Lady on a Bicycle

For this issue, the Phantom Lady invites her friend, the cultural theorist- curator-art critic N. Rajyalakshmi to interview Archana Hande about her thrilling bicycling tour of Switzerland.

Indian Lady on Bicycle postcard

N. Rajyalakshmi (NR):  Ms. Archana, I am very curious to hear about your cycling project in Switzerland. Did you know that learning bicycling was an important part of the women’s reform movement in India? It meant modernity and freedom, and even now we can see that a woman on a vehicle is the butt of jeers and jokes, if not outright attack.  A friend was telling me that his grandmother created a sensation in Pune as a young widow, learning bicycling from her teenage son. And there is that hilarious scene in Arun Khopkar’s film Katha Don Ganpatraonchi about the two feuding Ganpat Raos, when the mother arrives on a visit in her nine-yard sari, cycling to military music and doing ferocious lathi exercises at every stop.

Archana Hande (AH) (Laughs):  In Switzerland I was a source of great curiosity and known as the “the Indian lady on a bicycle”. The Swiss are used to seeing Indian tourists who love luxury and will not walk a step. On top of Mount Titlies in Engelberg where a song was picturized for the film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, there is a big cut out of Shah Rukh and Kajol as Raj and Simran, which is a favourite place for Indians to take photographs. At the base of the mountain you will find a desi hawker’s cart with vada pav, pav bhaji, idli and chai where Indian tourists crowd to devour the food. While eating, they make enquiries like, whether it will be cold and snowy up at 3,238 metres? They are usually dressed in thin T-shirts or sarees and Hawaii chappals. By the time they finish, the ticket counters are closed so they have to come back the next morning!

NR (Laughs): What was your project about?

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge site on Titlies

AH: I applied for a residency to Pro-Helvetia and my proposal was that I wanted to become a landscape painter. I was in art school in Santiniketan where we are taught to be landscape painters.  We used to cycle around the countryside with our sketch books every afternoon and the seniors used to train us: senior boys training junior girls. And it had to be in a particular style. So in Switzerland I thought I’d cycle around being a landscape painter, or playing a location hunter for Bollywood films. A cycle has more convenient access to places: you can carry it, go along paths and stop anywhere you like.

The idea was to bring back the Swiss landscape to India. It’s like a migration of landscape: first, when the trouble started in Kashmir, Switzerland became “Kashmir” in Bollywood films, later Switzerland became “Switzerland”, and then Switzerland came to India. I’ve seen painted Swiss landscape sets in the Ramoji Rao Studios in Hyderabad. At one point the Himachal and Ladakh areas which had less conflict became “Switzerland”.  It was all about the exoticness of snow.

NR: I saw a Hindi film, I think it was Hum, in which the Ooty scenes were shot in Mauritius. The scenery did not look like a hill station at all – it looked tropical!

AH: Before going there, I thought it would be very simple – I’d take a tent and a bike and stop whenever I was tired – and I’d do watercolours whenever I felt like. Then I realized that you can’t do that because there are a lot of restrictions on camping: you can’t really camp anywhere, there are special camping areas, so you have to find places to stay. I would have to carry food for the whole day. I was told that people in the interiors may not speak English and that Switzerland was divided into cantons, and that a lot of the cantons may have a problem with race, so they might not be helpful at all. The Swiss people I was corresponding with thought that Switzerland was not friendly – they were scared that if I was tired and knocked at someone’s door to stay the night I may not be entertained, and they were nervous that I was a woman and an Indian woman, and that I couldn’t afford to stay in Bed and Breakfasts because it would have cost me a lot of money. They completely ruled out my idea of spending the night in village homes, because they said I could meet a psychopath, for instance.

Water fall on a hiking route and Archana’s cycle

NR: This sounds like a great adventure, and you did it alone. It must have taken a lot of planning?

AH: It took three months of planning – I bought an 18 gear bike in India and did some trial runs in Bangalore and Mumbai, from Kandivli where I live in Mumbai, to Alibaug which is 75 kms away and back, for example. I had to check the timing and whether I could maintain the energy; on the second day the body gets tired, and then you pick up the energy again. In Bangalore I would cycle from my parents’ home to far off parts of the city every day so that my body was not so unprepared.

NR: How did you work it out? You had never been to Switzerland before.

AH: I met several people by chance, and through friends, who helped me. Surekha told me about Lilian Hasler, a Swiss sculptor who lived in Pune. When I met her and told her about my project, she laughed. She said an Indian doing anything physical was the most hilarious thing! Then Lilian said she would help me and took out a cycling map of Switzerland. She showed me all the low and high areas, and advised me to try and follow the rivers and the lakes because if there was a water body, it meant it was a low lying area. She asked me to figure out the entire route and fix it before I left. She said don’t knock on strange doors, but organize a set of friends from here.

Suresh Kumar Gopalreddy’s friend was a sportsman called Balz Laimberger from Aarau. He’s a cyclist and a sailor. He told me to come with a plan, he’s part of a cycling group and they have a directory with the phone numbers and addresses of about five hundred people from all over Switzerland who are cyclists. So a cyclist can call up a member and ask to stay for one night- but you have to be a member. Since Balz was one, he said that any time I got stuck in a place I could call him and fix up my stay, but I could call only a day earlier.  He helped me with the route suggesting short cuts, more scenic views and mountains to avoid, fleshing out the map that Lilian and I had planned.

Bernard Imhasly, the Swiss brother-in-law of my gallerist Shireen Gandhy and his daughter Anisha who lives in Bern, helped out and later Pro-Helvetia gave me an assistant, Lena Eriksson who started connecting with all these people. She made a list of what I would need for the trip and warned me about sudden rains.

NR: And what happened in Switzerland? Did everything go according to plan?       

AH: In the first ten days I thought I would travel by train and get used to the country.  Art Basel was going on and I met a lot of Indian artist friends there and spent time with them seeing all the museums, but it was raining throughout! I fixed my trip to start on 20th June but the rain wouldn’t stop. I was nervous because I wouldn’t be able to cycle properly or do watercolours and I had to reach my host by 7pm. everyday.

In Basel, people told me about Jean- Frederic Schnyder, a Swiss artist who’s a big star: he’s a landscape painter who cycles and paints.  He has several series of works- sometimes he only cycles up to highways and paints them, sometimes it’s just mountains. He’s older now but he did this till his forties and became famous for it. I was very excited about this but everyone told me that it was very difficult to get in touch with him. He lives in Zug. I realized I could go to his place on my bicycle tour, but that would come at the end as it was near Zurich.

Luckily, the rain stopped on the first day and it was sunny for the rest of my trip. I planned my journey anti- clockwise from Zurich. I had wanted to do it clockwise like the pradakshina, but the route was very mountainous, so it was easier to go anti-clockwise and do the plains first. Someone told me this had been Napoleon’s route when he attacked Switzerland! I thought I could meet Jean- Frederic in Zug at the end and show him all my watercolours. I would call my trip “ Meeting Jean- Frederic Schnyder” and build up a story around it, about being on my way to meet him.

NR: I googled Schnyder and an article says he paints certain banal things over and over again, like series of train stations, and called him an artist- archivist. That’s interesting because you work with the idea of the archive yourself, and this is close to your project.

AH: Everyone told me that it was impossible to meet Jean-Frederic unless I went through his gallery, that he rarely appears in public. He didn’t even have an email id or a cell number, just a landline. Till the day I left Basel, I couldn’t get through to him. So the plan to meet him in Zug was unpredictable.

I stayed at Lilian’s flat in the first month in Zurich. When I reached Zurich, Lilian arrived from Pune and she gave me her 7- gear bicycle to use on my trip. Lilian was still doubtful about me. On the first day she showed me around Zurich, and on the second day she gave me the keys of her bike and the address of her studio and said she was having a barbecue there and I should be there at 6 pm sharp. I googled and found a detailed cycle map. I didn’t realize this was a test! The studio was in the countryside 30 kms. away but I managed to cycle there on time. She was pleased and gave me the green signal.

Between Lena, Lilian and Balz, they gave me everything I needed. I didn’t have to buy any equipment, except my clothes. At my first stop in Aarau my host Balz and his friend Jürg Fritzsche laughed at me when they saw my 7- gear bike and Jürg gave me his new 24- gear light mountain bike to use. I was embarrassed because the bike was really expensive, but Balz told me in an aside that Jürg was very rich and he could afford it!

I had to learn how to repair a puncture, and in Switzerland, even parking a bike is a skill because you have to lift it up high and hang it up by a hook on a pole in the parking areas.

Archana in front of the waterfall, Image courtesy: Archana Hande

NR: And what happened on the actual journey? 

AH: Swiss people exercise the whole day! They spend their lunch breaks having a quick sandwich and jogging the rest of the time. In fact I hardly saw any place that was lonely because there were people cycling or jogging in the deepest forests. Sometimes I felt silly to be doing this project which was so normal for them.

My experience was the opposite of what we had imagined. In one of the most conservative cantons in Giswil (which I was warned could be racist), where I had no host to stay with, the Hotel Krone gave me a free room. The owner said an Indian woman cycling was a rare thing and should be encouraged! Sometimes when I got lost and knocked at some door, people would give me food and drink and cycle along with me till I found my route. I experienced no racism, and because of other cyclists encouraging me on the road, I finished my trip, otherwise I could have got tired and got on to a train at any time, since I had a free train pass.

The host in every town cooked a fantastic dinner for me and showed me around the city. They would make breakfast for me the next day and pack lunch for the journey. So I saw the events and museums everywhere. One of the interesting things I saw was the Obwald music festival held in the deep woods near Giswil. This happens once every year, when there is yodelling through the night. Groups from different cantons perform different types of yodelling. It was a full moon night and Bernard and Anisha had booked a table there. A guest country is invited each year and it was Mali this time. All night, there were group performances by Swiss yodellers, very formal, alternating with wild Mali dancing, with Mali and Swiss food being served. It was a fantastic experience.

When I reached Burgdorf I saw a huge poster of Subodh Gupta’s show, and in Thun I ran into Bharti Kher’s show. The museum people in Thun said I could park my bike with all my luggage right inside the building at the reception- it was so funny, like taking Subodh’s work to see Bharti’s show!

NR: Ms. Archana, all this is seems so strenuous! Did you manage to do any watercolours at all?             

AH: The water colour painting project was very difficult, because I hadn’t calculated that I would need to calm down for some time after the cycling, or that sometimes the landscape would not change for a long time. But I would blog every evening. My bicycle tour is part of an ongoing work called Archana Devi Travels.

Sometimes I would end up taking the wrong route. I once took the hiker’s route instead of the cycling path and I had to carry my bike with the luggage up a steep path beside a waterfall, for two or three hours. A car hit me once, and I had several falls, but nothing serious, just got a few bruises.

NR: And did you meet Jean-Frederic Schnyder?

AH: The night before I was leaving for Zug, when I still had no clue about how to contact Jean- Frederic, my host, a curator who knew his gallerist, managed to get his number. I called him and he was so welcoming, inviting me to come at any time! When I reached there he spent four hours with me seeing my watercolours and bringing out his old paintings, to compare our versions of the same landscapes. He knows every mountain in Switzerland. When I asked him about his reputation as a difficult recluse, he laughed and said that was only for commercial people like curators and gallerists, for artists he was always available. He insisted that I stay with them another day, but when I said I had to leave for Zurich, he gave me all his catalogues and even packed my bike for me expertly. So I did finally meet the mythical Jean-Frederic Schnyder!

Cycled 532 kms.

Starting 21 June to 1 July 2010

Route: Zurich – Aarau – Burgdorf – Bern – Thun – Bonigen, near Interlaken – Mariengen – Giswil via Brünig Pass – Sarnen – Engelberg – Emmenbrucke – Zug – Zurich


The Phantom Lady emerged like a tornado in 1997 and has kept the art world enthralled with her adventures. A small town girl, she is quite at home in the metropolis and keeps a close eye on all the goings on, swooping down now and then to bring some order into the chaos.


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