Friday, January 28, 2011

Part 10: January 23 to January 27 - Final India Posting

This blog chronicles our trip to India in 2011. For a blog describing our 2013-2014 Fulbright 'Following the Box' project, please see:

Bishnupur villager (AT)

Bilip picked us up at 9am for the long drive back to Kolkata. Bishnupur is a wonderful town, calmer and more manageable than the larger cities. We will probably use it as a base if we are able to come back to complete the research. We stopped several times to photograph, our visual alertness to what was passing before us as acute as when we first got of the airplane, now almost 3 weeks ago.

Bishnupur woman and child (JZ)

We suddenly heard music; a small parade was stopping traffic. We asked Bilip what was happening. He told us that it was somebody's birthday. Jerri and I thought he said “Sebastian.' Later we learned that it was the birthday celebration of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, a controversial but revered nationalist leader of India who argued in favor of violence to end British rule, in opposition to Gandhi. Was Bilip shielding us from this issue? Did he not understand our question or did we not listen closely enough to his answer? We're taking a basic Hindi class before our next visit, although mastering the subtleties of a political discussion would take years.

Parade honoring Netaji (AT)

When we made it back to our Kolkata hotel, we realized that despite checking our room in Bishnupur several times, I had left Jerri's Birkenstock sandals behind. We called Bilip, who lived near the hotel, and he found them. But the logistics of getting them back to us were too complicated. India does not make these things easy—people make their living by sitting outside post offices and offering to properly tie up bundles for mailing. As Max says of much of India, it's an “illusion of a system.” So Jerri's Berkies are now either an unintentional present for Bilip's wife, or they are sitting quietly waiting for us to claim them. I can only conclude that the gods wanted to make sure we had a tangible reason to return.

Max flew in from his trip to Bangalore and the ruins at Hampi, a World Heritage site. India has so many places to visit that you could spend a lifetime exploring. Years ago, as a young archaeology student, I assisted in the excavation of a late Neolithic hill-fort in Dorset County, England. I've never given up the sense of mystery and wonder apparent when standing before the physical remains of long past effort and belief. Those scenes surround you in India.

The next morning we went to see Subir at the AIIS office to tell him of our journey and to review the material. He was right about the temple at Karnagarh; it was indeed the same place as our 1945 photograph. No doubt he is right about three other temples from our collection being in Malanchar. We won't know for sure until we are able to return and spend the proper amount of time with them. They may have changed significantly. It would be nice to see the temples closer to their original state, that is, not painted orange. Unless of course that's how it was to begin with. Historic sites don't have to be colorless.

Jerri, Emma, Bachoo Roy (AT)

Our artist friend Gopal joined us at Mirchi Masala, a Chinese-Indian restaurant that was about the only place open for lunch after 3PM. Our sense of meal time has been seriously altered. We then walked to Bachoo's house nearby to introduce Max to this remarkable man. They discussed classical Indian music and Bachoo shared an album of photos of his family, including pictures from his one-week elephant rental trek near the Himalayas. “In America, you rent a Chevy—here, I rent an elephant!”

Friends of Bachoo's arrived and we were invited to attend a concert by an Indian singer. But Max and Emma had already arranged to go to the Dover Lane Festival, starting at 9pm. Jerri and I decided to return to our hotel, pack and catch a few hours of sleep. We were going to a 4am concert by Shivkumar Sharma at the festival. It would be our first chance to meet the man who has influenced Max so greatly.

Outside concert hall, Dover Lane, Kolkata (AT)

We were out of the hotel by 2:45 in the morning (we had to wake up the guard to raise the security gate.) We walked a few blocks through quiet and deserted streets, a rarity, and saw a taxi driver asleep in his cab. We woke him up and he took us to the Dover Lane grounds. Fortunately, I had a map—he made several wrong turns but through a series of gestures and repetitions we were able to get to the venue. Max was waiting outside. He introduced us to several of his friends and then took us backstage to finally meet Shivji.

We removed our shoes and were ushered into the Green Room. Guraji (another honorific name) was warm and gracious. The protocol for devotees is to stoop to kiss his feet, but Shivji simply extended his hand. We thanked him for teaching our son, for helping him navigate more than musical technique. Shivji turned to Max and said “He's really good!” Max was beaming. So were we.

Max and Shivkumar Sharma (AT)
At 4AM Concert, Dover Lane, Kolkata (AT)

The concert was magnificent. Shivji was playing a morning raag, hence the early hour of the concert. Images kept flooding my mind as he played, the creative power of his work expanding outward, as with all great art. One of the most striking things for me was to see the audience. They were intent, serious, knowledgeable. It was 4am, yet thousands of people were in attendance, in rapt attention. Jerri and Emma's eyes were closed but they were listening.

Subhankar Banerjee (tabla), Shivkumar Sharma (santoor) w. Takahiro Arai (AT)

We could see why Max has chosen to spend so much time here. He has attended over 90 concerts throughout India in the year that he has lived in Mumbai. He sees each experience as a lesson. After the morning concert, we went back to the TransAid Guest House, finished packing, and headed for the airport and Mumbai, the last leg of our trip.

Ali Rosen unpacking one of our boxes of books (JZ)

We went to Max's friend Ali's for lunch. She was the founder of the 'Book of My Own' project, for which we had carted 130 pounds of books at the beginning of the trip. Here was our chance to deliver them. She was thrilled and would make sure they were put into the hands of Indian kids. Ali, a former NBC news producer, lives in a magnificent western style apartment, with a terrace overlooking the city and a good internet connection. Her cook provided a delicious meal and we had a chance to relax after so much music and so little sleep.

Kids choosing from our books (Ali Rosen)

That night, Emma slept over at the hotel and I slept on a mattress on the floor at Max's, so that he and I could be up early to go to a 6am concert. Emma was exhausted and Jerri was starting to not feel well again. How Shivji can keep up this pace at 73 is beyond me.

Max setting up (AT)
At 5:30 in the morning, we took a cab from Max's to St. Xavier College, the concert venue for 'Janfest.' We passed through the Dadar market, where merchants were already setting up their wares. Men and women balanced huge sacks of produce on their heads; the streets were filled with people. St. Xavier's was the same place where President Obama had given his speech a few months ago. Architecturally, it is an English-style school, an Indian Hogwarts. I had a chance to meet Shivji again. Max and Taka were setting up the stage. It was still dark out. Dawn came up to the sound of Indian music, the morning raags filling the courtyard.

College courtyard before dawn (AT)
Bhawani Shankar on Pakhawaj (AT)

Shivji at Janfest (AT)

It was Indian Independence Day and after the concert, the entire audience rose to its feet to sing the national anthem. It was a beautiful experience, a far cry from our militaristic Star Spangled Banner. Then the principal, father Frazer Mascarenhas, gave a stirring speech. He said that India was in crisis and that three issues were of paramount importance. The first was the environment; second was corruption; and third was cultural heritage. He spoke of the deadening aspects of globalism, the need to withstand a creeping westernization and homogenization of culture. He pointed specifically to the efforts of Shivkumar Sharma to keep Indian culture vibrant through his music. The concert had been organized by the students, whose Indian Music Group ( was responsible for the Janfest concert series.

Shivji w. St. Xavier College students (AT)

We made it back to the hotel where we began packing for the trip home. There was a market nearby and we made one last shopping trip. Jerri haggled with a merchant who kept saying “OK, what's your best price? What do you want to pay?” She bought a kurta, Emma bought a top, I bought red socks and a belt. A good haul.

We made one last stop at Max's, then walked to the water. Jerri wanted to see the Ganesh shrine, but it was high tide and completely submerged. It seemed fitting to have a religious symbol tied inextricably to nature and to time. Things in India go at their own pace, without concern for our desires.

Max's friend Aditya Kalyanpur (, a superb tabla player who splits his time between Mumbai and Boston where he has a school, stopped by for a farewell visit. We had been trying to get together since we arrived. Max has built a community of friends and musicians half way around the world. Seeing his life in India was one of the best parts of this trip.

Our last meal in India was at Pancho Dedhaba, an excellent restaurant. Then it was back to the hotel to pick up our bags and take a taxi to the airport for a 1:45am flight.

We landed in Munich, where we had a nine hour layover. We took a train to Mairienplatz and had a European breakfast at the Rischart Cafe, immediately across from the City Hall. This could not have been more different than India: no horns blaring, no traffic, no mobs of people, no beggars, no cows strolling down the middle of the street. Real bread, real space, real silence, drinkable water. We took the train back to the airport for the 9 hour flight home.

I miss India already.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Part 9: January 22 (Saturday)

Monkeys take over our hotel (AT)

The day started with Emma running into our room and saying that there were monkeys all over the front of our hotel. This indeed was true, and, I suppose, not surprising. 

Jerri and hotel staff look over area map (AT)


Bilip then started out for the abandoned airfield, where we thought our army photographer might have been based. He clearly knew where he was going. He honked his horn incessantly, which in India is merely a way of letting other people know where you are. He turned off what passed as the main road, onto a tiny dirt path. 

We passed through groves of tall trees, the sunlight forming a foggy light that shone through the trees. It was a trip back in time—we passed by small mud homes with thatched roofs, with families living the way they have forever. 
On the road to Piardoba (AT)

Then we came to woods and despite the fact that there was nothing around us, the road became paved. Bilip turned and we were riding on the tarmack. 70 years ago, Spitfires took off and landed. Now it was overgrown and empty. There was no evidence of a base—no buildings that we could see, not even any foundations. Was this really our photographer's home? Today did not provide an answer. It's going to take a lot more research to find out.

Abandoned airfield, Piardoba, W. Bengal (AT)

We got back in the car and began the long drive to the town of Bhadutala, in the Mendinpur district. While only 80 kilometers away, Bilip thought it would take 3 hours. This too was true. The roads alternate between excellent and horrible within minutes. Plus, you have to avoid bicycles and motorcycles that carry up to half a dozen riders; overloaded trucks; ox-carts; peddle rickshaws; pedestrians; goats; chickens; dogs, and of course cows which are everywhere. We stopped to let a duck cross the road. It takes time.

Decorated truck, on road to Bhadutala (AT)
Subir had told us that the Karnagarh temple was about 4 km from Bhadutala and that it could be one of the temples we were looking for. As we drove, we passed scenes of overwhelming visual intensity—it is a recurring theme. Every passing image is a visual delight of color and form and interest. It can be dangerously “picturesque,” the postcard dilemma with an ethnographic bent. Indian people decorate everything, from walls to temples to the front and rear of trucks. It is as if the seeming chaos is a palette that touches every surface. 

We stopped in the middle of a bridge (“Silbati Setu”) because Jerri had noticed fishermen throwing their nets, a scene reminiscent of one of our photos. Bilip simply stopped the car on the bridge. When we got out, we saw a remarkable scene below. The straw figure we later found out is part of a ceremony for the goddess Durga. And the urn and flowers marked the site of a cremation.

Straw figure likely from Durga festival (JZ)
Ceremonial site (JZ)

We got back in the car, but shortly Emma noticed sculpted figures by the side of the road. We had seen several examples of this during the day and wondered what they were. We met the woman who crafted them and later learned that they were a central part of the Durga Puja pageantry celebrating the victory of the goddess Durga over the demon-king Mahishasur. She was coating the same type of straw figure we saw from the bridge with clay. This symbol of the goddess would then get painted, likely by another traditional artist.

Sculptor, West Bengal (JZ)
Finally, we reached the Karnagarh Temple. We weren't sure, but it looked promising. Armed with our historic photo, we entered the temple and began showing the photo to a few people. We were mobbed within minutes. Everyone had an opinion but it finally became clear that we had indeed identified negative number 1162! What confused us was that a new small temple had been built to one side, and a tree that obscured the front view. But this was it!

# 1162.  Temple near Piardoba. 

Karnagarh Temple today (AT)

Women reviewing 1945 photos (AT)

We have been overwhelmed with the friendliness and hospitality shown us throughout this trip. For some reason, we excite a great deal of interest. An elderly woman took an instant liking to Emma, who was similarly enthralled with her. She followed us for the next few hours we spent at the temple. At one point, she brought us to steps that led to holy water, cupped her hands and sprinkled some water on our foreheads, smiling constantly.

Emma and temple devotee (AT)

Getting holy water (JZ)

Then we were told that it was auspicious that we came on Saturday, when the temple was filled with devotees, and that in thanks for their prayers, anyone who came was invited to partake in a meal. We could hardly say no. Emma said that when she was growing up, we would often say that one day she might find herself in a situation where it would be an insult not to eat whatever was put in front of her. She said “It was only theoretical before...Now it's real!”

Temple lunch

They brought out banana leaf plates (dripping with water) and soon piled rice, potatoes, vegetables, dal, yogurt and rice pudding on top. Everything was delicious and we had faith that the temple goddess would prevent little microbes from destroying an otherwise incredible afternoon. It took forever to leave, with people asking for our autographs, and exchanging email addresses.

Emma drawing tattoo (AT)

One young girl wanted Emma, who has a leaf tattoo on her hand, to copy it onto her own hand. We will email and send prints to a contact person at the temple. We will also send them copies of our 1945 images. Many people took our home telephone numbers. I'm expecting calls in Bengali at any moment.

Emma with Indian young women (AT)

Holy Man, Karnagarh Temple (AT)

Devotees leaving temple (AT)

Our patient driver then sped back to Bishnupur, where we had dinner, then took a cycle rickshaw to the central market. It was quite romantic, going through dark and quiet streets (a real contrast to Mumbai or Kolkata), seeing shrines lit by moonlight, passing stalls and the quizzical looks of locals. Again, we were the only non-Indians in town. I bought myself a scarf and a few more for presents, then noticed a tiny stall where a man was sitting and sculpting clay heads. We introduced ourselves and met Kalo Sudrodhar, a trophy winning maker of traditional ceremonial sculptured figures. Jerri photographed him and his family. We wanted to buy one of his pieces, but they weigh far too much to take back on the plane. Every moment of this trip has been like this. It is a constant adventure.

Sculptor Kalo Sudrodhar, Bishnupur (JZ)

After days of being out of contact with Max, he finally called. He was in Bangalore, where there were riots. His cab navigated past burning tires and overturned cars; he saw mobs of men with nail laden sticks. He was fine, but it was a harsh reminder that wonderful though India may be, it is not paradise.

This blog chronicles our trip to India in 2011. For a blog describing our 2013-2014 Fulbright 'Following the Box' project, please see:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Part 8: January 21 (Friday)

This blog chronicles our trip to India in 2011. For a blog describing our 2013-2014 Fulbright 'Following the Box' project, please see:

Bilip picked us up for the ride to Bishnupur. Once we got out of Kolkata, a feat in itself, we saw yet another aspect of Indian life—the countryside. As in the cities, life is lived alongside the road, but here, small knots of shops, homes, people and animals alternate with fields, a visual break that is refreshing. We loved it. It was chaotic, then calm.

On the side of the road between Kolkata and Bishnupur (JZ)

Snakes! (JZ)

Hawkers tried to sell everything imaginable to us at intersections where traffic stalled, which happened often in the denser areas. A man brought his snake up to our our window, asking 10 rupees for the privilege of seeing it.

We had Indian sweets at “Lancha Kuthee—the Name is Enough” which might make sense if we knew Hindi. I took a swig of water from the bottle offered to us. Then Emma reminded me that though the water was in a bottle, it was filled from the tap. Drinking the water in India is not a good idea, even for Indians (Max's neighbor often complained that her children were getting sick because of the water.) Fortunately I was fine, but that sense of uneasiness about the possibility of illness can be paralyzing. Do I dare eat this? Am I at risk when I remove my shoes and walk barefoot in a temple? Is this paranoia or caution?

Lancha Kuthee sweets shop (JZ)

The countryside is also an area of widespread support for the Communist Party, as well as a Maoist faction. The Party has been in control of West Bengal for many years, but has not done very well in terms of answering the needs of the people. So various other parties are challenging them in upcoming elections. Flags were everywhere. We were stopped in one town by a group of men who ran up to the car demanding contributions for their party (it had a red star on a white field but was not the Communist Party of India.) Bilip talked our way out of it (another reason for hiring a car and driver rather than trying to navigate this type of trip on your own.)

Coomunist Party flags, W. Bengal (JZ)

Che, West Bengal (AT)

After 5 hours, we made it to the Bishnupur Tourist Lodge, a newly renovated property of the West Bengal Tourism Association, a government agency. It was a wonderful place, with good rooms at about $35/night. After a short rest, Bilip took us to see the terra cotta temples that are the town's claim to fame.

Rasmancha Temple, Bishnupur (AT)

We visited the Rasmancha, Shyamrai, Jorbangla,   Lalji, Radhasayam, and MaDurga temples. The Shyamrai temple was achingly close to one of our photos, with its distinctive Bengali roof, but was not the one we were looking for.

At the Jorbangla temple, a harmonium player was singing religious songs for tips, although no one was around but us. A cow mooed loudly from the woods somewhere nearby. Admittedly, we are easily stirred, but this was wonderful, adding an overtone to an already intense experience. We told him what we were doing there, then Jerri went back to the car and got out our book. The locals gathered around and offered their opinions. Meanwhile, kids were playing sandlot cricket in front of the Lalji temple, that dates from the middle ages. A young engineering student, Abir Banerjee literally jumped over a fence to talk with us. He said “I'm so excited!” We exchanged email addresses.

Harmonium Player, Shyamrai Temple, Bishnupur (AT)

Jerri showing 1945 photos (JZ)
Cricket at Lalji Temple, Bishnupur (AT)

Abir Banerjee, my new facebook friend (AT)

Then Bilip took us to a sari workshop, down the street from our hotel. Old Jacquard looms were crammed into a tiny room where men were working quickly, weaving beautiful cloths. The click-clack sound of the looms filled the room; yellowed punchcards controlling the patterns. It takes a week to make one sari. We took off our shoes and went into the showroom, where we ended up buying several shawls, all of which had been made right here. Emma had not come with us on our excursion, but when we got back to the hotel and told her about the sari factory, she wanted to see it. So we walked back and had a second chance to see old technology and artistry at work.

At Sari factory, Bishnupur (AT)

Part 7: January 19 (Wednesday) to January 21 (Friday)

Alan w. Subir Sarkar, AIIS office, Kolkata (JZ)

I had been corresponding with Subir Sarkar, head of the Kolkata AIIS office for months. Now we finally had the chance to meet. He was extremely helpful, had arranged for our hotel in Bishnupur, as well as secured a local driver, Bilip, who knew the area well. We brought out the album and Subir proceeded to give us detailed information about the temples in our collection. He was certain that one was near Bhadutala, a 3 hour drive from Bishnupur.

Vests, Shyambazar, Kolkata (AT)

Subir suggested a visit to Shyambazar, a busting, old market in north Kolkata. This was clearly where the locals shop and our presence was noted by every shopkeeper. Indians seem to have a fascination with photography. I would ask permission to photograph and people would gather round the display screen to see what I had captured. I do miss my Leica, but you could never share instantly, a blessing and a curse. 
Merchant, Shyambazar, Kolkata (AT)

Street vendor, Shyambazar, Kolkata (AT)

Shyambazar, Kolkata (AT)

We decided to get off the main street. What ensued was remarkable. I saw a group of women and asked if I might photograph them. They agreed, and then seemingly every child in the neighborhood appeared. They noticed Jerri's interest in the small shrines that dotted the area, took her hand and led her from one to the next.

Young girl and shrine, Shyambazar, Kolkata (JZ)

A small crowd gathered and took us through tiny corridors, with hanging laundry, the smells of cooking, family life in unimaginablely small spaces.

Alley, Shyambazar, Kolkata (JZ)

Jerri with children, Shyambazar (EZ-T)

Emma showing flip video (JZ)

Angowary School, Shyambazar, Kolkata (AT)

They were excited that we were in their neighborhood and ended up inviting us into their school, a tiny room, lit by a bare bulb, with no discernible books or materials. They were in love with Emma, and crowded around her.
We were offered tea.

Mother with her children, Angowary School (JZ)

They took our photos with their cell phones (people might be poor, but they all have cell phones) and we took theirs. Every time they saw the photos, they clapped. Jerri wrote down the teacher's name and address—we will send them photos. I am sure we were the only Americans to have ever set foot in their neighborhood, let alone their school. They asked for our autographs, as if we were rock stars. Jerri found it hard to leave.
Teacher, Angowary School (AT)

We next took a cab to the Grand Hotel to meet Gopal Chowdery, an artist I had been in contact with through facebook, although we're not quite sure how this happened. His work is striking ( He met us at a nearby gift shop, where we bought some beautiful drawings. We then had dinner at the Zarang Restaurant, where half a dozen uniformed waiters treated us to a magnificent meal. Emma surprised the staff by ordering and enjoying one of the spiciest items on the menu. I foolishly bit into a hot pepper, causing our waiter to run over with a plate of sugar crystals to calm my burning but happy mouth.

Victoria Museum, Kolkata (AT)
Diorama, Victoria Museum (AT)

The next morning, Gopal, his nephew and a friend picked us up and drove us to the Victoria Museum. It is an impressive structure. We had an introduction to colonial India, as evidenced in remarkable watercolors, etchings, paintings and textiles. I got my museum fix. The next time, we need to visit the India Museum, where we can see the country reflected through an Indian lens.

Zaika Restaurant, Howrah

Gopal wanted us to see the Dakshineswar Temple, an hour's drive further north. Everything in India takes inordinate amounts of time. First, we stopped for an excellent lunch at the Zaika Restaurant in Howrah, a favorite on the side of the road.   

The light was fading by the time we made it to the temple, but it was worth it. It is a series of structures, very much in use. We saw devotees at the Hooghly River, removed our shoes and entered the complex.

Devotees at Hooghly River (JZ)
Dakshineswar Kali Temple, West Bengal (JZ)

We then heard music coming from one of the buildings, and saw a group of people, sitting on the ground, singing, clapping and drumming. These were Hare Krishna followers, but not the orange robed missionaries we used to see at the airports. Photography was not permitted, but there were no signs about audio recording. Emma recorded several pieces. Here is a segment:  

Hare krishna song 2

We got back in the car; Gopal was playing Elvis songs on the radio. Nothing is surprising.

Both Sharon and Subir said that we must meet Bachoo Roy, an Indian scholar who worked for the U.S. State Department in Washington for many years. His wife had been in charge of Hindi language training for American diplomats. We met Bachoo for dinner at #6 Balygunj Place, a short walk from our guest house. It was an incredible experience. Bachoo is strikingly handsome, with a beautiful accent, a mixture of Indian and British and a winsome laugh. He started the conversation by saying “I am Bachoo Roy. I am 86 years old and I live here and in Santiniketan, Rabindranath Tagore's university where I have taught for many years.” Turning to Jerri, he said “And who are you?” He then proceeded to ask the same question of Emma and me. We had an amazing conversation, exploring our impressions of India.

Alan enthralled by Bachoo Roy (JZ)

Bachoo is eminently quotable.  He talked about India's straddling of worlds and told us that the joke in India is that when the country launched its first satellite, the capsule was brought to the launching pad by ox-cart.  He ofered that India challenges Darwin's Theory of Evolution--because nothing really evolves, it all exists simultaneously.

He was impressed with our album, again offering specific comments to guide us. The further we get into this project, the more we realize how little we know.