Post 42 – Jerri’s Musings #14 – Grand Canyon

Written Jan 27, 2014

We just got back from spending an afternoon on Chitpur St. It is a street like no other – everything is made, manufactured, fabricated, consumed and sold on that street and its many tributaries. One group of stalls makes brass pots, kitchen utensils and candlesticks, another aluminum, another stainless steel, another cast iron. Then there are the wood carvers: small molds to mold sweets; alters to hold idols; bowls to hold food; trays to hold whatever trays hold; utensils and tools to chop, serve, hammer or mix; stools of various heights to sit on; tables to eat on. Then there are the milk khowa kheer makers, producing large thick pale yellow discs, carefully weighed and placed into glass cabinets to be eagerly swooped up by the early morning rush of sweets makers the following day. Then we reach the basket makers, displaying fine baskets of every shape and size.

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The straw naturally leads to the straw idol makers, which then leads to perhaps the most amazing maze of streets and alleyways I have ever seen. We are in Kumar Tuli. There are hundreds, (thousands, perhaps?) of the tiniest of workshops producing thousands of idols. On March 4th there will be the Saraswati Puja, a grand fete honoring the goddess of learning, art and music.

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This is the Grand Canyon of all streets – unable to capture its true glory, no matter what you do, or how hard you try. I stopped photographing after a while – it was useless. I felt completely overwhelmed and overpowered by its magnificence, unable to act on the overwhelming visual overload. I decided to just absorb and experience its beauty and visual chaos.

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Post 37 – Patua Paradise

Every day for the past four months has been an adventure. But the past few weeks definitely top the charts. We took the train back to Kharagpur to pick up our narrative scrolls from Swarna Chitrakar and to record her singing her accompanying songs. This time, we stayed at the IIT Kharagpur Guest House, a considerable improvement over our last hot-water deprived, torn grey bedsheet experience. SJ and Asid met us at the guest house and we discussed the plan for filming Swarna. The next morning, Duncan and his driver appeared with their SUV, a necessity to traverse the roads around Pingla, and we headed out. After a few hours of death-defying driving (this was a new, young, inexperienced and wild driver, heavy on the brakes and light on judgment) we retraced our steps to Naya.

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The village is such a treat on every level—virtually every surface is covered in colors and drawings, look one way or another and there’s a pattern or a line or a burst of color that catches your eye. We used to wonder if Max and Emma, growing up surrounded with so much art, would crave blank, white walls once they had their own places. Not to worry. They understand that what we display reveals something about us, that to a very real extent we ourselves are on our walls.

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Swarna greeted us warmly and took out her scrolls. We cleared an area and set up multiple cameras. Asid was even filming from outside, through the iron grillwork of a window. We had Swarna ask a neighbor to stop his electric saw and ask kids playing right by the open window to play quietly. Ignoring the whack-whack-whack sound of laundry being pounded onto nearby stones, we began.

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Her work was beautiful. As she unrolled the scroll, she burst into song, pointing to the images as she sang. Her voice is incredibly strong—a Bengali Aretha Franklin. She had selected a series of images that had personal meaning, and then composed a song about following the box, how these photos made so many years ago for an unknown reason by an unknown soldier, were coming home. The refrain of her song is “It’s an amazing story.” Indeed it is.

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Talking with Swarna and her family, it became clear that these photos provide insight into a past they never knew. It was almost 70 years ago that a GI with a big camera stopped time. And it doesn’t seem to matter who the photographer was. It’s the energy, the process, the search that matters.

(Actually, I really do want to know who he was!)

Sayamsundar_webAs we left the village, we stopped at the home of Sayamsunder Chitrakar (remember…they’re ALL named Chitrakar.) I had visited him briefly on our last trip and had promised that I’d return. Of course, everyone promises that they’ll return, so when I actually did, he was wondrously surprised.

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He took out some older scrolls that he had shown me earlier, while his daughter Susama began bringing out stacks of drawings of various sizes, type and price. Then his wife Rani joined us and began singing her narrative of the ‘Wedding of the Fishes’ (the shrimp says “I’ll bring the table cloth,” the crab says “I’ll bring the plates,” etc., until they are all eventually eaten by bigger fish.  Hmnn…….)

Stretch_webShe also sang a scroll she had done about HIV. This is a living tradition, responding to current social issues as well as to myths and stories handed down for generations. They had some wonderful pieces, which will soon find themselves in various parts of America, their art traveling places they themselves are unlikely to ever go.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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