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.
But 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.
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.
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.)
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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