As the uncle who disappeared for lengthy periods, usually in winter time to India, I was curious about what my very young nephew thought I might be finding in such a place. It may have been his exposure to the enigmatic Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, but he only had to think for a second or two and announced that there were probably egg trees.
This post is taken directly from a diary entry of 1988 when I was leading a group on a 5 day camel journey as part of a three week tour of Rajasthan. By the time I wrote this down we had reached the heady delights of Jaipur, the State capital and a torrent of impressions were imprinted on my own mind.
Caveat from 2019: A huge, almost unimaginable amount of change has occurred in India since that time in 1988. Mobile phones can now send live videos internationally – I had to rely on telex, fax or queue up to book a phone call ! Endless patience was required in banks to change money, often ending up with carrier bag full of wadded notes with huge staples through them and now we can pay with contactless cards and phones or PayPal. Although we may not register it, there is evidence everywhere of caste discrimination, particularly in villages where the majority of the population lives, it is clear that the demands of urban living in a modern economy have changed practices if not mindset. Then, as now, the first question an Indian will ask of a compatriot is their name. Irrespective of dress, this instantly gives the enquirer the religion of the respondent, a strong indication of their caste status and the area of the country they originate from; in turn, these things will determine the resulting interaction. A casual visitor staying in good hotels nowadays may never be aware of any of these influences, merely noting that, now, as then, and as ever, the yawning gulf between those who have and those who have not, is as plain as day.
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Caparisoned elephant painted on silk
In India, there appear to be no egg trees, or at least as far as I was able to see. Notwithstanding this a vast number of eggs are both visible and available, especially to be consumed by chilli shy travellers. Eggs in myriad forms were offered on menus everywhere, particularly as ‘continental’ cooking “omlate, half fry, full fry, crammed” adorning boards outside cafes. Whether egg production is organised in any way is difficult to say, but there are a lot of hens about. But then there are a lot of cows about too, not just in fields and pens, but in streets, on rooftops, in traffic jams, shops, rubbish heaps and often on the steps of houses ! In Jaisalmer we saw cows queue up, blocking narrow lanes toward the end of the day, their muzzles seeking out a brass bowl of offerings such as cabbage leaves, old chapattis, wheat chaff and peelings. In return, a girl of the household may tug at swollen teats to gain a cupful or two of milk from this revered beast. I guess this makes a welcome change from the cow’s normal diet which on the streets seems to be snatched produce from passing carts, straw thrown out on middens or cardboard. To us the sight of a cow steadily munching its way through a cardboard box, as a snake might engulf a small rodent seems bizarre, for we place them in green meadows, or warm musty stalls, but of course location and animal vary wildly from our preconceptions.
In Rajasthan in particular, it seems to be Jaipur that holds the record for cow population. At the time of writing it was also experiencing a dramatic rise from 600k to 1.5 million inhabitants, as a result of crippling years of drought throughout the semi-desert state. The Pink City is becoming increasingly difficult to see for bodies in the way
Rajah Jai Singh founded this planned city when the wells of the former seat of government at Amber Fort, dried up and everyone moved 11Km southwards. Jaipur could be the most colourful city in Rajasthan, steeped as it is in the arts of carpet design and manufacture, block and screen printing enterprises and a plethora of painting ‘schools’, specialising in miniature and Moghul style reproductions. I visited carpet factories and watched the deft hands of children recreating the designs of Isfahan and Tabriz in distant Persia to help pay for their schooling, while the efficacies of American Express were explained to me by Mr Anthony, an expatriate from the south Indian state of Kerala, should I be interested in purchases. Prices, as for any carpet tend to take you aback a little until you realise the amount of work you are buying for your few pounds a square foot hits you. Silk carpets can have 900 knots per square inch because of the fine threads. Wool carpets might have 3-400 knots per square inch, with the thicker, less valuable thread.
A painting school I visited several times was located up a particularly malodorous alleyway which radiated from a bust of the Calcutta revolutionary, Bose, around which traffic, people and animals milled from dawn until late at night. A pissoir was located at the entrance to the alleyway, accounting for the smell. The facility was for men only, mind you, presumably women didn’t get out enough to warrant public toilets. In addition, at almost any time of day with the scant privacy afforded, there seemed to be a bare backside contributing to the turgid flow of the laneside gutter. This was surely safer than squatting near the midden heap where a ruminatory lapse might be rudely disturbed by a bristly dirt spattered pig.
The school itself was located above a green door – the only way I knew how to locate it. Inside narrow steps led to a room where 8 or so people were cross-legged on the floor facing sloping worktables. They were not artists in the way many of us would think, creative people, or at least there was only limited opportunity for this to be expressed. Their main business here was not to create the new, but to recreate the past, just as the boys on the loom recreated Persia. Propped in front of each of them was usually a German or English coffee table art book of famous Moghul era paintings. The job was exact reproduction.
Neither was one person responsible for their own reproductions, for the younger boys would fill in the large areas of sky, or buildings or brown desert background while older boys – and women would pick out the pattern detail on shirts, dot in the pearl buttons, put leaves on trees or caparison steeds of one sort or another. The most senior painter would pick out faces in excruciating fine detail, perhaps using a single camel eyelash (allegedly), and an opium-steadied hand (allegedly !)
Henry Ford’s production line there in backstreet Jaipur. Beautiful paintings, nevertheless, there were crowds watching elephant wrestling, tumultuous battle scenes and hunting parties atop camels or horses. Under the watchful eye of the patron, you might also be shown improbable scenes of amorous encounters. Most were in very sharp detail, if not necessarily in proportion, but a few were more impressionist, soft focus or like Japanese landscapes. Someone told me they were reminiscent of Edward du Lac but I couldn’t say one way or another. What I did come to know was that the schools owner scoured junk shops and bankruptcy sales at the houses of cash strapped minor aristocracy looking for nicely yellowed and frayed books in Urdu or Farsi. These would have paintings created on them, giving a false impression of antiquity, and jacking up the price if not the value.
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Back to 2019
In every traveller’s reportage of a visit to north India, you will find images of Jaipur almost as regularly as the Taj Mahal – everyone is enthralled by the Mirrored belvederes in the Amber Fort, or the Palace of the Winds folly and maybe the monumental structures of the Astronomical Observatory. In a sense the predictability or Instagrammability of the place might lead you to think it commonplace. It is not. It has all the thrills and variety of any big Indian city, but retains a strong connection to the surrounding countryside. It remains part of the so-called Golden Triangle, (tour operators call it the ‘milk run’ !) for good reason.
Nowadays the only advice you will not get from your travel agent is important – use a mask to filter out much of the airborne pollution, or you will definitely leave with a cough, as well as a heavy heart.