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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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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An arts camp, with the future in mind.

I took thousands of pictures while I was in India on the Fulbright. I carried my camera around with me wherever I went. The one time where I ran out of memory and battery power was the time I spent at the arts camp in Kuppam at the Agastya Foundation. I wanted to record everything I witnessed all the days I was there. The Kanavu Pattarai arts camp was something I wasn’t sure I was going to experience. Fortunately, I did. The experience was something that I will never forget.

This particular Kanavu Pattarai camp is supported by collaboration between the NalandaWay Foundation and the Agastya Foundation. NalandaWay provides the teachers, the curriculum, the resources, and Agastya Foundation provides the space. The camp pulls from near by towns. Both boys and girls, ages 13-16, attended this camp. It was not a residential experience but a day camp for 3 full days.

The first day students were introduced to each other and jumped right in on camp activities. The teachers organized the whole camp, and when there was some spots that needed an activity I filled in with yoga and a quick lesson in making origami cranes. I also participated in a trust exercise, which was really fun for all of us.

All the students were extremely excited to participate. They made a large amount of art in just three days, and presented on topics that were important to them and their school community. It just goes to show you, that when students are given a chance to perform, act, interact, create, make, design, and do—THEY WILL! Most of the students were really into the arts projects and produced a lot of amazing work together.

Collaboration is a big piece of the puzzle for this kind of camp, especially since the goal is to build a community of peers. One of the best parts of the camp for me was when the students were tasked with creating a group song. It was a huge challenge. Many students were very happy doing visual arts, or even making posters, and speaking. BUT singing? That was a big leap for some of them. Many of the students didn’t know what to do, or how they should attempt that particular task. However, there were a few girls who would not give up. While the group took a break from song writing, a couple of girls stayed back to finish the melody and lyrics. They were the only ones in the building, and I don’t think they were even aware that I was paying attention. What I saw was true collaboration, respect for one another, and the desire to come together to accomplish the task. These girls continued working on the song until everyone came back in the room. They shared their lyrics and taught the whole group of students the melody of the song. The other students were amazed, excited and couldn’t wait to be a part of the musical task once again.

As a group they practiced (led by the girls and a few other boys). The way the girls problem solved and helped their fellow peers was amazing. They reached out as a team to put something together that would bring a lot of joy to everyone in the whole entire room.

On a whole, this group exhibited a wide variety of talents and problem solving skills. I thought that this was a strength because they all had a particular way to exhibit that strength. It made the group of 30 kids extremely strong.   Students exhibited a lot of empathy and compassion for each other. Most times when one member of their group was having difficulty another would job in and say,” Maybe we try this?” The students always seemed like they were looking for ways to solve problems, think creatively, use the set limitations to their advantage, think outside the box to use limited art materials in a new way, and most importantly not give up on the project or each other. Only a few students really needed some extra help, but I think it was only because they had never had this much going on at once. Not much exposure to arts, not much exposure to group work and collaboration.

The Kanavu Pattarai camp is much more than a few days for kids to get away from school and have fun. This program is creating ways for kids to build their self-esteem, gain leaderships skills, practice problem solving, and be more self- aware. Without the arts, students are unable to see some the values that already exist within themselves. By providing arts camps, NalandaWay is essentially strengthening the school communities. The students who participate in these camps take everything back with them and share it at their school. They are able to talk about their experiences and show what they accomplished by participating in the camp.

 

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The camp space.
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Student receiving a welcome pin!

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Camp rules.
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Students creating their small group poster.
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Student beginning work on her self portrait with a tiny mirror.
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Decorative self portraits.  Using color and pattern as symbols.
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Students had a lot of discussions with each other for collaborative projects.

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Working on their community poster, discussing issues that are important to them and their community.

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Presenting their community posters to all the other groups.

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Me!  Teaching origami cranes, step by step.

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Uma and I on a tour around Agastya.
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All the camp goers and the teachers.
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The lovely girls who put the song together.
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Traveling to the camp spot.

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Shadow puppets to tell a story.
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Clay figures.

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Trust game– “Crazy taxi”.

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I was delighted to collaborate with NalandaWay on this program. I was able to expand the camp to five days, and add additional components like yoga and mindfulness. The more time we spend providing meaningful programs for youth to connect to each other and their own communities, the stronger we build the future for all of us.

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A peak at what’s around

I had the chance to visit the Kanavu Pattarai camp in Andhra Pradesh.  I was mostly in the very southern tip of that state where Tamil Nadu and Kerala come together.  First we traveled by train, and toured around in a car until we got to Kuppam.  That is where the camp was held.  The landscape was very similar to the southwest.  Dry, arid, blue skies, and puffy clouds.  It felt like a very familiar place.  I loved the Southwest when I lived there, and I really got used to being in this type of environment again.  If felt so familiar.

It was the perfect setting for the camp.  Very quiet, serene, beautiful.  Rambling vistas everywhere to just stare at, and take a very deep breath.  I think students would have no problem feeling inspired to create in this space.  In the morning and evenings it was quite cool.  However, just as you may have guessed, the day time was hot.  You really had to keep up your fluids up here, or else, heat exhaustion.  I loved visiting the Agastya Foundation and staying on their campus for those few days.  It was a great break from the traffic, humidity and people-packed city.  It would have been great to see more of the State itself, but I was happy I got to see  this small corner.

 

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The conductor of the train, wearing  nice jacket, but what you don’t see is the clipboard.  It had a very colorful cartoon character, and a unicorn on it!
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AC.
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Trains fill up fast, sometimes it was standing room only.  Not to mention 3 people to one long bench.
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Everyone has there hustle.  There are people selling everything: toys, jewelry, games, food, snacks, tea.  You name it, you can probably get it.
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Part of one of the schools we visited on our way to Agastya.
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Streets are far less busy here than Chennai.
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Trucks, palms, and mountains.
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Watching the sunset, was lovely.
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Small town we passed through to get to Agastya.  We had some tea and chips.

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We drove far away from the towns and villages to a huge plot of land that is the campus of Agastya Foundation.  We crossed over this big water body and we realized there was a full moon. 
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Outside of our dorm they are building a shrine to Agastya.
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After breakfast we walked the road to the art camp building.
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View from art camp.

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Another view from Art Camp.

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Typical South Indian Cuisine! That big spot is for the rice!
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You can tell it’s hot.

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View from camp.

Spontaneous Performance

When I visited this school, I had no idea that these students were so apt to show their talents.  The students were so eager to show off their dance moves and singing.  We had a whole evening of pre-dinner performances. Many of the students improvised and made up percussion with the objects around them.  These two kids were really quite amazing.  It just goes to show you, that no matter what your background is, your circumstances, art transforms the space.  On first glance many of us may look at the state of the classroom and think nothing can be accomplished in a grey, uninspired room.  Sometimes it just takes a single action to transform the space.  The students who shared their talents that evening made the environment warm, joyful, exciting, and playful.