For over a decade, the artist Christopher Corr has travelled across India, chronicling a country that is forever reinventing itself
I arrived in India on 6 January 1986 for my first visit. I wanted to draw and paint and lose myself in the country's rich culture. To prepare myself, I did a three-day crash course in Hindi, in Stepney, east London. It was a good, if brief, introduction to Indian conversation. "What is your name? Where do you come from? How much do you earn? Who is your God?"

Bombay was overwhelming. The journey from the airport to the city was shocking. I still remember it vividly. People living in concrete pipes, in straw huts, packing cases and under plastic sheeting by the roadside. So many people, and animals everywhere - cows asleep on the pavements, pigs, goats and chickens in the gutters. And sometimes a temple elephant, or a working one, loaded up with timber, would appear and step carefully through the traffic-jammed streets.

I began drawing straightaway and tried to make sense of it all. I kept asking myself, "How do you draw all this?", and I really didn't know the answer. So much happens in a day. You see so many strange and beautiful sights.

I started collecting ephemera, scraps of Indian paper, because I liked the imagery and the quality of the printing. Garish incense packets and matchboxes with pictures of gods or trucks or movie stars from Bollywood.

I drew all the time, wherever I went, to keep a record of what I was seeing. There was so much to note down; I would walk and draw at the same time. Men would ask me to draw them, sometimes they would queue up. When their turn came, some would give me instructions: "You must draw my moustaches," "Please show my watch." I quickly learnt about status symbols.

Time has a different meaning in India, perhaps because life exists on so many, and on such different, levels. "Today" and "now" have no more importance than any other time. I've spent hours waiting for a very late "up" train to arrive, or for a bus that never came.

I choose a different region every time I go there. It's really too big for a grand tour and so diverse. In Agra a man said to me: "Tourists are like cows, they wander about aimlessly, grazing here first and then they get distracted and they wander off over there." I like to graze.

I've been to India four times and with each visit I have noticed significant changes. Our cultures are merging all the time, in fashion, music, food and philosophy. We give and we take. On my second trip I witnessed the arrival of plastic carrier bags, when previously cotton or string bags were common, and shops made their own bags from gummed newspaper.

Clay "chai" cups were replaced by plastic cups on train journeys. The clay cups were thrown out of the train windows and went back to being clay. I was in Ladakh in the Himalayas when the first cappuccino machine arrived. I remember the first satellite dishes being installed in Ladakh, too. I imagine the place is dotted with them now.

The last time I was in India, the mobile phone was the current status symbol. I don't know what is happening there now, but I think it's time I returned to graze some more.

Captions: The Jantar Mantar, New Delhi

In 1724, Maharaja Jai Singh II built the first of his five observatories. It is situated on Parliament Street, in the centre of New Delhi, and it is called the Jantar Mantar. Jai Singh was a keen astronomer, he wanted to study the heavens and make astronomical tables and calendars. The Jantar Mantar comprises a huge sundial and constructions that enable you to read the angles of the moon, the stars and the planets, and to plot the shortest and longest days of the year. They are arranged like vast sculptures in a palm tree garden, and are visited by lovers and people who want an oasis to escape to.

The Charminar cigarette stall, Madras

The Char Minar is an ancient tower in the centre of Hyderabad, India's fifth city. It is also a brand of cigarettes, with a drawing of the tower on the packet. I hate cigarettes, but I like Indian cigarette packaging. It has an innocence about it, so different from our own contrived imagery of cowboys riding in the lonely and wild badlands.

Kerala, on the backwater Kerala is green and lush. There are coconut palms everywhere. The people in Kerala are highly literate and their standard of living is good. They are a mix of Christians and communists. The best way to see Kerala and the people who live there is by travelling along the canals in a slow boat.

Coconuts, and all the palm by-products, are processed along the route. You will see men fishing with circular weighted nets, boys shinning up trees for fruit, and a woman taking her ducks for a walk. It's cool under the palm leaves. Christian shrines and chapels are built next to Hindu temples, and hammers and sickles are painted on walls.

I went to see some Kathakali dancers perform on a small rooftop in Kerala, and Boy George was there too. It was just before his Hindu-style reincarnation and I'm sure he was taking notes.

Pongal cows, southern India

Indian cows are beautiful, stately and elegant. They are groomed like racehorses and pampered like poodles - marigold garlands around their necks, painted tikkas on their foreheads, gold bells on strings hanging between their painted horns. Some wear embroidered coats, tailored to fit their humps. For the Pongal harvest festival, people decorate their cows with fluorescent dyes, they paint patterns on them and stamp them with their hand prints. Their horns are re-painted in bright colours and more jewellery and bells are added, along with floral necklaces.

"Every tomorrow a better tomorrow," Calcutta

Calcutta is my favourite city in India. There is a real feeling of optimism about the place. It was the former Indian capital and the second city of the British Empire. There is something so familiar about its buildings, and then you realise they have been based on buildings in London, Rome and Athens. The architecture is so grand, and all a bit run-down. I came prepared for misery and suffering on the streets, but Calcutta was a great surprise. I found cafes, bookshops, fascinating museums, a planetarium and the Maidan, a vast public space reminiscent of Hyde Park.

Delhi traffic

I love painting traffic. In India the traffic is spectacular and full of surprises. You can't guess what's coming next. Huge overloaded trucks jostle overladen camel carts, a cow wanders by eating a newspaper, the street barber is shaving a man on the kerbside, a procession of semi-naked holy men appear, and an overdressed traffic cop attempts to bring order to the chaos. I feel a bit like the traffic cop when I'm painting in the street. I want to capture that frenzy and make some visual sense from it. I'm always looking for a good vantage point to draw from without attracting a crowd. Once I asked a woman if I could paint from her window and she agreed for 20 rupees.

Circus at the Red Fort, Old Delhi

I have a few favourite drawing locations in India: the River Ganges at Varanasi, the Lutyens buildings in New Delhi, the beach at Puri in Orissa and the Red Fort in Old Delhi. The Red Fort makes a great backdrop for a picture. The dhobi wallahs hang their laundry there; the army use it as a parade ground; and once I saw a circus outside its walls.

Colour in India is intense and vibrant. It has really influenced my palette, I can see the changes after each of my visits.

Buddhist trumpeters, Ladakh

Ladakh is a unique Buddhist kingdom, high up in the Himalayas. It's only accessible for about four months of the year because of the weather. Snow falls in October and melts in May. In summer, the landscape is as dry as the Sahara.

I spent six weeks there drawing Buddhist life and rituals. It's calm and peaceful, and almost crime-free. I met the chief magistrate while drawing one day, and he assured me "There is no serious crime here. I just deal with the odd tiff."

I lived for one week in a Buddhist monastery. In the summer the monks play music at festivals. They wear incredible masks and costumes, and dance in a trance-like way. Monk musicians blow horns, beat drums and clash cymbals.

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