Category Archives: dancing

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

our last night hanging out in my room

on top of the world, after cleaning the art room

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

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

Soma, hamming it up with Tara watching

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

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

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

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

farewell celebration , we finished the big clean up!

last dance

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

"My" Urmela

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

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Small wonders make a big impression.. (the gift)

The day until I leave Udayan is nearing now, and I now savor every moment, rising early to see the sunrise, listening for the foxes with their daily song, greeting the resident puppies a they scamper about and vie for my attention and most of all, the morning greetings as I leave the girls dorm to start art class. As I walk past the garden of flowers and vegetables I see they have grown so tall, it is a mark of time and I can’t slow down the clock.

“Good morning auntie” is a song to my ears and finding 10 girls just listening for my alarm so they may knock on the door to say hello and pick out my outfit for the day makes me smile.   As I head for the dining hall for tea and then run off to open the art room, the little ones (3 and 4 years old) chirp “auntie, painting class today?” When I say yes, they jump and squeal with delight.  Ah, I feel this is my second home and these children have welcomed me as family. It is though I am a surrogate mother and relish all that goes with it. Tears, cuts and exam questions, just ‘hanging out” in the room and the constant requests to see my children and my home and to hear stories of America are the start and the end of each day.

As I walk to the green, the boys greet me with a chorus of “how are you Auntie”, may we come to finish just one more piece?”  Of course I always say yes, and usually have my hands full with so many students in such a small space but we manage and enjoy our time.

Most of the supplies are depleted and this is a good sign, they have been prolific in their work. If nothing else, this opportunity has awakened a part of their souls and the creativity within every one of them. They never cease to amaze me, every day a new “artist” is born.  Today as the class leaves and the room has been tidied, several boys wait (as usual) to talk I assume, but this time they are waiting with a gift. Tarak has secretly been hoarding some paper and has made a gorgeous (really) small paper collage for me as a gift. I can’t help it, I break down as I say thank you, it is such a wonderful and beautiful gesture of how much they appreciate the time we have spent together.   I try to get the words out to tell them how much they have changed my life and touched my soul, but my tears deceive me and flow anyway. Soon, we are all hugging and crying, even the boys. We all hug, dry our tears and they wait as I lock up. Many of the other boys are waiting (word gets around fast here) and they joke with me and give me candy to cheer me up. I try to explain that I am happy and these are tears of gratitude and happiness. I am so honored to have had them in my life, and vow to come back for an extended teaching tenure when my three children are away at their colleges.  I know I will return, India and Udayan are in my blood now and forever.

We walk out to the playing field and chat some more until the mosquitoes chase us away and I head for the girls dorm. They are waiting too – as I said, there may be 300 students but they must have a pipeline. The girls have food and tea and tissues, they insist I splash water on my face. I am not crying but my eyes are red. They then watch me like mother hens to ensure I am okay, then they ask for music and we dance in the room until we are exhausted and laughing. This is my day, and I couldn’t ask for anything else. Tarak’s one small gift has brought all this to life. I feel very privileged to have had this day.

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

Under the sea, by Sikandra

one of the collages created today

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

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

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

getting rowdy after the ending puja ceremony

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

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

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

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