By Bhupinder Singh and Bhaswati Ghosh
Frida sings the blues: Bhaswati
We’ve had a missed opportunity to see La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s Blue House, as we picked the wrong day, Monday, when most museums are closed. That’s right, the house Frida was born and lived in all her life is now a museum, open to the public.
So we return the very next day, making sure to arrive early to grab a decent spot at the long line we’ve been warned queues up for tickets. This is the most desperate I remember having been to visit a museum.
As we enter, I realize why. This isn’t really a museum.
A garden is in sight, but visitors are streaming inside the house, its doors to the left. The first exhibit is a huge chimney Frida and her husband Diego Rivera built, its structure inspired by Mesoamerican architecture. What follows is mostly art by and on Frida — paintings, self-portraits, photographs, items of daily use. As I take it all in, walking through the rooms, each carrying a quote from Frida on the walls, I am at a loss for words. Only a couple of days ago we were in the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) to see Diego Rivera’s epic murals on its walls. The sight of those had awed me, not only with their sheer scale and magnificence, but the deep empathy and creative fervour with which Rivera documented the history of Mexico’s indigenous people and their subsequent oppression.
But here at Frida’s blue house, that awe suddenly pales, even though there’s not a single work that matches those murals in scope or grandeur. Instead, La Casa Azul turns out to be the warehouse of one woman’s personal history that she shares with an openness that’s unapologetically candid, yet not meant to be sensational.
From her paintings dealing with her own infertility to the bed in her daytime bedroom to the ceiling of which her mother got a mirror fixed after Frida met with a serious accident at 18 that left her bound to the bed for the most part, to her photographs celebrating her body as well as the traditional pre-Hispanic dresses she loved to wear, the blue house stirs me in a way no museum or even residence-turned-museum ever has.
Frida’s love of Mexico’s indigenous culture and common people, her wounded yet unabashedly honest musings on her physical suffering and limitations, her generosity of spirit in opening the doors of her house to anyone in need — from political figures to upcoming artists — all this is so engraved in the art and artifacts in La Casa Azul that as I step out into the tropical garden she loved to spend her time in, I don’t feel like it’s a dead person’s house I’m visiting. Frida is alive and kicking, it seems, welcoming the crowd into her personal space, not shy to share her tears, convictions and even scandals with us in a way that feels honest and liberating at once.
Marxism will bring health to the sick (oil, 1954) [L]
The garden is a delight in itself. The warm green foliage dazzles against the bright blue backdrop of the house’s walls. There’s a small pond, and I spend quite some time there as my husband sits at one of the tables in the garden. The pond is nothing special, but something I spot there strikes me, especially as I’ve just read a quote of Frida’s from a bunch of her reflections printed on forest green boards and perched on pedestals spread all across the garden.
“No words can describe Diego’s immense tenderness for things of beauty…He loves children, and all animals–with a special fondness for hairless Mexican dogs–, and birds and plants and stones.”
What I see on the pond’s outer wall border is a cat circling the pool of water. It dives down sometimes, takes a drink, then climbs back up. I try to capture its many moves with my camera. What I can’t capture is feeling that Frida’s watching the cat, too, and smiling, Diego on her mind.
The soul’s satiated but the tummy needs fuel, so I go to a cafe facing the garden. We have a small breakfast of coffee, croissant and corn muffin and move on. There’s a six-minute walk we need to take to reach the house of a man whom Frida had once hosted and had an affair with in La Casa Azul — Leon Trotsky.
On our way, we stop to buy freshly cut mango, spiked with red chilli powder and lime. Frida’s photo-portrait in a gorgeous crimson shawl flashes before me.
Pyramids, people, struggles: Bhupinder
The only trip we took outside the city was to the Teotihuacan pyramids about 50 kilometres to the north. What a beauty to behold. In the middle of an arid land, beyond the hills surrounding the city, the pyramids rise out of one of the first planned cities in Mesoamerica, dating to 100 BC.
As we walked along the Avenue of the Dead from the pyramid dedicated to the Storm Goddess towards the Pyramid dedicated to the Rain God, we were accosted by a Mexican-Indian vendor trying to sell us a pair of handmade figurines made of the black Obsidian stone.
He initially offered to sell them at 600 pesos and each time we turned away — for we had no inclination to buy the figurines — he reduced the price, halving it to 300 pesos by the time we changed our mind — struck not only by the bargain that he offered but also by the wrinkles on his sun-burnt cheeks and the deep creases on his forehead. That is the closest I came to meeting the characters of Mexican peasants and the rural poor I had read about in Mariano Azuela’s, “The Underdogs” and Juan Rulfo’s collection of short stories, “The Burning Plains”.
Away from the Central Historic district, I got a peek into the life of the desperate — those who, like the Zapatistas in Chiapas and elsewhere, continue to struggle against the entrenched power of the non-indigenous people. It was not just a coincidence that the few beggars and almost all the street vendors we noticed in the city were clearly Mexican Indians, and sometimes mestizos, but never the white Mexicans.
For all my liking for the Ciudad, I was reminded of how Elías Conteras, an Indian from the Chiapas, a Sancho Panza like character from the novel, The Uncomfortable Dead, by Paco Ignacio Taibo and Subcomandante Marcos sees Mexico City, calling it The Monster:
The Monster has big houses and small ones, tall ones and little bitty ones, fat and skinny, rich and poor. Like people, but without hearts. In the Monster, the most important thing is the houses and the cars, so people get sent underground, to the metro. If people stay up their in car country, well, the cars kind of like get very pissed and try to gore them, like bulls would.
In the city, they don’t really know how to speak the language, they don’t even know the difference between a mare and stallion; they just call everything a horse. Then there’s cool. When city people don’t know how to explain how they feel or when they are angry or when they are happy or anything like that, they just say cool.
Another neat surprise was the Cafe La Habana, a five-minute walk from where we were staying. I knew about this traditional cafe as it had been fictionalized by the Chilean-Mexican writer Roberto Bolaño in “The Savage Detectives” as the La Quinta cafe. What I did not know was that it had not only been visited by Octavio Paz, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolaño, but this: that it was where Fidel and Che had planned the final assault on Cuba that culminated in the Cuban revolution in 1959.
We went there for the first time for a late El desayuno (breakfast), consisting of mollete with the best Cafe Americano (black coffee). A day before we were to leave the city, we decided to have breakfast there once more — this time eggs with salsa, and Cafe Americano. As was the first time, the atmosphere was laid-back, even languid as the sun rose higher at noontime. Families were enjoying a relaxed brunch and lonely old men read newspapers over coffee.
Outside the Cafe, a camp had been set up by activists campaigning for agrarian reforms. A red banner proclaimed support for Venezuela’s leaders — the late Hugo Chavez and the current President, Victor Maduro. Another asked for the release of their leaders taken prisoner by the state. A kitchen had been set up in one part of the camp. In another part, a young man had set up a sound system that was playing invigorating music. On the road, another person had spread out posters for sale on the roadside — of Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara, Stalin, Gandhi, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, the Mexican comic actor, Cantinflas, and the formerly-masked Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos.
Camp of the Indigenous Zapatista Agrarian Movement outside Cafe La Habana
The struggles of the Mexican indigenous population, long reflected in the best literature the country has produced are still going on — in Chiapas and in the streets of the capital. My long association with Latin America had, in fact, begun with the Subcomandante interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the book “The Zapatista Reader” that expanded my interest in Latin American literature beyond just Marquez.
I went on to read many writers from the region that was remote and yet close, exotic and home at the same time. It was at La Habana that I could traverse this distance from its writers and revolutionists to the struggles of its poor indigenous people. Writers like Marquez and Bolaño, who gave a literary voice to the continent, once drank coffee inside the Cafe. Outside. Fidel and Che had plotted from its precincts the final assault to upturn the US domination of the island, providing a beacon to the poor and the oppressed in Latin America. The struggles of its indigenous peasants are still raging in the camps.
It was as if this whole distance in time, ideas and action all had collapsed within a few feet around me.
Only, it took me more than a decade and a half to get there.
Bhupinder Singh blogs at A Reader’s Words.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. She is an Editor-at-Large at Cafe Dissensus. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.
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