26 February 2010

Pottery town

Recently I had the chance to explore Pottery Town, a small neighbourhood in Bangalore, made up of only a few streets, where potters work and live. Two dozen families live here, where this traditional trade is passed on from one generation to the next. There is always a high demand for pottery – especially during the festival season. The potters make traditional clay lamps, water pots, cups, flower pots, vases, candle holders and statues of gods. Pots or all shapes and sizes are piled up in front of houses, along the roads and in entrance ways of the potter’s small houses.

Rows of diyas (lamps) are laid out carefully on wooden planks and left out to dry in the hot sun on the roofs or anywhere there is space.

A potter at work at his wheel.

During the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, 600,000 idols of the elephant-god are made here!

Moulds are used to make the statues. Ganesha's trunk is added later! The final touch is a bright coat of paint.

Most of the rooms of the potters' houses are filled with idols! Ganesh Chaturthi is over six months away, but the potters are already stocking up...

Statues of Gowri in the living room...

Huge Ganeshas wrapped up and waiting for the big day.

18 February 2010

Music is meditation

Last summer I spent some time in Paris with friends I had met in Chennai (Madras) who are also fans of Indian classical dance and music. I asked them if they had seen any performances in Paris where a lot of Indian artists perform regularly. “Ah non,” was their reply. “After experiencing the music and dance festival in Madras, we can’t bear to watch a performance in Paris. It’s just not the same!”

It’s true. Chennai has a special atmosphere during the music season. But if I could choose between watching an artist perform in an Indian auditorium or a Parisian one, I would definitely choose the latter.

While in the West there are many unwritten rules governing concert etiquette including when you can enter the auditorium (lateness is not tolerated), where you can sit and even when to applaud, these do not apply in India. Here rules are to be broken and seat numbers to be ignored.

A good thing is that you don’t have to worry about being on time. Being late is very fashionable. You can walk in and out of the auditorium at any time during the performance, so there is no need to rush to reach the venue on time.

If you spot a free seat in the front row, don’t assume this is your good luck. The first row is reserved for VIPs like politicians, chief guests, sponsors or senior artists. VIPs are always late and will always be ushered into a front row seat. I have witnessed many oblivious foreigners happily plopping down in a front row seat only to be unceremoniously ejected when the minister finally arrived.

The front row’s VIP status often commands more attention than what’s going on onstage. Hushed voices exclaim: “Look! It’s so-and-so!” Indeed, concerts are great opportunities for people watching, and people come not only to see but to be seen.

Once the musicians are seated on the stage, they tune their instruments. This can take some time. An instrument like the sitar has 21 strings to tune. Also, musicians are rarely happy with the sound, especially percussionists. Each will demand that the volume be turned up for his instrument. This becomes a game: who can get the most volume? The lead musician has to ultimately act as referee to avoid a sound explosion (and make sure he is the one who is best heard!). As a result, the volume at concerts is quite high. Earplugs come in handy!

It’s also a good idea to take a shawl or sweater. This is one contradiction about India that I still have not understood. Though locals complain of ‘freezing temperatures’ as soon as the mercury falls under 25°C outside, they have no complaints about sitting in an air-conditioned auditorium which feels more like the inside of a freezer.

During the performance, your powers of concentration will be tested. Even though there is always a request to the audience to switch off mobile phones, a phone (or two, or three) will inevitably ring during the performance. You will then have the chance to listen in to your neighbour’s telephone conversation.

If you’re not sure which raga is being played onstage, don’t worry: your neighbour will fill you in on what’s happening, even if you don’t ask. Once while watching a dance drama the elderly man next to me was giving me a play-by-play report of everything happening on stage. “Moon,” he announced when a dancer appeared on stage carrying a large round cut-out overhead. “Next sun will come!” he informed me. Sure enough, the next dancer appeared with… a sun!

Concerts can be very long. Just an alap can easily go on for an hour. All-night concerts are popular. Applause tends to be minimal and curtain calls or standing ovations rare. But Indian audiences have other ways to express their appreciation. If you see someone vigorously shaking his head from side to side and making a clicking noise with his tongue it may look like he is unhappy about something (the volume level maybe – or the mobile phone ringing behind him?). Actually it’s exactly the opposite: this means he’s enjoying the music! You may hear someone yell “waa waa” or “shabas!”. Music lovers also like to keep time with the rhythm by loudly tapping the tala on their knees.

My powers of concentration have improved after attending many concerts and performances. I no longer get distracted by ringing cell phones, loud conversations and kids running up and down the aisles. I also like to share observations with the friend sitting beside me and get up for a break when the chief guest makes his (always too long) speech. Would this be allowed in Paris?

17 February 2010

Sacred swastika

Above: A flag outside a Hindu temple

Last year my husband was in the US with some of his Indian work colleagues. They were having lunch one day when a man came up to their table and angrily addressed one of his Indian colleagues. He told him that he strongly objected to a symbol sewn onto the back of his jean jacket. It was a swastika. My husband’s colleague was perplexed but immediately removed the offending jacket. My husband then explained to him that this Hindu religious symbol is considered to be blasphemous in the West and even illegal in some countries. His colleague knew that the Nazis had misappropriated the swastika as their emblem but had no idea that it could elicit such strong offence.

Indeed this auspicious symbol of good luck is very common in India. I see it everywhere: painted on the doors and gates of houses and buildings, in temples, on statues and religious paintings, wedding invitations, vehicles and on clothing…

Here are some examples:

Above: Painted on the front of a school bus

Left: A swastika on Jain Ghat in Varanasi

Left: The swastika is clearly seen in this kolam design.

Left: On the pot of a tulsi plant.

01 February 2010

Faces of Madhya Pradesh

In the last of my MP series, I feature the people of Madhya Pradesh. I like portrait and street photography and I love the results I get with a 50mm prime lens. Indians are definitely not camera shy. Everyone wants their picture taken! Most of my subjects below asked me to take their pictures. Years ago, kids used to scream "One pen! One pen!." Now it's "One photo! One photo!" Then they ask to see themselves on the LCD screen. I noticed that few people smile when they pose - they usually take on a very serious expression. Here are some of the people I came across in Madhya Pradesh: