Construction and deconstruction

Essays, India

Going to see the Ganesha statues being made (should I call them statues, or icons?) on the street reminded me of many of my most treasured childhood memories. Where I grew up, in a small town in Somerset, there was an amazing carnival once a year. People would spend all year it seemed building these outrageously elaborate floats and costumes. It was an extravaganza of lights, dancing and music, and it came right past our house. Thinking about it now, it strikes me how much I loved the contrast between the people driving the trucks or lorries, and the performers. I always feel comfortable backstage, at gigs or installs, being one of the people making it happen. The drivers were doing a job, in ordinary clothes, maybe smoking a cigarette. I remember how the flat bed trucks would bounce as everyone danced on them, and the wardens making sure noone got too close.
How do I describe my fascination and comfort with this; when you can see the line between everyday reality and the magical, and still believe in it. The way it is only imagination, willingness and that lovely sense of being swept along with it, that allows us to enter that other world of make believe. I had lots of practice; my parents took us to kids theatre, kids festivals, and of course, the mighty Glastonbury Festival. Somerset in those days was a hive of arts activity, and most of what we went to was free. I remember clearly a touring theatre troupe coming and performing at our school (just an ordinary, non-private school). Their show was an adaptation of one of the CS Lewis stories, a watery, boggy one with a character called Puddleglum. They made theatre on the same level as us; children sitting around the performing in a taped off square for a stage. Puddleglum sticks in my mind; beautifully miserable, with ragged clothes and a floppy hat. I’m sure my memory is created through an alchemy between the show, memory and reading the books, but he feels very clear to me. What is also clear is what I wanted then. I decided when I grow up, I want to be like these people. They had dyed hair and holes in their jeans, and they traveled around opening portals into other worlds right there on the floor. They were a troupe, a community, a creative gang with their own rules, and I wanted that.
The Ganesha seemed to being made in a big shed with corrugated iron doors. I so wanted to go in, but they firmly closed the gate before me and put a padlock on. I never saw where the carnival floats were made either. Backstage is where the magic is made, and it’s a privilege to see how. They range from small (30cm) to huge (5metres), and I had a good look underneath to check out the construction. From that, and conversations I gleaned that they are made from Plaster of Paris, or maybe mud (as they used to be), poured into rubber moulds, and strengthened with internal bamboo structures and coconut fibre in the mix. Then they are painted with all of the colours, and decorated, and decorated some more. I watch a man sticking endless strings of jewels over a Ganeshas rounded belly. He tells me that he used to be an auto driver, but this was his fathers business, and his fathers before him, so now he’s doing this. It’s incredible to me that these hugely decorated figures will be pushed into the river. I can’t help wondering what happens to all the jewels and lace and gold glitter. Surely someone salvages them?
When I was doing my MFA I was asked a number of times “Have you ever thought that maybe less is more?” It was a great relief to me to feel for perhaps the first time, seeing these, as if maybe I am not decorating my work enough. It one of my realisations about the huge gift of this residency; I’m having the experience of maybe having enough time to achieve what I want, to make as many layers as I dream of. I photographed a tree which drapes and flourishes all over the side of a building, and I sigh with exhaustion and envy at the time it would take me to build something equally lush. I’m always interested in the lush layers and patina of surfaces as they age and weather over time, and it’s the same with making them myself, that can’t be rushed. I’ve been putting painted boards out in the rain, and I can’t wait to see what happens with the strings of paper flowers when it pours on them. I’m hoping for gluggy fragile lumps which I can hold together with paint and mud.

I’m also hoping to build my own little troupe here; I badly need someone to bless this structure before it opens, and I wonder if that can be done through dance, or song, or chanting. There’s some events going on here about women claiming the streets, and maybe I’ll ask them for help. What I do know is that my structure will be like Glastonbury festival will always be in my mind. Before I even realised it was a huge music festival with famous people, it was this incredible unfolding of a city in a field. People arrived from who knows where, decorating poles, building stages, lifting trapeze. In Thatchers Britain it felt like this small space of resistance and freedom where people could create an entirely different world in weeks, then dismantle it as if it had never been there.

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