Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Last evening in Delhi - soon flying to London

      There's something unreal about this day/evening in Delhi that's ushering in the close of this South Asia journey that began not simply by my arrival in Delhi on January 18, but over those 18 months previously when I'd fallen into the swirl of the planning stage. Not to say that I expect any letdown when I get home on April 7 after one final week in London. Two days later I'll be performing my new mask tale, "Hena Ackter's memorial." Besides falling back into my life in Connecticut, past experience tells me that reflections from the journey will be creeping into my mind and being for years to come. India remains a dense country where while it's easy to get into the rhythm of days, the input covered a broad spectrum of people (especially with all where I've been), and though there have also been the quiet moments with my watching the leaves of trees waft in the breeze with the occasional surprise of a peacock or monkey coming into view, the layers of the experience call out for a leisured accounting. I'll be reflecting and filtering this trip through the lens of my life and the other visits from 1976-77, Women's International Year to now.
     That first trip, with daughter Janet entailed travel throughout the country, while yes making welded masks, creating Indian mask tales, studying religious lore and legends and taking in that first immersion. Still I've yet to visit Kashmir nor the Indian Himalayas (though the two trips to Nepal have given a glimpse). It's surely a different India now. I'm grateful to have pictures in my mind of those past times. For India being a country of the young, I remember an India that so many here have never seen with being born well afterwards and knowing only the India that's changing and growing at the quickened pace.
      I haven't come upon one Sadhu this time round with my otherwise activities and current proclivity towards modern India, I haven't quested in that direction though in the past, there was the unforgettable one at Bhubanashwar. I'd also encountered Sai Baba outside Bangalore about that time and years later, Mother Meera surprisingly outside Frankfort, Germany. My yoga and meditation practices  have spanned decades and so become an integrated American discipline. Over three million Americans are practicing daily or nearly so. While I've been sounding my OMs at the end of my daily set of Asanas, I've been bringing my America here too.
      Yes, India has changed and grown, as has Dhaka in Bangladesh. On the outside, it's the traffic that is the greatest snarl, and I've spent many long hours in such passage. The buildings, and yes, there are so many new ones from the mundane to the grand that can quickly take on the patina of age with India's harsh weather spreading black mold on the cement and stuccoed facades. All things new also get  layers of trash regularly dropped by negligent passers by and seemingly unnoticed or perhaps accepted in the Buddhist way of not letting such things trouble the spirit or mind. Is that unfair? Why else are there no municipal workers cleaning it up? Why else are there so few trash baskets (I'm told they are swiftly stolen).
     One could focus on the squalor, and now that the heat has come, the innervation that overtakes in the course of the day. But not I. Though glimpses don't escape me, for example as I've picked my way, even by Caunnaught Circle in Delhi, over broken pavements and irregular steps, I've also spotted the ever present profusion of red blossoming bougainvillea, or a small tree pushing up between pavement tiles, representing for me the inexorable push of undying beauty that's here in the very air that settles down with its ever present dust emitting a fragrance that even sidesteps the air pollution. There's something in the stillness, and when it comes upon me, as it does indeed  between the crush and rush that's here too, the stillness is as a rare drug. It reminds me of the sense that permeates the air in Taos, New Mexico at the Indian reservation. Of course it's different in India, but surely I get the sense that those centuries of souls come and gone have left something here that adds to the stillness. India is after all a country where the spiritual is lifted high.
     Yet, I also remember in Israel, going to a site where there had been a battle against encroaching Egyptian forces. The Israelis fighters were bivouacked on a hill with only a few guns, yet they prevailed. That site of carnage so amazed me because when I climbed upon the hill, there was an overwhelming sense of peace, a greater peace than I'd ever felt before. Aftermath I thought, who knows what palable experience leaves behind. I've never been to Gettysburg cemetery and now wonder what that's like? Or Dunkirk for example? I ask, is it is also the centuries of India's impoverished who have also added to the uncanny stillness?
      Most importantly now. the beggars are few as are the sleepers on the ground. In the 1970's the sight of dying babies on the pavement and beggars suffering an array of the afflicted with the host of then traditional India maladies, those were haunting  visions clearly revealing the extremities that life can descend to, while on the other hand, history, beauty, majesty, and wealth sang out and still do.
      I'm mostly encouraged by the changes in women, and in the awareness of their position, their needs, their struggles, and their triumphs. Even here at the Sanscriti residency, there's a "Gender" workshop currently going on and in speaking with some of the women was told that the younger women are coming to the fore with great energy and enthusiasm.
      Having not written in this blog since March 13, I've not yet recounted my March 20-24 days in Jaipur with Sevanti Roy, my former student from Santiniketan and now wonderfully gifted fabric designer whose upcoming line I was privileged to witness taking shape. Sevanti wants to make scarves using the images of my Indian monoprints. Wat a great collaboration that will be, and likely bring me back again.
      Jaipur is a tourist city and if not now, with my having so much to tell about my stay in Mumbai March 24-30, I'll later tell you about the Sharma Museum, the wonderful people I met through Dadi Padumsee (friend of Leslee Asch our Silvermine Guild Executive Director) and Sevanti. Yes, I ate in Marharaji palaces turned into hotels, even swam one afternoon (so needed for this normally twice a week mile swimmer at the Wilton Y), and ate lunch at Anokhi where the food is organic and salads (even heavenly arugula) are safe. Yes, I yielded to the shopper who remembered all those at home hoping for some India treasure, and was brought by my driver to a factory where that indulgence is scheduled to arrive by my return next month.
     I'm always late with my photos because I write in this blog before I've downloaded all my pictures so you'll have to wait for the photos from my workshops through NGOs in Mumbai. Organized by the American Center there, they were conducted at various sites (without air conditioning). My workshop participants included poor women who were part of a clothing collective; children of prostitutes and women saved from trafficking, children at a municipal school partnered with CHIP the NGO that improves the physical facility. At that workshop site, they'd put in a gate assuring security with guards, added a grassy ground for play and cemented the dirt plaza off the classrooms. They also pay for the children's uniforms, and meals, and have bring in many volunteers from other countries and India to help. After school, most of the children go back to the slum dwellings that skirted the school.
     I also worked with teachers from the municipal schools; and women who signed up for my Secret Future Workshop at a local YMCA that normally gives classes in marketable skills, like an electrician course, and provides a playground for children among its many offerings. My workshop was a new experience for those women, asking them to consider their futures, their hopes and dreams, write about what they have overcome in their lives, and in fairy tale fashion we ended with their listing three wishes before sealing their envelopes that represent on the outside how they imagine themselves to be seen and on the inside, how they want to feel within. They stapled their envelopes closed to be opened again in eighteen months. Meanwhile, they will put theirs in a drawer to come upon from time to time and giving them a chance to reflect on their hopes and dreams. When I did that workshop with the municipal school teachers, one said that she never considered that planning and thinking about the future could actually be fun whereas she'd previously looked upon it with dread.
     The most remarkable and exciting workshop was the mask story workshop with the children of prostitutes and women saved from trafficking (there was one Nepali girl who gave me a beautiful smile when I asked if she was Nepali).They were fabulous - imaginative, reflective, wise young people. Hmmm - what does that tell us? The 38 kids in the workshop are all going to school - 5th to 10th grade. They study English too. One boy in particular stood out among the rest. When I was putting the staples in their masks to have them shaped to their faces, this boy, likely in the 8th to 10th grade came up with a green scary mask. He had cut out irregular teeth in the mouth and it gave his mask a sinister look. That in and of itself was innovative compared to the others. I said to him, "Ooh, I hope you won't get into trouble." Then I said, "I'm going to sweeten your mask." and then proceeded to make folds on each side of the mouth turning it into sort of a smile. It did very much soften the appearance while not doing away with its strength. He said to the boy next to him, "Sweetened my mask." Then, when the time came for each group of five to select one who would tell their stories (I had asked for them to give qualities of what they wanted for themselves in their future), this boy had put all of the masks one atop the other on his face. I pointed to him to start and he gave the name of each student and the qualities that oftentimes included what they wanted to be when they grew up. He set the tone for all the other presentations moving his body appropriately for each mask. At the close of the workshop, I asked what they liked about it and that boy spoke twice, first saying that he was amazed to hear all the qualities and what the children wanted to be, especially the boy who wanted to become an animal scientist. He went on to say that he now realized that he can become any of those things too, and adopt the qualities (kind, loyal, etc.) into his own life. Then at the very close he spoke again and said, "This mask won't last a long time, but what I learned today I will never forget." I felt at that moment, hearing him speak that if that workshop was all I did the entire time in South Asia, as said in Jewish scripture, "It would have been sufficient." Tears came to my eyes.

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