The International Writers Magazine: Artist on the Road in India
Derelict Dhows and a Faded Past in Mandvi, India
Barmer, a three hour local bus ride south of Jaisalmar, is the starting point of a painting journey around the Western rim of India's Gujarat State bordering the Arabian Sea. Barmer turns out to be a disappointment. It is another gritty town manically engaged in daily commerce. There is nothing of interest for me here: I paint as I travel.
Image Mandvi Derelict Dhow © Michael Britton
Upon arriving I am met by a mean-tempered crew of Lilliputian sprites. I try to outrun them but burdened with a heavy backpack and painting easel I am outpaced and rudely groped despite throwing myself onto the highway and into the mercies of speeding trucks.
There is something about me and dirty little girls. Elfin terrors seek me out and when found they assault me with a feral viciousness. Their sharp claws scratch at my arms like rabid kittens imploring me for money.
'No money! No money!' I insist followed with an assertive, 'I will not contribute to your continuing delinquency while enriching the coffers of a morally decrepit Fagin. Begone!'
Sometimes rocks are thrown. Bedraggled urchins possess an uncanny aim. Especially when the target is a grumpy traveller. Head shots are the norm.
Were I travelling light, unencumbered with painting gear, maleficent urchins could easily be outdistanced. Travelling long term requires a rationale, a purpose, otherwise I would easily find myself in a dark wood flitting from nullity to nullity. Painting and writing is the rudder; a rudder sorely tested by the vicissitudes of my temperament, that writs my aimless wanderings.
Keeping a baleful eye peeled for marauding little girls I slip out of town on the evening bus south bound for Bhug. Bhug, too, proves to be a painterly disappointment. That is the nature of serendipitous travel—stepping into the dark and taking your chances.
Mandvi, the third in this hopeful game of potluck hop-scotch, is a jewel of painterly delights. This down-on-its-luck resort town has a plucky spirit and stumbles along with a variety of part time jobs.
Mandvi's main gig is a shipyard where about twenty large wooden dhows are built and repaired in a centuries old tradition of hammering and caulking planks of hard wood. The dhows, in various stages of construction, repair, and some hopelessly decrepit, are clustered on the east side of town. Most look to be abandoned. Dhow skeletons litter the channel. I suspect the instalment payments petered out. There is little need for a repo man here.
Only two, sometimes three, boats are worked on by small crews. The dhow business is not what is once was. Blame it on Somalia's pirates. Leisurely paced dhows circumventing the Horn of Africa like unattended, overstuffed picnic baskets are easy pickings for buccaneers on jet boats.
I am a strange bird here. A smattering of wayward photographers happen upon Mandvi but an en plein air painter is a novelty. The act of painting is an intimidate engagement of a locale and immediately pricks the traveller's isolating bubble. The shipyard workers gingerly approach and are intrigued that I would paint what is to them a common sight. Hammering planks onto a dhow's hull has purchased the bulk of their lives since early adolescence.
Their livelihoods are fragile. Fatigue is deeply etched in their faces. Several of the older men have cataracts and, no longer able to tightly fit planks, are relegated to the heavy task of hauling lumber.
My painting here is a mute exchange of cultures. I seek out the intimate corners of Mandvi and in the process exhibit the traditions of mine. It is a quixotic exchange; their way of life is fading, so, too, is mine. Both our parts belong to an earlier era.
A kilometre or so west of Mandvi's market is the beach ravelling along the Arabian Sea until its ochre ribbon evaporates into the marine air. Rajas once romped upon these sands while concubines played mean spirited volleyball games contesting for royal favors. The royals now romp in Rio and the concubines pursue more vertical avenues of employment.
||Mandvi's beach has fallen on hard times. Camels for hire, festooned in glittering finery, lounge sullenly waiting for customers who are as elusive as ghosts at an afternoon tea party serving cucumber sandwiches. There are horses and ponies too, dandied up with ribbons and pompoms looking to join a parade that has marched elsewhere. A waterslide promises a rough ride down its rusted incline to a hard landing onto a rubble of rocks.
Further along this melancholic rim of forsaken frivolity wind turbines slump like disgruntled workers who have mutinied for better working conditions. And like a union picket line they are shunted aside to endure a mute protest. Their blades are twisted, some have broken off completely.
I enjoy the solitude of walking and splashing along the sea's edge. Touching the waters of a new sea is always a quiet feat, a marker of my expanding world experience. Despite my efforts to push it back solitude gives way to loneliness. Loneliness is an assassin. It creeps up from behind and slips a plastic bag over your head. Once ensnared it is damnably difficult to escape. I struggle to reason with this dark interrogator that pelts me with anxieties and longings.
Money worries join the melee to pummel me senseless. I really need to relax, let go and savor the stark beauty of vacant sand and lapping water. I think too much. Mostly about myself.
A tap on my elbow releases me from this stupor of self pity.
Hello is two soft and musically enunciated syllables. Lilting and concordant. This high octave hello stabs into my spinal cord like a shard of ice. I turn to acknowledge the hello. It is attached to a scruffy little girl. A hand is cupped on her hip. Her stance is threatening. A troupe of hardened mini-gangsterettes are assembled behind her. Their squinty eyes assess their trembling prey.
'We've been looking for you, fella.'
'You have?' I squeak.
The burbling troupe motion to surround me like hopping sparrows encircling a seed bowl. I quickly calculate my chances of outrunning these diminutive marauders. Little girls have little legs. But they can move fast. I have long legs and an awkward gait. There is little choice. I break left toward the Arabian Sea and flee, my large flat feet slapping panic stricken in the cool water. I run like the whimpering wind pursued by the yelping puppies of Hell.
© Michael Britton - March 2013
Biography: Michael is a gonzo plein air artist perpetually wandering the globe painting and writing and generally feeling sorry for himself. His commiserations can be enjoyed at:
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