Post 13: Udaipur

[note: the following posts are being written after our return to the States. Forgive us.]

With the exhibit safely stored and sadly no meetings scheduled with potential sponsors, we decided to take a few days to relax. Udaipur, in Rajasthan, India’s Venice, was a perfect choice. We had met Arun Sharma, a miniature painter (no, not him—the paintings) at a Tribal and Folk Art exhibit at Birla in Kolkata a few years ago. His work is exquisite. We’ve stayed in touch. Arun lives in Udaipur and offered to pick us up at the airport and show us his favorite places. We stayed in a beautiful old hotel, close to the lake.  Small, winding streets seemed more like a European town than one in India.  Except for the cows.

Some of Arun’s places, such as the Sas Bhau historic site, were not on the regular tourist route and were mercifully empty, affording a rare opportunity to wander through history, to stand amidst temples seemingly still holding sincere devotion in their stones, the lack of contemporary worshipers notwithstanding. It reminded me of a summer I spent, when I was 18, helping excavate a late Neolithic hill fort in Dorset County, England. We unearthed a tomb and I remember being at the entrance to the tomb, transfixed by the notion that I was standing at the same spot where thousands of years earlier perhaps someone wept. There is power in old stones, in the effort that went into their assembly. This is one of the many reasons the destruction of historic sites and artifacts by religious zealots is so misguided and upsetting. These constructions are steps on a path; they are not the property of one culture or one historic period. They literally belong to all of us, hence their being considered World Heritage sites. Failing to understand the significance of these sacred places—even if one has no knowledge of or interest in the religious fervor that created them—is to forsake any awareness of a common humanity. It sees the world as isolated competing bubbles, as if we were all different species, a vision that can only lead to death and destruction, with no consciousness that it is the sum of every culture, every person, every belief, every story that makes us human.

Photos by Alan and Jerri

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Post 12: Art

An example of the arrogance of the West—or possibly of the New Yorker that still forms my core—is assuming that major, cutting edge art spaces could only be found in New York, LA, London, Berlin, Paris, Venice and perhaps a few other cities. This of course is nonsense. There are vibrant centers of creativity all over the globe and they are to be found not only in the US and Europe. They may not garner the attention or the sales, but they are genuine places where serious explorations are taking place, often in superbly designed spaces, where there is a history of accomplishment, sometimes going back for generations.

We arranged for our exhibit to coincide with the Delhi International Art Fair, in the hopes that we could entice a few visitors to see Following the Box. We also wanted to begin conversations with other institution as potential future hosts for our work. Jerri was recovering slowly and the fair was a considerable distance from our B&B, but she nonetheless gathered her strength and we toured the enormous fair, easily comparable to art fairs in Chicago, New York or LA. The majority of dealers were from within India, but there was representation from Europe, America and Japan.

One local newspaper complained, however, that an enormous number of people were taking selfies in front of art works they found interesting; at least for the length of time it took to snap a photo. Apparently India has the highest number of selfie deaths in the world—people who step into oncoming traffic while taking a shot of themselves in front of something that seemed momentarily important, or fall of off trains, or out of windows or whatever. As a young community photography instigator, back in the sixties and seventies, my goal was to put photography—this magnificent tool—in the hands of the masses. Technology caught up with me—and now we have billions of photos of pussycats; no understanding that the frame isn’t random; no awareness that all moments are NOT equal. And of course, no physical prints, no albums, no possibility that someone 70 years from now will find a box of photos and follow them half way around the world.

After putting Jerri in a cab so she could get some rest, I went off with two of our participating artists, Aditya Basak and Chhatrapati Dutta to Lado Sarai, a street filled with art galleries. There, in the midst of used tire dealers, roaming cows, sleeping dogs, an occasional religious shrine, street food vendors and assorted evidence of vibrancy, were some 20 first-rate galleries, all with openings to capitalize on the art fair visitors. And of course, there were parties to go along. Art and wine seem to go together universally. An occasional samosa thrown in doesn’t hurt. It was the last day of the fair, and the last day of Following the Box in Dehi.

The next day, we took the show down with the help of Mamta Bhatt from the IGNCA Conservation lab and packed up the exhibit. Through the generosity of Sanjoy Roy, we were able to load everything into a truck and have it securely stored. It now rests safely in a Delhi warehouse until the next venue is identified.

As I was leaving, I went to see the other major exhibit then on display at the museum. It was a retrospective of 90 year old Satish Gujral, a major Indian artist, who studied with the great Mexican muralists Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, and who went on to do significant work in painting, sculpture, even architecture. It was an enormous show, but in gallery after gallery, I saw no one—I was the only visitor. Finally, at the last gallery, I saw 2 people in wheelchairs talking with a young woman. It turned out to be Gujral and his wife Kiran themselves. It was sad to see this magnificent and important artist, with a beautifully designed exhibit…and no visitors. Art is a very strange life. We work so hard, grappling with our inner demons; mastering techniques; probing our minds and souls; struggling with whether we wish to communicate with others or simply explore with no regard for reception; struggling financially; understanding finally that success is a chimera but that it doesn’t really matter. We have to seek joy and appreciate whatever gifts we might have along the way. Perhaps those are some of the lessons learned in India.

Kiran and Sarish

Post 11: Jerri’s Musings # 2 – The Man on the Other Side of the Curtain

I’d been feeling very sorry for myself. Almost as soon as we got to Kolkata, I got sick, possibly from making an egg-in-a-basket that didn’t cook right through. But after 3 days I got better – not so bad. Each previous trip has been the same – sick for 3 to 5 days, then done. I can take it.

After packing up the show in Kolkata, we flew to Delhi to install it there. Within days I got “that feeling” again – not a good sign. At the opening, in a fine silk kurta, chatting to people, I had to frequently excuse myself to run to the bathroom. By the end of the week I was in hospital, with several tubes implanted in my arms, pumping saline, antibiotics, antibacterials, anti-nausea, antidiarrheals.

Needless to say I was quite sick and even more miserable. Why does this always happen to me when I come here, to this magical country? Is India telling me I don’t belong so give it up? All I wanted to do was go home. I had already lost 20 pounds and since I was unable to hold anything down, was losing even more. My doctors kept ordering blood test after blood test, each time coming up with nothing specific. I sunk into deep despair. There seemed to be no resolution.

I had a lot of time to think, to shed tears, to feel sorry for myself. I thought a lot about my friends who were in far worse shape: a nonagenarian, who was coping with the aftermath of hip surgery; a friend who was making baby steps towards recovery after paralysis; another who was adjusting to a new life without a colon; yet another who was heading into a 5th round of experimental chemo. All of these people had such great humor and strength and willfulness, which I seemed to lack.

CurtainsThen there was the man on the other side of the curtain. He had been coming to the hospital since August, every month for 4 days of chemo. It was very evident that he had lost a lot of weight. His skin was pasty, his voice hoarse, he did not have much hair. He always cheerfully greeted me as I passed his bed, heading to our shared bathroom. He always inquired about my health. What right did I have to feel so sorry for myself, to be so miserable, when my situation was temporary and his so permanent and devastating? I had such trouble getting beyond the “temporary” – everything seemed to catapult into the “forever.”

When I was 20 years old I spent a winter in Switzerland, not really attending the University of Lausanne, skiing mostly. Very early in the season, I made a turn, hit a rock and fell 150 meters down the slope, on my back. I thought I was going to die – I actually saw my life rush past me. I thought, this is crazy, I’m 20, I’m too young to die. Eventually I was able to dig in my heels and come to a stop.

A couple of months later I was sitting on a bar stool, turned around and froze, unable to move, in horrid pain. This was the beginning of a lifetime of struggle with my sciatic nerve. One day, while in the physiotherapy waiting room, I started up a conversation with the man in the next chair. He had one leg and started telling me about how relieved he was to be rid of it. I was horrified! I was a skier, young and strong – the thought of losing a leg was anathema. He told me about years of excruciating pain. But now it’s over. He was happy. I thought how lucky I was to have both of my legs – I’ll get through this somehow.

I thought about this one-legged man from Lausanne, about my brave, struggling friends back home, about the man on the other side of the curtain. I thought about my remarkable children who called all the time to cheer me up, about all my friends and extended Indian family who called to encourage me, to say, “come home, we will take care of you.” I thought about how fortunate I was to be in a clean, semi-private room in one of the best Bed panhospitals in Delhi. I thought about the thousands of people in Delhi, in Kolkata, in Mumbai, who live on the street, who have no access to this care. I thought about how blessed I was to have a husband who would pull me out of depression and make me look at what I had in front of me, to make me understand that the “forever” is not forever.

My despair in the hospital was rooted in many things – my natural inclination to catapult, but more importantly, I just wasn’t sure how many more trips I’d be able to make to India, or how long I could stay there. I feel so alive here. I am able to think, to photograph, to create. We’ve made wonderful life-long friends here. Will all this now be in the past?

When Max was in Senegal, he also got very sick. It took him a long while to get healthy again. For a while we thought he might have a parasite. He nicknamed him Wally. He drew a little caricature of Wally on a piece of paper – a wormy creature with a smile. Emma captioned it: “He has Max’s eyes.” We have it pined up in the kitchen. Wally became a “thing” in our family whenever anyone of us got a gastro ailment.

So now I had an Uber-Wally, that just wouldn’t let go. After 4 days in hospital, they released me with no clear diagnosis other than severe gastro-intestinitis. I had many recurrences of “loose motions” (diarrhea), a forever present nausea, a revulsion to food, and extreme fatigue.

It took over 2 months to expel “Wally” completely. I hope to never see him again.

 

 

 

 

 

Post 10: Delhi Part II

Ever since we came to India, we have been struck by the tremendous number of serendipitous occurrences that happen here on a regular basis—the seemingly random meetings that have profound consequences; a chance event taking us to places of which we’ve never dreamed; the overheard word that leads to entirely new chapters. That’s what happened at the Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata back in December. We were meeting there with Jon Ward, a friend from the US Consulate. He arrived before us, overheard the word “jazz” from a nearby table and joined the conversation. We are now good friends with Sudipto Sanyal (“Deep”) an English literature professor specializing in popular culture; Amitangshu (“Amit”) Acharya, an environmental reporter and his wife Sushmita Mandal, an expert on water quality. Amit and Sushmita live in Delhi. Not only did Amit come to the opening of our exhibit, but a few days later, he, Sushmita and their friend Swati Parashar, a professor of Women’s Studies at a university in Australia, took us to Purana Quila (the Old Fort) and the National Handicrafts Museum with its spectacular Lota Restaurant. This was one of the few days where we played “tourist,” where we did NO work and simply enjoyed our remarkable surroundings. Basically, we work all the time, not separating weekdays from weekends, even day from night. It takes a tremendous amount of work to organize a show such as ours. So despite being in remarkable surroundings, we often fail to appreciate what is in front of our eyes. This is why we need friends—to wake us up.

Another friend, Rahaab Allana, Director of the Alkazi Foundation, a remarkable archive of historical photographs of India from the 1840s to the 1940s, invited us to an exhibit of his grandfather’s work. Ebrahim Alkazi is one of the most important theatrical directors and teachers in India, basically bringing India into the 20th century of theater. The well-designed, inspirational exhibit explored his life and struggles.  It is such a privilege to enter these worlds, previously unknown to us. Aside from the general cultural knowledge base that surrounds anyone, there is a specific layer for artists and intellectuals, a necessary knowledge of the history of our chosen medium and its relationship with others. Knowledge an Indian artist takes for granted is new territory for us. On the other hand, most Indian artists are well versed in Western cultural history. This clear imbalance reflects centuries of inequality, a colonial legacy that is slowly withering away.

Jerri had not been feeling well for some time, some stomach issue that would not go away. She finally went to the doctor and was eventually admitted to the appropriately named Max Hospital, the best hospital in Delhi, an hour away from our B&B. I dropped her off at the ER, then took an Uber back to the museum where we had previously arranged a film screening, then, accompanied by Ramesh Jain, a trusted friend from the Embassy, made it back to the hospital. Jerri remained there for 4 days, a miserable time for all of us, despite the good care she received. SelfieEveryone asked her where her “attendant” was and were shocked to learn she was by herself. The tradition is for a family member to sleep at the hospital—they even set up a couch, bring food, blankets, etc. In the poorer wards, families roll our rugs and sleep on the floor. Nurses had a hard time understanding that I was working. Eventually, I ended up sleeping on the couch too.

My cousins Paul and Susan from New Jersey had arranged a trip to India around the dates of our exhibit, and were coming into town the next day. I took them to Following the Box, which they really enjoyed, then to the Craft Museum, our Pahar Ganj neighborhood…and then to the hospital to visit Jerri. Not exactly a planned part of the tour, but appreciated nonetheless.

Paual Sisan Fariuk leather_sm

At Faruk’s store, which has had a loyal Israeli clientele for 30 years.

 

Post 9: Jerri’s Musing #1 – Time

This is the second time I’ve made tea for an Indian friend using a kitchen timer. My tendency is to set the teapot on the stove and to walk away – there are so many other things to do that need to get done! Eventually, I either remember, albeit too late as the water has already boiled, spoiling “a perfect cup of tea,” or the water has almost boiled off.

My kitchen here has one of those amazingly powerful 2-burner propane cook stoves found in every Indian kitchen. It boils water 10x faster than my fancy $3K Thermador Pro stove back home. So, as per my tendency, I’d always over-boil the tea water, and similarly, over-steep the tea. Finding a kitchen timer in the shops proved impossible last year. This time I brought my own timekeeper with me.

Tea pot 1So, after pouring my almost-boiled water into the teapot, I wound the timer to a perfect 5 minutes. It started ticking off the minutes – (I like a perfectly brewed 5-minute pot of Darjeeling tea.) My friend looked at the blue plastic timepiece and asked: “What is this?” “A timer,” I said. “What is it for?” “To time something… like tea.” I replied. “Oh, this is such a non-Indian concept,” my first friend said. “So, how do you know when the tea is ready?” I asked. “Oh, you just know” my friend said. When the exact same conversation (word-for-word) took place 2 days later, with a different friend, I knew I was on to something.

We are all obsessed with time – there is never enough of it. In our modern culture we try to cram more and more into a day – “so much to do, so little time.” Soon I/we find ourselves in our mid thirties – oh my goodness, if I want to have children, I better do it now, or I’ll run out of time. Then I/we find ourselves in our mid-sixties – oh my goodness, I haven’t done anything with my life. The twenty-something immortality concept I’ve been living by all these years comes crashing to the floor.

I recently saw the film Interstellar. Amazing film, on so many levels, not the least of which, the way it dealt with the concept of time. [Spoiler Alert]. The “behind the bookcase scene” where Matthew McConaughey is desperately trying to communicate with his daughter, in the present, but it’s really the past, because the messages are from the past. But it’s the present, and time is running out, and he needs to get his message through, but it all has already happened in the future… behind him are pulsating colored bands of light – the stretching of time perhaps? I sat on the edge of my seat, mesmerized not only by the visual elements, but also about how Christopher and Jonathan Nolan had dealt with the bending of time.

On the plane to India I watched Lucy, also an incredible film that challenges the concept of time and existence itself. For example, if you speed up a moving object to the speed where the object is going so fast it disappears from sight, does it still exist, or did it ever exist? A similar concept to the “tree in the forest” thing, but much more interesting.

So what does all this have to do with brewing a perfect 5-minute pot of Darjeeling tea? Nothing and everything. I’ve written before about how India makes me look at the world differently, how it makes me confront my values, my pre-conceived notions about just about everything. It makes me think in ways other environments have not been able to do – things are so raw here, everything is so in-your-face – the colors, the smells, the sounds, the poverty, the wealth, the art, the food.

So, why is a kitchen timer not an Indian concept?

My friend Jeet says it’s because time is a Western concept. Hindus have no romance with time – Hindus are like Jazz, Westerners are like Classical Music. Hindus believe time is eternal (hence reincarnation?) But Hindus also wear watches, turn their TVs on to watch specific shows, get their kids to school at the appointed hour, and run successful businesses, all dependent on time.

We were in Delhi recently, staying at a wonderful B&B. They had a full kitchen so every morning I made myself tea. My timer was a fixture in the kitchen. I noticed that every time Dilip, the house manager, came into the flat, he’d pick up the timer & examine it carefully. He asked me what it was and, as usual, I explained. “Oh,” he said, nodding his head, deep in thought.

I explained that I had brought it from the U.S. because it was impossible to find here in India. I told him how I’d tried to explain the item to shopkeepers: “… see, it’s this clock that you wind, and it goes tic..tic…tic… boing!” At which point I’d throw up my arms to emphasize the “boing” thing. This became the subject of much laughter in the weeks to come as I heard him explain to others the workings of the timer, in Hindi, each time throwing up his arms at the “boing” moment. Then they’d double over in laughter.

During the last week, I asked Dilip if he’d like to have the timer. “Yes,” he said, “I think it would be quite useful.” “Then I’ll gift it to you. When you use it perhaps you’ll remember the slightly crazy white lady who delighted in explaining the concept of a timer to Indian shopkeepers.”

Post 8 – Delhi Part I

Here’s the problem with Delhi if you are a white-skinned foreigner—people assume you are a wealthy tourist, there to see the sights and buy things. So they try to sell you something. Anything. Incessantly. In Kolkata, they are genuinely interested in what you might be doing in their beloved city. They ask questions, are fascinated by the answers, love the fact that you love India and their city. Usually, within a few minutes, they invite you to dinner. This time in Delhi wasn’t as bad as last time, but I did have to yell at an auto rickshaw driver who stopped his “tuk-tuk” in the middle of a trip. As soon as he turned around and started talking, knowing what was coming, I forcefully interrupted and said, “I am sorry but no, I am not interested in going to your brother’s shop. I am not interested in going to your uncle’s restaurant. No, I do not have 5 minutes to just take a look. I am sure you are all good people. I just need to go home now.”

“Home” in Delhi made all the difference. We stayed at “Diya B&B,” a project of the Salaam Balaak Trust, a program to help street kids started many years ago by Mira Nair who made the film Salaam Bombay. Recommended by friend, early supporter of our work and board member Sanjoy Roy, a remarkable man who founded the #Jaipur Literary Festival, #Eye on India Festival in Chicago and perhaps 20 other such ventures, the place was a refuge. In the normally noisy and crowded Phara Ganj part of Old Delhi, this beautiful place was on a quiet side street, an easy 15-minute tuk-tuk ride to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, home to our Following the Box exhibit. Because the place was new, we had a small apartment almost entirely to ourselves. Dilip and Danish, former street kids, ran the place. They were absolutely wonderful and Dilip’s daughter Diya, for whom the place is named, was a constant joy, talking non-stop in both Hindi and English, constantly pointing to things and naming them, rearranging the produce we had sitting on a tray, constantly moving. The place has a rooftop garden, which we would have used more if it hadn’t been so cold. I know it’s cruel to complain about temperatures in the 40s and 50s when everyone back in New York or Chicago is digging out from several feet of snow and struggling with sub-zero temperatures, but hey…

IMG_3537

The neighborhood alternated between the craziness of the main market street, as exemplified by a wedding procession complete with the groom on a white horse and the quiet beauty of an old building, with art-deco traces of its past still clinging to its surface. This place is simply magical.

 

Post 7: Ripples

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This project is filled with unintended consequences—that’s one of its most exciting aspects. These old photos really resonate. There was no guarantee that we’d find interested artists or that they would react so strongly–or trust two outsiders to showcase their vastly different interpretations. But they did and we developed a creative and caring community, all inspired by our serendipitous find. We are still trying to figure out what it is in us that has kept us so obsessed, traveling now 4 times to India, seeking funding to bring the show around the world, even closing my design business. What meaning does this quest hold for us? It seems that Following the Box is a vehicle, a perfect storm of our abilities, experiences and interests. It is a window into other worlds, both within our selves and within the complexity of India, something that allows us to travel through time and space and unlock our own creativity in a surprisingly safe environment. The Fulbright award validated years’ worth of largely unrewarded work, both professionally and personally. It signified that our insights, observations and practice were indeed valid. No one should need such external validation…but it doesn’t hurt! For me, it also comes at a time of my life when I’m feeling the tangible presence and pressure of time. I don’t feel “old” and many of our friends are considerably older. But I feel I need to make up for lost time, that I want to cram in as much living as I possibly can. Time speeds up as you age; I intend to speed up with it.

It has been beyond rewarding to see the project’s continuing impact; it’s ripple-like outward movements. A Gurkha soldier stationed at the site of the former Salua Air base near Kharagpur wrote a short story in the Gurkha language about 2 Americans who find an old box of photos and bring them home! We met a ceramic artist who decided to incorporate some of our photos in her work. One of our artists was considering a curatorial career after the experience of working on Following the Box. We spoke to hundreds of students. Perhaps, years from now, some faint flicker will surface and affect their life’s direction.

The most dramatic, however, is Arunima Choudhury. Arunima was participating artist Amritah Sen’s teacher. She loved our exhibit, and came to see it 4 times, constantly finding something new and intriguing. She told us last year that she wanted us to visit her home, that she had some ideas about using our material in her work. We readily agreed and took a cab deep into one of the many parts of Kolkata that still lie unknown to us.

Arunima showed us her work—hundreds of drawings and paintings; large enamel plates; jewelry.   She and her husband, both artists, have been working quietly for years and filling their home with the results. She showed us an old quilt and thought that that format might be interesting to explore with our WWII-era photos. We gave her a digital set, excited by the prospect of the ever-expanding nature of our project.

But we were not prepared for what greeted us on our return, 8 months later.   Arunima had made 2 nine foot high pieces! One titled “War is Over” used several of our 10th PTU images, coupled with text and parts of the quilt she had shown us earlier. The second piece “War is Not Over” used Ragu Rai’s well-known image of a child victim of the Bhopal gas disaster of years ago, along with the now iconic image of the little boy whose body washed ashore, fleeing the Syrian conflict. These are disturbing and powerful pieces, inspired by our project. It’s the most dramatic evidence I’ve seen that our work does not stop with our work, that there is no discernible end point to impact, that we have no idea where our words or acts or creativity may lead. It was too late to incorporate these pieces into our already tightly curated and designed exhibit. But Arunima wanted us to have these pieces and do something with them. We are seeking a suitable home, her message needed now more than ever.