The book was so detailed it was as if we were right there, looking over her shoulder. I think she must have kept diaries to be able to remember in such great detail.
Here’s a sketch that I made while reading about what they usually ate there.
“Don’t watch it being made, or you’ll never want to eat it again!”
Every once in a while you end up reading something that you don’t usually read, and this was one such book. Ms Shaw’s voice comes through joyously through the pages after all these years, and I ended the book thinking that she must have been quite a nice person to know.
…and while it does happen, there are also lots of days when it feels terribly laborious. My plan for those days is to just show up, sit and labor, and keep reminding myself that it’s not my job to like my drawings.
Here are some of those pages –
Sometimes music helps, sometimes prompts – but I have to keep at it, without judgement.
A few months ago when the weather was cooler, we went on a day trip to Bidar Fort and the Bahmani Tombs.
Bidar is a formidable 15th century fort. According to history there was an old fort at the site, which was captured by Prince Ulugh Khan in the 14th century, who later became Muhammad bin Tughlaq of Delhi (who we are of course familiar with). Later the fort became the capital of the Bahmani dynasty when they moved to Bidar from Gulbarga. The fort as we see it today, was built by the ruler of the Bahmanid dynasty Ahmad Shah Wali Bahman. Eventually Aurangzeb annexed it in the 17th century.
For us it was our first sojourn into the Deccan (as adults) and I was curious to see the color palettes and the foliage and the red stone of the Deccan. Here are some quick sketches made from memory.
One of the things I love about living in India is how we rub shoulders with centuries past. That was the charm of Delhi too, living in close quarters with everything that that had gone before at that very same place. Puts our lives in perspective I often think.
“When she was young, she’d sliced up her own flesh at the blink of an eye, she loved to get truly abject, but now she’d dried out…not appetising exactly, not desirable, but fodder for someone, a pigeon, at least. Was this getting older? Kathy was worried about ageing, she hadn’t realised youth wasn’t a permanent state, that she couldn’t always be cute and hopeless and forgivable.”
It takes place over a few days in her fortieth summer, and she’s about to get married. It’s not often that we see ourselves reflected so accurately in literature with all our fears and pimples and headaches, and Olivia Laing as Kathy Acker was spot on.
If there was ever a book for the pandemic, it was this one for me – Olivia Laing’s Lonely City – Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Though written in 2016 I could not believe it was not written about the early days of the pandemic, our first experiences of living through a lockdown, and a disease for which, at the time, there was no cure…
Simply put I just loved this book. I read it first on Kindle, then bought a paperback and read chapters multiple times. Olivia Laing is a genius and a master of art and language. She skillfully weaves her experiences of being lonely in Manhattan, through the stories of these artists in Manhattan who had used their loneliness to create, and derives the most definitive insights about loneliness and art.
As always I keep drawing as I read.
“If everybody’s not a beauty, then nobody is.”
“Art was a way to bear witness; to reveal things I’d always felt pressured to keep hidden.”
One parallel to our present time was of course the loneliness that people felt as they stayed shut up in their houses. We often overlook the smallest social interactions we have in shops, with neighbours and so on. It’s even more pronounced if you live by yourself and then these small interactions are also missing. There is a universal human need for connection, for reaching out, for just being seen. I remember my first few weeks in Sweden when I didn’t know anyone. Swedes are wonderful, gentle people, but terribly shy, and they really respect each others’ personal space as well. For most, it means not even making eye contact. So you can imagine, even a smile from a shop assistant was a special day for me. For the first time in weeks, I felt seen.
The other parallel was the onset of the AIDS crisis in the States, and how the gay community were shunned and excluded. India’s Covid Relief has by default excluded multiplemarginalizedcommunities. (If you want to help, take a look at #DesignUpForACause)
Despite, or maybe because of all the pain, I found the book so uplifting and inspiring. I would read a few pages every night, these moving accounts of the pain and suffering that gave birth to so much art, and how they created what they did, and feel inspired and grateful.
There are so many things art can’t do…but it does have some…odd negotiating ability between people, including people who never meet and yet who infiltrate and enrich other’s lives. It does have a capacity to create intimacy; it does have a way of healing wounds, and…of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly…
I was 8 when I copied my first Cezanne, in the drawing class we used to attend, held every Sunday in the parish hall at the local church. There was no looking back after that. I was mesmerized by the color palettes and the compositions, though I didn’t know all these terms then. I went on to copy the old masters for a decade, running through all of the teacher’s copies of Cezanne, Renoir and Van Gogh prints, and later from my uncle’s fabulous Great Masters’ collection at home. I’m not sure what I learnt, back then, but I became familiar with the artists, their colors and lines and brush strokes.
These onion studies are a far cry from those days. It’s been decades since I attempted any color studies but oh what joy!