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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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16. ON THE ROAD 2006-2007

FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE AMAZING BATIKING CIRCUS SIAMESE TWINS................. We flew back to Delhi via Maryland, where we visited with Beth's family, and England, where we caught up with some old friends, at the end of September 2006. It was certainly good to be back in India and to get our old back room again at the seedy Prince Palace Hotel in Pahar Ganj. We were quickly reminded that we were back in India where the West and it's safe predictable routine (not that our life was ever very predictable at the best of times) went out the window. On our first day there, the hotel suddenly filled up with grim-faced policemen and we learned of the death of a foreigner upstairs. We were told that a drug overdose was the cause but there were drops of blood on the marble staircase after the body was removed. Having decided to get into the Indian import business, we bought our first traditional children's clothes which were to be shipped off to Maryland. We spent our evenings watching HBO on our room's TV and putting drawstrings into tiny pairs of trousers. Not having very much feel for these clothes myself, I had to have faith in Beth's ideas and vision at this point.

Being heavily laden as we always seem to be on these trips ( I think that I try to carry my house on my back like a large snail shell), we rented a car to go up to the mountains from Delhi. We first stayed at Tara's Guest house, my old stomping ground in Paparsali, for a few days while we generally got re-acclimatised and caught up with old friends. When we got back to the house in Ayarpani, we found it in rather neglected. We had been away for eighteen months so I suppose that that was to be expected. Than Singh had chopped down the huge oleander tree at the front of the house, probably for firewood, and I was furious about that. It left us open and totally exposed to the Bageshwar road which ran in front of the house. In fact, the garden was a total mess and it looked as if every scrap of outside wood had been taken for firewood. Than Singh was obviously drinking heavily which would lead to trouble down the road. The top roof leaked and the cistern was cracked and held no water. We unpacked our bags once again. With faithful Danu's help, we rebuilt the outside shelter where we sat in the yard to eat most of our meals. Danu re-cemented the cistern and fixed the roof and we cleared the terraces around the house and planted a basic vegetable garden. Our old friend Mr Joshi from Delar Village started to come by regularly to bring us apricot jam. I fixed the flat tires on the scooters, got them back on the road and we were mobile once again. Our friends Barry, Kommeman and their sweet son Matthew were at their house in the village and we saw quite a bit of them.

Slowly we settled back into our old routine and counted our blessings daily. Without mains electricity, we went to bed early every night and read aloud to one another, starting with Tom Robbins' "Jitter Bug Perfume" and moving onto our favourite book "Lonesome Dove". Beth started to bake breads, scones and cakes regularly in the living room wood stove oven. And we saw our first incredible clear Himalayan snow peak views from the ridge above the house at the end of the month. We walked all over the hills behind us. I finally got into a project that I'd talked about for way too long, a series of young kids' stories about Pintoo the Wonder Dog, inspired by our neighbours' dog, Pintoo. (All Than Singh's dogs- and there had been many of them over the years- were called Pintoo) Pintoo practically moved into the house with us as soon as we arrived. He was in a pitifully thin state and had recently been attacked by monkeys but over the next months grew sleek and happy under Beth's instinctive TLC. By full moon on Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th, the two boxes of books that we had sent by sea mail had arrived. The house' solar system was set up and running although it still had to be tweaked from time to time. Our life in Ayarpani was functioning pretty well again. The only bad news was that Rex, Beth's 85 year old father, had fallen whilst jogging (!!) near the retirement home where he and Beth's mother lived and had badly hurt his head. Beth's mother Audrey had been ill for years with Parkinson's Disease but this was a totally unexpected development and upset Beth very much. Sometimes there were disadvantages to living in India so far from family and friends in the USA.

But there was not too much we could do for the situation from India and continued with a planned road trip with our friends Bruce and Chrissie who had showed up from the UK. They were traveling around India on their scooter and we decided to go part of the way with them, up to Munsyari, a town on the Nepali border. In retrospect, had I thought about the roads and terrain that we had to cover on a scooter, I might not have agreed to make this trip. We wanted an adventure however and took off with the others one day in November with winter coming on in the mountains. We stopped at an "eco-camp" in Dhaulchinna on the first night, the only guests there and spent a pleasant night around a huge fire drinking herb teas and telling tall tales. The following day, we headed North via Berinag to Thal where we took rooms on the top floor of the only hotel in town. It was so cold that we went to bed fully dressed and read to each other. The trip really started the next day when we took the high, winding road up past Kalamooni Temple to Munsyari itself. It was a cold windy day and the road itself was narrow and winding with breathtaking views and a breathtaking sheer precipice on our right. I gritted my teeth, spurred on the tiny scooter and wished, not for the first time, that we had a car or at least a Harley Davidson motorbike. Several times, Beth got some extra exercise and had to get off the bike and run up some steep hills behind me. But we made it to Munsyari safely where we checked into a large cold room at the Tourist Guest house there. Munsyari had a slightly grim, end-of -the-road vibe to it; it was a small, hilly, trekkers town right up against Panchachuli, a spectacular five-peaked Nepali mountain range which hung above the whole slightly sorry scene. Once again, we stayed in bed and looked out of our window at the path running down into the town where an endless stream of locals walked by, carrying bundles on their heads, herding their goats and going about their daily business. It was a unique view on that particular tiny chilly world. The next day we went out to visit my old friend Khem Singh, the carpet seller, in Bunga. I had met him at the Bageshwar Mela a few years before and had batiked his portrait. He appeared slightly alarmed to see us but was, as to be expected, a perfect host and even managed to sell us a couple of local black shawls. The next day was beautiful and we left early, back to Kalamooni where we met up with Curt, an old Kasar Devi face. The long narrow road down the mountain had still to be navigated. Secretly, I had been scared of this since the journey up but as usually is the case, the fear was much worse than the reality and we arrived safely back in Thal that night. We said our goodbyes to Bruce and Chris the following morning, they were en route to Nepal and we drove carefully down to Ayarpani by that evening.

Our Ayarpani idyll was only broken by constant raids from the local monkeys who actually managed to get into the house a couple of times and stole food on each occasion. Beth found herself literally face to face with a big red monkey in the kitchen one day and I chased a big one out of the house and he ran off carrying a big bag of basmati rice tucked under his arm. They were very aggressive and completely fearless and I shouldn't have liked to be caught in a corner by a bunch of them. Then came a train trip down to Delhi where I had to undergo extensive dental work. It was getting cold in the mountains and Delhi was only a little warmer. The trips to the dentist lasted for about two weeks; the only entertaining thing about them was the fact that Dr Umre, my new dentist, had the Indian movie star Shah Rukh Khan as a client also. There were big photographs of the Bollywood star, flashing his gleaming new teeth, seated in a dentist chair smoking a cigarette while the staff at the clinic looked on adoringly. We took the rest of our time in the city to go shopping for stuff to send back to the States and visited all the markets to buy a great assortment of children's clothes, biddi bags ( the colourful silk- screened bags that biddi cigarettes came in) scarves of all colours and sizes and bedspreads. We shipped them off to America straightaway to await us when we got back there. We intended to sell them at music festivals around Colorado to supplement our batik art shows, thinking, rightly, that music festivals were a lot more fun to do than art festivals which tended to be rather stuffy affairs.

By the end of 2006,we were safely ensconced at the house again, working on some batik bags for Tony and Tatiana in London. We provided batik panels which were to be set into elaborate leather bags by the others. Our designs were all of exotic flowers. It wasn't terribly interesting work but if we got enough orders for them,it might help pay the rent. Winter was finally coming in, the skies were cloudier and the nights cooler but we still ate outside every night and the wood stoves kept us warm. Work in the studio took us into the New Year, which as always offered a brand new ray of hope. But as we listened on our shortwave radio to the interminable bad news of the Iraqi War, the unresolved conflicts in the Near East and the horror tales from Africa, the Real World had never seemed in worse shape. And I couldn't remember any other time in my life that the actions of the main political world leaders had made me feel angrier or more upset. Truly the world seemed to be going to hell! We celebrated my 63rd birthday and our 3rd wedding anniversary at the end of January by renting a tiny Indica car and going off to Jageshwar with Tara for the day. It was a nice drive on a dangerous single-track road to see the big temple complex there, set under ancient and spectacular deodhar trees. I'd been there many times before but it was the first time for Beth. In Jageshwar, which is otherwise a small, uninteresting Kumaoni town, there are two large temple complexes, one built in the 7th century with a large main temple on the outskirts of the town and generally more impressive, the other a large stone complex made up of 140 often tiny mandhirs in the middle of town. On the way home we stopped and looked at an overhanging rock outcrop painted with figures and animals, a very sacred spot where men must have sat out under the stars for eons, burning fires and communing with ancient gods.

For awhile, life settled into a regular and comfortable routine of work in the studio, some simple gardening, walks on the ridge behind the house, cooking and reading around the fire at night. Beth played her silver flute almost every day. This was the Kumaoni winter, generally cooler but beautiful by day so that we were outdoors most of the time. The sun, which set right in front of us over Ranikhet in mid-summer, was dipping behind the mountains to the South of us by this time. The leaves had fallen from the fruit trees and there were often spectral mists in the valley in the morning. Small hills like tiny islands rose up out of a pale sea below us. Our trips out on the bike grew less frequent though we tried to ride down to the Ridge every week or so to check emails at Mohan's Cafe. And we had visitors to the house fairly often. Arianne, my first wife Elspeth's daughter showed up with her boyfriend on a lightening trip around India, Chris and Chris, the two dancers came by to show off their new motorbike and to talk about art and we made friends with a young Israeli called Aki. He was fresh from the military, a 22 year old paratrooper, who told us of his- to me horrifying- experiences jumping out of planes carrying huge guns in the middle of the night. When we needed a break, we would go down to Tara's for a night or two where we had unlimited electricity to charge batteries, download pictures onto the laptop, take long hot showers and do some quiet socialising.

By mid-February it had started to rain and it snowed heavily a few days later as the temperature dropped but the snow soon melted. We were back in the studio, outside on the top veranda by the road, working on a new series of batiks. Beth was exploring the Pointillist style in her paintings while I was working on a bunch of portraits. Most fun was a big piece of my mechanic Shankar looking like late-model Elvis in front of a gigantic Coca-Cola advertisement. Next was a painting I called "The Bride's Family". I worked from a photo I had taken at a local wedding and it showed 7 or 8 women, tightly framed, all expressing great emotion of one kind or another as their darling daughter was married off and about to leave their family house. But we were not batiking alone anymore; Danu's 16 year-old son, Bhagwat, had started batik classes with Beth and another small batik table was set up alongside ours'. Bhagwat was a sweet, shy boy, probably dyslexic, who had dropped out of school very early and was now often labouring with his father. But he loved drawing gods and goddesses and was very keen to learn our process. Danu was delighted that we were prepared to help him and perhaps had fantasies that batik was his way to a better life. He was no trouble at all in spite of acute language problems and we both enjoyed having him around. His work improved quickly and he showed great facility with a tjanting.

At the start of March, we made another trip down to Delhi on the night train with our old friend Alan. Beth's brother Marc had been working in Dubai, playing bass with a jazz group there in some incredible hotel, and was coming to visit India for the first time before he went home to Colorado Springs. We met him at the airport and he spent a couple of crazy days with us in Pahar Ganj while we bought more stuff to ship back to the States to sell in the summer. When we got back to Ayarpani and back to the studio, Tom, a friend from Hastings showed up and we suddenly had a full house. Time was short for our two visitors and we met up with Bruce, Chrissie and Anam the following day and took off on a walk to Jageshwar and Binsar Mountain. But heavy rain set in and,after two days walking, we all ended up back at the Dhaulchinna Eco-Camp, wet and frustrated. As Tom and Marc left for Delhi and beyond, my old friend Maxine arrived with her boyfriend Klaus. There seemed to be a non-stop procession of old and new friends passing by our apparently remote mountain hide-out. I'd known Maxine for years and we planned some good walks together. Actually the only problem with our full social life was the fact that it kept us out of the studio. Old Than Singh, our nearby neighbour, was another problem. His drinking had gotten much worse and he was often out of it by 10 am. Once I literally had to pick him up and carry him out of the center of the road where he had passed out. If he was still on his feet, he was quite likely to come by later and make trouble, ranting and raving and alluding to big fortunes that I owed him. It was really a drag. The Kumaonis take their drink badly and T.S's behaviour was often a shadow over the house. He was always very contrite after each episode but frankly I hate drunkenness. It was especially upsetting as generally,thanks mainly to Beth, relationships around the village had improved and greatly increased on this trip; Memsahib Than Singh, who had seemed to be my bitter enemy for years, had become positively flirtatious and Beth's new best friend. They exchanged food right through the winter. Once, Beth, cooking up a storm in the wood stove oven, had baked two pumpkin pies with a pumpkin that T.S., in a moment of contrition, had given us. One pie for us, the other for the T.S. Family. We took it over and presented it to them. They had obviously never seen anything like it before. Old T.S. reached across immediately and dragged his finger across the top of the filling, was about to stick it in his month when Beth and I instinctively (in horror at the desecration) reacted by exclaiming No!. He hastily wiped his finger off on some leaves. His wife came over a little later, and not having understood the situation at all, asked us if the pie was for her goats! And we were getting on very well with the villagers. The kids came over daily to bring us milk and to watch us at work and we took some wonderful photographs of them. Living beside the road, we were watched by a steady stream of passer byes and visitors. Generally we could ignore those ever present Indian eyes though it was not unknown for cars to stop and their drivers' to get out, climb the gate and come over to ask us what we were doing. Life on the Road!

We escaped the house to take walks with Maxine and Klaus and with my old friend Dieter and I was reminded that you didn't have to trek all the way up into the mountains to find the real India; there were fabulous walks to be taken all over our region of the Kumaon where every little valley held a surprise village and villagers who would troop out to meet us and treat us as if we were the very first foreigners they had ever seen. We walked down the valley below the house, along the river all the way up to Kasar Devi and later, discovered the river and beautiful waterfall near to Mat Village. We took Dieter's village walk and walked down through Deoria and Chirala to Dieter's house in Palio where we spent the night at a beautiful old traditional house and were waited on hand and foot. What a Life! Tara's mother, a wonderful old lady, who had been ill for some time died while we were at Tara's one day. The whole Tewari Family was in attendance and her passing emotionally and publically mourned. Tara, Som and Lalu shaved their heads immediately and the shop and guest house were closed for two weeks. I had batiked the old lady several times, once as a sort of Empress of the Himalayas and would send the batiks to Tara when we came back to the States later in the year.

Our involvement in the local community continued and we went to Mr Joshi's house in Delar Village for the marriage of his youngest daughter. It was a fascinating scene; heavy rain drove the whole crowd indoors where the ceremony was held and we found ourselves sitting right behind the bride and very much involved in the wedding. As always, the ceremony seemed more like a piece of commerce than a marriage service with the bride's family offering jewelery, cash and clothes as dowry, all of which were blessed by the pundit with ghee, dyes and flower petals. Afterwards, the bride's sisters literally threw themselves onto the ground, crying as they mourned their sister's leaving the family. We walked home in the rain wondering why western marriages were normally so much less emotional. I thought that it must be that the Indian family structure was much stronger than in the west. In a household situation of such extreme poverty- where families own so little and where they must spend their early (and later) lives in such close proximity- all the family ties and bonds seem to be deeper and tighter. I've certainly never seen such a demonstration of affection and total desolation at a western wedding! It was very moving. Danu had been inviting us to come and eat with his family down at his little house for months and before we left, we finally got it together and walked down. I knew how poor his family was and secretly had perhaps been dreading the visit. But I couldn't have been more wrong nor had a better time. Danu and his wife lived in a tiny two roomed house with mud floors and an exposed tin roof. There were 5 children there too and they all apparently slept together on the floor for there was not a stick of furniture in the house except for a rug that we had given him and some sacks on the floor. But we had such fun! Beth had brought one of those kids' bubble blowing toys as well as the digital camera and aided with these, we played all afternoon. More kids and neighbours stopped by to join in and we all laughed such a lot. It was a lesson for me- how people could be so utterly poor but have such a rich and cheerful family life. In spite of possessing nothing, this family was just as happy as I was! Having "stuff" just doesn't have anything much to do with happiness. Before this Indian idyll ended, we had one more job to do and one more drama from T.S. to endure. The top roof was leaking again and I arranged for Danu and his brother to re-cement it for us. They stripped off the old cement one day and the next, were due to come and cement it all over again. It was a grey day with rain threatening from the north. T. S. had been drinking from early in the morning and we could hear his loud, slurred voice from the next door house. Our workers came over, upset, to say that it was impossible to continue the work, that T.S. wouldn't let them. I looked up at the grey sky and exploded! I dragged a jabbering T.S. over to the house and threw him down into the pile of sand waiting to be stirred into the cement. He was a bit taken back by my show of rage but insisted that the house was his and that he must be paid before the work could be done. An hour later, Beth had him a under control, I had my workers a bit calmer and the work could start. But T.S. had to be watched all day and we were all a bit shaken up. The following day the work was done without further mishap. But we didn't leave any money with T.S. when we finally left and instead slipped it to his wife. So the house was packed up again, its contents put into metal trunks and all the doors locked and tight. We said our goodbyes to Danu and to Bhagwat who had done really good work over the past half-year. I gave a rather depressed Than Singh a cautious handshake and his protesting wife a big hug and we were on the road once more. Another chapter at the Ayarpani house was over and we had to move onto Delhi and points west.

Beth had to do some dental work in Delhi which kept us there for a week en route for the States but it was there that she got an email from Marc telling her the shocking news that her mother, Audrey, had died suddenly on Mother's Day. Her mother had endured a worsening condition of Parkinson's Disease for years but her passing was a complete surprise. Fortunately, she had died with her usual quiet grace. She had gone for a walk, laid down for a rest at a family Mother's Day celebration and slipped quietly away. Not a bad way to go, all in all. Our visit to Delhi turned out to be madly sociable; We went to the Bombay Circus and I ran into a bunch of old and new friends but we finally escaped and flew onto England for a quick visit and from there back to Colorado Springs. It was the end of May and the next phase of our 'on the road' experiences was about to start.

This time around, we were living in the empty basement at Marc's house on W. Kiowa and we collapsed there for a few days absolutely exhausted. A week later, we took Aunt Christine with us to Maryland for Audrey's memorial service and a week with Beth's Dad who was still ill from the fall he had taken some months before. He was still very depressed and confused about what had happened. It was an intense family scene but the service itself at a nearby Unitarian church offered some kind of temporary closure to a sad situation. We flew back to Colorado just in time for our first market, a folksy music festival in Pagosa Springs where we had fun camping out in a beautiful spot but sold poorly. It was the first time that we shown our Indian imports, there were not many people there and we still probably didn't know how to present them properly. We got back into the studio as soon as we recovered from the trip. This time we were working on a new series of batiks to be made into bags by Tony and Tatiana in London. I wasn't very happy about these designs but, for a struggling artist, work is work. Beth's 46th birthday passed by without much fanfare and we slipped into a home routine which actually was much appreciated after all the action of the previous weeks. Our next art show was in La Veta where Beth used to live and that went well enough as it usually does. We're always rather popular around there, perhaps because we only show up twice a year or so. The following weekend we had a great time camping out at a Bluegrass festival at the Happy Ass Ranch nearby; quite good sales, fun people and good music. From there we went straight into a week teaching batik at a summer school in Denver. The early morning starts and long drives weren't much fun but the young kids were and we were invited back to do the same courses next year. The following week,we spent a couple of days looking at houses for sale and found a bungalow near to La Junta which we loved and actually put an offer in on. It wasn't accepted but we realised that we both really needed to have our own house in Colorado if we were to continue to come back there to do shows in the future. That's another project to work on next time around.

And next time around was the annual Hermosa Club Show in Cuchara, high in the mountains above La Veta which went pretty well though not quite as well as last year, making us think that we should probably take a year off. The weekend following that, we drove all the way down into New Mexico and spent a night in Roswell, the UFO capital of the States, before setting up our booth at a big, rather upmarket, indoor show in Ruidoso. Then we sweated and cursed for three long hot days without making any sales to speak of before selling three big paintings in the last hour of the show. Why does it sometimes go like that? We drove back home on an exhilarating full moon and thanked our lucky stars. The next week, Beth made a quick trip back to Maryland to spend five days with her father after he had undertaken brain surgery following the discovery of small tumours; it was literally the only time that she and I had been separated for longer than two hours in the four years that we had spent together. I found her absence very strange. I managed to fill the days in the studio with batik work and lay low, waiting for her to come back. Golden, outside of Denver, was our next show and that went well as usual; we won First Prize as we always have done, sold quite well and were interviewed by Channel 9 TV to boot. I was amazed how many people said that they had seen us on local TV at 7 o'clock in the morning. Hadn't they anything better to do at that hour? But we got a lot of praise for our work from a surprisingly educated and knowledgeable public which was not disagreeable. A music festival in a little hippie town called Nederland at 9,000ft outside of Boulder, followed that, where we showed our imports again. That went slowly although we met some really nice people and made us realise that we had to improve our selling skills, up the energy a bit and try harder. Which we did at the next show in Boulder where we worked really hard, were more or less on our feet for four long days and sold our Indian imports rather well. As always, we met some fascinating people; on one side of our booth, an ex-hippie sold amazingly realistic grass turf while on the other, Khahlil Gibran's grandson sold water purification units. With only three days off to recover in-between, our next show was the following weekend in Arvada, a suburb of Denver. That turned out to be a total bust; it was a carnival and a carnie public turned out to be largely indifferent to Art and India and much more interested in smoked turkey legs and popcorn. You live and learn.

Our final outdoor art show for the season was Globalquerque, held down in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the fabulously beautiful Spanish Cultural Center. It was a long drive down through southern Colorado as we crossed the old Santa Fe Trail and followed Route 66 across the pinon-dotted desert landscape through intense rain storms right into the center of Albuquerque and our room at the Silver Moon Lodge. The show itself was a big multi-cultural extravaganza, featuring music and art from all over the world; we heard an astounding solo-voiced Tibetan singer, a late-model Koko Taylor and her Blues Machine band as well as Planet Drum featuring Micky Hart and Zakir Hussein who closed the shows. As always, we met great people with whom we instantly bonded for life as we always do-and sold moderately well. Best of all, on the way home the following day, we stopped off at an old ghost town, now populated by hippies and a thriving art center, called Madrid where a fearless Beth walked into the biggest and best gallery in town and we walked out with a contract to show our work there next summer. And we managed to sell most of our remaining Indian imports to the gallery owner as well. Back in Colorado Springs at the end of September, we have some new paintings to finish and one more show to hang in a gallery in Boulder before we fly out of here on October 10th. We're off to Europe to do a show of representational batik at Gallerie Smend in Koln, Germany and then plan to spend some time in England. Once again, it's a new chapter starting in our ongoing adventures- and once again, I'll keep you posted.......

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