Friday, August 21, 2015

The walls are blank

When I joined my office in Shahpur Jat, New Delhi, in February 2014, Israeli graffiti artist Mattiah Lullini was busy mapping the wall in front of our office. This was the site allocated to him to put forward his work. He was part of the international graffiti artists visiting India for the first ever St.Art festival. He had managed to rent himself a ladder for Rs 50 per day but was not happy about it at all. "It was just lying there and this guy is charging me for touching it," he had later rued. It was very difficult to me to explain that the residents of Shahpur Jat had absolutely no idea what he was trying to do and why his painting on the wall was of any significance.

Just over a year later, this piece of work (shown above) is history. I don't mean to get poetic about the loss of art as graffiti is not meant to last forever, I am told. It is important to put the message out. Perhaps that is why I am hurt. The message, so beautifully portrayed by international artists in India, never really got across. The people of Shahpur Jat, Khirkee Village and Hauz Khas village did not give a damn.

"The whispering girls" by Alina Vergnano (above) was showcased in two places in Shahpur Jat. While one was lost to reconstruction, the other was painted over by the jeweller who owns the store. Two of her works have survived in Delhi. One at Connaught place, commissioned by Inlingua School of Languages and the other at the Ogaan shop in Hauz Khas village.

For Alias, the festival was his first opportunity to visit India which he said was a dream come true. A simple man who teaches art in a school near Berlin, he has worked on several noted works on the Berlin wall among others. For his debut in St. Art, he tried his hand at a painting, his first ever. "The boy with the slingshot" is all but faded but brings a smile to my face every time I walk past him.
Alias is famous for his stencil works which depict the loss of childhood, globally. His stencils are graphic and can be very disturbing at times. One such stencil of a young boy with a skull instead of a head/face was objected to as soon as he had put it up in Shahpur Jat. Alias had to scratch out the skull from the image (shown above). Honestly, I don't know which one is more emphatic, a boy with a skull for a head or a boy with his skull scratched out! Alias' style involved stencils hidden in obscure places which reflects the childish fear of boys who have been hurt. Some of his works have survived and I am happy that I know where to find them.

This artwork by Tona (above) made it as the cover of the magazine I work for. It still stands. As I mentioned earlier, painful as death is, the natural fading and loss of graffiti is something I can live with but the brutality with which the residents of Delhi's urban villages have torn down some of the pieces of art, simply because they were painted on walls built by them, is abrasive (to me). The giant sketch of a white cat playing with a ball of yarn was also torn down as a new building has come up.

This stencil, also by Tona I think, has been painted over because the owners were "bored" of it. A plain pink facade is so much more interesting, after all. A beautiful cornerhouse collaboration of several artists has laso ben apinted over by the landlord who felt it was "meaningless". Those who had witnessed the creative collaboration will surely remember stopping in their tracks when they had first noticed it.

My office is finally shifting from Shahpur Jat to a more official space in Central Delhi. That completes the circle for me. From watching the first coat of paint being put on these graffiti to the demise of most of my favourite works, from taking friends on a guided trip to share my excitement on the art form to helping another to create his own guided walk. The walls that once spoke of global emotions, now stare back as blankly as the ones that inhabit them.

I am sure that many ore artists will make Delhi's walls their canvas in the time to come but there will always be a special place in my heart for the ones that dared to be the first and the hurt at losing some of the first-borns.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A museum for serious car lovers!

The two-hour drive is totally worth the destination because once you are inside the Heritage Transport Museum in Bhiwadi, you are transported to a different world.

One man's passion for cars has led to the creation of a collection so massive, he had to turn it into a museum!

Apart from "car art", there is a host of vintage Porshes, buses, ambassadors and even Bentleys. Pardon me for my biases, there are several more rare car models to ogle at and click selfies with.

But it is not just fun and games. A detailed history of the evolution of transport in the Indian subcontinent is well worth the walk. The museum is designed in a manner that allows you to walk along the developments in this field.

From the earliest known means of travel by animal-driven carts and man-carried palkis, the gradual development is very well-chronicled.

There's even an interesting montage of the how the steam engine gradually turned into the electric-operated engines of today, all the way to the bullet trains! A heritage compartment of a luxurious train of a former royal family in Rajasthan is also open for visitors to experience.

But I won't spoil your thrill of the journey for the third floor, where you can see the mechanism for yourself and even get a hands-on experience of the motors. Not to forget the scooter section which has a strong nostalgic effect on grown-ups. There are quaint corners decked with installation art from cycle pieces to gond art depicting transport and a very interesting section on truck art of India versus that of Pakistan. And then there's some more... the full tour takes four hours and once you've seen it you would wish for more.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

FOLLOW UP: Jai ho Indian Railways!

I had posted the need for better management for railway passengers in a previous post. Soon after, I headed to meet Sandip Dutta of the IRCTC and was surprised at the range of facilities provided to travellers and how poorly they have been promoted. Turns out, my uncle, aunt and I suffered the summer afternoon's heat when respite was just two platforms away! Excerpts from my interview with Sandip Dutta.

How does the IRCTC function and what are the challenges it is facing?

The IRCTC works in three main verticals for the Indian Railways: IT, Tourism and Catering. The biggest challenge in the IT division is to meet the constantly rising demand. After our scheduled upgradation in April 2014 we had 7,200 bookings of tickets per minute. The demand doubled over the next few days and we have added two new servers to facilitate the growing number of consumers. It then went on to 12,000-14,000 ticket bookings per minute. 55 per cent of the total tickets booked for the Indian railways are done through IRCTC. We have taken a few steps to prevent the excessive load on our servers as adding new ones every year is not a practical solution. We have reserved 10-11 am for tatkal tickets in the AC coaches and 11-noon for sleeper class tatkal ticket bookings on the site. We hope that this will help in streamlining the ticket booking process and reduce the load on our servers. At present, we receive about 18 lakh hits every day out of which 5.5-6 lakh people book tickets. We have devised a way to stop touts and middlemen from blocking other passengers from booking their tickets through the site. One person with an IRCTC login is now allowed to make only five enquiries at a time and the website automatically log you out from the site once you have finished booking a ticket. These steps are targeted at reducing the number of touts blocking the traffic on the portal.

What other services can travellers avail from IRCTC?

IRCTC has launched helicopter services for in and around Mumbai. We are also currently trying a tie-up with three radio taxi services in New Delhi, These services will be available at the government approved rates to travellers. We have also launched a concierge services in New Delhi where travellers can book a porter and a taxi from the New Delhi railway station. When the traveller arrives at the New Delhi Railway station, an escort carrying a placard showing their name will be present to greet them and take them to their taxi. This facility has already been started in New Delhi and we are taking it to 12 cities across the country.

The Executive Lounge at the New Delhi Railway station has been particularly interesting project. We are very proud of it. The lounge is at par with those at the airport. Any traveller with a valid ticket can avail the lounge services at Rs 150 for two hours and an additional Rs 50 for the next hours. At the lounge, the traveller has the option of taking their meals from the buffet at Rs 200 per meal. Wi-fi is complimentary in the lounge. In May, we have signed an MoU for Agra, Lucknow and Gorakhpur stations and we plan to have the lounge at 50 more stations in the country. Apart from this, the regular retiring rooms are also in the process of being upgraded by the IRCTC.

IRCTC also has a tie-up with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and travellers can get tickets for the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb through us.

We are also planning to commence a unique Tourist Facilitation Centre in the national capital that will act as a ‘single window shop’ for all tourism products, as tourism is also one of the verticals we work on for the Indian Railways. To be located in Connaught Place, the swanky shopping plaza in the heart of the metropolis, the centre will offer a string of rail, land and air tour packages for domestic and international travellers, taking care of their itinerary — from air ticket to visa facilitation and insurance, from special train packages to customised tours, from food to accommodation, from cab and concierge services to sightseeing. The facilitation centre will handle all special train packages of IRCTC such as Bharat Darshan, pilgrim trains (Tirupati, Shirdi, Buddhist circuit), the north-east, Kerala and Goa. In addition, there are air packages for J&K, Shirdi and Tirupati.

If you should be travelling with friends or family by Indian railways in the future, it might be of help to stroll along Platform 1 (specially, though not just in New Delhi). While we cannot count on Indian Railways to suitably notify travellers of the services on offer, you might chance upon some respite someone around you might be in need of.

The complete interview can be found here:

Monday, August 10, 2015

An image from Kolkata

The image of old women, particularly widows abandoned by their families who believe them to be the cause of misfortune, has long captivated me. Their bodies grow frail from the lack of nourishment and care but their eyes, speak volumes. Here is an old widow I had spotted at the entrance of an old haveli in Kolkata, near Thakurbadi.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Filipino fun for the Indian market

As part of the tourism roadshow across destinations in India, Phillipines Tourism had a single day event at Le Meridien hotel today. It was my opportunity to meet and interest with the Ambassador of Phillippines to India, along with the Director of their Tourism Board. The outstanding moment from the event was when a 19-year-old beatboxer took the stage.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A glimpse into God's own country

I was once told that a travel writer should not be taken seriously unless they at least one article on Kerala, God's own country as it is called. I am dutifully redeeming my pound of flesh for the same and hope a touch of the land gives me good luck along the way. At the Delhi leg of the Visit Kerala year, the organisers put together an enchanting display of culture while the Director of Tourism shared valuable insights into the travel trends in Kerala.

I wish to focus on the cultural show. First up, there was Mohininatyyam on the enchantress' dance from Kerala.

Then came a short demonstration of emotions expressed through the dance form of Kathakali which originates in the state.

By the end of this display, I had moved forward from the last row to the the floor before the front row of seats for an unhindered view. Let me assure you, despite the saree, it was a truly unlady-like behaviour at display. Then, the moment I had waited for. My real-tiem introduction to the martial art form of Kerala, Kalariyapattu. Here are some intense moments:

At the end of the grand display, all the performers came together to take a bow.

This mister crept up on the audience quite unexpectedly.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

A divine palette

It's the end of a happy weekend here at Rishikesh and there's so much I am carrying back. Here are some images from Rishikesh.