An Update

I was asked to write a little update:

The Fulbright DAT experience has remained with me every single day, even one full year later.  In January 2016, I traveled to Chennai, India to research and work with an arts education non-profit organization called NalandaWay.  Through that experience I was able to investigate the challenges of bringing art education to marginalized youth in urban and rural settings throughout the state of Tamil Nadu.  By visiting schools, making presentations, providing workshops, and attending arts and yoga related courses I was able to gain a perspective of how rich and integrated art is within the culture and community, but often missing in poorer schools.

One of the most memorable experiences I had with NalandaWay was visiting an arts camp they facilitated in a beautiful rural area on the border of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.  A group of 30 students came from a local school in an effort to build leadership skills through collaboration projects based in art.  Although I was primarily there as an observer, I was given the opportunity to lead and facilitate several group art activities and teach yoga as a transition activity.  This was an exciting moment for me because I was able to connect with the students in a different way and they no longer saw me as a visitor or an observer, but someone who was there to be a part of the experience and learn from them as well.

After the arts camp experience, I met with my adviser and we talked about the lessons I taught at the camp.  She was interested in learning more about my teaching philosophy and the other lessons I developed in my school back in the United States.  I shared and adapted more of my curriculum so NalandaWay could use the lessons in their own context. This type of dialogue and collaboration spawned many ideas of how to implement art into schools in a much deeper way.  My adviser was encouraged by my work and thought the curriculum I created was relevant and consistent with the mission and vision of the organization. At that point, she and the director approached me to create additional curriculum and offered me a consulting position to continue to work with NalandaWay after I returned home. Over the next 6 months I worked with NalandaWay to create an integrated arts curriculum for the elementary school based in science, social studies, math, and reading activities.  Currently, they are piloting the lessons and training classroom teachers to use the lessons in class to augment their daily curriculum.

One of the other great experiences I had in India was attending the Fulbright Conference in Jaipur, India.  All Fulbright scholars from Southeast Asia came together to share their work, and I was fortunate to be on a panel of educators.  On that panel I met others interested in my work and connected with Deepa Srikantaiah, who was studying the intersection of math and arts education for marginalized youth in Bangalore, India.  We discovered we both had a strong passion for arts education integration, mindfulness practices, and also lived in the DC metro area.  We decided that we would plan to meet up after we completed our respective Fulbright programs.  Since our first meeting back in the States, we’ve been working to create an arts startup that uses art as a conduit to improve math learning and motivation for marginalized children.   We recently added a third member to our group, and we are now in the planning stages of returning to India in January of 2018 to work with Parikrma School in Bangalore.  We will provide a week long workshop and art exhibition for 7th and 8th graders from that school.

When I started out on this journey I had no idea how great of an impact this experience would have on my own life and I feel that I’ve come away with a new definition for what it means to be a global citizen. I’ve felt extremely fortunate to grow personally by taking on new experiences and challenges while living in India.  More importantly, I was able to find ways to collaborate with others and share ideas to forge personal and professional relationships that continued even after the Fulbright experience ended.  It is these continued relationships that have developed into deeper connections and meaningful opportunities that allow the world to be a little smaller.

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A visit to Thiruvannamalai

Towards the end of my trip I had the opportunity to travel southwest to the small city of Thiruvannamalai.  I hadn’t known much about it before I went and found it to be a really interesting place to visit. It was pretty busy, and boasts a large temple in it’s center.  Tourists also come from all over to visit the famous ashram, Sri Ramanashramam, there.  One of the reasons we went there was to check out a school located on the outskirts of Thiruvannamalai called, Marudam Farm School.  It’s an open concept school, and founded on the principles that the students guide their learning.

It takes about 5 hours to get there from Chennai, but you travel through some really interesting spaces.  Lots of history and old mountains.  Some forts and also some of the prettiest countryside you can see in this area.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic when we drove and it was a really pleasant journey.

If I had known about this place sooner I probably would have made an effort to spend more time there to really get to know it.  I loved the area, the energy and the people.  It seemed like a very laid back kind of place, with lots of chances to view extremely important historical sites.   If you look at a map, it’s just west of Puducherry, and really easy to get to.

Here are a few pictures of the area, I’ll post more about the school later:

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Starting the day off right with vada.

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Ruin near Gingee
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More around Gingee.
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Mountain formations older than the Himalayas.

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And, maybe a Jesus sighting….;-)

Tanjore- ummm sure.

Tanjore painting is really hard.  There are lots of steps and you need lots of patience to create one.  I took a Tanjore class in Chennai for about 6 weeks and I didn’t even finish.  I can see how this art is looked on with great respect.  Everything about the painting needs to be perfect from the very beginning.  I spent hours on this painting and I didn’t even get to the painting part.  I have my work, and will finish one of these days.  This style of painting is still practiced, but they are very time consuming and it takes professional artists hours and hours of painstaking skill to create one that is masterful and full of beauty.  My teacher’s work was amazing.  You could instantly see that his work was of high value and really special.  His paintings were also four times as big as the small one I didn’t finish.

At times when I was working on this I thought it was really labor intensive, but I had to remember it was also meditative.  You could do nothing but focus on what task you were doing.  You had to pay attention to only that part, or else you would probably make a mistake.  Oh– and I made plenty.  Some days I was there for 4 hours working on the placement of the stones, or putting on extra putty to make them stick.  By the end of the class I felt like my back was stiff, my arms were stiff, and my fingers were going to fall off!

But I still worked at it, it was a great challenge for me to undertake, just so I could see what it was like to create such a piece.

I also met some great people along the way.  The arts center was a fun place.  At the times I was there, I always talked with the other students and teachers.  It was a great environment to be a part of and I thoroughly enjoyed working there.

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Start with an image and a board.
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This board has already been prepared for me, lots of primer and several pieces of muslin. You have to measure a border, which is actually a common practice in school too.
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Here is what the back looks like.
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You draw an image on tracing paper and then transfer it to the board. Things need to line up or else something will be cut off later.
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After the image is transferred you begin adding stones. I added too many in the middle.
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Then you cover them with muck. It adheres to the board.
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With the muck, you also build up other areas to create a relief on the surface before the next steps.
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And then you add more muck.
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Then you can add some more decorative stones on top of the muck to had added height and of course – fanciness.
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You can get elaborate, but you don’t want it to be garish.
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Here’s a different view.
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Next it’s all about the gold leaf. Yes, there is real gold in there, so don’t waste it.
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This is a stressful part, because you have to cover all the areas well.
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Once you have all the areas covered, you begin cleaning off the stones and cutting away the excess
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You keep working on removing the excess.
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And keep working on removing the excess.

I just realized, I don’t have a picture of the rest of the steps. I’ll have to post a finished piece when I have it finally completed.  As you can see, there is a lot of work that goes on in creating a Tanjore painting.  It is a dying art and it’s hard to find masters that can teach you the proper steps.  It isn’t to be rushed, you can’t finish this kind of piece in a few hours, and it takes time to perfect.  I was glad to have the experience and to understand how much work it takes to complete just a small one.

The other people who were in this class with me were creating pictures for their homes.  People who create paintings such as this have great respect for the art, but also the art serves as a function for people who practice Hindusim, it is a blessing to have one of these paintings in your home.  As you may guess, there are popular images.  Many of Ganesh, like my example, but also Krishna, Durga, Rama and Sita, and others.

Hip hop in India

Hip hop has become the go-to style for many kids around the globe.  It represents a lot to those who listen to the music and adopt the lifestyle.  A lot of people understand that hip hop is a culture, a way of life.  There are four main parts– MC, DJ, graffiti, and break dancing.  In India, I saw a lot in the way of dancing, and break dancing, or hip hop dancing was definitely the mode by which hip hop culture has assimilated into the lives of youth there.  Not to mention the attitude and style that goes with it.

I happened upon this group one day as I was walking back from my art class on a Sunday afternoon.  It was busy in the park.  People were exercising, chatting, playing.  It was super hot, too.  I could hear the faint music trickling out on to the sidewalk, and decided to stop and take a look.  At first I watched from afar, not wanting to interrupt their flow or seem like a crazy tourist.  But they invited me to sit down and watch.  I sat next to a couple of kids who spoke some English and we talked about hip hop, and dance.  One of the guys said that the group who was dancing were taking classes and come here almost weekly to hang out and practice.  And that’s what they were doing.   There wasn’t even a lot of talking happening, just dancing.  It flowed as the music changed as they were just trying a variety of movements out.

I talked to the guys some more and asked them if I could take some pictures and video.  They seemed ok with that, so I did.  After they finished a long session of dancing, I just thanked them for letting me watch and chatting with them.  They were super excited.

Dancing has a long tradition in Tamil Nadu.  Mostly known for a particular South Indian style that merges with storytelling and pantomiming.  Hip hop is a freedom of movement for them, a chance to experiment with their own style.  Because if there’s one thing that hip hop culture allows, it’s: personal style.

I tried going back to see if I could catch them practicing again, but I never saw them again.  I wish I had, because they were so fun to watch.  But, it was getting super hot throughout March, and I never ran into them again.  Here are a few videos that showcase the guys just hanging out, practicing, and trying their best to move to the music.

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Treats of Jaipur

Going back to Jaipur I had a second change at a lot of things.  I got to take some unexpected pictures of things that I missed the first time, or I just wanted to get that “perfect” shot.  It was actually a pretty quick visit, but the crowds were gone, which meant pictures without tons of people and waiting— waiting some more to get an unobstructed view.

In this part of the trip I went to City Palace, Hawa Mahal, and Jantar Mantar.  It was really hot, so we moved quickly through the spaces, and sat in the shade.  I even listened to some of the recorded guides (some good, others…were something else).  It was nice to have a second chance.

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Hawa Mahal, in both directions.  When I was here last time it was not this empty.  It’s right on a major tourist street and full of traffic.  But this time, not so much.
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Even have time for a quick shot!
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Pretty windows– also known as “Honey Comb Palace”— but only because of the windows.
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Inside City Palace, trying to stay in the shade.
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Amazing color and tile work.
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Peacocks everywhere!

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And of course, suns with mustaches.

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Reliefs.
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Symmetry.
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Jantat Mantar— Take two!  Where are all the people?

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Still one of my favorite places in India.
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Libra Symbol.
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The cosmos.
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Huge Sun Dial, which is actually close to the real time.

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A walk with the elephants

After a quick change and a quick “shower” we had quick break and headed over to the elephants one more time.  We were led around a little area where they take the elephants for a walk.  You meander around a desert area that makes a trail through the property.  It’s quiet, you can hear dogs barking in the background, no cars, no hoards of people, and some occasional cows wander through.  I had never ridden on an elephant before, and it was a very calm experience.  You kind of sway side to side and just slowly move past the scenery.

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Stopped for a picture.
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Getting some extra snacks, after the whole experience.
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Love their faces, eyes, and wrinkles.
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These two were the elephants we cared for during the day.
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Three of the elephants at Elefantastic.
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Quick shadow shot.

 

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Yes, I would say, this was a totally Thumbs Up experience.

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Time to wash the elephants?

So after we painted our elephants, we walked them over to a grassy area with long hoses and washed them down.   The elephants took turns drinking from the hose and splashing themselves with the water from their trunk.  We scrubbed a little bit and they the handlers allowed us to sit on top of the elephants.  Little did we know that we were about to get washed ourselves.  They said,” Make sure you leave all your electronics with us”.  Uh-oh, that could have been the tell-tale sign.  Good thing I brought a change of clothes.

We walked over to another grassy spot and got drenched.  The handlers let the elephants fill their trunks with water and splash us.  It was cold, wet, and amazing.  They got us pretty good.  We couldn’t stop smiling.

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Elefantastic!

This will probably go down as one of the best experiences I have ever had. It’s really no secret that one of my most favorite animals is an elephant.  They are beautiful animals in almost every way.  I’ve seen elephants in zoos when I was a kid, and became hooked on their massive presence.  I had the opportunity to see elephants on safari in Tanzania, and that was the most thrilling experience to witness the massive quietness of their movement.  These animals radiate a special warmth and some how gentleness that you cannot overlook when you are with them.

Elefantastic is a special business that takes care of elephants. It is located outside of Jaipur.  Before we took care of the elephants we had a tasty vegetarian lunch prepared for us by the mother of the owner of Elefantastic.  It was super delicious.  Then we spent the day feeding the elephants, painting the elephants, and washing them clean.  After that we had a lovely ride through the desert, trying relish the entire experience before driving back to our hotel.

These next few pictures are taken from the first part of the day where we fed them and got to know them a bit better.  We were encouraged to be close to them and talk to them, and feed them before we did anything else.  It was amazing to look the elephants right in their eyes and feel the weight of their trunk as it pressed against us when we were close.  It was clear that this is their life.  They eat, get cleaned, walk and sleep. They aren’t forced to labor people up and down Amber Fort or be chained down.  These were happy elephants.

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Stay tuned– next up– washing the elephants.

Jaipur – Round 2

In late February and early March I got to spend a week in Jaipur.  It truly is a jewel of a city.  Located in Rajasthan, it boasts one of the most visited cities on the “Golden Triangle” circuit.  I can see why.  It has a rich history of forts, palaces, majestic views and a number of locations for shoppers to buy all kinds of beautiful block print materials, tailors and seamstresses who can make anything you desire, and of course beautiful gems.  There is a lot to do in and around the city.  This time I made it to many places that were a little bit off the beaten track, but totally worth it.

The main reason for being in Jaipur was the Fulbright Conference.  Each year it is hosted in a different city in India.  All the Fulbright scholars that are in the country as well as neighboring countries in the Central Asia are invited to attend to share their research, listen, meet and make connections.  I was on a panel of educators to present what I had been working on with NalandaWay.  It was a great opportunity to listen to my colleagues, as well as listen to other researchers present on their subjects.

I felt fortunate to be a part of the whole experience.  Not only were we well taken care of at the hotel, I had a chance to extend my stay and take a printmaking workshop by a master printer.

This is going to be a series of posts, because it was a week long adventure in Jaipur.  It was an extremely interesting place to visit a second time. There were a lot of things I didn’t notice or experience the first time because I was mostly in heavy tourist areas.  This time I ventured out into other parts of the city, had a chance to visit some real neighborhoods and interact more with local people.  I also was able to compare my experiences in India. Having been in South India for two full months before traveling back to Jaipur, I realized that it was a much different place than Chennai.  Jaipur seemed to be a bit more conservative, and there was a clear dividing line between tourists and citizens.  I really  hadn’t experienced that in Chennai, even though it was obvious that I was an outsider.

I was glad I got to observe these kinds of experiences, it made me think about how India is such a diverse place, full of possibilities, challenges, experiences, and cultures.  There is no wrong, there is just different.  It’s hard for me to lump India into just one package now.  There isn’t just one India.  It would be like saying the United States is all the same.  Each region has it’s own special traditions, culture, and attitudes. The more I visited, observed and took part in the daily life, the more I learned about that particular place and myself.

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Amazing view from my window, over to the right is where you would go to see Old Jaipur.
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Roof top party!
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Well appointed room, but later in the week I could hear everything that was happening below it….weddings, parties, turban ceremonies.
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Carved wall in the hotel.
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Strange prints in the elevator.
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Turban wrapping ceremony.  I was engaged in this activity for at least an hour.

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This woman was looking for her “date”.  I saw her come in, look around, and she couldn’t find him in the sea of turbans.

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Hanuman!
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In the lobby area, every evening they had traditional Rajasthani dancers and musicians perform for the patrons. 

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Something is going on down there.
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Last meal in the restaurant.  The staff worked long shifts, we would be down there at any time of day and see the same staff.  This restaurant was called the 24/7 restaurant, and I think it meant that anyone who worked there, also worked that shift.  We were well taken care of.  The staff worked hard.
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It actually stormed!

Chennai Photo Biennale

It’s hard to believe that with all of these posts, I still haven’t gotten into March!  One of the last events I attended in February was the Chennai Photo Biennale.  It was simply one of those things you actually couldn’t avoid.  BUT- Why would you want to!?! There were photo exhibitions all over the city.  Some in galleries, some in restaurants, but many that were out in public.  Many performances and happenings occurred around the city at different times and places.  It really felt electric throughout the city, because you never knew when you would happen upon an exhibit, and when you did, it was always something intriguing, thought provoking, and surreal.

A perfect example of this occurred in my neighborhood.  I lived in the oldest neighborhood in Chennai called Mylapore.  It is known for it’s temples, it’s also considered the center of the city, because everything built up around it.  It’s a very historic part of the city, and I loved being able to walk around and view all temples mixed into the contemporary apartment buildings, old shops and restaurants.  One of the best places in the entire city is actually a park.  Nageswara Rao Park is a large park where people walk, jog, play badminton, have fun on the jungle gym and swings, and of course do yoga.  It’s a lively place.  It got even more livelier when a photo exhibit was placed all around the park.  It was an amazing exhibit, with giant poster sized photos from a group of international photographers.  Their topics focused on a variety of social justice issues which included:  child marriage, race relations, poverty, homelessness, and culture.  The pictures were from around the world.  Not just focusing on India.

I walked through this park most days, but when the exhibit was there, I made sure I passed through it everyday.  One day I saw people taking down the exhibit, and soon it was gone.  The park was still great, but for a while I felt like there was something missing.  Art in public provides a profound experience for those who interact with it.  What an amazing change for this particular community to interact with the photography and also the messages it conveyed.

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