Category Archives: creativity

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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Jaipor and the tears of an elephant…

Jaipor as I enter the city

Ah Jaipor, the pink city of palaces, rich in culture and beauty.  This drive is a very pleasant one, and as we get closer to Jaipor, the barren land gives way to lush mountainous scenery – we are in the foothills of the Himalayas.  I can hardly contain myself as I now see the beginnings of the wall surrounding the city, the Amber Fort. I is an improbable sight as the walls wind around the high mountainous region of the city and can be reached by elephant or on foot, but you’d have to be hardy as it reaches thousands of feet high. It was built over 400 years ago and provided security from the opposing tribes and armies.  I ask the driver to stop so I can take a few pictures and then am happily greeted by a line of decoratively painted elephants returning from their days work at the fort, carting tourists up and down the steep winding pathways to the upper palace area.  This is so different from the way I felt in Delhi, I am anxious to get to the hotel

Choki Dhani

and then go off to explore at Chokhi Dhani, an ethnic Rajasthani village.

young musicians and dancers at the village

The village is a a working one with a miniature version of the entire area of Jaipor. Families perform dances and music, magic, palm reading and  there is a shopping area lit by torches,each “shop” is beautifully painted with typical Rajasthani art. The people of this region are rich in culture and their royal heritage. their dress is colorful and ornate and their dances defy gravity and coordination. I am delighted. As one enters the village you are showered with flower petals, your forehead is painted with the ethnic colors of red and yellow.  The visit includes an entire evening of entertainment and dinner t a choice of original restaurants serving Rajasthani food in the traditional way – large chairs, lavish cutlery and serving practices. I feel like royalty and settle down to a great meal, watching the musicians and dancers perform. Then I wander through the village, I can take a camel or elephant ride (no thank you), shop for ethnic spices and clothing, weaving or just sit under the moonlit sky in a huge rocking chair built for a queen.  As I walk around the villagers ask me “mem sab” (honored one or beautiful lady – depending on who says it – to join their dance, play an instrument , and many ask to take my picture. They are beautiful people both physically and soulfully, and I enjoy my time there until the driver appears and we head to the hotel to rest up for the tons of sightseeing tomorrow.

I join in the festivities

After meeting my guide,  a very charming and knowledgeable man we drive to the Hawa Mahal for pictures, then on to the Amber Fort to see the wall and the palace buildings and to photograph the elephants .  We climb the steps to the fort since I refuse to ride the poor elephants, overworked by thousands of tourist rides all day long, and marvel at the breathtaking views from the top, overlooking the entire city. This fort is a wonder and looks a little like the Great Wall of China it has been compared to. It was built in the 16th century and is indeed amber in color.

Hawa Mahal

elephants at Amber Fort

I walk down to the court to see the majestic elephants in all their glory and stop to stroke the trunk of one who has no riders on top. She looks at me sorrowfully  and I can’t believe my eyes but she is crying. I then hear a terrific thud and see a man beat another elephant over the head with an iron rod, the noise is so loud everyone turns and I impulsively scream NO!!! . My guide tells me not to get involved, that there are animal rights activists trying to stop the use of elephants and camels for tourism. And yes he says, that elephant was crying as she was tired, hot and frightened.  These 150 majestic creatures of God must work all day carrying tens of thousands of tourists to the top of the fort and bottom. I ask if they are at least well cared for since the visitors each pay 700 rupees for a 10 minute ride and he responds that no, they are mistreated. I would think the opposite since this is their livelihood, but I am mistaken. I tell my guide I want to leave as soon as possible, my heart is aching and I can’t take another minute of watching this abuse.

the top of the fort

I can’t speak for a while and wander off to shoot some photos of the natural surroundings and then return to the car to see the City Palace, which is still home to the royal family of Jaipor. This is a remarkable building so well planned that even 400 years ago they recycled the water and even invented an “air conditioning” system for the heat and the cold weather. The place has 4 main gates, each representing a different aspect of the earth and the wildlife. My favorite is the peacock gate, with crushed gems and vegetable coloring to decorate the ornate doors and wall with images of peacocks. The summer part of the palace has vents for sunlight to come into the building but it is then deflected to avoid getting too hot. There are terraces where the Maharani and maharaja sat at night to watch the moon and constellations and listen to their court musicians perform. Water from fountains was used as a mist mixed with jasmine and rose petals to cool the rooms, the scent must have been amazing and so romantic!  Across from this end of the palace is the “winter” quarters where hundreds of jewel like mirrors have been geometrically cut in such a way that when a fire is lit inside the room, the heat is retained and there was no need for blankets. This engineering was introduced from Belgium and is both practical and gorgeous.

winter palace mirrored walls

close up of the jeweled walls

The maharani lived there until her death one year ago at the age of 94. She was said to have been the most beautiful maharani ever, and from the pictures I think tat is an accurate description. She is more beautiful than Ingrid Bergman in her heyday or even Grace Kelly. She was also a great benefactress and let out all the buildings to the families of the original artisans so that their craft of weaving and art, jewelry making will continue to be passed down to each generation.

After speaking to one of the artists there, I find out that all of the family members of these royal artisans are given the studios for free to show their wars and work in them. The maharaja also used the funds from tourism and the selling of crafts to start and maintain several schools and homes for girls.  She was much admired and in all of India, this is one principality that has remained at their original palace and are still revered.

Observatory and the sun dial

Next stop is the Mantar Observatory and museum  which is a completely natural observatory containing a sundial that is accurate within 27 seconds. It is in the Guinness Book of World records . The sundial isn’t all though, there are other instruments that tell the phases of the moon and the constellations as well as astrological timings. When a child was born they were brought to the observatory to determine the astrological aspects of the timing of the birth. If I had the time, I could have had my entire chart completed just using the outdoor instruments, no computers as we use today.

another view of all the equipment at the observatory

nearby market in Jaipor

I then ask if we can just walk to a temple and a park to get a feel for the area that is “shop free” and my wish is granted. All over Jaipor there are gorgeous and well maintained parks and gardens as the Rajasthani people took their health very seriously and believed in fresh air and sun in tier daily life of prayer, work play and the practice of outdoor yoga.  I can relax and stop thinking about the elephants for a bit.

Jol Palace (floating in the water)

The day is almost complete and I have changed my flight  – I will leave in the early morning instead of staying another full day. I am homesick for Udayan and want to get back to see the children for one more afternoon.

After a lively dinner at an authentic dinner which includes entertainment by young Rajasthani musicians singing lyrical songs in beautiful voices along with two girls dressed in traditional colorful and gorgeous scarves and jewels who twirl with pottery on their heads and dance on swords (ouch), I am off to sleep so I can make the flight at 7 AM.

Rajasthani princess NOT!

sunset in the oasis of beauty

I fly into Kolkata and go straight from the airport to Udayan for one last goodbye. As I arrive the kids scream and shout my name, surrounding me with hugs and kisses. They ask me to stay for lunch and I am called in and asked to be seated in the front of the dining hall. There I am presented with a giant garland of marigolds and a brass statue of the god Shiva. I thank them trying not to cry and ask that my words be translated a bit so the real meaning is understood. I tell them that it is they who should be thanked for allowing me the honor of working with them and for the way in which I was welcomed into the Udayan family.  I am , forever there in spirit and they will always be in my heart.

My tenure is over and I return to Kolkata  to pack up and get ready for my late night flight on Saturday. One last party Shamlu says, so off we go again – isn’t this how it all started?

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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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Press Conference, photo shoot and a request to stay on…..

Photo Op for the newspaper with Father , Shamlu and the young artisits

the interview

Today is the day of the press conference about my work here as a collagist and teacher. We will discuss the exhibition and the progress of the children in the art class. At least 15 collages are finished (miracles never cease) in this very short time and I summon the boys and girls who have produced this incredible work. They are to be interviewed as well and photographed. They are quite shy at first, then warm up to a very nice young woman reporter.  Shamlu has arrived with the press and the girls and I present her and the reporter with bouquets of flowers. Father Stevens looks dapper in his rose we’ve put in his lapel.

I’m not as nervous as I thought I would be, now feeling confident that we will make our target for at least 30 works of art. Seeing the collages side by side as alleviated any trepidation I might have had, they look terrific and the kids are so proud.

After photographing all the work and the children and me “working”, the photographer takes a few portraits of me – now I’m nervous!  Then tea and sweets are served, the children go back to their studies and the Telegraph reporter and I get down to the nitty gritty. She asks tough and thought provoking questions regarding the differences between teaching kids in the States and here, wondering if there is a difference in their ability to create. I tell her that all children have an innate ability to create, they just need the tools and an open , “unpolluted” mind – away from cell phones, TV and other distractions.  But it has been my experience in all the places I have taught that a little respect and gentle prodding goes a long way. Eventually all children settle down into their own world, their imagination and the tactile nature of my technique makes “painting” more approachable. The fact that we use paper, instead of going directly onto canvas makes it less daunting – if you don’t like what you’ve started, then you move the paper around, or simply discard it and make fresh papers.

She also asks me if this work with the children of Udayan has changed me. Of course!  I appreciate the simple things now, as I too don’t have cell phone and other distractions, just the natural beauty of this country and the thirst for knowledge these children have. Not to mention the warmth of the Bengali people. I have felt at home since I stepped off the plane.

I am asked if I will return and I again say that if I am asked I definitely will, this time without the constraints of an upcoming art show.  Art is process oriented, I’ve always found it more satisfying to work for the sake of creating than for a deadline. If I am to return (and I will do my very best to take advantage of my multiple entry visa) then I would want to teach everyone, with no agenda other than the pleasure of watching these children blossom.

finishing touches

the art room in full swing

After the interview and the giant cleanup of the art room, Taniele and I decide to go into Barrackpore once again for another wonderful meal and some more CDs. We exchange the VCDs that don’t work on the laptop for 2 DVDs t o watch in the evening.  The servers at the cafe recognize us (I wonder why)  and even remember our favorite appetizers and drinks, as well as the green chiles we love so much. Satiated, we say goodbye and hail a rickshaw only to find it’s the same driver from the last time. He is so happy to see us he doesn’t want to charge us, but we insist!  This skinny man is working his butt of literally to get us to the gate. I don’t even want to think of the weight he is pulling on this little vehicle.  Arriving at the school, we say goodnight, I have a huge day of art classes and Taniele has the sports games in full tilt tomorrow.

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