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.
Cuenca, Ecuador: Night walk
Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later.
After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing.
Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..
Advice for Bali: Get off the beaten track, if you can!
The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.
Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.
Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience
On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.
Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity
Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.
We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!
Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?
Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.
The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.
In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!
For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea
From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!
Sweet and sour escapades in Bali
This short trip to Bali presented a set of varied and interesting experiences. I had heard from friends and family about the quaint Balinese worship rituals and sure enough, the carved stone statues and beautifully decorated offerings to the Gods and demon spirits were everywhere. So was the tourist-oriented commerce with its plethora of souvenirs and knick-knacks, though the large number of designer clothing and accessory stores with high quality products and tasteful displays were the icing on the cake during our sojourns through Seminyak and Kuta. And, of course, there was the glorious sea!
We had done little advance planning for this trip, and I had the sense of floating from experience to experience over the three days we were in Bali. And because we had known each other so long, we were able to laugh at the imperfect decisions just as well as we savored the ones that turned out well. Which is just as travel ought to be, spontaneous and rich in detail, and stress free to boot! Presenting a set of small stories from our Bali sojourn….
The kindness of strangers
Bali offered us the perfect escape into anonymity, allowing us to have a reckless element to our capers on the beach. One evening, a couple of us were caught in strong currents and taken a tad further out to see than we had anticipated. Reaching the shore rather breathless (and a bit shaken) after a strenuous swim back, we were touched to find that the man from whom we were renting our deck chairs was already in the water, genuinely concerned for us and ready to get help!
Laughing at ourselves
One night, we ventured into Kuta to sample the nightlife and got lost trying to walk our way to Hard Rock Hotel. Now this is hard to do in Kuta, which is small and linear, but clearly we have talent! After resorting to an exorbitant cab ride to get to our destination, we caught the last one and a half songs of a talented rock band at Centrestage, in Hard Rock Hotel. After the band wound up and we downed the drinks we had hastily ordered, we moved to Hard Rock Café, only to find that the live band there, the one producing screechy noises in a language that was hard to identify, was also on its last song. And so, much amused by our pathetic attempts to enjoy Kuta’s nightlife, we spent a few silent and awestruck moments on the beach, watching the bright moon and sparkling stars reflected in the rhythmic waves, before heading back to the hotel.
For happy senses, go to the local Warungs
With two vegetarians in our midst, one of them prone to a number of allergies, we were slightly skeptical about food. We need not have been. We delighted in the local Warungs (equivalents of dhabas in India) as well as the streetside cafes and restaurants we found. The Warungs specialised in local Balinese and Indonesian food. Our first meal, in the tiny Warung opposite our hotel, was chosen from a limited menu but was deliciously prepared, happily customised and served with side dishes of conversation and friendliness! My favourite meal in Bali it was. Warung Ocha in Seminyak allowed you to pick what you wanted from a buffet and the most tasteful dishes were the salads and veggie stir fries.
There’s also a lot to be said for the highly developed sense of aesthetics in Bali and the sinple Warungs capture this well. In Ocha, the landscaping and interplay of indoor and oudoor spaces would put most high-end restaurants to shame! Warung Damar in Kuta was more upmarket and the beef redang and veggie gado gado were memorable. Dinner at La Sal, the Spanish eatery down the road, with its sense of space, stood out for its careful preparation and assembly.
Unexpected celebrity status
That Indian cinema is popular worldwide is not news. Two young girls who offered us a share of the their offerings at Tirta Empul giggled about Salman Khan and Shahrukh. But we were all rather surprised that soap operas from Indian television seemed to really capture the Balinese imagination.
Wayan, our taxi driver for the day trip we took to Mount Batur, had me down as his contact person. Even as we discussed how common his name was in Bali, he expressed how delighted he was to have met a person called Mukta in person! Now this was a bit strange, as mine isn’t a particularly common Indian name. He murmured something about Mukta being a character in a daily Hindi soap called Utaran that he watched (dubbed in Bahasa, of course). At the buffet lunch we ate that day, our server Putu (another common name in Bali), was ecstatic when I introduced myself. She beckoned to her friends in excitement, pointing to me and saying “Mukta Rathore, Mukta Rathore…” once again referring to the character in the soap. I sure did not expect to be a celebrity in Bali!
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!
Reclaiming streets to showcase talent [1/2]: Kathak on a Raahgiri morning
A group of us trouped off to Raahgiri on a Sunday morning. It happened to be 8th March, International Women’s Day. To back up a bit, Raahgiri started in Gurgaon as a movement to reclaim streets and has now spread to Connaught Place and Dwarka in Delhi as well as to Chandigarh and Bhopal. The idea is to cordon off a section of the city every Sunday for people to walk, cycle, run, dance, work out and generally have a ball without worrying about being run over by a car! We’ve been several times last year to do one or many of these things, but this particular Sunday was special. This time, we were there to support and encourage a group of talented young girls who learn kathak from my guru Jayashree Acharya.
Kathak at Raahgiri? Well, this is the kind of place where a hundred people are happy to bump and grind to a salsa or zumba workshop (yea, I’m following this post up with another one on the most hilarious zumba class ever!) a couple of dozen are taking a kick boxing demo elsewhere while a group of dedicated women slog on their mats in a power yoga session.
So there we stood, with the girls all decked up in colorful lehengas, jewelry and make up at 8:30 am…with a tepid scattered bunch of people for an audience loitering in front of the stage; half of them parent and relations of the performers! ‘This won’t do, will it? We got to show them what we got!,’ I thought.
On Guruji’s advise, I took charge of the microphone to introduce Kathak, it’s history, what it means and the significance of engaging with a serious dance form- a short introduction to engage and prepare the audience. Then, the girls came on stage and worked their magic. The mood began to shift. The people lined up on the other side of the road, not wanting to join in at first, now slowly drifted to our side of the road. Phone cameras came on, little children came and stared, cyclists stopped to watch, runners slowed down as they went by.
Kathak at Raahgiri was a runaway success, a great kickstart to the morning and hopefully, an inspiration for many more to showcase their talents on public platforms and spread the message that Kathak (or other forms of classical art) is not high culture, it’s also our public culture that we can share and enjoy. As for me, I’m thankful and proud to be part of a group of dedicated and spirited dancers who inspire and energize me everyday!
Learning kathak from the maestros: Struggle & satisfaction
I’ve only been learning kathak for some three years, a very small amount of time when I compare it to those who have been immersed in the dance form throughout their lives. As my guru Jayashree Acharya tells us, this is a journey of constant, lifelong learning. Once you embark on it, it has to be with an attitude of submission and determination.
There are also times in your learning when you are asked to make a leap of faith, as we were this past weekend when Deepak Maharajji, eminent kathak exponent and son of the illustrious Birju Maharajji, spent some time with us in workshop mode. I’ve watched him perform at various points in time and have always been struck by his energetic style, an interpretation of his guru’s taleem (broadly, teachings, but far more..). He is a very masculine dancer, but watching him up close helped me appreciate other aspects of his dance, notably abhinaya (experession) and his effortless relationship with sur and taal (melody and rhythm).
Before getting onto the floor myself, I watched Deepakji teach young children (among them my little one Aadyaa), who were completely engrossed in what he was saying and demonstrating to them. It was wonderful to see them pick up little nuances, one imitated the flick of his wrist, another copied the guru’s stance for the sam! When I was in the workshop, however, I found myself struggling quite a bit. One part of my brain was trying to understand the sequence and details, another was recognizing patterns to imitate. I remember thinking about how much more instinctive younger students were while they learnt and I willed myself to dance by instinct, let myself go and, at the guru’s instance, simply enjoy the experience! For the entire hour we learnt from him, I was ecstatically happy.
Perhaps I can recall only snatches of what we were taught. Those students who had learnt for longer and those who had better grasp of kathak, would be able to reproduce more of course. What I did take away was an enhanced involvement with kathak as an art form, a deeper sense of understanding, a certain attitude and the importance of linking movements with a narrative, a story. And a feeling of being blessed with a higher, almost sacred knowledge.
I saw the face of my guru Jayashreeji’s light up many times through the day, delighting in the moments of joy created by, not just the dance, but the interactions of artistic minds. I’m nowhere in that league, but I was privileged to observe and participate in such an atmosphere of unbridled creativity. For that chance, I have to thank my guru and my destiny….I can only hope this experience seeps into the way I dance! Let us see…
Memory tools: A bombed out church turns into urban scale artwork
I’ve seen this sort of stuff before in Germany. Many years ago in Cologne, I remember walking on a street with a giant circle inscribed in it, to remember the Roman structure that once stood there. It was 1999. I had recently graduated from architecture college and the simple memory tool simply blew my mind!
This summer in Berlin, I noticed that the heavy scent of memory and nostalgia, tinged with sweetness and pain, still hangs around every street corner. And so I was particularly struck by this little open space near Checkpoint Charlie.
It’s called Bethlehemkirchplatz. Here, where a Church once stood, stands a metal frame that recreates the outline of the original building in a giant three-dimensional sculpture designed by Spanish artist Juan Garaizabal (it is a tube structure that plays with light apparently, but we saw it only in the daytime). You walk inside it and you see the plan of the erstwhile church inscribed into the paving in a distinct colour. It urges you to try and conjure up its walls and roof, its interiors, furniture, people. And you cannot, because it is in fact an empty space, filled with memory and emotion.
A 16th C church built for Szech Protestant refugees who came to Berlin at the time of Frederick William the 1st. Built around 1737, the church was bombed during the WWII in 1943 and in 1963 the ruins were brought down. The current artwork was inaugurated as recently as 2012.
We first caught a tantalizing glimpse of the sculpture on our way back from Checkpoint Charlie on Day 1 of our exploration of Berlin (more on that later). But it stayed in my mind and we went back to it another time to feel wha its like to stand inside that shell. Interestingly, the plaza is also known for the building in the background that was designed by well-known architect Philip Johnson and in this way, the place holds more than just memory but is linked to Berlin’s recent history and architectural prowess.
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.
Always 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.
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!