sunehri Begum” (as the mullah we spoke to called Qudsia Begum). Despite the masjid’s small size, we were informed that on Fridays and around festivals, the crowd spills onto the street outside and loudspeakers broadcast sermons. According to the mullah, a small mazhar behind the mosque marks Qudsia Begum’s grave. The domes were originally plated with copper, which was replaced with sandstone by Bahadur Shah II.

Take a rickshaw from across the street, past Jama Masjid and Hauz Qazi, alighting just after the Chawri Bazaar Metro station on the Lal Kuan road. On your left is Masjid Mubarak Begum (Bazaar Hauz Qazi, Sirkiwalan; on the first floor above some shops). Mubarak Begum, who built this mosque in 1823, was the wife of Sir David Ochterlony,the first British resident of Delhi. The board outside doesn’t say much about her except that she loved music, but according to some sources, she was a Brahmin dancing girl who converted to Islam. Apparently, this mosque, which was either built by Mubarak Begum or for her, was sometimes locally called “Randi Ki Masjid”. Now under the Waqf Board, the mosque, which has an inscription in Farsi over its entrance, is painted over in a red terracotta colour (with green trim) that attempts to approximate the sandstone beneath. You can make out scallops on the inside of the gumbads, as well as carved niches, but any painting that might have been on the walls is painted over. One of the turrets is missing a miniature gumbad. The mullah there enthusiastically told us the mosque’s committee wants to replace this and make other repairs but doesn’t have the funds. When we visited, he was cheerfully overseeing the mounting of two large rotating fans on either side of the entrance. He explained that this mosque is especially popular as an all-night hangout during Ramzaan.

From here, take a rickshaw to the Fatehpuri Masjid at the western end of Chandni Chowk. Built in 1650 by Fatehpuri Begum, another one of Shahjahan’s wives, this large mosque and madrasa complex has a wide courtyard and is partially exposed, partially painted. When we visited there was a minor commotion caused by a gaggle of schoolboys, who had made a game of harassing a stick-wielding, green-capped caretaker – the object of the game seemed to be to get as close to the mosque as possible before being chased away. Shouts of “Hari topi! Hari topi!” enlivened the otherwise relaxed atmosphere at the central tank. Though this mosque was once considered a place of debate and learning, clearly the school kids think of the courtyard as more of a maidan.

Take another rickshaw-ride to Lahori Gate at the end of Khari Baoli. To the right of the Walled City Museum, several large white gumbads are visible behind some shops. This is the Sarhindi Masjid built by Sarhindi Begum, yet another of Shahjahan’s wives, also in 1650. The sandstone mosque painted in bluish white has wide gates, but is sunken and slightly dingy. There’s a madrasa and rooms here where children are supposedly sent from Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to study. The roof affords an excellent view of the railyard stretching to Connaught Place on one side and busy Khari Baoli on the other.

Sainted footsteps

Jain temples in Dharampura.

The Lal Masjid Jain temple at the entrance of Chandni Chowk is famous for its location, age (its original structure is from the early eighteenth century) and bird hospital, but the area south of Chandni Chowk, between Dariba Kalan and Nai Sarak, is dotted with Jain temples. Start at Dariba and walk down, past the right turn to Kinari Bazaar, until you see a turn with an arch marked Kucha Seth to the right. Down this gali, you’ll find yourself surrounded by marble. The Shri Digambar Jain Chhota Mandir (1541 Kucha-i-Seth, Dariba Kalan) built by the Digambar Jain Panchayat in 1840 is on your right and the double-storeyed Shri Digambar Jain Bada Mandir (1513 Kucha-i-Seth, Dariba Kalan), built in 1828-1834 by one Indraraj Ji is just ahead on the left. Both of these have rich, gold-embellished paintings of the Jain Tirthankaras; the former is open in the morning and has a Jain Dharamshala next to it, and the latter, which is on the first floor and has a larger hall, is open in the evening.

At the end of the road, turn left and continue walking towards Chel Puri. You’ll come to the large Shri Digambar Jain Naya Mandir complex (opposite 2318 Dharampura), built in 1807 by Raja Harsukh Rai, a treasurer in Shah Alam II’s court. There are several buildings clustered around the temple, including a school. This temple is open in the morning.

Continue straight to reach the Shri Agarwal Digambar Jain Panchayati Mandir (2175 Gali Hanuman Prasad, Masjid Khajoor, Dharampura), which dates from 1705 and is open in the evenings. This large temple was rebuilt about a hundred years ago and is in very good condition, with colourful frescoes, a collection of antique manuscripts and a unique brown idol of Adinatha, which is made from something that looks like sandstone.

Turn back and left, walking north. On your right is the Shri Digambar Jain Mehru Mandir (3018 Gali Hanuman Prashad, Masjid Khajoor, Dharampura), which has a very intricately carved gateway between its distinctive marble walls. According to Delhi: A Built Heritage (INTACH, 1999), the temple dates from 1745. However, it may have been rebuilt, as the Archaeological Survey of India board outside states that it was built in 1845 by Lala Mehar Chand Jain. The inside is unusual and beautiful, with rows of small, chhattri-topped pillars. Across the street is the Shri Padmavati Puraval Digambar Jain Panchayati Masjid.

From here, walk north towards Chandni Chowk and you’ll emerge at Kinari Bazaar. Turn left and then right – just before Parathewali Gali is the little enclosed street called Naugharana, a favourite on tourist walks because of its well-preserved and painted havelis. This entire walk will take you past some beautiful carved doorways, but this street, and the Jauhri Temple in it, is the most accessible. The two-level temple, which was built in the late eighteenth century and renovated later, has very interesting paintings that seem to be influenced by a synthesis of various traditions, including Mughal miniature painting.

Dark lord

The Shivalaya trail in Katra Nil

Katra Nil, the area to the left of the Town Hall, is the traditional area for scores of Shiv temples and little Shivalayas, many of them originally courtyard shrines within havelis. The havelis are gone, but there are still several of these Mughal-era shrines in use today. They consist mainly of a raised marble or sandstone pedestal with the lingam in the centre, surmounted by a sandstone chattri. A walk down Katra Nil starting at Chandni Chowk will reveal glimpses of these shrines through doorways, in alleys and on raised courtyards. Several Shivalayas that have not been enclosed by temples are still in open courtyards, which are inhabited by families who perform puja everyday. Needless to say, there’s a heavy scent of ghee and attar in the air.

515 Krishna Gali to the left of Katra Nil. A lime-green enclosed Shivalaya.

793 Katra Nil Shivalaya Kunniji Maharaj. In a pleasant raised courtyard with a bright purple wall and deities.

556 Katra Nil Babu Lal temple. Through a red gate on the left.

598 Ghanteshwar Mahadev A large white temple in a gali to the left of Katra Nil. Said to be the oldest in the area, with a metal-clad Shivalaya with colourful paintings inside its dome, and mirrors on its walls.

602 Ghanteshwar Mahadev Dhumimal Shivalaya. In a courtyard with a large peepul tree; locally known as “Peepul Mahadev”.

701 Katra Nil Bada Shivalaya. Right side on Katra Nil, through a red archway. In an almost-closed courtyard.

689 Katra Nil Pandit Hari Ranji Ka Shivalaya, apparently named for a pandit of the same name.

Part of a few stories for a Time Out Delhi‘s “Ten spiritual trails” cover. Read more here.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, October 2008.

Published: October 3, 2008

Storm in Chandigarh, A Situation in New Delhi

Nayantara Sahgal ♦

SonalShah_BooksReview_Storm-in-Chandigarh“Politicians, whatever their political colour, and whatever they piously said, got fat from office. They would never banish the contrasts, never in ten thousand years build an equal society. How could they, when they were products of the rot themselves, of caste, of vested interests and stinking old ideas? It would take the young to build…” Those who were young when Nayantara Sahgal’s A Situation in New Delhi was first published in 1977 have seen many changes. But the political corruption that they were supposed to vanquish has only become more pronounced.

A Situation and Storm in Chandigarh (1969), both of which have been recently republished, find Sahgal dwelling upon the political and social challenges faced by a young country. Sahgal’s stories enmesh elite protagonists in political quagmires. The fact that she is Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s daughter affords her valuable insight from within. The heart of these novels, however, is their human scale. The echelons of power, riots and terror threats are always viewed through her characters’ eyes. Storm places an honest civil servant, Vishal Dubey, at the centre of the growing rift between a carved-up Punjab and the new state of Haryana, while A Situation has a larger theme – the nation’s descent into anarchy following the death of Shivraj, a figure based loosely on Nehru.

Though Nehruvian politics and Gandhian philosophy are probably in their post- post- stages, these reprints resurrect the early days of India, their consequences and their still relevant themes, in elegant, easy to read prose.

Storm in Chandigarh, and A Situation in New Delhi, Penguin Rs. 250 each.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, September 2008.

Published: September 19, 2008

Thukral & Tagra

Admen, artists, ambassadors ♦

bosedkIn the ongoing search to furnish India’s contemporary art scene with international emissaries, it is appropriate that two most prolific ambassadors have a background emblematic of the country’s most shining industry: advertising and design. Anything but appropriate, however, is the impish name of the fake brand that artist/designer duo Sumir Tagra and Jiten Thukral have invented – Bosedk Designs.

This cheeky attitude hides a pair of highly imaginative minds and two pairs of capable hands. Working in a variety of media – graphics, videos, music, interiors, products, paintings, sculpture and installation – Thukral and Tagra showcase design as high art. Yet Bard College curator-in-residence Trevor Smith writes aptly in a recent T&T catalogue that their engagement with design is “not one of distanced reflection or appropriation as is typical of visual artists, nor is it an academic critique of design.”

The artist/designer duo have had several major gallery shows, but also work in graphic and product design, including commissioned work – such as a 1”x1”x1” book titled David and Goliath – for companies such as Condé Nast, United Colors of Benetton and Ogilvy & Mather. Working collaboratively, T&T defy definition; are they artists or designers? Indians or global citizens? Dead serious or completely deadpan?.

What remains consistent is T&T’s almost branded style, straddled insouciantly between art and design. Their paintings – executed with the polish of digital prints – are stylized arrangements of stencil-like cut-outs, precise lettering and ornate embellishment. The question of whether these are backdrops for installation work, studies for projects or product overviews remains one for the critics. In Thukral and Tagra’s major shows, paintings rub shoulders easily with installation, seamlessly connected through content while varying in form.

T&T’s 2007 Everyday Bosedk exhibition at Nature Morte perfectly illustrated this easy coexistence. An exhibition that specifically built up the all-encompassing Bosedk brand and, in doing so, called into question the commercialisation of art and a commodification of style, Everyday Bosedk incorporated wall-size paintings, sculptures and a central installation. Upon entering, each viewer received a pin – a miniature version of an installation of chocolate sauce bottles (with questionably chocolatey boys on them) – forcing the spectator into interaction. Paintings like “It rains everyday” provided ample window-shopping with cookie-cutter figures engaged in various mundane and bizarre activities. But the centrepiece installation, “Keep out of the reach of children” encapsulated the uncomfortably satirical point of the exhibition. The gallery’s basement was transformed into a mini-supermarket – the whole venue branded to dizzying totality with neatly packaged, mysteriously multi-purposed Bosedk products. From bottles reminiscent of cleaning fluid to alcoholic beverages, the installation raised several important questions. Is this packaged seamlessness the real art-mart of India’s elated (perhaps inflated) art scene? Does the work’s title imply a condemnation of homogenization – a note of caution about the effect of dangerously attractive consumer culture on young children? By creating the illusion of mass-produced, monopolizing corporate unoroginality within an installation that was – given its galleried context – highly original, Thukral and Tagra have the last (albeit ambivalent) laugh.

The duo continue their political engagement in new projects, despite a certain self-directed irony. Peter Nagy writes in their catalogue that “Blinders are helpful when jumping into any fray… Most necessary [for artistic creation] may be an inert stupidity (in no short supply) against which to measure one’s own actions and intelligence…” The knowledge that world-saving may be arrogantly idealistic but better than doing nothing  at all underlay the pair’s recent “Put it on” exhibition at Bose Pacia, New York. The show handled spreading awareness of HIV/AIDS and condom use with witty delivery and a strong conviction in content. Whatever else they make think of themselves, Thukral and Tagra take their job as communicators seriously – coming up with underwear that promotes condoms, slippers with correct steps for condom usage printed on them, and a diagram, appropriated directly from market-strategy, of the moments during foreplay at which condom-awareness intervention through media is necessary. Extolls Nagy in the catalogue, “The Revolution will not only be televised but also commodified. The call to arms is to Personalize, Strategize, Sensitize, and Diversify.”

T&T’s latest show at Art Statements during Art Basel 38 – Adolescere – Domus – included works that spoke of more personalised touch, less evident in other, artistically aloof, pieces. In these and older paintings from 2004, the pair show up occasionally – not just as their cartoon avatars – but painted realistically if incompletely – a shoulder here, a pair of legs there. References to Delhi Public School, rotory phones and old-fashioned televisions curl up against iPods, bikinis and  self-portrait cartoons. These passing, pastiched icons are as close to self-explanatory as anything T&T have done. We’re in the thick of it, “deformed olive lover” and “skinny-kinky mind”[1] seem to be saying. We don’t care what you call us. We’re just having a damn good time. And then an echo of (canned?) laughter.

[1] Descriptions of Sumir and Jiten from their website www.bosedkdesigns.com

Originally published in Art India, 2007.

Published: October 7, 2007

Fragments of beauty

Attiya Shaukat at Anant Art Gallery ♦

Bits & Pieces II

Bits & Pieces II

Lahore-based Attiya Shaukat’s miniature-style paintings on view at Anant Art Gallery are sensitive and intelligent works. Like several Pakistani artists nowadays, Shaukat draws on contemporary themes and symbols in her miniature paintings. Her work stands out, though, for its experimental montaging of symbols and compositions and for her inspired themes.

Shaukat was admitted to the Lahore College of Arts for textile design, but once she saw the miniature paintings done by senior students, she said, “I decided to switch to that medium within my first year.” According to her, the number of students concentrating on this subject is on the rise, as is the interest in modern miniatures both in Pakistan and India.

The paintings in this exhibition roughly correspond to two themes. The bulk of the works are expositions of the show’s title In the Flick of a Second. These paintings stem from a spinal injury that Shaukat suffered in 2003, which left her legs paralysed. Like Frida Kahlo before her, Shaukat turned her physical pain into fragmented visual beauty, and these paintings are a record of the various aspects of her injury, surgery and recovery.

Recurring images tie these paintings together. Bones, nerves, steel, feet and flower petals create a personal symbolic language that nevertheless communicates her pain and recovery with visceral clarity. A series of paintings titled “First Steps” are extremely simple – in one, there are just four feet foraying onto the corners of a page. Yet, the simplicity also reflects Shaukat’s struggle to return to painting. “I had to learn to hold a brush all over again,” she said.

The motif of a five-petalled flower with one discoloured or blackened petal becomes a symbol of deformity, useless limbs, and a youth cut short by fate. In other paintings, Shaukat uses petals to symbolise the unacknowledged “delicacy of the spine” and the restrictions of the human body. “Chained” is a self-portrait in which the figure’s torso is held immobile by a Kangra-school flower that looks like an unravelling spine. A ghosted chain roots the waist to a finely rendered blue petal, which anchors the elements of the composition.

Other paintings in this series foreground the process of surgery and recovery. In “Within Brackets”, steel girders frame a straight rod in the bottom two-thirds of the painting, while two backwards pointing feet peek out of a panel on the top third. Thick-yarn stitching adds to the composition, and a painted crimson petal stretches from a thread with a smattering of red drops around it. In other paintings, an arm of a fan, seen as if from a bed, turns into a curved knife. In “Don’t You Dare Open It”, two panels are stitched together down the centre, recreating the tension of taut pain and the uncertainty of surgery.

There is no doubt that these works convey strong emotions with a mature subtlety and delicacy. But it is the few works that are not related to the title theme that really showcase Shaukat’s artistic capabilities and breadth of thought. In these paintings, Shaukat explores political and societal themes, as well as stories taken from illustrated manuscripts of the Mughal era, such as the Akbarnama. Collectively titled “Bits and Pieces”, a few of these works depict the Iraq War. The strength of these works is the cubist fragmenting that Shaukat introduces into her miniature figurative paintings, which create puzzle-like compositions. In one painting, George Bush’s face peers over shard-like vignettes of chained men in traditional miniature style; in another, bones and knives fade into upturned bowls and cuts of cloth.

A series of paintings inspired by red-light districts show that, besides personal and universal suffering, Shaukat has an eye for depicting the various pleasures of life as well. A lusciously red street scene with electric lights and the sign “Broadway” is suspended over a miniature-style female figure reclining on a couch, which is sliding away in sections. In another work, dancing girls are painted with a tender delicacy to highlight their beauty and grace; at the same time, the composition is unsettled by the jigsaw sections and disconnected limbs.

These varied paintings are the real indication of Shaukat’s resilience and ability to move on. But more than that, they demonstrate a rich imagination and a sense of curiosity, which have influenced both her choice of subjects and her style and, we hope, will continue to do so.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, May 2007.

Published: May 1, 2007

Upside Down

Georg Baselitz: Printed Works 1965-1992 ♦

baselitzProbably one of the most important artists living today, Georg Baselitz still evokes some criticism among his contemporaries. He is best-known for his inverted subjects: figures, animals, landscapes turned upside down. While this may seem a simple contrivance, a retrospective exhibition of Baselitz’s printed works – Georg Baselitz: Printed Works 1965–1992 – at the Lalit Kala Akademi provides the opportunity to delve into the artist’s complex oeuvre. With inverted nudes as well as more recent works, which impose artificial grids and arbitrary blocks of colour across the surface, the exhibition – organised by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen e.V. – is a comprehensive experience of Baselitz’s corpus, as well as a challenge for the viewer.

Born Hans-Georg Kern in the town of Deutschbaselitz (from which he derives his pseudonym), just before World War II, Baselitz’s early years promised a rebellious career. He even got himself expelled from art school for “socio-political immaturity”. But even from his earlier engravings, it is clear that Baselitz is adept at his craft, though perhaps lacking a trained virtuosity. In these expressionist drawings – “Rebel”, “Blocked Man” – he tends towards the grotesque, not with the intention to shock, but rather because he seems to have no patience for studied harmony at the expense of stemming the raw power of paint.

Baselitz once wrote in a catalogue, “Things always do go back to…the harmonious and the disharmonious. And there is the condition between the two where they meet. Here things mesh and are balanced, which, with my paintings and drawing, I don’t like, probably because I can never achieve it. And so I tend to take disharmony as my principle: it gives me better results.”

The biggest step Baselitz took towards freeing his subjects from the confines of conventional aesthetics – towards bringing the painting itself to life – was to paint things upside down. This has the effect of drawing attention to the form of reality, and of freeing subjects from their forms.

Baselitz’s paintings are unsettling, even repellent. The catalogue for the exhibition begins with a quote by Bonnard: “It is not about painting life, but about making painting come alive.” Baselitz responds to this with, “Reality IS the picture, it is definitely not IN the picture.” Some of his most successful works combine large etchings, woodcut prints and finger-painting to create bold brushstrokes that suggest wings and feathers.

Baselitz’s series of birds, in fact, particularly demonstrates the strength of his upside-down technique. “Untitled, 1974” (exhibit 14) looks at first glance like an abstract mountain or just a composition of negative and positive space. As the brain tries to make sense of the image, it starts to look like a bird falling out of the sky, suggesting agony, confusion and death. Imagine the painting upside down, and it gives the startling impression of an eagle soaring through a blue sky.

Another painting (“Untitled, 1974”; exhibit 16) suggests danger with its heavy black brushstrokes crisscrossing the blue background in a skull-like form. Yet, there is an attractive internal organisation in the painting that compels you to look again. The image of a bird in a nest, which stereotypically suggests security and comfort, appears inverted – provoking contradictory emotions.

The works can make you realise the controlling nature of the brain; when one has seen the motif in a painting – the conventionally “right” way to see it – the eyes obstinately refuse to let go of that image. The conditioned mind clings tenaciously to the bird and has difficulty going back to the more innocent experience of the form of the painting. Baselitz claims that his use of motifs is unimportant and his later works obscure any recognisable subject even further, focusing on the painterly aspects of each piece. There is harmony here – but it is a harmony that is less concerned with aesthetic balance within a frame and more with a balance of emotions and ethics.

Baselitz has written, “When I start my paintings I begin by forming things as though I were the first to do this, the only one, as though there weren’t all these predecessors – although I know that there are thousands of examples to speak against me. You always have to do something that is valid and final.”

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, 2007.

Published: January 18, 2007

View from Parrish 4th

Swarthmore College, around 2001

Swarthmore College, around 2001

Published: October 20, 2001