Category Archives: Bengali

Stranger in a strange land…

I wake up at 5 AM, I’m used to that at Udayan, that’s when the girls awoke and the sound of their morning ministrations and singing was my alarm clock.  I have bags to unpack and I am now very hungry.  Making my way to the kitchen I am confronted with the huge refrigerator and lots of prepared foods – frozen, boxed nothing like what I’ve had for sometime.  In India, marketing is a must each day or things spoil so the luxury of freshly prepared foods is going to a challenge.  I make a note to get over to my organic market today and make some vegetarian dishes for the family.   I am really feeling lost – there is just so much in this kitchen to deal with. The microwave is remarkable to me as is the freezer -all these gadgets – it’s as though I’ve been away for years, not months.

modern conveniences, or kitchen culture shock!

I take Jacques for a walk and notice a can of soda someone has tossed on the ground, it looks so out of place, everything is so quiet, too quiet and so pristine. I scoop to pick it up and throw it out and then it hits me – in Kolkata I never would have done this, there would be too much to clear away!  The streets here look so beautiful, especially after the newly fallen snow. Yet it is lonely, impersonal, there is no sign of life, no people, no music wafting in the air no scent of spices cooking. Unused and overlooked.  The solitude and insular nature of this life is a stark contrast to life in Kolkata. I am missing the daily dialogue and the interest in the life going on around us. You may be walking alone, but you are never alone. The entire city is one family, very communal. Here it is segregated into your job, family; one may be part of the same village but living in a different area is as though you lived in a different part of the state.   In Kolkata it all meshed and in one day whatever you did your world merged  –  many of the same faces appeared, and even strangers reached out to help.  Work, play the daily chores all bring (it seems) the communal nature of life in India into the fore.  I felt like I lived with the whole world, everything was interwoven like the  colorful intricate tapestries they create.

some of the younger gang

a side street in Kolkata

My body is in this world but my mind is split in two worlds.  The constant blare of the TV, invasive and jarring is a reminder of  the lack of natural environment.  In Kolkata, especially at Udayan, I was one with nature and the elements in India, totally immersed in the children, art and the culture. It feels very artificial here – air conditioning and heat   are like barriers- I want to open the window all the time, even in the snow, rain and cold to let life in.  I have all the conveniences, yet it is like living in an Ivory Tower.

My cell phone rings jolting me out of my musings about the nature of my two worlds. It is my sister, just in for a few days from California.  Will I come into New York and meet her for dinner?  Of course I say, I haven’t seen her in 3 months and we always make time for each other, even if it is for just an hour or two.

Waiting for Metro North I observe that no one on the train platform makes eye contact, I see bored, stressed and depressed faces, no smiles, no interaction. Then the train comes rumbling in and the crowd exclaims that it is just “so crowded!” I chuckle to myself, I definitely have a new perspective on little things, having taken the trains in Kolkata, this one seems nearly empty…the fact that there are seats available, that no one is leaning, sitting or sleeping on me – wow- even the bathroom (which I never would have thought of using before my time in India) looks sparkling clean.

As I ride the taxi uptown to my meet my sister I am marveling at how perfect and serene the streets of Madison Avenue look, with buildings gleaming, and how orderly the traffic is . Even though I traveled to and from the same destination while working at Udayan so many times, we couldn’t go a mile without asking for directions on many a street corner. Street signs were not to be counted on and sometimes the only way I knew where I was going was by landmarks – the same fruit stands, or the way a street curved, or the stream beside the road – these were my road signs.

A landmark to the road towards Udayan

Outside New Market in Kolkata

After dinner we walk back to Grand Central together and then we say goodbye, but even though it is only 10 PM  on Saturday night – the height of travel  at the station on a weekend, I ask Cindy to stay with me.  I actually feel unsafe – this place seems sketchy. Cindy is incredulous – “are you serious” she asks.  Yeah, I am and I never felt this way in Kolkata – even though I was traveling alone, I felt safe and at home.

When I am finally seated on the train, I close my eyes while listening to my Bengali music and I can see the faces of the class 10 boys as they sang on the bus, or the beatific face of the musician who gave a concert in Jaipor.

posing at sunset

my musician friend from Jaipor

I must keep the fire burning in my heart with my music and the photographs of the children, so I can bring myself back to the special place I have just left.  And I will continue to write as I did in India and create some of my own collages – after all I’ve had the best teacher, the children of Udayan and their bright smiling souls.

Always ready for the camera!

"my girls" and dorm-mates for two months

These are the greatest teachers I’ve had in my career, and I hope my work will          be as inspired as these are. Namaskar…..



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Life, a painter’s palette…of course the journey continues!

Having returned to the States one week ago, feeling a little out of place, many friends and viewers asked me to continue writing and I can’t argue. In fact, it grounds me to continue this blog, I feel as though I am taking Kolkata, Udayan and the children home with me and then I can close my eyes and feel India, smell the spices, hear the music I so miss.

As an artist and teacher, while working in the art room, I sensed the presence of something very powerful – spiritual electricity I think, inspired by the students and the act of creation.  A creative alliance I suppose, and the feeling of a higher power guiding us all.  And so, I would like to post the photos of the children’s work today, as an introduction to the next phase of my journey.

” Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow” ‘…..The Talmud

Enjoy these, and if you would like, some are still available for purchase.  All proceeds go to the funding of Udayan , a welfare and rehabilitation school for the children of leprosy patients.  And, stay tuned as I continue to write and hopefully return to the path of creativity the children have inspired.




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One last word….

I’ve been packing and seeing friends today as I will leave at 11 PM for the airport. Hanging out in “my” room, I finish the last few uploads of my blog.   Antara comes in to chat and say goodbye and she presents me with a gift – a beautiful choker necklace which I will cherish.  She is my good friend, always there every step of the way on this journey and even before I arrived in India. We had emailed each other for many months about supplies – but more than that, we have laughed and discussed life, politics, just about everything – she is a bundle of special energy and sparks my day each time I see her.   I tearfully say my goodbye to her – I promise I will return as soon as I can.

We are taking photos of Shamlu and me and the staff when Bobo comes bounding out of his room – he knows I’m off to somewhere and that his friend won’t be here to play for a while, so the journey ends as it began, with a large black dog.

Family portrait

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The big event: art show and paparazzi…

before the guests arrive, anticipation

Today is the big day, the newspaper printed another small article as a reminder – we are hoping for a large turnout.  As we finish the final touches having labeled and priced each painting, I go back to the house to dress.  Thank goodness for Meera once again, my hands are shaking and I can’t figure how to wrap the beautiful Kantha sari I’ve chosen to wear. from   Once wrapped properly, she helps me place a bindi on my forehead and then picks out the jewelry to go with the sari. Antara, Archana and Shamlu give a thumbs up of their approval and we are off to the Palladian.

As we arrive I am greeted by my new friend Shalome who is one of the administrators there and he is amazed at my transformation from a racing maniac hanging paintings to a (somewhat) serene woman in Indian dress. He remarks that I look as though I have worn a sari all my life and I must admit I do feel very comfortable.

admiring some of the art with the students

say "cheese"!

the artists and their work

One last check at all the work, a bit of leveling each collage and we are ready for the troops. The children arrive promptly at 5 PM, and they rush to me hugging, kissing and admiring my outfit. Even the boys tell me that “auntie” looks like a “princess” and I laugh.  After they settle down I tell them to look around at all they’ve created and that this exhibit is for them; had they not been such great, talented students we wouldn’t be here having a show.  They are bubbling now with anticipation and I can see how proud they are and it makes my heart fill with joy.  This is the best time – seeing their expressions. I am so happy for them.  We take many pictures and the staff is there to pose with me and the children ask for photos with me as well.

Guest are arriving and I must leave the kids to greet everyone, then the media comes, many more than I expected – TV, magazines and 4 newspapers to cover the event. The children’s eyes are a s big as saucers, they are awestruck.

The journalists and photographers grab me for shots with the kids, on my own, with the work and then they interview me and a few of the students asking about the meaning of their individual collages and what it was like to work in this medium and with me.  Their expressions tell me the whole story and I can’t stop smiling.  One fashion magazine pulls me aside to take photos of my outfit and then I’m grabbed by some more of the media.   This joint is jumping and I see some of the chief guests arrive, it is time to start the opening ceremony. We have speeches and a candle lighting ceremony and Shamlu speaks as do the main guests,  one of whom is a very famous artist. He pronounces the work and the show to be a success and the frenzy begins as the viewers start to purchase the work and ask some of the children to explain the technique and the meaning of their collages.  We sell out of the greeting cards Antara has printed and soon about 12 large works are sold.  I am asked to say a few words which are mostly directed to the children, had it not been for Udayan I wouldn’t have come to India and not have had the great privilege of working with these children. They have made this experience complete and I thank them for that.  I tell them to continue to work in my absence and that a seed has been planted, it must be nurtured by practice and continued creativity.  Then Antara and a few of the Udayan girls perform a special song they’ve practiced for the event. (Antara sings like a songbird and teaches singing with an open heart).

Antara and her choir perform

Our honored guest speaks to the children about their great work

Shamlu makes a welcome speech

Soon it is time for cocktails so the children must leave and we say goodbye tearfully. I promise to come before heading back to the US.  The party now is in full swing and when I’m not being interviewed by the press I am meeting with many who are interested in the how and why and also the specific technique I use.  So many people, so much interest and love in that room.  After it winds down I am finally able to sit and take a breathe. Then  Karuna suggests we go for a small dinner and the party continues. We toast to the continued success of the show as it will be on for 3 days, saying our goodnights and head back to our respective homes. Giddy from the success of the exhibit, we all collapse, happy but exhausted. Someone calls to say the TV has aired the art show and interviews, but I don’t know which station so I don’t get a chance to see it.

presentation of flowers and the opening ceremony


A word of thanks

Thursday morning I am called by the editor of Society Magazine for another phone interview and after a very productive conversation she tells me the magazine will be out in March or the very latest April.  April will mark the one year since I met Shamlu , very auspicious. I think we make a good team.

the girls take a guest on a tour of their work

Today I will shift over to Karuna’s as there is a scheduling conflict with a guest from France – I am to stay at a 110+  Maharaja’s summer palace for the next few nights until I head to Delhi.  This is a rare treat and the palace is grand.  The royalty was “abolished” in 1955 during the fight for independence, though the maharajas were permitted to keep their titles, they had to give up much of their land holdings. In this palace only a small part of this huge, historic building is used for living quarters and the rest is let out for affairs such as weddings. Karuna has invited me to the Oberoi Hotel for yet another fashion show to launch a new energy drink. I am greeted at the door by the organizer of the event and the head of the drink company – we met last night at the art show. Much hugging and kissing occurs and so once again the paparazzi hones in- there are many who were there last night and they recognize me (how could they not – an American in a salwar kameez).  We leave after mingling with many of the people I have come to know during this 7 week stint, we exchange cards and some of the more prominent men have promised me that they will do some networking to get funding for me to return next year. There is no money for art supplies when the children need linens and toothbrushes and other personal hygiene products. Having done my share, we return to the palace and I sleep well having dreams that seem like fairytales.

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The last night, exchanging addresses, more gifts and tears..

our last night hanging out in my room

on top of the world, after cleaning the art room

It is Sunday and I must clean up the art room and organize the materials so that they can be stored and used when there is supervision. The girls come over to work a little more and then to sort out al the ephemera. they are very efficient so we have time to play a few Bengali songs and dance. The room is empty and sad looking – no more colorful papers gracing the laundry lines to dry, no more ribbon and papers piled high, just an empty room with many good memories.

We leave for lunch and bask in the sun. Soon it will be the boys’ turn to wash the floor and clean the bathroom that we have used to wash brushes and palettes.  It currently looks like a Jackson Pollack painting  and that won’t go over well with the staff. After a huge effort , the room is spic and span. The boys then ask for pictures to be taken and to watch some of the pictures I have taken in slide show format. Then I am asked to give them my address and phone numbers, and I give them sheets of paper to list their addresses and names so that we can keep in touch. I want to know if they’ve past their board exam so that they may continue to study at the next level school.  Many of my very best budding artists will not be at Udayan when I return next year, and they make me promise to ask Swapan to call them when I am there so that they may visit on a Sunday. The boys also ask if I will visit their new schools and I of course say yes.

Soma, hamming it up with Tara watching

Off to the girls‘ dorm, I have promised snacks and an afternoon movie on my laptop if they have done their studies.  They claim they have and so we settle down to watch a Hindi movie that I cannot understand except that I think it’s a love story with strange segues of singing and dancing. It is very entertaining, the girls are engrossed in the movie and I am enjoying being with them and watching their expressions. The movie is nearly complete when I am called downstairs by some staff members and they inform me that the girls have not done their studies and must start now. Needless to say I am mortified (way to make a good last impression) and tell the girls to “bus” (stop).  I explain what has happened and speak to them about being upfront with me and anyone else – studies come first and they know that. They are teenagers, but the timing, as it is my last night, was regrettable.

I go off to the room to pack and clean the place for the next volunteer, and dismantle all the garlands and drawings they’ve made for me. I’m working at snails pace, I don’t want to leave them yet I have to.

After dinner the girls come in to have the last of my stash of snacks and to help pack. Some are crying and most are very solemn.  I tell them that they will see me on Wednesday for the opening of the art show, and that I will return if Reverend Stevens will have me.  Teaching at this school has opened my eyes and my heart.  I know I have found my place and can’t imagine not having the privilege of being with these children again.

Everyone has my address and numbers and the girls take papers so they may pass list their contact information.  I play some Hindi and Bengali dance music and we have a little dance party before it is time for bed.

farewell celebration , we finished the big clean up!

last dance

I am walking on the green to get something from the dining hall and my “group”of boys call to me from their dorm to please wait. they are carrying something very gingerly and hand it to me telling me to be very gentle. I open it and it is a three dimensional collage of a church in Kolkata made of found materials and some papers from the art room. I try to get the words out to tell them how precious this is and that I will frame it and cherish it forever, but I can’t without crying. Finally I get a grip and speak with them. They then have a list of their addresses and phone numbers and it’s very long. I am so moved and so sad, I will miss their faces, smiles and their questions, especially when they shout from their windows “auntie, painting class today, oh just one more!”

"My" Urmela

“My kids” have blossomed and I’ve watched this as I’ve watched the garden growing larger each day and the flowers bursting with color. It is nature’s way of showing the passage of time and with that comes the end of the first chapter of my best adventure ever.

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Sunday, last minute fashion show

Even though it is Sunday, usually a relaxed day, it is a busy. I must get all the collages completed with the various students. We have 45 collages now, and three need to be finished. I am battling with the children’s exam schedules and the Hindi and Bengali different study times and exam dates. Between the language and the myriad of schools the children attend it is at times very confusing and hectic.  I am looking forward to a productive day .  I have lots of time for everyone and all my budding artists do come asking for just one more paper, just one more time to do another piece. The kids are insatiable and I am ecstatic about that.  We work efficiently and quietly with Bengali music playing in the background. They are so engrossed in their work I hardly have to help, just an occasional suggestion,  they are very focused, very much in the zone.

Doves in Love

Angels in Flight

Dreamscape by Saddam

It is almost lunchtime and the phone rings. It is Taniele asking if we should go to a fashion event in Kolkata, very dressy, all the major celebrities and musicians will be there along with beautiful fashion and a divine dinner at the Hyatt Regency by poolside. I do want to continue with the students but Shamlu has sweetened the deal with an overnight and an early return to Udayan on Monday. It is too good to pass up so I agree and promise the students that I will give them more time on Monday.

We must pack a few things, hair and nails and all that, then hop on a rickshaw to take us to the train, my first time!

I am glad I’m with Taniele, the station is crowded and very confusing. No one seems to know which track the train to Kolkata will be leaving from so we wait at the top of both staircases. ( actually there are three very fierce, rabid looking dogs blocking the stairs and I have no intention of passing by them). We are the only non Indian riders, so there’s a lot of giggling and stares, though I’m getting used to that now.  The train approaches and it is filled to the gills, I haven’t ever seen a mess like this – Grand Central at rush hour is sleepy compared to this. The train hardly waits, so you must try to find the women’s car and hop on to find a seat. There are none, so I stand along with about 200 women all vying for a space, some sit on top of one another, others cram next to you half of them fall into your lap- then there’s the occasional argument.  About 10 men are soliciting their wares and they are relentless, we are a captive audience and they repeat their promotion incessantly for about 20 minutes. It is wild and deafening.   At each new stop, more solicitors get on and some of the women depart allowing me to sit.  Another man comes on,which is odd as this is a women’s car, he places an electronic box above my head and I assume it is his luggage of some sort. WRONG!  Out of nowhere a blaring karaoke song starts playing and he sings away for another 40 minutes. I may go mad and I think I need a tylenol.

Being on the train is a great way to see unknown parts of Kolkata, not just the shops and museums, but rural areas with tents, small homes and shacks of aluminum with their laundry hanging- mundane Sunday chores, and the diversity of the landscape.  With all the noise and commotion I am still very grateful to have this time to take in another experience.  Arriving at the station, pushed and pulled by the throngs of people, to me it seems like total chaos.  We step over bodies sleeping, beggars are in abundance and everyone is walking over them and no one seems to mind, this is part of daily life.  Our railroad car was the size of a bathroom on Metro North, but with three times the passengers.  We decide to take a taxi to the house and have to haggle with 4 different drivers before finding a prepaid taxi.  Dressing quickly I am wearing a sari from Shamlu’s collection and some of the jewelry I bought during my stay.  Meera wraps me , thank goodness or I would surely unravel as I walked – not a pretty site. The affair is in full swing and the poolside garden is filled with paparazzi and glitterati.   There is a famous cricket player, Sourav Ganguly; a renowned artist named Wasim Kapoor and a nationally known actress Juhis Chalawla who will model.  Actors Kiren Kher, and Arjun Rampal are there as well.   We have VIP seats and walk about before the show starts with drinks and fantastic food and networking.  As the fashion show gets underway Taniele and I are drooling, each and every item is more beautiful then the last and we want all of them.  There is an auction at the end as this is a fundraiser for “Dream for Life” a charity for people who are “diffabled” with blindness.  The items go for more than one can imagine, some more than 10 times most people make in one year!  After this we are stuffed and make our way to the car for a good night’s sleep. Taniele says I do NOT snore, as we are sharing the room, so I must admonish my children when I return home to the States. We have a delicious breakfast at Shamlu’s house – a little break from the usual at the school, then we are off to Udayan in the very early hours with no traffic;  taking a taxi instead of the train.  It is quiet, just the goat herders returning from grazing.

We are greeted by the waiting children as though we were gone for a week, not an overnight, and I am actually very happy to be “home”.

welcome home hugs

Later in the morning I start more boys who hadn’t the opportunity to paint before, along with the “crowd” of artists who can’t seem to get enough time to create – they want to have music and art time.  It is lunch time and the kids don’t want to leave, but I shoo them to the dining hall and they return in record time to complete what they’ve started.  At 4:30 it is time to leave but the kids beg me for more time, resulting in staying 2 hours longer, they are so intent on their work. Sikandar and Happy have done 2 collages each and are very promising, so they get a private lesson in drawing with  charcoal and shami cloth,  gum erasers and after just 30 minutes of demonstrating and practice they produce  work that looks like they’ve been in art school for years. Astounding.

The other boys are gathered outside the art room as I lock up to help me carry my knapsack ant to just talk about exams, art questions and just to chat. We have a laugh and spend quite a while before the mosquitoes start their feeding frenzy. We call it a night and tell each other we will meet again in the morning.  I head off to the girls dorm.

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Fish is dead, “no it’s just sleeping”….

Under the sea, by Sikandra

one of the collages created today

When I first arrived at Udayan, I was taken with the fact that there was a fish tank in the girls dorm complete with many fish, decorations and a filter system. I found that interesting as all of India conserves water very seriously and electricity is scarce at times.  My room has a toilet and a bucket. One is to fill the bucket with warm (if you’re lucky) water and then use another small jug to scoop the water and pour it onto your body. It can be tricky at first, especially if you try to wash your hair.  After a few days I got the hang of it and it actually is a great way to save water though you can freeze in between scoops.  (We Westerners can learn a thing or two from this to help with global conservation).

I wondered who fed the fish and cleaned the tank since water was so scarce.  Each day I would look at the tank hoping that I wouldn’t have to face the worst and was happily rewarded with live, swimming fish.  I make a mental note to ask about the cleaning and feeding, but never remember. I just salute them each morning and go about my business.

Today there is to be another picnic, a church and it’s members from Kolkata will arrive.  I get ready for a marathon day of many students coming in to complete or start their collages.  We are working hard when there is a loud commotion outside and the kids pull me out to see what’s up, leaving the studio and my computer behind. I can’t believe my eyes, Saraswati Puja is over and the boys are doing the ritual ceremony of carting the statue around with incense and banging drums and gongs, they are dancing and chanting, basically have a grand time getting really rowdy. You are supposed to take all the offerings and throw them into the Ganges, but since that’s too far, they bring her to the “pool”  – which was a pool but now has fish in it and is rather like a pond. All the offerings are thrown in, then the boys jump in with all their clothes on, along with everything they can find, including any unsuspecting people.  The kids ask auntie to come a little closer, but I’m wise to this game and have no intention of swimming with my clothes on. The church group has arrived at the school, this time with a caterer for a their picnic. There is music and delicious food for the guests, who watch in amazement as these boys go nuts with their singing and boisterous behavior.  Back to the studio we must go, until it is lunch time. No one wants to leave the scene before us, the boys are  getting rowdier and louder jumping and splashing. The girls join in too, it’s a riot.

getting rowdy after the ending puja ceremony

I leave with a small procession of children following me to the art room. We must be quite a site, like a mother duck and her ducklings. We are working, zoned out again, when a man appears and wishes to talk with me. He is one of the church members  but was curious to see where we were going. He admires the children’s work, asked many questions, including if he and some of the others could purchase the collages. I explained about the exhibit, and he asked to be invited, providing me with his address and asking for my name. 20 minutes later, Taniele has called to ask that I come immediately to the picnic area. I have been asked (rather ordered) to join them and have a meal (now this is my third meal of the day and it’s 3 PM).  This is a very interesting group of older men and women, very kind and genuinely interested in Udayan and the children and my work. I sit for a few minutes, they are watching me eat every morsel (of course with my hand as tradition dictates), I cannot say no as they continue to pile on food and sweets. This is really good food, though I wish one of the Udayan dogs could sereptisiously eat some of the food left on my plate so I won’t insult the group. I  must get back to the art room as I have left the kids there, unattended, with my computer on. I’ve told them  NOT TO TOUCH THE COMPUTER or there will be a very angry not so funny auntie to deal with. They are working like angels when I arrive.

We finish, exhausted but happy, to find the finals of the cricket match going strong, so I stay to watch India win. Then off to the room for the shower I didn’t have this morning as there was no water. I enter the building and as usual, check out the tank.

OH NOOOOO, there’s a large fish hugging the side of the tank. I call for the housemother saying, fish is dead!  She says no, it’s sleeping. She bangs on the tank, as do I, now we are both banging with keys and my lock for the door. The fish doesn’t move.  Later, after feeling upset and taking my shower, I reappear to check on the situation. The fish has now moved downstream to the other end of that same wall of the tank, still hugging the wall with it’s mouth agape and looking very dead. Once again, I ask the house mother and she once again says, fish not dead, “see moved to other side”.   I’m thinking, yeah, it moved with the current but the darn thing is not alive. I know a dead fish when I see one, unpleasant as it is.   There is nothing I can do,  so I sigh and go for a walk around the grounds, return to the room and watch one episode of my downloaded 30 Rock.  Then I fall asleep and I swear I have a dream about swimming. I awaken in the early morning and my covers are off, I have definitely been swimming in my sleep.

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