The following blog has been co-written by co-fellows Daraab Saleem Abbasi and Sourav Roy, from India Fellow 2022 cohort.
For a few months now we had been wondering what life in an odd town like Bhuj looks like, after lights out. The shops start shutting by 8 PM. By 10 PM the streets resemble those of a ghost town. All the shutters are down, street vendor carts are parked. The life of the city retreats.
Bustling streets become wide open roads, tangled pathways become a maze, and all the landmarks you know disappear. Everything is a little familiar and a little new.
पांच नाका ,छठ्ठी बारी (Five Gates, Sixth window)
After the decline of the Mughal empire in the early 18th century and as a response to the consecutive invasions on Bhuj, the then ruler of Kutch Rao Godiji began to fortify the town, allegedly in 1723. This took shape in the form of an irregular polygon comprising 35 ft high and 4 ft thick solid stone walls along the boundary of the town, with towers at irregular intervals. Arrangements had also been made to place fifty-one guns at strategic points along the walls. The boundary was interspersed by Paanch Naka (five gates) – Bheed, Sarpat, Mahadev, Durbargarh, Patwadi, and the Chhathi Bari (sixth window).
These were the 6 entrances to the walled town that were locked at sunset and opened at dawn. Legend has it that, during the reign of Rao Khengarji III (1876-1947), the keys of the five gates of his capital, Bhuj, were delivered to him every night and handed back every morning. However in 1948, when his successor, Maharao Madan Sinhji, acceded to the Indian Union, this system ended.
On one of the cold winter nights in Bhuj city, we made a spontaneous decision after dinner on a Tuesday. Armed with a pouch of stationery and a couple of sketchbooks and paper, we set out on our brand-new duct-taped Bajaj Pulsar, to do one of the few things we could somewhat do.
Sarpat Gate | 11:35 PM
Starting from Bheed Gate, you’re driving along the empty streets of Bhuj. You have the wide roads all to yourself, the dark sky over your head and the only sound you can hear is that of the bike chugging along. You start seeing lights in the distance and before you realise the quiet and silence of your night disappears.
Tea, snacks, cigarettes and you’ve found yourself in one of the late-night hotspots in town. Dozens of bikes are parked and you can find their riders huddled in groups of 3, 4, and 5 in different spots across the parking lot. 3 tea shops service the hundreds of people that come here every night. From boys of our age to those as old as our dad. You ge to see people discussing business and people standing around with cricket bats.
As we find our spots and open up our sketchbooks, stealing quick gazes/gazing sheepishly at our subjects to portray them as best as we can. People begin to notice. No sooner than we realise, a crowd is hovering around us in part awe and part confusion. Interrogating us with all kinds of questions to crack why we, two early twenty-year-old working boys are sitting there this late in the night, sketching away.
Ultimately unable to figure out our motive, commissions to make portraits are made instead. We of course comply. Reimbursement presents itself in the form of cups of milk and chai, packs of Vimal, and cigarettes, leading to curious small talk about each other’s lives. Instagram handles were shared and a few patrons earned.
Patwadi Gate | 12:52 AM
What is there? What material is used here? How old is this? What are people doing? Till when are they here? Does this happen every day?
As these questions were slowly leaving our mind we found ourself sitting across the street from the Patwadi gate. The occasional car drives by. Sourav constantly moves as he finds another angle to look at the gate and Daraab stands there, pressing his brush onto the paper trying to recreate how the gate disappears into the sky. The darkness of the night, a smooth gradient over everything put against it. Trees, poles, and the Patwadi gate. The sky becomes the biggest part of the puzzle and its nothingness swallows the form, colour, and texture.
Mahadev Gate | 1:51 AM
You know you are headed towards Hamirsar when you suddenly start feeling a cold breeze in the already chilly evening. Streets that are filled to the brim with people, business and entertainment leave no trace of themselves apart from the many parked vendor carts. A group of cows rest in a corner of the road. Behind them, the lake shimmers with streetlights above it. The Mahadev gate sits in front of an apartment complex and peers at the lake. The lake is probably the only thing familiar to it.
Drawing as a way of observation. Drawing as seeing.
One of the things we picked up in college which we will be eternally grateful for, is sketching. Sometimes with the intention of studying a place and people, other times just to find an excuse to sit at the tea stall a little longer. Yet every time we’ve found the process yielding something new to our perception. The act of stealing glances at people and things, to make the nervous slick marks on paper and realising that there’s more to what one dismissed as ordinary at first sight.
These details could vary from silhouettes of clothes, and shapes of bodies and faces. To how people talk, how they sit, how they interact with their environment, and how they are with themselves. It is always a grounding experience to do this in public. It has always sparked intriguing interactions with the people around. Delightful, always. From elders inquiring about our flailing careers and overdue marriages to kids demanding better and more accurate portraits of themselves. And it doesn’t matter how well or horribly you draw. It’s a great way to get introduced and introduce oneself.
पांच नाका चठ्ठी बारी ,पर तुम अभी तीन ही नाकों के बाद थक्क के सड़क किनारे बैठे हो। मज़ा खूब आया शायद कुछ दोस्त बनें। और इतने समय बाद अपने कागज़ और कलम को इस्तेमाल करने का मौका मिला। एक मित्र, एक साथी, एक ऐसी आदत जो साथ ही मैं शौक भी है। ठंडी हवा खाई ,थोड़ी गरम चाय पी ।अपनी बाइक का खूब लुफ्त उठाया। और उन्ही गलियों और मौहल्लो के कुछ नए रूप देखे। क्या इस रात के बारे में कोई पढ़ना चाहेगा ? शायद हाँ। शायद ना। बस ये मज़ेदार थोड़ा लग जाय। कागज़ कलम ना ही सही कभी एक रात निकाल के अपने ही शहर को देखने चले तोह कई नए रिश्ते बन सकते हैं। कुछ लोगो के साथ , कुछ उस शहर के साथ और कुछ खुद के साथ। और अगर ना भी सही तोह कभी सुनाने के लिए एक किस्सा मिल जाता है।
शायद अब वापस घर लौटा जा सकता है।