Post 23 – Catching Up Part II – Delhi

Two weeks ago we were in Delhi, meeting with artists, galleries, archives, and funders. It was an intense week, spiced, as it were, with music and food. And cold (by Indian standards.) It was 45 degrees and we were unprepared. I hadn’t even thought to bring long-sleeved shirts, let alone sweaters or jackets. Admittedly, it was hard to complain when Chicago was then as cold as Antarctica. But the first place we stayed didn’t even have heat and we felt its lack, wrapping ourselves in blankets pulled from the single-frame hostel-style metal beds at opposite sides of the room, which surprisingly comprised our “double” room. I refuse to accept that I’ve aged, that I’m no longer a twenty or thirty-something young man. This normally works just fine. Not this time. We moved.

Jajo-at-ISI_webBut before we did, we were reminded once again that adventures lurk around every corner if you’re open to them. There was only one other person in the dining room of the India Social Institute. He turned out to be Wim Lauwaert, a Belgian anthropologist and musician, supervising a group of students doing field work in India. We had a marvelous conversation in the ersatz lounge about cultural differences, poverty, class, the dependent relationship between servant and master, so evident in India. He placed the often upsetting aspects of India into cultural and historical context, which for me, is the only way to even begin to understand the confusing jumble around me, not only here in India, but anywhere I am. I was always attracted to anthropology for providing a framework to understand the world. That’s why I chose that academic discipline. If the 60’s hadn’t intervened, I might be doing anthropology somewhere. Wait…I AM doing anthropology somewhere.

Our first day in Delhi, we arranged to meet Ram Rahman at a Metro platform. We had met Ram at the Smart Museum in Chicago, where he curated an exhibit about the Sahmat collective (http://smartmuseum.uchicago.edu/exhibitions/the-sahmat-collective-art-and-activism-in-india-since-1989/). Sahmat, named for a playwright and activist killed while performing a street play, promotes artistic freedom and celebrates secular and egalitarian values. Ram is a major figure in the Indian art world and has offered to help our project, particularly by introducing us to artists, curators and institutions. He did that by inviting us to the 85th birthday party for O.P. Jain which coincided with the 30th anniversary of his founding of Sanskriti, the Museum of Indian Terracotta, and the Museum of Everyday Art, a stunning property and one heck of a celebration.

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Alam-Khan

Later that evening, we attended a concert at the Habitat Center, an impressive facility, by Alam Khan, a sarod player who Max is touring with this April. By chance—again—Max texted us the information, and turned out we were staying around the corner from the venue. A fantastic concert and another example of the way things seem to fall into place for us here.

The next day, we headed to the American Association of India Studies Art & Archaeology Archive in Gurgaon, directed by Vandana Sinha, whom we had met 3 year ago. This is the group that funded Max’s initial trip to India and that has been so helpful to our research. At the archive, we continued our research into the possible identification and location of the temples portrayed in our 1945 photos. And we hit gold, positively identifying several of the temples! People sometimes think that archivists are a dour lot. Not so. There was general and loud rejoicing in the stacks that afternoon.

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Fresh from this success, we took a taxi to the home of Prabir Purkayastha, a Bengali photographer living in Delhi who had expressed interest in our project (http://www.prabirpurkayastha.com.)  Jajo-and-Prabir_web

The kinds of discussions we’ve been having are reminiscent of the deep and intense, all night long talks we used to experience when we were much younger, still in school, still grappling with life. We are still grappling with life, but rarely get the chance back home to share that quest with others. This entire trip has revolved around those explorations. Aside from Prabir’s impressive photographic work, he told us stories about his father listening to British radio announcements during WWII, then turning them into songs that were sung door-to-door to let villagers know the latest news. He spoke of notes wrapped in saris and then smuggled to the Indian freedom fighters who were agitating for independence in a far less peaceful way than that of Gandhi. He recognized in our photos a connection between photographer and subject that contrasted with the animosity Bengalis felt for the British. Prabir, who came from a military family, suggested that our photographer was likely an officer, since a lower ranked soldier could not have traveled freely in that area during wartime. We had never thought about that, and it led us to question whether perhaps our man wasn’t a reconnaissance photographer after all, but perhaps a doctor assigned to that unit. Prabir enriched the discourse, answered some questions and raised others. He said that photographs to be successful need to have “grace and longing” and that qualify was evident here. His own work, principally in Assam, looks strikingly similar to our 1945 images. Later, when Prabir agreed to join our team, he explained that he would likely be exploring this similarity of styles over time. Once again, this still anonymous work has energy, providing countless entry points, creating stories that contain worlds.

As if the day wasn’t already full, we next took a taxi to the home of Veer and Meeraj Munchi. We had met Veer at the Sanskriti event and he insisted that we visit him. We got stuck in an hour long traffic jam and by the time we got to their home we were starving and also hoping that we wouldn’t have to go back to our cold hotel, quite far away (we had not yet moved.) We ended up having a great dinner, long conversations about art and life and India…and we slept over.

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Post 22 – Catching Up I

Please click on thumbnails to enlarge the photos. They really look better that way.

When we were in India three years ago, we worked at warp-speed, knowing we had little more than 3 weeks to do preliminary work on Following the Box; to be with Max and Emma; to meet Max’s teacher Pt. Shivkumar Sharma; to experience India. In retrospect, it is astonishing how much we accomplished. This time, given that we have 4½ months, we were confident that we might be able to work on a somewhat slower and more measured pace.

Nah. It’s like friends who were thrilled when we moved into our large home in Evanston that now we’d have more wall space and wouldn’t have to stack things one on top of the other. It just gave us the opportunity to take more things out of drawers and boxes and properly display them—one on top of the other. That’s what has happened here in India. The past few weeks have been so hectic, so crammed with remarkable adventures, that I have had no time to write.

I’ll try to catch up, starting with Christmas.

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Xmas Conga line, Park Street Kolkata (AT)

It’s insane. Indians love a party and have so much experience with gods and goddesses and festivals that throwing in another celebration makes perfect sense. Christmas on Park Street in Kolkata is akin to New Year’s eve in Times Square. Really. Many hundreds of thousands of people flock to an area filled with high-end, Western-style shops. Everyone is dressed in Santa hats, all joyously wishing everyone “Merry Christmas,” religion not even part of the equation.

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After the dance (AT)

We couldn’t get into an outdoor concert in the park, so when 60s American music wafted through the air, Jerri and I looked at each other, smiled and said “Wanna dance?” Within seconds, we were completely surrounded by hundreds of people, camera and cell-phone flashes popping. We dragged a few young people into the circle, but for the most part we were on our own. When the song ended, we were cheered and seemingly the entire crowd came up to shake our hands, wish us well and thank us. I’m sure we’re on YouTube somewhere, embarrassing the hell out of our children.

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Mike German at sound studio (AT)

A few days later, we met Jeet and Mike German, a fellow Fulbrighter (albeit some 35+ years younger) who had agreed to provide the voice-over narration for Jeet’s film. My voice is apparently too heavy with life (it sounds OK to me.) We went to a sound studio, where Mike voiced our anonymous soldier/photographer. In Jeet’s creation, he is Jewish and lonely and writing home to his fiance in Baltimore describing what he’s seeing in West Bengal. This layered, cross-cultural take on historical imagery is exactly what we had hoped for. I love the arc of stories—how a singe idea or image sparks a universe. That’s what’s happening with all our participating artists, each in their own way inhabiting that tiny 4×5” space that contains worlds.

Then it was off to Santiniketan. The 145 km train ride from Kolkata was memorable. Baul musicians (“mystic minstrels” according to Wikipedia) kept wandering through the cars, delighting us, while most riders simply ignored the flutes and drums and harmonium. Art surrounds you in India, like it or not. There is a huge and appreciative audience…but not aways.

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Baul musicians on Santiniketan Express (AT)

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Santiniketan was made famous by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore; the town centers on a university that is a mecca for artists, scholars and writers. We stayed at a small inn near our friends Julie and Babui. Babui had grown up there—his father was Sarbari Roy Chowdhury, a famous sculptor who taught at the university and was a student of Henry Moore and a friend of Giacometti. A ten foot high statue of Tagore greets you entering their home; the artist’s studio is filled with maquettes and sculptures and tools, untouched since ‘Baba’ passed away a few years ago. The place is magical. And it seems that almost any creative person in West Bengal has some connection to Santiniketan. I can see why.

We went to a mela (market) which was intense; were mesmerized by another Baul musician; visited a very poor village with remarkable friezes on the outside of each hut; met a woman weaving surrounded by laughing children who misunderstood Jerri’s name and kept calling her “Honey.”

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Then to a New Year’s eve party at the home of musician Alex and his wife singer/designer Sukanda. They’ve designed their home, using traditional methods and materials augmented by solar power. A true delight. The evening was filled with food and music. I posted a few images on facebook. People asked if this was a commune from the 60s. Could be. I certainly felt at home.

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left: AT; middle: JZ; right: AT

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Post 21 – Jerri’s Musings #6 – Rickshaws

Bishnupur, 2011 – We like to walk when we’re on an explore. But this time it was late, we were tired and wanted to get back to our hotel. So we flagged down a man on a bicycle rickshaw. The road back had a slight upward incline, whose angle increased as we rode. Half way, the driver was really struggling and got off the bike to push. I felt horrible and wanted to get off to ease his burden. Alan said that that would insult him and that we should simply stay on. I felt like a big fat American. I was relieved when we finally reached our hotel. We gave him a handsome tip, but that did nothing to assuage my guilt – actually it may have made it worse – now I felt like a big fat rich American. We didn’t ride on a rickshaw for the rest of the trip, which is bad. If everyone would feel this way, rickshaw drivers would be out of a job and would not be able to feed their families.

Kolkata, 2013 – A friend told us a story about a rickshaw driver he knew who was from a village outside the city. He saw his family only about every 2 months. At night, he slept curled up in his rickshaw; he bathed and ate in the street. He saved every rupee. Once, the driver revealed to our friend that he had tens of thousands of rupees under his seat. He uses this money he said, to put his children through private school.

Last month, in our neighborhood, I saw a barefoot rickshaw driver with two well-dressed children as passengers. The boy was sucking on a lollypop. The girl was holding a doll. They were dressed in British-type-blue-blazer school outfits. The scene was Felliniesque. I was totally perplexed, and pretty outraged – who are those children and why aren’t they walking? Then I remembered my friend’s story. Perhaps they are his children? One never knows, does one?

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Rickshaw driver Gatham Maji in Santinicketan (JZ)

Santinineken, December 31, 2013 – This a beautiful little town, just north of Kolkata, made famous by the Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. It has a famous university and few paved roads. The major mode of transportation is the bicycle rickshaw – we had no choice. I had to swallow my pride and jump on. I can’t help it – I find it humiliating, especially when the driver struggles with an uphill path, or a road full of deep ruts.

I don’t like to be seen as “the master.” Even after 25+ years of having a monthly cleaning lady back home in Chicago, I feel somewhat guilty – why can’t I clean up my own dirt? When we were first looking for someone to help clean our house, a friend recommended an African-American woman. I felt horrible – I couldn’t do it – I didn’t ask her to come back despite the fact that she did a fine job. There’s too much history in America between master/slave, and I felt like “the master,” albeit my origins are in Central Europe, not America. Ever since, we’ve had Polish cleaning ladies. I’m still uncomfortable, but the guilt is manageable.

In India housekeepers are called maids or servants. We have Tapoti, a woman who comes in for a few hours a day, cooks, cleans and does laundry. Alan convinced me it was OK–not only an opportunity for us, but we would also be adding to the local economy, almost an obligation.

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Tapoti in our kitchen in Kolkata (JZ)

I still find myself cleaning up sometime. Once I was cleaning off the breakfast table, bringing dishes to the sink. She stopped me, said “no,” and waved me away. Did I insult her? Was I doing her job?

Kolkata airport, January, 2014 – I walked into the new modern bathroom at the airport. All the stalls were occupied except two. The woman in front of me walked into the empty one, then walked out and went into the other one. I assumed there was something wrong, so I waited, but the attendant motioned me in. I looked inside and found that there was no toilet paper. I said so to the attendant. She then went inside, took a roll that was sitting on a ledge, out of my view, unrolled a length and wiped the seat. She then motioned me in. “No,” I said, “I thought there was no paper, see?” and pointed to the empty spool. She didn’t understand. I felt terrible about the misunderstanding and brooded over the misinterpretation for hours.

I keep wanting to get off the rickshaw.