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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The major highlight of being involved with NalandaWay Foundation was being able to attend, observe and help facilitate an arts camp called Kanavu Pattarai (dream workshop). The purpose of the camp is to immerse youth in community building strategies. By using arts based and mindfulness practices, Kanavu Pattarai camps educate and train diverse communities to create responsible children who are expressive and positive in their choices.
Before we arrived at the camp for this session, our group stopped along to visit some other groups at some different schools who had already experienced Kanavu Pattarai in previous sessions. The kids had recalled what they learned, shared with us the art and skits they created during camp. I even got to facilitate some group yoga practices. What a treat!
The best part for me was being able to interact with the kids, and noticing how receptive they were to my presence and trusting me to guide them through some poses. What a warm reception and some stand out, unforgettable moments.
Here is a glimpse of some of the students I met, the schools I visited, and what they shared with us:
Just some snap shots around my friend’s neighborhood. There were some fun shots being taken as I looked down from the roof of their apartment building. It seems like you get even more of a peak at real life when no one things you’re watching. Big thanks to the little boy busting a move on the top of his roof top! But, my roof top is higher then yours!
When moving to India, one of the first things that come to mind is the traffic. You hear stories about how the streets are clogged with all sorts of transportation, inclusive of pedestrians and animals with all the modes that come with them. It’s a barrage of sensations when you take your first ride through traffic. The honking, the jerky movements that ebb and flow with each corner. There is also the passing, the abrupt stops and the very many bumps you hit along the way. It’s a lot to take in. Since I’ve been in Chennai, all I do is ride in autos. That’s my main mode of transportation, except for my feet. It’s not exactly the cheapest way to get around, but it does get me there fast and amazingly safe and comfortably.
I’ve probably ridden in 64 autos. I’ve had the same driver twice. By the time I leave India I could potentially ride in almost 400 different autos. The one thing I’ve picked up on with the drivers is their intensity. It doesn’t matter how they drive the auto. They can be aggressive, assertive, or even relaxed. Anyway you have it, they’re still focused. They have to be. Everyday I come with in centimeters, no millimeters of the person next to me. Sometimes, I think, there is no way he can get out of this one. But he does.
These drivers know their vehicles. They know how much pressure to put on the brake and how much gas to give. I have to tell you, I often get a little nervous for the open road because it’s the pedal to the metal for these guys. They see an open road and all of a sudden you feel the wind whipping through your hair, you’re looking for something to hold on to, you grab tighter to your belonging….. Then you realize- you’re really only going 35 miles an hour. It’s a sense of awe, freedom, and the ultimate thrill ride!
Drivers pay attention here, such minute attention to everything around them , that they’ll call out to someone to “Move over”, or “Watch it”, or ”Put your lights on”. Once I even understood that my driver was telling a driver in a car that his door was open, and another auto driver that he was about to lose his sandal. There are hand signals, there are waves, horn beeps to communicate with other drivers and pedestrians. There’s also a lot of giving directions. Many times I have witnessed a brotherhood of auto drivers actually helping out one another (particularly the younger ones) with directions or maybe explaining which roads to avoid. There is a strong camaraderie, to a certain extent.
Let’s get back to their nerves of steel and being able to adjust and overcome. Not only do massive amounts of drivers know the ins and outs of the different parts of the city, they’re focused on the streets themselves. Just this morning I was noticing the eyes of my auto-driver. His eyes were wide open, awake and focused. He appeared to be very vigilant in watching almost everything that was happening right before him. He knew how to gauge slowing down and when to pass. How does he remain so steadfast and aware? What does he do to train the brain to stay so aware? Driving is a learned skill, but to drive like this is even more specialized.
I’ve met old drivers and young drivers and the things they seem to have in common is the ability to know when and how to adjust their driving. They don’t seem to hold on to near misses and slamming to a screeching halt. They don’t seem to even worry when they are within millimeters of an object or person. It just is. They adjust. They do what they need to do to get me to my location, but they have to be flexible in how they get me there. No one can really predict the quality of the road, the amount of people who are using the roads, or what other obstacles get in the way (cows). He knows he has a job to do, and he will do it.
We can learn a lot from sitting in auto rickshaws. And I’m pretty sure someone has already studied the mindset of an auto driver, but one thing I can tell you, it’s not just know the roads, and being able to maneuver around all the obstacles that get in the way all day and everyday, it’s the focus and intensity they bring to their job. At times they too must feel that they are so in it. Is there a perfect ride for an auto driver? Is there a certain feeling they get from getting some from point A to point B? Or are they not really attached to the outcome? Do they just do what they need to do? Are they focused on the present, and being in the moment?
Either way, I’ve gotten used the auto. No matter what, I usually really enjoy riding in them. Everyday I thank my driver and I’m truly amazed that he navigates his way from where I work to where I live safely and seemingly undisturbed from the experience. Yes, they have a job to do, but I think in a way they are teaching me that you can find challenges everywhere in life, but you always have to adjust and overcome.
It’s been a little difficult to try and make art regularly in Chennai. I’ve moved around to 3 different places since I’ve been here, and it’s only been a month! I have one more move in store, but it coincides with my traveling schedule! How ironic. So, on the weekends, I’ve been trying to use the materials I’ve brought with me to just keep exploring ideas. It’s all about the exploration, and then maybe when I get home, I can use those nuggets to complete other pieces. I haven’t found maps yet, but I just stumbled across some Tamil newspapers and started to cut those up for some “little guys”. But for now, here are the first ones I’ve done.
All the pieces are 6″ x 8″. So tiny, compared to a lot of my other works. BUT- that is what I have time and space for.
I talked a little bit about Auroville last week, but what I really enjoyed was all the street art of Puducherry. It was something unexpected. I didn’t really think I’d see this happening in a touristy place among the colonial era buildings. But there it was, and then I thought, “Yep, the French, they have totally influenced this place.”
This part of Puducherry is almost like being transported to another place. It doesn’t really seem like you’re in South India. You are, and you do realize it, but there is the European influence that makes everything so familiar. There are quaint street cafes, ice cream shops, art shops, clothing shops. Just about everything that any tourist town would have. You also realize you can meander. There isn’t a constant flow of traffic, you can walk almost without any hesitation. Just be mindful of the open sewer drains!
Sorry for no updates recently, it’s been challenging to find the time to sit down and write. It’s funny, one of the last things many people said to me before I embarked on the Fulbright was,” Have a great vacation!”. Let me be clear, this is not a vacation. I’m definitely on a trip, I’m experiencing new things, trying to understand a culture that is not my own, and getting to do some things I wouldn’t normally do. BUT, it is definitely not a vacation. Just ask the immigration office (story to come).
There are many things that make it seem like on a vacation. One of the things is that I kind of live in a hotel. It’s actually called a service apartment. I have my own room and bathroom, but I share the main living space which has a dining room, living room and kitchenette all in one. At times it is quite possible I will share that space with many other people, other times I may be the only one in the space. It’s an interesting concept, and I’m trying to get used to it. Just the other evening I was watching a movie at the dining room table by myself and in walked two people. They had reservations to stay there that night. They were lovely people, and I spent the rest of the night talking to them about Chennai, Kerala, college, working, movies, tv, and Chipotle (the guy’s dream was to go to America and eat Chipotle, I told him that wasn’t such a good idea right now).
I’m glad I get to try it out for a little while. One of the best things about living in a place like this are the “services”. It took a while for me to get those services, but now it’s all finally happening. It does kind of seem like I’m on vacation. I don’t have to clean a lot. The managers of the property are in charge of cleaning the spaces, changing the towels and linens, and basically maintaining the living areas. Get this, they also will do my laundry! They will even bring me breakfast and delivery if I want. So yes, kind of vacation-like.
One of other reasons it may seem like I’m on vacation is because I’m taking a lot of photographs and videos of things that are new to me. Yep, you’ve seen some already. Most of the pictures are of things I see daily n my commute to work (yep work) and walking around my current neighborhood. These objects, people, and places aren’t really common where I live back at home and I’m documenting them. So I guess it may seem like they’re “vacation” pictures.
Oh, another thing that makes it seem like I’m on vacation– I’m totally in another country. Yep, I’m in India. People often go to other countries when they go on vacation.
That’s kind of where it ends. I am working. I have an office space, I commute 2 hours a day (way longer than what I’m used to), and I’m expected to — work. Over the past week I’ve been getting to know the organization. I spent a week learning about the different arts programs they offer and even had a chance to visit some schools and observe their programs in action. It was amazing! It actually made me miss my day job – teaching.
One of the other expectations is that we exchange information. They aren’t only teaching me about their jobs and arts programming, they’re also teaching me about themselves. We’re getting to know each other, we eat lunch together, have tea breaks, share work stuff, and even talk POLITICS. That’s why I’m doing this! I want to know more about the world we live in, I want to understand more about the lives of people so we can find similarities and discuss the differences. One of the best ways to learn something about people and how they live is to just be around people!
It’s been busy. A good busy, and I’m so happy to be here. There are so many things to write about, and I hope I can be better about sharing them here on this platform. Keep checking in, because even though I’m working, I will be making time for blogging.
But let’s be real, you’re only in it for the pictures: