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The Exmouth Journal - Thursday 11th March 1999

Painter Alan Cotton fresh back from the fascinating sub continent of India

Painter Alan Cotton never ceases to search for new and stimulating starting points for his paintings. This has taken him to many parts of the world, though until now he has worked mainly in Europe, for 20 years in Provence and Venice, but also in Cyprus, Tuscany and more recently in Co Kerry, Connemara and Donegal on the West Coast of Ireland. Last month he fulfilled a long held ambition to travel to India, spending time in the cities of Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras) and in South Goa on the West coast Now Alan and his wife Pat have just returned from India. The Journal invited them to jot down their impressions.

If a first visit to the sub continent begins with a wild taxi drive to the centre of Bombay, then the intrepid traveller might be forgiven for wondering just what he has let himself in for.

Horns blow incessantly; in fact all goods vehicles and buses bear the words "Please Sound Your Horn" on the back of them. The sole aim seems to be that if there is a vehicle in front of you then it must be overtaken at great speed. The little three-wheeler auto-rickshaws take on all comers.

Only the sacred cow is given priority on the roads of Bombay and they are in abundance wandering through the busiest thoroughfares or coming towards you on a single track lane. These, with goats, chickens and many of the 15 million inhabitants of Bombay, make travelling by car an adventure in itself. At every traffic lights children as young as six and seven dodge out among four or five lanes of traffic, hands outstretched for rupees, ever watchful for the changing lights to dash back to the road side before the traffic roars on again.

Travelling on foot could be an equally unnerving experience as Alan discovered on the first morning in the city. He was walking behind us when suddenly we heard an outraged angry bellowing, and turned to see Alan lashing out wildly at a group of youths, sending them scattering in all directions. There were five of them, three teenagers and two younger ones who had grouped around him. Suddenly two of them grabbed Alan's legs in an attempt to bring him to the ground, whilst the others tried to steal his camera. So violent was Alan's reaction to this assault, that the terrified youngsters fled leaving the camera firmly in his grasp. No harm was done but they certainly left their mark on Alan. He was wearing crisp white summer trousers and there around each leg were the dark smudged prints of two pairs of very grubby hands.

Despite the smells, the deafening cacophony, the attempted mugging and the unbelievable contrasts of wealth and poverty, however, this is a city which we would not have missed. Alan was stunned by the amazing colours. Not only of the magnificent saris, which even the poorest wore with elegance, but the interiors of the narrow bazaars, spice markets, fruit and vegetables, fabrics of every hue. We discovered a flower market in a covered alleyway, where only the heads were sold by the kilo in a sort of fresh potpourri. As each flower was stripped of its head, the stalks were thrown on to the pathway, so that passers-by walked on a soft springy bed of decaying stems, probably several days depth!

The array of colours in each basket just cried out to be photographed but such was the crush and frenzied activity of buying and selling that we merely moved through and out at the other end, having to be content with our memories of the occasion.

Alan no doubt has very strong mental images of those colours. Three days in Bombay was actually enough so that by the time we took a flight down to South Goa, we were ready to go.

Pololem Beach has no hotels or guest houses. It has a palm fringed beach, an island at one end which can be reached on foot at low tide and where you sit to watch the sun go down. We knew all this before we arrived because our son Richard, who was with us on this trip, spent Christmas, 1997, there. We also knew where we would be sleeping for the next week - in a bamboo hut on the sand, with rush matting laid on the floor.

Abel, who owns the beach huts, came to meet us. He had only one hut available. It had a thin mattress laid on bamboo slats, a cotton bed cover and a candle. He had arranged for another hut with his friend on the next patch - these were luxurious. In addition to the bamboo bed but with a thicker mattress, it had an electric light bulb, a small modern fan, a blanket and white cotton sheets! Sorry Richard, you're staying with your friend Abel.

Here Alan found colours and images in abundance to christen his new India drawing book. Beyond the postcard, palm-fringed beaches lay crude fishing boats, with their nets draped over the side to dry or piled high in the boats ready for the next trip.

Alan hired one of these to go round the bays to a remote fishing community. Here, quite untouched by tourism most people stayed near the wonderful bars and restaurants at Pololem the fishermen and their families lived in bamboo and cane dwellings, covered with palm throngs. On our third trip out, the boats had just returned and the locals were surging towards them, baskets on their heads, to buy from the night's haul of fresh fish.

Alan worked furiously with his drawing book whilst our boatmen watched intrigued - when not fishing, their usual trips were to see the dolphins cavorting around in the bay.

Along the beach were a number of bar-restaurants serving a delicious array of spicy foods. Our eating experiences varied from places where food was served on a banana leaf - a tapis mixed and eaten with the fingers of the right hand, to cordon bleu delicacies at the Taj restaurants in Bombay and Madras.
The food was superb at all of them - but on the beach in Goa, a three-course meal for three with local beer was under £4!

We had intended to spend only a few days in Goa before making our way across the sub continent, south eastwards to Madras.
So seduced were we by the beauty of the region, however, that three days stretched to five, then to seven and finally on the eighth day, having abandoned our planned train trek across the country, we flew to Madras, where our air-conditioned hotel awaited us. With only two days left of our Indian experience, we hired a car and driver for a day for the princely sum of 1100 rupees (about £16 and travelled 60 kilometres south to the granite cave temples of Mahabalipuram, carved into the solid cliff face in the 7th century.

On the way back, we visited a crocodile park, where there are thousands of every kind of species and a snake farm where we watched the serum being extracted for medical purposes, before they were released back into the wild.

Back in Madras, a city of intricate temples, hectic, but smaller and less frenetic than Bombay, we packed our backpacks in preparation for our 5am start back to the UK, taking with us memories of the pandemonium, the bamboo hut, lying beneath our mosquito net as the waves crashed just feet away, the friendliness of the people, and for Alan in particular, the colours and multicultural images of India.

So will canvases of the markets of Bombay or Madras or the remote fishing villages and boats of Goa appear in Alan's next exhibition. Not yet, says Alan. For those we must wait a few years. Once back in Devon, with the colours of India still vibrant in his head, Alan must return to his paintings of Jersey for an exhibition in St Helier which opens on April 13 and then on to paintings of Northern Italy - Piemonte and Venice and back again to the West Coast of Ireland for his London exhibition in September, at the David Messum Gallery in Cork Street.