Post 20 – Internet Down; Street Astronomy

I am sitting here, listening to John Coltrane’s ‘Love,’ made so long ago yet still beautiful, powerful, poignant, those lush sounds that sometimes jar, sometimes soar, that take you to far away places while you are still sitting in your chair. But now I actually am in a far away place. Kolkata is about 9,000 miles from Chicago, and that’s just the surface distance. In fact, it is much further away, a very different world. A few days ago, another internet problem had me untethered to the wider world, a disconcerting feeling. This is how travel used to be, with little connection to ‘home,’ let alone its daily presence afforded by the internet. We survived just fine, thank you very much, perhaps better, centered more not only in time but in space. On the other hand, when that connection was working, a few days earlier, I took my new Bluetooth speaker into the kitchen and we listened to National Public Radio, a small, welcome and incongruous streaming treat. That’s the issue with India—it is new and old, familiar and strange, broken and fixed, crowded and lonely, rich and poor at the same time. It is that imbalance, that bizarre mixture that makes the country simultaneously appealing and frustrating. But despite occasional blips, such as the unpredictable internet or the seeming impossibility of accomplishing the simplest tasks, it’s been relatively easy to traverse. A smile, a gesture, a few Bangla words and magic happens.

Street astronomer K. C. Paul (AT)

Street astronomer K. C. Paul (AT)

Take K.C. Paul for instance. We were walking back from Seagull Publishing when I saw what seemed to be a hut on the side of a main street, plastered with drawings and writing. Those drawings turned out not to be covering anything—they were the “walls.” They were drawings of the universe, and the beliefs of Mr. K.C. Paul, who proved beyond any possible doubt in his mind that the sun revolves around the earth. While I was photographing, the drawings parted and Mr. Paul looked out. He handed us badly xeroxed papers outlining his experiments and the scientific proof of the validity of his theories. Here was a man literally living his beliefs, surrounded by his words and drawings, out there for everyone to see. He showed us letters from NASA and Columbia University (they basically said “Thank you for writing”) and copies of newspaper accounts of his activities. A true folk-scientist, who proved, once again, that the word is remarkable, and if you take the proper amount of time to look, images can part and another layer can be revealed.

KCPaul-4_web KCPaul-2_webKC-Paul-Theory-of-Planetary-Motion_web


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Post 19 – Just a Few of the People We’ve Met

Jeet Chowdhury



Jeet was the first artist we met in Kolkata. He has been invaluable, putting us in touch with other artists, making arrangements and suggestions, being a good friend. He is also really funny. His house is filled to the brim with books and artifacts, every corner and surface covered, much like our house in Evanston. Jeet seems obsessed with our 1945 photographs. His contribution to the project is a short film; he finished the script in a week. A few days ago, we reviewed it with a young Fulbrighter who had agreed to do the voice-over. Jeet’s father was Vasant Chowdhury, a well-known actor and a significant collector of ancient Ganesh figures who donated his sizable collection to the Indian Museum. They published a beautiful catalogue. Jeet showed us a portrait of his father—taken by Cartier-Bresson.

Naveen Kishore



Naveen founded Seagull Publishing some 30 years ago. This is no ordinary publishing house! Naveen was recently honored by the Frankfort Book Fair, one of the most prestigious events of its kind. His words on words are inspirational: Seagull publishes about 30 titles a year, on arts, literature, literary theory, film theory, politics, the environment and other topics. The books are works of art in and of themselves, beautifully designed and produced.


Seagull Catalogues (AT)

Their ‘catalogues’ as well as their books belong on everyone’s shelves. Naveen gave us four of their most recent catalogues, each one a treasure. Seagull also runs a publishing school, training writers and book designers in the art of fine book making; a first-rate gallery space that could rival anything in any major modern city; and a non-profit called “PeaceWorks” to educate young people on issues of tolerance. Last week, they hosted an exhibit and workshops on Anne Frank. I could live here.

Sunandini Banerjee



Sunandini is the principal graphic artist and designer at Seagull. We first saw her work at Jael’s home, in the form of the remarkable Seagull catalogues, where she has done the covers and interior graphics for the majority of their publications. It’s a highly unusual arrangement for an artist to be able to work with such varied material on a daily basis. We got to met her at an opening of her book illustrations at the Seagull Gallery. Her work is multi-layered and gorgeous and often incorporates photographs with her drawings. She has agreed to be part of our Following the Box project. We can’t wait to see what she’ll come up with.

Geeta Vasadhan



Geeta is a member of Priya’s family (Max’s girlfriend.) She has had a difficult life, filled with loss and has spent the past 40 years on a spiritual journey, evident within moments of meeting her. She exudes a wisdom and calmness, in her ease, her smile, her bearing. We had great conversations about life, kindness, coping with difficulties. She is simply a reassuring presence, without any sense of superiority or preachiness. Her command of English is excellent, which of course helps tremendously. Geeta is a memorable figure.

Baharat and Vinita Mansata

Owners of EarthCare Books, a fantastic oasis of literature and activism, with an ecological perspective. They have esoteric titles on feminism, politics and art that would be hard to find in New York, let alone Kolkata. They sponsor an organic market on Saturdays and occasional lectures and concerts. Baharat plays a mesmerizing bansuri.




Thomas Kiernan



EarthCare Books published Kiernan’s ‘Calcutta Full Frame,’ a marvelous collection of black and white images. We finally met up with Thomas at the bookstore. He does not do Facebook, email, or even telephone. Want to see him—you have to see him. Here he is.

Mitul Ganguly



When we walked in to EarthCare books, Mitul was performing an impromptu concert. He was singing a song by the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. But, then he merged it with Harrry Belafonte’s ‘Dayo,’ then it somehow became a Frank Sinatra tune. This is so Kolkata-ish. Of course, he encouraged us to sing along. And then to sing our own songs, actually, he insisted. I held off on Gilbert & Sullivan. From his email signature: A development tourist by profession, with accessories (a ‘farmhand’ as of now)- an erstwhile ‘stevedore’ … a compositor/editor, a sonnet & limerick engineer, a societal marketing person, trying to specialize in gender-based marketing (a worker as well as a consultant) the pseudo-domain ranging from micro finance to organic farming, a dabbler in folk music, ballroom and latino dancing, and now a yoga freak!   Clearly, our kind of guy.

I love this.

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Post 18 – Jerri’s Musings #5 – Eye Contact


At Victoria Memorial Gardens (JZ)

I’m taking a photograph of an amazing gnarled tree in the fabulous Victoria Museum gardens. The tree is identified with a name that exits my brain as quickly as it entered. Something catches my eye to my left. A very tall elderly gentleman in a long white beard and turban has stopped walking and is looking at me. He smiles and I immediately smile back. He says something to his wife and a young man that’s accompanying him. We wave and he continues his stroll down the path.


Jaspal Singh and Wife (JZ)

Shortly, we head down the same path. We step off the sidewalk to head towards the exit. I turn to my left and my striking gentleman has stopped and is looking at us – he wants to say something to me so we walk over. When we get close he immediately puts out his hand and says: “I want you to come see me at the Golden Temple. My name is Jaspal Singh. I am from the Golden Temple.” “OK,” we say. He is even more striking close up, very tall, slim, very distinguished. He looks important.

He then asks about us, what we are doing in India. We tell him about our project and give him a postcard. We shake hands to part, and again he invites us to the Golden Temple. “In Punjab,” he says. I quickly try to remember where Punjab is in relation to Kolkata and surmise that it is not very close. “Oh, so sorry,” I say, “I don’t think we will have time to visit you this trip, too far.” “You call me, you come to the Golden Temple.” “OK,” we say. Alan & I smile at each other – life is good.

We exit out the front gate. It is filled with people, including beggars. To our left, an old man in a decrepit wheelchair-type contraption comes up next to us. An emaciated, truncated right leg/stump is perched on a small platform. He points to it and says something. I don’t look – no eye contact. He follows us, keeps talking, pointing to the stump, which moves up and down, banging on the pedestal. I keep on not-looking. We walk faster and eventually we leave him behind. My heart sinks, I’m almost in tears. My feeling of well-being a moment ago evaporates into the heavy air. No happiness here. No ‘life is good’ here.

What do I do with a stump? What do I do with the children that come up to the taxi and point to their mouth indicating they want to eat? What do I do with the baby that’s thrust in my face by a pleading mother: “Mama please, mama please?” What do I do with the stick-like old lady with her palm outstretched? No eye contact. I walk on, otherwise the eyes eat me up for hours. There’s no solving the situation.

My mother spent three years in a German concentration camp, and spent the rest of her life telling me about it. Starvation, lice, filth, sickness, beatings, depression, 14-hours of hard labor, no privacy, no respite. But she did have hope that an end will come to this madness. Do these people have hope? Will they ever see an end to this madness? It haunts me at times, angers or depresses me at others. I feel totally powerless, sitting in my comfortable two bedroom flat, while on my street there are three families living, bathing, cooking, eating, sleeping on the side walk, behind plastic tarps. A little boy does his homework squatting on the sidewalk. They have never asked me for money – we are fortunate to live in a neighborhood that does not include beggars. I do make eye contact and smile as I pass and smiles are returned. I wish I could stop and talk to them. Ask them about their life, their feelings, any hope that they’ll get off the street, any hope for their children. I don’t really want to photograph them – I don’t want my motivations to get misinterpreted.

I wish I spoke their language.


On our block (JZ)


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Post 17 – A Photo Gathering; Folk & Tribal Art Exhibit; Kidnapped

Jeet had arranged for two other artists to come over to our apartment to begin discussing the project. Alakananda Nag ( and Chhatrapati Dutta ( are Kolkata-based and have traveled and exhibited widely. Alaka studied documentary photography at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York. Chattra, a painter/photographer/sculptor is currently part of an exhibit at the Birla Academy of Fine Arts, an impressive gallery space, part of a center that promotes the arts through exhibits, concerts, and classes. It is another example of India’s multi-faceted nature. Serious contemporary art, in a well-designed space that could easily be in New York or Chicago—next to a 40 foot high statue of Lord Krishna, alongside the Lake Kalibari Temple, with families living on the street right in front of the gallery, alongside food and flower vendors. Everything mixes together here. This is what we experienced two years ago, in our introduction to India. At that time, Bachoo Roy, a now 87 year old scholar and performer, told us that India challenges Darwin’s theory of evolution: nothing replaces anything else; it all exists simultaneously. We wondered whether we’d get used to these juxtapositions, perhaps inured to them. But it is still a remarkable melange that never ceases to amaze. Jerri often has to stop me from pointing and staring and saying “Look at that! Look at that!”


Chhatrapati Dutta, Alakananda Nag, Sanjeet Chowdhury and me. Actually, it was quite an animated conversation, this photo notwithstanding. (JZ)

We talked with Jeet, Alaka and Chhatra about the project, both the ideas behind it and the logistics. They are excited. These found images really do something; it doesn’t only resonate with us. A difficulty with any image from a far-away place, especially if it is also viewed through the passage of time, is that exoticism can take ever—where the strangeness of the image creates a potential for cultural judgment. A distance can be created by viewing “the other” through our cultural lens. It is then difficult to actually see what is in the image. Our unknown soldier, somehow or other, managed to see these West Bengali villagers as people, no mean feat then, or now. And our new Indian friends, for whom the images are anything but exotic, sense the relationships formed through their creation. It will be exciting to see the way they interpret the vision of this still anonymous Westerner, sensitive thought he might have been.

We talked about how we envisioned the project unfolding, about curatorial vision, about the end product. We will seek the participation of a few more artists, including ourselves, bringing the total to eight. Our goal is to identify the participants by the end of the year, fast approaching.

That evening, we checked out Chhatra’s work on display at the Birla Gallery, which was simultaneously having an exhibit and sale of tribal and folk art from all over India. There was also a concert of Pandavani, a traditional performing art form, featuring a famous singer, Teejan Bai. We understood nothing but the passion of her voice. That was enough.


Lord Krishna, at the Birla Academy. (AT)


Artist Arun Sharma and friend, from Udaipur (AT)


Teejan Bai (AT)


Bheel painter from Madhya Pradash (AT)

Then we were approached by a strange, older man, who absolutely insisted that we accompany him to visit his friend, a professor who had lived in New York for many years but had now come home to Kolkata. I don’t know what we were thinking, but we agreed. We walked for several blocks, then entered an apartment building and went upstairs, where our new found guide rang the doorbell. Eventually, a man in pajamas opened the door. He invited us in, while we were still questioning our judgment, being after all in a strange guy’s home, late in the evening. Then, Somen Guha, our guide, presented us with a self-portrait of Satyajit Ray, which he signed to us “With love and best wishes.” We never found out what, if anything, he had to do with Ray. His pajamaed friend turned out to be Dr. Arvin Ghosh, an economist, who has published 16 books, including both academic works and novels. His biography of Mother Theresa was a best-seller in India.

Go figure.


Somen Guha, Jerri, Dr. Arvin Ghosh (AT)

Post 16 – Jerri’s Musings #4 – Incognito

We wake up to one of those horrible wake-up sounds that makes you want to scream and dive for cover under the blanket. It’s Sunday for *&^%$!’s sake! A very loud male voice on a very loud loudspeaker blares: “Hahloh…hahlo…” Pause. “Hahloh…hahlo…” Pause. “Hahloh…hahlo…” This goes on for quite some time. Does he NOT realize that he can be heard seemingly for miles?

We get dressed and go look over the balcony, as the voice is coming from right under our window. There are men in red caps running up and down the street, tying Communist flags to every tree and pole on the block. The street has been barricaded and large tarps are being placed on the pavement.

We head down, to find out what all these Communists are up to. We go to the head table to find out what’s going on and told that it’s the annual children’s ‘sit and draw’ contest in honor of Jyoti Basu, a long serving Minister in the Government who passed away last year.





Children of all ages are scattered on the tarps, eagerly bent over their work. They have all brought their own supplies. We wander in and out, photographing. One little girl is so good that I’d buy her pastel painting in a minute.

We are offered tea. We are occasionally approached by someone asking where we are from, what we are doing in Kolkata, some want our names and phone numbers.



One official keeps asking me to sit down. I obediently obey, wondering if he doesn’t like the fact that I’m taking pictures, or if he’s being considerate and wants to provide seating for a lady.

No one asks Alan to sit. Once his back is turned, I get up and get back on the move. After the 3rd or 4th “Madam, sit down please,” I stay put.



Within minutes, I’m surrounded by a group of the artist-children. One little girl saddles up to me: “………” (in Bangla).

“So sorry, no Bangla, only English.”  She’s baffled and repeats her musical question.

“So sorry, no Bangla, only English.” This goes on for 2-3 times.

“Hindi?” “So sorry, no Hindi, only English.”

“Urdu?”  “So sorry, no Urdu, only English.”

“Tamil?”  “So sorry, no Tamil, only English”  More quizzical looks, more “………”

I distract her by taking her picture.



Why would she assume that a white woman would speak any of these languages? What does this mean? Is she so accepting that there are no cultural differences between us? I was so taken by this raw innocence. When does it start to change? I feel a little sad. I prefer her beautiful naivety to the potential adult suspicion and harshness.

We have been in India for over 3 weeks now. We live in Lake Market, a fantastic part of town, with one of the best markets. It’s a middle/working class part of town that we felt comfortable in immediately. Kolkata has a soul that is palatable and our neighborhood reflects the city’s character. We rarely see a white person here.

But the other day I saw a white 20-something young woman, a graduate student perhaps, on the street. I was shocked, and my first reaction was: “What is she doing here?” I stopped short, a dangerous move on a crowded street as someone almost crashed into me. “So, sorry, so sorry.” Why did that thought even enter my head? I’m a white woman also. I was not questioning her right to be here, it was just a shock, as Alan is the only other Westerner I see. Occasionally our French friend, Julie, but she’s been here for so long, has some Spanish blood, olive skin, speaks perfect Bangla, is married to a Bengali, and I kind of see her as Indian. I just realized that I forgot that I’m a white person in Kolkata.

Alan and I love to travel, experience other cultures, other languages. I always want to blend into the country – I don’t like to be seen as a foreigner. I want to go incognito. Photographing helps me do that – I’m watching my environment carefully, connecting with my surroundings, with the people around me. The lens separates me and intently connects me simultaneously. Later, at the computer, or collecting and assembling objects for a piece, the relationship to the images deepens. Sometimes I can feel the chi in my fingertips.

Wanting to merge into the landscape probably has something also to do with my desire to belong. Before I was 6 years old, I had lived in 4 countries, been a refugee once and an immigrant twice. Twenty years later I immigrated again. This time I stayed put, rooted, and made Chicago my home.

I grew up in a household where two languages were spoken on a daily basis, a third one joined years later. My ears were accustomed to the different sounds, grammar and intonations. It was easy to flip back and forth, and often words from one language found their way into a sentence. When I moved to the U.S. from Canada, I heard and spoke only English – this was unnatural and I’d often get bored with the language. Upstate NY wasn’t even accented.

When I got a job working on the west-side of Chicago, in an African-American community, I was very excited. I was going to be part of another culture, learn to understand a different way of speaking… I then had to think about that. Was I thinking the kids were speaking another language, and if I thought that, was I being racist?

Whenever I hear another accent, I’m always curious about it’s ethnic origin. There’s something stimulating and exciting in the fact that someone looks and speaks differently from me – it makes me feel more alive. I also tend to mimic accents – I don’t mean to – it just happens. Sometimes I have to make a real effort to remain “me.” I don’t want to insult, I don’t want to patronize, I really just want to blend in and belong.

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Post 15 – The Archaeology Survey; Young Fulbrighters’ Party

The West Bengal Directorate of Archaeology and Museums is housed in an impossibly ancient building, with layers of dust worthy of excavation. Located on a major commercial street, we weren’t sure this was the right building until we saw the hand-lettered name by the mailboxes downstairs. It was on the 4th floor. When we saw the sign heralding “Office of the Competent Authority,” we knew we were in the right place.

Archaeology-officeThe Director, Dr. Gautam Sengupta, was gracious and knowledgable. He spoke in a low voice, with a deep Bengali accent, all rounded sounds, which was both beautiful to hear and sometimes difficult to understood. He served us good tea and better conversation. He introduced us to Indrajit Chadhuri a journalist and historian familiar with the architecture of the temples represented in our collection. They were fascinated by our album, recognizing its uniqueness. They commented that the people pictured were clearly participants in the making of the photos–there was a relationship between photographer and subject, a highly unusual attitude at the time, or even now. That is exactly what this project hopes to explore—how we see each other, across both culture and time. Someone wandered in and remarked that he remembered one of the temples from his childhood. He thought it was from a place called Deulbhira. in the jungle, near Bakura. Everyone agreed that many of the images were made in the southwest region of West Bengal, somewhere near Mindnapur. The men commented on the Bishnapuran style of the water jug featured in one of the photos; on the sacred tulsi plant and its use in a summer ritual; on the fact that the photo of a woman with her market produce was likely from Parakshwar, a religious site but one that is even more famous for its large pumpkins!


1945 photo #1182

By that evening, Indrajit had positively identified two of the temples, even sending us photos scanned from old Bengali books, unavailable elsewhere. In a few weeks, we will hire a driver and head out to find the temples. Once we are definite about their location, we may be able to find the nearby villages where our still unknown photographer may have worked. Some of our 1945 photos are of children; perhaps a few may still be alive. Hopefully someone will remember a face or a location. If we are successful, it will be a remarkable homecoming for these images.


Nandeswara Temple, Malancha

After leaving the Archaeology office, we took the Metro practically all the way from north Kolkata to the next to the last stop at the far southern end of the city. We had been invited to a party of Fulbrighters in the Hiland Park part of town (no, you Chicagoans—not that Highland Park.)

We are always amazed at the dichotomies here, where entire families live under tarps on the street, where their children can be seen doing homework by the light of street lamps; where hi-tech companies vie for space with vegetable stalls; where you walk over sleeping dogs and see wandering sadus (holy men) or hear mystical music coming from somewhere and have great conversations with young people eager to enter the world. The ride took us half an hour, door-to-door. If we had tried to traverse the entire city of Chicago…we might still be “waiting momentarily for clearance up ahead.”

We were the oldest folks at this party, by, oh…30 years?

We thought they were terrific. They thought we were really hip.

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Post 14 – A Short Post on the Sounds of the Morning

5AM. Fighting pigeons, probably trying to impress a female, make a tremendous racket right under the window and wake me up. I bang on the window and chase them off.

6:30AM After I’d struggled back to sleep, I awake to what sounds like weird construction noises, possibly an ancient, incredibly loud cement mixer. It sounds almost like drumming. It IS drumming. And a teacher yelling. It is a sea of boys, horribly out of rhythm, making as bad a racket as the pigeons. Worse. Definitely boys, although they remain invisible, somewhere behind the building across the way.

7AM. Sounding exactly like the shofar at High Holidays, a conch shell screams its blast into the morning air, signaling the start of some Hindu prayer, unknown to me, the outsider. Then ringing bells, also part of the ritual.

7:15AM. Car horns.

7:20AM A car alarm (here?)

7:30AM. The coconut man, on his heavily-laden bicycle, sings out his wares.

Then the sounds of an excited crowd of young girls, accompanied by their parents, waiting to enter the school across the way. On most mornings, it is soon followed by the sweet and beautiful sound of singing.

Why sleep when there’s so much to hear?