July 29, 2011

Modern India - Bangalore Tourist Day

SueReno_Iskcon 1
I’m here in India as a tourist, so I have no compunction about acting as one.  I hired a car and driver through the hotel, and asked to be taken around to some of the tourist spots in Bangalore.  My driver, Ramakrishna, started the tour with a stop at the Iskcon center.  It’s a new and lavish structure, designed from the start to accommodate crowds of the faithful and the curious. I left my shoes and camera in the car, passed through security where they checked my bag (they are very strict about the no-photos rule), and entered the compound.  Admission is free, but I paid for a pass that let me cut past the lines, and also provided me with a plastic baggie of prasadam.  There was a continual audio loop of the “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” mantra playing everywhere.  I travelled up a series of ramps, stopping at two small shrines, then reached the main temple area.  My pass earned  me the right to sit on mats at the front and meditate upon the three elaborate shrines, until a monk came to shoo me along. 
Exiting was a bit of an ordeal.  I travelled through cattle chutes along a line of monks, inquiring on my native language, and reached an English speaking monk who started in on a hard sell of books and DVDs.  My pass entitled me to 20Rs. credit on a purchase, but the least expensive booklet was 25Rs.  I finally chose the path of least resistance and spent the 5Rs., just so I could move along.  Next were food and souvenir stands, a ramp, a stretch of lower priced items, another ramp, more gewgaws, and so on, until I finally emerged into the sunlight.  It was an interesting experience, but I was left a bit cynical about its spiritual value.
SueReno_Bangalore Palace
Next on the agenda was the Bangalore Palace.  Again, an admission fee, but I opted not to pay the camera fee (which seems to be standard at a lot of attractions) so I don’t have pictures of the interior.  I did take the audio tour, which was worthwhile, and I enjoyed the tour and the glimpse of life an a bygone colonial time.
SueReno_Shiv Mandir 1
On to the Shiv Mandar temple.  It’s another modern complex, in the city next to the Total Mall.  After checking my shoes, and paying an entry and camera fee, I entered through a sort of man-made grotto that featured a series of display windows with animatronic educational displays (above) and statues of 
Shiva (below):
  SueReno_Shiv Mandir 2
Here I am posed by the lingam:
SueReno_Shiv Mandir 3
Finally emerging from the grotto into the sunlight:
SueReno_Shiv Mandir 4
To find the main attraction, a 65 ft. tall statue of Shiva, in front of a man-made mountain scape. While I was there, workers with ladders and hoses were cleaning the statue:
SueReno_Shiv Mandir 5
Upon exiting, there was a very long passage of souvenir and trinket shops, but thankfully no hard sell:
SueReno_Shiv Mandir 6
Onward and upward to the Big Bull Temple:
SueReno_Big Bull 1
This is an older and more traditional temple, and provided a more relaxed and dignified experience.  It has an attractive gopuram:
SueReno_Big Bull 2
A pleasant entryway:
SueReno_Big Bull 3
And one of the world’s largest Nandi statues, carved from granite and darkened from years of being anointed with oil.  Here the priest took a few minutes to talk with me, give me a blessing and a bindi, and then asked for a donation.  I considered this a much more civilized way of handling things, so I gladly made a contribution.
SueReno_Big Bull 4
Last stop of the day was the Lalbagh Botanical Garden, a 240 acre green oasis in the heart of the city.  It features shady walks among impressive specimens like this ficus:
SueReno_Lalbagh 1
A Glass House designed along the lines of the Crystal Palace in England and currently used for flower shows:
SueReno_Lalbagh 2
It also features a rare rock formation and  Geological Monument of a large swath of Peninsular Gneiss rock:
SueReno_Lalbagh 3
A good day, and a good introduction to the city. 

July 27, 2011

Modern India - Mahabalipuram Temples

SueReno_Mahabalipuram 1
I was excited to revisit the shore temple at Mahabalipuram, but also mildly confused upon arrival.  When I was there in 1974, the temple was actually on the beach; now it appeared to be some distance from it.  I agreed to take on a guide, Ali, and he proved to be a good choice and a font of information.  In 1976, two years after my initial visit, Indira Gandhi toured the site and was then instrumental in pushing legislation that provided funds to restore the site and provide a buffer zone from the sea.  Ali also described how he was guiding tourists when the 2004 tsunami struck--he saw the water boiling and got everyone in his group to high ground.  They watched as the water advanced, then receded, temporarily exposing the six companion temples that were once part of the complex but have been under the waterline for ages.  The tsunami swept fragments from the undersea temples onto the land, as evidenced by the chunk of sculpture and the dark colored piece of a column, below:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 2
I was also interested to see a group of Indians in street clothes and saris, and led by an instructor, practicing yoga on the grounds next to the temple.  When I was here in the the 70’s, hatha yoga was practiced by devotees in temples and ashrams, but not, to my knowledge, by the general public, or in public spaces.
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 3
I would love to know more about what’s going on here, and I’m left to wonder if the popularity of yoga classes in the West is circling around and pushing it as an emerging trend here in India.  This woman certainly seems happy to be participating.
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 4
The benefit of having a guide is the information and directions he provides; the downside is that one can feel rushed.  I made time to wander a bit and soak in the atmosphere and take the photos that were important  to me.  I love the perspective of this line of Nandi sculptures as much as I did years ago:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 5
We were the only Americans on the temple grounds that morning, and were regarded with enthusiasm and apparent delight by many of the Indian tourists.  We were approached numerous times and asked to pose for photos.  I was amused to think of myself as an exotic feature in someone’s vacations snaps, and asked our guide record some of these moments for my own version of posterity:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 6
A short drive away,and accompanied by Ali, who was expert at making himself indispensible, we next toured the Pancha Rathas, or Five Chariots.  They were not constructed, but instead carved from the top down, each from a single block of granite.  Pretty impressive:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 7
The carvings are intricate and varied:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 8
Ali was fairly insistent on posing us for photo ops:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 9
And I must admit he knew his stuff.  I’m quite fond of this image, especially since Alice and I are wearing the beautiful silk kurtas that were a gift from our friend Sashi:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 10
Here we are posed with a  group of very giggly schoolgirls:
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Next up, the Descent of the Ganges, or Arjuna’s Penance, an enormous bas relief, next to the Varaha Cave Temple.  Lots to look at, learn about, and photograph here as well:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 13
Another plus of hiring a guide--he will shield you from the street hawkers.  On the other hand, he will introduce you the vendors with whom he has an arrangement.  All very pleasant and polite!  And yes, I bought a small and beautiful carved elephant.  Here I am being urged on to the final stop in the tour:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 12
By the time we got to Krishna’s Butterball, I was tiring and beginning to lose some of my enthusiasm for the proceedings, but posed obligingly once more with some local people, including a little girl who kept kissing Alice.  Also, note that this picture contains goats:
SueReno_Mahabalipuram 14
All in all, an awesome and inspiring day.  I am so fortunate and grateful to have been able to revisit this unique group of monuments.

July 25, 2011

Modern India - The Ideal Beach Resort

After the hustle and bustle of Chennai, and still a bit jet-lagged, we were anxious to get to the decadent part of our trip, a stay at the Ideal Beach Resort. (The website has music, so mute your speakers.)  I had booked this online, based on pictures and reviews, and so was a bit nervous about how it would pan out.  Luckily, it was indeed Ideal.  From the warm and professional welcome at Reception, to our walk around the grounds, to our spacious “sea facing cottage” with a dressing room and luxurious bath, everything about the resort was delightful.  Here’s the view from our  second floor balcony (all pictures enlarge when you click on them):
In the evenings, we sat outside to play cards and watch bats swooping about gracefully and catching moths. 
The restaurant was excellent, the food was a definite cut above average and the atmosphere pleasant:
There was a nice pool--one of the reasons I chose the resort was for an environment where we could wear bathing suits without offending sensibilities:
The entire complex seemed well maintained, and they were working on a new tile surround for the pool.  This being India, we were treated to the juxtaposition of travellers from around the globe splashing and having fun in the pool, while at one end a group of workers trundled sand and tiles in handcarts,  mixed concrete and grout in buckets, and laid tile:
The most important part of a beach resort, of course, is the beach.  It was wide and clean, lined with huts and palm trees hung with hammocks, and a very pleasant place to pass the time.  The undertow was fierce on the days we were there, and swimming was not recommended, but there was no lifeguard regardless so it was a moot point for me.  We got up early both days to go watch the sunrise. 
A good place for a sun salutation:
And to watch the beach dogs:
And the crows:

The fishermen launching out into the sea:
The cattle:
All in all, a very relaxing experience:

Modern India - Chennai

SueReno_Chennai Temple
My India adventure is off to a grand start!  After a very long (27 hour) but thankfully uneventful journey, we landed at the Chennai airport.  A friend-of-a-friend connection had fortuitously led us to make arrangements with Sashi, a beautiful and gracious young woman, who met us at the airport.  Sashi took us to her family home, where we met her parents and brother, and  fed us a delicious breakfast of freshly made dosas.  After a much needed and regenerative nap, she picked us up at the hotel and took us out and about in her Mylapore neighborhood. We were honored to be invited to accompany her to  the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, where she regularly worships. The temple complex is ancient, and very beautiful.   Photos are not allowed inside the temple, but even if they were I would have been hesitant to take any, out of respect to the celebrants.  It was a very moving and meaningful experience to observe the rites, and to participate in the ones open to those not of the Hindu faith. 
And that big bag I’m holding in the picture above?  Yep, it’s full of silk.  Sashi knew the best place to shop, and thanks to her I discovered a new category of silk to purchase.  It’s a sort of do-it-yourself shalwar kameez kit. There’s a length of fabric, already embroidered, to be made into the tunic by your tailor, another one for the pants, and a length dyed to match chiffon for the scarf.  The scarfs in these sets are poly, but the rest is glorious silk.  I somehow managed to stop myself at only four sets:
SueReno_Silks 2
SueReno_Silks 1
I think these are going to be enormously useful in the studio, once I muster the courage to cut into them, as I will have the embroidered bits to work with.  They are of a medium weight silk.  I also purchased some meter lengths of finer shot silk:
SueReno_Silks 3
Aren’t they gorgeous?  And so much fun to purchase--here’s how it works in a shop in India.  There was a general floor manager, who inquired as to what I wanted, and directed me to the manager for the “fine silks”.  He pulled bolts from behind the counter for me to look at, gave them poetic names (the one on the left he called “sunset”), and made further suggestions.  As I made my selections, he passed the bolts to two underlings, and supervised as they measured, made the cuts, and wrote and affixed the small labels.

We then proceeded to the sales counter, where Sales Clerk 1 entered all the information from the labels and printed up an invoice for my inspection.  I approved it, handed it  to Sales Clerk 2, who reviewed it and handed it to Sales Clerk 3.  Sales Clerk 3 reviewed the invoice, swiped my credit card, and handed the invoice and credit receipt back to Clerk 2, who had me sign them both, and gave me my copies.  I then handed the invoice back to to Sales Clerk 1, who reviewed all the paperwork and the labels one more time, packaged everything up, and gave it to me.  That makes 7 people involved in this one purchase, and doesn’t count the doorman, the elevator attendant, and the 3 or 4 clerks who helped me purchase the kits on another floor. 

I appreciate the terrific and attentive customer service, and it makes shopping an interactive experience.  On the other hand, as a modern westernized woman, I am used to parking in automated self service garages, walking through automatic doorways or opening doors myself, picking out my groceries and consumer goods on my own, and paying at self-service scanners. It’s one of those unexpected bits of cultural differences that are mildly unsettling at first, but quickly become habit. After only a few days in India, I am now swanning through doorways everywhere without the slightest expectation of having to deal with them myself.

Another big cultural difference is the approach to driving.  I live in the suburbs, and take it as a matter of course that I will drive myself to wherever I need to go.  In Chennai, Sashi’s family’s driver took us about town and to our next destination (many, many thanks!), and I have been and will continue to hire drivers for any other expeditions.  Driving in India is not for the faint of heart or inexperienced.  Lanes, signs, and signals seem to be regarded as mere suggestions, to be followed, or not, as whim and circumstance dictate.  The road is shared by lorries, autos, auto-rickshaws, bike rickshaws, bicyclists, pedestrians, and the ubiquitous scooters, many carrying the entire family of father, mother, and one or two small children.  Occasionally there is a cow, goat, or water buffalo. There is a lot of horn honking, and for the most part it all works out.  Once you get over your amazement, it is fascinating to watch.  Travel is very broadening!

An editorial note:  When I started this blog years ago, I decided to focus on art, the inspiration that leads to the art, and the travel that nourishes it.  I wanted to keep a professional tone, and for the most part have left out personal references.  I do have a family, a wonderful one, that includes my fabulous and incredibly supportive husband who I often travel with, my two adult daughters and their respective spouses, and my young grandson, who I can assure you is incredibly cute and talented. I’ve chosen not to include them in the blog, partly because of relevance, but also because the have their own lives, both personal and digital, and are fully capable of representing themselves as they see fit. 

But blogs evolve, and I’ve reached a point where I am making an exception to my policy.  My daughter Alice is a major part of my India jaunt; she is travelling here on business and invited me to join her on the trip.  I am fortunate to be sharing this experience with her, and as we are posing for a lot of pictures together it seems appropriate to include her.  You’ll be seeing more of both of us in the days to come!

Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Judging

Festival of the Arts_The Mall
I was in State College, PA, on July 14 - 16, to serve on the Juror’s panel for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts Sidewalk Sale.  I wrote previously about the initial jurying process here; now the jurors reassembled to visit each of the artist’s booths, score them, and award prizes.  Luckily, the weather was practically perfect, which made visiting the approximately 350 booths a bit less of a daunting enterprise.  Pictured above are some of the booths on the Mall on campus; others were on Allen and adjacent streets nearby.
It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to vend at a show like this--the artist needs to first conceptualize and then produce the work, at various price points and in sufficient quality, put together a coherent and workable booth design, take images and submit them for jurying, then transport it all to the site, set it up, and staff the booth for long hours in all kinds of weather conditions. So scoring the booths was an assignment all the jurors took very seriously.  We had an aide to guide us and make sure we got to each one, and at each booth I made an effort to introduce myself and speak a few words with the craftsperson/artist where possible. (I did not interrupt an artist in the midst of a sale!)   I felt that the quality of the works exhibited was consistently high, and was careful in my deliberations.  After my initial round of scoring, I went back the next day and reviewed the booths and my decisions.
Festival of the Arts_Jurors
Pictured above is the juror panel, l-r Karla Prickett, myself, Pam Lautsh (Sidewalk Sale coordinator), Jimmy Clark, Sharon Massey, and Ron Thurston. We worked well together, and while were impressed with much of the work, in the end it was clear which  was the most deserving. We were all very pleased with the choices we made.  We were even more pleased to be able to sit on the stage and see the looks on the artist’s faces as the winners were announced.  It was a distinct pleasure to be able to award recognition--and cash--to such deserving individuals.
Festival of the Arts_Best Of Show
Best of Show went to ceramicist Luis Enrique Gutierrez, from Zebulon, NC. The Best of Show award comes with a $2,500 cash prize. You can see the other prize winners on the Festival Blog.

Festival of the Arts_Sue Reno, Anni Matsick
Here I am with my friend, and Festival volunteer extraordinaire, Anni Matsick, next to the mister.  My thanks again to all those involved in running the Festival and allowing me to have a part in it. I had a wonderful time!

July 22, 2011

Vintage India - Mysore

Oh, Mysore, such a wonderful city!  I was enrolled at and attended the University of Mysore, in the Manasagangotri campus, and fell in love with the city and the people.  Most days, after classes, I would take the short ride in an auto rickshaw into town.  You can see a black and yellow rickshaw, a three wheeled vehicle with a small and wheezy engine, in this picture:
Bananas where a common purchase and a staple of my diet.  Until then, I had no idea that they came in such a wide variety.  The very small ones were a favorite:
I could get my meals at the University cafeteria, but often ate out, or sometimes bought things to cook on a hot plate in the dorm room, so a trip to the market was often on the agenda.  Farmer’s markets are essentially the same the world over, I think, and I felt at home here among the green beans:
And the tomatoes:
But the piles of powders used for bindi dots, and the sticks of incense, where a colorful and exotic touch:
This street musician was one of a panoply of buskers, sword swallowers, snake charmers, and yogis standing on beds of nails I grew accustomed to.  I was always a soft touch for a bit of baksheesh.
Sometimes I browsed the selections at the Lakshmi Vilas Saree Specialists, but I never quite got the hang of wearing a sari in my daily life.
I settled on a uniform of long skirts and shirts made from hand-woven khadi cloth, very beautiful, breathable, and comfortable.  They were not a ready made item, or something commonly worn by women, but I got away with it because I was obviously foreign and taking the trouble to cover up in a modest fashion.  I had them tailored by this man:
The men on the left and center were part of the family that owned the small textile business, and the man on the right did the tailoring and sewing.  He cut everything freehand after you picked out a fabric and described what you wanted, then stitched it together on his treadle machine. He did an excellent job. Word got around among the foreign students, and I think we contributed significantly to the fortunes of this enterprise that fall.
I did splurge on one magnificent silk sari, embellished with gold threads. I am modeling it here in the family home of the textile business owners.  The invited several of us for dinner to show their appreciation, and treated us fabulously with traditional Indian hospitality.  The women in the family helped me arrange the sari properly and appropriately:
Sue in Sari
Most of my time in Mysore was  taken up with classes, socializing, and the routines of daily life, but I did get out for some local sightseeing at places like the renowned Brindavan Gardens:
SueReno_Brindavan Gardens
And even every day life was often exotic and sublime.  An Indian friend was studying dance, and stopped by one day on his way to a performance to give us all a treat:
Back at the dorm, under the auspices of a very strict matron, I did my schoolwork, learning history and culture, and attempting to learn the written language of Kannada (the red marks are my errors, but still rather a success, I think):
It was a simple, almost monastic existence, with very few objects and possessions.   A bed with a mosquito net, a small desk and folding chair, and a closet with a few shelves were the extent of it.  Here I am in a happy contemplative moment:
SueReno_Mysore Dorm
I did have sheets and blankets, of course, but when this snapshot was taken they were being attended to by the laundry ladies in the courtyard:
SueReno_Mysore Laundry Ladies
The school year at the University was punctuated by a month long break in the fall, which I took advantage  of by setting off to travel by second class train and explore the country.  Here I am, all bright and shiny and eager:
SueReno_Mysore Ladies Hostel
I hope you’ve enjoyed my wandering recaps of my escapades in this series of posts.  Stay tuned as I venture out again, every bit as eager, and almost as bright and shiny, for another grand adventure in India.
Here are the rest of the posts in this series: Calcutta and Goa, Rameswaram, Bodh Gaya, Benares, Khajuraho, Kerala, Chennakeshava and Hoysaleswara, Tamil Nadu, Bombay, and Taj Mahal and Agra.