Bhuri’s Painting

Sketching at Nandu’s home

It’s a January morning in Jaipur. The early fog has not yet lifted and whilst it may be warm later, it certainly isn’t now, as we bump down the unmade road into the Garidharipura Slum. The lanes are comparatively empty, just a couple of cyclists and women carrying water. The smoke from breakfast fires mingles with the mist, though many here will go hungry for breakfast, they will all drink tea and the fires provide warmth.

My friend, film maker and photographer Lee Cantelon, and I are going to shoot an interview clip with one of our graduates, Nandu, for the short documentary we are making on the rough-and-ready school that is valiantly trying to educate some 350 kids from slums and squatter camps close by. I’ve been here over a week and my heart is full for these people and their struggles. The School seems an oasis of love in a desert of emptiness and scant hope. Life is very hard for these rag pickers and balloon sellers, these casual day-labourers and sometime beggars and their families. Their Caste and lack of education draw in their horizons and put a limit on dreams. Nandu is a success story in the making. Bright, handsome and personable, he is hoping for a career in the Navy. No one else in his family has ever graduated from any kind of school.

When we reach their home, set in a rubble strewn dip that must run with water in the monsoon, the whole family are waiting, wreathed in smiles. They have pulled a bed frame out into the space in front of the house so that we have something to sit on – they own no other furniture and do not want us to see inside their windowless shack.

Nandu’s mother, Bhuri, wrapped in a vivid pink blanket against the cold, squats by a shallow pit filled with glowing coals, warming both herself and a little girl who can’t be more than 3 years old. Nandu’s father, in a wooly hat and scarf, offers us piping hot chai. Sisters and aunts hover shyly in the background. You can see your breath. Despite this, they are proud we have come to their home, proud of Nandu and his education.

The chai is good, and as Lee films the interview sequence – Nandu talking about all that his education means to him and his family and how God has done a marvelous thing in his life – I draw mother and toddler crouched in the smoke. I am struck again by how these people, who have nothing, want to share their homes, their food and drink with strangers. How quick they are to smile with so little, apparently, to smile about. Bhuri has a smile that could melt a glacier, I catch it in a sly photograph.

And then we are done. Back into the small battered van before too many curious onlookers see our white faces and the cameras. We quickly leave this poverty behind. How blessed we are, with our full bellies, and comfortable homes to think of, and memories of these kind people to take back with us. In a few days I will be back in Canada, safe and secure, feeling the guilt of privilege.

Two weeks later, the email comes. Bhuri is dead, felled by a sudden heart attack. I look at my photographs of her, feel overwhelmingly sorry for her family and the boy, Nandu, who is my friend and immediately begin to paint that smile, what else can I do? When it is done I take it to the post office and mail it with love.

David and Nandu with Bhuri's portrait
David and Nandu with Bhuri’s portrait

Later, in December, Nandu greets me with open arms, his father is with him, they have both come to the small basement church some of the children from the School and their families attend despite opposition from their neighbours. They have brought my portrait of Bhuri with them so we can share it together. Lee takes the photograph you see here of a proud son with his smiling mother. It fills me up, to be here to see it and I’m freshly reminded why painting portraits can be such a great joy.

What do you want to be…

What do you want to be when you grow up?

An engine driver. Everyone wanted to be an engine driver. Back then, we had steam trains and if you’d ever seen a steam train you’d want to drive one too. Diesels’, when they replaced steam, just didn’t cut it and my ambitions shifted to naval hero, England goal keeper, explorer, and then, post-Beatles, rock star and romantic poet. All along I was drawing these fantasies, and my real skill was staring me in the face, but drawing was just something I did, like a nervous habit, it didn’t occur to me it could be an ambition. And then I saw Rembrandt.

Self portrait by Rembrandt age 63
Self portrait by Rembrandt age 63

I was 15, visiting the National Gallery with my parents, and we walked into the room featuring the Dutch Master. There was his extraordinary self-portrait, aged 63, the resigned yet defiant face looking at itself for signs of affirmation, for the memory of all he had been, yet also looking at me- the viewer- and challenging me to know him and to attempt to make something that lived out of paint. 

Old Man in an Armchair by Rembrandt
Old Man in an Armchair by Rembrandt

There too, was Old Man in an Armchair, a care-worn, balding, white-bearded figure with his head resting on one hand, painted in deft, bold, masterful strokes. I looked at the portrait and saw the man my father would become as he aged, and thought, that’s what I want to do, I want to paint, I want to be able to paint my Dad like that when becomes that man. It was an epiphany. A certainty was born in me that somehow, someday, I would paint portraits. I knew finally, in that moment, what I really wanted to do when I grew up.

Of course, I didn’t grow up to be Rembrandt- part of growing up is the realization that no one grows up to be someone else, you can only grow into yourself and make the best of what you have been given, but the idea that I might make people that have life in them, people you might want to know, out of paint has been my sustaining vision, as it was his. And I have discovered, as he did, that this life isn’t always easy, that there are disappointments as well as wonderful highs in the life of an artist , that each day brings fresh challenges and new discoveries.