Monday, March 16, 2009

Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu.

So, here we are in Chennai. For the past week we've been hosted most graciously by Sudha and Ravi, friends of David's parents. Staying at their house has been truly wonderful: not only is it so restful to stay in someone's home and eat delicious home cooked meals (Sudha has made sure that our menu never be the same! Only since being at their house have we begun to understand the wonderful variety of foods available in Southern India: from millet to brussel sprouts, to different kinds of rice based noodles and dumplings, many varieties of dahl, as well as incredibly tasty cauliflower, and so much more... "Unfortunately" Sudha and Ravi are vegetarian and cook food very lightly, without ghee or butter: David and I have landed in a food paradise!) In addition to feeding us and giving us a lovely room to sleep in, Ravi and Sudha have suggested all sorts of plans for us, and allowed us to use their home as a base for day trips in the area. (I will upload a picture of all four of us shortly.)

Among my favorite things has been a visit to an absolutely wonderful art school: Kalakshetra. The school was founded in 1936 by the visionary dancer Rukmini Devi. Among the many ideas of this school is the belief in students' potential and creativity, so that teaching should work with, rather than against, that creative impulse. Rukmini Devi actually worked closely with Maria Montessori, who in 1939 was invited to Chennai by the Theosophical Society for 6 months and ended up staying in India for 6 years (she did not return to Italy as WWII broke out.) Thanks to Sudha, we arranged to watch a Bharatanatyam class, the traditional dance form from Tamil Nadu (Ruksmini Devi really revived the form.) So interesting to see the dancers practice again and again as their teacher sang the poem that they were dancing to!

(Dancers wear a special kind of sari for lessons, called a "dance sari".)

Sudha also arranged for us to see the rehearsal of a piece which the lovely school director, Leela Samson, is performing in Delhi just as I am writing. Seeing a rehearsal was so exciting: the musicians and both dancers were excellent, and there was a vibrant quality to the whole process as it was the first rehearsal for the artists and they were due to perform a day hence! Really a special time, as well as a beautiful theater.

(To the right, the school director, Leela Samson, rehearsing.)

(The rehearsal was attended by lots of students, although this picture was taken towards the end and only few remained. To the left and right of the dancers sit the musicians, singers, and time keepers.)
Ravi and Sudha also introduced us to Nayantara, a woman our age who lives in Chennai but also went to Stanford. She was really nice and unexpectedly invited us to celebrate Holi with her and some of her friends. That was really special: this festival of colors is mainly celebrated in the North, so we wouldn't have known about it were it not for her invitation (we were hosted at the house of a couple from the North of India, and Nayantara's own family is from the North). To prepare for the festival, David and I bought some cheap white clothes that we knew would have to be thrown out by the end of the day. Here we are, before:

And after...

For David's birthday (March 12th) we left Sudha and Ravi's place for an overnight stay in Mahabalipuram, where we got to see more beautiful sculptures! To get there we took a "Hop On Hop Off" bus, a first, and a pretty good experience. We hopped off and on at two locations along the way: the first was Dakshina Chitra, an interesting museum that has bought houses from the different states of Southern India and somehow "recreated" the culture around them (no doubt this would make for an interesting deconstructionist exercise...)

(Getting hennah done in the "Tamil Nadu" area of the museum. You can make out an upside down peacock on my arm.)

(Learning to make a children rattle toy using palm leaves in the "Kerala" section of the museum.)

The second stop was at a site called Tiger Cave, the first glimpse I got of Pallava sculpture before reaching Mahabalipuram. While the cave was very beautiful...

...I am most fond of this place for the incredible chance it offers for lingam worship...

(Blissful worship.)

Mahabalipuram was exeptional. Below is an image of the well known 5 Rathas (chariots). All the buildings and the animals you see have been sculpted out of a single, giant boulder.
(Another view of the 5 Rathas.)

While Mahabalipuram is best known for a magnificent wall carving depicting all the creatures of the Earth coming to praise and thank Shiva for bringing the Ganges down to Earth

(Right above the temple, standing to the left of an ascetic in tree pose, you should be able to make out Shiva.)

David and I loved many of the pieces there. Below is a fantastic relief of the fearsome goddess Durga about to slay a demon disguised as a bull. It's so alive, full of movement and detail, as well as interesting characters. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in by clicking on it!
We also loved this Ganga Lakshmi. As you can see here, she is usually portrayed in a very plastic version: both elephants simoultaneously pouring water over her. The overall feel is of symmetry, resulting somewhat static. Here, instead, the artists were really playful.

Since returning from Mahabalipuram, David and I have also made a day trip to the small and dusty town of Kanchipuram, where we saw a beautiful Shiva temple from the 7th-8th century (the town is actually COVERED in temples, but very few have beautiful art.) Below are two images of the reliefs on the walls of the temple, both depictions of Shiva.

Kanchipuram, while interesting for the Kailasanath Temple, proved poisonous for my health: I have been stranded at home all day with a typical Dehli belly and all the other symptoms that come with it (general aches, sometimes a little fever, tiredness, etc.) It is not so bad, considering it's only the second time since we've been here and that it's given me the opportunity to bring the blog to date.

Tomorrow (if I have recovered enough) we plan to leave for Pondicherry, where we will stay for a couple of days before moving on to Auroville. I hope this entry finds you well and healthy!



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