Friday, April 18, 2008

Taj Mahal

On the way back from Rajasthan (post to come) we boarded a sleeper bus for a twelve hour ride from Udaipur to Agra. We figured this was a good idea. Two beds, a giant window, and all night to sleep. Smooth sailing. This works well on trains. But buses don't ride on smooth iron tracks. They ride on bumpy roads. So, all night we were tossed and flopped around in our beds like two fish in a frying pan.

In Agra, we payed the hefty fees and entered the Taj Mahal the most lavish monument ever built for love. It is the mausoleum of the Emperor Shahjahan's second wife. To my surprise it lived up to its famed beauty and I felt I could sit on a bench gazing at it until the sunset turned it pink. Though if we sat for too long we were inevitably approached by adolescent boys or young Indian women who unabashedly asked for photographs with Emma.

Right now I'm back in Woodstock and Emma's in Taiwan where she's traveling with Utheatre a drumming troop that is currently doing a walking tour of Taiwan. She's probably brimming with blog posts right now so I won't give too much away. Although our travels together are over there's still many more stories to come. She has one more India post on our stay in Rajasthan, from where we have many stories about a man with elfin ear hair, Rajasthani puppets, and gypsy dancers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Land of Kings

Three of Emma’s toes on her right foot and two on her left are covered in blood blisters and the ball of her foot has a giant second-degree burn. She shyly admits to the other barefoot dancers that the ground was hot and rough; we were in a desert after all. The other dancers and musicians insist that she return to the earthen dance floor so that the late arriving gypsy daughter can see her dance. But Emma insists that the music be slower this time so she won’t have to spin as much. “Dire, dire,” she says. “Okay, Okay, dire,” responds the father of the clan. The musicians, dancers and myself are seated on a rug in front of a fake “traditional rajasthani home” in Shilpgram a sort of historical reenactment village except the model mud village isn’t historical but modern and there were no people reenacting or acting anything traditional. When we arrived to this ghost town we ordered lunch and swung on the rickety swing set while the unhired guides napped in the shade of an awning near the mud ticketbooth.
On the mat I’m seated next to the mother. While the others are distracted playing their instruments and watching Emma who is trying to restrict the amount of her twirling lest her overripe blisters pop, the mother sneaks a few drags from a cigarette she had hidden in her black head scarf
We weren’t always sitting on their performance mat. Before Emma got her blisters we were walking through the empty village and I spotted the traditional dancers who also spotted us. The mother smiled and stopped to ask if we wanted to see them perform and I quickly told her, “Yeh danser hai (Emma’s a dancer)” “Then she will also perform,” she said.
We sat on the dirt and watched the mother perform. Her dance was beautiful however it was lacking the organic joy of folk dance. As we noted throughout our travels in Rajasthan most of the dances we saw that week in performance halls and museums were folk dances and weren’t made for the stage. The dances were created for the liveliness of festivals, ceremonies and weddings. As a result there was always an element of joy missing from the performances. This was mostly the case here at Shilpgram until they discovered Emma was a dancer. In that exchange I think they rekindled their pride in their dance because we weren’t tourists who were only taking. We were giving too. After the mother danced we were invited to sit on the rug and then Emma danced and got her blisters.
In Emma’s second dance, after each of her ballet inspired contortions the gypsy daughter looks over at me with an open jaw as if to say “Did you see that?!.” When Emma finishes she limps to sit beside me and now it’s the daughter’s turn. The men play and she shows us her moves. The mother is now smoking in secrecy ten feet behind everyone. The daughter twirls, which causes her richly embroidered black and red dress to fly outwards into a disc shape. The two and three year old children dance offbeat on the side. Then her father puts a folded hundred rupee bill on the ground and the daughter goes into a back bend and picks up the bill with her mouth. I think that is our cue to do the same.

After this we speak in a mixture of Hindi, English and mime to talk about dance and one another’s culture. We find out that they are part of the Kalveli caste and they call themselves gypsies which was more than apparent in their dancing, a relative to Flamenco. After that they encourage us to visit them in their real home and we buy one of their cds for a special “artists’ price.” We say goodbye and I give Emma a galloping piggyback ride to the waiting autorickshaw so her blistered feet can take a rest.

Our last adventure was to Udaipur, Rajasthan, desert land of kings and colors. We arrived just in time for the Mewar festival where every night processions of beautifully dressed women carry idols down to the river, hoping for good husbands (and cursing the bad, and the men singing about missing their women who have gone down to the river and all sorts of man-woman love and angst is celebrated). We landed right in the middle of it and finally got those requisite Indian photos of women and young girls in colorful sarees. But as Emma appropriately observed the Rajasthani outfit is not a saree but a skirt-scarf combination draped over the head; it was her favorite outfit and she bought a skirt in the style. Though, the old Himalayan mountain women who were tied up in wool blankets and draped in their huge silver jewelry were pretty impressive too. It's a tough call. So here are a series of pictures from our last stint in India. We went horsebackriding, saw many performances and attended festival events. We even found an impressive puppet store and a puppeteer to take a few lessons from.

Puppet Stage draped in puppets

Men performing a traditional folk dance in which they move in a woven pattern and bang sticks with their partner to the rhythm of a drum. Performed in front of the temple.

Young girls making offerings to Parvati and Shiva to ensure good husbands.

Women dancing at the ghats of the Lake.


Monday, April 7, 2008

The Mountain Life

Emma joined Ariel in the mountains about 3 weeks ago we think and we've been too busy enjoying ourselves to write, but here are some images of the past few weeks' adventures.

Testing the famed slingshot (known for its conquering of mountain dragons) which she deemed very worthy of its praise.

A day's hike brought us to the town of Devgram only accessible by foot. Here we made a field trip to the town's series of mills, in each one finding a new clue to their function until finally we found this one where a man was collecting the flour and answered as best he could our many questions finally giving Ariel the opportunity to work his Hindi knowledge beyond "how much?"

When our host learned that Emma dances he formally requested that she perform. Of course organiing such venture was a little more complicated, but once the word got out,things finally came together one night on the neighbor's rooftop where he blasted mountain music from his single speaker (of which he was very proud). The best part was getting the children to join in the dance which they did, eventually, every last one of them emerging from their wallflowers buds with beaming faces.
The WallflowersWe set back on the trail to Dumak but lost the trail and right when the thunderstorms started to roll in, Emma yelled, "Ariel! There's people!" We stopped to listen and followed the sawing noises in the rhodedendron forest to two men their fire and their timber. They laughed and took us back to the trail a good km away where we encountered some snow and our soon to be travelling companions for the remaining seven km of the day's trek.
We picked up a guide in the village of Dumak and spent the night at Tholi where Ariel stands in front of its Alpine lake (above). Villagers take their goats and buffalo to graze in the lush fields here. We spent the night in a stone shepherds hut, abandoned for the season.

This is Ariel.

Before truly resting in the stone cold comfort at Tholi, we hiked up to the top of the mountain to have lunch. Here we were especially grateful for our guide as the path was completely obscured by snow for some stretches. The way back down, using our coats as sleds was a much faster trip.

With our guide, Manoj in the morning at Tholi before hiking down the other side of the mountain and back to the world of shared jeeps, plastic bags, and roadside fried food.

There is so much to tell and we've just given a taste but please ask us for more in depth stories in person and you can be sure we will happily expound in detail.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Emma Performs in Kerala

How it all began
It all started really on the first day we arrived at Natanakairali. I begrudgingly admit that I was given fair warning. Venuji had said that the condition for studying there as a foreigner was to give a presentation of some kind, a small performance "very casual" he assured me. Ok, I say with great apprehension. It seems a fair enough exchange but I was completely unprepared to give any kind of performance. But after that first mention the subject is left aside and I foolishly decide not to worry about it too much. Every once in a while though, Venuji will drop it back into a conversation in my presence "Yes it was a good show, next will be Emma." Since he had gotten it in is head that I do mime I decide that the 20 movements I learned at the Lecoq school in Paris would be the most appropriate, most interesting to Venuji. I offer the suggestion and he seems fine with it "yes, yes, anything you want" I explain that it is just an exercise, that I do not have the means here for a full performance of any kind "no problem, it is just to show something." Ok, so I am relieved. 20 movements, no problem, I know them well I'll just practice once a day every day between now and the show. But wait, now he wants a picture and a short biography to send to the press. The PRESS?! Woah, woah, woah. Of course! He is insistent, this is serious. I explain that the 20 movements are just 10 minutes, very short, more of a demonstration than a performance. At last he understands but is not dissuaded- I must simply perform more. The show will be next week. I tap my resources, searcing what I know for what I can put together in a short time and present to an audience curious to see my culture, what I do, whre I come from, how it is different from and similar to theirs. We agree I will perform a monologue from Shakespeare, the 20 movements, and also a solo dance (which I will prepare in the next week). Suddenly my days are stuffed. In all my previously spare time (of whihc I admittedly had quite a bit) I now work on my upcoming showing.
Unwarranted Fame
Two days before the show my picture appears in the major malayalam newspaper (I've saved the clipping but don't know the details of what the announcement says). That same day one of my Mohiniyattam classmates has invited me back to her house to taste some of the succulent mangoes in her yard. Her mother is very kind, asking what I do, where I'm from. Then Sandra, my classmate decides the best way to show her mother who I am is to bring her the newspaper turned to the page with my picture. There is suddenly a new light in her eyes when she looks at me. Then her father arrives and before he is even in the door the mother is showing him the paper, looking between me and it and I hear them say several times "american, american." I stand by bashfully. Oh my goodness, this is really not what it appears. I am just me, I swear, I am only here to learn and to eat mangoes with your daughter, I am not anyone famous or important. Still, he insists on driving me to my afternoon errands and returning me by car to Natanakairali. His kindness is sincere but I am still embarassed by the newspaper.
Don't the floors look fresh?
So it is at last the day of the show. I have been told there has been a lot of response to the announcement, that many people are planning to come, including 3 actors from Trivandrum which is 6 hours away. No pressure.
So I am going to spend the day in preparation. I go to the performance pavilion to rehearse and am met by an unusual surprise. In the center of the floor where the chairs will be set for the audience there is a heaping pile of fresh cow dung...
Hm. I cannot imagine what it is doing there. And of all the days for it to serve its purpose (whatever that may be) this seems an odd one to choose. Still, I have grown quite used to going with the flow and I make no exception today. I begin to rehearse surrounded by the distinct barn smell. Then one of the servant women comes in with a hand broom and a bucket of water and, under my Teacher's initial directions and to my great wonder, begins to carefully spread the pile out over the floor, meticulously coating every inch of it.
Aha. I remain bewildered until lunch when I take a break. I am sitting outside having my meal and talking with Kapila, the daughter of the house and a performer herself when she asks me "Don't the floors look fresh?" Well,I think to myself, that's one way to say it. But I don't think we are imagining the word "fresh" in the same way. She notices my hesitation. "You don't like the smell, do you?" Well, no it's not that, it smells like a barn, which is fine, it's just, um, Why? She explains that it is antibacterial, that all the traditional floors are treated in this way to kill germs. I am loving it but she misinterprets. "You don't like it?" No no it's just unexpected, a little unusual, how do I say this? For me, to clean a floor by spreading shit all over it is just, well, it's just..."crazy" she offers. Yes. Exactly. It's just crazy. But there you go. Now I have a greater appreciation of the straw sitting mats.
The Show
Went very well in the end. There were maybe 20 or more people there. Mostly men, who seem to regularly make up the majority of audiences here, but I was happy to see one of my dance friends (12 year old Parvati) and the cook Suchata and Ammama and a few other women from outside. I filled a full 40 minutes for Venuji and was presented at the end with a brass plate depicting Shiva, god of dance and a copy of Venuji's book on Kuttiyattam. At the end of the show I offered to speak with anyone who had questions about my training or approach to theater. With this news I was quickly brought a chair at the front of the house and everyone stayed for a post-show discussion, accompanied by cookies and bananas. This discussion turned out to be really fascinating and a highlight of my time here. The questions were observant and sincere, provoking me to discover answers I did not know I had.

Ah, but now I am in Delhi and must run to catch a train to Mussorie. But there is more to come on this. Next up a puppet show and a TV appearance, then a performance in a small rural town where I unintentionally get an agent for my next trip to Kerala.
so, to be continued...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Language, Langurs, Luke

This is the sunset from my front porch. I’m in Landour, in the state of Uttarakhand. I’ve been taking Hindi lessons at an altitude of 7,000 feet at the Landour Language School. So, hopefully by the end of my four weeks here I’ll be equipped to talk to most people in Northern India especially those Emma and I will be meeting on our treks. I didn’t think I’d find myself in school after just graduating but here I am racking my brain with three language classes a day. However, I’m finding the joys and difficulties of learning a new language to be quite refreshing.

The Professor
As I stated above I’m staying at a mountain top apartment with views of the Himalayan range and the city of Mussoorie. It was freezing when I first arrived so once the sun went down I went to bed (about 7:30). It’s getting much warmer now. I’m renting from Professor Uniyal (who we call the Professor) and his Ethiopian wife, Emu, who showed me that protecting the compound from the Langurs (tribe of large white monkeys) was necessary to protect springtime plums and a well landscaped complex. The dogs can't reach the Langurs in the trees so Emu throws rocks at them while the Professor shoots at them with his BB gun. Feeling the duty to protect the precious leaves of the plum trees and the flowering plants that the Langurs relish, I was inspired and made a slingshot with my 16 year-old neighbor Luke. We found some Y-shaped sticks and started whittling. Then, following the design that Lelo (my grandfather) taught me I used inner tube, leather, dental floss and rubber hose from the bazaar. So well made is this slingshot that since its construction the Langurs haven’t returned and I haven’t even had to use it yet. (Though I really don't want to hit one of them I just needed an excuse to make a slingshot.)
Tea Time at the School
The Language School is run out of a church and was founded almost a hundred years ago to teach missionaries Hindi. Consequently, many of the students here are Christians. I've gotten quite close to my American neighbors Luke and his father Jeff, who teaches at a Ministry School in West Bengal and deals in gemstones. So, I invited Luke to go on a hike with me to the top of Flag Hill, the tallest mountain I could see in the hazy distance. With some rough directions and weak Hindi we headed for the peak. We cut through rhododendron forests and small villages. We scrambled over limestone cliffs where I searched and found one fossil. I even found a spring time offering of cowdung figurines and harvested grains near the mountaintop.


Along the way we mostly talked about religion and politics the two subjects not to be brought up at a bar. But we were hiking so it made for some great conversation especially since we disagreed on both these subjects. We covered all the bases: creationism, evolution (I'm a geologist), abortion, taxes, God, equal rights, Hinduism, Christianity. I found it fascinating that two Americans who purportedly come from the same culture had two irreconcilable belief systems; mine based on science and experimentation and his based on faith in God and Jesus Christ. Nonetheless we got along great and the hike was unforgettable as we reached the peak eight hours after leaving the Professor's compound. Our legs were dead on the way back and it was getting dark so we caught a couple shared jeeps for the thirteen kilometer return trip home.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Small occurences

Since Ariel left I have had to work much harder to occupy my time, as I find the members of the household actually holed up inside all day and my primary company is of the household staff who are all wonderful but speak no english. The good news is my desperation has led to some wonderful experiences. So in no particular order I give you a smattering of observations in episode, list and photograph format ending with a short story of which I am for some reason particularly fond. And on a sidenote, I herewith provide my backing to Ariel's last post on Kutiyattam- I have nothing to contradict (though still much to learn).

1. Preparing for a Mohiniyattam performance at the temple to celebrate a makeup artist's 50 yeas contribution to the field, my young classmates fret over their hair and costumes. One by one they are transformed from giggly adolescents to shining young conveyors of the gods' stories. I was aching to take pictures of their preparations but decided better to try and be helpful than to make them more nervous (they didn't want their picture taken until they felt presentable). Backstage before the show they go to Teacher one by one to be blessed by her and give her an offering of leaves, fruit, and rupees. These 2 girls fastening their ankle bells are 2 of the eldest and self-proclaimed "BEST friends."

And this one of a young kathakali performer after finishing his makeup backstage.

2. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am in India. I don't know how I could forget it, but the realization sometimes slips out of its sunken spot. So I stop to note the things around me: purple banana flowers. hard-packed dirt paths. falling-apart asphalt roads , bindis bindis bindis, plastic furniture, communist flags, houses painted absurdly bright colors, green mangoes ripening on the trees, yellow cashew fruit falling with the cashew nut attached as if dripping out the bottom, people bobbling their heads in affirmation and pop songs blasting out of the auto shop across the way, girls in otherwise austere school uniforms wear neon pink bows in their hair, goats and cows wander and rummage along the roadside outside of town, and everywhere I go I am asked "which country? which country?"

3. Modes of transport gets its own section: musical trucks decorated personally by their drivers with bright paints, bells, tassles and figures of the gods. cars that play tunes for the benefit of passers-by whenever they are put into reverse. elephants carrying huge palm fronds in their tusks and a single rider on their backs leaving heaping piles of what they don't use for energy in the road. motorcycles carrying the entire family of four with the women sitting side-saddle. in the same theme, autorickshaws packed with what appears to be the entire second grade class of a school, sitting on the driver's lap and spilling out the sides. bicycles with a wagon attached to the front to wheel around one's goods. and of course the simplest transport of one's own barefeet.

4. Rice is not just rice: As I learned the other day in a primarily gesticular conversation with Sugiata, the house's primary helper. While we have one word for rice (be it in the field, raw, cooked, whatever) malayalam has a different word for each of it's many possible states. Pointing to the raw grains scattered about the kitchen surfaces, she says "ari." I repeat, ok. Then "cooked," (she knows this word) I have understood is "choru." But if it's cooked with water still in it, not drained (much pointing to water, "velum," a strainer, a pot, the rice again) it is called somethign else, and when growing (she points to the field, I mime plants growing, she pulls down a back of unshucked grain from the top shelf) the word is soemthing like "neyli." This is how most of our conversations go. But with them my food vocabulary is the fastest growing bit in my small malayalam repertoire and I am learning to cook some of the local dishes, which so far all contain rice in some form.

5. Some extra pictures:

Me in front of the Hotel where Ariel and I were staying. Dad asked to see a picture of me in a sari so here it is. We went to see a Kathakali show this night. Mostly though I wear a "punjabi dress" which is loose pants and a long tunic shirt with a scarf (worn in any number of modest , figure hiding ways)

To give you an idea of the school, this is one of the 2 main practice/performance spaces. I have Kuttiyatam class here and often practice on my own here in the open air under the palm-leaf roof. In this picture we are watching an old story teller recite the first of 41 days of this story of which he is the sole remaining keeper. Venuji is recording all 41 days to preserve the story. Unfortunately it is all in Malayalam and the gestures are very minimalistic so while he is a fascinating presence I can't really follow any of the action.

6. Athapilly Waterfalls I went for the day to get away and relished every moment. my camera died so I have no pictures of the falls themselves, but I can assure they were majestic from all angles (because I saw them all). The slightly overbearing forest guide pointed out to me the cave to the right of the falls where a swami lived for 2 years until followers started to come to the cave by the hundreds and he decided to leave. I was also shown at the top of the falls how the rock arcs across the falls looking uncannily like an elephant's trunk (the ear and eye also clearly apparent) and told that because of this particular shaping of the rock over so many years people often come here to worship the elephant god, Ganapathi. I was happiest though, away from the , walking up the river alone. There I saw 2 men living quietly by the side of the river as if their sole purpose was to watch their solar panel gather light and occasionally cross the river for visits by way of their bamboo raft. I was also happy to meet a peaceful monkey family who accepted my company as I took some pictures and watched their movements through their home of clustered bamboo trees leaning out over the water. I watched the baby climb carefully down a vine to drink from the river without getting himself wet. And I got very close to one of the adults who patiently let me photograph her. I was very impressed until I stopped to look in my bag and apparently this is when an adult decided I had stayed long enough and with a gentle growl came much closer than my comfort allowed and quickly escorted me to the edge of the territory where I was allowed to continue on again at my own not-being-chased-by-monkey pace.

7. Shaktan Palace and Gardens Another day trip to the only appealing tourist spot I could find in the nearby town of Thrissur. But it turned out to be really quite worth it. I saw ancient stone Buddhas, and realized I had never really known the extent of greek and chinese influence in India from centuries ago. I wandered through the strange romantic gardens. And then I went into town and lazed in a small shop where the old no-english shopkeeper and I squatted side by side playing with the handmade wooden toys as he showed me silently, but for laughter, how they worked. It was delightful.

8. Ammame (grandmother) She sits at the table with her task: a large plate of tiny purple onions to peel. She searches for her waist without looking, to tuck in the end of her white cotton sari. She shakes. She peels the onions. Sugiata puts a bowl of warm milk beside her on the table and goes to get some greens from somewhere in the yard. Old Amma puts some peeled onions in the milk. I am puzzled. When I spread the table cloth she mumbled to me in malayalam and indicated I should first shake it out. The indication was perhaps involuntary but that's the part I understood. Now she thinks I understand malayalam. So she points to her bowl of milk with the onions and tells me what to do with it, but of course I have no idea. Take it away? Get another bowl? Is it to cook? What does one do with peeled onions in warm milk? Finally she gets up herself and starts to leave the outdoor dining platform carrying the onion milk in her shaky hands on her unsure footing. What do I do? Should I stop her? Will she fall? Sugiata comes to the rescue. With a little scolding, she gently escorts Ammame back to her chair and spoons the onions out of the milk. Ammame, safely seated proceeds now to drink the onionless milk with a spoon as she was originally intended to do. All the while gently muttering things I don't understand. Sugiata smiles at me. We made it.

Monday, February 25, 2008


In the last update I really didn't feel like I gave Kutiyattam the justice it deserves. So if you missed the last update then scroll down and read my section on Kutiyattam (the second paragraph after the second picture) before reading this entry. Also, I decided to go North and am in Delhi now. Tomorrow I'll be in Mussoorie in the Himalayas where I've enrolled in a Hindi Language school. Emma and I will reunite in Kerala in three weeks. Okay, more on Kutiyattam.

Kutiyattam means "acting together." And is performed by men and women (men play the male roles and women play the female roles). It is a ritualistic theatre. Its intended audience are devotees and its stories are from the hindu myths and epics. Kutiyattam is essentially an elaborate prayer and act of devotion. It has traditionally been performed inside temples though today anyone willing to pay can have a Kutiyattam performance. It is a kuladharma which is a hereditary artform. That is, it is passed down through families (0ver 2,000 years of families). Traditionally only people belonging to the Chakyar caste and some other castes that I disremember could perform Kutiyattam. These families were highly regarded within their community. They were given farmland and provided for by the temple and king. But when the British came to India this support system for the artists was dismantled as taxes went to the British and rarely made it back to the people. Also, the subsequent social reforms enacted by Kerala's post-British communist government further reduced the practicing artists income by splitting up their land. Thus in 1980 when the only practicing Chakyar was beginning to get old, Natanakairali stepped in to ensure that the tradition continued. But this meant that non-Chakyars had to be trained which took lots of convincing because the master was reluctant to break tradition.

Nangiar Koothu is Kutiyattam's sister form, the women's solo dance theatre. I don't know as much about it but it's very similar to Kutiyattam in dance, gestures, and instruments. The story is different. Nangiar Koothu tells the story of Sreekrishna charitham. Instruments, so there aren't only actors in a kutiyattam performance but also Mizhavu players, chime players and an edakka player (not sure what this is). The Mizhavu is a brass, egg-shaped drum that adds to the dramatic tension of the Kutiyattam performance. The mizhavu players set the mood for much of the performance since the actors gestures are so limited and hard to interpret (at least for me). The chime player also recites the slokas on behalf of the characters. Okay, that's all I got for now without risking a lie because I don't have any books nor Emma to back me up on any of the facts. At least now, after completing this entry, I can sleep a little better tonight.