Jul 10, 2010
What is it about India that draws writers, painters, photographers
from the West? Do they come here to find, take, imbibe something or
to give away a part of their essential selves to enrich the people
and the milieus they encounter here? Colin Todhunter seeks out a few
seekers who have been drawn to India and lets them tell their stories.
From the 17th century traveller and writer Francois Bernard to
William Dalrymple today, India has always inspired creativity and has
attracted writers, artists and musicians to its shores. The country's
diverse landscapes, multifarious cultures and many philosophies
continue to entice creative types who have effectively made the
country their second home.
What drives them to be here? Are they inspired, exhausted or
fulfilled by the India they inhabit? What does India mean to them? I
recently contacted various people to shed light on these questions,
and, as a foreign writer in India, my own perspective found its way in.
This story is about a diverse group of people, but it is clear that
we all have one thing in common. Each of us has an ongoing love
affair with India. And, as with most affairs of the heart, although
it's a rocky road at times, we keep coming back for more.
photographer, born in France
My first trip to India was in 1984, to the north. In 1999, I returned
for three months to South India, which turned out to be quite
different from what I had seen on my earlier visit. I fell in love
with India during that trip while in Hampi. Hampi's more traditional
way of life was very appealing, and the rural setting reminded me of
aspects from my upbringing that I had missed. I grew up in a village
in Brittany and can still remember the intimacy and easy going pace
of life there. It was very similar in Hampi.
Since 1999, I have been back to India every year, sometimes twice a
year, and it's becoming very difficult not to come back or go
elsewhere. The country has become a part of me. Not a day passes
without me reading something about it or listening to some Indian
music. It's almost an obsession, but a gentle one.
Each time I come to India, I experiment with something new. It can be
meeting Indians on the ghats in Varanasi, spending time with Sadhus,
sharing days with Hijras or attending a colourful festival like the
Sonepur Mela in Bihar. I love shooting daily life but never wanted to
indulge in the sordid, which is a trap you can easily fall into in
India. I deliberately choose to show the brighter side of the
country. What I want to capture is a moment of intense emotion, the
movement and colour, without being abstract.
As I studied painting and sculpture at art school, I drew more
inspiration from painters than photographers, and this shows in my
photographs, where colour fills the background as much as the foreground.
As a result, you don't always see the whole of people's bodies
heads or legs are cropped for the sake of the whole scene that I want
It seems like everybody in India has some kind of knowledge on how to
mix colors - it can be a hut, a tiny shop or a wall. I started
shooting in black and white, but nowadays I wouldn't dream about
going back to it. Life is colour, and India is full of it. There is
an energy here that you don't find elsewhere in the world.
India as a country is going through tremendous changes at the moment.
I can feel it and see it every time I land in Delhi. A traditional,
rural India faces a modern India. To understand either is quite a
task. But I'm a bit selfish. I don't photograph modern India so much.
I shoot my India, the way I see it, and the way I love it.
Travelling and shooting in India each year gives me strength to live
in Europe the rest of the time. I would have real problems if, for
one reason or another, I couldn't go back to India. I have thought
about settling permanently in India a few times. I would love to. A
job there would definitely make me take the step. I am waiting for an offer!
photographer/co-founder of Bindu Art School, born in Austria
I first visited India in 1977 via the overland hippie trail.
I was a hippie too! But many hippies ended up on drugs or in ashrams
seeking enlightenment, when there were all these poor people
suffering from hunger and illness. In Varanasi, I saw many people
affected by leprosy. Though the cost of treatment was minimal, they
could not afford it. I had money for sightseeing in India for six
months, but these people just needed eight euros for treatment.
I was on the point of going home because I just couldn't stand the
situation. I promised myself that I would come back to help those
people. The idea was to return to take photographs to sell in
exhibitions back home. So that's what I did. The first show was a
great success, and, because of it, my first photo-book was published.
With the profits from my various visual art projects, I sponsored
people in two leprosy colonies in Indore and Khandwa, and that's
where the idea of establishing an art school originally came from. I
raised 5,000 euros and wanted to use it in the best possible way. I
was really touched by people who had leprosy because the were not
only ill, they were outcasts too, discarded by their families and
villages. But they possessed a certain brightness. This is what
coaxed the idea of the art school for them to express their beauty,
not their pain, because there was so much beauty within them.
For me, India is the most diverse place in the world. In many ways,
it is the opposite of western culture, and India forced me to
question and develop my own view on life. I was fascinated by Indian
philosophy, especially the Bhagavat Gita, which I have read almost
daily from 1978.
But I don't really believe in borders or nations. For me, it's a
question of humanity. I don't have a fixed personal goal and don't
follow anyone or anything. I just let things come to me. All I want
to do through my visual art projects, and I include Bindu Art School
here, is to strip away illusion, eliminate untruth and show how love
can change people. There is no ulterior motive behind what I do. I
can't forget people's pain and just wouldn't be happy if I didn't help.
In some respects, life in India is as everywhere else. There is an
increasing concern with income, attachments and so on. So, I am aware
that it is heaven and hell in one. I could stay in India forever, if
I had to, but I am always happy to return to Austria with its fresh
air, water and green fields. East or west, home is best.
Colin Todhunter, writer,
born in the UK
"East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." It
certainly felt that way when I first set foot in India in 1995. But
after having spent almost seven years here since then, I can't help
but feel that Kipling may have somewhat overstated the case.
My first abiding memory of India was the incredible amount of people
and unbelievable traffic. What were these strange things they call
idlis and dosas and why was this country drenched with God? It was
part modern and part 18th century, part air conditioned and part
impossibly hot, and part lethargy, part frenzy. In fact, it was part
fascinating, part couldn't wait to get on the plane to leave.
All these years later, however, life in the UK now feels like a
prepackaged, processed supermarket meal that has all the nourishment
of well, a prepackaged, processed supermarket meal. Eating idli and
dosa in India has become second nature, and drinking coffee in a
branch of the Indian Coffee House is much more satisfying than doing
it in a bland corporate chain in the UK.
Before I came to India, I often had writer's block. But, in India, my
writing just flowed. I was continually inspired. India was a total
culture shock at first, and I began writing about the perceived
anomalies of the place and how it overwhelmed me as a foreigner more
used to the genteel subtleties of the West. It was a personal
odyssey, a narrative focussed on my feelings about 'the exotic' and
the raw extremities of the place. It was a recipe for entertaining
Over the years, however, I have gradually embraced what I see and
have moved towards a state of mind that is more attuned to India. I
now feel somewhat part of the place and to a certain extent feel less
like an outsider looking in documenting the unfamiliar.
I increasingly find myself focussing less on the differences between
India and the West and more on common issues that bind us together as
people in an increasingly interconnected world. This concern for
commonality reflects in the way my writing has evolved to focus on
for instance 'globalisation' and its impact on the poor, promoting
projects and causes for socially excluded groups, or discussing the
headlong surge towards acquisitive materialism and the effects this
has on society, all of which affect both East and West alike.
With one foot planted firmly in the UK and the other in India, I am
still able to appreciate that home is family, home is where you were
brought up. But India retains a vibrancy that continues to inspire
and pull me back time after time. I truly believe that there is
nowhere else quite like India!
Isa Esasi, artist,
born in the Netherlands
I am a painter and illustrator of almost anything, including human
bodies. I'm a foreigner in most places, but probably more so in my
birth country, Holland. However, the one place where I really do feel
at home is India. When in India, I don't feel very foreign.
As a child, I spent some years in a Tibetan monastery in France, so
some customs from the East come quite naturally to me. My father also
brought various gifts back from a visit to the Sai Baba Ashram at
Whitefield, along with stories about a miracle man who made the
impossible possible. That left a deep impact. Maybe that was my first
real India experience.
The emotion and symbols of eastern spirituality were part of my
upbringing, as were colourful visuals, handicrafts, embroidery,
drawing, painting and butter sculpture. These early experiences have
helped me to feel at home in India and comfortable with the artistic
expressions of the East. And there's always space for one more person
in India real emotional space, welcoming space, not purchased space.
I first visited India in 1996 and since then have discovered that the
country is absolutely packed with colours, smells, sounds, emotions,
inspiration, continuous questions, answers, challenges and solutions.
It is a great creative energy force, which makes me feel very much
alive, revived, recharged and fearless.
Sometimes I see so much art around me that I can't be bothered to add
anything to it. I can just relax and watch, for example, an
elephant holding up traffic in front of me, while a grumpy Ferrari
revs its engine close by, as we are all stuck in a sea of auto
rickshaws, ambassadors, motorbikes and bicycles. It's the contrasts.
The most modern computer packages and the most primitive magical
rituals exist side by side. In all this, I find my equilibrium
between Bhagavan and Bollywood.
India not only provides me with a balance between East and West, but
when such a large variety of people share a space, everything becomes
a dialogue. There is less privacy, so one feels part of what's going
on and therefore more responsible.
I have been happily surprised at how well my work has been received
in India, from illustration work for children books, mural designing
as part of a team, art workshops with children and so on. I am lucky
that my tattoo art is also appreciated and my painting style seems to
If I had to choose anywhere in the world to stay forever, it would be
India. Everyone needs to have the opportunity to travel and discover
the rest of the planet in order to gather knowledge, fuel for
inspiration and find inner peace and balance. I am so lucky to find
all of this in in India time and time again.
Ian Watkinson, photographer
and teacher, born in the UK
My first trip to India was overland in the 70s as one of the many
young intrepids dissatisfied with western values at the time and
lured by the mysteries of the East. I was 22 years old. There were no
guide books then, and people in rural areas had never seen a wrist
watch, television or camera. This is when India was effectively
closed to western imports, so the cultural differences were perhaps
much more distinctive than today.The experience effectively opened my
eyes to a greater understanding of music, culture, art, history and
society beyond the Eurocentric system I had been used to. It changed
me permanently, and the desire to be in India has never left me.
India is light and colour. India is spontaneous and 'in the moment'.
People's lives unfold around the dynamism and continuity of moments.
Photography in India is about capturing the uniqueness of those
moments of colour and light as they unfold. Step out onto the street
and walk in any direction, and the experience changes and unfolds,
moment by moment. Festivals, musicians, hawkers, ceremonies,
gatherings of people the initial moment of stepping out explodes in
a riot of opportunities for beautiful images, and sometimes the
experience is overwhelming. Having a camera to try and capture those
moments is a way of consolidating them into a cohesive form.
When we perceive India as westerners, we try to see continuity, we
need to label things, rationalise them, interconnect them. But, in
India, everything is part of a bigger whole. The trick is to be able
to think in that way. Once we think that way, the eye and mind see
India in a very different form. The ability to see the detail becomes
clearer, and the camera's eye is easier to focus and direct.
I always wanted to put something back and now teach teenagers from
poor families about photography and how images are a language and
also basic computer skills and graphic design.
I stay in Chennai, and am learning Carnatic music (the mridangham)
from professional players and teachers and from friends and
neighbours too! Staying in one place provides an opportunity for
developing more than just fleeting friendships.
You become a neighbour rather than a visitor or traveller passing
through. But would I like to stay in India forever? In India, there
is really only the moment, and it can last an awfully long time.