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.

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 40 – Salua Part III; The Darkroom!

Walk-to-laundry1Now free to explore, with the Gurkhas granted permission to escort us, we entered into the camp itself. Pranay led us deep into a forested part of the old camp where, our photos in hand, he and the others had been searching and had found an abandoned laundry. It didn’t seem to be the one featured in our photo, but it was tantalizingly similar.

Laundry1_webHe said “We’ve been wandering in the jungle for you. We want this place to be known in history.” Pranay then told us how they had taken our photographs into the village and were showing them to chai wallahs and merchants and anyone who would look, hoping someone would recognize something. When I was an anthropology student many years ago, I always thought that the most effective research would be a collaborative effort. This is exactly what we are now doing.

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They took us to see the remains of old airplane hangers, now standing like ancient ruins. I was deep into the underbrush, photographing when Dawa suggested that perhaps I should not be photographing there. Snakes. Right.

 

 

GPS-Temple_webOne of the abandoned hangers had been turned into a shrine, a seemingly perfect end to a monument to destruction. It also now served as a GPS coordinate, India again mixing old and new in its own, unique way.

Trophy_webWe drove back to headquarters, invited for lunch. Then, we were escorted to the office. Now officially authorized to do so, the wonderful Gurkhas had wanted to thank us, to do something to show their appreciation for our search into their history. Sub-commander Dhurba Lohar presented us with a magnificent trophy. This being a last minute thing, they chose what they had on hand. We now have a beautiful memento, an award normally given to soldiers on their retirement. It will be a prized possession. But we’ll never retire.

from-photo-Holster_webThe soldiers had been particularly interested in a detail from one of our photos that showed a Gurkha knife holster. On our way out, heading back for more exploring, they showed us how today’s soldier uses exactly the same weapon, confirming that our photo was indeed of a Gurkha. Jerri asked if she could see the knife. Bishal hesitated and said that wasn’t possible. Once a Gurkha’s knife has been unsheathed, he said, it cannot be returned to its holster unless there is blood on it. OK. Holster_web

Laundry-2_webBack in the field, they showed us another laundry ruin; again, similar structure, but not a definitive match. They had one more site to show us, but it was right by an active firing range. They had cut through brush to find it, but were fairly sure that this was indeed the laundry shown in our 1945 photograph, the key image to identifying Salua as our GI’s base. That one will have to wait until we return, or at least they stop shooting.

Just before we left, Pranay said: “ We are turning over every stone. You’ve changed us.” What an astonishing thing to say. He, and this entire experience, has clearly changed us as well.

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We then headed to IIT to finally get inside the darkroom that had excited us a month ago. It was a dramatic moment. The sign on the door was encouraging. When it was opened, we saw a darkroom in utter ruin, but one that contained elements that could have been from the 1940s.

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We saw an old multi-switch contact printer, possibly the kind used by the 10th P.T.U. The enlargers were newer, perhaps from the 1960s. The safelights and other apparatus were consistent. We saw a sign that at first convinced me: “Photography and Blueprint Section.” It was in English, it used the word ‘section’ that sounded military to me. But then we learned that IIT called all its departments ‘sections’ and all classes are in English. So we still don’t know! This could have been the darkroom…or not. We’ll have to do more research to be certain, research that will no doubt open more doors, closed for so many years.

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The next day we met with Professor Chakrabarti, the Director of IIT. He too was captivated by Following the Box. He would like to go to area villages, set up a projector and show the photos, hoping someone, somewhere will provide insight. This project just keeps growing.

 

Post 39 – Salua Part II

Shortly after we left Kharagpur a month ago, we contacted Helen LaFave, the American Consul General in Kolkata to secure permission to explore the restricted airbase. Helen came to our talk at the Victoria Memorial Hall (the subject of a forthcoming blog post) and took me aside. “This may be more difficult than it would seem,” she said. Apparently, she had to go through the West Bengal Home Minister. When we hadn’t heard back only days before we were to leave for our 2nd trip to the area, Jerri contacted her again. It didn’t look good. But then, already in Kharagpur, we got the good news that our proposal had been approved and we could gain access to the base. We emailed our Gurkhas who were thrilled.

Jajo-w-Ghurkhas_webOn Sunday morning, we went to Salua with Asid. Pranay Rai, Bishal Tamang, and Dawa Syangbow, the three soldiers who had been most enthusiastic were distraught. They had never received any confirmation. They were rightly concerned about allowing us into the interior of the base and spending unapproved time with us. For the next half hour, we tried to contact Helen but it was Sunday, the Consulate closed, the chances of reaching her slim. After repeated calls, a security person at the Consulate answered and I explained the situation. He asked if the CG would know me by name. I told him she would, and, to my astonishment, he finally put me through. The Commander wasn’t even at the base that day—he was in Kolkata. I put Helen on with Pranay. She explained that she had gotten a text message from the Home Secretary granting permission. But protocol insisted that the soldiers needed something more substantive. Helen said that she had done as much as was possible.

We had come so close, but it looked as though we were not able to go much further. India has changed us, made us more accepting of the world around us and our place within it, more aware of the simultaneous random yet inevitable nature of existence. But that still doesn’t rule out disappointment or longing.

Canteen_webDejectedly, we all piled into our cars and Pranay and the others took us to see some sites we had missed earlier. We went first to the remains of a U.S. Army canteen, now on private property, outside the base. The owner didn’t mind us wandering about photographing. When he started making not-so-oblique references to payment, and his alcohol level became apparent, we decided to leave. But just then Pranay ran over to us, literally jumping up and down. “Sir! M’am! Something miraculous has happened!” Helen must have called in some markers behind the scenes. We had our permission.

It would take an hour or so for the paper work to go through, so we decided to check out a possible match to one of our two remaining unidentified temples. Someone on the base assured us that it was the same; this of course has happened before. We drove far out into the country, on vanishing roads, stopping several times to adjust our direction. Finally, our small caravan stopped, seemingly in the middle of the fields. It was noon, 100 degree heat, a blazing sun. Our temple was far off in the distance, barely visible. We walked on the small ridges between now dry rice paddies, sharp remnant stalks mixing with the brown dirt at our feet. It was absolutely quiet, except for the distant sound of barking dogs and the barely perceptible sound of heat.

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There, on a small hill, next to a pond, was a little temple and what seemed to be its abandoned sister. It was similar, but not the one we were looking for. We’ve gotten used to that. It was beautiful nonetheless.

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Then an old woman, shaded by an umbrella, came up to me and began speaking rapidly in Bangla. I motioned Asid, standing nearby, to help translate. Her dog was lost, somewhere out in the fields. It somehow did not occur to her than a white guy with a camera might not understand. I have arrived.

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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 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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