In December 2017, Reinhard Kleist spent a month in India on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut. He appeared for live drawing sessions, workshops and readings in Pune, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and New Delhi, and he participated in DeCAF, Delhi’s first Comic Arts Festival. He also visited the Taj Mahal, Kovalam, Jaipur and Pune. In this conversation, he tells the stories behind his “India Travel Sketches.”
How did you prepare for your stay in India?
In addition to the usual travel provisions, I mainly considered what I would like to see while I was there. On occasions like this, I’m reluctant to just do my events and then return home; I also want to see something of the country. The organisers from the Goethe-Institut also made that possible for me; that was great.
Your gallery begins with an ink sketch in which people are standing in a courtyard holding up their smartphones.
That was in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is. Agra is a terribly ugly city, but that’s where these great palaces are. I saw them on a tour with a driver. I thought the courtyard of this one palace was so great that I wanted to draw it. The building on the next picture, with the blue sky, is called Baby Taj; it’s a small palace nearby that echoes the Taj Mahal.
The next picture shows the Taj Mahal, which made a huge impression on me. I went there twice. One time I was on the other side of the river and viewed the palace at dusk. The next morning, I queued up very early – but I don’t have any drawings from that visit because I had to hand over my backpack and forgot to take out my sketchbook. I was really annoyed. But I took a huge amount of photos.
The building in the next picture also belongs to the Taj Mahal and is located a little further along the river. A very romantic place.
Then there’s a city view with billboards and crowds of people.
That was in Chennai; that’s where the next five pictures are from. The local Goethe-Institut sent me through the city with two employees, and I was asked to sit down and draw somewhere and they took photos of me. That was a little absurd, because for me drawing is actually about observing and not being the centre of attention. But those two always set up a roll-up behind me that introduced me as a cartoonist from Germany. I was discovered by a horde of children who wanted me to draw my name on their hands. It was really funny, but I didn’t really get to draw.
What’s the story behind the two pictures with the dancers?
The Goethe-Institut in Chennai did two events with a group of street kids who studied at a school for traditional dance and singing: a live drawing concert at the Goethe-Institut and a beach event where schoolgirls performed traditional dances and a group of students from the art school and I drew them. Those kids were great.
Do you add the colours to your ink drawings later, perhaps digitally?
No, that was done on site. I have these coloured brush pens, also in black for the ink. I don’t edit the sketches digitally.
Where were you standing when you drew the city view from an upper storey?
That was in Kolkata, I drew that from my hotel room. Kolkata is totally bustling and really full. It was exhausting for me. Except for that one, I didn’t make a single drawing in Kolkata. It was very difficult to just find a place to sit in peace.
But I also had a full agenda there. That’s where the third live drawing concert took place after one in Pune and the one in Chennai. The one in Kolkata was special: Usually, I work with music with lyrics that I illustrate. This time, it was a jazz band without vocals, and I could basically do whatever I wanted. I thought of a story that had something to do with jazz and I drew it. I didn’t even know how long the concert would go on and when I would stop. I thought about an ending where the bartender sweeps together the notes with a broom. I drew that and was finished, and then the band stopped playing. That wasn’t rehearsed and a total coincidence!
Did you come into contact with the people through your drawing?
There was usually a communication problem because relatively few people spoke English. But it was nice to see how curious the people are, but they were very polite. In Germany, they tend to ignore you when you do something like that.
And finally: Did you come into contact with the comic scene in India?
Yes. In Delhi, Ute Reimer-Böhner from the Goethe-Institut New Delhi had invited me and Arne Jysch to an independent comic festival. It was a great way to come into contact with artists and to find out about the state of publishing in such a country. Also about ways to make social projects with comics. For example, the one in which people in villages themselves draw comic stories to bring problems from their everyday life to paper. That was carried from one place to another in rural areas.