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

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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.

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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.

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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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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?

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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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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 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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