Post 28 – The Romance of Old Photos

1206We love this image. Of all the photographs of temples from our 1945 archive, it is our favorite. There is something about the tree growing out of the roof, the seemingly haphazard jagged line over the entrance, the three men standing in the doorway, the placement of the temple in space, the encroachment of the jungle. It is one of the forces that has motivated us over the years on this project. Where is this? If we could only find THAT one, we’d feel as thought we had succeeded.

This past Sunday, we were in an impossibly old taxi having just arrived in Khargpur to finally start our one week adventure in the hinterlands locating our temples and villages. The cab’s interior door panels were falling off, springs were coming up on the seats, the engine sounded as though it really wanted a rest. The driver wasn’t in much better shape than his car, but he was singing as he drove. And as we raced to our hotel (Indian drivers always race), we passed it. The Nandeswar Temple. I only caught a glimpse, over my left shoulder as we sped past, but it was definitely it. We don’t speak Bangla or Hindi and the driver didn’t speak English and it was late and we were tired and there seemed no way to stop. So a glimpse had to do for now (it’s a small town, we’re here for a week, we can clearly return.) But the thing is, it was totally different than the photo that has been in our heads for years. It was painted white, the tree no longer growing out of the roof, the lines now painted gold (gold?) its romanticism gone. And the jungle had been replaced by the dirty sprawl of Kharagpur. What happened to my image of the past?

1182We assign meaning to images, regardless of reality, and we do so in an instant. We see, we respond. For this photo, we created in our minds a mythic past, a quieter and simpler place, without the mess of actual life. The Shire…in India. One of the marvels of this country is its relationship to time. In some places, India lives in the future, with hi-tech companies, ultra-modern architecture, a world power.

_DSC1123-Edit_webIn others, little has changed in hundreds of years. And once we’ve frozen an image in the past, it is disconcerting to have the present intrude. We both yelled “Oh no!” on seeing the temple; at that moment, our romantic needs outweighing the probable comfort, safety and spiritual needs of those actually using that structure. But as we continually discover, unexpected adventures lie around every corner, challenging us to never be disappointed if our expectations aren’t met. They are likely to be exceeded in unimagined ways.

898The next morning, I was eager to confirm that the fleeting image of a restored Nandeswar temple was indeed our #1182 but geography dictated that first we try to find #898, the Kali temple (we had a sense of where it might be.) Our driver, sure of its location, drove up and down small alleys and streets, constantly asking people. He had no idea where it was (it is amazing how, in a small town, it is still possible to get lost.) Finally, in a narrow lane, I spotted what looked suspiciously like the Nandeswar temple, albeit somewhat different than the one we had seen earlier. I had the driver stop the car and I jumped out.

3-women_webThree women were sitting in front of the temple. I was carrying the book of photos and showed the old images to them. A crowd gathered, everyone eagerly comparing this temple with the old photos; it was not “our” temple. But a small army of school boys, eager to help, said they knew the way to the nearby Kali temple and, like reverse Pied Pipers, Jerri and I followed them, leaving the car behind, marching through the narrow alleys, book in hand. And there it was, the Kali Temple, in all its earthen red glory.

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One of the boys got the key from the house next door. People gathered, eagerly looking through our book. We went inside and saw an incredible folk-art-like Kali, quite different from others we had seen previously. And we confirmed that this was indeed the Kali temple photographed by our soldier/photographer in 1945. We placed a few coins in the Hundi (contribution) box and purchased a small booklet about the temple offered by one of the boys. Then, one of the kids said “There’s another temple nearby. Want to see it?”

w-cow-and-canopy_webWe followed again, and this time, they lead us straight to the Nandeswar temple we had seen when we first arrived in Kharagpur. We had been driving in circles. It was restored and no longer abandoned, in fact quite active, and still striking, even without romantic decay. They had, however, built a fence surrounding the temple and added a canopy, making it hard to see that beautiful entry.

The priest was just completing a puja. He and his devotees and temple members gathered around, looking through the book. Then, we were invited inside where Pandit R. Someswar Sharma blessed us in a ceremony, complete with drums and chanting, bells and incense. They were honored that we had come to their temple. We were honored that they welcomed us so warmly and were so thankful for the work we were doing in bringing these images home. We gave them several prints (anticipating at least some level of success, we had all the temple images printed while still in the States.) We’ll email others. And we’ll return later in the week for tea at the priest’s home.



India has challenged us at every turn and I think it has made us grow. I’m far more accepting. I was always open to adventure, to the mysteries of life, but in the past my innate cynicism could affect my response. I think I’m more open now, more willing to simply let things happen. I’d still rather have had hot water come from the faucet in our hotel, rather than having to call downstairs and have someone bring it up in buckets. But complaining wasn’t going to magically add hot water plumbing to this old hotel. So we poured buckets over our heads, sighed and looked forward to a real shower back in Kolkata.

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Post #27 – Jerri’s Musings #8 – Walking with the Elephants

Once again our India serendipity brought us up to unimaginable heights. Kerala is a heaven on earth. Why anyone would retire to Florida is beyond me. Come to the Marigold Hotel in Kerala and live like royalty.

DSC01782-BxW_WebI don’t know why I’ve always loved elephants so much. Maybe it’s because they are the largest land mammals, generally docile, somewhat funny looking with their large trunks, and very intelligent. With people, they seem to have created quite a connection – there have been so many stories.

Maybe it’s because my mother had always told me that elephants are good luck, and when someone graduates from school or has a significant birthday, you always give a small elephant statue. I always wanted good luck.

We had an Indian family friend back then, Manjit Singh. I thought he was so exotic, with his turban and distinguished accent. Once, after a trip back to India, he brought my mother a small ivory carving of an elephant. It was beautiful and my mother immediately had it made into a pendant, to wear on a gold necklace. I mentioned at the time that I thought it was ironic that the piece was made from an elephant’s tusk – that perhaps the elephant had to give up its life for this little carving. We argued. After she passed away, I took the necklace and wear it sometimes, trying to focus on her love for the pendant, rather than my guilt for wearing ivory. We had a similar argument over a South African gold Krugerrand. But that’s another story

DSC01783-BxW_WebThe Kettu Kazhcha festival in Kerala is an annual event where elephants from various temples are gathered and in the evening, walked from one temple to another, about a three km walk. We happened to be there during this remarkable festival, famous throughout India. Yet another “ZT serendipitous moment.” If everything is “meant to be,” then the Hindu Gods are giving us an extraordinary gift.

In the daylight, the festival is jaw-dropping – with animated floats, male dancers representing various female deities in flamboyant costumes, hundreds of drummers, hundreds of young men dancing, high on either some kind of substance or on life itself. And then come the elephants. Majestic creatures, themselves also adorned in vibrant hues of all kinds, shimmering in gold and sparkles, becoming brighter as dusk falls, the lead elephant being the most adorned. The young men perched on his neck, holding high the gold discs, make him appear even larger than his already enormous bulk. I wonder if he knows how absolutely magnificent he is. Priya is convinced that the lead elephant knows his position within the procession. She tells of one that was placed second one year and became so ornery and aggressive, sulking in a corner, that they had to place him first the following year. I guess he knew his ranking in society.

DSC01831-BxW_WebThe drumming picked up tempo as the sky darkened, the people absorbing the excitement that the darkness brought on. I started walking next to an elephant; I felt my heart pounding as I got closer. I looked up at him, enthralled. I couldn’t believe we could walk this close to each other. I was not afraid as I drew closer and closer. I heard the shuffling of chains as they scraped the concrete road. The shackles made me very sad, but then I imagined a five ton animal getting spooked by a sudden noise and a stampede starting. We chain and collar and rope our animals to make them do what we want. Maybe that’s where “chain of command” originated. I suppose the chains are necessary here. Do the elephants have a choice? Priya says that he is strong enough to break through the chains, but doesn’t. How many years did to take to tame these creatures to submission? Does a docile temple elephant transmit its “obedience gene” to its offspring I wonder?

DSC01785-BxW_WebThe parade stopped for a moment. I was very close now. I think Kala asked the mahout if I could touch the elephant. He said yes. I touched the elephant’s trunk. He’s beautiful. I was surprised at the softness of his skin, so very warm to the touch. I talked to him, tols him how remarkable he was. I looked up at his eyes. They are so small and look so sad with their two long tear stains shining on the wrinkled skin. Am I reading too much into these eyes? Does he see me – does he know I’m here? Can he feel me stroking him? Can he feel my deep affection for him?

DSC01805-BxW_WebI touched the enormous tusk and followed its graceful curve. How beautiful and smooth it was. I thought of the ivory pendant that was hanging on my neck, and silently apologized to him. It’s not my fault I say. Not my mother’s either – she just loved beautiful things.

The parade started moving. I quickly kissed my hand and touched him as far up as I could reach and then reluctantly dropped my hand. There have been moments in my life where I’d wish time would just stand still. This was one of those moments.DSC01830-BxW_Web

Post 26 – Jerri’s Musings #7 – Frequent Flyers

Last night we gifted Emma a trip to India by using some of our frequent flyer miles. When we checked the previous day, the miles were at 90,000. Last night they jumped to 92,466. I did everything I could to not lose control of my senses.

For almost 3 months now, we have been living a dream here in Kolkata. We have a beautiful 2 bedroom flat, live in one of the most interesting neighborhoods in Kolkata, with the greatest produce, fish and flower markets. We have wonderful neighbors who brought me tea when I got sick earlier in the week, who can sing “We Shall Overcome” in Bangla and Hindi, and who greet me on the street.

We have been able to amass a group of remarkable like-minded artists, who call us because they want to discuss a finer point in their project, conversations that morph into discussions about life and art.

I don’t think I’ve been happier than the last couple of months. India has given me the opportunity for intense soul-searching, as well as living a daily life concerned only with my own art, as well as administering a project that will ultimately turn out to be the most important thing that I will ever have done professionally.

We have been living in an artistic bubble, free of financial constraints, thanks to Senator Fulbright. Until last night. I don’t know exactly what it was about that extra 2,466 miles that set me off, but they brought out the financial negotiations of everyday life back in the U.S. And I don’t like it. The familiar anxiety started to settle unto my chest, my brow started to furl – I could feel the arched eyebrows and the ripples on my forehead. Alan and I had a long sit-down, both trying to fight off the demons of quotidian living. We have an important presentation to make this morning and we cannot let ourselves be dragged down.


Post 25 – Kerala

We’d been working practically non-stop since we arrived in India back in November. When Max’s girlfriend Priya’s parents suggested we join them for a week’s vacation at a resort in Kerala, we jumped at the chance. We’re not really “resort” people—but I could get used to this. Ashtamudi Lake is a large and beautiful body of salt water that is considered the head of the ‘backwaters,’ the intricate network of canals and rivers that are a defining feature of this region. We spent the first night on a permanently moored houseboat. My dream has always been to live on the water. This was pretty close. We spent the week sharing paradise with Kala and Shyam (Priya’s parents) and their friends Subhash and Sonal. And I got to live my other dream—a swim before breakfast.

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Kalimurti-dancer_webThat evening, our ‘Mahindra Resort’ offered a cultural program. I expected something cheesy, but instead we were treated to a Kathakali performance, a traditional story-based dance form, with each movement and gesture having a specific meaning. A young boy was sitting directly in front of us, and, once again, art’s power was evident. He jumped when the dancer moved and grimaced, turning around to us, utter glee in his eyes.

Temple_webThe next day, we visited a small temple, which was getting ready for a festival. We would end up returning to this place several more times to witness a memorable elephant festival (no, no…that has nothing to do with elephant memory.) Then to the Tangasseri Point Lighthouse in nearby Quilon. One-hundred-ninety-three steps and worth everyone of them.


Near the resort, we had passed a sort of idol graveyard—a place where old sculptures used on floats were stored, probably repaired and brought out of storage when needed. These aren’t actual consecrated idols—imagine the floats in a spiritual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, without the inflatables, but with the same huge crowds.


India has thousands of years of spiritual searching under its belt. This takes all sorts of forms. One of them is an ashram started by “Amma,” Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, which was nearby. Known as the “Hugging Saint,” she literally hugs thousands of people and has a non-sectarian belief in the power of love. India has definitely opened me up in many ways, but I’m still basically a transplanted New Yorker, so I can’t help but look at such things with a jaundiced eye. This is probably my loss, since so many people find solace and meaning in places such as this. It is quite an operation—large buildings looming out of the jungle, thousands of devotees who came to the ashram from all over the word. We hadn’t seen so many white people in months. Unfortunately, Amma wasn’t in that day, so we weren’t able to experience the transformative nature of her universal affection. It is definitely impressive to see so many people devoting so much time to a deeper sense of their lives (seriously.). Jerri I and I disagreed, but I am also certain that such a large number of attractive young people all in the same place all seeking meaning…also find other, more physical paths to enlightenment.

Men-on-Fishing-boat_webJust outside the ashram lies a small fishing hamlet. I had Murugan, our driver, stop because Ihad seen a fishing boat near the shore, with men silhouetted against the sun, hauling their nets. Pretty classic scene but thankfully there is still a difference between seeing something in real life, no matter how “picturesque,” and seeing its image, no matter how many times it been recreated. It’s that postcard dilemma I wrote about in our 2011 blog. I can’t help myself.  Fishermans-wife_webPlus, we got to talk to the fishermen on shore and to see their family shrine, so tiny that you had to bend down to enter. Here, they would offer prayers both for a good catch that day and for their survival at sea. It is still a dangerous way to live.

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Structure_webWe then returned to Temple Guruviayurappana at Shakthi Kulangara, where a huge shrine was being built. It was to be carried in the elephant processional the next night; this was a smaller gathering, in preparation.  Musicians blew strange curved trumpets, the elephants were all decorated, crowds gathered. There is something magical about not knowing precisely what is going on around you. I think it is being in that state of childlike wonder that is so appealing, where experiences flood all over you and you are simply too young or too inexperienced or too stupid to possibly understand—and it doesn’t matter at all. It just is. (I probably shouldn’t live here too long or I’ll always talk this way, which really isn’t appealing at all.)

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We spent the next day relaxing, an alien concept, even when we’re on vacation. The resort had a terrific pool, and as is true in every hotel I’ve ever stayed at, I was the only person to use it.

That evening we went to the town of Kollam, a starting point for the great elephant festival ‘Kettu Kazhcha.’ Temple elephants from our small temple and others were marched down crowded lanes and onto the main road, where they would walk several kilometers to a larger temple in Valli Kezhu. The elephants with their mahouts and their finery walked along with drummers and dancers, transvestites and trailers carrying immense, often animatronic floats, replete with gods and goddesses, fiberglass, plaster or paper maché animals and trees, sound effects and lights, dazzling colors and throngs of people. It was Mardi Gras on steroids…with elephants. It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen. Jerri will go into more detail, but it was really spectacular on so many levels.

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Poop-dancer_web drummer_web Elephants_web Rabbit Night-elephants_web Mahout-and_web Trans3_webTrans3

Canoe_webWe needed a break after an intense evening, so spent the next day exploring Kerala’s famous backwaters. The resort had a traditional style boat that ferried guests deep into the area, past houses and small temples, boatbuilders, cows and fields. It was beautiful and silent. I want to buy a house here.

Jajo-dancing_webAnd the other remarkable thing is this: Jerri suffers from intense sea-sickness (which clearly has had a negative impact on my desire to sell everything and travel around the world on a sailboat) yet she was fine on the 3-hour boat-ride. The secret? Another guest started dancing to Bollywood music on the boat and when he offered his hand to join him, she was a more than willing participant. The Silly Dancing Cure™ worked, although Jerri insists she didn’t get sick because she had also asked for assistance from Ganesh.

Our last day in paradise was spent at Varkala, one of the great beaches of the world. Cliffs in the background from which para-gliders soared, beautiful open sandy beaches, sunshine, seafood.

What a glorious week.


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Post 24—Catching Up Part III—More from Delhi

Sanjoy_webThe next day, we visited Sanjoy Roy, whom we had met in Chicago. Sanjoy’s business, Teamwork Productions, organizes festivals worldwide—everything ranging from Chicago’s Eye on India Festival to the Jaipur Literary Festival, the Indian Festival of South Africa, and several music and film festivals. This is a for-profit business, with a staff of over 60 in the Delhi office and scores more at his other sites. Sanjoy did everything from introducing us to the people he felt we needed to know, to getting us a better hotel, to providing lunch, to helping Jerri’s iffy stomach with a homeopathic remedy that actually worked.

Rahaab_webThe week continued by meeting Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkhazi Foundation, whom we had met 3 years ago on our initial trip. They have a collection of some 100,000 Indian images; maintain a huge archive and library; publish photo books; and organize exhibits and lectures about photography throughout India. They even had an album of photos taken by a US soldier in India the same time as our collection, albeit with a completely different approach.Yank-album_web

Rahaab is supportive, wants to be part of the project and said that our work was precisely what their foundation was all about. He suggested the possibility of hosting the exhibit at their New York gallery, and also that he would present the project to the Indira Gandhi Center for the Arts, where he sits on the exhibition committee. This would be a stellar venue. Now all we have to do is complete the work in the next 2 years!

Anubhav-and-Chandni_webAt the suggestion of Sanjoy, we next went to see Anubhav Nath, Director of OJAS Art, an impressive gallery and sculpture park, on property his family previously used as a showplace for traditional crafts. He showed us an amazing collection of vintage automobiles collected by his grandfather, many owned by Rajas throughout India. And importantly, he introduced us to a collection of 19th century “oleographs”— altered chromolithographs. This approach is similar to what Jerri does in her own art and it was an eye opener. It seems that India has done everything, a long time ago, and, consistent with Hindu belief, it all somehow gets recycled, even through the eyes of two Jewish Chicagoans. Oleo_web

The next day we had coffee with Prashant Panjiar of the Delhi Photo Fest and the Nazar Foundation. At a Starbucks, he told us about other possible interested photographers and other potentially relevant collections. Finally, we played tourist (as best we could) and went to Old Delhi. We had lunch at the restaurant Al-Jawahar, a decidedly non-tourist spot (“All Mughlai food you test, All Jawahar serve the best”) and then visited the Jama Masid Mosque. There, we realized that our archive contained a photograph of this very structure. Since we were focusing on West Bengal and not on Delhi, we had never really checked. Our book attracted a small crowd. Jerri somehow found herself in the position of being a rock star, actually posing for photos and signing autographs for scores of young people. I think they thought she was Meryl Streep. Maybe she is.

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We then somehow summoned the energy to visit the Art Heritage Gallery. Run by Rahaab’s mother Amal, the current exhibit used old Bollywood movie images and re-imagined them.

Amal_web The arts in India are clearly a family affair—Rahaab’s uncle is Ebrahim Alkhazi, a famous theater director and founder of the archive that bears his name, which Rahaab now runs.

Using older images in new ways is evidently becoming a popular approach. I hope our exhibit doesn’t come on the scene after the concept is no longer fresh!

The next to last day in Delhi we finally got smart and hired a driver rather than negotiating the Metro and arguing with taxi drivers. We visited Aditya Arya, head of the India Photo Archive Foundation who has an impressive collection of photographs and cameras. As old photo folks, we shared our love of the process of photography, the need to actually know something to make a decent exposure, the training that we all went through that now is largely lost. We ended up being offered teaching positions, an offer we might seriously consider at some point. Aditya had a young assistant, Aparna Mohindra, who loved classic photography and was enthralled with our stories, envious of our experiences and history. We told her that she’d have even better ones, and they’d be her own.

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Next we crammed in a visit to the Art Alive gallery, where we saw yet another exhibit that used old imagery to inspire the creation of new works. This time, it was those 19th century oleographs juxtaposed with contemporary paintings inspired by them. Why is it that you never hear about something, then you hear about it all the time?


Akaash-Mttal_webOn our last night in Delhi, we were invited to attend a dinner and concert hosted by the AIIS. Magical serendipity has governed our India experience since the start. Earlier in the day, we had been back at the AIIS archive, doing more research in an attempt to find our one remaining unidentified temple. I noted that there were more people at the archive than normal and was told that it was the annual conference of that year’s AIIS Fellows. We had narrowly missed that award; we were ‘alternates,’ which is both respectable and frustrating. I asked if Philip Lutgendorf was there. He is the head of the AIIS and was one of my references for the Fulbright and is normally based in Iowa. He would be at the fellows’ dinner and concert later that evening, to which we were then invited. Not only did we see Philip, but we met David Mees, Cultural Attache with the U.S. Embassy. We’d been in touch with him about our project but had never been able to get together. Over dinner, we had a chance to discuss our work in depth. He was intrigued and supportive. We’re now putting together a proposal to craft small exhibits of our 1945 images to be shown at US Consulates throughout India. The project just keeps growing.

The concert was by Aakash Mittal, an AIIS fellow who was performing a classical raag…on saxophone! Another great evening, ending a rather intense week. The next day, it was back to Kolkata.

Am I caught up on the blog yet? No. Keep tuned.

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