Category Archives: the children

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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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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Leaving Udayan, and hanging the show!

morning chores, the little ones

some of my "flowers" in the morning sun, last day

It is Monday and I am moving my bags out of the room looking around for one last time. The girls come into the room early in the morning to help take my bags and speak for a while. We sit around and talk about life, my home, family and when I will return. They tell me that they will miss art so much and our time talking, laughing and even some of the “tutoring” I have tried to give when they had exams.

As we march down the steps, the KG girls and some of the older girls are basking in the sun and they rush over to hug me, hand me flowers for my hair and stuff notes into my hand.  I take more pictures and my heart is aching, I can’t imagine being away from them for so long. I miss the long days that never seemed long enough, I was never so happy than as when I taught all of them . The “exhaustion “ at the end of the day was a good one, not tiresome at all and there was always a spring in my step no matter how early the day began. I always looked forward to what the new day would bring and I received the gift of enlightenment from the children each moment I spent with them.

The KG girls playing before school

The five boys who are to help move the artwork and hang the show with me are waiting, prompt as usual. there seems to be a slight mix up as to the car and timing and the fact that with the driver and Swapan there are 8 of us plus my luggage. After a very late start we are on our way to the framer and are trying to beat the clock – we only have from 3 – 7 PM  to get all the pictures hung. After many road blocks and u-turns we arrive at the framing warehouse. I meet with the director as the remaining frames are wrapped and then descend to the work room where the boys are waiting. We have a problem. I am shocked to see that we have 40 framed pieces to cart and there is barely room for the passengers and my luggage. What to do?!  We hail a taxi to take the boys and I go with the art and one of my boys , we will meet at the Palladian Lounge and then move the work up to the gallery and begin the hard part – placing and hanging the work.  Antara is waiting for us, thank goodness – she is always there with a smile and guiding light and hand – she “finds” us after both taxis are lost, and leads us to the Lounge where we start the process of readying the work for the show.

the exhibition hanging crew

After record time, we have hung all the paintings in 2 hours and we are wiped out. The boys have a snack and I sit on the couch too excited and overwhelmed to eat. It is an amazing sight to see – all the collages hung in this grand room. This is the first time I’ve seen all the work together in one place.  The children and I kept working for art’s sake  and I sent the finished pieces to the framer in batches, never realizing how many there were. My students have been very prolific producing over 40 works including some unframed mounted pieces as well. We have printing beautiful greeting cards from the digital photos I took of each collage and I know they will sell.  Happy, exhausted and a bit nervous, we all say goodnight and I tell the boys I will see them on Wednesday. Now I must get some rest as I will have to return tomorrow with Antara to price and label each piece.

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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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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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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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