Jonas Engelmann on Delhi Sketch-Book Encounters in the Third Space: Views of New Delhi
‘I think it was the sheer size of this large Indian city, and then the otherness of the visible structure and society compared to here that initially blew my mind,’ says Barbara Yelin, recalling her stay in New Delhi, a city she travelled to for a week in late 2012 at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut.
‘It was only later that I started to pay attention to details, to perceive passers-by and the people I had met as individuals. Colours and smells are unimaginably intense, as described in every guidebook.’
And it is colours that Yelin depicts in the first sketches of her travelogue, warm colours of an alien city that merge with the sounds of India, the babble of voices and car horns. Then come the details, drawings of dogs sleeping in the sun, the impressions of the city when looking out of an auto rickshaw.
Images define your expectations of a country, you can’t get rid of the guidebook and movie clichés when you travel to a country for the first time. How does one handle the images of a country that have accumulated in one’s head? Are they proven true or can one come up with one’s own images?
‘As it was my first trip to India, I definitely had many clichéd images in my head before I left,’ recalls the artist. ‘Similarly, the sight of so many poor people on the streets was incredibly disturbing and pretty much threw me off track, regardless of how much you may have already heard or read about it. However, the (visible) perfectly normal everyday life can also take you by surprise sometimes. It is, of course, an important part of a foreign place – precisely because it is never included in a guidebook. But when you travel to a place you do not yet know, you will always be confused at first, amazed, exasperated and sometimes also afraid because it is still unfamiliar. Regardless of how well prepared you may be.’
Some of the drawings give one the impression of the artist trying to organise her amazement, confusion and exasperation, the chaos of a street scene continuing in the form of cables and washing lines over the heads of countless people. ‘Get ready to be blown away by all the impressions,’ is how she describes what she sees as she comes out of the metro. What is striking about Yelin’s drawings – although the artist draws while in a rickshaw, while having a meal or while at a concert, she is always looking outwards.
‘When you know that a graphic travelogue will be published, naturally you decide how much of yourself should be in it and determine the degree of privacy. I decide which stories would work well,’ is how she explains this perspective. ‘The (sometimes good, sometimes difficult) loneliness of solo travel, for instance, is an important part of your memories. However, I have not included much of it in the travelogue because, for this format, it was more my private affair.’
This distance is probably also the result of the role in which Yelin was invited to India – as a representative of the German graphic novel scene. ‘I was welcomed with great respect and warmth, sometimes the hospitality was overwhelming,’ she says while recalling how she was perceived in this role in India. ‘As (then childless and) an unmarried woman to be in a profession that may, on the one hand, be an independent one, but is also economically uncertain, may have seemed somewhat exotic, strange for some of the people I met, or perhaps something of a hobby. On the other hand, I found it remarkable, how I as an artist myself felt how drawing was appreciated when I was sketching outside. When drawing outdoors in Germany, I tend to be ignored. People, if they look at all, only peer secretly over my shoulder. I recall several situations in Delhi where the process of drawing itself drew me into special conversations with young and old, men and women, rich and poor – because the picture itself, the process of sketching helps you establish contact, in a role in whether I am a woman, a European tourist, or someone else is no longer that important (at least that’s how I saw it, perhaps some wishful thinking there). When drawing on the spot, it is important that I do not give the impression of being a voyeur. I only draw in places where I feel that nobody is being disturbed. Or I ask.’
The question of representation in a country like India, marked by a long colonial history, is always also a political one. The West European view of the country is defined as much by the after-effects of the colonial era as is the Indian view of Europe. At the same time, the country has shaped some of the core ideas of the current post-colonial theory. Homi Bhabha, for instance, wrote about the Third Space, where the self and the other can meet, creating the possibility of something new emerging. The graphic novel can also become a third space like this in that the interpretations of what one sees, the misunderstandings and encounters give rise to something new.
‘Perhaps a third space like this can also be the aforementioned encounter between the artists and the local people? adds Yelin. ‘And yes, the drawings themselves are, of course, a meeting place, a kind of “third space”, between the artist and the viewer. Because it is here that individual encounters take place, depending on who is reading/looking, the drawings/comics appeal to different people and experiences, which lead to different forms of communication. My drawings are definitely not objective, they can only reflect my individual viewpoint. To explain something is not my focus, but the drawing is the product of how one looks at something, of wanting to understand, of my own experiences. The encounters, small stories that occur during the process of drawing itself have been woven in.’
It is important not to confine ourselves to one-off encounters, but to continue the exchange, like the ‘really wonderful encounter between the Indian artists and the Spring Collective artists for “The Elephant in the Room” – which was not due to me, but rather the result of a long chain of comic-book related events with artists at the Goethe-Institut Delhi carried out in collaboration with Ute Reimer who played an enormous role in facilitating these projects. From the very start, she understood that comic-book illustration was a medium for encounters and supported it, always with a way out, for which, I believe, she cannot be praised enough.’