Culture shock…

Quntab Minar

Arriving in Delhi I immediately am “homesick” for Kolkata. Though both are big cities, Kolkata exudes a warmth and sense of belonging – community – and Delhi seems to be a bustling, busy and somewhat impersonal place.  A kind face is waiting for me at the airport, so I relax a little and settle in for the ride to the hotel. Culture shock!  I have stayed in Kolkata for 7 weeks and at the school living with the children, but I am not prepared for this hotel, just off the road in the middle of nowhere.  I am told not to leave the hotel as it is not safe for a woman at any time in this location. Welcome to Delhi.  Not very happy, I retreat to my room which is the size of a closet and dark.

What to do?  I grab a guide book and hire the car to take me to the Hyatt for dinner, where I have a great meal and feel more comfortable.  Tomorrow is a big day filled with tons of sightseeing and I decide to just give in and get some sleep.

Carvings of the Koran

Sikh temple kitchen making roti

Up early for breakfast and to meet my guide, the staff is friendly and very curious about where I come from , where I’m going. This is common in India, most people are very friendly and love to talk to foreigners.  The food is actually good, so I’m then off to the car and the waiting guide who’s name is Ishwar.  He is a young man and speaks many languages, we hit it off right away and begin the tour.  First is the Qutub Minar, the tallest tower in India, built by a Muslim man in his honor and to show his importance. The buildings are beautiful and the stones are magnificent, but as Ishwar points out, the towers not only contain the writing and decorations of the Koran, many of the beautiful scroll like designs are Hindi, from temples raided by this man to enhance the beauty of his own creation.  It is hard to understand the logic, but I am not to judge and the difficulties between the Hindu and Muslim people for thousands of centuries cannot be changed. I accept it for what it is and we are then on to the next sights – the  India Gate which was built to honor the Indian men who lost their lives serving in the army during World War I and the Raj Ghat which houses the tombs of Mahatma and Indira Ghandi.  Next is the Red Fort (beautiful and massive), Jama Masjid , a beautiful Muslim Mosque.  From the top of the Mosque, we can look down upon the Old Delhi market which was once a shopping area for only woman,  as tradition had the woman and men separated.  It is buzzing and Iswhar and I descend the steps to walk around and have some masala chai.  Next is Rashtrapati Bhavan which is the President’s house and is amazing in it’s architecture and beauty.  It is surrounded by Parliament and Commerce buildings and reminds me a little of Washington DC in its location and layout.



Highlight of the day:  Ishwar has noticed that I am a spiritual person, and dedicated to community service, so he has a surprise for me.  We enter Bangla Shahib, a Sikh Temple, grand and welcoming. We must take our shoes off and he must cover his head as do all the Westerners. I am wearing my salwar kameez and have my chunni which covers my head and arms, so I have no problems!   This religion is dedicated to community service as an act of godliness in every day practice. Those who run the various parts of the temple take no compensation as they feel it is a privilege to serve God in any way.  The rooms are large and beautiful with chanting and prayers going on continuously.  One must wash their hands and face before and after entering as an act of purifying oneself in the sight of God.  Ishwar ushers me into another room, a huge marble banquet hall, completely bare but spotless and he explains that at lunch time, anyone from anywhere- regardless of race, social or economic status, religion, country of origin may have a complete meal prepared in a gigantic kitchen by workers who are there to serve God as well.  Again, no compensation other than a feeling of goodwill.  We are invited into the kitchen and huge vats of vegetables, daal (yum!) and massive amounts of roti are being made by about 100 people. They smile and ask me to sit at a tiny work table  – the bench is hopelessly low to the ground and I must be twice if not three times the height of most of them, so it s a challenge and a great feat when I do sit legs crossed.

I am shown how to roll the dough for the roti, and after being corrected a few times by a very kind (and patient ) woman, I get the hang of it and am really on a roll (no pun intended) when I realize that I have produced about 10 to their 50 , so I thank them and they ask me to take a few pictures which of course delights me.  I leave there in peace and remark that this religion is one that should be emulated. Ishwar tells me that only 7% of the population is Sikh – what a shame.  As we leave the temple, he instructs me to cover my right hand over my left in a cup like position to accept a sweet offering to eat as a way to send one off with good thoughts for the day.

Old Delhi market

Outside the mosque

posing for "mem sab"

dinner time

Kashmir weaving demonstration

At the very end of the day, we have one more stop and that is at a workshop taught by a master Kashmir weaver.  Only Kashmir family members are working at this craft which is the most intricate of all.  The rugs they produce can take more than 2 years to weave.  The fur from only a certain part of the goat is used and must be collected, not shaven, from where it has shed in the woods. Once collected by the nimble fingers of the women, it is died to the palette specifications of the chief designer, usually the head of the family. He then draws the design and drafts in onto graph paper, line by line, it is so mathematical. Then the wool is woven and died according to his notes which are handwritten for each line of the design of the rug!  One line can be done in a week, not any faster, and then once it is complete, the threads are shaven and the process continues.  All of this work is kept solely by the family so that the design cannot be duplicated. Depending on the intricacy of the work, over 900 knots per square inch (!) are made, the end result being rugs of many sizes. We look at the different weaves and knots per sq. inch and I sit on the rugs having a cup of chai, it is luxurious and I am hypnotized by this kindly old professor – he smiles lovingly at the rugs as he explains the process. I’ve just had a two hour workshop and am in heaven, I feel that today I have accomplished a lot. and am so thankful to my guide. We are to go to Agra tomorrow to see the Taj Mahal, and Ishwar is not supposed to come, but I ask him to since he is so knowledgeable and I will feel more comfortable having another man with me as I travel alone in the car. We agree on the time and go our separate ways for dinner.


Filed under a little hstory, Delhi, Agra & Jaipor travel, India, Photography, travel

A little royal history

Princess Karuna Devi

It is now Saturday and I am off to the Tollygunge Club to have brunch with a good friend I have known since I arrived here. We spend a few hours sitting in the shade and just hanging out having a light Bengali meal, then are off to visit the rowing club where he used to crew when he was a young man. We sit by the water for a while and then it is time to drive back to the palace and he is off to work, he never stops.

We arrive at my destination and I ask him in for a cup of tea, just a few more minutes before we say goodbye.  He has been a source of guidance and caring, always keeping in touch and more than once explaining the intricacies of daily life here in Kolkata. We’ve had social, political and business discussions, he is very worldly and has lived in the States for quite a long time before returning to his native land.  I will miss him so much – what a great, kind man. I know we will continue our friendship via phone and email.  If it is possible, I will see all of my friends when I return from Delhi, the day before I head back to New York.

So here I am, writing from the palace, trying to catch up on this blog so I may keep journaling as I leave for my final week of travel through India. I am sitting on the veranda and it is very peaceful. I can see wedding preparations being done on the great lawn of the palace which is now used for various special events- the wedding is tomorrow and it is fascinating to watch the crew build all the platforms, with  flowers arriving and an amazing lush display that is being created for a lucky couple.

Karuna arrives from her visit to Burdwan which had been the family’s kingdom, now a city with the palaces used for the university there.   Her official title is Maharaji Kurmari Karuna Devi of Burdwan, or Princess Karuna Devi.  She and I talk about the history of her family and what it was like to have grown up in a real life fairytale.  Gardens and acres of land, ponds filled with fish wearing gold rings, elephants grandly dressed wandering the grounds, sentries in full royal costume wearing headdresses, ornate carriages at the ready to take the little princesses from one palace to another.  All this only to have the story end in her twenties when the land was parceled out and royalty was no longer recognized.  She tells me about her father’s coronation and takes me around the grounds and some of the parlors to show me pictures of the royal crest and clothing that was routinely worn.  It looks like something out of a movie about ancient India, yet it really existed for almost 500 years.  We tour the rooms as she relays more memories about her youth and when I ask where the jewels and costumes have gone she says that most of the films, photographs and jewelry have just disappeared .  I say it is terrible and she says “but it is what it is, you can’t live in the past”.  So true, yet still very sad that today’s Indian youth have only a small reminder of their great heritage because the regal buildings were not preserved.

Just now there are associations trying to refurbish the buildings that are still standing but have been neglected so that the remains of this historic country are tangible, not just told in a history book. Much of what has happened here has been happening for years all over the world, old destroyed to make way for new.  One hopes that before the majesty of an era gone by is totally erased from memory it will be preserved and appreciated as part of a great heritage.

Tomorrow I will leave for Delhi and I should go to sleep early but we talk until 1 AM  about everything including her philosophy about life, marriage, love and I find that she is one of the most savvy and “cool” ladies I know, a real feminist at heart. I relish our frank discussions and will miss this very much.  We have really opened up to each other as women and I wonder if I should leave my “home” here in Kolkata to explore more of India or stay to be with the friends I’ve made over the last 7 weeks.

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Late night in the palace with Stacey (LOL)

A view of the palace

It is Friday and Karuna is leaving for 2 days for a puja in her home village so I will be here alone. I don’t mind as I have errands to run and some of the younger people I’ve met have asked me to come for lunch and hang out for a bit . It is a nice change of pace and I relish it. I am given a car and first go to finalize the travel arrangements for the trip to Delhi, Agra and Jaipor. Then off to Erica’s flat where she is editing the documentary they’ve been working on for several months about the goat herders here in Kolkata. Her partner/editor is there, a lovely, lively Bengali man and we order in lunch and talk about the business of film making, Bengali art and life here in the city as a “westerner” – Erica is from Italy and we talk about the adjustment to this way of life, and mostly the adjustment we must make when returning to the western world. Since she has been here many times before, she tells me to take note of my thoughts as I arrive at home in the US, how it will seem strange for a while. I decide to keep journaling as this shift will be interesting to document. I am sorry to say goodbye, but I know we will see each other again and we exchange our emails and they go back to editing and I head off to meet yet another friend for a light dinner and some shopping.

After a great day, I am feeling very proud of myself for being on my own without relying on guidance or translation from anyone, taking a taxi back to the palace.  After saying goodnight to the staff I retire and am just about to get into bed but go off to wash up . Closing the door behind me to the bathroom, I here a click and think nothing of it until I remember that I must have my bottled water for my toothbrush. I try the door and it is locked from the outside. I am locked in!  Here I am in my nightshirt and nothing else. No phone of course, and the house is asleep. I bang on the walls but they are thick and the doors are massive and no one can hear me. Now I’m contemplating trying a window or some of the tiny doors but I squeeze through only to find one dead-end after another. Eyeing the length of the claw-footed tub, I am almost resigned to sleeping there but try one more time this time yelling “emergency!” and  “aya baba” (OMG). I hear a stirring and then 5 of the staff and the dog arrive to save a damsel in distress. Really.  They are laughing hysterically and I am too, out of relief mostly.  Never a dull moment with me, I somehow manage to get into trouble even in when brushing my teeth!

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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.


Filed under art, art students, artists, Bengali, celebrations, creativity, food, how to dress in India, India, India social life, Photography, royal history, student painted paper collages, teaching, the children, world service

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.


Filed under art, art students, Bengali, commuity, dancing, the children, volunteering globally, world service

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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