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 And the jungle had been replaced by the dirty sprawl of Kharagpur.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

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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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Bed-head_webWeaver-and-girls_webbaule-plus-2_webtop – left: JZ; mid: AT; right: AT

mid – left: JZ; mid: JZ; right: AT

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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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