Sunday, November 28, 2010

assam : majuli / kaziranga / guwahati; (and one night in kolkata)

by far the most difficult second year study trip that i have been on. a long long journey to the other end of the country- three trains, two buses and a ferry ride across the muddy brahmaputra on the largest river island in the world- a constantly shifting flat landscape of white silt, sand and water bodies. every year the contours of island shift making new boundaries.

here, far away from the blackberry network that so many of the kids craved for, are vaishnavite monasteries established in the 1600s amidst a tribal population that still lives on the margins of these large complexes. the monasteries are called 'sattras' and are as impermanent as the land that they perch upon. constantly being moved and rebuilt their real structure is the administrative and the cultural. because here far away from contemporary civilization is culture. sattriya singing and dancing. beautiful in praise of krishna. the individual families arranged in perfect lines around the namghar at the centre, where all the rituals take place, are self sustaining and self sufficient. they make their own food, stitch their own clothes.

as institutions they exert tremendous influence over the island. the villages and the tribals on the outside have to subscribe in some way or the other. culture from within the sattra overflows into the streets as boys danced the 'dashavatar' for us in the backyard of his house.

while we were in majuli the raas leela preparations were on. on the island temporary theatres sprang up overnight. in the sattras sets and costumes were being prepared, gopis and krishans were rehearsing in the namghar and the rang manch. in between these rituals were performed in cycles to krishna like they do every single day.

the mishing tribe is the main tribe on the island. the boys paint their nails to preen and work the bamboo into mats, hats, roofs, buildings with ease. the clusters of houses perch on the edge of the road raised above the uncertain ground. below the stilts is work- weaving looms, cow sheds. and above is everyday life. a water pump is extended to the platform above. inside the curtain covered rooms the floor i permeable to the ground below and the waste is thrown directly below for the pigs to eat.

we lived in a not yet completed resort and the kids were shell shocked for the first few days. i hope things got better later. with us were students and faculty from the guwahati school of architecture. lovely energetic kids.

auniati . the sattra where george, ginella and me spent the most of our time- the one assigned to us. a newly rebuilt (1957) sattra- and the perfect diagram of one. perfect square inscribed upon the land and lifted off from the surrounding, the whole sattra lies on a bund. four roads lead from the middle of each segment ot the central namgarh and the home of the sattradhikari- the central authority of the sattra. on the first days while we were there the most important ritual of the sattra was on- pal naam. krishna's name constantly sung in different forms throughout the day. throngs of people in the verandahs come from distances to live with the men that they forsook to the sattra. on the main road leading to the sattra from the village and across the wooden bridge was a village fair of artifacts and plastic toys. in the next few days this crowd gradually dispersed but the naamgarh stayed constantly alive with the sound of drums, kirtans, dancing and cymbals. rehearsals were on for the raas. one of the main dancers was prasanna kumar buhyan who invited us over to his house and showed us the invites and the certificated from delhi. he was a terrific dancer and we were very flattered when the next day, while dancing for the australian tourists he seemed to be nodding at us sitting st the corner. when prof dengle arrived we walked over to another family's house who created for us a museum of the everyday objects that they make and use. meanwhile one of them made for us a miniature bamboo ladder and a miniature version of the way that they make vines grow around a tree.

nutan kamlabari. shirish, minal and paul were working on this sattra. unlike auniati this sattra was enmeshed into the surrounding landscape. while at auniati domesticity was relegated to the rear yards of the houses, here it overflowed into the front yards. kids were sleeping, flowering plants bloomed, and clothes lines hung on the main streets. the precise rectangle of auniati was distorted here. public private were not quite so distinct. the naam garh was older that auniati and was built in beautiful timber detailing. even the doors of each of the houses did not have any of the spartan minimalism of auniati, but were instead decorated with a profusion of motifs. vikram said it had something to do with the difference of administrative structure between the two sattras.

dokinpath. the oldest of the three sattras. almost an hour away by bus on a bumpy road, in dokinpath the landscape of majuli entered the space of the sattra. an unfinished edge opened out to the low lying water and the fields of the island. a horizon could be seen from the inside. the first night we were there the sattra was bathed in moonlight with only two lamps lighint the naam garh. on the last day, preparations for the raas were on and the inhabitants were lined up for the darshan of the sattradhikari.

of other spaces. uttar kamlabari was a cleaner, more ordered replica of nutan kamlabari. a mask maker showed us his masks and an old man in the veranda methodically stitched feathers on the swan. the river to the north was narrower by leagues than the brahmaputra. the only concrete bridge on majuli lead us to it. i heard that environmentalists protested connecting the island to the mainland. so now the only connection is a decrepit ferry terminal which shifts every year, and which carries everything from jcbs to paneer from the mainland to the island. and the only performance of the raas that we saw. in kamlabari, in a temporary theatre on a field. krishna's life story as a tv soap.


on the road that leads from jorhat to guwahati we stopped off for two nights at kaziranga. an evening walk in the neighbourhood of our hotel took us towards the hills in to the south where in a soil conservation department complex atrocious replicas of tribal people and their huts were built in concrete. it would be funny, if it wasnt so terrifying. the next day an elephant ride to the western point in the early morning. pink misty morning and rhinocerous and cranes. wild elephants and buffalo. like a dream. especially when the rhino and her baby came charging head on at lucky our elephant. a stick form our mahout stopped them in their tracks. lucky went and picked the stick up for us. after raging wildly at the kids for an irresponsible night binge we left for the eastern point in a jeep. low lying and watery, the light fell beautifully on the birds and boars. prof dengle and shirish read out descri[ptions from a birds of india book. and we spotted cranes, adjutants, egrets, eagles. the next morning was central point with pelicans and the chances of a tiger in the tall grass.


we lived in a hotel ramshackle and dusty naear the railway station. kamakheya temple is on a hill overlooking the city bathed in the blood of lambs and pigeons. the bamboo institute where inventive bamboo techniques are being developed and promoted. bipul sir's workshop where he experiments with form and furniture and his site where everything is built with bamboo.

and that one night in kolkata.

after that wild ride on super crowded streets in yellow ambassador cars and dumping our bags at the yatri niwas at howrah. the beautiful bridge, park street dinner at mocambo and the victoria memorial in moonlight. the horses were grazing on the maidan.

Friday, November 12, 2010

guangzhou . shanghai . beijing

guangzhou / shanghai / beijing

an exchange programme with me and ten students to guangzhou for 20 days (or so). in pictures and captions... long and self indulgent. so be warned. photographs on facebook. :)

day 1 - thursday

night flight to hong kong and a coach across to the mainland. hong kong felt right. dark green hills dipped in the sea connected by bridges crisscrossing over ferries and those skyscraper apartments glittering in the morning light. spectacular skyline. wish i had more time there- but maybe next time. into mainland china- another passport check and a highway zooms over worker housing and factories and farmlands all mixed into one surreal landscape. boundaries blur. high rises in the middle of old docks and duck farms.

at guangzhou we meet the chinese kids who had come to india and they take us to the hostel where the students are living- overlooking the pearl river. balconies. back to guangzhou academy of fine arts (gaga) for me where i meet yang and wang ge- whose house i live in.

the first big dinner of hunan food- duck. frog. stomach of pig. fish. and a lot of other things i can't remember.

day 2 - friday

wang ge's house is on the 15th floor close to gafa. a bachelor pad where i have a room. the other is shared by wang ge and xiao gu- his animator friend from beijing. introduction to the workshop at 10. urban video with 5 groups- tea ceremonies / flyovers / a heritage area - dong shan / the guangdong markets/ the dream of the city.

i took a ride to the dong shan area with the group and began my first walk. sweet red buildings encircled by high rises and hotels. a church. a market. a house in floor plan tiling as a reminder of what once was. the walk back across the river and the riverfront preparing for its celebration- the opening of the asian games on the 11th of november.

day 3 - saturday

after my chinese breakfast of some kind of rice cakes with meat inside, i met sagar and ambre's group at gafa and took the metro to the old town. the main pedestrian street with shops on both sides and then a plaza of high rises with enormous digital screens. i left the group and walked on alone- through markets of wholesale cloth in narrow streets until arriving and megastructure for clothes. people spilling out of the building into the streets. the cultural park close by had inflatable asian games mascots and tai chi old people. some musicians.

then i moved north off the main streets into the inner lanes that you enter through these gateways. fruit markets, vegetables, old men playing mah jong on the streets and right next to it unashamed high rise apartment buildings with clothes drying and grillwork. a maze. and through the walk you walk across one more main road clean and ordered and then you plunge into the maze again. north and west and southwards through a chor bazaar everything discarded is resold, and the chen clan academy; and another little temple to the plaza again.

after a lunch of fermented eggs near gafa saw 'qui xi'. more on the film later. dinner was at wang ge where his friend cooked australian fish and rice with chicken soup.

day 4 - sunday

this time a trip north south from wang ge's house. the road went past the 2nd workers cultural palace where construction work was booming and past shops selling wedding clothes in western and chinese styles across the bridge blown up in qui xi when the communists took over the city into haizhu square. that day was religious tourism as i walked into and past the church and into the neighbourhood surrounding it past residential neighbourhoods to the old mosque with only one minaret existing and the chinese temples- buddhist and taoist. prayer towers and incense. lotus ponds with fish. heading back down south through 'peoples park' at the heart of the city. tai chi and waltzing old people. beijing lu is a pedestrian shopping high end madness with an ancient road made into a glass encased exhibit in the middle. later i spent an hour on the waterfront watching the asian games floats go by. taj mahal in pink for india.

day 5 - monday

met kang and bi wei who was to be my caretaker for the week. turned out that he was busy for most of it- but i did manage to see two places with him. they took me for lunch at a spectacular seafood place with all kinds of specialities to choose from. i threw up my hands and kang ordered for sting rays, shrimp, octopus. bi wei and me to shamian island where the europeans had moved to after a fire in the 'thirteen factories'- the only place in china that they were allowed to be live in to trade in cotton and opium. until the opium wars. wide avenues, mansions and a church. today the home in guangzhou for the european community. then the fish wholesalers nearby. later bi wei showed me photographs of his parents and friends on his blog in his dorm room.

day 6 - tuesday

bi wei took me to sun yat sen university where red brick buildings march down a lawn to the river. two of his friends joined us and kept wanting a photograph with me to show that they touched brown skin. felt like a white skin in rajasthan. they left at the waterfront though and i walked all along the river looking across at the museum and theatre on the other side and walked across the river through the new zaha hadid opera house. folded concrete frog. the beginning of the new ceremonial axis along with the guangzhong museum. the southern tip is the canton tower- twisted and turning 'like a damsel'. the axis shoots up past newly completed glass towers and lawns through a residential area prettified by plastic flowers in the windows to a stadium and enormous digital displays. took a metro finally and went back to gafa where kang was waiting. he drove me through some factories and farms to the new city made for the university to the south east. u-town. a mall greets you first and oversized avenues empty of people connect gigantic campuses. a cricket stadium is being built next to the red brick high rise of gafa and the village nearby has been provided with red roofs free of cost by the government to make it look pretty for the asian games. china face-ism. :) at gafa the facilities are incredible. and the lecture went well enough with the help of a translator. dinner was at a small village dhaba. rice in a bamboo shoot and duck.

day 7 - wednesday

relatively lazy day. peasants movement institute with state propaganda and patriotic sloganeering in chinese. the relics of revolution in glass cases. nearby martyrs park. socialist realism meets boulee monumentality. an axis meets hands reaching out to the sky. another climbs a hill and in the middle a mound of lawn makes a stupa. at the two pavilions dedicated to soviet and korean friendship a group of old people rehearse a patriotic song. another group sing cantonese opera and still others play instruments. i listen.

day 8 - thursday

curious about the north i head to the baiyun area. where a huge monumental exhibition and conference centre stands at the base of the hill and across the road past empty land is a housing colony. the guangzhou version o f an sra. tall buildings with less than one meter in between and no light or ventilation and a market street. southwards the road led past the clubs at the base of the hill. the next segments took me past the monumental red facade of the building for the tombs of some emperors and then to yuexiu park. lazy afternoon sun and views to the city. more cantonese opera. the large sun yat sen memorial hall on the main road. red and a lawn and plaza in front. xiao gu and me had dinner in a chinese restaurant and communicated in hieroglyphics.

day 9 - friday

final presentation day. the workshop is over. some communication issues but otherwise very lovely as an experience. for some reason the group working in dongshan gave it up and made a generic lights of the city film. the exquisite corpse was a good idea that needed to evolve more. after the presentations the students and me were invited for karaoke to 'neways' by some of the chinese students. on the third floor of a building an entire floor of tiny rooms connected by corridors in which chinese sings are interspersed with pop hits. we hired us one room and sang.

day 10 - saturday

a day trip to kaiping- an hour and half south west of guangzhou where chinese american millionaires have made themselves farmhouses. idyllic with bridges over canals and three to four stories of hybrid ornament. liyuan gardens. a trellised pavilion and lawns. close by is 'cinema city'. where period dramas are shot. here history is allowed its patina. the buildings overlook a river and are allowed to crumble- unlike the villages in cities. the road to kaiping has these enormous factories where almost all the tiles in the world are made. at night a foot massage with xiao gu, wang ge and miss lu after a hot pot dinner.

day 11 - sunday

kang and wang ge drive me to huang pu- the old port of canton. old family temples on water bodies and a market selling fish. meanwhile some streets and buildings have been isolated for 'upgradation' which means more chinese face-ism. a thin stone veneer is applied too everything. anything in the way is summarily demolished and green plastic roofs mimic roof tiles. the gallery of the project managers displayed huge posters promoting the same. wang ge and kang shrugged their shoulders in protest. i was then dropped off at the 'creative district- where an old socialist factory now serves as a designer outlet. later i learnt that the basic set of moves for all the three cities to upgrade them into international status are the same. spectacle, some arts districts, some historic cores converted into n heritage districts. anyway here artist and architecture studios were allotted space and an exhibition was one of some art school. from there the canton tower was close enough to walk. and i did. and went to the top and looked across at the spectacle of the new axis and the array of buildings along it. the new stadium for the games was being readied. i was to meet the kids in the front of the museum. and they were late so i walked lazily to the museum and waited until they came. inside a big black atrium with confused galleries on all sides confuse the relics with the replica with abandon. entertainment is the primary goal. everything is recreated - or at least seem like they are until it does not matter which is which. the sunset on the steps of the zaha opera house. and then the light and sounds of the axis in the evening. like a bride waiting to be married. floor is lit. disney plays on the giant screen in front of the children's museum. rehearsed singing and dancing. and lazers everywhere. up the axis and to gafa again where wang ge met me and we went to kangs new office where i made a presentation of krvia work, while feng feng showed his design for the tomb made of trees. poetic.

day 12 - monday

the last day in guangzhou i spent lazily sleeping until wing invited me to her grandmother's house. ambre and me played mahjong with her and wings uncle and spoke through wing about her new house on the 21st floor away from the older neighbourhood where she lived. she loves the new house despite our romanticization of the older traditional house. vies across to the river and the new towers. moon cake and tea. at night xiao gu and wang ge sang songs from his rock back 'full metal jacket' on his guitar.

day 13 - tuesday

early morning to the airport by coach. confused airport misery at shanghai until we caught the bus and were dropped off close to the hostel. pretty hostel in an upgraded historic area. cobbled streets and similar unified facadism. one step away from the main street and we are in a real city. the mumbai connection is unmistakable. it is in the air. the energy and the people. the night walk was through street markets and busy main streets. i walked aimlessly- got lost - and found my way back in the dark through instinct. always taking the darkened road over the new one.

day 14 - wednesday

with the students we decide to walk to the main city. slowly. across the bridge over the suzhou river and into the british concession with its colonial buildings like ballard estate. a museum on the way had multimedia exhibits. lots of video. and the bund was art deco all along the river. a monument stood at the northern tip where the suzhou met the huangpu. there is no way for a pedestrian to go across from shanghai to pudong across the river. there is a metro, there are ferries and there is a ridiculous silly ride underwater in a capsule with juvenile special effects. that's the one we took. on the other side the real city is made into something from a jacques tati film. landscape is manicured and the streets are sanitised. one high rise after another. the disneylike orientalist fantasy of the tv tower, the empire state made glass and frizzy- jinmao, and the gucci handbag made gigantic. which is the tallest. nearby construction is on for the shanghai tower- taller than all. the view was all right though the kids were excited. to have an observatory without 360 degree views made no sense. the glass floor was a little scary. in the building an exhibition on tokyo was fun. mamuro oshii had a frightening tokyo scanner film on where parts of the city are mapped like they are under surveillance- in anime. took the ferry back after walking past the privatised waterfront in pudong. clubs and restaurants. the ferry dropped us off at the bund and then nanjing road's neon lights and evening buzz. the little touristy tram. ended up in a film later on - 'wind blast'- more on that later.

day 15 - thursday

the kids went elsewhere and i walked alone and encircled the whole city. first headed east through the neighbourhood where a memorial to communist writers and the places that they met were marked in statues and plaques. the area is now upgraded to new oldness and is popular as backdrop for photo shoots for fashion and wedding albums, heading east through what was the american concession and near the railway station where old shanghai neighbourhoods survive- but barely. narrow lanes and decrepit buildings are being reconstructed to make way for enormous malls. the wholesale market is now in a big building. there are no apologies anywhere on the horizon. the newspapers claim that the existing establishments are being 'encouraged' to look for areas with lower rent. along the suzhou river a cleansing project makes pretty a river that once was infamously polluted. across the bridge on to the british concession the art deco and colonial buildings and the touristy 'peoples park' around which all the museums are. the museum of contemporary art showed chinese installations and multimedia work. was met by a chinese girl and her friend on the streets afterwards. she was an english teacher in a school on the russia border and they invited me for a traditional tea ceremony. in a shop in a mall. a girl in a red chinese dress gave us lots of different kinds of tea and played up the rituals and their symbolism. the streets behind the bund were more art deco offices. and the temple in the northern part of the old city was overwhelmed by cleansed cute chinese replicas of itself. a bridge went criss cross over a water body. all the new stuff looked exactly like the old. but while the old was a temple the new was mcdonalds and kfc. you couldn't make out the difference. walking westwards into the french concession, past the lake and the location of the first congress of the chinese in july 1921 to the cleansed shikumen or traditional houses now turned into book shop cafe boutique globalised nowhereness. more foreigners around than chinese. this urban design banality run all over the neighbourhood to tianzifang where a neighbourhood has been converted into touristy arty land. galleries and boutiques. 'edgier' if you please than xintiandi. moving north again through the gentrified french concession and into the high rise glass towers to the north and the jingan temple. the walk to the railway station was through the eastern end of nanjing road and then beijing road upwards over the bridge to deserted lands darkened. the road back to the hostel was long and i was exhausted.

day 16 - friday

the last day in shanghai. i walked east towards what was the jewish ghetto but then decided to spend some time in the museums instead so took a metro to nanjing road. the development museum on 'peoples park' was fun. huge model of the city showing the neighbourhoods, multimedia displays for promoting the airport, the metro, the sustainable sewage systems. shanghai bids for global city status. a 3d movie takes over and through the main landmarks of the city. reminded me of tokyo scanner. surveillance from the sky. or maybe that's just me.

across the road and through the underground 'street from the 1930s' is the shanghai museum. around a central atrium chinese calligraphy, paintings, jade, coins... walked down to xintiandi again and took a metro to nampu bridge. there i looked across the river at barges that were dismantling the expo. the walk through the south of the inner city was great. narrow street, markets. looking for tianzifang again i got lost in the french concession- and finally when i did find it didn't feel like buying anything. that night some of the kids and i went to a club in the 'art district' of the city. in a warehouse a chinese rock band sang 80s era derived rock pop funk punk. the audience was mostly foreigners. later we went to a jazz club- the cotton club where a white woman sang sam and dave. very international. we could have been in berlin.

day 17 - saturday

early morning flight to beijing. and arriving there are stranded after a bus ride in a landscape of cold high rises on enormous avenues shrouded in mist. reminds me of delhi- except for the gigantic socialist housing. the scale is all overwhelming. so unlike the density of shanghai. i don't know why this does not surprises me. no taxi wants to take us to the hotel. claire, a helpful bystander, misreads the directions and we instead troop with all our baggage into the madness of the beijing subway. then the long walk on the pedestrian street with screens and malls to the hostel. this time in a hutong- a traditional beijing neighbourhood- all spick and span and 15 minutes from the forbidden city.

day 18 - sunday

the forbidden city is close and we walk along the moat with the wind blowing cold and wait for it to open at 8.30 am. when it does, crowds of tourists along the axis. courtyard after impressive courtyard along the ceremonial central. and off from it to the west a series of smaller courtyards - systems of privacy choreographed and every courtyard just this slightly different from the previous. museum rooms and relic until at the end the imperial garden- rockwork and a vista back to the pavilion on top of the hill. the way back went through a strange burned out colonial pavilion. out of the main gate on to tiananmen square. red flags flutter above mao's face. and along the axis his tomb. a student asks me who mao was. my jaw drops and i ask around to the rest of the group. one knows. i shudder. nearby is the national theatre- the silver egg glistening in the morning light, dipped in water. a walk further south took us to two parallel streets one cleaned for the tourists and running parallel to it a local market still selling fermented eggs and pork. not too difficult to imagine which i preferred and which the students did. at the southern end we took cycle rickshaws beijing style to the temple of heaven. circle symbolises heaven, the square - the earth. ritual sacrificial platforms and abstinence pavilions. tier upon tier of geometries down axii- north south east west. again at the southern end a taxi past sino soviet monumental ugliness and glass clad monstrosities to the north western corner of the city where a wind was blowing wild over the water in the summer palace. the evening light hit the palace front head on. along the water through the endless corridor with paintings in every bay and climb to the top with views across the city. further down a marble boat and bridges. a metro took us to the silk market which turned out to be a shopping mall. the kids decide to shop and i decide to go see the koolhaas cctv nearby. shrouded in darkness with the plaza closed off from the street. the twisted section not so impressive anymore. the steven holl linked hybrid that we saw on the way from the airport- much more exciting. the night walk took me through the embassy area with guards standing like statues ; and then within the 2nd ring road through old hutongs given pretty skins. to walk within them is much nicer.

day 19 - monday

the great wall with a bunch of iranian men in the car who know india through shah rukh khan and raj kapoor. sholay. one of them sings for me. the ride to the great wall to the north and then the long climb up a portion teeming with tourists. my knee starts acting up on the way down. posing for photographs. the way back through a jade museum and a silk museum in the city- jack- our guide annoys. we leave the group at the birds nest olympic stadium and the water cube. spectacular scale, spectacular skin. light in the evening on the plaza.

day 20 - tuesday

morning back to hong kong at the foster terminal 3. red roof. and then bombay- about time. movies- 'ocean heaven'. 'fame' . 'waqt'