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The many treasures of India

INDIA | Tuesday, 5 July 2011 | Views [950]

The National Gallery of Modern Art hangs just off the corner edge of the Colaba Causeway, at the entry point of the Kala Ghoda art district. The traffic outside was chaotic, horns blaring and cars pushing forward while I tried to escape into the bubble of calm that I knew I would find there. Pan pipes were playing on a sound system. If you listened very carefully, or retreated into the outer enclaves, you could hear some semblance of the traffic outside. It is  a peaceful sanctuary and the walls are filled with the stories and reflections of India.

The gallery confirms a continuing theme of my time in India. Beautiful works are composed and skilfully developed. Though it is small, there is incredible talent reflected in every piece, showing creativity and expression. Yet, some canvasses and prints are shrewdly mounted in cheap timber frames. Many of the oil paintings are set in their original working mounts, still splattered with paint from their first composition. Photos of block prints sit behind ill-cut mats, evidence of everyday cardboard showing. Cracks are developing in recent works and there is little happening to protect them. It is like India doesn't realise what it has, or doesn't know how to, or want to, take care of it.

And still, this could well be a picture of the streets, the waters and the colonial architecture sprawled across the city. On reading about the redevelopment of the Dharavi slums, currently housing one million of the country's poor, I've come to realise that the increasing bureaucracy in an incredibly rich country is holding back its own protection and development, both of places and people. In trying to minimise conservation and maintenance to cut costs, or because it is just too hard, they are letting their true, inner beauty slip away. This country is stunning, blessed with incredible places, endless richness and remarkable people, but too many are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work to protect its treasures. India is packed with life, but it is struggling to maintain its health.

The Jehangir Art Gallery initially paints a different picture. It's cafe is deemed a story of bohemian development and artistic passion; a result of people with endless dedication and commitment to their cause. It is not a space where people are just trying to get by, it is advertised as a space of intellect and reflection. Flourescent umbrellas, imitation ivy leaves and small rubber gumboots hang strategically from the open fence at the edge of the cafe, opposite drawings, scrawls and coloured emblems of society intermingled with selected quotes from English literature. It is a melange of colour, language and life; it is a bubble within this city of juxtapositions. Colour, dirt, music, traffic, wealth, poverty, delicacies, malnutrition.

Yet, after absorbing my mango lassi in the cafe, I was dismayed to find that the gallery was closed, completely empty of art. All that remained in the building was a showroom downstairs where the country's artefacts could be bought up for 30,000 rupees and above. Once more, the treasures of India were reserved only for the wealthy elite, and not proudly on display for all to share. I may have my many criticisms of life in Australia, but this is one chip I do not have on my shoulder. We know how to proudly show and share our short, booming history. I wandered back outside, pleased to find a number of local artists having set up shop on the 'pathway gallery' racks outside, and acquired myself a Parsi painting after a brief chat with the vendor. It wasn't a gallery, but it was something.

I reflected then, on my wanderings of the day before, as I had spent most of the day walking from Colaba up to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the hub of all rail travel in Mumbai. I stood in awe at the mix of gothic and Islamic architecture, and read that there were Hindu and Victorian aspects in there too. It was beautifully crafted, and a walk around the terminus revealed that it was actually a UNESCO World Heritage site. That's wonderful, because as an outsider, I sure couldn't tell. Garish signs and air conditioning systems marred the magnificent facade. A delicately carved lion stood covered in grime and rubbish, a peacock next to electrical lines. It was beautiful, but jaded.

I began walking back to Colaba, knowing it would take me nearly an hour, and picked up a copy of Lonely Planet India, interested in the cover article advertising "Mumbai's Secrets". These are the kinds of things I love; these are the things that continually draw me back to Melbourne as the place I want to live forever. Incredibly, the first day's itinerary for the walking tour to discover the stunning city's secrets were all the things I had already done that morning, including taking moments to simply stare at the glorious stone carvings at the Parsi Agiary on Mahatma Ghandi road, finding the peacocks and gargoyles at the terminus, and observing the street sellers tucked in underneath Blackie House. All this article asked of the residents of Mumbai was to take a moment to ignore its faults and flaws: imagine the city without the traffic, without the beggars, without the poor planning, and take it in as it was meant to be. To help, it recreated all of the city's aspects with picturesque watercolour impressions, sans annoyances, and it was beautiful.

Even more incredibly, the rest of the day's itinerary were all the places I intended to head to on my way back to the hotel: taking in the green space at Horniman Circle, finding St Thomas' Cathedral tucked away on the other side, and sitting in the splendour of the first Christian church in Mumbai. Damn, this girl knows how to plan her wandering. I continued to reflect on the tone of the article and loved the truth and matter of factness of what it asked. One cannot be disappointed or dismayed by the problems of the city. If you really want to enjoy the glory that Mumbai has to offer, it's people, places and soul, you must be willing to put your grievances aside. Yes, there are the poor, the ill, the touts and the street sellers marketing their 'personal massagers'. Yes, there is grime, rubbish and unrelenting traffic, but when you put those aside and take the time to focus on the veins and arteries of the city, you can feel it's thriving pulse, beating hard with passion, life and beauty.

I know some of my posts have included some hard truths and negativity, but all of that said, I am still in love with India. On my first trip to Mumbai, I was enamoured with the rugged terrain and incredible beauty of hiking in rural, undeveloped regions. I watched children walking barefoot and draped in saris along stretches of open roads and sat among rubble to haggle over village paintings of drugs, booze, sex and parties. I felt the city's heartbeat as I took in the coastline of this little island city,  my legs hanging over the edge of rocky barriers, fascinated by the conglomerate of small islands connected by reclaimed land built of dropped palm leaves and dead fish bones. In this trip, I've soaked up the sights, sounds and surrounds of urban life, wandering among streets and laneways, unafraid of getting lost in such an interconnected city.

I've spied people going about their daily routines, seen only few other tourists traipsing about, and become incredibly skilled at crossing difficult roads at any time of day. I have eaten, laughed and basked in architectural beauty. I've been able to relax in a city that is not conducive to relaxation and I've felt recharged and ready to face the Winter cold back home. I will come back to India some day, but it will not be soon, and it will not be this city; there is so much more of these vast plains to explore and more of India's beauty to capture. I look forward to Varanasi, Rajasthan and Jaipur. I want to experience the colour and lifeblood of Delhi and get lost in the experience of the Taj Mahal at Agra. Mumbai and I have finished our business, after my first trip left me without flexibility or freedom, this trip has left me complete. We are done, I am satisfied and you should experience it all too; it is indeed a beautiful place when you take the time to look closely.

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