Category Archives: commuity

Field trip!

all dressed up and ready to go

some sights along the way to Kolkata

Have camera, will shoot...what else to do in traffic?

Today is a concert in Kolkata at Saint John’s Church, Father James Stevens is to sing , and is accompanied by some very talented young pianists and violinists as well as many of the children of Udayan. We are to board the school bus at 4 pm sharp, and I am ready.  In the early morning, Swapan had asked me to help build and patina a donation box to be brought with us. It is a mad dash to get the thing built properly and antique it with my stash of supplies. The lettering is off though, so I harness one of the graduate students who is visiting to make it perfect, but he isn’t quite finished and we literally run to the bus with the paint still wet.

No one is on board the bus, everyone is standing and having tea even though it is 4:30. Then we are asked to take our seats, with much switching and walking over each other we do get all into the bus, only to be told that we must disembark to allow for the donation box and several collage placards depicting the life at Udayan.  Those are squeezed in and then we are told to board again, climbing over the large collages and finally, after one hour, we are on our way.  A field trip in India!!  This is to be fun, then 2 of the students vomit and we haven’t gotten 2 miles down the road. Everyone is nonplussed as this apparently happens all the time and we continue on. It is a very different experience than the train or the taxi and the children are so excited pointing out all the landmark, they are jumping out of their seats.

The children and Father Stevens

Arriving at the church a little early, we again go through the process of getting the box and the kids and collages off the bus and head inside to set up.

I am instructed by Father to comb all the girls hair, so we march into a tiny bathroom and do assembly line makeovers. Once finished the program begins, we take our seats and Father takes the podium to say a blessing and read a few announcements. I am very surprised to hear my name and and a blurb about me and the work I am doing as well as an invitation to the congregation to attend the art exhibit on the 10th.

Then the music begins and I am once again amazed  – Father Stevens has a golden voice and it is a magical event.  The children join in for the last 2 song and the we are then on our way back to the bus with great ministrations once again.

Father Stevens has a glorious voice!

Traffic!  so much so that we are hardly moving and it is now 8:30 PM.  No one has eaten dinner. As we are stuck on a street with many vendors, Swapan and I hop off to find various food for the children and for the staff. We load up on sweets, samosas, some sort of vegetarian patties and fish cakes. I had vowed never to eat street food, but this vow is broken the minute I smell the wonderful aroma of the goodies.

Satisfied, some of the kids fall sleep but I am sitting in the front with 4 of the boys and they entertain me with the most beautiful voices all singing Bengali songs. this continues for the rest of the ride and time passes quickly. We end the mini concert with Jingle Bells, don’t ask me why, and we all join in.

Arriving at 11 PM at the school, I lead the girls back to the dorm and oversee them getting ready for bed. They are angels tonight and I retire and fall asleep quickly.  Tomorrow is my last day and night  and I want to get an early start to clean the art room, pack and then have quality time with all the children.Fi

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Filed under commuity, music, the children

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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Filed under art, art students, Bengali, commuity, India social life, student painted paper collages, Uncategorized

Back to Kolkata..more paint, (Auntie get us red – lal- and more glue)

Leaving Udayan after the Republic Day ceremonies, I head for Kolkata to get some more papers, paint and matte medium which is our glue.  Shamlu is waiting with wonderful food and Meera is there with her beatific face and warm heart.  Shamlu has some plans she must tend to and I am left with Bobo, a blossoming garden and quiet. I take advantage of the peace to write in the blog and return emails and meditate. Wow, I have neglected my meditation, always on the go at the school and it centers me, I am in a good state of mind.

Republic day ceremonies

Accomplishing a lot, Meera comes in almost without a sound and gently asks me to eat some dinner. I relish this time without the hustle and bustle of the social life here in Kolkata and as much as I am missing the children of Udayan, I am happy for the solitude. Bobo and I play for half an hour in the lush gardens in back of Shamlu’s house, then I come in, he’s tired me out and I am ready to settle down with a book I’ve been reading- “The Camel Knows the Way” by Lorna Kelly.  She worked as a volunteer here in Kolkata in 1981 under the tutelage  of Mother Teresa.  It’s a very interesting book and I’m glad to recognize some of her haunts that are still here and thriving.

Victoria memorial

One of Shamlu’s friends, Shukti, calls to invite me to spend tomorrow with her.   She wants to show me the Victoria Memorial, the Writers Building and then off to New Market, one of the oldest markets in Kolkata. There, everything is under one roof and you can get anything from saris and jewelry household items and linens. It is remarkable and overwhelming. Turning corner after corner you could spend an entire year’s salary here and Shukti knows all the best places. We go to one store where she has a relationship with the owner.  He shows me his hand made Pashmina scarves, one side silk, the other pashmina. So beautiful, I choose 3 as gifts.  Then there are boxes hand crafted by artisans working with crushed gems stones. Each one is different so you must scrutinize the design to find the most perfect piece.  After I feel like I can’t imagine purchasing another thing, he asks about the jewelry in the cases before us. I hone in on a pendant and choker and the shopkeeper then shows me the matching earrings and ring.  What to do!  Shukti tells me not to worry, she haggles for me and I do make out like a bandit.   She is a remarkable woman who is here to visit her elderly mother having grown up in Kolkata.  She is now living in Wayne, New Jersey so we are neighbors. I like her very much – she is forthright , genuine and very fun to be with. We share a little about ourselves and discover that we have a lot in common, including a love of music. So, the next stop is to find the CDs Shukti bought yesterday and misplaced them. We first go off to Flury’s, a bake shop that is 100 years old and was mentioned in the book I am reading. It is a wonderland of delicacies including Indian pastries and croissants, not to mention the chocolate treats that are so enticing. You could gain weight just looking at them. I buy a few treats for Shamlu and off we go to search for the missing music.  Ending up at Musicworld, she finds them , but I have now wandered off in search of the CD that is currently playing in the store. 5 CDs later, Shukit pulls me out of the shop before I break the bank. I can’t help it, the Bengali music is hypnotic and I love to work in the studio to music. I find a CD the girls will love and another for the Udayan boys. I will give them to the school when I leave to return home.  It is s small gift for the wondrous experience they have given me.  Then I have business to tend to, there is an opening at the Palladian Lounge, the venue for our upcoming exhibition, and I want to see how they have hung the work and priced each piece. I must also approve the invitations and make sure the information about me and the students is correct.  As I am meeting with them, some of the dignitaries I have met once before say hello as if I am an old friend. We discuss the show, and then get down to the business of logistics for my show.  As a meal is served (I am stuffed) I meet the wife of the French General Counsel and we chat away about France, cheese and wine, and Provence where my mother has her summer home. She is a lovely person, knowledgeable and so open, it’s nice to speak a little French with her.

New Market

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We end up at Shukti’s home for a quick bite of dinner, of course it is delicious, and then I’m “home” at Shamlu’s. She is waiting for me and we spend the rest of the evening chatting and laughing and I teach her a few things about editing photographs on the Mac.  Both of us say goodnight at 2 AM, we’ve talked so much. Shamlu is a great conversationalist and very funny.

Thursday comes, I’ve had some weird dreams and am surprised I’ve slept past 7 AM.  I start off by Skyping home and say hi to the kids and Rick, Meera walks in looking at me like I’m nuts – I’m talking to a computer and she comes over to see if there’s a picture and there’s none. I try to explain that I’m talking to the family, so she says “namaskar” and the children say hello back. She leaves the room laughing.   Antara and crew come in for the day’s work, and we do some work on the publicity end of the show and for the sake of fundraising for the school. They ask for the photographs I’ve taken of Udayan and then ask for a blurb to be written by me. I spend much of the day writing, and we all end up eating the goodies from Flury’s and chatting, it’s like hanging out with my girlfriends. I show them some of the things I’ve bought and they like most of them.  Antara is laughing, her eyes wide as she looks at one of the kameezes I have purchased – it is one of my favorites, definitely a little funky.  Shamlu HATES the kameez I’ve bought from a local designer, though I say it’s the artist side of me that likes it, the embroidery and design are unique.

So, here I am once again writing away, then we are off to a dinner with friends I’ve met before and a newscaster and his wife.  Socializing here is business and pleasure and I must do my part for the art show and for my passion – the children of Udayan.

It is Friday and I’m supposed to go back to Udayan, but before I return Antara and I have an appointment along the way to a frame shop that is supposed to be top notch.   I love being with her, she has been my guide, my friend and the “go to ” person every step of the way – teaching me Bengali, listening and gently offering advice when needed.  The children adore her at the school, she is on premises quite often, teaching and guiding the girls, what a natural!

After 5 attempts to find this place, way out in the far reaches of Kolkata, we enter iron gates that lead to a deserted street. I think this has to be a mistake until a guard comes up and directs us to another tunneled dark street with nothing  but what looks to be garages.  There we see the sign for the shop, it is a warehouse.  This shop frames for most of the major hotels, museums and galleries. I walk in and feel right at home. It smells like my frame shop in New York and everyone is working diligently.  Looking at the frames on display, I know we are in the best of hands.  We are escorted to the master framer’s  office and are served tea, then we get down to the technical aspects of framing a collage – acid free paper, hinged mounting and a simple but elegant frame. Satisfied, we say goodbye and are once again off to my final destination, Udayan. As we round the winding congested streets, I try to absorb everything from the character of the crazy streets to the shacks along the way – women in saris, rickshaws, people selling fruit, doing their laundry, children playing and bathing, even brushing their teeth.

I know this will be my last time this year going towards Barrackpore.  I will leave the school on the 8th of February to hang the show.  I will see the children only at the art exhibit, not at the school. It will also be the last time Antara and I share this trip together and I will miss her company so much.

As we enter the school loaded with paint and paper, glue and clothing that friends here have collected for the children the kids scream “auntie, auntie you’re here you’re here !”

I savor this, they brighten my day and then there are hugs and hand holding and curiosity about what is in the huge bag.  They don’t ask for chocolates, they are just happy that I’m back and all of them ask when their painting class will be scheduled.  I have class in the afternoon until 6 PM , the students finish 4 more spectacular collages.

I retire early as Saturday will be a full day, a big push to start more of the school in the art room, and some of the young artists who had almost finished but then had exams. We are to complete these pieces so that they can go to the framer on Monday.  I say a goodbye to the work, it will be framed and sold – I will only have the photographs and my memories to visit them again. It is an accomplishment, but difficult to part with.

The kids are amazing – they finish 4 more large collages and we call it quits.  More of “my kids” are gathered outside the art room door and greet me with “good evening auntie”. I tell them about the moon which is to be full and the largest most spectacular full moon this year too. We stare at the sky and are silent. There is a breeze, the scent of the flowers in the garden in full bloom, birds are chirping and the resident puppies have come out to play.  This truly is a beautiful place, I know I’ll mss it very much.

After the group goes off to play before dinner, the older boys are waiting to tell me about the exams and talk about art and their girlfriends. They laugh and joke with me, speaking half Bengali, half Hindi and I chime in with a mixture of both and mostly English.  This has become a routine after I finish class, they are usually waiting to hang out a bit. I so enjoy them. We say goodbye, they must study and I’m off to my room to catch up on my writing and have a cup of tea.  I feel serene and fulfilled.

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Filed under commuity, India social life, music, Photography

Saraswati Puja, kite flying and a night of dancing under the stars…..

the beginning of the ceremony for Saraswati Puja, the goddess of learning

in front of the alter with marigold petals to make an offering

At another school alter for Saraswati Puja

I am awake, have my makeup on and am dressed only in my petticoat and blouz, waiting for the girls to come help with the sari. the task seems daunting, I cannot fathom how these young girls and women dress so quickly in this endless ribbon of pattern and amazing color.  to me it’s like putting a giant origami on oneself, not an easy task.

7:30 on the dot knock on the door, it is Taniele with all of her things, we are to dress in my room.   Then another knock, actually several, and we have 21 girls in my tiny room, equipped with jewelry, nail polish, bindi – the decoration worn between the eyes (little paste on jewels), safety pins and extra makeup. The girls are ecstatic and ready to dress us. I feel like a giant Barbie doll, playing dress up with these dorm friends. They stand on my bed, all of them, dressing Taniele and me in tandem. There is some argument as to who is correct in their pleating of the saris, I just hope that whatever happens it doesn’t fall off. the air is full of giddy excitement as we begin to emerge as Indian princesses. The girls are checking me out, insisting I put on more eye makeup and lipstick, very critical of which color I choose. Then the search for jewelry is on, they like my earrings but insist I must wear a necklace and a million bangles.  Bothe of us look in the mirror and are shocked to see ourselves outfitted as though we were truly Indian woman.  Hair is combed and re combed, pins and sparkles added then removed then an upsweep of the hair and finally down again with a matching pink clip in my hair.

Now the room is filled with about 50 girls, and the housemother who comes to make sure we won’t end up unraveling as we walk. She makes a few adjustments and then takes a picture.

The girls are now dressed in their colorful saris, and we start a processional to the dining hall to have breakfast before the ceremony begins.   The headmasters and the boys do a double take at this parade of beauties. They smile shyly as they see us, the “aunties‘ all dressed up. Everyone is saying “beautiful, beautiful!” in Bengali, we wave and continue towards the alter.  A colorful and ornate statue of Saraswati, covered with garlands of marigolds and other flowers has been mounted on an alter of bamboo and sticks, there are plates of food, fruit, incense is burning and clay pots contain more incense to wave as the priest says his prayers. Marigold petals are handed out to each of us, Taniele and I seem to have more than the others. We are ushered ahead to the front so that we may have a great view of the ceremony. Bells are ringing, gongs are banged and we recite the prayer to this goddess of learning. Books have been put into the alter as a symbol of learning and offerings are piled up as well. It is gorgeous and colorful, complete with saris of every color of the rainbow and girls looking like beautiful dolls.

flying high

Father Stevens arrives and the service begins, we recite the blessings and then there is a pause while we all throw the first of three batches of marigolds into the alter. We are covered with flower petals. Taniele is asked to wave the incense around all of our heads, and  am given the bell to ring while walking around the alter and children. It is a blessing. Lastly, we are sprinkled with water from the Ganges River as a blessing for the year of learning. It is a remarkable service and I am taken with the seriousness of these boys and girls. Learning to them is a blessing and they are thankful to God for this opportunity to expand their horizons.

Now for the good stuff…Taniele and I are to walk through the village with this pageant of 50 girls to go to each of their schools for a special meal and to show off all of our clothes.  As we pass through our local village, the people stare, wave and yell comments about how we look. Men stare as do teenage boys, the girls warn me to not look them in the eye – “they are very rude auntie, very bad”.  Even the women of the village look at us with wide eyes, it’s as though we are from another planet, maybe we are.    The girls are also very proud of their aunties, dressed beautifully thanks to their expertise. They introduce us to teachers and friends who stare and ask to have their pictures taken with us. We are asked a million questions – where are we from, how many children do I have, everyone is touching the bracelets and my hair and the sari, which is neon magenta and stands out like a huge flower.  We have a wonderful meal and  soon it is time to leave for the next school. We now we have about 75 girls in our group, friends and others having joined our entourage. As we head for another school (some are Hindi, some Bengali) we run into some of the Udayan boys who join us with their friends. We are 100 strong and I think we must be a site to be seen.  The boys’ friends ask if they may take my picture, and of course I say yes, though I am a little embarrassed.  Arriving at the next school we are once again surrounded with young girls, so gorgeous with their hair, jewels and best saris with many of the same greetings and questions. I take pictures and are photographed as well. We are then ushered into another dining hall to meet the teachers and have a meal. I am stuffed but may not say no as it is impolite to refuse food. We eat with our right hand, no utensils are used, we must eat the traditional way which I am learning fast. Once again, goodbyes are said and we go to yet another school, another meal – you get the picture. We have more than 120 students in our conga line at this point and as we pass another school which no one is attending, we are urged to come in and see the facilities, and again asked or forced to sit down to another meal. I look at Taniele and our eyes meet saying silently that we are going to burst!   Then, Saddam, one of my art students and a great guy asks us to see his school. we have been walking now for about 5 hours, but everyone says yes, so off we go. ANOTHER MEAL.  I don’t know what to say. I’m just grateful that the sari hides many things – like a bulging stomach.

We are finally heading back through the winding streets of Barrackpore to Udayan. Children with kites are everywhere.  I take a picture while walking backwards to just get the enormity of the group across in a photo. Once again we pass at least 50 Saraswati figures and alters and multicolored ribbons hanging from grass alters and huts to worship this goddess.  Men are still shouting from the rooftops, at this point I am wilting so I don’t care. I just would like to sit down and wash my feet!

our group is getting larger here at the second school

As we enter the gates of our school, more children are waiting to see us, and we say good evening then hurry back to the room to undress as quickly as possible. the hell with traditional dress, I put on a pair of jeans and shirt, tie my hair up and feel one hundred pounds lighter. It is dinner time, I have no intention of eating another thing for at least 2 days.  The boys have started playing some dance music and are whooping it up , so I stay to watch. Pretty soon I am asked to dance and end up dancing like a maniac, trying to follow the dance steps of these boys who happen to be the best dancers I’ve seen in a while.  American boys, watch out!  These guys know how to party.  I run off to get my computer from the room, I have a movie function and then video tape them as we all dance. 50 minutes later, the battery dies and I’ve got an hour of movies of our dance fest on record. I will edit it and burn a CD to send to them when I return to the States.  The stars are out, it is a clear night, everyone is smiling and laughing, I’ve danced with all the boys, even the little 4 year olds, who can dance up a storm.  They would be a big hit on “Dancing with the Stars”.   I’ve had the time of my life and will never forget this day.

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Filed under celebrations, commuity, India, the children

Untapped Genius and a Bora Hanaman

One of the first completed collages

These kids are awesome!

Just give them your time and some paint...magic!

It is Saturday and I am pressed for time. I need to get enough collages finished so they can be framed. I lost a day yesterday as I fell ill and couldn’t get out of bed. Still sick, I went to the art room to teach anyway. Would rather feel miserable but working with the kids than feel miserable in my tiny room.

We started at 8 AM  with 11 of some of the most talented students who have demonstrated an understanding of my technique as well as passion for the work. The room was silent, everyone was in the “zone’ and I put on some Hindi music to keep the pace going. Within 3 hours, 4 of my students had completed an entire collage!  Not once did they ask for help, as I had been concentrating on making rounds to the ones who needed a little push, some guidance, I was shocked when they called me over to show me the completed collages.   As awful as I felt physically, I was euphoric !  Lunch came ad went, no one wanted to leave the art room, so we continue to pull a painting marathon. It wasn’t until the light has gone that we realized we had worked all day without a break, and that we were almost missing dinner. These students stayed to spotlessly clean the room, and we all left together, our passion solidifying our friendship. I felt complete.  There is quite a bit of untapped genius here – these children would be in  elite art schools if they were from any other place in the world. I am determined to keep pushing them, hoping that when I return next year many will have graduated and possibly be on there way to schools for the arts.

The "artist's colony" hangout in the art room

Since the start of the school Olympics, there were cricket matches each day and today was no exception. As I exited the art studio the match was still on  – these passionate students, so sensitive and quiet while working in my art room were intense as cricket players, so serious and competitive. Taniele and I laughed as we both remarked that we could be at any school in America or Australia or anywhere, and the students would not be different; just boys in a major competition, fiercely playing and cheering their favorite teams on.

On my way to my room to pack up for Kolkata – I was going there to rest, see a doctor and take a break, I was urgently called by Taniele and several girls shouting “auntie, monkey on the roof”!  I had no idea what they were talking about, I knew there were jackals, foxes and dogs, but not monkeys hanging out at the school.  I grabbed the camera, flew over to the playing field only to find hundreds of the little ones squealing with delight as they watched a bora hanaman (very large monkey) sitting on the roof, eating a banana, unfazed by the commotion below. He eventually moved to the rooftop overlooking the cricket match and seemed to be watching the game.  As the children persisted to yell at him and laugh, he moved about (I think trying to escape) these “crazy creatures” below- it was to no avail, everywhere he went the children followed. Finally getting annoyed, he took the flowerpots which lined the roof and started hurling them at the children below. With my camera in tow, I tried to shoot a few pictures, only to be abruptly stopped – he hurled one at me, missing me by a few inches. Guess he didn’t like paparazzi – I decided to take refuge and pack my things to leave for Kolkata.

Bora Hanaman watching the crowd below

"Hmm.. ready, aim, throw the flowerpots!"

I arrived at the Taj Bengal where I was to stay as Shamlu had other house guests in my room. It was a great move as the manager recognized how sick I was -I had no voice at this point. He alerted the staff to my demise, and everywhere I went someone was standing there with a hot cup of spices, ginger and lemon to drink. They stayed to watch me drink the last drop.  About every 20 minutes the door would buzz and more tea, hot “toddies” (non alcoholic) and salt to gargle with would arrive.  Flowers came as well, with a note telling me to arrange for a eucalyptus steam, sauna, and aryuvedic massage.  I arranged this for Sunday, and not feeling much better forced myself to make the appointments.  I was glad I did. After a few hours of this pampering, my throat started to feel better, and I felt almost human again. Treating myself to a meal at one of the many restaurants at this hotel, I stuffed myself with salad, fruit and PIZZA!  It rivaled any great pizza in New York. Even though I was under the weather I knew I could get very used to this. The shower was the best ever, and the pillow too – small things we take for granted were a delight . I savored every minute.

By Monday morning, the Maitre D knew me well and ordered all the hot drinks for breakfast and insisted I eat an omelette (he didn’t have to force me) and porridge. Water and juice were served at room temperature so as not to hurt my throat. That afternoon, a friend from Kolkata paid a visit to see how I was feeling and he too insisted on feeding me. I was stuffed but still a little sick. The hotel and my friend called the hotel doctor who paid a “room call” complete with blood work and prescriptions which were filled without delay by the staff.  Rick ( my doctor husband) had sent me with a small arsenal of medicines and had started me over the phone with the correct antibiotic.

By Tuesday I felt well enough to return to Udayan. I loaded up on chocolates for the girls in the dorm – it was the birthday of four of them and there was to be a celebration. I also loaded up on oranges, bread and olives, having had my share of rice, rice and rice at the school.

The ride back was early in the morning, so early that I was treated to a remarkable site – goat herders walking their flock in the middle of the main roads in Kolkata-unbelievable!  Here, in this city of great buildings, shops, shacks and hustle and bustle, vying for a piece of the road crammed with all the vehicles and animals and every conceivable being and object was this man, oblivious to the noise and commotion, as his goats walked peacefully to their home, having grazed for the day.  What a country of contrasts.

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A Day of Firsts, School Olympics and a Night on the Town

Today there is to be the beginning of the Olympics at the school. It will go on for several days.  All the children are involved and to kickoff the games there is to be a cricket match!  This will start after classes have finished and my art classes are over as well. I pull out the camera ready to take photos of everything.  There are 4 teams: England, for Father Stevens’ native country, India, France , in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Dominique Lapierre, major supporters of Udayan School and Australia, for another major patron, cricketeer Steve Waugh and for Taniele who hails from Australia and is an Olympic bronze water polo champion.

The cricket match begins

All smiles for the camera; she's one of the reasons I'm here

All smiles for the camera, I love these children

Everyone is at the field when I arrive with the camera, I sit with Taniele so she can explain the game to me, which I must say is very confusing to a Yankees fan. I am excited as well, this is the first cricket match I have watched, and since it is an Indian passion, all the kids are revved up.  I see that many of my very talented boys are also great cricket players and they are very serious.   The first match is India vs. Australia and I watch in awe, snapping pictures the entire time. Australia wins, the crowd erupts jumping, hugging and screaming.  The children charge towards Taniele and we are crushed by their embraces; they have decided that since I’m from America, Australia is to be my team as well.

girls team, France vs. Australia play a traditional Indian game

Taniele, Happy , and cricket fans

After the game, we have planned to go to Barrackpore center to shop and have dinner.  As we walk to the main road, we are greeted by throngs of villagers who know Taniele and now wish to meet me. Everyone waves and stops us – I then learn my first sentence in Bengali – Ap kaise hai, “how are you”.  We reach the main road, filled with buses, cars, pedestrians, rickshaws bicycles and motorcycles – it is a rude awakening, since the roads I have traveled to and from the school are very quiet. Hailing a motor rickshaw (another first) we squeeze in with 3 other people, not an easy task as she is 6 feet tall, and I’m no shrimp .  After an exciting ride ( and I am laughing the whole way, it’s like a ride at a carnival) we disembark and then walk a bit to the railroad tracks. We wait as a train passes through, crowds of people waiting in front of the crossing gate. Then Taniele announces that we must walk across the tracks – on the rails, I follow tentatively, haven’t I always warned my own kids never to walk on railroad tracks?   We arrive in Barrackpore center. there are small shops, tiny streets where the impossible happens – all these different modes of travel converge on a 6 foot wide 2 way street.  It is not a small village, rather a mini Kolkata.  Loudspeakers blaring on all corners with different political announcements vying for airtime, it is deafening. It seems that anyone with access to a loudspeaker can make any announcement they wish. I want to grab a mike and say “shup karo” (shut up!)

"we won!"

Sikandra and my boys bring auntie their new pet...SNAKE!!!!!!

We amble along, people are staring a little, I guess we seem quite a pair – westerners wearing traditional dress- and find a music store. We’ve been looking for some movies to watch on my laptop and find a few at a reduced rate, then I buy 2 CD’s to play in the art classes, they are Bengali musicians.

Leaving the shop we find a very cool street with food, clothing, saris and bindis for the face to wear with our saris. I choose magenta and Taniele finds a nice black one. We buy the matching petticoats and blouz (blouses) to wear under the saris. Next week it is Saraswati puja and every woman and girl where saris for the celebration, so now we are prepared. Then we are off to V Cafe, recommended by the staff at Udayan. From the outside we are a little doubtful, but once entering we are happily surprised. It is lovely and the food is terrific.  I’d give it 3 stars. We’ve chosen a lot of food, the waiters are staring at us as we finish everything in sight.  We sit for a while and chat away, she is great company, then head back , this time via bicycle rickshaw (I am hanging on for dear life) amazed that this one very thin man can haul us all the way to the gate of the school. We check out our new purchases and then say goodnight.  Another big day tomorrow – I will start the 30 talented students I have identified on their collages – we will mount them and create the work to be exhibited.

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How it all began….a tale of three continents…

New York, the Statue of Liberty and my home town

It started in Greece, I had been a chaperone for a group of American high school students traveling throughout the Greek Islands and Athens. Now, our cruise was ending, it was our last meal on the ship and we were seated with a group of people from India. Two of the kids were with us, very articulate and funny kids, and it wasn’t long before our table of very diverse folks were laughing and exchanging emails. I was especially taken with Shamlu, a dynamo of a woman, who was brilliant, interesting and witty. We laughed and talked the night away, promising to email each other after returning to our respective countries.

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece......where we met

We corresponded -emails flying at a rapid rate as we realized that we had much in common, from our own life stories and our committment to global community service.
I googled Shamlu and the organizations she chaired. Needless to say, about 40 pages later, I was extremely impressed with the work she was doing to rehabilitate and educate woman and children in Calcutta and asked her what I could do from the US to help her endeavors.
She had googled me, and without missing a beat she invited me to come to India to teach art and my technique of painting and collage at Udayan, a boarding school for children who’s parents were leprosy sufferers. Shamlu didn’t say “come anytime”, she said please come in January and I said YES.

That was in April. I went happily along to the library and bookstores to research my upcoming journey. It seemed everywhere I went people were offering new insight and recommendations for literature, guide books, friends to look up when in Kolkata and more. Sitting in the bookstore one evening I discovered that Frommer’s India devoted a whole page to Mrs. Shamlu Dudeja – page 568 under Shop ’till You Drop. One of her many accomplishments has been the revival of the art of Kantha embroidery working with a team of rural women, and her shop was listed as one “not to be missed”. Wow.

Summer came and went while Shamlu and I planned what direction our partnership would take, the art supplies needed, and my application for a visa. What had been planned as a 3 or 4 week jaunt would become a 7 week stay – teaching the 300 children at the school, then mounting an exhibit of their work. Excitement was building, I had no fear of leaving my teenagers, or my country for such a long stay. Riding high on anticipation of going to India, a place that had always been a source of fascination and mystery to me I never stopped to really THINK about what I had committed to do.

After a visit to the doctor for a few (so I thought) vaccinations, reality hit. Aching arms and a roomful of supplies like impregnated mosquito nets, transformers, surge protectors, malaria pills and snakebite kits shocked me into the NOW of it all. I was really leaving. And, I was leaving very soon – to work with a wonderful woman who I had met just once.
What had started as a nice dinner in Greece had turned into a Life adventure in India.

The Indian Flag

The flag of my upcoming "home".

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