Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sightseeing around Mysore

Vijaya Rao, a professor at CAVA, kindly offered to take me to Tupa Sultan Summer Palace, xxx and three rivers. Vijaya, a soft spoken sculptor, was a thorough and knowledgeable guide.

We drove and drove through rural villages, passing many farmers walking slowing along. I think people here are so graceful in their bodies, slender and agile. The Tupa Sultan Palace, our first stop, is a lovely wooden building carved and painted on every surface with lovely, water based patterns. We only had access to the first floor, but just that was a plethora of murals depicting victorious Sultan’s battles. Vijaya explained how the paintings were executed on dry plaster and then coated with linseed oil, giving them a soft sheen.

Tupa Sultan Summer Palace Paintings
Tupa Sultan Summer Palace Paintings and Carvings
Tupa Sultan Summer Palace Paintings and Carvings

Our second stop was a ghat, a sacred place where three rivers meet, Sangama, lovely and open, with huge, gnarled old trees and clusters of little shops, with bored vendors who made very half hearted attempts to sell to me. The sell is much less hard when I am in the company of Indian friends, thankfully. It’s still a challenge for me how to respond, as I feel rude according to my standards. Pretending they don’t exist is seems to work best. We sat down for tea at one of the shops, run by a teenage boy. Vijaya carefully explained that I wanted “black tea” but when it was handed to me, it still was milky, and then Vijaya made him wash out the pots, and the second cup, flavored with masala, was delicious. Vijaya laughs easily and it was fun to joke about things both American (his wife and son are respectively working and studying in the US) and Indian with him.

Vijaya at the Temple
Vijaya at Sangama

Vijaya ordering tea

making tea


We then drove to the carved Kesava temple, where Vijaya, a sculptor, really lit up. We lovingly lingered over many of the carved passages of elephants, horses, battles, courtesans, narratives of the deities, poked our fingers into impossible crevices behind figures, each row a variation of intricate bas relief carving.
Children greeting me, the foreigner



It’s really not possible to know how it will feel to be in a place despite seeing pictures and hearing descriptions. I spent Sunday mostly fretting about how I would visit Belur, Halebid and Svrananabelagola the following day. I scoured online sources, which all pointed to KSTRC, the Indian government bus tour system, but none of the listed phone numbers worked, except one office, where the phone rang and rang but appeared to be closed on Sunday. I tried Vijaya Rao, a professor at CAVA who had been my guide the day before. But nothing was available except Bhagya arranging for a driver through their Mysore hospital. She also arranged for two students to accompany me, Anande and Naveem.

Anande and Naveem Dejeuner Sur L'herbe

Later that day, Bhagya, Ajai and I drove to the twins’ dance teacher’s home where he was conducting a long rehearsal for the following Sunday performance that none of us could attend since we would all be in Delhi. Outside his home, a two-storied, airy building of recent construction in a middle class neighborhood, lay a sea of sandals. There were over a hundred girls and a handful of boys dressed in their dance school uniforms, and various parents. The dance teacher is tall and broad with a booming voice and malleable face, and wide eyes which flash a parade of expressions. Charismatic and radiating energy, he commands the full attention of the room.

The Dance Teacher

Asmitha's yoga asana

Aagnika (left) performing

It was great to watch them rehearse the various dances, some more classical hindi dance and others like musical numbers. The young men dance robustly, flinging themselves, stomping and catapulting, mustering vigor and drama. Agnika danced effortlessly, with grace and poise, completely assured and at ease.

After the rehearsal, which lasted a few hours after we arrived (and we arrived hours later than starting time), we were invited upstairs into the dance teacher’s home, where he lives with his wife, mother and two children and served tea and snacks, including fresh popcorn. As the dance teacher speaks little English, a long conversation took place in Kanada, an experience I am now used to, as most seem to forget that I don’t understand and fall into speaking their natural language, without the effort of English. But then his wife spoke English to me, and I immediately wanted to know her better. A former professional classical singer, her voice was full of warmth. She went to fetch a painting she had made to show me, a very fine and precise watercolor she had painted during a time she was unable to talk, suffering from a polyp on her vocal chord. The experience left her without the ability to sing the full range required for classical singing, so she now teaches. I admired how she relayed this story simply, without self-pity or regret.

Friday, January 20, 2012

First Bus, First Train, First Tourist Action

Jan. 20
We completed the Bangalore University workshop yesterday. I was pleased to see five completed projects, one from each collaborative group. One group burned the edges of their book, as a metaphor for man’s encroachment of nature, serving up a sooty, pungent experience. It’s been a challenge for them to conceptualize working collaboratively. Most projects settled on agreeing on a theme and a form, but maintained their individuality by painting separate pages. One group managed to cooperatively paint each page, but one student in that group proceeded to sign his name on nearly every page, and had difficulty understanding why I called attention to it.
Everyone at Bangalore University
Man and Nature Collaborative Artist Book
Creators of Man and Nature

Student collaborative Book Projects

A huge old banyan tree on BU campus

Bus to downtown Bangalore

I was pretty excited to take my first bus ride in Bangalore yesterday, with Madhan as my guide. We sat in the back and bounced our way over the deeply jutted University roads. Yet again I was humbled by the generosity of India, leaving Bangalore University with an unexpected wallet full of rupees, a thank you from the art department, and having Madhan insist on paying my bus fare. It was a hot and dusty ride into the heart of the city. Since the bus was not direct to our destination of HCG Hospital, we got off near the city markets, where hundreds of running children were let out of school for the day. Probably Madhan and I made an unusual looking pair- Madhan with his African style knit cap and tattoo covered arms, jeans and sneakers and a small pack and me with my very white skin and gray hair. He has been a cheerful, loquacious and constant companion for the whole Bangalore University workshop, and a great pleasure to spend time with walking through the crowded markets on our way to the hospital. Many times children rushed to shake my hand and practice a word or two of English, or they hung out of auto rickshaws waving and laughing and calling out “hi!”.

One of the Rajs

The Palace Library (only scholars can look at the books)

On the train to Mysore

Mysore Train Station

This morning Mahdeva, the family driver, took me to the train station and held my hand through the ticket buying process (new to him as well as he usually takes the bus), making sure I filled out the form correctly and had the right ticket, and buying a platform ticket to make sure I was safely on the train. He didn’t leave until he peered through the window and saw me at my seat. I just learned from Umesh, the gentleman seated next to me on the train who had spent time studying in the US, that at crowded railway stations like Bangalore, people like to go to the train station to hang out, and so selling platform tickets (4 or 5 rupees each) bring in additional income.

Finally I visited Mysore Palace! I mistakenly went to the wrong entrance near town and a 13 yr old boy convinced me to ride in his ponga, or horse drawn cart, to the other entrance. I admit it was a lot of fun, and breathtaking the way he bade his horse canter and quickly turn in front of buses and onrushing traffic. He kept slapping the horse with his reins and I begged him to be nice to the horse. I had avoided riding in the pongas previously because the horses are so slight and seem too fragile to bear the burden of passengers and cargo they cart around. Plus they are forced to run on the hard pavement, which must be jarring to their slender legs.

Mysore Palace

Mysore Palace

The Mysore Palace really is fantastic. I was surprised that there were so few westerners in the crowds of tourists. There were a couple of Tibetan monks who were having a high time getting people to photograph them with various types of people, like school girls in uniform seated on the ground and turbaned, bearded muslim men. Despite the quantity of people that work at the Palace, it is quite informal. You can wonder about at your own pace. The wooden house, behind the palace, is wonderfully shabby. Walls are covered amazing paintings, photographs of the rajs and scrawled with graffiti signatures. Despite the ban on cameras, cell phone photos are ok, so everyone is busy snapping away and of course I joined in.

Graffiti on the Palace walls

Near closing I nearly had the place to myself. One of the guards asked me if I wanted to photograph the “beautiful swords madam” (not really) and then did I want him to photograph me in front of them, which meant allowing me behind a thick rope barrier. So I complied, and then it became clear (ok, I’m slow) that he was angling for a tip and was happy with the ten rupee note I offered him.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bangalore Installing and Workshopping

Jan. 17

We hung the wallpaper installation today. It was great to have the hospital carpenter and three other men helping. They worked quickly and efficiently. In the afternoon we return and find the wallpaper up, only I see I have made a mistake about which panels go where and it’s too late to make the change. I struggle to be at peace with my mistake. Alas, the area that feels most unresolved and overworked ends up in a crowded corner. I am full of apprehension about how the portraits will look installed with the painted wallpaper. Also, the five sixty-inch panels are six inches short of the long wall, so I have an unanticipated gap to fill, which I will have to paint on site.

I have a lot of anxiety about this project, questioning its worth and its level of completion. Painting the panels turned out to be quite challenging, especially because it was hard to find enough space to lay them out, even in the Ajaikumar’s giant house. They were incredibly accommodating, letting me take over both Anjali’s bedroom while she was in Bangalore and the upstairs hallway mezzanine.

I was very happy to see Prumilla, one of the girls whose portrait I painted today, especially since she seems to have come back for the reception.

Bhagya invited Mr. Gopalappa, a geologist, to “measure” the underground waterways beneath the gallery floor. He has a very cool instrument that measures breaks in the rock formations, which tell him the location of the water lines. He was kind enough to discuss his findings with me, and seemed completely unfazed that he was asked. Since this happened only yesterday, I can only use the information nominally in the installation.

Mr. Gopalappa, geologist

Bhagya and I are spending three days at Bangalore University, where we are conducting the second collaborative group artist book workshop. BU doesn’t have an undergrad visual arts program, and its graduate program spearheaded and administered by Jayakumar, is only 6 years old. Yet the complex of studios surrounding a tiered outdoor courtyard is very pleasant.

Yes, Felix Gonzalez Torres sited at Bangalore University!

The students have very strong drawing skills and usually work from imagination. Several of them have shared their individual work with me. They seem to be pleased to work collaboratively, a new experience for them. There is some installation work taking place, but more usually the tradition of symbolic narrative painting dominates.

There are five collaborative book groups working together. One has been especially enthusiastic. With smiling persistence, they demand both a binding and a painting demonstration from me, and I comply, because it is so much better than waiting for other groups to be ready to discuss their work with me.

They want me to tell them about art in America and about the differences. I tell them Indian art tends to be more sincere than American art, where irony and inside references to art history abound.

It’s difficult to adjust to the Indian sense of time. “Five minutes” could mean a half an hour. We habitually arrive up to 45 minutes late for everything, so I am getting a lot of practice in letting go. The students and teachers alike arrive late and take long lunch breaks. So different from the States, where we rush to work as hard and as long as we can, to be full of accomplishment.

a conversation with Jayakumar and former MFA student Madhankumar about the importance of understanding ones choice of materials

Frequently we sit stalled in traffic for long stretches of time, another opportunity to try my hand at letting go.

sitting in Bangalore traffic

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Village Women

With an entrepreneurial couple in Begur

A woman transporting her wares in Begur

I have spent a couple of days with Bhagya visiting villages to interview women who participate in Self Help Groups, or Sanghas, that meet weekly, usually at someone’s home. IHDUA (International Human Development and Uplift Academy, founded in 1991 by Bhagya and her husband Ajai Kumar) helps train members to keep accounts and deposit funds.

Nanjappa, our guide and head administrator and passionate advocate for IHDUA, and helpers preparing to extend a loan check

The three of us were treated with great ceremony (Bhagya of course, because she founded the ngo that supports them, and Nanjappa, who is the administrative head). I felt like a celebrity, although all I did was show up.

Nanjappa was our host, an expert of 30 years in the field, and he explained more about the situation than I was able to glean from the interviews, as it quickly became clear that my questions did not translate culturally. The individual perspectives or stories I had hoped to learn were relayed as group experiences or generalities. The communal is primary here.

IHDUA has grown exponentially to include 495 self-help groups in over sixty villages with 10 to 15 members each. Most of the groups are comprised of women, but there are increasingly men’s groups are forming.

It was a radical initiative that has fundamentally changed the culture of village life. Women now have control over their own money and substantially contribute to the financial well being of the household. They buy cows, sheep, land, repair homes, learn trades such as tailoring, sewing saris and uniforms for neighbors, start beauty shops, or local small general provision shops, and buy cars to provide transportation to other villagers. For most, their efforts are with for one common goal: to provide for the education of their children.

Women entrepreneurs in Kamarhally Village

A small shop in Kabballi village

A recipient of a sewing machine and her two daughters in their kitchen

A proud owner of a new beauty shop

The women I met glow with grace, health and energy, and are beautifully dressed in saris, their hair shining. There was a great sense of ceremony, the group gathered together to listen intently, curious about my presence in their homes. The houses I entered have few belongings or furniture. Mostly, people sit on the floor on mats.

Family cows live alongside people in their homes

The women’s days are long, most beginning with milking cows and taking animals outside (the animals live inside their homes), washing floors, preparing meals, which still includes grinding the grains with stones, and perhaps working in the fields. They are solely responsible for all the cooking and cleaning and caring for the children. A number of them, if they have trained in tailoring, will sew custom sari orders, school uniforms or festival costumes in the afternoon.

Most work is still done by hand with instruments that have not changed in many centuries, like these beautiful grinding stones and mortar and pestle.