Please turn off all cellphones at this time – Indian style

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During our stay in Hyderabad, a friend in the city urged us to go to a concert that she promised would be outstanding. The performers were an all-star duo of Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain.

Shivkumar Sharma is an Indian musician who brought an old Indian 90 to 100-stringed instrument called the santoor back from obscurity. He is considered to be a national treasure worthy of the Indian title “Pandit” (from which is derived our word “pundit”). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvVtX-JiF28

Zakir Hussain is another giant in the Indian classical music world. He plays the tabla, which looks something like a pair of bongo drums. Sharma and his santoor were wonderful, but Hussain stole the show for me. What he is able to do with his hands on the drumheads was beyond amazing.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOUM8K0-Wkc

Almost as amazing for us were the practices and audience etiquette at the concert. The first thing that struck us was the use of an emcee whose primary function was to get the audience’s enthusiasm up a notch: “Let’s put your hands together and give Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain a rousing welcome!”

Then the concert began and the audience participation really ramped up. Cell phones came out by the score and were held high to take photos and videos of the performance, with camera flashes going off repeatedly. Also, people continued to walk in and out throughout the performance, often walking across the front of the hall between the stage and the first row of seats, literally 10 feet from the two musicians.

The ultimate in audience participation was a man who climbed up a set of steps onto the stage to take in-your-face photos of the two performers. Because Sharma and Hussain were playing while seated yoga-style on the floor, the overly enthusiastic fan loomed over them. He left the stage only when Hussain invited him to leave.

The question I was left asking is how did the man ever make it up the steps onto the stage? There was a bouncer standing next to the steps, and his job was to stop audience members from going up onto the stage. The guy was big and all in black, including a black spandex polo shirt stretched tight across his rippling Schwarzenegger-like chest. He stood silently, back to the wall, legs slightly spread and arms crossed in front of him to expose biceps as large as a tree trunk. Later, our hosts told us that bouncers are routinely hired at concerts to keep fans and critics off the stage. But when our fan walked up the steps to shove a camera into the face of one of India’s national treasures, the guy in black didn’t move a muscle. Go figure.

Connecting

The Internet – devil and angel. Devil when you’re thousands of miles from home, dying for news or an email from family or messages from Facebook friends. But you can’t connect and life becomes a game of watching the dreaded spinning ball or spiraling circle or glacially creeping blue line that goes no where. Angel when you throw a question into cyberspace and someone on the other side of the world responds and virtual friendships become real friendships.

This happened twice this trip. The first time was when I did a Google search for people doing alternative photography in India.* Only thing that came up was something called GoaCap – Goa Center For Alternative Photography. I applied for a short residency and was accepted for two weeks in February.

I pretty much didn’t know what to expect, so I packed up a lot of materials and supplies just in case (the biggest different between digital and alternative photography is the vast quantity and variety of things you need to actually make a photograph from film to chemicals to paper to cameras that don’t know from media cards). Much of what I took (film and photo paper) is negatively affected by trips through security scanners. Every plane ride necessitated first requesting and then arguing with gate agents and screeners about why my x-ray sensitive materials needed to be hand checked. Fifty percent of the time I won, the other 50 percent my film and photo paper lost.

I had two very productive weeks at Goa Cap thanks in very large part to Edson Diaz (shown here in a photo I took of him and his Leica):
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who was incredibly gracious with his time and expertise, teaching me processes such as albumen and salt printing – things I had never attempted before. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albumen_print. I had brought a pinhole camera with me and we also made one out of a metal pot. which actually took some pretty interesting photos after a lot of fine tuning by Edson:
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"20140216-2307<br Here are some examples of the prints I made at Goa Cap:
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These are a couple of prints I made using albumen and salt processing methods.

The 2nd connection I made thanks to the Internet was to a fellow I met on a photography forum called (oddly enough) The Ugly Hedgehog. All I knew about Indrajeet Singh was that he lived in Goa and took amazing photographs of birds. I sent him a message asking for advice about where to buy film in India and one thing led to another which led to a gracious invitation to dine at a marvelous Indian restaurant during our stay here. Mickey (Indrajeet’s nickname) and his lovely wife Zwe were charming, gracious hosts and who regaled us with stories of their adventures taking groups of photographers on wildlife safaris in parks and preserves all across India. We left that evening with two new friends as well as a long list of places to visit on our next trip here.
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*Alternative photography” in its simplest sense (and depending how strict your definition) is pretty much anything that’s not digital, although a digital picture that is processed (printed) in a way that doesn’t involve a ink jet printer (a cyanotype, for example) is considered Kosher – by some. It’s confusing. I know. I’ve been interested in alternative processing every since I took a course with Lana Caplan at MassArt. Lana Z Caplan. I’ve now taken this course 3 times and plan to take it again next fall. Last year I spent several weeks studying with Syko Song in Taipei (see the blogs for December 2013).

Groovy Goa and David’s Wham-O Moment

Apparently there was just a piece in The New York Times travel section about Goa as a beach vacation paradise. It is definitely that. The fine, white sand beaches are gorgeous. The water was of a “this ain’t the North Atlantic” temperature. The choices of restaurants serving great food is endless. The feeling is laid back and mellow compared with other parts of India. Would I come back here? In a heartbeat. But not just because of those selling points. Sam warned that after a few days we’d find the crowds of boisterous Israelis on R and R from the army exhausting. The large-framed, white bellied (sun burned) Australian and Russian tourists would be less than picturesque, The Indian tourists (mostly young men turned loose and out of control) would become quickly annoying. The 24/7 “let’s party!” culture would turn us off. None of those things happened. In fact, those were the very things that, at least for me, I liked the best about Goa. They presented a non-stop buffet of picture taking opportunities. People immersed in their few days of fun in the sun become both disinhibited and totally oblivious to anyone taking their picture. I had a ball.

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From David: there’s one picture that Lora was not able to get. It was a shot of a gorgeous, young French blond standing at the water’s edge using a hoola-hoop — topless. Wham-O!!, for those of you who remember the brand name. And her thong was too small to cover the label “Made in France”.

Don’t Eat The Monkey

Bad monkey.jpgWe checked into the very lovely Sanctuary Tissawawa Hotel in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka and were shown to our room. The bell boy showed us how to work the lights, turn on the AC, and locate the mini bar. While taking his leave, he requested that we “not eat the monkeys.” Hahahaha. Who would think of eating a monkey? Obviously a failure to communicate. We smiled and nodded as if we understood perfectly. Then he said, “When you leave your room, please make sure to tightly close the doors and windows and don’t leave anything outside as the bad monkeys will take it away. Especially food.” Oh, he meant don’t feed the monkeys.

After unpacking, we retired to the chairs on the veranda in front of our room and watched those cute monkeys cavorting in the nearby trees. Within no time they were swinging from tree to roof to veranda. All the while eyeing us carefully.  I grabbed my camera to take a picture of darling baby monkey clinging to his mama’s back. Suddenly Papa aka Satan in Fur was snarling and hissing at us from the railing, dangerously close to where we were sitting. (We later learned that pointing a camera lense toward a monkey is perceived as aggressive direct eye contact. And monkeys apparently share our view that the best defense is a good offense.)

“I don’t feel too good about this,” I said to David who, in his most assertive lawyer’s voice, was rather ineffectively ordering the monkey to back off. There was a table between us and our bedroom door and the damn monkey was moving in for the kill. We looked around for something to throw but all we had were our iPhones, to which we are rather attached. We decided to make a run for it and as we slammed the door behind us the monkey flung himself at it. He meant business. He tried the window, hissing and snarling in earnest.  We had to call reception to liberate us (weapon of choice was a broom), explaining that we didn’t, in fact, try to eat the monkey. The above photo was taken through the closed window, just moments before he jumped toward it a second time to further emphasize his displeasure with us.  Trust me, that’s the last time I aim my camera at a monkey.

Our Guy Ganesh

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Meet Ganesh the lovable Hindu god who, among other things, removes obstacles and ensures success.

When our son Max returned from India with a small statue of Ganesh for his son, Elijah became so enchanted with the deity that he began to take on the persona. He actually began calling his mother Pavrati, which is the name of Ganesh’s maternal unit. He is also taking full advantage of Genesh’s ability to remove obstacles and give success. The ante was upped when Eli decided to make his own Ganesh costume, which we, his proud grandparents, think is totally brilliant:

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Max asked if we could bring home another small statue or a tee shirt or book about Ganesh for Eli’s arsenal. We got a little carried away (the birthright of grandparents) and found an adorable Ganesh tote:

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We haven’t found a tee shirt yet, but scored big time in the marvelous market in Mapusa (pronounced Mopsa) where we found a musical Ganesh nightlight that sings jaunty tunes to wake you up:


And helps you meditate your way to sleep.


I hope Eli likes it as much as we hope he might. Otherwise I’m claiming it for my bedside table.

Some images from the Mapusa market, which is where we went to ship home all the stuff the airlines will surely charge us for overweight.

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Friendly and eye catching locals:

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Some remnants of the Portuguese influence here:

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And a photo of another laid back Goan:

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Udaipur: City of Bond, James Bond

David: Rajasthan was on Sam’s itinerary wish list because of everything he had heard of my visit there with Max in 1994 and with Lora in 2010. To give us enough time, he and I left Lora, Jonathan and Max in Varanasi a few days early and flew to Udaipur, a city in the south of the state.

Udaipur is the city made famous by the Lake Palace Hotel, where Max and I stayed in the flush days of 1994. (A story from our 1994 stay in the Lake Palace is later in this posting.) In the not-quite-so-flush days of 2014, Sam and I had to content ourselves with a distant view of the Lake Palace from a not-quite-as-plush palace on the ghat alongside the lake.

Lake Palace

Lake Palace Hotel & David

Movie buffs among you will remember the Lake Palace as the site of many scenes in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy. For those of you without that memory, every restaurant in town will remind you.
Octopussy
One of the high points for us in Udaipur was the Jagdish Temple, built in 1651 and devoted to Vishnu, the supreme Hindu god. The temple was just a couple of hundred yards from our hotel and Sam and I rushed over when we heard a ceremony in progress. A Sadhu holy man sitting at the temple’s entrance acknowledged us as we snapped his picture. The following video captures one man’s total commitment to the ceremony.
Udaipur Sadhu at Vishnu Temple

Udaipur Temple Video

One of the “medium” points in Udaipur, at least for me, was our search for a small jewel of a room that Max and I had discovered in 1994. It was in the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, which is part of the beautiful and vast City Palace complex. We had dinner one night alongside a reflecting pool in one of the hotel’s interior courtyards. While we ate, a sitar player performed on steps leading to the room on the opposite side of the courtyard. After dinner we explored the room, which was a beautiful two-story library room.

Sam and I found the courtyard and library. The courtyard’s reflecting pool is now a swimming pool, surrounded by chaise lounge chairs rather than by an elegant dining area. And the room is now a bar/cocktail lounge, not a library. It’s still very beautiful, but not quite what it had become in my memory.
Shiv Niwas Library
The Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel “library” (above) and the City Palace at night.
Udaipur City Palace at night
Now about Max’s and my stay at the Lake Palace in 1994. Since Max was showing me “his India” on that visit, we were staying in $1 a night hotels. On at least one occasion, the bathroom was simply a hole in the floor in a corner of the room with a dripping spigot above it. Udaipur was the exception since I had heard of the Lake Palace. I reserved a room to make sure we could get in.

For some forgotten reason, we decided to arrive in Udaipur a day early and I wanted to make sure the Lake Palace would have a room for us. We were then in Agra and, in 1994, the only practical option was a telephone booth in the street where an attendant was on duty to place calls. Try as he might, he could not make a connection. Inspired after 20 minutes of frustration watching cows, pigs, goats, monkeys, water buffalo, sheep, etc. meandering past the phone booth, I asked the attendant to call my office in Massachusetts. Thanks to its being a satellite connection, the call went through effortlessly. I asked my assistant to call Udaipur to let the hotel know I would be arriving early, and her satellite call also went through effortlessly. All the while the attendant was still not able to make a landline connection.

When we arrived in Udaipur, we found the hotel almost empty. It seemed that the day after I had flown out of Boston there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in nearby Gujarat, and the world’s elite had cancelled their travel plans in droves. It was a lesson in “You never know…”

No More Monkeys Jumping On the Car !!!

There must be something about Jain temples and monkeys. This Mama & Baby landed on the hood of our car as I was driving up Mt. Abu to see the Jain temples at Dilwara. The same thing happened four years ago when Lora and I were driving to the Jain temple in Ranakpur. The only difference is that Lora wasn’t warned by our driver: “NO WINDOW!” and the lead monkey tried to climb into the car.

Monkey-improved

Hindi, by Jessie Eisenberg

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Please note that I am eating authentic biryani in Hyderabad, the home of this most delectable rice concoction. Also please note that, according to local custom, I am eating it with my hand. My right hand to be specific, so as not to offend – or more accurately to repulse – any Indians who still use their left hands for other functions (in lieu of toilet paper, for example). Not visible in this picture is David, happily using a fork to convey this tasty meal into his mouth in a far more practical and expedient manner.

As Max has noted, paper napkins in India are wax coated, so they simply spread grease from one place to another. Thus, until you have access to hot water and soap, your biryani meal sticks to more than your ribs.

In Waltham, Massachusetts, where we live when we are not in India trying to escape the winter weather, I mean, in India seeking spiritual enlightenment, there are many people from India and for each one, it seems, an Indian restaurant. I would love to be able to enjoy a good dish of biryani close to home in any one of these Indian restaurants. But that’s not happening. Not because they don’t offer biryani. People say to us, “Oh, you live in Waltham. There are many Indian restaurants there. Why are they all so terrible?” I have no idea, but I can tell you, I’ve tried them all and gotten sick in each one.

Jessie Eisenberg (whom I will forever confuse with Mark Zuckerburg) is not only a talented actor, he is a funny writer. And a successful one as well, as witnessed by his piece in last week’s The New Yorker magazine (thankfully available on line here in India).

If I Was Fluent in Hindi, by Jessie Eisenburg

WAITER AT INDIAN RESTAURANT: Hello, sir, welcome to an authentic Indian restaurant. Do you have any questions about the menu?
ME: Yes. Why does your food always make me sick?
WAITER: Because we serve our American customers the kind with the weird spices that irritate their intestinal tracts.
ME: Oh.
WAITER: Yes, it’s official policy at all Indian restaurants.
ME: Well, what do you serve your Indian patrons?
WAITER: We give them a better kind of Indian food, which does not irritate their intestinal tracts.
ME: Can you give me the better kind?
WAITER: Yes, of course. Since you asked in my language, I feel more comfortable accommodating you.
ME: Thank you.
WAITER: Please don’t tell your American friends about the option to get Indian food that won’t make them sick.
ME: Of course I won’t tell them. It’ll be our little secret.

I’m starting those Hindi lessons tomorrow.

Stairway To Heaven

David: When I invited our sons to travel with me in India, I sent each a copy of Lonely Planet. Figuring that it would help induce them to accept the invitation, I told them they could set the itinerary. There was only one exception. I insisted on visiting the Jain temple complex at Palitana, in the state of Gujarat. I had seen images of the complex, which consists of many hundreds of temples on a mountaintop, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing it in person.
Palitana Mountaintop
It turned out to be impossible to get to Palitana while the boys were still with me, but Lora and her Gujarat group were ending their tour there. So I slowly wended my way down from Rajasthan to meet them there after the last of the guys finally had to head home.

Jainism is an ancient religion that was a major faith in the Indian subcontinent until the growth of Hinduism and Islam. One of its highest precepts is to do no harm to any living thing. As a result, Jains are strict vegans. Many of them even avoid garlic, onions, potatoes and other root vegetables because small insects in the soil can be harmed when the plant is pulled out, and also because the roots continue to contain life. Many Jains even try to avoid going out at night because there is a greater risk of stepping on insects after dark. Some wear cloths over their mouths to avoid ingesting any flying insects and to keep harmful words from passing their lips.

This ingrained precept against harming living things seems (at least to me) at odds with the Jains having built the Palitana complex, one of their most important pilgrimage sites, on top of a mountain. Can you imagine the pain and suffering from climbing 3,750+ steps to the top of the mountain. By comparison, the Empire State Building has only 1,860 steps. Also, gravity is the law, not just a good idea, so whatever goes up must come down. Therefore, the 3,750+ steps must be descended later the same day because pilgrims and tourists must leave the site before dark.

As I was driving toward Palitana, I began to see many groups of women walking along the roadside in the same direction, all dressed in white. I assumed they were pilgrims, and they came in all ages, sizes, conditions and shapes. How, I wondered, could the elderly, infirm and crippled possibly make a climb to the top?

Two ways, it turns out. For the infirm and crippled pilgrims there were sedan chairs, flimsy plastic lawns chairs lashed to a couple of large bamboo poles shouldered by four strong men. The other way was for daughters and other young women to push their elders up the mountainside from behind.

Lora and I elected to climb, not ride, even knowing that we’d have to do it without the aid of a son (all of whom had already flown home) pushing us up the steps from behind. I began to worry about half way up when four young men carrying an empty sedan chair started walking alongside me. The closest one kept whispering in my ear: “Grandpa, you need to ride.” My concern was that these guys are probably better than me at predicting who won’t be able to make it to the top, and they were circling me like vultures. To convince them that I didn’t need their services, I took over one of the porter positions on a passing sedan chair that was carrying a woman in Lora’s group. “Grandpa” and Lora made to the top.

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Our calves screamed for days, but it was worth it. Photos of the climb, the temples and the descent are in Lora’s next posting.

One suggestion for any of you who might visit Palitana – carry some food or high-energy snacks. After climbing 3,750 steps, it’s easy to get templed-out on an empty stomach and your temple/step ratio will drop precipitously.

There are two other Jain temples I need to mention, both Rajasthan. One is in the village of Dilwara. The other is in Ranakpur.

Ranakpur is on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur. (More on our experiences in those cities in future postings.) The temple must cover at least 3-4 acres. It is a massive open interior structure varying from one to three levels in which more than 1,400 columns support the roof. The columns are intricately carved, and each is in some detail unique from all the others. Intricate carvings also cover other surfaces, including the interior surfaces of many domes high overhead. The effect was as overwhelming on my third visit, with Sam, as it was with Max in 1994 and Lora in 2010.
Ranakpur Exterior copy
Ranakpur 3-level interior
Ranakpur Interior columns
Dilwara interior dome
Ranakpur interior carving

Ranakpur dome carving
The Dilwara temples are at the Rajasthan hill station Mt. Abu, where I did an overnight on my way to meet up with Lora at Palitana. They are less than a tenth the size of Ranakpur. The carvings are comparable (as shown above), but because of Dilwara’s much smaller size, they feel breathtaking in their intimacy rather than overwhelming as at Ranakpur.