300 km on foot in 30 days: Anthony Guruz's black and white drawings tell the story of a road less travelled
In attempting to recreate a significant incident from family lore, artist Anthony Guruz walked from Chennai to Nagapattinam along the East Coast Road — a distance of some 300 km — over a month. As he walked and encountered people, places and things, Guruz sketched. A series of black and white drawings now encode a visual story of that journey: poignant observations that Guruz would never have made, had he not walked the road as a pedestrian.
In attempting to recreate a significant incident from family lore, artist Anthony Guruz walked from Chennai to Nagapattinam along the East Coast Road — a distance of some 300 km — over a month.
As he walked and encountered people, places and things, Guruz sketched.
A series of black and white drawings now encode a visual story of that journey: poignant observations that Guruz would never have made, had he not walked the road as a pedestrian.
A barefoot, sari-clad woman of middling age walks with a bundle atop her head, and one held in the crook of her arm. The road curves beyond and ahead of her, trees cast long shadows on the path, and the woman’s face holds a downcast yet determined expression. The strokes of the drawing, using only black and white, convey a certain indefinable quality: you are transported alongside the woman, walking the path beside her.
When I saw it, the drawing was housed in the expansive gallery of the Dr J Jayalalithaa Music and Fine Arts University in Chennai. The woman in the drawing — artist Anthony Guruz’s great-aunt — was on her way from her village in the district of Villupuram, to that of her nephew’s — a distance of 30 km. The nephew was unwell, and the woman — bearing kitchen essentials for a month and the money she earned as an agricultural labourer — was going to his home, to nurse him back to health.
Guruz, 32, had heard the story of his father’s remarkable athai (paternal aunt). And when he decided to undertake a walking project of his own, perhaps it was natural that he should learn to appreciate his grand-aunt’s gumption even more.
Titled ‘Moothaiyar’ (Ancestor), the drawing is part of an exhibition — Walkway Sketches — of Guruz’s works, and also his MPhil thesis in Visual Communication. As part of his work on the thesis, Guruz decided to embark on a journey by foot — like his grand-aunt decades ago — but over 300 km. Guruz’s route began at Chennai, ending at Nagapattinam, following the East Coast Road. The journey would normally have taken about 15 days, but in Guruz’s case, became longer as he was also “collecting experiences, meeting people and understanding life”. And along the way, he deftly sketched the experiences, animals, personalities he encountered — a true artist’s travelogue. Every drawing was a story.
Guruz has been a professional commercial artist through a 10-year career, but the walk and the drawings that emerged from it were something he did for himself.
“They are not cohesive. In fact, every sketch has an entirely different story to tell. But all the stories were about my journey or about leading it. My travels constitute the core of this exhibition. When you see the artworks together, you will see and understand my travels,” Guruz told this correspondent.
His drawings, however, are not only a record of the distance he travelled, but also of how the road itself was changing. For instance, Guruz could not help but observe the extent to which elites control the East Coast Road. “There are private beaches and huge, well-decorated gates… as if they are trying to imprison the water and the breeze,” he says, pointing to his drawings of these gated spaces.
And the drawings are more political than they appear at a first, casual glance. There are dead butterflies (they hover over the flowerpots meant to beautify the road dividers, but are hit by speeding cars as they flutter back and forth) and renderings of Ambedkar’s statues. The statues cast — literally — a long shadow over Guruz’s travels, and in their shade, he found comfort and security.
“Whenever I see a clear blue sky, I am reminded of Ambedkar, it gives me hope. If the sky is clear, it means there won’t be any rains, there is still some light, and I can walk a bit more. That is the security I draw from Ambedkar,” Guruz says.
There are more mundane things to be found in his drawings as well — such as food. On the road, Guruz would go hungry for long hours, having to subsist on the staple of fried rice. So when he came across a shop selling vadas and tea — imagine his delight. The meal made its way into his sketches.
So did the flowers known as “oomatham pu” (datura stramonium) that reminded him of his son. Yet another variety of flowers, who the artist couldn't identify by name, had a strong fragrance but couldn’t be seen. Guruz tracked them down to a small forest. “They were growing in large numbers and had a strong, pleasant smell. I carried some with me and they kept me company for a while,” he says.
The East Coast Road is much loved by drivers, especially those on two wheelers. Yet Guruz’s own journey was stripped of the romanticism associated with ECR. To people living on either side of the Road, it is never a jolly ride. “They live in constant fear of being run over by speeding vehicles,” says Guruz. “I saw a dead calf on the road, being caressed by its mother’s tongue. I also saw an old man — overthrown from his cycle and killed on the spot — after a vehicle hit him. These two images… I couldn’t bring myself to sketch.”
Self-portraits show the artist seated in a graveyard: Guruz explains that he was often viewed with suspicion, even when he explained the motive for his travels. So graveyards became his resting spots, where no one asked him anything. Most graveyards would also have a handy tap, for relatives of the deceased and other mourners to wash their hands and feet, and these were a boon to the artist too.
As he walked the road, Guruz shed all the non-essential items that were weighing him down. T-shirts and shorts were washed and left for strangers to pick up if they so chose. His steel drinking water bottle Guruz gave to a student he met. He only carried two sets of dhotis — one to wear and the other to use as a bedsheet — that he washed alternatively. And of course, his drawing materials — papers, brush pens, pencils — so he could “sketch the moment even as [he] was living through it”.
Guruz’s nights — spent curled up on pavements as he dodged the lights of passing vehicles and the possibility of being nudged awake by a policeman — were precarious. A Puducherry local, the East Coast Road was not unfamiliar to Guruz, by his own reckoning he may have driven between Chennai and his hometown “a hundred times”. But, “I never knew where a stream was, or how a flower smelt,” Guruz says. “I observed life more when I walked.”
The artist says his 30 days on the road are among the most precious of his life. “There were times when I thought I was going to die, there were times when I thought I took a wrong decision, but I never gave up. At the end of it, I emerged a better human being,” he says, his eyes scanning the drawings on the walls. “I am no longer the flippant, uncaring young man my friends knew. The journey taught me about life.”
Walkway Sketches was on display at Dr J Jayalalithaa Music and Fine Arts University between 1-8 March. It is being exhibited at Loyola College from 12-15 March.
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