Sunday, October 18, 2009

Varanasi In Living Color

We arrived in Varanasi on October 2 and are nearly through our stay—in fact we leave next Tuesday.  I wrote earlier that Varanasi is a “Hindu” city.  I could have written that it is also a “Muslim” city as well as a “this” city and a “that” city.  I have committed many errors of categorization so far but this city has brought me a much keener insight into the complexities of this culture and my own tendencies to compare and contrast—far too quickly.  However, I am what I am, and I try desperately to make sense out of things within the mental frameworks I have.  Moreover, I am (after all) supposed to be a teacher and in my area of expertise, I do know a bit about reading texts and various theoretical perspectives from which one can do so.  When asked by a student to comment on “this” or “that” I usually do so from a communication perspective (although my inner Marx sneaks out from time to time) and I really enjoy trading “explanations” with them.

Dr. Nita Kumar and Irfana Majumdar are leading us in our academic pursuits.  The fact that they are mother and daughter is not particularly relevant, but becomes immediately apparent when they—individually or collectively—light up a room with their radiant warmth and drop-dead smiles.  I won’t attempt to capture the depth of the material we’re covering that ranges from Hinduism and Islam, gender and class issues, art, theater and music and, (most importantly from my point of view) to education.  You get some idea of the complexity and depth of our curriculum from the schedule I posted. 

We couldn’t ask for a better tutor in matters of Indian education than Nita Kumar.  She and her late husband formed the school—Nirman or Vidyashram—Southpoint—some years back and have devoted their lives to developing a “post-colonial” model of education.  She has convinced me that absent a radical approach to education reform (and a commitment by the government to support this approach) that India’s education will continue to be driven by values, curricula, administrators and teachers who are simply not providing Indian youth with the kinds of knowledge, skills and mindset they need to move beyond the colonial past with its soul-sucking approach to teaching/learning/organizing/energizing.  I hope to write more about this before and after I return to the states, however, for the time being I’ll simply report that Carol and I have decided that we will work to try and help secure financial support for expanding the work being done here as well as creating more models like Vidyashram—Southpoint once we return and have more time and energy to devote.  We have been discussing working with Nita and Irfana to help draft a strategic plan for the organization and working to set up a 501c3 in the states for the Friends of Nirman. 

Two weekends ago we took a “field trip” to Lucknow.  It became the students’ new “best experience in India” trip and their only complaint was we didn’t spend enough time there.  I encourage you to Google it and learn about the siege of the British Residency during the 1857 “Mutiny” (as the British call it—Indians tend to characterize it as a revolt).  We went to the Residency and toured the museum and adjoining ruins.  We also met with an NGO whose mission is to work or women’s rights and counter sexual violence.  Finally we had a chance to meet Sunil and Nita’s mother and spend a splendid evening in her bungalow.

We have had more than our share of illnesses.  Two students spent more than 3 days in a private hospital with acute gastrointestinal distress.  (I did not post a picture Carol took of a plaque they proudly display with their ISO 9001 certification—an award granted for quality service—and which I can now say categorically is absolutely worthless).  If you truly want to go through the looking glass, spend time in one of these places.  The students came out OK, but I’m not sure I can say the same thing for Carol.  She basically lived there for the entire time dealing with an unimaginably arcane and inefficient system that tested her brilliant organizational and interpersonal skills.  At one time or another, over the past three weeks, every one of the 24 students have had some kind of medical issue but they have forged ahead with their home-stays and projects and classes and field trips, never wavering from their twin objectives of having fun while eating India, problems and all.

In And Around Varanasi

We hobnob with the Maharaji of Banaras.  The kings, princes and rajas were stripped of their positions after Independence and are now figure heads.  He helps with several colleges, leads his districts annual Ramlila and maintains the museum which abuts his residence.
Carol likes elephants.

We visited a village near Betawar--Nirman's rural campus.  After we had a meeting with village leaders, these folks wanted us to know we could take their pictures too.  We got the message and an excellent photo.

A Hindu Temple just yards from our hotel.  One of countless temples in Varanasi
A typical street scene

We live on the fourth floor of the Divya Hotel, just a block from the Assi Ghat.  Our room faces a very busy street and it can be quite chaotic at times.  While Carol was in the room working on a project, she heard a commotion and looked below where a parade was taking place--no one she asked knew what it was all about.  

Nirman and Diwali
Ava joins a class for exercises.  Note how clean things are.
A group of us joined Leah for her birthday at the Aum Restaurant (our favorite eatery).  Clockwise: Ulrika, Ben, TLC, Emily L, Leah, Ava, Thomas, Richie, Shanndara, Kiran, Hannah and Sara
Almost all the female students got henna(ed).  Carol too. 

Our new Diwali Kurtas made quite a fashion statement.  We got different colors to avoid the confusion people have in telling us apart.

Allison, Anna, Alex and Carol before the festivities began

Nita, Irfana and Nandini explaining all the symbolism of the puja

Snuggling with Rosie and Emily N

A whole bunch of beautiful women with their new Sarees

The Ramlila and Krishnalila are religious street (or River) performances which go on for days and attract hundreds of thousands of participants.  We went on two separate nights to two separate Ramlilas.  Quite amazing

The crowd noise was so loud we could barely hear each other.  Suddenly it grew even louder and the throng started backing into us, causing Carol to fall into me and me to nearly fall to the pavement.  We struggled to get our footing and then looked up and there, no more than 2 feet away, was the cause of all the commotion.  

Children playing gods

Alex and Rosie with David.  David teaches at Columbia and is here at the school to study Indian theatre.  

Richie and Thomas heading off to the event


Outside the Residency museum
One of Lucknow's rulers.  We thought he looked quite postmodern with his pleased look and exposed nipple

Richie and Nita
While in Lucknow, we visited Saajhi Duniya--an NGO which works for women's rights and is especially active in working against violence against women.  Pictured are Roop Rekha Verma and her staff of dedicated workers.  The students were very impressed with their work.

On day two of our Lucknow visit we toured two ImamBaras.  We've seen a number of mosques and Muslim community buildings during our stay--none have impressed me more than these two.

Before heading back to Varanasi on an overnight train, we were hosted by Mrs. Sunita Kumar for a marvelous dinner.  Her bungalow was beautiful but not as lovely as she.  After meeting her we had a pretty good idea of why her son and daughter are such favorites of ours.  Here are Kiran and Sara with Ben and Ava in the background.

1 comment:

  1. Nice pics and info. I will be visiting Varanasi in a few days.