Post 43 – Some last minute images

 

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1. This image from the Kumartuli idol-making section of Kolkata. They are preparing for the Saraswati puja. Sarawati is the goddess of art, culture and learning.

2.  One of the countless stalls selling idols created for the puja.

3.  Every neighborhood has a community puja (religious celebration). We thought we would take a few photos and continue exploring. Instead, we were invited to sit and talk with our neighbors. We spent all day and ended up singing ‘We shall overcome” in Bangla, Hindi and English. A memorable day!

4.  It’s right on the street.

5.  After-puja rituals a our next-door neighbor’s.

6. The Kolkata Book Fair has over 1 million visitors each year and everyone is buying books! Imagine this in the U.S. Not going to happen.

7.  It’s Mr. K.C. Paul, the street astronomer! I wrote about his ardent belief that the sun revolves around the earth in an earlier blog. He had plastered his fantastic drawings throughout the book fair and was trying to drum up converts. I thought he might remember me, but Mr. Paul actually does not remember that he is on this earth, let alone whom he might have spoken with. And we’ve gotten used to being exotic specimens to be photographed at any given moment.

8. The wonderful New York based group Betty! It’s not all sitars and saris here.

9.  A covered head from the Graveyard of the Idols series, Kerala.

10. At the Mahabalipuram archaeology site.

11. The Hari Pradad bookstore, near the Khaligat market, near our house.

12. I’m never buying clothes off the rack again! Getting measured for a custom-made suit by Mr. Singh, a tailor featured in the New York Times. This suit cost less than what I paid when I took Max and Emma out to a fancy dinner in New York.  http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/22/the-making-of-a-quality-suit-in-kolkatas-bustling-new-market/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

13. How could we go to Kolkata and not acknowledge the presence of Mother Theresa? This is at her mission, and yes, that’s her remains in that white, marble tomb.

14. We also visited the orphanage she started. This was all courtesy of artist Ritu Singh, who actually grew up with Mother Theresa and has stories galore.

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Post 34 – From an R to an A, Every Letter Counts

1081SJ and Asid, our IIT students, when looking at our album, noticed the photo of a laundry, labeled, we thought ‘Salur.’ But Salur is nowhere near here, which always puzzled us. Had our GI left the area? They promptly pointed out that it wasn’t ‘Salur,’ but rather ‘Salua,’ a nearby airbase. Everything began to fit together. If we were correct that Kharagpur was the hub from which our man operated, he could easily have been based at Salua. We had to find that laundry.

We were told that no one gets on an Indian air base, not even Indians. This base is the home of the Eastern Frontier Rifles and most of the soldiers were Gurkhas, originally from Nepal. The story is that if a soldier tells you he is not afraid to die, he is either lying or a Gurkha. But we know the power of these photos and rarely take “no” for an answer. Duncan had a Nepali friend, who, on his bicycle, delivered “mo-mos” (the Indian version of Chinese dim sum) to the base. We rendezvoused outside the walls of the base and strategized, picking the entrance least likely to stop us.

Jajo-and-soldiers_webEventually the guard at the gate waved us in, directing us to an office where we began to tell our story. Soon, a group of interested people gathered, fascinated and eager to help.

They took us to their small “museum” that contained a smattering of artifacts and photographs. We were told that the Commander was away, and that we should come back tomorrow, where they were pretty sure they could tour us around and try to find our laundry.

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The next day, the word from on high was that we could not get into the interior of the base (the likely location of the old laundry) without official permission. We said that we would contact the Consul General in Kolkata who would confer with the Ambassador if need be. We’d return in a month to pick up our Patua scrolls and we’d re-visit the camp, hopefully with permission secured. But for now, we’d be happy with the soldiers’ unofficial offer to tour us around non-restricted parts of the camp that might relate to our photos.

Wall_webThey then proceeded to take us on an amazing journey, through the harsh grounds outside the high walls of the base, into what they called the “Hapshi Camp.” This was the area where the barracks of the African-American soldiers had been located—right next to the ammunition storage area. The US Army wasn’t integrated until after the Second World War (thank you Harry Truman) so it was not surprising that there was segregation. What was surprising was the placement of their camp in a dangerous area and that the Gurkhas told stories of the “Negro” soldiers being slaves (their words.) Apparently, they did the dirty work—maintenance, sweeping, etc. We assured them that they weren’t really slaves, but it wasn’t surprising that they were given mostly menial tasks.

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Jerri and Pranay, one of the soldiers, walked ahead onto the field, a stark landscape, with bits and pieces of history lying underfoot. Suddenly Pranay closed his eyes, put his hand over his heart and said to Jerri: “I can feel their presence here. They were definitely here. I can feel it. There is something about this place.” She replied “I can feel it too.”

We’ve had to force ourselves to keep our eyes on the prize and not be seduced by yet another fascinating side story. This project is a living thing. At almost every turn another really interesting tidbit emerges that demands our attention. Focusing is hard.

Especially when the soldiers relayed a rumor that the plane bound for Hiroshima had left from here. The official report states that the Enola Gay took off from the Mariana Islands. But our admittedly preliminary research always hit a snag when we tried to find photographs from this area for May 1945. A local history booklet stated that that period was “shrouded in secrecy.” It is highly unlikely that the rumor is true, but it could have some basis in fact. Perhaps the plane refueled here or somehow stopped at the base. We later learned that indeed Salua was a top-secret staging area for testing the long-range bombing of Japan, the B-29 Super-fortress planes taking off and landing right in the area where we found ourselves, those powerful rumbles long silent. Now that we know more specifically what we are looking for, we will submit a FOI request when we get back home to see exactly what was going on at Salua so many years ago. I never imagined I’d be engaged in military historical research. I was an anti-war activist!

Railway-remnant_webTracksThe men showed us the remains of an old railway platform; embedded tank tracks and other evidence from long ago. They introduced us to an older man who had been on the base many years ago and told us how the barracks and other features had been dismantled at Partition. We saw the hulking remains of munitions storage bunkers.

 

One of our soldiers said: “This place is a mystery. And no one knows about it. They don’t know the role we played in WWII.” Maybe our work can help.

 

 

Then we went to IIT where we visited their museum and met with its Director, Arnab Hazra. We started looking at materials he had collected and web sites of veterans groups that were likely stationed here. The museum is housed in the old administration building, which had previously served as a detention center for political prisoners while the British still ruled India. In 1931, guards had opened fire indiscriminately, killing two prisoners, now immortalized as martyred freedom fighters. Tagore wrote a poem about it. In 1941, the Americans gave the British 24 hours to clear out, and used the place as a command center. The Hijli Air Base controlled Salua, Kalikunda and several other nearby airstrips, as America sought a possible overland invasion route through Burma and China to Japan. The bases were used for reconnaissance, which is perhaps why photographers were involved. For years we thought that our GI must be part of the “10th PTU” (marked on the negatives.)

Alan pointingWorking with SJ, Asid and Arnab, scouring the internet now in a more focused way, we realized that “10th PTU” only refers to the processing lab, not to the unit actually taking photos. This was a major breakthrough. We are now fairly sure that our photographer was associated with a Combat Camera Crew, flying out of Salua. They had the equipment, but whether or not he was an assigned photographer is still uncertain. We now think he was likely an officer (how else would he be able to leave the base and wander the villages?) But who was he? We’re also reasonably sure that the processing lab was in the IIT building where we were now sitting. Arnab told us that indeed there was a darkroom in the building and that the room hadn’t been opened in years. But it was already nighttime and we were spent. Checking it out would have to wait until we returned. There’s only so much excitement we can take.

 

 

 

Post 31 – A Major Breakthrough

When we were at the AIIS archive in Gurgaon, we researched both the old way (card catalogues) and the new way (electronically.) Both methods have their delights and frustrations. One of our challenges was to identify the location of what was mistakenly labeled on one of our negatives as the ‘Biliji Temple’ (it should have been ‘Balaji.’) Several people had suggested that it couldn’t possibly be in West Bengal, due to the fact that it was a South Indian style temple. Did this mean our guy was traveling? Maybe we’re looking for more than one photographer, perhaps several? But the style is too consistent for multiple eyes—it’s got to have been taken by one person. And we found all these negatives together in one shoe box, sold off, God knows why, or by whom, or when. We bought the material at the estate sale of a photography collector, but where he had gotten it was anybody’s guess.

Success_webAdditional research soon revealed that Kharagpur was a major railway hub, containing what is still the longest platform in the world. Many of the workers recruited for this project were South Indian—and they needed a temple. So they built one in their own style, hence a South Indian temple in West Bengal. On the internet we found a contemporary photo of the temple, in Kharagpur, taken from exactly the same perspective as one of our 1945 photographs. This was a cause of major rejoicing in the stacks. I love research! But we still needed to confirm it in person.

On our third day in Kharagpur we went in search of our Balaji temple. It took a while for our driver to find it, but after asking rickshaw drivers and chai wallahs while avoiding passing cows, we rounded a corner though a narrow street and there it was, behind a gate, shining white just as in our photos. Balaji 1945

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The gate was open but the place seem deserted; we had arrived in-between services. We wandered around, checking our book, trying to find the correct vantage points. We were confused. Some views were identical, others were not. We felt alternately elated and confused, an increasingly common sensation in India. Finally someone approached and explained that one wall of the temple had recently been replaced with new idols, causing our uncertainty. It’s easy to forget that these are living traditions, not artifacts for passing social scientists, photographers or tourists to enjoy. The old structure was falling apart, portions needed to be replaced. How were they to know that two artists from 9000 mile away Chicago might show up one day with an old photo of their temple and need confirmation? There was now no question—we were standing in the same place our soldier/photographer had stood almost 70 years ago.

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We were already thrilled, but then something remarkable happened. A young man approached, looked at our open book, pointed to the photo labeled “Old Priest” and said: “That’s my great-grandfather!”

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He identified Sri A Narayan Swamy Naidu, who founded the temple in 1935, only 10 years before our photo had been taken. Raju Naidu and others who had gathered suggested we come back the next day, when they would bring the priest’s now 90+ year old daughter-in-law. Our dream had been to be able to identify not only the temples, but a person in the photos, to remove the abstraction of photography and to ground the images in the real, historical world, making a concrete connection from past to present. We had done so.

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The next day, Padmavati Naidu arrived; she was deeply moved when she saw the photograph. We gave her a copy, which she clutched to her chest. Photography is so commonplace now that we forget its comparative rarity years ago; it is unlikely that she had any similar pictures. If our anonymous photographer only knew the joy he provided so many years later.

1203We are still hoping to find that little girl clutching a water pitcher in front of the temple. She must now be in her 70s. No luck so far, but our entire Indian experience has been characterized by surprise, serendipity and wonder. No reason to think that the search for a little girl will be any different.

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.

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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 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 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!

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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.

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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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