Published Jan 29 2015, by

Half-hour Elephant

Her name is Lakshmi. She will be my steed for the next thirty minutes. Some life changing experiences last months (college) if not days (camp). This one will be thirty minutes. She is massive and beautiful, her skin freckled. She needs a pedicure. Lakshmi is my elephant in this moment. My half-hour elephant. Her driver, raised among the elephants, sends her secret messages from the ball of his foot to the top of her ear. He holds a short “poker” I hope he won’t use. I try not to look. He is turbaned and quiet. For now, in this wonderland, it is just Lakshmi and I. I am seated in a wide “seat”—a cushion with four metal bars on the perimeter of the rectangle. I don’t notice how uncomfortable I am—or that I really could fall off if I don’t pay too much attention. We rock back and forth front left foot, back right foot, front right foot, back left foot. One of the first patterns in nature: the slow pounding pattern of the elephant or the mastodon’s foot on the ground. An awesome gait. I am alone in the seat (built for two) but I am very happy to have Lakshmi all to myself. I look out. Oh, right, there is a wonderland here! I am ascending the road to the Amber Fort and Palace (with Lakshmi doing all the work, of course). This Mughal fortress was built in 1592 and forward. It’s the Egyptian pyramid of Rajasthan. We ride a very long switch back looking over the fortified wall to a man-made lake—some of the first water we’ve seen. The sun dances through the fog. It is cold, but I don’t care. I’m with my elephant and we’re taking our morning walk and I feel so lucky.

The Elephant Driver breaks my bliss and wants to tell me how he needs money. A peddler “sends up” a quilt for me to inspect. Photographers take too many pictures that they will try to sell us later. Some enterprising photographers found us in the town hours later—photo books in their hands with our pictures for just the right price. The Elephant Driver wants to tell me his name and how poor he is. He asks me how much money I have. I tell him “50 rupees only” per our guide’s sage advice. Somewhere I stashed an extra 1500…but for now its “50 rupees only”. Well, this did not please Mr. Elephant Driver. He started up some kind of angry banter in a language I didn’t recognize. I worry about the poker in his hand. Maybe it was for me? I lose the happy moment with Lakshmi, remember the apple in my pocket I brought for her, and find my self at the disembarking platform. As I stand up 1500 rupees fall out of my pocket, off the side of the elephant and onto the ground. The Elephant Driver looks at me like the liar I am and is forced to move on out of the way of the next pachyderm. This next elephant responds to the verbal commands of her driver and—with her trunk—picks up my 1500 rupees (three times, three bills) and hands them to me. I was so enchanted! Poor Lakshmi did not get the apple but this hearty helper did. I look off and see Mr. Elephant Driver sending me a “you suck lady look” and I race down the platform to right my wrong and give this man who lives on elephants an $8 tip. As I stand among elephants coming and going I realize I’m probably in a danger zone—I quickly toss Lakshmi 500 rupees, she dutifully picks it up and gives it Mr. E.D. All our happy except for Lakshmi who I’m sure wishes I had a second apple. Next time. Standing ground level with these magical beasts will never leave me. Lakshmi will never leave me.

Any subsequent activity pales following this dance with the elephants. We marvel at the inner and outer workings of the Amber Fort and Palace. We take more photographs than we will ever need. The views are spectacular—this is undoubtedly India’s great wall. We spend the rest of the day in Jaipur studying the arts and crafts of the city: block printing processes, carpet making, textile crafts. We buy inexpensive saris for the staff at the museum and plan a saree-wearing party. We ponder what to do with the gentlemen on staff.

And then—a couple of hours later, just when the magic dust of the morning had fallen into Jaipur’s bustling streets. It happened again: the magic of India in one massive, incredible, spectacular dose.

We met our friend and artist Alexander Gorlizki in the heart of rush hour. We are in a car and he is on the back of Rhiaz’s motorcycle. They lead us to Rhiaz’s home and studio. It is in the heart of a very vibrant Muslim neighborhood in Jaipur. We weave and wander, lose our motorcycle guides twice and arrive—happy to see a friend in India for a dream visit in his favorite place.

We take in this streetscape for several minutes: soon several children have come to see these blonde westerners on the block. Caron darts off to capture a sheep wearing a knitted sweater. Birds surround us, a nearby cow sitting on a cozy nest of trash, chomps sedately: food and rest in one place! We are standing at the base of the most glorious tree—Alex will have to tell me what kind it is: sinewy roots and branches casting a broad canopy across the alley between the buildings. This tree is every much as part of the history and architecture of this place as the buildings, the sky and the hills beyond it.

We are welcomed into Rhiaz’s studio—two young artists are painting at floor-level antique desks. Alexander Gorlizki collaborates with this miniature-painting studio and has been for seventeen years. Works are passed back and forth from Jaipur to Brooklyn and, under Alexander’s careful art direction; compositions come together across the globe. Alex and Rhiaz have the energy of best friends if not brothers. Rhiaz introduces us to his family-brother, sister-in-law, children, cousins and nephews. Nineteen people live in this three-story house. We study this perfect collaboration with questions and curiosity. We see the mineral pigments, the squirrel-tail brush, and the exquisite works in progress. We drink a delicious (the best I’ve had in India) masala chai and feast on cookies—both from Jaipur and Brooklyn.

This world of Alex’s world lovingly becomes ours. We feel very welcomed. We are encouraged to see the roof, the sun has set and as no one knows better than I, the sun waits for no one. We climb the stairs suddenly I am drawn into the ether of sunset in Jaipur. The roofscape of these homes is another world: an ecosphere beyond the imagination. Kites zip across a pink blush atmospheric sunset. Little square kites, made by the local kite maker out of reed and tissue paper, fly all around us: some hundreds of feet in the air.

We hear the chatter and laughter of children and families at play against the whip of air and paper. It is beautiful. Little girls and boys line up at roof wall on three sides to watch our bliss and wonderment at this perfect sight. Across the street we hear the hustle of a family preparing for their 5 year-Old’s birthday party. At street level huge cauldrons on flaming pyles boil the evening’s feat. It smells delicious. We linger a little longer—drunk on this ether of the joy of experiencing this skyscape wonderland.

Darkness comes too quickly and we re-order our spinning minds for our next ecosphere: the street. Alex and Rhiaz take us on their tour of the neighborhood. As we round the corner of the second block, we hear it. The harmonious sound of “tink, tink, tink” over and over again. Hundreds of “tinks” some in unison, some not. This concert of the Gold Beaters is heard before it is seen. We walk on and find ourselves looking in to a very small room where three men sit in a circle. They are holding wooden mallets (think meat cleaver, but wood) and small leather books. Each book has 150 pages and inside each page is a sheet of silver (or gold) leaf. These Gold Beaters, a lineage of talent expressed through generation after generation, pound the silver and gold “Chiclet” size pellets into leaf so that you and I may eat it on candies, see it in works of art and use it on murals. It is painstaking work. It takes hours to pound out the squares. We walk on and see at lease 15 other small rooms, some with as many as ten men, all pounding away on little leather bound books, for hours. We can’t hear ourselves talk—I contemplate the hearing loss for these men, sitting in little stone rooms all their lives. For the love of art. But I swing back into the moment of the tinks, see how happy they are and this mystery will stay in Jaipur.

We visit the man-the only expert in the village—who makes gold and silver paste for painting. He does this with the base of his thumb—mixing a most accurate blend of binder and metal. He isn’t up for a studio visit, but his family is happy to welcome us as his wife swiftly removes drying clothes from the chairs in the small courtyard. I enjoy looking in to this fascinating world—a society of scarcity with so much. SO much happiness and so much love.

We see more huge cauldrons of bubbling delights, naan dough being prepared for tandoori-like ovens, as dear Alex appropriately exclaims, “it is almost medieval”. We move on through this thriving community: a tail of curious children always with us. We walk through the birthday party—the street has been barricaded by motorcycles. Women and girls sit on blankets on the street laughing and enjoying all of the gifts brought by dozens of neighbors to this festive celebration. This is their world—hard work and joyful celebration of a little girl reaching her fifth year. We are happy to be there, too.

Alex and Rhiaz sweetly drive us across town to the land far away from this perfect community. I swallow hard as I leave them—they will never know what wealth this time together has brought to me. I also know I will return. I look at the entrance of the Rambaugh Palace and all of its wealth. I try not to think about how the attendant prepared my room last night for sleeping: rose petals in the bathtub water, linens under my filthy shoes; he even cleaned the hairs out of my hairbrush! I try not to think of this world, so far away from the bubbling cauldrons outside of Rhiaz’s house and the beautiful works he creates inside. But, this threshold is my threshold for my next step in this journey. The one that will take me on to Delhi and on to Dallas. The threshold of the Rambaugh Palace is my step in journey to bring these imaginative and exquisitely created little paintings back across the globe on their own journey to tell you in our galleries in Dallas about the remarkable friendship of Alex and Rhiaz in our exhibition later this fall.

I walk past the rangoli, the candles, the splendor of the lobby and the ether of the rooftop falls away like a golden gown someone allowed me to try on. I put it away and know that somewhere on a rooftop a child will pick up that beloved tattered kite and fly it tomorrow.