Patrons enjoy a chat at Dylan's Coffee Beans café in Old Manali, Photo Credit: Parikshit Rao

Finding art on backpacker trails

Simran Preet Kaur
September 09 , 2014
04 Min Read

The first hippies to reach India returned home with stories of tranquil beaches, simple chai-chapati combinations and Lord Shiva. On reflection, of these, only Lord Shiva claims tall mentions in travellers’ tales today. Where people used to go and grab dinner at basic dhabas or cook up meals by campfires, now we have cafés in backpacker-haunted towns that have taken the meeting of the East and the Rest several steps further.

An eating experience in one of these cafés mirrors the vibrancy of its visitors. From falafel and shakshuka for Israelis to hash browns and rösti for the European, there is enough to please the taste buds from every land. But the fusion is not restricted to the kitchen alone. Indian gods and goddesses are present in their most peaceful and psychedelic avatars. It’s almost like watching Janis Joplin and an Indian snake charmer get married over a pot of Oriental tea and banana pancakes.


In the remote, barren mountains of Spiti Valley, a small café in Kaza serves food in simple anonymity. Whispering Willows, as it’s called, is run by a dewy-eyed local youngster, and has its walls painted in the colours of Jamaica. “Red is for the blood that flows like the river, yellow is for the gold that they stole, green is for the land, and black is for jah people...” are the words inscribed atop a painting that shows Gandhi and links Jamaica with India. The owner will tell you that a Dutchman, who visited Spiti six years ago, left his love for India and his mark as a Bob Marley fan on these walls. Such incidents are not rare. There are plenty of small cafés in far-flung locales that are living art exhibitions, unknown ones at that, created by nameless wanderers. These are perhaps the last remnants of a generation that painted buses and cars in psychedelic colours for cross-country trips, advent of the same inspiration that spawned bands such as Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.


In Old Manali last season, a new café opened. Shai, the owner, is an Israeli who took an earnest liking to India a few years ago, and has stayed back since. His café, Shayale, serves authentic Israeli snacks that many Israeli travellers relish after months on the road, but the first thing that grabs your attention as you enter is the walls. Intricately painted, one wall was done up by a French couple, another by an Israeli and a third by someone else. A visit this season showed the fourth wall also dabbed, with a caricature of Shai himself.

Many of these paintings are simply strokes of spontaneity, of twisted thoughts, cries of joy at being on the road in a country as old as India, or efforts to make a humble café serving good food that wee bit more interesting. Some are consciously thought out — such as the one at Whispering Willows — with a specific theme and message. Some are completely ad-lib, painted on the spot, random yet beautiful, not to forget colourful. A short walk from McLeodganj is a fantastic example of how spontaneous it gets. A Different View is a guest house hidden from the main road, not quite well kept but well painted once upon a time. The artist, another foreigner, stayed a month and, besides painting the café, went ahead and painted the guest house rooms as well. One room has all the phases of the moon painted on the ceiling in silver, whereas an entire cottage,right down to the kitchen, is covered with elves and nymphs .


Where there is art, can music be far behind? In Old Manali, there is a small coffee bar called Dylan’s Coffee Beans. Around seven years ago, an Indian man shaded an entire wall with the outline of Bob Dylan’s profile, and over the years several other visitors have filled in the colours with concord, despite being strangers visiting at different points in time. L’e-Space in Pondicherry is another tucked-away café, home to some fantastic musical jams almost every other evening. The owner, Pichaya, a congenial man of elegant French descent, is an art enthusiast. The café, along with the nearby Villa Creole, is painted in all natural indigos, reds and various other colours. There are many such fine examples in places like Rishikesh, Jaisalmer, Goa and Hampi.


In a country steeped in music and nourished on colour, there are many such places out there, with free art produced by unknown wanderers. Some leave signatures — such as the artist Jonas Ihlenfeldt from Germany, who has painted his name in European-style graffiti in the main bazaar of Leh; while some others are happy just signing off as ‘Dutch flavoured’. This is the India of legend, the quintessential snapshot of everything India inspires the artistic in a person. Next time you’re on the road, look out for these strokes of art on anonymous walls.
Cafés to look out for:
> Shayale (Old Manali)
> Whispering Willows (Kaza, Spiti Valley)
> L’e-Space Coffee & Arts (Pondicherry)
> Bird’s Eye View (Pushkar)
> A Different View (McLeodganj-Dharamkot Road)
> Dylan’s Coffee Beans (Old Manali)


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