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The women of Cuenca

The more you travel, the more you admire the industry and hard work of women. In Cuenca, we saw women carry things and sell eats, flowers and knick knacks on pavements and in street markets. Women manned the entries to churches and museums, sold us tickets and showed us around. Women served us in hole in the wall eateries, scurrying between kitchen and table even as their menfolk cooked inside. Here are some clicks of the beautiful women we met today, many of them clearly from native tribes of the region (like the Otovalos and Canari), distinct in their facial features and ethnic attire.

 

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Tales from Grandma: Are our children missing out?

At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).

Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.

In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.

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Amamma and me, Diwali 2015

The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.

The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?

The Happy People of Shiuwei #ShenzhenDiaries

If you were to force me to pick the best from the myriad experiences Shenzhen offered, I would choose the morning we met the ‘Happy People’ of Shiuwei (term coined by Partha that morning, using it with due credit). When Mary Ann told us we were going to meet women of the community, I expected an informal conversation. Instead, we walked into a hotbed of community activity in which village women had congregated to cook together in preparation of the Dragon Boat Festival.

The sights and sounds of the semi-open enclosure located within the compound of the village office reminded me strongly of childhood visits to my native village in Goa. There was a certain aura of ritual and a sense of comfort in the practiced way these women were working together, very similar to culinary preparations during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations at our ancestral home (read about chavath elsewhere on my blog). The dishes themselves, called zongzi and made of rice with multiple fillings that are carefully wrapped into palm leaves and then boiled in water, reminded me more of Kerala’s culinary repertoire. Besides the plain sticky rice, we observed fillings of cane sugar and peanut as well as duck eggs, pork and beans.

As the women worked, they chatted and laughed incessantly. I drew up a plastic stool next to one group and let myself be hypnotized by their rhythmic actions. They weren’t shy, sometimes making eye contact and smiling, but largely they seemed too engrossed to be distracted by my staring and filming (watch video below).

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Unlike the group cooking sessions within extended families or religious groups in India at occasions like weddings and festivals (increasingly being replaced by catered food or contracts to professional cooks, sadly), I was surprised to find out that cooking together is not traditional in this part of China. Instead, a few women in Shiuwei village with the patronage of Shuiwei Holdings Ltd, the village corporation or ‘company’, have taken on the responsibility of bringing women together thrice a year for ten-day periods to cook traditional food items together as an expression of community solidarity and feeling.

Behind the scenes, company employees and retired husbands of some of these women sat around smoking and chatting. They also cooked meals for the group making zongzi. In contrast to the cooking ladies, the men were a curious lot, asking about us and why we were here. On hearing I was from India, one of the men got very animated. “Indian women are always wearing clothes from which their fat tummies can be seen,” he exclaimed, “but you are not dressed like that!” In between feeling shocked at his lack of tact and laughing at the way he said it, I was tempted to show him the pictures from my #100sareepact page!

For me, meeting the Happy People was a great entry point into thinking through the social issues around transforming urban villages in Shenzhen. Located in Futian, Shenzhen’s commercial and administrative epicenter,  Shiuwei is among a clutch of urban villages that had the business savvy to redevelop land in a profitable manner. Rural land in China is collectively owned and by setting up shareholding corporations with village families as shareholders, villages have been able to partner with construction companies to build modern apartment buildings, factories and commercial blocks. In Shiuwei, a well-connected, educated and business-minded CEO (who also incidentally has a fascinating collection of stones housed on the ground floor of the well-landscaped corporation office that also houses recreation spaces for the elderly) appears to have played a crucial role.

Walking around Shiuwei, we saw ‘handshake’ housing blocks located on family plots similar to the ones in Baishizhou, though general standards of infrastructure were much better. We also saw the towering higher-end ‘commercial’ apartment blocks. A set of twin blocks, one carrying the village logo and the other the signage of the construction company, we learned, is a tell-tale sign of village-led redevelopment. On ground, shops specialized in fashion, massages and spa treatments, targeting tourists and rich Hong Kong merchants. The enormous amount of fresh housing stock created is let out to migrants (some of them second wives for the aforementioned rich Hong Kong merchants!).

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Redeveloped into commercial apartment towers, you can see the Shiuwei logo on one of the two

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In the foreground typical handshake buildings

It stands to reason that cooking together assumes enormous meaning for a community of village folk that is so vastly outnumbered by migrants from other parts of China. Savvy business strategy and increasing wealth cannot a community replace, that’s the takeaway here. Even as the exclusion of migrants from redevelopments processes in urban villages in Shenzhen is an area of significant concern, Shiuwei is a reminder of how transitions are not easy for native groups either.

Glimpses from Prayas 2016 #kathak

Adapted from http://rasikperformingarts.com

Coinciding with Republic Day, one of India’s three national holidays and one dedicated to celebrating our democratic Constitution, the talented dancers of Rasik Performing Arts presented its annual show in Epicentre, Gurgaon. For our dancers, Prayas 2016 was a culmination of a year’s learning under the gracious guidance of Guru Jayashree Acharya. I’ve been fortunate to learn from her and be part of this show and earlier ones for the past few years.

The blessed presence of Pandit Birju Mahahrajji at our show filled the atmosphere with a special electric charge. We all felt it and we hope our performances did justice to his great art and all-encompassing love and mentorship. Over 85 young dancers performed under Rasik’s banner during the evening, bringing a variety of items to a packed hall of rasiks and well wishers.

We were also honoured to have guests artists, dancers from Aakriti Foundation trained under Smt Sushmita Ghosh and eminent instrumental musicians Madhu Gopal, Goutam, Sunnu and Shiv Shankar perform at Prayas 2016.

Catch a few glimpses from Prayas 2016 below. We will post videos soon!

Pt. Birju Maharajji inaugurating Prayas 2016 and blessing all of us present Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanti

Pt. Birju Maharajji inaugurating Prayas 2016 and blessing all of us present
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Our youngest dancers presenting Guru Vandana Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Our youngest dancers- Aparna, Bhuvi, Samaira, Shambhavi, Yavi, Meher, Yuvika, Raima, Pari and Panchhi- presenting ‘Guru Vandana’, an invocation to Goddess Saraswati
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

‘Akaash’ by Mahi, Sneha, Ishita, Vrinda, Krisha, Anvi, Saraa, Suhani, Varaa, Eesha, Samaira, Shriya, Stuti, Manya, Lavanya, Kimaya, Ishita, Navya, Ashi, Adya, and Tishya Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

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Shuddha Nirtya in Jhaptaal by Anuradha, Anya, Arshiya, Arushi, Arzoo, Ashley, Dhrity, Eesha, Joanna, Malvika, Katya, Nandini, Nishtha, Panya, Riya, Sanjana, Nayanika, Sifat, Suhani, and Vidushi                                                                                                                                                            Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

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Sargam in Bilawal by Anya, Ashna, Aditi, Elaina, Anahita, Anushka, Devina, Khushi, Mihika, Mansi, Palak, Simran, Tisha, Vedanshi, and Vritika                                                                             Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Thumri- 'Dekho ri langar' by Shruti, Saumya, Simran and Mukta Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

Thumri- ‘Dekho ri langar’ by Shruti, Saumya, Simran and Mukta
Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

Guru Jayashree Acharya Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Guru Jayashree Acharya
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Jog tarana, Composed by Prateep Banerjee Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Jog tarana, Composed by Prateep Banerjee
Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni
Photo credit: Prasad Siddhanthi

Chaturang, including 4 elementsof dance, percussion, sahitya, and gaana Dancers- Anya, Anumita, Anusha, Riya, Nandini, Yukti, Vaidehi, Khushi Photo: Prasad Siddhanthi

Chaturang, including 4 elements of dance, percussion, sahitya, and gaana
Dancers- Anya, Anumita, Anusha, Riya, Nandini, Yukti, Vaidehi, Khushi
Photo: Prasad Siddhanthi

'Madhav'. A Krishna Bhajan by Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

‘Madhav’. A Krishna Bhajan by Anandi, Mahika Nair, Mahika Zutshi, Devyani, Ketaki, Nandini, Revati, Shubhangini, Saloni
Photo credit- Prasad Siddhanthi

The guru shishya parampara has lessons for modern education systems

Several scholars and social commentators are making the link between the rising tide of overt nationalism and a discomfort over the democratic nature of some educational spaces in India today. Janaki Nair, the feminist and historian from JNU, wrote yesterday in The Hindu that:

“The moral panic that has gripped large sections of the Indian public is… related to the fears about the democratising opportunities offered by campuses today. In this expression of outrage, the newly moralising Right ….. aims to replace critical thinking with worship, forms of hard-won equality with structures of deference, and forms of new community-building with a return to the ideal of the patriarchal “family”.”

She goes on to cite an example that is a bit uncomfortable for me. She sees in the Indian Council of Historical Research’s program to institute fellowships that will foster a Guru-Shishya parampara a patriarchal design. She says that shishyas will be tied in “a relationship of obedience and honour, rather than thinking and debating”. She sees this as a problem.

While I buy her point about the important place of critique and question in the process of learning (refer my earlier post on this issue), I’m not sure her understanding of guru shishya parampara is accurate. I’m no authority on the subject, but I’ve been a shishya, first of Hindustani classical music for many years and in recent years of kathak. In these years, I’ve interacted with many gurus and shishyas, heard many stories of how the gurus learnt and experienced first hand the complexity of this relationship and my comments are limited to the learning of the performing arts.

The relationship between the guru and shishya has some prescribed rules. Broadly, the shishya is expected to train rigorously and usually has limited freedom until this period of training is completed. This period may vary. Modern gurus permit their shishyas to perform in public much earlier than what was the norm a generation ago. Once the shishya is past her training period, she is not only free to make her own adaptations and improvisations to her art but is in fact expected to do so, while taking the traditions of her guru and gharana forward. A good guru will appreciate out of the box thinking, though the tolerance to deviating from the gharana’s essential style may vary. In the classical arts, learning is a lifelong process. In the traditional form of the gurukul, theoretical training involved both reading and debates among students and with the guru. The education was not designed to be a one-way dictatorial process and Prof Nair seems to imagine, though the status of the guru was (and is) undoubtedly exalted, with respected to her many years of rigorous sadhna and the exalted knowledge derived from this.

There are many positives to this model in my view – a long period of sustained interaction, an expectation of commitment, peer-to-peer learning and the setting of high standards. I do not believe the guru shishya parampara is in conflict with freedom of expression or dissent; yes, it is a system in which charting your own path comes after years spent learning the basics and that is the nature of the kind of knowledge the system was designed to impart.

In today’s far more transactional education system, with its short-term targets and restricted rather than expansive curriculum, the guru shishya parampara often finds itself out of sync. That I do perceive. I also feel that our dislike of religion-based politics must not blind us to the positive aspects of our traditions. And so, instead of writing it off, we must reflect on how to weave in some of its positives into our discourse on pedagogy and education.

Ajjee, family rockstar: Nearly 100 and indomitable still!

We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.

Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).

This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.

_DSC1797Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!

Weekend workshop: A fitting start to a delightful week of the classical arts ahead!

You know you aren’t so young any more when you are too tired to sleep at night after a few hours of intense dancing during the day. But you know you are young at heart when you wake up the next morning eager to begin again!

This sums up my experience of a 2-day kathak workshop held in Gurgaon at my guruji’s home. Shrimati Roshan Datye, eminent and senior disciple of renowned guru Late Smt Rohini Bhate came from Pune to teach us, bringing into my consciousness a whole new level of nuance and detail, enhanced attention abhinaya and an awareness of the theoretical aspects of natya that bind kathak to the great performing art forms across India.  It is this sort of exchange promoted by the guru shishya parampara that, in my view, demarcates the mundane from the truly meaningful in the world of the classical arts. My sincere gratitude to my guru Jayashree Acharya and to my daughter Aadyaa’s kathak guru Sushmitaji for giving us such a wonderful opportunity.

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity...Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity…Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days. A lady full of grace and energy

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days this past weekend. A lady full of grace and energy

Mere ghungroo...earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go...

Mere ghungroo…earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go…

Over two days, Roshanji taught three batches of students, ranging in age from about seven all the way up to 40! And at least 80 in number. She taught all three batches distinct stage-appropriate compositions. But beyond the compositions themselves, I was impressed by her own energy levels, her attention to detail and her innate ability to be a good teacher- a robust communicator who knows when to pick up the pace and when to slow down and her instinctive use of humor to highlight concepts or lighten awkward moments! Kathak thrives on analogies from our daily lives. A few days ago, we were blessed by the presence of Pandit Birju Maharajji (also at my guruji’s home) who also presented numerous examples of how kathak is drawn from simple everyday actions and emotions. Roshanji took forward that line of thought for me, helping me form many links inside my head, never mind that the body will take many more years of riyaaz to actually translate that understanding into graceful movements!

1240221_10151712498407851_1100834892_nThe two-day workshop set in motion a week of celebration of the arts by the Aakriti Foundation, run by a group of erudite artists including my guruji. This is an annual festival called Tasmai and is dedicated each year to a great artist this year Smt Rohini Bhate, Smt Datye’s guru. On the 22nd at the Habitat Centre at new Delhi, we look forward to none other than Pt. Birju Maharajji grace our festival with his presence on stage, preceded by a performance from the students of Nritya Bharati, Pune. On the 23rd, Pt. Sarathi Chatterjee and the Kedia Brothers will take the stage also at the Habiat Centre. The festival draws to a close on the 25th with dance performances by Maharajji’s children- for the first time, we will get to see both Deepakji and Mamtaji on stage and I really look forward to this. Students of Jayashreeji and Sushmitaji will also be on stage at Epicentre, Gurgaon on Friday the 25th. For those of you in Delhi and Gurgaon, there is plenty on offer. Do come forward to support the arts, for the love of beauty but also for the sake of the continuity of parampara (traditions) that are, as Roshanji reminded us yesterday, at least 3000 years old!

The hidden jewel of Dhanachuli #heritage #architecture

It is a running joke between me and my husband Rahul that I’m not really interested in travel destinations that do not involve foraging around among ruins. I vehemently denied this the last time we discussed a possible vacation. I love the beaches and the cruise ships, the road trips and the backpacking just as much as everything else, I said. But I can tell you I was delighted and amused in equal parts when Sumant mentioned a visit to the abandoned ruins of the original Dhanachuli village during the first evening of our weekend getaway to Te Aroha earlier this month!

Our planned excursion was delayed by a day thanks to nightly precipitation that left the path wet and slippery, but we were determined to go. Sunday morning found an enthusiastic group (comprising Vijay, Vibha, Aaditya and me guided by Sumant and a kind and generous staffer from Te Aroha) making its way down into the beautiful valley. Shortly after we had crossed the existing settlement that hugs the road, we got a taste of what was in store for us. An abandoned home, colonial in its proportions and bearing, but with the wooden carved doors and windows characteristic of the original homes in these parts. The stop vetted my appetite for more. I could see from Sumant’s expressions that this was the tip of the iceberg and an excitement gripped me for what was in store further below._DSC2261

Eave detail

Eave detail

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Carved door with typical colonial arch

Exquisite door

Exquisite door

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesnt quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Facade. I find the fusion charming, though the intricate carving doesn’t quite fit the robust proportions of this house, do they?

Detail

Detail. I would surmise this is a relatively newer home and the carvings aren’t as intricate as the older ones. Perhaps the type of wood available changed, perhaps the better craftsmen were no longer available…

Port hole?

Port hole?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top...great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

Wood structure, slate tile roofing and then lots of grass drying on top…great pic to make a section of the roofing huh, architect friends?

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into....

A glimpse into the valley we were descending into….

After maybe twenty minutes of walking alongside fields of corn, cabbage and peas, we started seeing the first homes in the settlement below. I was struck by the play of light on the beautiful stone masonry on these homes. Some roofs were caved in and the roofs were overgrown with grass. Hindu symbols like the trishul were clearly visible. Our sense of anticipation heightened and soon we were rewarded with the beautiful sight of the little cluster of original village homes that we had trekked all the way to see._DSC2305

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

Delightful glimpse of the cozy original settlement

The story goes that upper caste Hindus from the plains, from areas as far as Rajasthan and Gujarat, escaped forced conversion to Islam and moved into hilly terrain. The homes in the village therefore date back to anywhere between 150 and 200 years. Here, they settled down, amassing large land holdings and building these beautiful homes using local materials and the skills of local wood craftsmen from the Jhonsari community. However, they influenced the craftsmen substantially in the motifs they would use, typically snakes, fish, elephant and various other revered Hindu symbols with hints of Islam-influenced motifs as well. And in the shape of the niches, which are exactly like Rajasthani jharokhas. We could see Islamic influences in the types of arches used as well as in the typical geometric patterns of the carvings on some of the doors and windows. We stared, stitching the narrative of this fascinating time in history in our heads, imagining what it must be like for families who made this drastic move and how they must have hankered for small motifs and icons that served as reminders to what they left behind, that became a fragile but intensely beautiful link to their shared history and identity.

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

First glimpses of these spectacular houses

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

I found the elevation interesting. The bottom floor is for animals, so you ascend the dwelling itself through a single flight of stairs entered through that tall arch. This row of homes are perfectly symmetrical too!

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs

The carvings on these older homes are more intricate and diverse in terms of patterns and motifs.

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya :)

Love this pic! Thanks Aaditya 🙂

Sumant...Framed!

Sumant…Framed!

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

Bare and simple interiors as you would expect in a rural home

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Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Many of the homes are already completely ruined

Living heritage!

Living heritage

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

This particular house took my breath away with the detailing

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Notice the geometric patterns like the floor patterns in Mughal architecture

And this arch....

And this arch….

Delightful nuances of life

Delightful nuances of life

There would have been an archaeologist’s pleasure in walking through these ruined homes, but it wasn’t just history we were looking at. We found occupied homes as well in this little hamlet. Cows tied in the lower level under the exquisitely carved windows. A dish antenna screwed onto one of of the carved panels. This is living heritage, a cultural landscape that deserves attention. The contrast of the abandoned homes, to the ones that were used only for storage and the few that were still lived in told a story of economic change and loss of patience. Families had migrated up the valley towards the road, where livelihoods could be found catering to the tourists that passed by on their way to Mukteshwar as well as to the locals who lived in the village still. These homes still stood because they mean something to these people. Some are even propped up by new wooden pillars in a bid to save the roofs from caving in, but clearly no new investments are being made here.

The pictures clearly show that there is value in this heritage–the value of craft, architecture, a slice of history, a way of life. One way to conserve this heritage is to buy these beautifully carved frames and doors from these owners and cart them off, to be lovingly restored and installed in a swank, elegant and even opulent residence or heritage hotel in Delhi, or Mumbai. The other option is to find a way to conserve these homes in their original location, involving the local community in an effort that would not only augment revenue through targeted tourism and a renewable of the crafts, but also renew their bond with their rapidly disappearing material culture. A culture that spoke the language of wood and stone rather than brick and reinforced cement concrete and one that had space in it for art.

Sumant mentioned he would be happy to support, in part, a group of enthusiasts who could get together to showcase this delightful slice of heritage. Filmmakers, conservationists, artists and people engaged with the concept of responsible and sustainable tourism can join hands to save this hamlet from destruction. I think it is a fantastic seed of an idea that we could develop into a more meaningful pursuit.

A commitment towards equitable, sustainable growth #kumaon #tourism

My links with Kumaon go back to my school days, when my parents were associated with an NGO called Kassar Trust near Bageshwar and would make frequent trips to hold health camps and plan health-related interventions for mountain villages that had unique problems. In my teen years and into my early twenties, I gathered that life in Kumaon’s charming landscape was hard, especially for women who were often left coping as single parents as the menfolk migrated to the plains in search if employment. In our visits, we observed that Kassar Trust focused on empowering women to be able to take decisions in a stringent hierarchy of both caste and gender; decisions that could impact their lives hugely like signing up for better hand pumps and improve water access or build toilets in their homes. Further, they emphasized that the village people demand accountability from servants of the State and demand access to healthcare, education, etc. My parents and the NGO they worked with were convinced that this is the route to long-term and sustainable progress.

It's like watching a gigantic water colour, being up in the hills!

It’s like watching a gigantic water colour, being up in the hills! View from Te Aroha, Dhanachuli

Graced by a glimpse of the mighty Himayan range on the one clear day among many misty, cloudy ones

Graced by a glimpse of the mighty Himalayan range on the one clear day among many misty, cloudy ones. View from Te Aroha, Dhanachuli

In the aftermath of the recent floods that devastated parts of Uttarakhand, especially the Garwal region, I read articles by several notable experts that suggested that the state of Uttarakhand was born out of pressure from grassroots movements, many led by women. The editorials suggested that the ecological nightmare created by rampant and negligent development and construction and the apathetic and corrupt governance of the State was a betrayal of the local people who fought for and believed in a vision of a smaller, better governed, more productive State that would prioritize the happiness of its people, ecological balance and equitable growth over large investments that might be less sensitive. Knowing what I know of Kumaonis, I could well imagine the determination and perseverance of these shy but tenacious people in wanting more for themselves.

My recent trips to Kumaon have left me with a curiosity to know more about the development of the region and how it is perceived by locals. On one hand, this fruit growing belt appears enchantingly prosperous. You do not see, on the face of it, huge signs of poverty. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. I gleaned some insights from Deepa, who with her husband Ashish runs an enchanting resort called the Himalayan Village, Sonapani tucked away into the hills near the village of Satoli a little beyond Ramgarh and Nathuakhan. Deepa and Ashish have been running The Himalayan Village for a decade now. Cut off from the hordes (you have to trek to get there), they have made their life there and have fantastic insights into the lives of the Kumaoni people. Sitting there amid the beautiful wild flowers with a breathtaking view of the pine scented slopes, I was disheartened to hear about the caste biases that still prevail, the corruption that prevents government schemes from reaching the villagers. Deepa runs a small sewing centre from her property where local women learn to make bags and other small handicraft items that are then marketed and sold by Deepa through various channels. We heard of an upper caste woman, who was freshly widowed but faced criticism from her family when she joined the centre in a bid to be financially independent. We heard about low caste women who politely declined to participate in savings schemes, preferring to focus on ensuring their family gets decent nutrition. Lower caste families usually have very small land holdings and are subsistence farmers. Eloquent and honest, Deepa’s stories painted alive the conditions of women here, still leading tough lives, still tenacious and persevering. I know I will return to Sonapani, the history of which goes back over 100 years and which is the site of an ancient and therapeutic spring, to experience more, hear more, learn more and perhaps even do more…

The breathtaking view from The Himalayan Village Sonapani, a manicured wilderness...could imagine my children here, running free and wild!

The breathtaking view from The Himalayan Village Sonapani, a manicured wilderness…could imagine my children here, running free and wild!

The resort is as much about the people as the place. Deepa in here element, making us feel so at home!

The resort is as much about the people as the place. Deepa in here element, making us feel so at home!

Caught our fancy...these large colourful spiders all over the property...click, click, click is all we heard for a while!

Caught our fancy…these large colourful spiders all over the property…click, click, click is all we heard for a while!

Charming details

Charming details

Bringing up children here...the mommy in me was impressed, charmed, worried...all at once. But so reassured to see people practice a philosophy so few of us have the courage to..inspired, Deepa!

Bringing up children here…the mommy in me was impressed, charmed, worried…all at once. But so reassured to see people practice a philosophy so few of us have the courage to..inspired, Deepa!

As we drove back from Satoli to Dhanachuli, we observed other contradictions worth thinking about. While this region is not exactly overrun by tourists, many from the plains are beginning to populate these hillsides with second homes. Corrupting village pradhans to acquire land and using insensitive construction practices to build gigantic structures that are barely occupied for a few weeks a year seems like a recipe for disaster to me. As we drove through a protected forest on the way, I could see that year’s abundant monsoon has left the region greener and more thickly forested than before. Sumant Batra who kindly invited us to Te Aroha in Dhanachuli pointed out to us that the monsoons had other impacts too. Nature has had its way with irresponsible developments and we saw more than one spectacular collapse among properties that had been built in concrete using massive retaining wall structures, that had involved large scale and illegal felling of trees and in general been built with scant respect to the local conditions. It angered me, this sort of greed that not only disregards the ecology and culture of the region but actively endangers the lives and property of local villagers!

Clearly, the future of the region lies in empowering local communities with knowledge and power. It is a long road ahead, but I do know that if local governance is possible anywhere, it is in the hills where people are deeply connected to their roots and understand the devastating impact of pushing Mother Nature to the brink. We mustn’t lose hope, perhaps.

There are many ways by which you and me can contribute. By visiting regions like Kumaon in a responsible way, realizing full well that tourism if done rightly can be a strong economic backbone to address issues of poverty and inequity. By ensuring that as corporates and individuals we give back to the society and support genuine not for profits that work to empower local communities in the area. By falling in love with the mountains, again and again!

Chavath in Goa Day 3: The joy of Au revoir, till we meet again!

Those familiar with the classical arts in India would understand that it is vital for the tempo to reach a crescendo, like the taan in a Hindustani vocal musical recital, before the climax is achieved and the experience of the rasik (connoisseur) draws to a joyful end, which itself is a state that anticipates the experience of yet another cycle of beauty.

The last day of chavath in Goa feels like this. The family turns out in the best clothes and prepares to enjoy to the fullest even as the mind prepares to big adieu to Ganapati by immersing the God into the waters at the end of the day. Till next year….

I will focus on two experiences of this day that I particularly enjoyed this time round on our trip to Goa. The first is the ritual of taking a trip out to the fields to cut a bunch of rice stalks from the fields. At this time of the year, the rice fields are an electric green and the short stalks of rice stand in still water, imbuing the countryside with a sheen of magical greenery that contrasts and yet blends with the deeper green of the coconut palm skyline.

Nave, tender stalks of rice standing in the marshy fields

Nave, tender stalks of rice standing in the marshy fields

Goa's Green, a salve for the soul!

Goa’s Green, a salve for the soul!

We all trundled into Rohit’s van, a few of us adults and the entire gang of kids! Snehit, Saurabh and Udai were led on by Raunak, the oldest of the lot. Aadyaa tagged along, happy to be part of an adventure. We drove a short distance to the fields nearby, where a few families were engaged in wading out into the field and acquiring the nave, which was subsequently received into the house with pomp and ceremony. This time, Neela kaki did the aarti of the three young boys, washing their feet first, putting a teeka on them and also showing them the reflection of their faces in a shallow plate of water that had been made auspicious by the addition of kumkum and rice. This particular step of the aarti is unique to the Western coast in India, it seems. I’m married into a north Indian family and I haven’t seen anyone do this reflection stuff in these parts. The entire ritual of bringing in the nave seems to be another way, like the matoli, to connect the festival of chavath to the agricultural traditions of the community.

All watching the process of collecting the stalks of rice

All watching the process of collecting the stalks of rice

From a Catholic's fields, but then rice feeds everyone, right? :)

From a Catholic’s fields, but then rice feeds everyone, right? 🙂

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At some point, Aadyaa decides to adjust her dupatta...

At some point, Aadyaa decides to adjust her dupatta…

Anuja, Nandan kaka and Rohit light an auspicious lamp

Anuja, Nandan kaka and Rohit light an auspicious lamp

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Ushering in the nave, back at home

Ushering in the nave, back at home

Neela kaki in action....

Neela kaki in action….

Kids chilling at home after the little excursion...how cute they are...Snehit, Udai and Saurabh

Kids chilling at home after the little excursion…how cute they are…Snehit, Udai and Saurabh

And these two together are cute too....Saurabh and Aadyaa

And these two together are cute too….Saurabh and Aadyaa

The other tradition unique that may be unique to Goa happens towards the end of the day. Each house in the vaddo (a unit of the village) is visited by a group of singers comprised of a few people from every Hindu household from the vaddo. Our house is the last in the vaddo and so we wait a long time for this group of people to turn up, spending the afternoon preparing the prasad and neatly distributing it into 50-60 portions to distribute later. Even after they have sung the aartiyo so many times over, or perhaps because of that, the sheer energy they bring to the singing fills the air with an electric pulse of joyful energy. This time, I took video clips of their singing, that you can see here.

I found this tradition fascinating. In Rahul’s village in Rajasthan, ladies from the village come in to sing auspicious songs at daybreak during weddings and this is a great form of community participation. In Goa, the ritual of singing the final aarti not just with members of your family but with the larger family that is the village community takes relationships onto a new platform. These are people you may not know very well, but in the socio-economical construct of the village, they are your extended support structure and a certain level of interaction accompanied by the requisite dose of mutual respect is expected. By dedicating a person or two from your home (Viraj and Rohit took turns to go from our family this year) to join this group of singers, villagers create a collective identity that extends into their lives, tying the community together in an intangible manner. Yes, this group is a male group and this sort of distinction between the duties of men and women is also a mark of the traditional functioning of a Goan village that have remained intact through generations.

After the guests leave, the family carried the idol of Ganapati into the living room and we danced around Ganya, showering him with laayo (puffed rice, considered auspicious in most parts of the country). Watch my kakis and even the kiddos Udai and Snehit participate with gusto at close to midnight in this video clip of our little send off ritual. Udai saw this business to its end, insisting on going all the way to the immersion ghaat till he watched our little Ganapati sink into the waters to the sounds of more firecrackers and shouts of “Morya! Morya! Ganapati Bappa Morya!”

Goodbye Goa! We will be back for more, next year!

Ramuli kaka carrying our Ganapati out into the living room for his send off ritual

Ramuli kaka carrying our Ganapati out into the living room for his send off ritual

Our little jig around Ganapati. Check out the video link as well!

Our little jig around Ganapati. Check out the video link as well!

 

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