Friday, February 19, 2010
I begin by collecting the images with my camera, then later I write --- trying to from a narrative of the images. They’re up on my flickr site (http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurachessin/sets/72157623389649004/). The following is part one of a post about one day’s adventure. Even this has been heavily edited.
Jayesh the owner of an “outdoor adventure” outfit and I connected early Friday morning to plan our trip on Saturday, agreeing to meet at 7 am for a two hour drive outside the city, a 20k (which is really just a made up figure to suggest “casual” bike ride out into the country) then a drive into the mountains and perhaps a hike, if time. After a full breakfast at my hotel, Jaresh drove us out a wide highway busy with commercial traffic, and an occasional bull-driven cart through dry, dusty fields lined with piles of rubble and a massive water conduit. A twenty foot high geyser exploded from a significant break in the pipe. I wondered when/how would they be able to stop the leak.
The highway narrowed onto a bridge over a shallow river along dry mud banks. I noticed women kneeling by the water, doing a washing as we sped by at 50 miles an hour. Jaresh pointed out an ancient Hindu fort on the far side of the river. As the road narrowed to two lanes. We entered a congested settlement: cars, autorickshaws, motorcyles, and pedestrians crowding the road and vendors clustered along the side of the road. Wooden-construction carts and tables in shacks, with plastic or corrugated metal roofs offered for sale mounds of bananas and grapes, household goods, and clothing as we sped through the city. As we drove out of the city into the dusty landscape, the acrid smell of smoke and diesel fumes irritated my eyes. Jaresh explained that slash and burn agriculture was common there. The air receding into the distance was hazy from smog or smoke, or both.
As we climbed into the hills, Jayesh provided some explanation of the development of Hinduism, Janism and Buddhism. The earth we were traveling over was certainly not any older than the earth in Virginia but in my imagination the human history made the land seem ancient. In the US we have almost been successful at severing a connection to the history of our ancient cultural heritage. The colonists may have built up Bombay, (now renamed with the Hindu word, Mumbai), but it’s hard to imagine how much influence they had in these rural regions.
We pulled into the parking lot at a roadside restaurant. Jaresh wanted a bite to eat but I preferred to walk, explore, photograph. The image of the boy inside the tire ( I think he was cleaning it out) was taken at a small repair shop beside the restaurant. Behind the restaurant stood an unpainted concrete temple. I was reminded to remove my shoes before entering. A dog sat on the cold stone floor and regarded me placidly. It stood up and walked closer to me for inspection, then posed regally. As I photographed to record the many statues and icons, Jaresh joined me in the temple after his meal and explained some of the basic story lines of Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Ganesha, and the Monkey God.
We drove on for another hour or so, comfortably chatting, past dry fields and an occasional small temple— a single room maybe ten feet square— painted in bright pinks, yellows, greens…etc. Often a distinctive dark pink mottled patina faded by scorching suns and driving monsoons. The air cleared some and I could make out on the horizon the outline of a rugged mountain range. Late morning Jayesh pulled off the road and parked beside a concrete structure where we would begin our bike ride. We started out down a narrow paved country room, through fields rollig through small settlements. A few individuals passed on local bikes, motorcycles, small trucks, and women in saris on foot often with a pail balanced on their head. We stopped to escape the midday sun in the shade of an intersection. Before we long we had attracted a small crowd of children, women, a family the father neatly dressed as if to go to work in the city. I’m sorry I didn’t ask Jayesh about this but my attention was drawn to the figure of a man wearing a white t-shirt, turban, and a wrap to cover his groin, making his way toward us on bamboo-thin legs, collecting sticks piled on the side of the road. I couldn’t imagine his response to the my presence: a figure with pale skin in t-shirt and pants holding a camera. I couldn’t say whether I even registered him with at all, much less as a woman. I’d seen such images in books, movies, in the news. I tried not to point my camera, indiscreet as it is, at him. I wanted to record, and tell and understand but I was afraid of violating basic respect.
Now that we’d covered some distance on our bikes, I was more eager to stop and explore. “What’s that?” I asked as we passed a gated chicken farm. I asked to stop. Jayesh led the way inside the courtyard as a young man came out to inspect our bikes leaning against the sign. A bright orange bag hung from the gate. “A coconut”, they explained, “for good fortune”. I recalled the gesture of the worshiper at the Jain temple: cracking a coconut in half and providing an offering to the deity he was honoring. Jayesh reached into a basket of dried roots, and snapped one open a to reveal the a brilliant orange flesh of tumeric. The color appeared everywhere: the clothing of the worshipers in the Jane temple, marigolds and fabrics draped around the statues, dotting the feet of the statues inside the temple, and in the secular world, painted on the door to the upper school building where we would later have lunch.
Back on the road, we were passed by an ox-drawn cart carrying two men in white garments, with white head coverings. Women in saris walked alongside. A truck passed in the opposite direction packed with men, spilling out the back, dressed in work clothes.
A hundred or so yards down a dirt road I noted a structure that looked like a haystack on stilts. “Jayesh”, I called out again, “can we stop?” We parked our bikes along wide path leading to a pink-paint washed concrete home. On either side of the path stood what looked to be a stand of tree trunks, bark removed, limbed out evenly at about eight feet, with an open space below a gumdrop-shaped mound of hay. “For the cattle”, I was told, both the store of hay and the space below for them to gather. Two women in bright saris stood outside under a shade roof observing us. One came forward and invited us into the barn a hundred yards down the path. Inside a man was bringing water to a calf tethered to a smooth tree trunk stretched a couple feet off the ground and lashed between two trunks. The trunk and the supports it rested on were stripped of bark and polished to a smooth sheen, perhaps from decades (or centuries?) of use. “Cow” the woman said. I smiled. This area saw an occasional English-speaking treker. After an animated conversation in Marathi with laughs and gestures to the distant ridgeline, Jayesh turned to me to explain the memorable story of trekers getting lost and somehow eventually finding their way down through this farm.
Through the barn I could see a pile of bricks with smoke pouring out around it. I asked if we could explore and Jayesh agreed to walk over to investigate, relaying an invitation into the home on our way back. We walked over past the smoking stack of drying bricks and watched as one man scooped clay up and smoothed it into a double mold, as another man emptied the bricks to dry in the sun, returning the empty mold to the be filled and picking up a newly-filled one. Like my instinct—when I’m near a body of clean water on a hot day—to be inside water, I picked up a chunk from some discarded clumps and formed a marble-sized ball in my hand, explaining to Jayesh it was for my boy. He translated this and one of the young men standing around reached down and pulled out a large handful of wet clay, formed a grapefruit-sized ball and handed that to me.
We headed back across the field where and gathered with our hosts and a few children curiously observing us on a patio constructed of bamboo supports and hay roof. Over the main entry way hung a knitted “welcome” sign. They brought us cucumbers just off the vine, tasting much like a slightly more subtle and tangy version of our own. Jeyesh obligingly peeled the skin off when I expressed my concerns about eating anything that may have been washed with water. The woman who had initially greeted us gestured for us to enter. The room was clean and cool with narrow bands of light providing enough sunlight to see clearly the ornate carving on the teak entryway into the next room. I can’t remember for sure now: was there a television inside this first room? I’m not sure I read it correctly: was that a poster of kittens affixed to the wall in the corner. I wish I had asked for the name of the woman in a bright green sari who was so kind and proud to show me her home.
She took us through each room, explaining that each of three brothers had both a bedroom and kitchen. In her kitchen what looked like dahl was simmering in a small cast iron pot. She pulled wood chips from a basket and presented these to me, demonstrating how she would drop them in a shallow pit and place the pot over that. Both she and Jayesh lit small kerosense lamps to show me what the had to used for light after sundown. We went through each room and out into the back garden. I didn’t know how to express gratitude for such generosity. We smiled at each other a lot. She allowed me to take her photograph. I wish I had thought to bring something to leave. But my guide didn’t seem to think that necessary. Was it a gift to be a visitor? This is where I felt a significant cultural difference: in the attitude toward strangers and the privacy of ones home. It would be unthinkable to invite a stranger into my home and give a tour of my pantry, my stove, my bedroom and bathroom. Her sharing her life with me, and now ofcourse with you, raises all sorts of questions about privacy and open-ness: what she shared with me, what I share with you.
Friday, February 5, 2010
It’s very hard for me to find the language to talk about today’s pilgrimage to the Kanheri Caves carved high up into the cliffs by Buddhist monks three thousand years ago as a resting, dwelling, and meditation space. “Viharas”, they are called. Abodes. I hope to return with my son Henry when he is old enough. He asked me if I would some day take him to India. I was stunned --- awe-stunned?---by the profound and sublime experience of sitting on a rock bed in a cell carved by monks three thousand years ago. I lay down on the cools rock in the dark recess and thought, “Somebody slept here two thousand years ago”. What a gift it would be to bring him here and share this.
I was accompanied by a sensitive, kind and wise a professional guide suggested to me by a young woman I met at the conference. Thank you Hema for negotiating the complicated arrangements of transportation into the Sanjay Gandhi Park. They take security seriously here, restricting automobile access to only approved drivers and vehicles. Our driver brought us to the gate and handed us over to the driver inside the gates who drove us a short way to the gates of a Jain temple. After removing shoes we climbed the cool marble steps to a plaza leading to three towering figures central to Jain worship. We sat for a bit on a stone bench lining the plaza (is that the right term?) I need to research the religion and practices and terminology to understand more of what I saw. I didn’t want to take notes as Hema was talking to me. First, because I knew I wouldn’t let her get past a sentence without me breaking in to ask her repeat a term, spell and explaining it. Second, I enjoyed sitting next to her and just listening and trying to comprehend. She provided some basic orientation to the religion, which sparked me to understand more about this tradition which shares many fundamental aspects (although perhaps with varying attitudes) with Buddhism: the precepts, non-harming, samsara, karma, non-harming. I warmed to her subtlety (and wit) when she offered both historical and personal perspective. She led us through the loggia (what else would you call an open hallway?) lining the courtyard, past a couple of worshipers decorating a shrine at the entrance with marigold petals and a coconut the man cracked open with a vigorous slam on the edge of a step.
We rejoined our driver and continued a few km past small clusters of homes: aboriginal tribes were allowed to maintain their existence inside the boundaries of the park. On the way out I stopped to take pictures of the paintings on the exterior of one home. This is posted on my flickr page along with images of the caves.
The Indian government moved to protect the caves—109 in all—placing the site under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India. This protects the site but it also allowed them to install such tourist accommodations as a paved walkway, entrance fee both, concession stand, toilets, benches…etc. Monkeys picked bugs off of each other on the low wall lining the paved path up to the gate, looking at me menacing if I got too close with me camera. Hema and I marveled at the newborn suckling its mother. Then another female jumped up and put her arms over the baby, nibbling on the little pink almost-hairless belly. Hema thought it might be a grandma. I thought another nurturing woman for this newborn. I thought of my own baby. Maybe another reason why I felt a strong desire to return some day with Henry.
We climbed the steps up into the first cave. Buddha statues lined the walls surrounding a round structure, the name of which I need to research. Hema used this term several times, but I didn’t write it down. On one side a pattern of carved Buddhas told the story of samsara (the endless cycle of birth and re-birth). I climbed up the ramp under an overhang from a recess carved perhaps 15 feet deep and forty feet wide. Inside this recess were several rooms, maybe ten by five feet, with a stone platform bed just wide enough for me to lie comfortably, with a little extra room at my head and feet. Hema patiently waited for me outside. I heard her phone ring. “Oh good,” I thought, “She won’t mind if I stay here a few minutes more. I would have stayed as long as I could until my bones hurt if I weren’t self-conscious about someone waiting outside for me, as much as she seemed comfortable with whatever I needed to do. I would say I fret needlessly about how I’m impacting others.
We climbed up to other caves. I left Hema to climb up to another level of caves. The carved stair just kept climbing from one small cluster or caves to another. I didn’t want to stray to far. The rock was slippery. We continued on to a huge cavernous meditation chamber with a barrel vaulted ceiling thirty feet over our heads. We tried to chant into the space to hear the powerful acoustics but couldn’t compete with boisterous groups of kids, posing for pictures and shouting. We had one quick opportunity. Hema led, I followed her chant as out two voices echoed. “There needs to be many more” she noted. I tired to imagine the space filled with voices chanting in unison. Two thousand years ago. What did they look like? What did they wear?
Who were these people? Are they somehow with us now?
I’m like to post this and get a good night sleep and outside my window the raucous fair outside my window continues. Were the monks this exuberant? This vibrant?
Vibrations. A lot of today has been about that. When I called home, Henry played some cello for me over the phone. Then we listened to YoYo Ma playing a Bach piece together. Music on Don's laptop. My calling from Skype to the other side of the planet. Isn't that bizarre?
Wednesday, February 3, 2010
Many many images. A lot on flickr.
Call to prayer outside my hotel before the sun. Then another. A swim in a pool with no right angles that I could see, other than the tiles. 40m? something unexpected after a thousands of 25m/25ft laps.
About Getting There
A cab ride to the IIT, (India Institute of Technology), inching along with the traffic around the perimeter road. Horns honking continuously from all directions, and all sorts of vehicles. A 3k trip (I thought I could walk it: it’s good I didn’t.) locked in a chain with buses, trucks: auto-rickshaws and motorcycles weaving boldly in and out of any perceived hesitation or gap. A few pedestrians (a woman in a sari, a young very slender man in work clothes) crossing in front/behind my cab. Lots of horns. And the part that made me laugh (beyond just the hilarious blend of sounds) was that the horns clearly weren’t signaling for anyone to watch out, or to gain any ground. It seemed more just habit, like taking your shoes off before entering a temple, or nodding to a stranger. My driver laughed too.
We turned off into the gates of the Institute and stopped at the security checkpoint. The guard wanted to know if I had with me any electronics—camera… (he gestured “and so forth”). I presented my Leica but that didn’t interest him. I have no idea why: either his interest or his lack of interest. He was so pleasant about this exchange. That too delighted me. (Tight security at the hotel as well: sniffing dogs, and guards opening doors and peering under the hood at the entry gate, bags run through a screener, and the wand scan (women have a discreet curtained area just inside the first set of doors).
At the introductory session, our host cited the chaos of Mumbai. I don't really see the chaos but I have the very rare position of not needing to, really, be anywhere or do anything. What for locals can be chaotic and difficult is to me today fascinating, unique, and hilarious. Will I feel this way tomorrow? After a week? Like that pool where I thought I was swimming straight ahead but with the undulating outer walls, and the patterns on the tile bottom, I ended up someplace different at the end of every lap. It entertainment: sitting in traffic and watching and listening.
About the Conference
Lovely. Relaxed. Inspired. Kind. Warm. Inspiring. Did I say “lovely”? My students can tell you if I use that word too much. But honestly, the people I’ve met have been generous and open and the presenters have been, by and large, inspired and inspiring.
The name of the conference—Designing For Children—led me to expect primarily the point of view of doing something FOR children. Designing projects, or spaces, or tools. None of the presentations took this point of view. With one exception (not surprisingly, from Sesame Street India) each presentation showed some aspect of co-construction. Without exception, each presenter demonstrated some aspect of the enormous power children display: for narrative; for drawing as a highly flexible tool (for imagination, communication, illustration); for a desire to work through social conflicts; for ingenuity, resourcefulness, and courage. The message, as I see it, is that we as adults are learning about our own potential and limitations (constructed over decades of life experiences and our own now-outdated education) just as children are engaged in what comes naturally to them: Growing and learning.
Some os the Presenters
The Engine Room, a project through the London College of Printing seems to have successfully taken on a city-wide initiative to introduce some of the core ideas of Reggio Emilia that I will speak about: dialogic process, building good citizenry, engaging multiple languages, listening deeply to the narrative of each child for patterns and symbols. Jinan Kumbham, a self-titled design activist seemed to despair at our ability to recognize the exceptional power of children, yet each presentation before and after him did just that. I hope he recognizes that it is time to reconsider what he perceives to be he prevailing view. He showed some remarkable images of the activities of children in rural areas—in his words “indigenous” children—with very limited resources, and no access to formal education. Children displaying extraordinary (even by the standards of this group) ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness. “If your aesthetic sense is not yours”, he announced, “You are no longer you”.
Others to mention: D. McCannon and her projects ith children constructing “allegorical narratives” and “spacial metaphors”, exploring narrative and symbolic language through drawings. Nina Sabnani linking narrative work with children to her study of the art of the traveling storyteller indigenous to Rajasthan, who carries with him an elaborately constructed and illustrated “portable shrine”. She cited storytelling as a tool to work out social relationships, something we see as primary with young children. As if they are profoundly inclined to seek connection. And Kevin Todd’s work with a group of teenagers to design a mural for an exterior wall of their school. He claims he was dismayed at a certain point in the process when he perceived it to be stalled. Yet I when asked him more about this, he noted that negotiation was perhaps even more significant than the actual designed thing for the mural itself was an expression of the students’ shared vision.
Common Themes, which I’ll Cite Tomorrow:
Dialogue, narrative as social negotiation; design as negotiation; design and civics, flexibility of roles and outcomes; multiple languages; children creating their own frameworks and boundaries; adults as co-constructors: learning, documenting, interpreting, and “making sense” along side the children who are also “making sense”.
One more note: the images above are of women separating out the petals of marigolds to make a design on the pavement. The woman drawing is marking out the borders of each color of petal.
That’s all for tonight about that. One more thing which defies words. My Flip cannot record the sound of what sounds like the driving beat of a dozen drums, which may be drums or it may be the amusement park rides of a festival in the shanty neighborhood 34 floors below. Imagine a never-ending drum solo by Keith Moon punctuated by car horns and the lights of a ferris wheel,tilta-whirl, and the fairway. Imagine looking down 250 feet to the spectacle below with crowds moving about in large clusters. Then amplify that. That is an image of Mumbai I cannot capture.