Thursday, February 16, 2012

Farewell Dear India

Tumeric in Bangalore
I have fallen in love with India. Each day brought fresh new experiences of lush density, pushing crowds of light limbed and lean women gliding in saris, ankles and wrists jingling with gold, and men in lunghis or dotis, their heads wrapped in plaid scarves, always a sense of moving forward, the press of people, an inwardness. The children curious, waving, calling out, practicing their English, wanting to touch and know the outsider. The inside of people’s homes, the rituals of hospitality, tea mam? Please take some, please be seated, please have more. And gifts, pressed into my hands, at the temple where the twin girls danced, because I was with Bhagya and Ajai, we were given the first row of seats, the priests heaped us with scarves, flowers, gifts of sweets, pictures of the deity, more flower garlands, more scarves when asked to come up on the stage and be honored for Aagnika’s amazing 20 minute long classical dance, and Ajai for all he does in the community. So not only do I experience 2 hours of fantastic dancing, I am treated like a queen simply because I am their friend. My association with Bhagya and Ajai brought me an ocean of goodwill, doors opened, gifts offered, plenty was demonstrated over and over.


And each adventure without Bhagya and her family, my trip to see Agra, the days visiting temples with Vijaya Rao and with Anande and Naveen, moving through the streets of Bangalore with Madhan, getting to Sanskritti and spending a week there in the company of other artists who were also exploring Delhi, having the great good fortune to dine with Bani Abidi, to see Sumakshi Singh at the Art Fair and again at her opening, to meet Ruchin Soni and Nidhi Khurana and see their studio and to swim in the Sufi current at the Nazruddin’s Tomb with them, to be invited into people’s homes both in the rural villages and in the city, to be fully embraced.

Sari Shopping in Delhi

And shopping too, to learn how to negotiate a price, understanding that the price is rarely the price and to feign reluctance or indifference and to shrug off flattery (hard for me!). Also the autorikshas, where I would be quoted double or triple the actual price than if the meter is used, and my pride and confidence when I was able to dismiss the overpriced offers until I found one willing to take me for the right price. Never knowing where I was, hurtling through the streets, blindly trusting the driver would get me there, which he always did. The deft and hair raising turns, squeezing through impossibly narrow spaces, throngs of motorcycles, huge busses, hundreds of other autorikshaws clogging the streets, honking, all driven by men.

My experience of Indian culture was largely through men, especially the boys in art school. Men driving, men outside walking at night, the closeness of men, their arms draped around each other’s shoulders or holding hands, their physical intimacy. The students always wrapped around each other, arms linked, a public tenderness. The smiles of men and boys when I looked at them, a gladness for the simple fact of my foreigness. The care, please mam, this way, being guided. A sense of safety and belonging even as an outsider, the ever ready willingness of Indians to help.

Everywhere food being cooked, fruits and vegetables displayed, sugar cane ground into juice, watermelons and many other fruits beautifully cut up and sold on the street, roasted peanuts in their shells, fresh chick peas on green leafy stalks, tender coconut sucked from a straw from a freshly hacked open fruit, the men’s wiry arms expertly wielding the hatchet-like knives, one, two, three, four wacks at the most. The neutral expression, the tiny amounts of rupees exchanged for such abundance. 20 rupees, mam. The stacks of white and saffron colored flowers sewn together on a string, 50 rupees for a meter, you show how much you want by extending your arm. 30 rupees, mam. No one ever has change, ever. Tiny begging children who run alongside, their thin dirty hands outstretched, they never speak English, they are frail and weightless, with habitual expressions of need, mam…I imagine they are beaten if they do not produce enough rupees for the adults who control them. I imagine their lives are not improved even slightly by my donations. My Indian friends scold me if I give to them, “it only encourages them!” But I watched the Swamiji give, he pulled the money out of his wallet calmly and blessed it on his forehead first before he handed over the 5 or 10 rupee note. He gave without judgment or fear.

Svravanabelagola Priests

And singing. Prayers were sung, the art students sang, old and young sang together, the Sufis sang, the Sikhs sang, the Muslims in their mosques sang at dawn and at each prayer time, and amplified it to the outside, the Hindu priests sang and chanted, horns were blown, tablas intensified or maintained the rhythm. Bhagya sang classical songs with her music teacher on Saturdays, her children played piano. Even I sang the Carole King song, You’ve got a friend, although I only remembered half, at the insistence of the students at the Art Camp.

Over and over people gave to me, flowers, snacks, meals, tea, advice, company, long patient explanations in broken English, a hand made wallet, a little carved box, a magazine, an invitation to their home, time, smiling greetings, enthusiasm for my work. I was in the newspapers in Mysore and Bangalore five times and on TV in each place. I loved merging with them, disappearing while remaining absolutely conspicuous as a white skinned westerner.

Now, back in Chicago, how to maintain the delicious openness and flow, the ease and lightness of limb, the feeling of sun on my skin, the odors of sandalwood, healthy body sweat, fabric dye? Opening my heart also seems to open up time, a fleeting sense of life without boundaries.

India, I shall return!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Last Days in India

Art Camp in Mysore and Back to the Village
CAVA Students at Art Camp

Bhagya arranged an Art Camp, an Indian phenomenon in which a number of artists are invited to get together for about a week to make work that will then be exhibited and sold to raise money for a cause. As some previous plans had fallen through, Bhagya decided to invite 12 of her CAVA students to participate for a three-day art camp.

We began by piling into two vehicles and driving to a village about an hour from Mysore, to meet with 4 or 5 Sanghas of women that had gathered to meet with us and share their stories. I was curious to see if my experience would be any different in the company of the students, who were in high spirits and primed for the adventure. This time I was familiar with the ritual prayer/song/lamp lighting ceremony, and the gifts of flowers and fruit from the women, a rose and a lemon for each of us, solemnly offered. Also the way I am placed in a position of authority, seated in a chair while the women are on the floor, in neat rows. And the way I am asked to speak to them, greeting them and authenticating the procedures of gathering together. And finally, the amazing feeling of giving, when I am asked to officially hand over gifts from the NGO to the women, in this instance suitcases with accounting ledgers for the sanghas to keep track of their accounts and cricket bats for the school children.
Sanghas gathered
Students listening to the women
Relating a Sangha Story

Women laugh in response to Nanjappa's speech
suitcase and ledger books
giving the suitcase

the women give gifts of roses and lemons to each of us

We were invited into one woman’s home, painted bright green and the few material possessions neatly stacked or rolled into small spaces. We saw the smokeless stove with its ventilating pipe preventing many cases of illness and the new toilet, one of the first in the village.

Smokeless Stove

Wedding Puja Painting
We passed the school and the children swarmed to greet especially me, the foreigner. They were so excited to have guests, my hand was covered by their small ones, eager to touch and to be seen by me. What’s your name, M’am? Your father’s name? Your mother’s name? It was lovely to be among them and see their small eager upturned faces.

prehistoric carvings scattered about the school yard the upraised hand is a symbol for victory

We stopped for lunch at a nearby prosperous farm, owned by a “multi-purpose worker”, which is what men who help administer to the sanghas in their district are called. The farmer had drilled a well and consequently his 7 acres were green and thriving. I asked about seeds and pesticides, and heard that some seeds are heritage, but more and more are hybrids purchased yearly because the “yield is better.” Also that pesticides are regularly used, except on their personal vegetables. While it was hard to get specific information about it and my concerns about the pesticides and hybrid seeds were brushed off, it was very pleasant to sit in the cool shade of the house and eat lunch together.

International Human Upliftment Development Academy Office

On the way back to Mysore, we stopped to see a 2000 year old temple in the village of one the student’s grandmother lived, Sri Lakshmi Kanta Temple Kalale Nanjanjadu. Although the door was locked, the priest let us in. He took water from a stone well inside the temple—the first traditional well I have seen in use here. We all bent over the rim to see into its black recesses. One student thought he recognized a turtle, but it turned out to be a coconut. The priest gave us puja, a ritual lamp fire blessing of the black stoned deity in the far recesses of the dark temple. I felt the power of its blackness and reticence and the magnetism of the circle of fire as the priest waved his lamp and chanted. He then anointed us, pouring spoonfuls of holy oil and fragrant flower blossoms into our cupped hands.

Deity with puja
Painted deity for festivals
Festival elephant
800 year old temple drum
After the blessing, the students showed me how to scramble up the steep blocks jutting out from an interior wall to walk on the roof of the temple, an utterly thrilling experience for me. They showed me how to throw five stones into a small round stone opening to make a wish.

Bhagya lodged us at the Mysore cancer hospital in cottages for visitors and provided all with ample meals, tea, coffee and all desired supplies. After the inauguration (lamp lighting, sung puja and a ritual signing of a blank canvas), the students lost no time in gathering materials and starting to work. They were hugely productive, finishing four, five and six canvases in two days. Unsettled about what I wanted to do, I settled on gouache portraits.

Nightly Art Camp fire

Feet keeping time to singing

inaugural painting

At night, we gathered around a fire and two of the students sang so beautifully. I only wished I understood Kanada, so I could get the jokes that were clearly flying around.

Singing and Drawing

We were all feeling quite fond of one another by the end of the three days, so the following morning, when Bhagya dropped me off in town for my last walk around before heading back to Bangalore, I was delighted that one of the students, Sunil was able to come with me to the Post Office and help navigate getting postcard stamps which had to be individually hand glued, a sticky, messy process.

Sunil gluing stamps

I said goodbye to the cooks, especially Nagama, who quickly learned to brew my green tea to perfection and always beamed at me whenever I walked into the kitchen to deliver my empty plate after eating one of her excellent meals.


I gave a presentation on my work to a very tiny audience at one, Shanti Rd in Bangalore that evening and met the artist Biju Boze, who was really interested in how I was working with underground currents in earlier projects. He told me about the Indian concept, Vatsu, which I hope to explore further by returning to India and researching a project that will involve sustainable agriculture and the spiritual relationship of architecture to the land.