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 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…

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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

Image

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.

 

 

 

 

Post 5 – The exhibit opens!

Both Jerri and I have been doing exhibits for many years.  Sometimes it’s our own work, sometimes that of other artists.  For the past 25 years, most of my exhibits have been done with my partner Frank Madsen through our museum exhibit design firm Teller Madsen. Even after hundreds of exhibits, there is something still magical about seeing ideas communicated through space, about choreographing visitors’ movements so they may have an emotional response, a new perception, an enhanced awareness of the world around them.  This has always been my goal in exhibit curation and design.  It has to look spectacular—and mean something.

I think we did it here.  Thanks to the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts for providing this large and beautiful space for our Following the Box exhibit.  Each of the 12 participating artists responded to a different aspect of the still-anonymous soldier’s photographs from so long ago.  Each brought their own creativity and culture to play as they interpreted the images.  The end result is a cross-cultural exploration of historical imagery, perhaps the first time this has even been done.  We are enormously proud and grateful for the opportunity afforded to us first by the Fulbright grant; then by two subsequent grants from the U.S. State Department; by the faith the Indian artists had in this project; and by the legacy left to us by an unknown soldier/photographer who unwittingly changed the lives of two artists seventy years after the end of the war.

 

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Post 4 – Unpacking the Crates & Installing the Exhibit

Everything actually made it in one piece–nothing broken, nothing destroyed, nothing lost. It took several days to set up the exhibit, hampered by the electricity going out and our sitting in the dark for hours on end, waiting for generators to be brought in, which proved difficult because of a recent terrorist attack that made fuel deliveries nearly impossible.  FYI–Installation by cell phone flashlight is not effective.

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