Hello readers, apologies for the late post - it's been a hectic few days of traveling. In the past week, I've studied poetry, singing, and Kathak dance, walked barefoot through ancient temples, and spun around to the beat of goatskin drums played by Karnataka folk performers.
Last week began with a poetry workshop taught by two members of the (Great) Indian Poetry Collective (greatindianpoetrycollective.wordpress.com). The GPIC aims to promote Indian poetry in India and abroad by publishing poets' work and teaching student groups. Using poems written by Indian poets as examples, the instructors led us through writing three poems in an afternoon. They encouraged us to use poetry to exoticize the familiar and question why things are the way they are. We examined the differences between news briefs and poems about the same story, and concluded that poetry can capture meaning in an event that other forms of writing can't - a poem doesn't just state the facts of a situation; it can also express irony and emotions surrounding it. As such, our teachers explained, poetry is a powerful tool for social justice. They encouraged us to use poetry as a gateway to other types of writing; for example, maybe I'll write a few poems about the reception of Latino immigrants in rural Iowan communities before I begin writing my research paper next month to help me keep the meaning of my work in perspective. I love the idea of this seamlessness between artistic expression and academic or professional work.
On Tuesday, the group met with Mr. Malesh, our farmer friend, and a friend of his who drives an autorickshaw. Mr. Malesh explained a little more about what we saw at Krishnarajendra Market last week. He told us that the flowers we saw never go to waste; many families and temples receive a daily delivery of flowers the same way that my family gets a newspaper on the front porch. He also spoke about the difficulties facing farmers who bring their crops to the market, from the rising costs associated with bioengineered seeds to deforestation resulting from the rise of the tobacco industry and the associated need for clear land. His rickshaw wallah friend, whose name I sadly forgot to write down, talked about his own transition from farmer to factory worker to auto driver after his farm was overtaken by Bangalore's urban sprawl. After three weeks of seeing only the back of countless auto drivers' heads and wondering what their lives are like, it was fascinating to hear about his day-to-day routine. He works ten hour days and brings home around 350 rupees in the evening, about US$5.50. But on the strength of this income, he has been able to take out and pay off loans to send his three daughters to English-medium schools, and one is in her second year at an engineering college. His hard work is vaulting his children into a totally different life. Even though he could only speak to us through Anu's translation, his sweetness and the pride he takes in his work and family were clear. The longer I'm here, the more I'm learning about the lives of the people I meet.
Wednesday and Thursday were full of music. First, we enjoyed a Tumri performance, a classical form of singing. As a singer myself, I was thrilled to talk technique with an Indian vocalist. She explained that manipulating timbre, or the quality of one's voice, is really a western concept - Indian classical music should be sung in a voice as close to one's speaking voice as possible. Classical music also has no concept of harmony; a drone may provide support for the singer, but the two key elements of a song are raga, or melody, and taal, rhythm. Rather than our twelve-note scale, the classical Indian scale consists of as many microtones as the singer can hear, hence the sliding sound present in a lot of Indian music.
We also participated in a Kathak dance workshop with a dancer who spent eight years living in Seattle, dancing with a company on Capitol Hill! She gave us a good workout as well as an education in Kathak dance. It is an intensely rhythmic form; dancers wear bells around their ankles - the more accomplished the dancer, the more bells - and their footwork must align perfectly with the music. She studies classical Indian music as well as dance, so she also tried to teach us a song to sing (which we, with our western ears, failed at pretty hilariously). After she sang it for us beautifully, I asked how she produced the piercing, floating quality of her voice, explaining that I'm also a singer. She turned the question back at me, asking about the differences between vocal production in western classical singing and Indian singing. From the corner of the room, Anu called out, "Show us!" The entire group, Indhu and Usha, and our dancing/singing instructor all looked at me expectantly. So, feeling awkward, I sang through the chorus of the song she had taught us with the best University Chorale voice I could muster. Then, I tried to imitate a more Indian sound. Our singer looked delighted and told me that she'd never really thought about vocal production. Then, she wanted to know how high I could sing, so I sang a few high notes. Then, she wanted to know how vibrato worked, so I sang a few straight tones and a few with vibrato. From the corner again, Anu commanded, "Sing us a song!" So that's how, in a classroom in Bangalore, I sang the first page of Faure's Pie Jesu in front of a Kathak dancer, two women's rights activists, and eleven classmates - life is weird.
On Thursday morning, I sat down for a one-on-one with Anu. I've felt really anxious about doing this trip "right," learning concepts that I can "use" and articulating them so that others can understand. I see and hear so much every day, but when I lie in bed at night, my mind is blank - I'm so overwhelmed by just witnessing Bangalore that I feel like I can't even begin to think about what it means that I'm here or what I'm learning from this experience. Anu assured me that this is by design. She explained it like this: If we have a tree of all the things we've learned, some experiences show up as leaves or branches. You might be able to point to a particular branch and say, "That's Political Science 200" or a particular leaf that's a concert you went to. But the experience traveling to the opposite side of the world and thinking about foundational issues like poverty, race, and gender in a completely new context creates changes in the roots of the tree. These changes aren't visible right away, and when they do alter the way the tree grows, it might not be clear that the tree looks different because of one moment or event. But nevertheless, the change is present and profound, and digging at the roots only slows the processing of what I'm taking in right now. This blog is pretty much a list of things I've done, because I'm still working on thing's I've learned. If you ask me "How was India? What did you learn" when I get back, I might just wave my hands a little bit and give a stupid answer like, "It was great! I learned about Indian art and stuff!" But check back - maybe after a month or a year, I'll be able to say more.
On Friday, we left our homestays early in the morning to board a bus for Shravanabelagoda, a 1000-year-old Jain holy site. After several jolting, jarring hours aboard a bus driven by a man who didn't believe in potholes or speedbumps, we checked our shoes at the bottom of a hill and walked barefoot up massive stone steps warmed by the sun to the temple above. Inside the temple is the tallest monolithic carving in the world, a statue of Gommateshvara Bahubali, the founder of Jainism. The statue is 58 feet tall and breathtakingly carved, polished smooth by centuries of rain and wind. The Gommateshvara also enjoys a breathtaking view - the hill sits on a flat plain green with miles of coconut palms in neat rows.
On the way to Hassan, the town where we spent the night, we stopped at a small-town market. Anu had a great time translating the locals' quips as our very foreign-looking group walked through. One old man yelled to his friends, "Anybody need a bride? They'll take you back to New Zealand with them!" When a vendor selling brooms tried to sell his wares to us, a marketgoer chastised him, "You dummy! They're here to see the market, not sweep the market!" Another man tapped Trent on the shoulder and snapped a selfie with him - his big red beard and pale skin make him an object of interest wherever we go, especially in the countryside where fewer foreigners pass through.
Our last stop of the day was the Hemavathi dam outside Hassan. Mr. Malesh convinced the guard to let us climb the stairs to peer over to the reservoir on the other side, so as dusk fell we ascended more than a hundred feet to stand on the wall of the dam. The reservoir, with its gently lapping water and softly curving coastline, reminded me of Puget Sound. But submerged under the reservoir are 46 villages, representing thousands of people displaced when the dam was built. The dam provides energy to Hassan and the towns surrounding it, supporting their economic prosperity, but at a terrible cost for the farming families forced out of their homes. Looking out over the water, everyone was quiet, wondering: how does a society grow well? How can it balance these costs?
Saturday took us to Belur, another ancient temple outside Hassan. Belur is a living Hindu temple, and we arrived at the perfect time: on Saturday mornings, the priests perform a ritual bathing of the Vishnu statue inside, washing it with coconut water, curds, honey, ghee, and turmeric. Exuberant music and drums drew us into the temple and we watched at the back of a silent crowd as the priests handed up offerings to a man on a high platform next to the statue and he splashed them over Vishnu's head. At the end of this ceremony, called the abisheka, faithful families take home jars of the runoff to eat, similar to Christian communion. The temple itself was incredible - the walls are covered with small stone carvings, and no two figures are alike. For a thousand years, generations of visitors to the temple have examined the minute differences between each elephant parading around its base and tasted the sweet, pungent mixture of offerings to Vishnu collected at the deity's feet. The Liberty Bell's got nothing on India's historical sites.
On Sunday, Ruby and I said a fond farewell to our host family and headed back to the hostel. Our two weeks with the Gopakumars flew by! From showing us the best ice cream shop in Indiranagar to helping us made sense of Indian politics to insisting we take just one more helping of dhal, the family made us feel so at home. Hopefully they'll be visiting Seattle soon!
On Monday, the group piled back into the bus and headed to Janapada Loka (www.jaanapadaloka.org), a folk art museum outside the city. We were greeted by a parade of dancers/drummers/acrobats who led us to an outdoor amphitheatre and performed for us. Their energy was incredible - for an hour, they danced, played, and formed human pyramids by standing on each other's drums. They even invited us up to dance with them - or in my case, to flail awkwardly while they danced. The museum is serving its purpose as a means of preserving tribal art forms; performances like this have become a source of income for the performers and encourage local young people to learn traditional forms.
Today, Tuesday, Meili, Ruby and I visited a travel agent to get help planning our trip to Delhi after the program ends. The train tickets are booked, Meili and I are staying in an apartment in a nice part of the city, and we have a driver for the entire week - many people have cautioned us against using taxis or autorickshaws in the north, so we're playing it safe. A week from now, I'll be 24 hours into a 40 hour train ride across India... surreal. Even though I'm officially finished with my study abroad program this Thursday (whaaaaat?), I'll be posting updates here until I return to Seattle in two weeks