Post 30 – We meet the Dynamic Duo; The Folk Artists of Naya

IIM-students_webLast month, we agreed to address a group of graduate students at the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta, which we later found out was a highly respected business school, akin to Wharton or Kellog back home. It was hard to refuse, after receiving a wonderful letter from our student hosts at IIM’s ‘Carpe Diem’ festival that acknowledged our independent life “outside the box” and that asked us to share our “highs and the lows, successes and failures.” They saw us as “role models.” I answered, writing that I wasn’t sure about being role models, but we sure had stories to share.

When we told the students that we were headed to Kharagpur at some point to continue our research in the field, they told us about the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, possibly India’s most respected academic institution (with a .5% acceptance rate—yes, point five.) They were sure we’d be able to find an interpreter among the students. Good to their word, one of the IIM students put us in touch with a friend at IIT.

Asid-and-SJ_webSo, fresh from our bucket showers, waiting for us downstairs amid the palm trees, motorbikes, and the occasional chicken, we met Siddharth Agarwal (“Asid”) and Subhajyoti Ghosh (“SJ”) who had walked over from the nearby IIT campus.

Within moments we had bonded over the challenges inherent in uncovering clues hidden in small grains of silver made years before any of us had been born (even this baby boomer.) Asid and SJ were invaluable, and continue to be so. SJ is even creating a web site for Following the Box, which we’ve been wanting to do for some time. These guys are bright, funny, nice, energetic and now totally obsessed with our project. They seem to like us too.

We piled into a car, with a driver suggested by the hotel, and headed out to Naya village, in Pingla, relatively close in kilometers, but not in time. The road was beyond belief—washed out in areas, rocks strewn everywhere, the car bouncing and swaying. I tried to write, but my scribbles became incomprehensible. Yet bicycles traversed the roads along with the cows and oxen, pigs and goats, busses and trucks and foolish autos. We passed rice paddies, small shrines, tiny hamlets. Every time we stopped and asked how far Pingla was, we were told “2 kilometers.” This happened a dozen times.

Naya is made up of hereditary artists, known as Patuas, all with the last name of Chitrakar. They are famous for story scrolls, or ‘pats’ which narrate not only mythological and religious tales, but contemporary social issues as well. We were heading there to commission a story scroll based on our 1945 photos. Part of the process is that they also compose a song to accompany the unrolling of the scroll, telling the story both in song and pictures. One of our project artists, Amritah Sen, had worked with Swarna Chitrakar on another project and thought this might interest her. We had called her cell phone and she was waiting for us by the road, only 2 km away.

SJ-explaining_webSwarna took us to her village, where every mud hut was decorated, colors and drawings seemingly dropped from the sky, covering everything. She welcomed us into her home. SJ served as interpreter, showing her the 1945 photos and explaining our idea.

Swarna_webShe quickly sorted through the images and understood what we wanted. She showed us a scroll she had done about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and another one about the tsunami of a few years ago. We joked about the challenge it might be to do something other than a disaster. I had been concerned at first about interfering with a traditional art form, but that clearly isn’t an issue. The Patuas had decided a long time ago that theirs was a living tradition and they could use their considerable skills to tell many stories. Aside from being a consummate artist, Swarna is quite a sales person. Before we knew it, we had agreed to her creating TWO scrolls. One would be on the story of our box, the other a narrative that held personal meaning drawn from our soldier’s photos of village life. We agreed to come back in a few days to document her progress. We’d pick up the finished scrolls and record her song in a month.

Colorful-women_webGirl-drawing_webIt was an astonishing experience to be in this tiny village and to see art so fully integrated into everyday life. The houses are decorated inside and out; young children are encouraged to draw from their earliest days. A neighbor was weaving, another painting decorative wagon wheels; others painting images of Ganesh, Siva, Saraswati, Kali and others alive with meaning beyond our knowledge or experience. An amazing aspect of this is that the villagers are primarily Muslims, yet they have a history of creating Hindu narratives. We’ve become quite used to the dichotomies that India holds. This is simply another example.


Group-looking_webSwarna’s brother showed up and began looking through our photos. Within minutes he started identifying sites.  1229He thought that the ferry boat photos were of the nearby Mohnpur River at a narrow point, where now there is a bridge. The group was fairly certain that a market scene is from Shalboni, where there was an American air base. We were firmly told that we cannot go there—it is a center of Naxalite activity (they are violent Maoists) and evidently we’d be kidnapped in a minute. It is also an area where, at night, wild elephants roam! The photo shows the drying and gathering together of sal leaves, used as serving plates, a practice still done in the villages. Other scenes were identified as being in still-functioning markets in Kharagpur. We seem to have finally located the center point of our painfully anonymous photographer’s travels. 923

Swarna was also certain that one of our unidentified temples was nearby, so we piled into cars and headed out into the country. Sure enough, a lone, derelict temple stood in a field, tantalizingly close to #1205.

1205 Pingla-East-long-shot_webSoon, seemingly from nowhere, villagers materialized. We explained what we were doing and showed them the book of photos. They argued about the details of the structure, while Jerri and I looked on, smiling at the fascination these images hold for just about anyone who spends time with them. Eventually all agreed that this temple was not the one we were looking for. We’ve repeated this pattern many times, people absolutely certain they’ve identified a “missing” temple, only to be tripped up by details. They’ll get you every time.


Panel-layout_webWhen we returned a few days later, Swarna had made her selection of images. Realizing that one image was missing to complete her story, she simply created it, basing her composition on the existing photos. Swarna sang us a preliminary version of her song, telling the story of the box and how these photos made so long ago are now coming home. This project seems to inspire everyone it touches, providing entry points to lives and cultures across time and space and taking us places we never imagined.

Long-scroll_webSamsundar-Chitrakar_webNaya-house_web Looking-at-Swarna_web

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.


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.


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.


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.


Baul musicians on Santiniketan Express (AT)


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.”






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

mid – left: JZ; mid: JZ; right: AT

bot – left: JZ; right: AT

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.


left: AT; middle: JZ; right: AT

To read earlier posts, please scroll to the bottom of your screen, hit the ‘Previous’ button, or call me in India for help, depending on your situation.  ALSO: I am using thumbnails instead of larger images (click to enlarge.)  Do you like this or shall I go back to the larger pictures?  Please let me know.  WYSIWYG is still a pipedream.

Post 16 – Jerri’s Musings #4 – Incognito

We wake up to one of those horrible wake-up sounds that makes you want to scream and dive for cover under the blanket. It’s Sunday for *&^%$!’s sake! A very loud male voice on a very loud loudspeaker blares: “Hahloh…hahlo…” Pause. “Hahloh…hahlo…” Pause. “Hahloh…hahlo…” This goes on for quite some time. Does he NOT realize that he can be heard seemingly for miles?

We get dressed and go look over the balcony, as the voice is coming from right under our window. There are men in red caps running up and down the street, tying Communist flags to every tree and pole on the block. The street has been barricaded and large tarps are being placed on the pavement.

We head down, to find out what all these Communists are up to. We go to the head table to find out what’s going on and told that it’s the annual children’s ‘sit and draw’ contest in honor of Jyoti Basu, a long serving Minister in the Government who passed away last year.





Children of all ages are scattered on the tarps, eagerly bent over their work. They have all brought their own supplies. We wander in and out, photographing. One little girl is so good that I’d buy her pastel painting in a minute.

We are offered tea. We are occasionally approached by someone asking where we are from, what we are doing in Kolkata, some want our names and phone numbers.



One official keeps asking me to sit down. I obediently obey, wondering if he doesn’t like the fact that I’m taking pictures, or if he’s being considerate and wants to provide seating for a lady.

No one asks Alan to sit. Once his back is turned, I get up and get back on the move. After the 3rd or 4th “Madam, sit down please,” I stay put.



Within minutes, I’m surrounded by a group of the artist-children. One little girl saddles up to me: “………” (in Bangla).

“So sorry, no Bangla, only English.”  She’s baffled and repeats her musical question.

“So sorry, no Bangla, only English.” This goes on for 2-3 times.

“Hindi?” “So sorry, no Hindi, only English.”

“Urdu?”  “So sorry, no Urdu, only English.”

“Tamil?”  “So sorry, no Tamil, only English”  More quizzical looks, more “………”

I distract her by taking her picture.



Why would she assume that a white woman would speak any of these languages? What does this mean? Is she so accepting that there are no cultural differences between us? I was so taken by this raw innocence. When does it start to change? I feel a little sad. I prefer her beautiful naivety to the potential adult suspicion and harshness.

We have been in India for over 3 weeks now. We live in Lake Market, a fantastic part of town, with one of the best markets. It’s a middle/working class part of town that we felt comfortable in immediately. Kolkata has a soul that is palatable and our neighborhood reflects the city’s character. We rarely see a white person here.

But the other day I saw a white 20-something young woman, a graduate student perhaps, on the street. I was shocked, and my first reaction was: “What is she doing here?” I stopped short, a dangerous move on a crowded street as someone almost crashed into me. “So, sorry, so sorry.” Why did that thought even enter my head? I’m a white woman also. I was not questioning her right to be here, it was just a shock, as Alan is the only other Westerner I see. Occasionally our French friend, Julie, but she’s been here for so long, has some Spanish blood, olive skin, speaks perfect Bangla, is married to a Bengali, and I kind of see her as Indian. I just realized that I forgot that I’m a white person in Kolkata.

Alan and I love to travel, experience other cultures, other languages. I always want to blend into the country – I don’t like to be seen as a foreigner. I want to go incognito. Photographing helps me do that – I’m watching my environment carefully, connecting with my surroundings, with the people around me. The lens separates me and intently connects me simultaneously. Later, at the computer, or collecting and assembling objects for a piece, the relationship to the images deepens. Sometimes I can feel the chi in my fingertips.

Wanting to merge into the landscape probably has something also to do with my desire to belong. Before I was 6 years old, I had lived in 4 countries, been a refugee once and an immigrant twice. Twenty years later I immigrated again. This time I stayed put, rooted, and made Chicago my home.

I grew up in a household where two languages were spoken on a daily basis, a third one joined years later. My ears were accustomed to the different sounds, grammar and intonations. It was easy to flip back and forth, and often words from one language found their way into a sentence. When I moved to the U.S. from Canada, I heard and spoke only English – this was unnatural and I’d often get bored with the language. Upstate NY wasn’t even accented.

When I got a job working on the west-side of Chicago, in an African-American community, I was very excited. I was going to be part of another culture, learn to understand a different way of speaking… I then had to think about that. Was I thinking the kids were speaking another language, and if I thought that, was I being racist?

Whenever I hear another accent, I’m always curious about it’s ethnic origin. There’s something stimulating and exciting in the fact that someone looks and speaks differently from me – it makes me feel more alive. I also tend to mimic accents – I don’t mean to – it just happens. Sometimes I have to make a real effort to remain “me.” I don’t want to insult, I don’t want to patronize, I really just want to blend in and belong.

Please scroll down or use the ‘Previous’ button to see other posts. If you are reading this via email, that option isn’t available. Trust me, it really looks better on the blog site itself. Click on the blog title to get there.