Kolkata – Ashivad and the quiet Mohammad

When the noisy swirl of day students has emptied the playground of St Joseph’s Bow Bazar, in downtown Kolkata, a quieter little procession of rather ragged kids enters the roomy classrooms. These are the Ashivad students and their clothes, though clean, comes from the crushed pile of belongings that their families keep beside them on the street, where they live and sleep. I had the privilege of trying to teach them a few hours of art, thought I spoke no Hindi, and they very little English.

I’d set up a bowl of fruit and was encouraging them to try sketching it. I spent some time demonstrating shading to suggest volume, and urged them (with mime and drama) to ‘fill the whole space’ with their lines, as I’d been taught, many decades ago. As I wandered around the room, I noticed ‘the quiet Mohammad’ (there were three other Mohammads in the class) was in fact using only a tiny fraction of his page; he’d drawn a small crescent for the bowl, and was filling it with neat little circles and fruit shapes.

He listened solemnly to my urgings to sweep his pencil around the whole page, then went back to his precision work. It was only later, when we were collecting and displaying their sketches, that the full force of what I’d nearly wrecked struck me. The quiet Mohammad had produced a classic ‘miniature’, such as I’d been admiring in exhibitions of Moghul Empire art in the museums of Delhi and Kolkata, with just their sense of perspective and spacing, and exquisite detail. The streets of Kolkata continue to produce wonderful “things both new and old”.

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