THE JOURNEY 2012 BY PAROMA MAITI

Vacation or exile – on the first day of my Residency in Beijing, China – I was left floundering for an answer to that dilemma. A new place, an alien language, a freezing climate, no friends and a huge apartment all to myself, left me yearning for home, my room, my people and the comfortable warmth of familiarity. But as the first day gave way to the second, and the sun peeped in de rigueur on the third day as well, my empathies with Napoleon in St.Helena gave way to a happier, charged up and dynamic sense of liberation, confidence and enthusiasm.

The fact that I had won this Residency on my own merit, for whatever it was worth, began to sink in; as did a sense of pride and achievement that dovetailed seamlessly with that of humility and gratitude. Most importantly, it instilled a sudden and focused sense of purpose – which in turn reinforced the idea of belonging in a world, which I had always considered myself to be an outsider to: the world of the visual arts.

Slowly, I made friends with my fellow Residents – artists, researchers and curators – who had come in from different parts of the globe, bringing to the table, myriad experiences that held me in enthrallment then, as it continues to do now. Since there were no strict impositions on me as the Art Scribes Winner with regard to my duties and functions while a Resident, I was completely free to explore the city and its larger cultural scape at my own time and will. And what I did discover in course of this geographical pursuit, turned more to be a journey of self-discovery and introspection.

First with friends and then on my own, I discovered, aside from a host of art galleries, museums and institutions scattered across the city, two entire districts dedicated to the sole and active cultivation of the arts in its widest connotation: Caochangdi and 798. While the former is a comparatively somber and staid district, the latter used to be a factory area that has today been converted into a space committed exclusively to the pursuit of the arts. The old factories have been kept just as they were, with only its insides converted into exhibitionary spaces that showcase everything from the traditional to the avant-garde, from the orthodox to the outlandish. And whose works should I have been blessed to witness in one of these galleries from up, close and personal? Why, Louise Bourgeoise’s, of course! It was the moment of self-gratification for me!

798, however, is not just the sum of its components. Every nook and corner, every wall and bin reeks of creativity. Graffiti and installations have been put up at the most unobtrusive of places, silently advocating art for art’s sake, not for its material recognition. Yes, there is censorship, sometimes of the most obsessive and oppressive varieties, but to regard the modes to transcend them through the weapon of art, merely as cheeky, would be a gross misreading. It’s intelligently subtle and dodgily in-your-face. This is what makes it all that more difficult to club all the artistic practices in China today into one homogenous category.

In my course of stay there, I made friends – for life, is what I would like to believe! Some of them were artists, part of the Residency, who magnanimously opened up whole new avenues for me, leaving me in complete awe. Others, I met in course of my stay there – the friendly housemaid who taught me how to operate the washing machine; the chauffeur, who came in long after his duty hours on a freezing night just to help me out when I had callously locked myself out in an alien city; and of course, Zehui – Director of the Residency, who patiently sat through my illnesses, attacks of anxiety and everything else in between!

The city grew on me, one night at a time. Every evening, I’d walk down the Sanlitun Bar Street and be enamoured by the warmth that could be produced even in negative temperatures, merely on the merit of human camaraderie! The seller of that single-beamed neon torch who let me use his stream of green light as an intangible rope to quench my juvenile fantasies, will remain in my memory with the flash of his nicotine stained teeth! Wangfujing – the food street – surprised and appalled me, in equal measures, with the sheer variety of sights and smells; one that can easily be viewed as a work of art in itself! No, really, once over my initial sense of shock, I came to appreciate the loving tenderness with which creatures were marinated, displayed and served – creatures I’d grown up reacting with an instant ‘yuck’ to!!!

========================= ********* ======================

I remember, the night I was flying out from India to Beijing was to be the one-month anniversary of my marriage; and when I looked all around me as I sat waiting for my flight – all forlorn and already homesick – I saw a bunch of Chinese men and women, happy and eager to go ‘home.’ By the end of my Residency in Beijing, as I once again sat waiting for my flight back to Calcutta, I looked all around me to find a people in whom, over the last one month I had found my home: A people warm, friendly and remarkably easy to get along with. People whom I had gotten used to in course of my daily visits to the neighbourhood Jingkelong Supermarket; attendants at the subway station right next door; my immediate neighbours and their yelping puppy – whose untimely barks kept me company through cold nights; the man at the convenience store downstairs who became used to keeping a packet of local cigarettes ready the moment he saw me enter; and of course, every contour of my own apartment at Tuan Jiehu. Every single article of use, every lamp, every cushion, every book, every flake of snow on the window-pane in that house I came to regard as home, today stands silent witness to my days and nights within its precincts.

My first impression of the house was a scene straight out of a Wong Kar Wai movie; today, keeping much with the bizarre vision of the filmmaker, I wish I had arms large enough to give that home a hug tight and warm enough to drain away its last icicles of memory pangs. This was more than a Residency – it was a homecoming.