Sunday, May 19, 2013


And cold it stayed for the remaining three weeks of my stay in India in January, cold enough in the north to cause deaths of some of those living in the streets in Delhi, and cold enough probably contribute to the nasty cough I developed after a few days in dusty Varanasi. It was a strange time, following the kidnapping of the young Delhi couple, the rape of the woman and her subsequent death. There were many protests and demonstrations. My Indian friends were saddened and shamed by the events and the grim frequency of rape that occurs, unreported. The trial was underway while I was in Dehli.

Varanasi. How do I do justice to that complicated ancient city, India's spiritual capital, rebuilt in the 1700’s on the same stone foundations raised by the 1200 Mohammed Ghauri invasion? People come to Varanasi as pilgrims, but more importantly to die and be cremated on the ghats by the Ganges, cleansing their karma of past sins. The sight of shrouded corpses laden with marigolds, carried by white clad, shaved headed mourners chanting songs was frequent, as was beggars, and men folded up into neat, lean shapes, sculpted by decades of shop keeping in impossibly narrow spaces. 

Making Pan
I stayed for two weeks at Kriti, an artist residency and exhibition space in Varanasi. My fellow residency mates, from Switzerland, Germany and The Netherlands, and I bonded easily, after hours spent in Sarnath, where the Bhudda gave his first sermon. Pressed together with hundreds of monks in many hues of orange, crimson, saffron and maroon, as well as many other foreigners needing to register to see the Dalai Llama. Difficult for me and many of the westerners was what appeared to be total lack of organization and the inefficiency of handwriting each person’s documentation information in a vast registration book. Miraculously, I did receive my little card but when the time came and my friends departed to hear him speak, I felt too sick to go. The other event I regretfully missed was the Khumbh Mela, a three hour drive away, where millions (this year 80 million) gathered peacefully in a once every twelve year Hindu Holy Bath in the Ganges ritual of devotion.

Morning on the Ganga

One of many bike shops

Blank Bound Book Stall

Kite Flyers

While at Kriti, I spent time beginning to absorb the city. (It was quickly apparent that I hadn’t given myself enough time, although it was what I could fit between teaching semesters). I marveled at how different the people, their clothing, language and way of being differed from the South. Riding bike rikshaws was a fun challenge. The high seat behind the bicycle pitches forward slightly. The cabbie encourages propping ones weight against a narrow metal bracket in the center of the footrest. Otherwise you grip the outer edges of the seat and when the cart lurches and clatters over potholes and brick pavers, you pray your butt returns safely to the seat.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A bit of catching up

In Mysore, I revisited CAVA, giving students a talk on my work in the year since I saw them last. It was very nice to see them again and to congratulate them on their MFA Exhibition.

CAVA friends

Maharaja's Old Residence
With Bhagya and Ajai, I toured their organic hospital farm, a really exciting new development. Cancer patients in the hospital are now able to enjoy organic vegetables. Part of their harvest, abundant enough to serve patients and their own household use includes ragi, a highly nutritious brown grain also known as finger millet.

My time in Mysore was all too short, especially with my level of jetlag. Every time I moved through the city I longed to linger at the stalls and shops, to peer into the deep recesses of the tiny hotels (restaurants), to examine the fruit vendors’ artful lime arrangements or ride the painted carts pulled by the thin, long legged ponies. The level of sadness I felt my last morning as we rushed to buy train tickets made clear I would need to soon return, to stay longer and truly explore.

The welcome extended by the students at CAVA, where I gave a lecture on my work produced in the time since my last visit, the tender coconut drink, their desire to show me their work, the general incomprehension of my English, the Dean’s invitation to return and conduct a week long workshop also strengthened my resolve.

I was again struck by the difference between the physical closeness between Indians and their reluctance to intentionally touch, like hand shaking or hugging. Even with my close friends, tentative embraces and light hand touching are all I can expect.

Bangalore for New Years
I joined my friends from Austin, returning to India for the first time in 30 years, for a traditional Southern Indian lunch served on banana leaves with Bhagya at the Woodlands Hotel and then shopping on Commercial Street for gifts and shoes for the New Year’s Eve party. Julie lived in Madras for 2 separate years, and her husband Franz had joined her for 8 months. They were avid and unabashed shoppers whose refrain was, who knows when we be back here again?

There was great excitement at the apartment dressing up for the New Years Eve party at the Taj Hotel. I wore my dress from southern France that had been altered in Mysore to fit me perfectly and sandals covered with silver beads, very Indian and very unlike me. It was a surreal and intoxicating pleasure to dance with friends from different parts of my life.

Bangalore University
We drove out to BU on Jan. 2. Again I lectured on my work, which this time resulted in a discussion about ghosts. The students were shy to speak, but several of the teachers shared their ghost stories. Jayakumar, the head of the department, gave us a tour of the vast and skeletal structure of the new art building, which has stood in limbo for four years as the administration remains somehow undecided about completing the project. In the meantime, the electrical wiring has been stripped away by thieves and green plants threaten to engulf the rooms. Even in just four years, the neglected building has accrued an eerie, ancient feeling.

We then drove to the Rain Tree Café to meet Prayas Abinas, an artist who teaches at Shristi, to discuss my plans for returning to Bangalore and possibly working with students. Prayas described his numerous projects engaging text as non-visual experience and hence requiring a deeper level of engagement than the every proliferating speed of largely superficial visual consumption. It was very pleasant to sit in the quiet green enclosure, the city noise and dirt muffled and distant, to drink good, strong coffee and to be intellectually engaged with such a keen mind as Prayas’. After we said goodbye, Bhagya and I explored the fine shops behind the café held beautiful traditional Indian block print clothing and other designed objects. Bhagya and I looked and fondled, but didn’t buy anything.

We were quite hungry by then and Bhagya took us to a fabulous, old Bangalore restaurant where we ate delicious dosas and iddlys. The young waiter was delighted to serve a westerner. 

From there I begged Bhagya to take me to Chik Pet, the old town of Bangalore, where the tiny, narrow streets are lined with shops of every kind, especially traditional style sari shops where the shopkeepers sit on cushions the size of carpets and the wares are pulled from tall, narrow shelves and spilled out over the floor to be touched and admired. There were many bookstalls, jewelry and silver shops. We were especially enchanted by the old sari weaving factories, where bare chested men somberly monitored the ancient machines, whose wooden card technology of hole patterns miraculously produces golden patterned sari cloth. Sadly my camera was out of juice that day, and I couldn't take any photos.

I said goodbye to Bhagya and her family (1 week is too short! they often exclaimed) and got on a plane to Varanasi by way of Delhi, where the cold was quite a shock after the lovely temperate days in Mysore and Bangalore.