Post 44 – Final Thoughts

We have been in India now for almost 5 months. This post is being written in the Delhi airport as we wait for our 2 AM flight back to Chicago, a 15 hour trip. Being in India, and developing our Following the Box project, has been the most remarkable experience of our lives. We’ve tried to provide a taste of our experience through these posts. They also help us to remember what could otherwise fade, the telling details disappearing in the daily, colorful avalanche. Many of the people we’ve met will become life-long friends, our memorable adventures setting us on unimagined paths that will continue to unfold for years to come. Throughout, we never stopped asking ourselves “Where are we?” Our astonishment at India’s vibrancy, complexity and painful contrasts is just as fresh now as it was when we first stepped off the airplane back in November.

We each want to share a few thoughts before returning to our “normal” lives. Jerri will post a few “Snippets,” her final Muses, in the next few days.

I’ve been struck by the way in which India pulls you in two directions. It’s more than the obvious contrasts between rich and poor, old and new, rural and urban that I’ve commented on for the past months. It’s deeper. India has an ancient culture, a delight in gods and goddesses, story and myth, a tangible understanding that there is meaning in the world—in our lives. Indian culture affirms that things happen for a reason, and that if we take life seriously, we might better enjoy the journey. It is a culture that thrives on ritual, giving form to the inexplicable forces that course through our lives. There are celebrations everywhere, all the time. And there is a history of honoring study and knowledge, not unlike the Jewish culture. Actually, the similarities are striking–the sound of the conch shell announcing Hindu prayers mirroring the shofar; the belief in education; the Star of David a pervasive symbol. The culture pulls you upward, towards enlightenment.

But at the same time, other forces are at play. This is a country marred by corruption and violence, by tragedies that count millions slaughtered. Hinduism is a belief system more than a religion, one that stresses tolerance and understanding. Muslims stress the welcoming of strangers, the belief that we are all one. Yet neighbor turned on neighbor during Partition and during the creation of Bangladesh and during Hindu-Muslim riots that occur sporadically, often with the tacit support of whatever government is in power. It’s like trying to reconcile the sensitivity and sophistication of pre-War German culture with Nazism. It can’t be done.

This pulling downward, toward our baser instincts, takes a very real form in every day life, even without overt violence. To survive in India, to withstand the onslaught of one-legged beggars and mothers thrusting their babies in your face and people closing their fingers around imaginary morsels of food and beseeching you to stave off their hunger, you harden. As Jerri says, “No eye contact.” To be able to function, you turn away. To survive, you deaden your response to pain and inequality, to poverty and illness. I don’t like this feeling—it runs counter to all my instincts and it is core to the India experience, magical though it may be on so many levels.

India pulls you up towards divinity and down towards indifference. Negotiating the space in-between is the challenge that defines us.

Thank you Senator Fulbright for making this journey possible. And thank you to all our friends, in India and America, for taking time to share our adventure. Namaskar.

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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 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 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.

(AT)

(AT)

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(JZ)

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.

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(AT)

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.

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(AT)

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.

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(JZ)

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.

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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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Post 11 – The Jews of Kolkata

A few weeks before we left Chicago, our friend Phyllis sent us a link to a New York Times piece on the Last Jews of Kolkata: http://nyti.ms/16uNqze.The article featured Jael Silliman, who, it turns out, taught for a while at the University of Iowa. The Chair of her department was Ellen Lewin, one of my high school friends. I am convinced that one of the positive things about aging is that sooner or later you know or are connected to absolutely everyone in the world.

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Beth El Synagogue (AT)

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One of the two remaining sefer torahs at the synagogue that once boasted over 40. (AT)

So the other day, we met Jael and visited the two remaining synagogues in Kolkata. Jael’s family came to Kolkata as traders in the 1790s (!) It was a small but thriving community of about 3,000 at its peak. Jael is involved with locating all photographs and documents pertaining to the Jewish community, especially from the 1930s-’40s. The shul is now watched over by several devoted Muslim caretakers. One of the many astonishing things about Kokata, is that not only is there no anti-Semitism, they absolutely love Jews. Anyone who finds out that we’re Jewish is ecstatic. Jael tells a story about a Hindu friend who asked her to buy her a mezuzah. When Jael remarked that her friend wasn’t Jewish, she replied “If God can protect your home, why can’t he protect mine?” She bought her a mezuzah.

Jael also took us to a wonderful exhibit on Indigo, showcasing the work of a local shop. The Harrington Street gallery is one of many superb spaces we’re being introduced to in Kolkata. The exhibit also drew a connection between the significance of Indian indigo used in African mourning rituals (and grown on Southern plantations) and blues music, something I had never thought about. It was admittedly strange, hearing American blues music playing in the gallery, standing next to an Indian Jew, looking at brilliantly done fabrics, with the sounds of car horns and Indian street vendors coming from below. But these kinds of juxtapositions are what make Kolkata the vibrant place it is.  You just never know what unthought of combination lies around the next corner.

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Indigo silk sari fabric (AT)

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From the Indigo exhibit (JZ)

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Jael then took us to her apartment, a huge, old place filled with art. Her 83 year old mother, Flower, lives with her and was equally engaging. She’s been featured in an NPR segment and numerous magazine articles. A few days later, we went to the book launch for her latest cookbook. She had earlier done one called ‘Around the World with a Skillet.’ Jael also says that Kolkatans frequently come up to her asking “Can’t you please bring back our Jews? We miss them!” Jews had left by attrition, not massacre, an unusual and welcome phenomenon in our history. They were concerned about partition, Britain had open immigration, Israel called, they thought the word was changing and opportunities lie elsewhere. So they left. There are about 30 Jews now in a city of 14 million. Make that 32, at least for the next four months.

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