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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Sunday, last minute fashion show

Even though it is Sunday, usually a relaxed day, it is a busy. I must get all the collages completed with the various students. We have 45 collages now, and three need to be finished. I am battling with the children’s exam schedules and the Hindi and Bengali different study times and exam dates. Between the language and the myriad of schools the children attend it is at times very confusing and hectic.  I am looking forward to a productive day .  I have lots of time for everyone and all my budding artists do come asking for just one more paper, just one more time to do another piece. The kids are insatiable and I am ecstatic about that.  We work efficiently and quietly with Bengali music playing in the background. They are so engrossed in their work I hardly have to help, just an occasional suggestion,  they are very focused, very much in the zone.

Doves in Love

Angels in Flight

Dreamscape by Saddam

It is almost lunchtime and the phone rings. It is Taniele asking if we should go to a fashion event in Kolkata, very dressy, all the major celebrities and musicians will be there along with beautiful fashion and a divine dinner at the Hyatt Regency by poolside. I do want to continue with the students but Shamlu has sweetened the deal with an overnight and an early return to Udayan on Monday. It is too good to pass up so I agree and promise the students that I will give them more time on Monday.

We must pack a few things, hair and nails and all that, then hop on a rickshaw to take us to the train, my first time!

I am glad I’m with Taniele, the station is crowded and very confusing. No one seems to know which track the train to Kolkata will be leaving from so we wait at the top of both staircases. ( actually there are three very fierce, rabid looking dogs blocking the stairs and I have no intention of passing by them). We are the only non Indian riders, so there’s a lot of giggling and stares, though I’m getting used to that now.  The train approaches and it is filled to the gills, I haven’t ever seen a mess like this – Grand Central at rush hour is sleepy compared to this. The train hardly waits, so you must try to find the women’s car and hop on to find a seat. There are none, so I stand along with about 200 women all vying for a space, some sit on top of one another, others cram next to you half of them fall into your lap- then there’s the occasional argument.  About 10 men are soliciting their wares and they are relentless, we are a captive audience and they repeat their promotion incessantly for about 20 minutes. It is wild and deafening.   At each new stop, more solicitors get on and some of the women depart allowing me to sit.  Another man comes on,which is odd as this is a women’s car, he places an electronic box above my head and I assume it is his luggage of some sort. WRONG!  Out of nowhere a blaring karaoke song starts playing and he sings away for another 40 minutes. I may go mad and I think I need a tylenol.

Being on the train is a great way to see unknown parts of Kolkata, not just the shops and museums, but rural areas with tents, small homes and shacks of aluminum with their laundry hanging- mundane Sunday chores, and the diversity of the landscape.  With all the noise and commotion I am still very grateful to have this time to take in another experience.  Arriving at the station, pushed and pulled by the throngs of people, to me it seems like total chaos.  We step over bodies sleeping, beggars are in abundance and everyone is walking over them and no one seems to mind, this is part of daily life.  Our railroad car was the size of a bathroom on Metro North, but with three times the passengers.  We decide to take a taxi to the house and have to haggle with 4 different drivers before finding a prepaid taxi.  Dressing quickly I am wearing a sari from Shamlu’s collection and some of the jewelry I bought during my stay.  Meera wraps me , thank goodness or I would surely unravel as I walked – not a pretty site. The affair is in full swing and the poolside garden is filled with paparazzi and glitterati.   There is a famous cricket player, Sourav Ganguly; a renowned artist named Wasim Kapoor and a nationally known actress Juhis Chalawla who will model.  Actors Kiren Kher, and Arjun Rampal are there as well.   We have VIP seats and walk about before the show starts with drinks and fantastic food and networking.  As the fashion show gets underway Taniele and I are drooling, each and every item is more beautiful then the last and we want all of them.  There is an auction at the end as this is a fundraiser for “Dream for Life” a charity for people who are “diffabled” with blindness.  The items go for more than one can imagine, some more than 10 times most people make in one year!  After this we are stuffed and make our way to the car for a good night’s sleep. Taniele says I do NOT snore, as we are sharing the room, so I must admonish my children when I return home to the States. We have a delicious breakfast at Shamlu’s house – a little break from the usual at the school, then we are off to Udayan in the very early hours with no traffic;  taking a taxi instead of the train.  It is quiet, just the goat herders returning from grazing.

We are greeted by the waiting children as though we were gone for a week, not an overnight, and I am actually very happy to be “home”.

welcome home hugs

Later in the morning I start more boys who hadn’t the opportunity to paint before, along with the “crowd” of artists who can’t seem to get enough time to create – they want to have music and art time.  It is lunch time and the kids don’t want to leave, but I shoo them to the dining hall and they return in record time to complete what they’ve started.  At 4:30 it is time to leave but the kids beg me for more time, resulting in staying 2 hours longer, they are so intent on their work. Sikandar and Happy have done 2 collages each and are very promising, so they get a private lesson in drawing with  charcoal and shami cloth,  gum erasers and after just 30 minutes of demonstrating and practice they produce  work that looks like they’ve been in art school for years. Astounding.

The other boys are gathered outside the art room as I lock up to help me carry my knapsack ant to just talk about exams, art questions and just to chat. We have a laugh and spend quite a while before the mosquitoes start their feeding frenzy. We call it a night and tell each other we will meet again in the morning.  I head off to the girls dorm.

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

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

Republic day ceremonies

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

Victoria memorial

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

New Market

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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