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Confessions of an Itinerant Batik Artist

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INDIA 2002


It has been said of my house in India that it is like living in a Yellow Submarine. The allusion is fairly apt for the house, near Almora in the newly created state of Uttaranchal, does have an otherworldly quality about it. Come to think of it, I’ve never known a house remotely like it. The house is on the main country road from Almora to the next town, Bageshwar, and is perched at the top of a long valley. The snow-peaked Himalayas that mark the Tibetan border are just up the road. From the narrow highway, the house seems tiny; only a single floor and the top flat roof fringed with withering potted plants can be seen. This top room was a shop when I got the house and is now my studio. On closer examination, things are not what they seem. Under the covered porch, there is a worktable for batik, next to which is a large trident painted on the wall. Various Om signs adorn the wall too and above the blue double doors of the studio, it says in Hindi script:



And pushing past the two scooters parked in the yard there, you find a lovely classic chai shop with an open fireplace and stone benches with a view far away to the mountains in the West, all screened in by bamboo curtains. But another sign, this time made of batiked cloth, flutters above your head. It says " The OUT TO LUNCH CAFÉ". I’m still waiting for a little white car, stuffed with fat Indian tourists, to stop and its’ occupants to ask for Cappuccinos and croissants.


Peach and plum trees surround the top terrace. Steps lead down to the next level where there is a narrow, low passage running from one side of the house to the other. From this terrace, you can enter the two main bedrooms, which are adjoining. Continuing down the winding stone steps, you arrive at the main courtyard, which has a very rustic wooden roof hanging over it and a long stone banquette with an outside table. There is a large paved area with what appears to be a Yoni and Lingam in the center. There was always a central stone with an indentation drilled into it for grinding grains and spices; I brought a large round stone down from a mountain walk once and one day popped it into the hole, where it now lives. The spice hole provoked one of the few rows that my neighbour Than Singh and I have ever had when he wanted to dig it up one day and carry it off to his house. Unbelievably, a real live Rajasthani princess tried to buy it from me once.

From that level, you can enter the kitchen, which leads to a large living room and to the bathroom. All the doorways in the house are about 5 foot high, giving the impression that the house was designed for medieval man or for Hobbits. The living room has a door outside to a balcony and has a beautiful slanted ceiling showing beams with wooden slats in between. Both the main bedroom, over the kitchen and the living room had 5-foot ceilings when I moved in so that I have actually taken out two small bedrooms in order to be able to stand upright. In cavalier fashion, I’ve knocked new windows into both the kitchen and living room to open them up further and to let more light in. Most of the windows on the sun-exposed side of the house are hung with cut glass crystals and by the afternoon, the interior of the house, awash with quivering rainbows, resembles an aquarium. Or a yellow submarine.


Continuing the outside tour, steps lead past the water tank, which is filled with delicious water coming from a spring on the mountain behind. On the next terrace, also paved, there is a buffalo shed situated underneath the living room which stores my solar batteries and lots of tin trunks, most of which don’t belong to me. And round the back of the house is another paved terrace with a sweet private bedroom known as the Honeymoon Suite. Nasturtiums have gone crazy around the doorway and have grown through the stonewalls and all around the room. The Honeymoon Suite has its own back entrance to the bathroom on the level above, via a mosaic path overhung with a pomegranate and a persimmon tree. From one side, the whitewashed house, with its various slated and slanted roofs, looks almost Mediterranean; from the other it somehow looks massive and forbidding, a little like Colditz Castle, the German Second World War prison.


Most interesting of all, from the top Studio room to the kitchen, there is a sequence of trapdoors and wooden stairs so that you can pass down the three main terraces from within the house as well as from either side from without. To me, the house has always reminded me of the German artist MC Escher’s incredible interiors where tiny men walk endlessly up and down on impossible treadmills. Living at the house certainly keeps me fit- it is like living on a gigantic Stairmaster machine and I spend my life wriggling up and down through trapdoors. Truly, people have sometimes gotten confused and found themselves lost in this house, which in reality only has 8 rooms but seems much larger.


When I got back to Almora and to the house after a 20-month absence following my bike accident in 2000, it was as if I’d walked out only 2 weeks before. There was a thin veneer of dust over everything but in a week, it was as if I’d never been away at all.

Looking back on 2002 from this insecure vantage point early in 2003, when a war in my neighbourhood of the World seems inevitable, I believe that it was my most reclusive year ever. I became a virtual hermit, went out very rarely, once staying at the house for over a month, and didn’t encourage visitors much. It feels as if it was a period of re-grounding for me, a year when I reclaimed my house and my land and my identity. And it was a very productive year all in all. I completed a bunch of new house projects, a new balcony, new windows, a brand new chai shop and lots of dry stone walling. I expanded the vegetable garden in all directions and got my solar electrical system to operate faultlessly all year, a record.

I did a tremendous 10-day walk in Garhwal in the fall, the nearby Himalayas an astounding backdrop to the whole trip. With three friends, I drove 100 kms. Northeast of Almora and then, camping out around huge fires at night, for it was very cold at these altitudes, we climbed up to Tungenhat, the site of the highest Hindu temple in India. From there, we went on up to Kuari Pass at the snow line, where we found ourselves around the back of Nanda Devi and Trishul, the highest points to be seen from my house. Sunrise on Karmet was unforgettable, the snow-covered peak seeming to turn every colour under the sun. On the final day, I literally ran and slid 16 kms. almost vertically down the mountain from Kuari back to the river and full-on Maya with the inevitable waiting taxis and seedy chaishops. One of my projects this year is to find and rent a house high up in a village on the trekking routes and to set it up as a permanent lodge so that my mates and I can stay up there during the best walking months. After a week’s walking, when one is starting to feel like a superman, it is always incredibly depressing to have to come down and deal with India, life and all that stuff again.


My work in the Batik studio was a backdrop to everything else and I waxed steadily, outside on the porch through all four seasons. I’ve been in a very experimental mode, playing around with dyes and colour in a way that I would never have dared to do before.

One piece, a portrait of a young man, is dyed solely in shades of gold and blue, complementary colours. I tried out a new range of cold water dyes, Remasol B, with varying degrees of success and ruined several pieces in my quest for a deeper and darker black. I continued with my series of Indian portraits and finished, for better or worse, over 20 more. They became increasingly complex, sometimes dense groups of 6 faces or more, which were incredibly slow to realise. I’ve even become good at painting hands, which I’ve often felt have looked like bunches of bananas in my past work. And I learned a lot about colour and reflected light and dark and can accept the disasters as part of this learning process, which never seems to end.

I clearly remember seeing my first piece of batik. I was teaching young children in Oxford and a fellow teacher brought a small batiked landscape from Java into my classroom. I found the veined effect very attractive and, although the batik was rather complex, I figured out how the process worked and how these effects were achieved instinctively, without having anything explained to me. That must have been almost forty years ago now and I found the art form that day that has obsessed me over what seem like several lifetimes. Dyes and wax resist, water and oil separate; this polarity in my art has conditioned my life but has allowed me to stay free and-er-easy.


I flew back to the UK on my 59th birthday and came on down to my sister Kate’s house in Hastings again. As usual, I aimed to hit the ground running and am pretty well set up here again. Today I started work on 3 new pieces and am happy to say that there seems to be a lot more work inside of me still to come. I’m amazed to find that I love the Batik process as much as I ever did.

O Lucky Man! Who could ask for anything more?


Postscript: O Yes! And I must thank my Turkish friend and colleague in the Batik Business, Errol, my favourite Drycleaner, without whose dedication and skill my work might not be possible. Clean On, Errol!

(Look for further revelations in a forthcoming Confession entitled "Great Drycleaners I have known: Secret Heroes of the Global Wax & Dye Trade")



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