Arts Council of Northern Ireland

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ACNI introduces…Kathryn Graham

Tuesday 21st April 2020 at 2pm 0 Comments

Visual Artist, Kathryn Graham during her residency in Ramgarh Shekawati supported by the Arts Council. Image: Visual Artist, Kathryn Graham during her residency in Ramgarh Shekawati supported by the Arts Council.

Kathryn Graham is a visual artist from Armagh. Earlier this year she travelled to Ramgarh Shekawati for a very special residency opportunity as part of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's India Platform. Here she reflects on her cultural experience, the people she met and the inspiration she found there...

"A slow smile crept onto my face as I sat looking at the exit sign on the aircraft upon landing in New Delhi. As I remembered myself previously sat in a computer chair at home filling out the Arts Council application form and dreaming of where I currently sat at this time.

India was a fascinating journey that opened my mind to a new country, culture and its people. Rich in art and heritage, I was embraced by a place I had only witnessed on television screens. A sensory experience beyond anything I had ever felt before. The sights, the sounds and smells left me exhausted by noon, but excited for each new day. I watched as elephants walked on dual carriage ways with traffic and camels pulled carts full of people. I was surrounded by music, celebration and worship. The people I met were very hospitable and I was humbled by their kindness.

Ramgarh Shekhawati, where I stayed for four weeks is six hours taxi from Dehli and three hours from Jaipur. It was once a place of great wealth made up of temples, haveli’s, chhatri’s, cenotaphs and buildings of worship. However, over time the wealthy merchants who build up the area moved out to the bigger cities of Jaipur and Delhi. The extravagant 300-year-old painted fresco buildings were left to nature and the elements. Time is evident in these buildings, as colour has faded, cracks have begun to show, and some have been left to crumble. Not short of beauty, the community are beginning to work together to preserve, restore and repair falling structures. In order to sustain Ramgarh’s hidden heritage and the story behind the merchant traders that brought wealth to the land in order to win favour from a Queen.

During my four weeks I stayed in a traditional haveli mansion. Characteristically each haveli contains a courtyard where most family activities occur. Havelis served as status symbols for the people of Rajasthan, otherwise knowns as Marwaris.  With floors often reaching two to three stories high. The Marwaris commissioned artists to paint these buildings. The walls and ceilings depict scenes of guppies, Gods, animals, worship, battle, flowers, ornate decoration, life and tell of well-known songs passed from generation to generation. It is easy to get lost in the narratives and grooves of the ornate detail in each of these buildings.

Ramgarh is now largely run by family businesses, market stalls, farming, factory for fabric and clothing. Walking down the main street in Ramgarh involves navigating animals’ cows, bulls, dogs, pigs and goats. Dodging traffic, mopeds, auto rickshaws, and buses. Whilst passing public and an abundance of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, sweets and general goods. There are no road rules as cars navigate left or right of each through non signposted narrow streets and junctions, blaring horns as the only form of communication.

Days begin around half five in the morning as the religious buildings chime melodies and the streets begin to bustle around seven. The locals begin their hard work, transporting goods on the backs of donkeys, donkey carts, camel carts and some horses. In the afternoon as the factory siren signals the end of the working day, children and adults alike fly kites to pass the evening. It is one of the most beautiful sights to witness the orange sun setting across a sky full of soaring colour. The wind carries music and echo’s the play and laughter of children. A dark, dusk settles around six o’clock in January and the beautiful historic buildings lie prominently in a shadowy backdrop illuminated by the fading sun. The temperature would drop significantly and as the traffic stalls the animals gain free right to the street and its scraps. Musical melodies play into the night as wedding celebrations run all evening. Traditional Rajasthani Nagara drums and string Ravanahatta form a familiar beat as the temple’s bells ring to alert for worship times.

One of my first thoughts when I found out I was going on the residency. Was what would I eat? The food was an appealing array of vegetarian variety. I ate fruit in the morning banana, papaya and chico, and vegetable dishes for lunch and dinner. Each dish was a display of colour, taste and texture, ranging from mild to spicy. I thoroughly enjoyed potato dishes, aloo paratha and aloo gobi which was served most mealtimes as well as the stomach calming Dal. Eating was without the typical knife, fork and table utensils, you used your hands. This is a normality and is said to enjoy food to its full potential as a shared body experience.

The relationship between animals and humans is what I found most interesting. Most Hindu’s are vegetarian, religion states animals are venerated and protected as deities and forms of the Hindu Gods. Mice, rats, cows and dogs are among those regarded as sacred. I attempted to learn Hindu as the only native English speaker. The staff taught me basics and I was able to understand basic conversation. However, I learnt the beauty of communicating without words, through shared experience and gesture. There is a tangible shared sense of living in most of the places I visited in India. The community regarded each other with terms of respect. You would typically address an older man as bhaiyya (brother), an older woman as didi (auntie) and someone of similar age as shishter (sister). The feeling of community in Ramgarh is strong, as people work together, eat together and are quick to offer help.

As part of my residency I was entrusted with painting the top floor wall of the haveli I was staying. The mural was to be replicated in the style of the existing frescos. I aimed to convey a growing partnership between Ireland and India, one that has existed far into History. I attempted to add my own interpretation through the use of symbol and colour. The painting replicates colours of flowers local to Ireland and contains symbols such as the peacock to combine both cultures. I spent hours painting from dawn to dusk learning from trial and error, mixing local pigments and measuring to the correct scale.

I had some help with the mural whilst leading and facilitating a weeklong workshop with local school children of Churu, aged 12 to 16. I was thoroughly impressed by the student’s artistic skills which are inherent and ingrained strongly in their culture. The students’ knowledge on traditional art methods, design and colour was inspiring.  The children taught me as much as I taught them and together, we painted a mural, created prints on cotton through making stamps, lino cutting and mono printing. On leaving they gifted me with a stunning hand drawn letter that I will cherish forever.

Alone in rural India was daunting, but it was an amazing learning and life experience. During the Vedaaranya Heritage and Healing festival I had the unforgettable experience of meeting like-minded compassionate people from all over India and those from Ireland, all driven by the arts, culture and preserving heritage. I witnessed awe inspiring traditional dance, signing and music from India’s many regions.

What made my India trip so special was the people I met and the sights I had seen. I was taken by each historically enchanting place I visited. I have left with so many memories, images, videos and drawings that will fuel and inspire my work for years to come.

I am extremely grateful to the Arts Council for making this a possibility, to those that hosted me in the Vedaaranya and urge anyone who wishes to apply to take the chance.

Thank you."

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