What kind of madness does it take to love a city? Particularly when it is Delhi? A very specific kind, as it turns out! And through a series of 10-day mini-residencies 12 artists are currently exploring why and how.
We start on a positive note: Share with your fellow two artists gathered for the first day of orientation what you love about the city. Which is your favourite place to hang out in the city, first alone? A hidden pond; my rooftop. How about with friends? In our apartments; eating on the road-side. Then what is your favourite time of year in the city? The cold of winter; March, that blissful Spring-time cusp between extreme cold and extreme heat! What is your favourite time of day to be in the city? Etc, etc.
Then the first assignment: take a 10-minute walk and remind yourself what you don’t like about Delhi. The 10-minute walk happens to be in the middle of the day when the already hot summer is at its hottest. It happens to be in a neighbourhood of narrow streets, bumper to bumper cars, dust in the air from the endless construction, and overflowing drains. We re-assemble at the Art for Change studio-office and a picture emerges. Dirty water tossed from a balcony above and the sense of civic responsibility that doesn’t cross the front doorstep. Living in five different flats in different parts of the city and never knowing your neighbor above, below, or on either side. The one-upmanship and power of money, and the memory of a man stepping out of a fancy car to abuse a cycle rickshaw driver whose front wheel he has mangled. The insecurity of being a woman in a public place, needing to be more suspicious at night of the person offering help than the person causing you trouble. The list goes on and the reasons for disliking Delhi pile up.
Then the discussion turns to madness: Has anyone ever called you mad? Yes, the madness of doing something crazy, of taking a risk that others refuse to. A discussion about seeing things others cannot yet see—the madness of the entrepreneur: Dhirubhai Ambani and Steve Jobs. Seeing things that aren’t, but should be—the madness of the social reformer: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And then there’s the madness of the artist: The power of imagination, creating out of nothing, bringing to light things yet unseen, imagining what isn’t but could be. The conclusion: This is what our mini-residency is about, seeing the city with new eyes, seeing it upside down, seeing the beauty that is, seeing the beauty that could yet be. The power of art to help one see something as if one has never seen it before. It takes a certain madness to do so, and along with the entrepreneur and the social reformer, the artist has that madness.
We discuss Aamir Khan’s movie P.K., the story of a man who turns up from a different planet where divisions between people don’t exist and he thus can’t make heads or tails of the things that divide people on earth. In turn the only way people can make sense of his profound innocence is to claim he must be ‘peekay,’ Hindi for ‘he drank something,’ which he assumes must be his name.
And then we turn to Fyodor Dostoyevski’s The Idiot. Dostoyevski wrote this book during two years of desperate poverty, moving with his young wife from city to city to evade debtors, kicked out of house after house because of not being able to pay the rent. And the little money he had he would from time to time gamble away. Throw into that mix his epilepsy: the night his daughter was born he had a major epileptic fit and wasn’t able to go out and find a midwife. Three months later his baby daughter died, and till his dying day he blamed himself. And through-out these two years he was writing The Idiot. The Idiot is an experiment, to see what would happen if a profoundly innocent man were to interact with the world as we know it. And thus the Idiot finds himself getting beaten up while trying to stop a fight. He sees beauty in a woman who was abused as a child and shamed. When the wealthy parents of his fiancée call a party to introduce him to their friends, he gets carried away with a speech about the corruption of the rich, ends up smashing a priceless vase, and to top it off collapses in an epileptic fit, to the shock of all present. And yet he doesn’t seem to care. He is ridiculed and he is called mad, and yet those who ridicule him are also attracted to him, they are changed by him. It is a madness of innocence, a madness of compassion, a madness that causes the Idiot to say: “Beauty will save the world.”
And now it is time to head out again for the second assignment. Repeat your 10-minute walk around the neighbourhood. But this time, imagine you are mad. Imagine you are P.K.. Look at your city with the madness of the Idiot. Look at it upside down. Experience it for what it is and what it could be.
And when we return, out of that same heat, squeezing by the same honking cars, stepping over the same overflowing drains, something is different. Samir Mohanty, a remarkable painter from the state of Odisha, tells us about finding an irresponsibly parked scooter causing a minor traffic jam in the narrow lanes. He thinks like the Idiot, and decides to lift it to the side. The person in the car blowing his horn glares at Samir as he drives by. Samir realizes the driver thinks it was his scooter. We discuss the merits of what Samir has done, the unjust blame he received for doing good. Samir actually recognized the driver, another artist. Someone says they will probably meet again in some exhibition and Samir would have the opportunity to clarify his innocence. Then we realize—it doesn’t matter. We know the truth, and truth will always be truth, whether Samir is vindicated or not. We circle back to an earlier discussion about Gandhi-ji and the strength he drew from truth, particularly his insight into human freedom. Beauty and truth, will save the world.
Then there is Manoj Mohanty, another amazing painter from Odisha. He notices a group of carpenters at work in a house under construction. He feels compassion for the workers labouring in the heat and steps in to quietly look around. He picks up a small piece of wood and someone tells him he isn’t allowed to take it. So with a smile he puts it down. He takes out his bottle of water and after a sip offers it to the laborer. The laborer gratefully takes a drink. Something changes in the air, and he says: “Go ahead, take the piece of wood.” Manoj explains he wants to make a painting on it and leaves. Manoj makes the painting, and then returns and gifts it to the labourers.
It takes a certain madness to see our city anew. It takes the madness of an artist to be able to help others see our city as if they had never seen it before. We have finished three of our five planned mini-residencies. We are looking forward to what more is to be revealed.