Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wedding Crashing: Asia, Africa, America

This entry is, I think, the longest and most meandering yet. Enter if you dare. I'm on a slow computer, so I'll have to upload a few photos another day. Use your imagination!

Last week, I bade farewell to India. I prefer to say “Until next time,” though—I have the strong feeling that my first visit there was not my last.

I wound up scrapping all of my vague plans for visiting other parts of the country in favor of staying in Kerala with Gurukkal, Chechy, little-Ambu-their-10-year-old-son, and the kalari crowd. I felt that after investing two tough weeks in the kalaripayattu practice, three more weeks would actually get me somewhere more substantial. Also, I think I much prefer the pleasure of setting up a bit of a routine in one place—getting to know it more intimately—than running around tagging towns and monuments.

That said, each weekend was filled with some excursion or another in different parts of the state of Kerala: the cliff beaches of Varkala with Stephen (the British kalari student)… a luxurious houseboat trip in the Kerala “backwaters” (India’s version of the Inside Passage, off the Arabian Sea) with Stef and Olivia (two Americans from the Bangalore theatre program who came to Kerala for a brief visit)… a visit to Fort Kochin—a very colorful, expat-friendly town that was colonized by the Portuguese, who left lots of beautiful architecture—with Stephen and Menna (his fiancĂ©e) and their families… seeing the annual Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race in Alleppey—an event commemorating the use of these long, traditional boats with over 100 paddlers in each boat!—again with Stephen and Menna and crew… and a weekend trip to Wayannad, a really beautiful district in the inland mountainous jungles. This trip was by train with Chechy, Gurukkal, and Ambu, to attend a Catholic mass observing the one-year anniversary of Chechy’s grandmother’s death.

I could write pages about each and every experience, but certainly the centerpiece of the month was Stephen and Menna’s wedding, in traditional Hindu style, in the kalari training space on August 11. The Fort Kochin visit was the weekend before, and I had the chance to get to know the couple’s family and friends a bit. They welcomed me into their fold as though I were a long-time friend. We endured a long, hot Saturday at the Nehru trophy race. It was exciting to see the race, but we were trapped on a big tourist boat all day with the sun beating down, and our boat was constantly jockeying for a better position along the race course among all the other boats. Ultimately, I decided the day would have to be more about meeting interesting westerners than about watching the distant boats, which would zoom through our field of vision suddenly and then disappear again. (We could see neither the start nor the finish lines.) As the afternoon wore on, the increasingly drunk partying Indians around us also provided some entertainment. One Keralan perched himself on the prow of his big party boat, shirtless, wearing only a lungi (traditional south Indian wear for men—looks like an ankle-length skirt, basically), and dancing wildly and terribly to the music of some traditional drummers. Suddenly a shriek went up from the crowd, and I looked back towards the man again. I was expecting that maybe he fell in the water or hurt himself—but all that happened was that his lungi fell off! He kept on dancing happily in his skivvies.

Sidebar about the lungi: I have a lungi now. It’s a simple rectangle piece of fabric that you wrap around your waist like a big towel, tucking one corner in at the end. Lungis are really nice for wearing around the house in the hot part of the day (read: any time of the day). They’re cool but they also keep the mosquitoes off your legs. I only braved wearing the lungi one time in public, though: I walked from Gurukkal’s house to the kalari, through Puliyatumukku (the name of this little part of Kollam). It’s about a 10-minute stroll past little shops…convenience stores…bakeries…a bus stand…two different tailors…an ice cream shop that made me very happy when I first saw it but which turned out only to sell packaged ice creams from a freezer (I still patronized the shop, don’t worry)… oh, and of course the heavy-crazy-treacherous traffic zooming past. Anyway, everyone along the route appeared to be delighted that I was sporting the native garb, but I was mostly just worried that it might fall off. Fortunately when I left the house, I’d gone about 10 steps, thought better about it, then turned around and pulled a pair of gym shorts on underneath the lungi, just as an insurance policy.

When we returned from Kochin after the snake boat race, I rolled out of bed Monday morning, saw Ambu off to school, then straggled my way to the kalari. The kalari and the surrounding grounds were being transformed by all of Gurukkal’s students—brush cleared and cut away, trash picked up, huge tents being erected. I was surprised and (yes, I’ll admit it) pleased to discover that all kalaripayattu practices were cancelled the day before the wedding. Instead, all the boys were cheerfully meeting their daily sweat quota by raking and trimming and weed-pulling and trash burning. I took note of their fashion, in spite of the heat and the work: nice slacks, bright and crisp-looking long-sleeved button-down shirts. Men and women alike here seem to take great care to look nice, no matter the weather or the task at hand. I’ve tried to adapt, at least a little bit, though all my once-nice shirts now have serious cases of ring-around-the-collar.

I joined Stephen the day before the wedding on some last-minute shopping he needed to do in Kollam—various gifts he’d be expected to give to various important people at the wedding. Several people would received mundus from him—white lungis that men wear specifically for weddings. We took the time to grab a meal and to go to a barber—this time I got a facial and a haircut. The facial felt more like a pummeling than a healing treatment; all the tension went from my face down into the rest of my body. The barber wouldn’t give Stephen a facial because he has a beard—lucky him! I was relieved when the barber draped some flimsy paper towels over my face to complete the ordeal. He pulled off the towels, leaving little flakes of paper stuck to my oily facialed face, and we proceeded to the (thankfully uneventful) haircut.

The morning of the wedding! We were all up early. The bride and her lady friends were due to Chechy’s by 8am to get dressed and made up, so I had to escape to meet Stephen at his place before then. First I helped Ambu with a Button Emergency on his shirt. (A few hours later, he was running around the wedding reception, shirt stained with sweat and all three buttons nowhere to be seen.) At the homestay where Stephen is renting a room, we had coffee and snacks and chatted as Stephen put on his mundu about five times, until it was just right. I was in charge of carrying all the gift mundus into the kalari, as well as keeping the dikshana offerings (read: wad of cash) that Stephen would give to each guru/dignitary/elder/important person (read: not me).

The wedding was beautiful and foreign. I think traditionally there is no rehearsal for a Hindu wedding, and so it must be that the wedding often includes a lot of anxious instructions and directions. Even more so when the two stars of the show are both from England and don’t know themselves exactly what’s happening. There was a bit of sense of urgency to everything because the centerpiece moment of the wedding, in which Stephen would put a gold necklace on Menna, had to happen at 12:05pm. This was dictated by an astrologer that Gurukkal consulted, who looked at the couple’s birth signs and times (and probably other things I don’t know) to determine the Auspicious Moment for their union.

Glimpsing Menna waiting through the open window of the house next door to the kalari… drumming and horn-playing in the kalari… crowds of people mobbing the scene, making it difficult to get a good view… seeing Stephen and Menna greet and touch the feet of Gurukkal, Chechy, their parents… helping British friends Jackie and Sydney perch precariously on plastic chairs so that we could glimpse the moment of necklace-putting-on, after which came a shower of horn and drum and jasmine petals.

Reception outside the kalari… feeding a big squash to one of three beautiful elephants there, feeling its tongue on my hand… Then, volunteering to help serve the sudha (traditional meal served on a banana leaf), and then regretting it a little, as I realized I had no idea about all the protocol of where to put each food item on the leaf. People constantly ask for refills of sambar or pickle or rice or you-name-it during these meals, so I was being summoned in five directions a lot of the time. I was yanked back to my days as a waiter in New York, only everyone in the wedding reception was the New York version of a very rude customer: saying ‘tss tss tss!’ to get my attention, calling me with just their hand, never saying ‘please’ or ‘thank you.’ I had to take a breath and remind myself that this was my cultural lens getting in the way. I’ve had a lot of discussion with Chechy and Gurukkal – and others – about ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ They’re very rarely used here in the Malayalam language. People just seem to feel those words are more trouble than they are necessary. They also say that Americans typically say these words way too much—and I think I’m a serious culprit. There certainly have been times where I’ve said ‘thank you’ and then almost felt foolish about it, like the time John-the-senior-student handed me a towel in the kalari. He looked at me as if to say, ‘WHAT are you thanking me for?!’

Evening came, and there was a big cultural program organized by Gurukkal and emceed by Chechy. She performed two Mohiniattam dances. The kalari students demonstrated some of our training exercises and then some of the fights with wooden and with metal weapons. A few cute children sang Carnatic music songs. Then I performed an Oberon monologue from the end of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (‘Now until the break of day…’). Not exactly the most obvious selection for a Hindu wedding in India, but Gurukkal had given me about 20 hours notice that he was expecting me to perform a theatre piece at the event, so this little speech was the best I could come up with at a pinch. I cast Ambu and two of his friends as my three fairy spirits; at the end of the monologue they ran to Stephen and Menna and sprinkled jasmine blossoms over them. …But in terms of incongruous performance pieces, I was definitely trumped: the finale event was a totally over-the-top cinematic dance group, which is to say, Bollywood-style dance. Six Indian guys; three different pop tunes; three different sets of shiny, sequined costumes; numerous head-snaps and crotch grabs. Incredible.

…The following weekend I traveled with Chechy and Ambu up to Wayannad to visit her family. (Gurukkal followed us a day later—he wanted to be away from Kollam for less time so that he could continue administering his ayurvedic treatments to his patients.) Eight-hour overnight train journey, then four hours on a bus. Ambu was ready for me to treat him to any and all treats as soon as we hit the train platform. Mango juice! Sweet banana chips! Milk sweets! We played ‘Hot & Cold’ (remember that game?) with the cap of his water bottle. He and Chechy zonked out in their berths, and I tried to sleep. We were on the end of one car, though, which meant a glaring light from the doorway which couldn’t be turned off, and the unpleasant aroma of the toilets wafting in our direction regularly. On the bus into the mountains, as dawn broke, I tied a t-shirt over my face and did get a bit of sleep.

We stayed at the home of Chechy’s uncle and aunt—Aunt Shirley and Baby Uncle (it took me a few times before I felt normal about calling him that). The weekend went by too fast… we visited the school where Chechy and Gurukkal taught and first met; the kalari that Gurukkal ran there; and Gurukkal’s sister and brother-in-law and their kids, who also live there. That night at 3am, the whole household awoke (including other aunts and uncles who were in town for the occasion) to make a big breakfast before the 6:45am mass honoring Chechy’s grandma. I got to help make the iddyappam (rice patties) and coconut chutney. In some ways this pre-dawn cooking party was my favorite part of the whole visit to Wayannad. We drank coffee made from beans grown on plants right on Baby Uncle’s land.

The mass was beautiful, in a stunningly hot-pink church with lots of icons inside. No pews—everyone stands, kneels, or sits on the floor. After mass, we walked down the steps to a cemetery overlooking ranges of jungled mountains, and the family and the priest lit some incense and sang hymns over Grandmother’s grave. I stood off to the side so as not to disrupt the ritual—only to shout “youch!!” (or something like “youch”) when I discovered that I was standing right in the middle of a parade of big black ants with very angry bites.

Breakfast back at the house. Then Joby, Chechy’s cousin, busted out his tabla—an Indian drum. He’s a professional tabla player for a dance company up north. His mom (Chechy’s aunt) broke into some beautiful Carnatic song, followed by Chechy’s quirky uncle singing. Next I was summoned to the spotlight. At a pinch, I lit on ‘Copacabana,’ which is my most recent karaoke favorite. I forgot the lyrics halfway through, so I just kept repeating lines or making up new ones, since I’ll bet no one noticed anyway (except perhaps Joby, who was kind enough not to say anything). Later, the Singing Baton was passed to me again. I wish I was someone who knew more songs by heart! What songs do I know? Musicals?? Karaoke?? Folk Fest! Yes! I sang Shenandoah’s twangy country hit ‘Next to You Sittin’ Next to Me’—which I sang with my sisters at Juneau’s folk fest last April—to the lively accompaniment of Joby’s tabla. It was a hit, if you can believe that. …This is India.

Now, I am in Ghana. I came here to meet up with my dad, sister Kelly, brother Kyle, and brother-in-law Paul to spend a week volunteering at a hospital in Nalerigu in the northeast part of the country. Dad has an American doctor-friend there, and he’s come a few times before (as have Andrea and Sarah). This will be Dad’s last visit, as the friend is retiring this fall, so I figured I should jump on the chance to join.

First I had a 16-hour layover in Dubai from India to Ghana. Fancy Emirates Airlines offered me a free hotel because I had an overnight layover—and a really nice hotel, at that! Dubai provided QUITE the contrast from the messy, dirty, crowded streets of Indian cities: clean, tidy, orderly traffic, glitzy and glamorous buildings and billboards. The feeling I had there was a bit like a similarly brief visit I had to Las Vegas: how on earth can a place like this sustain itself? A clean comfortable city, full of air-conditioned skyscrapers and plentiful drinking water, in the middle of a harsh desert. Creepy.

I did a little afternoon tour in Dubai that was dumb but got better as the day went along. I don't know how I got seduced by the idea of 'driving the sand dunes'--but basically we were in this area full of SUVs zooming around tracking up what otherwise would have been beautiful scenery. It felt dangerous and wasteful of gasoline, and a woman in the back seat from Tanzania got motion sick. (Her husband said she's very susceptible to motion sickness--why THEY picked this tour was beyond me...) But then we went to an only mildly cheesy 'traditional Bedouin' camp and had a nice arabian barbecue meal under the stars. The Tanzanian couple were friendly so I hung with them.

Next morning: arrival in Ghana. I had the evening to myself, since the rest of my family wasn’t arriving until today (Sunday). I got set up at the Baptist Mission guest house in Accra (the organization that also runs the hospital up north), then ventured out to see what I might see. I decided to start by going by the National Theatre of Ghana to see if anything was playing. I walked through the wrong door—or perhaps the right door—and came up a flight of stairs into a gospel choir singing at a huge wedding reception. The huge gaudy hats the ladies were wearing were incredible. As I turned to sneak back out, a smiley guy caught my eye and waved me over. Thus began my Ghanaian wedding crashing adventure. He introduced himself to me: Courage is his name. He invited me to stay for the appetizers (plates of groundnuts)… He invited me to stay for drinks (sprite, then whiskey and campari)... and then I had a full-on meal while listening to live gospel choirs. Who needs the National Theatre?!

So, tomorrow we head north to Tamale and then Nalerigu. We’ll spend just one brief week there, then return to the States for yet another wedding--this one in Seattle, where a close family friend is getting married.

…Thanks for slogging through another rambling entry by yours truly. I’m certainly feeling lucky and blessed to be getting to know these new worlds this summer.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Kathakali; Koshy's; Karnataka Coffee; Kerala; Kalaripayattu

More ramblings from India adventures, below!

For some reason, I can't seem to easily move my photos around in this blog posting. They're all out of order. I blame the computer I'm using. So: photos first, stories after. You might better appreciate the pictures if you read the incredible tales first, then come back up and take in the eye candy. At any rate, enjoy!--and thanks for reading.

My business-savvy barber at Brigade Street Hairdressers in Bangalore.

Ruben Polendo (artistic director of Theatre Mitu) and me, gnawing a coconut.

From inside an auto rickshaw, a Bangalore family on a motorbike.

During the Theatre Mitu workshop, we took a day trip to the palace in Mysore. It was a very solemn occasion.

Our teachers: Ruben Polendo; Shivakumar Gurukkal (teacher of kalaripayattu); Swapna Shivakumar (teacher of Mohiniattam dance); and Robin, one of Gurukkal's top students who also came to teach/demo for us. I'm now staying with Gurukkal and 'Chechy' (Swapna) in Kerala.

In Kerala, a fun day-long visit with Stephen to the beach town of Varkala on the Arabian Sea.

At the Kalaripayattu training center in Kerala, Stephen and Sunoj preparing plants to be cooked into ayurvedic medicines.

Gurukkal and Chechy's son Ambu's 10th birthday! On the right is Chechy's mom, visiting from the northern part of the state.

The path to the kalari (training center).

Gurukkal's kalari.

The 'diksha,' or traditional offering, I gave to Gurukkal to become his student.

The elephant that scared the daylights out of me.

Back in Bangalore now (I told you these were out of order)--Arvind and his cousin Sidey (Siddarth), both lawyers at the Alternative Law Forum.

Nanju and me in a rickshaw.

At Koshy's in Bangalore, with my sideburn.

Some guy with some watermelons.

My Carnatic music teacher at her house in Bangalore.


The intensive with Theatre Mitu at the Visthar campus ended two long weeks ago--the last week was an onslaught of new ideas, plus trying to process and make sense of what we'd learned, and finally a whole new class in Kathakali performance (a form of dance-drama from southern India). I found this class to be frustrating overall. Interesting to learn another traditional performance form, but it felt like only long enough to realize how terrible we all were at it. Our teacher, whom we called Ashan (which I believe means 'teacher'), was a different sort of traditional guru than we'd encountered before: rather aloof; spoke very quietly; spoke very very little English. So I often felt in the dark about what was happening moment-to-moment in the class sessions. He'd start us out on a very difficult sequence of steps, then change the tempo without any apparent notice. Having missed the tempo change, I was a lost cause and had to really pick myself up by my own bootstraps to get back into the game. The best moments of all were the handful of occasions when Ashan's cell phone would ring and he would step out of the Aala--the thatch-roof rehearsal space--to take the call, leaving us all in the midst of a repetitive, fast-moving, exhausting sequence. One time he was talking away for over 5 minutes, as we marched on. It was all a real lesson in our cultural norms for education models. That kind of instructor behavior just wouldn't fly in most western settings, I think.

The program ended and I moved from the rural haven of Visthar into downtown Bangalore for a week. Arvind, a friend I met at the gay pride parade, generously gave me his spare bedroom. He and his pal Nanju were my tour guides for the week in Bangalore--which meant I spent a whole lot of time at Koshy's coffee house, a hip old hang-out in town, and various locations of Corner House Ice Cream store, Nanju's (and now my) favorite Bangalore fare. Arvind is a founding lawyer for the Alternative Law Forum here, which was a key player in the Delhi High Court case which decided to decriminalize homosexuality in India's colonial-era Section 377. It was really interesting to get to learn from Arvind more about the ins and outs of the case. Last Monday, there was more good news: the India Supreme Court heard an appeal of the Delhi court's decision, and decided not to stay the Delhi decision. In other words, the Delhi decision stands as the law of the land at the moment. The Supreme Court has set an 8-week timeline to make its own final decision, but it's good news (and a good sign) that they're allowing the decision to stand as it is in the meantime.

Being in the city gave me more opportunity to appreciate the impressive exchange rate from Indian rupees to US dollars. One morning, I had a private Carnatic music (voice) lesson arranged with my teacher from the Mitu workshop. Before the lesson I took an early class in Kalaripayattu, the Indian martial art form we learned with Mitu.
Hour and a half martial arts class: 250 rupees. $5 US.
After the class, one of the really nice students bought me breakfast at a diner on his way to work. We ate iddly (round rice patties) with chutney and drank the super yummy Karnataka coffee (Karnataka is the state that Bangalore is in, and it's known for good coffee.)
Iddly and coffee breakfast: 16 rupees. $0.30 US.
Then I went for a haircut at Brigade Street Hair Dressers, a little hole-in-the-wall barbershop. I asked the barber how much it would cost. 30 rupees--about 70 American cents. I waited, and then I plopped down in the barber chair. He was a short wrinkly old man with a red sinthoor on his forehead from having been to temple that morning. He gave me quite a diligent little trim, aside from the fact that I asked him not to shave my stubble, and he went ahead and put an odd cleanshaven space at the bottom of my sideburns anyway. (I went home later and shaved--after daring to go to Koshy's with my weird sideburns for all to see.) As he finished the cut, he dumped gobs of oil on my head and proceeded to give me a very vigorous head massage. Nice! Then he moved down to my neck. Even nicer. I've certainly never been massaged like that in an American haircutting situation. Then he flipped my shirt up and gave my entire back--then my arms--a full treatment as well. This was all starting to seem odd, and I didn't know quite when it was going to end. It was 10am at this point--time for the music lesson to begin, and I was still 45 minutes from the music teacher's house. After the barber finished my arms, he asked if I wanted him to do my face as well. Sure I did, but I really needed to go. I gave him 100 rupees and asked for change; he got upset. Oh, I see--this was not a package deal. He'd just decided on the fly that I was a good candidate for purchasing an upgrade. I let him keep the 100 rupees.

Haircut and full upper body massage (in a barber chair, covered with hair clippings): 100 rupees. $2 US.

"This is India"--that was our shorthand phrase during the Mitu workshop. It meant, 'Most everything around here doesn't seem to happen like you expect it will. Go with the flow, be prepared to be unprepared, but also be wary of getting ripped off.' It's amazing to hear Nanju talk about the simplest things--like getting a driver's license--and say how the whole process was expedited by his parents bribing the officials.

So I caught an auto-rickshaw to the music teacher's house, and I called her with the cell phone I bought here: 1000 rupees. $20 US.

The rickshaw ride was about 45 minutes and cost me 100 rupees--$2 US.

I like the thrill of riding in the little yellow 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws. It feels like a video game, and the drivers are invariably extremely daring and brazen as they dodge between trucks and SUVs and motorbikes and the occasional wagon drawn by 2 bulls. Traffic in Bangalore--and I suspect in the whole of India--is absolutely insane. I don't think there's much other way to put it. There are a few signs around the city that read "Follow Lane Restrictions." This comes off as a very lame effort at establishing any order, since not only does no one obey lane restrictions, they often don't seem to care to obey traffic flow restrictions--anyone will happily veer around a stopped or slow car, careen into oncoming traffic, and not bat an eye. I got lifts from Arvind and his cousin Siddharth occasionally on their scooters last week, and a few times I had to literally pull in my knee to avoid having it bump a car that we were zipping past or that was zipping past us. If you're a pedestrian? Good luck. I've actually come to really enjoy the event of crossing a 4- or 6-lane road in the city, because there's really no good way to do it except to decide that you are more powerful than everyone and everything around you, and then just GO. It's a mental game. I'm amazed that I've seen only 2 accidents, I think, since I've been here. Somehow the mayhem works as its own system. 'This is India.'

As a counterpoint to the agressive traffic, the car horns here are more flamboyant than any I've heard before. I don't know why we've decided in the West that car horns have to be one loud annoying blare. Here, you get all kinds of fanciful arpeggios and snippets of song and surprising rhythms. Some motorbike horns apparently decrescendo slowly over the duration of the honk. Horns are used quite liberally, too--more to say 'heads-up, I'm coming' than 'watch out.' A rickshaw driver rounding a gentle curve will honk his horn just in case someone happens to be on the other side. Finally, I love that when trucks go in reverse here, they don't beep obnoxiously; instead, they play a tinkly song that conjures summertime ice cream in America.

After a full week in Bangalore, I bade adieu to Nanju, Arvind, and the boys I'd met there and hopped a rickshaw to the Bangalore City Train Station.

16-hour sleeper bunk on a train to Kerala (the southwestern-most state in India): 240 rupees. A little under $5 US.

The trip was a fog of sweaty sleep...some conversation with two nice brothers, Nuresh and Haresh, who let me share their dad's homemade parota (flatbread) breakfast with onion chutney...a rather annoying spaced-out Canadian who happened to have reserved the bunk above mine, visiting India to stay at an ashram (read: spiritual retreat OR freeloaders' commune, depending on the ashram and the visitor), who unfortunately everyone naturally thought was my traveling partner... and beautiful countryside with jungle, rice paddies, palm trees, and occasional cathedrals popping up among the Hindu temples. Kerala is home to a large chunk of India's Catholic population. After Jesus died, the apostles got together, and the apostle Thomas apparently drew the short straw (or the long one, depending how you look at it!) and came to Kerala. To me, it's interesting to consider that this means that Christianity has roots in southwest India that go back earlier than in most of Europe. ...Kerala is also home to cashews, rubber plantations, teak, more coffee and tea, and Kalaripayattu.

And so I arrived in Kollam, home of Shivakumar Gurukkal and Swapna Chechy, his wife, to pursue some more training in Indian martial arts. (I didn't see this one coming when I started this whole trip!) They were both our teachers in the Theatre Mitu intensive--he for Kalaripayattu (which is actually practiced only by men), and she for Mohiniattam dance (which is actually practiced only by women). 'Gurukkal' is the moniker given to all gurus of this martial art form; 'Chechy,' as I understand it, is like saying 'teacher' or 'miss' or maybe 'auntie.'
I have been staying with them for one week now, and they've been so generous, to the point that I think we're all very tired of me saying 'thank you.' I really connected with them during our time together at the program in Bangalore, and so I was happy when we all seemed to be mutually interested in my coming here to see their world and do some more training. As I've gone through this week, I have to say that my respect for Gurukkal grows and grows as I see his generosity with people, his humor and love with his family, and as I feel his acceptance of me into this ancient form that's been passed down to him through his family. Kalaripayattu is very acrobatic but also very graceful (except when I do it), and a lot of the 'combat' moves are sort of hidden in the choreography. It's also bound up with Hinduism and includes movement sequences that are intended as worship and praise rather than combat. There are 7 stations for guardian deities in the large rectangular mud-floor kalari, and every time you enter and exit you must go through a series of ritual gestures at each station. It becomes a really nice way of preparing yourself and your space, to begin and to end. The art form is also accompanied by codified massage training and traditional ayurvedic medicine--so Gurukkal is a health practitioner as well as a teacher, and much of his day is spent providing treatment to patients for a variety of ailments.

Chechy, meanwhile, is mothering me with all kinds of amazing Indian foods from Chechy's Kitchen (which is a name I think we should syndicate for the Food Network!). Add in their son Ambu, who's 10 and is a serious live wire, and Chechy's mom, who's mostly deaf and can't really speak, and the whole household is like a comedy show. Chechy's mother really is a comedian in her own right, with all her gesticulating and facial expressions and well-timed takes to Gurukkal, who knows just how to play her. A lot of the comedy happens around the dinner table, with Chechy laughing at my attempts at eating with my hand--Ambu being reprimanded for smacking his food--and everyone trying to force-feed everyone else.

Ambu turned 10 last weekend, and they saved the small celebration for after my train arrived. I then got to go see a group of elephants--captive elephants used for temple ceremonies--and even got to touch one. This was just after one of the elephant keepers said, "That elephant has killed four people. Very dangerous." (Not referring to the particular elephant I was approaching.) It was definitely humbling to stand next to that massive creature and touch one of the heavy, solid tusks. Then, its keeper--who I was keeping close to--swatted it on the leg for some reason, and the elephant let out a roar-slash-wail that literally shook my bones. It felt comparable to the feeling I had last May during a close encounter with an Alaska bear. As soon as the elephant got quiet and appeared to be not killing me, I moved away from him to relative safety.

On Monday, Gurukkal welcomed me into the kalari--the name for the training center--officially. One of his senior students, Monichan, bought for me the traditional gift that a new student gives to a guru to begin training: 3 paan leaves and a nut from the paan tree. I added in one rupee coin, also traditional. I entered the kalari and gave the gift to Gurukkal on one knee--he gave me a blessing, and my training began.

One to two hours every morning (7ish to 9ish) and about 2 hours every evening (6ish to 8ish) equals a lot of hard physical work. A nap is always in order in the sweltering afternoons--and Gurukkal's house is just a 10-minute walk down the (treacherous traffic!) road from the kalari. As I said, the kalari has a mud floor, and it has a thatch roof and is partially open to the elements. It's a beautiful space. All you wear for training is a lingati--basically a loin cloth--and before you start, you lather your whole body with gingilly (sesame) oil to increase flexibility. I am by far the sweatiest student in every session, so that means by the end of training I am a complete mess of sweat and dirt and grit and mosquito bites and oil. Sit and rest until the sweating stops (so that you're naturally cooled down). Usually watch Indian news on TV with Gurukkal in the nearby office/kitchen/bath/treatment center complex. Lots of news about coastal flooding due to monsoons, and about Michael Jackson's death. Get served chai or snacks by Monichan, who seems to be the sort of team mother of the place (and who's a big Michael Jackson fan). Then, finally, a cold shower (cold is the only option). Wash the muddy lingati in a bucket with every shower. Hang it to dry on the line between two coconut trees. It's a really delightful community to be welcomed into.

One more person in the mix is a British guy named Stephen, 26 years old, who's here on his 4th visit in 4 years for training. He's a yoga teacher studying osteopathy in the UK, so his ultimate hope is to be welcomed into Gurukkal's inner sanctum of learning the medicinal practices of Kalaripayattu. It's really fortuitous that Stephen is here right now, because it's a great opportunity for me to see what another westerner has accomplished in this training. A lot of the Indian men who are practicing are small-framed, lean, and uber flexible. Stephen is about my size though, and is very very good at kalaripayattu. If it weren't for him showing the way, I might be tempted to chock up my apparent inabilities to genetics. I also get Stephen's explanations of what's going on when I might not otherwise get such a detailed English-language answer to my questions. He's a really warm-spirited guy. Best of all, his fiancee Menna is coming next week from England--along with members of both families--and Gurukkal is marrying them in the kalari! I'm looking forward to meeting Menna, and I'm strongly considering staying here for the wedding.

After one week of training now, I feel like I'm making slow progress with my balance, but not much headway with my shameful flexibility. After talking with Gurukkal about my increasingly painful hamstrings, he started me on a 7-day massage treatment. Monichan is the one giving me the massage--it's a traditional kalaripayattu foot massage, which means I lie on the floor and Monichan stands on me while holding onto two ropes, using his arms to negotiate how much weight he puts on me. The first session on Saturday was incredible and painful, seeing as it's aimed at increasing flexibility. It's a serious workout for Monichan, too.

It was quiet in the treatment center for most of the hour-long massage--just the sound of Monichan's feet in the pan of oil, then slapping against my skin. A rooster outside, and an Indian Railway train further off. A Muslim mosque's call to prayer a long, long way off. My own breath.
Monichan stepped aside and asked me to turn over onto my back. I could hear him clicking around by the TV and sound system. When he grabbed the ropes again and continued the massage, the stereo started playing Michael Jackson's crooning ballad 'Earth Song.' ...The rest of the treatment session was accompanied by--was a tribute to?--the King of Pop.
This is India.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Welcome to Bangalore & the South India Artist Intensive

It’s been two weeks now since I arrived in India, but as I think often happens with travel like this, the time feels a lot longer. Each day has stretched out in a jumble of Kannada and Hindi words…tasty paneers and dhosas and mangos and papayas…lame attempts at learning Indian dance and martial arts forms…and a really sharp contrast between the tropical rural paradise of the Visthar Center, where I’m staying for this training program, and the jostle and hustle and bustle and bostle of the city of Bangalore.

I wrote most of this note a week ago, but haven’t been able to get online to post it. (The internet connection—not to mention electricity in general—is spotty at Visthar.) Today we’re on a ‘field trip’ to a nearby city, Mysore, and I ducked out of the afternoon visit to a Hindu temple so I could hop online and reconnect with unreality. Lame, I know. I've seen a lot of Hindu temples this week, though.

...I’m really excited about the depth and breadth of the experience I’m getting with this training program. I of course expected that these 3 weeks would be a foreign travel adventure, but I imagined that, to some degree, I’d be doing theatre training that sort of just happened to be in India. I’d be busy with American theatre people and would get the full-fledged Indian experience after the program ended. But I am so happy about this program—it’s more than I could have hoped for. The theatre and dance forms we’re learning are classical Indian forms, taught by respected teachers from different parts of the country, and interspersed with the training we have classes in cultural context and Kannada (the language spoken in Karnataka, the state we’re in). I’ve learned a whole lot about the major religions of India—Hindu, Islam, and Buddhism—which has made our visits to temples in the city so much more meaningful. To top it all off, this group of 17 students and 4 teachers is really truly nice and generous and mature. I think 11 of the students are NYU students. A few others are my age or so—late 20s—and then there are two early 40s guys from a company called BoxTales Theatre in Santa Barbara.

After a long long journey on Air India to Delhi…a 2-hour layover in a packed airport at 1am India time…and, finally, landing in Bangalore and meeting our hosts, we arrived at 5am Sunday on the campus of Visthar Center for Peace and Social Justice. Visthar is Theatre Mitu’s host for these 3 weeks for the program, the South India Artist Intensive. It’s an idyllic spot, about 40 kilometers outside the city, full of palm trees and mango trees and jackfruit trees (funky misshapen green fruits that grow to huge sizes and are served regularly in our meals here); dirt and stone paths; and partially open-air buildings and huts with thatched rooftops. Visthar’s main work, as I understand it, is rescuing Davidasi girls and raising and educating them to be independent women. It’s a convoluted story that I only partially comprehended, but basically due to the caste and family line they’re born into (‘davidasi’), these girls are somewhat destined to be offered as ritual prostitutes in their local temples. It’s illegal in India now but is still practiced in rural areas—hence Visthar’s work. The girls range from very small to teens, and they just shine. We’ve gotten to spend time with them here and there—they dig teaching us Kannada and handclapping games. They call me ‘Uncle’—reserved for an elder—which apparently they DON’T call the NYU kids. I like it. ‘Uncle! Uncle!’

All our meals are taken care of as part of our payment, and boy are we eating like kings. I’m trying to learn as much about the food as I can, but most of the words seem to go in one ear and out the other until about the 5th time I’ve heard them.

I have a roommate in the program, Jake, a filmmaker and director mainly, also 29. Lives in NYC. (Our rooms are cozy, with mosquito nets over our beds, western-style toilets and showers, and a nice ceiling fan that makes me feel like I’m home in Georgia again.) Jake said after a day here that this has been a very “soft landing” in a very foreign place.

The classes that we’ve taken thus far:
Cultural Context—David, who runs Visthar, has led some extremely interesting lectures/discussions on Indian society, politics, the caste system, etc.
Music Theory—Ellen, an American composer, is teaching a class on comparing the norms and standards of Western music to Eastern music (stuff like, ‘we think this sounds like happy music, but that’s actually a cultural construct and is not universal in other cultures’ music structures’).
Carnatic Music—a form of traditional Indian vocal music. So far we’ve learned a basic Carnatic scale and a bunch of accompanying drill scales—think ‘Do Re Mi,’ but with different syllables, and just different enough from Do Re Mi to be maddeningly difficult. This class is very drill-like: we sit on the floor for an hour and repeat after the teacher over and over. I like it—it’s a mind game as much as a vocal workout.
Mohiniattam—this is a traditional Indian dance from Kerala, a nearby state in south India. It means ‘dance of the enchantress’—a dance only performed by women—it’s beautiful and graceful and looks so easy and is SO HARD. Our teacher goes by Che-Chi (some kind of teacher-y title I believe), and she is very nice and yet rides us really hard. Sometimes she’ll say things like, ‘You have to do it like this so it looks beautiful. If you do it like you just did it, it doesn’t look beautiful.’ Well, that logic seems pretty clear to me. One of the more remarkable things to me in this class is all the eye movements she’s teaching us—big eyes, wide open, and with every step and gesture comes a command to look in a very specific direction. So we do these eye warm-ups where we have to hold our eyes open for something like a full minute while we make a very slow circle, or right to left, with our eyes. She pointed out that crying is good because it keeps your eyes moist while you do it. …This is one example of a few different moments when I’ve thought, you know, in another context I might say ‘no, I’m not doing that because it seems unhealthy…’
Kalaripayattu—this is my favorite class, Indian martial arts which has been codified into a performed dance form. Usually only done by men. Gurukkal is our teacher—named after K(h)ali, a Hindu god. Look Khali up if you have time, and you’ll have some hint at Gurukkal’s teaching practice. Basically he’s totally kicking our asses. The first class began with no fanfare, no warmup... He instructed us to go into a deep lunge, and then we proceeded to do lunges back and forth across the floor for about 15 minutes straight. Then hold your hands above your head and kick them with your own left foot while your right leg stays planted and straight (yeah right). Then… People drop like flies in this class—a few pulled muscles, gashed toes, etc—but I’m totally digging the boot camp-y quality of it and I’m hanging in there, not letting myself sit down. With every move I like to imagine myself to be the Olympic athlete that I will never be, so even though I’m sure I look like a fool, I feel good about what I’m doing. It's all about sticking the landing. ...Gurukkal’s English is extremely limited, so it’s a very imitative way of learning. He brought one of his students—a wiry guy named Robin (pronounced Rob-EEN). Gurukkal says a bunch of stuff to Robin, Robin does an impossible series of movements, we all gasp and then try to do what Robin just did. Gurukkal’s favorite word in English is ‘maximum.’ If we’re in a lunge he’ll say ‘maximum down!’ and then go around and push on everyone’s butts. If we’re doing kicks he’ll say ‘maximum up!’ and then hold his hand up in front of us—as if I could kick that high! …Over the course of these 2 weeks he seems to have honed in on me a little. I know, it sounds unbelievable, but I've actually felt pretty successful in this class. I'm sure I look a lot stupider than I feel. At any rate, last week Gurukkal asked me to demo a whole sequence of steps for the whole class. At another point, we were doing this ridiculous step where we had to kick to the sky and then land in a full split on the floor—yeah right—and I was just trying to keep on trying, and he came and whispered to me, ‘Do this one hundred times per day, and two months, you’ll be good.’ I THINK that was a compliment…? Then when he asked others to individually demo a choreographed sequence, to my dismay he asked me to come up and command the steps! In his language, Maliyalam! (Not even the language we’re learning here—not that I know how to say ‘right-kick-lunge and spin’ in any language except English anyway.) I totally butchered it, but I think he got a good laugh out of it.

Che-Chi and Gurukkal are married, and our classes with them ended yesterday. I’m going down to Kerala (the southwesternmost India) after our program ends to take some bonus classes with Gurukkal. He seems to think I should keep training. Last I checked, there aren’t many Indian martial arts gurus in Juneau to choose from, but it’s a nice idea anyway. …I was dismayed to learn this week that Robin (who can literally hold his left hand directly above his head and then kick it with his left foot, with a loud *smack*), is considered a JUNIOR student back in Kerala. So I may come back to Alaska a broken man, having been snapped in half by Gurukkal. …I’m also going to volunteer at their son’s school (Ambu, who's 10 years old) and do some theatre activities. Maybe Gurukkal will spare me if I can at least get his son to like me.

Next week, we begin classes in Kathakhali, which is an Indian theatre form that combines elements of the two other forms we’ve already been learning.

Finally, we’re taking a ‘lab’ course with Ruben Polendo, the director of Theatre Mitu who organized this whole extravaganza. We’re learning some very fun and useful directing exercises so far, and as we keep going the conversation will be: how do we take these codified classical performance forms, and our experience with them, and let that affect/inform the theatre we make back home? Interesting topic; very curious to see where it will go…

All of our movement classes are in a big wall-less thatch hut, with a floor that would make an American dance teacher cringe—nice smooth black stone tiles laid into cement. So when, in the choreography, it happens to be time to spin or turn and you’re standing on a cement edge, watch out.

Che-Chi explained to me over dinner the other day that she and Gurukkal married for love—it wasn’t an arranged marriage—and though her parents were against it at first, now they see that the marriage is working and that Gurukkal continues to support her dancing, which apparently isn’t true for a lot of women here. They often have to stop dancing once they marry.

Last weekend was full, and a welcome break from all of the ass-kicking physical classes we’ve taken. Friday night we went and saw a new Bollywood film called 'New York' at a fancy Indian theatre in the city. The gist of the story was that 3 friends, all Indian, attended ‘New York State University’ together. After 9/11, one of them was detained by the U.S. government for questioning. After his release he basically became a terrorist in retaliation against the U.S. Amidst very Bollywood style slo-mo sequences and cheeseball emotion-laden music, the film was quite an indictment of the US reaction to the 9/11 attacks. There was a long 10-minute sequence of him being tortured by US agents—really hard to watch and really intense.

Saturday was still considered a ‘class day,’ but we went into the city. We visited a huge Hare Krishna temple; the City market; and a rather stupid bar called NASA that looked like a space ship inside. I was totally maxed out by the end of the day on being stuck with this group of 20 Americans. I like each one of them, but I was ready for some down time or alone time or a little more control. The market was gorgeous and fascinating—spices and fruits and fabrics and junk junk junk and flowers flowers flowers—and I loved getting lost in it. I ‘accidentally’ got separated from the rest of the group for about 2 hours, and I was so happy to be alone for a while. I discovered that just by saying ‘namaskara’ to anyone here (the local language version of the ‘namaste’ greeting), they light up at meeting a white guy who knows any amount of Kannada. So it was a good conversation starter. (Next question: ‘You speak Kannada?!’ ‘No.’ …End of conversation.)

The market and the city are such a stark difference from the rural peace of Visthar. It truly is a crush of people in the city, and I won’t write anything about the public pissing area I found myself using in the market at one point. (Sorry Mom, there’s just no other word to use for it.) You see people—well men—peeing where ever the hell they want, pretty regularly. Lots of walls in the city are painted with ‘Stick No Bills’ and also ‘PLEASE DON’T URINATE.’ Trash; sketchy looking dogs; cows wandering around very oddly in an otherwise ultra-urban setting… I would say, though, that apart from the aggressive street sellers, people seem genuinely nice and interested in helping me figure my way around. Again, the ‘Namaskara’ comes in handy for starting things off well…

Finally, it’s been a surprisingly eventful week in sexual politics in India. Last Sunday I found myself marching in Bangalore’s gay pride parade, which is a scenario I never would have envisioned. It certainly was no New York or Amsterdam pride, but it beat out Juneau’s gay pride parade—which consists of me walking down Franklin Street to get a cup of coffee. There were several hundred people and drumming and shouting—lots of people wearing masks, though, for the sake of anonymity in photo or video. That very day, the Indian High Court was reviewing section 377, which is the law used against gay people in this country (though it doesn’t refer to homosexuals verbatim). Thursday, the law was amended! Huge news. What this basically means, as someone at Visthar put it, is that homosexual lifestyles are now ‘recognized as non-crimes.’ Still not equal rights, but at least not outright discrimination. …Now this weekend, there have been counter-protests and demonstrations in some cities, some apparently violent.

It will be interesting to see how this continues to unfold here. I would at least venture to say that from what I’ve seen, the divide between rural and urban here, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative,’ seems to be HUGE. As part of our cultural context class this week, we had a session discussing sexual minorities, and Visthar invited 2 gay men and 2 lesbian women to speak. It was incredible to me that all 4 of them—none of whom could have been older than 40—had attempted suicide due to their sexuality-combined-with-social/family-situation. Two had had their partners die in double-suicide attempts that they themselves had survived. It does seem that the situation here is behind the US by a few years or decades.

…One more week of training, and then on to Kerala for self-inflicted punishment with Gurukkal. Beyond Kerala, I’m not sure yet where I’ll be headed, but there’s time yet to sort that out. In the meantime, thank you for reading all my ramblings. Namaskara!