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!


  1. Hi Ryan,

    Fantastic to read your news and see the photos, and fascinating to read about the physical training aspect of it. Keep 'em coming.

    See you next year. xxx

  2. Really nice write up and sounds amazing with such rich cultural (&musical) diversity. Keep it flowing!

  3. wow ryan. i had no idea you were in india and i'm super jealous! i have always wanted to travel there. but, in lieu of being there myself, its awsome to read your stories. thank you for taking the time to write and to share. it sounds like you are having some amazing experiences and i'm stoked for you. i'm looking forward to reading more. how long will you be there? peace and safe travels to you friend. . .

  4. What an amazing adventure, and very cool that you were able to join the pride parade and see this historic moment in India's progress on civil rights! May I quote that part of your post on Bent Alaska, Alaska's LGBT news blog?

    By the way, Juneau had a big Gay Pride Picnic Celebration at Skater's Cabin on June 20. It's not a parade, but they didn't need to wear masks for safety.

    I look forward to reading your next adventures!

  5. Ryan,

    I hope you keep up the travel writing; had a great time reading about your adventures!

  6. Hello Ryan -

    I discovered your blog through the link on ADN's Alaska Newsreader (which has also linked to my blog lately). I am another Alaskan blogger who recently visited Bangalore and other places in India. I had meant to blog the experience in depth, but in the two weeks that I was there I took enough photos and had a wide enough variety of experiences to blog it for the entire summer.

    And I just do not have time for that.

    Anyway, I am glad to have found your blog and I will make frequent visits back to follow your progress through India and elsewhere.

    If you would like to see what I have so far blogged on India, you can find it here:

    I still plan to drop other India photos and stories into my blog from time to time over the next year or so.

    The place is crowded, chaotic and polluted, but I love it and ache to return.

    Good luck, stay safe and take care!

  7. Ry- just reading this now. I love the descriptions of your life there. I love that you've jumped 150% in to EVERYTHING - not that i would have expected anything less from you.

    ENJOY - eyes, mind, heart, soul WIDE OPEN!

    big hugs and much much love,

    cher :)

  8. ry- sounds like the trip has been spectacular for you. sweet! enjoy

  9. Wow! I think you should write a book!
    Safe travels!! -Cheryl

  10. Amazing advertures, thanks for sharing. Your wedding crashing experience reminds me of a time I accidently crashed a Quinceanera (sweet 16th) party in Guadalajara. It ended several days later with a trip to in Patzcuaro for an all night day of the dead party. Those are the best times.

  11. Hey Ryan,

    how i found this wonderful diary a year on, just amazing to read your entries, especially about our wedding.
    why thank you for writing such nice things about us ;-)
    India what an amazing place! I have great memories of you soaking it all up, so happy and keen, right in the Gurukkaland Chechi nest, good times!! seriously have to get in touch will e-mail you!

    with lots of love

    Stephen and Menna