Category Archives: commuity

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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Filed under art, commuity, India, teaching, the children

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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Filed under commuity, food, the children

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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Filed under art, commuity, India, travel