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 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 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.