Monday, July 28, 2008

Frolicking in a Monsoon

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Here's a brief clip I took while we were at the Sevagram Ashram when the monsoons really let loose and a few of us got a little crazy.

For a short post about today in Pune and another video clip from our day in the village yesterday, please see the post below.

Signing Off for a Few Days

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We're winding up our trip in Pune tonight, and tomorrow fly to Bangalore and then head by coach to an organic farm about 1 1/2 hours outside the city. I'm assuming they won't have any internet so you probably won't hear from me again until we get to our hotel in Chennai on, I believe, August 2.

I've posted here a short video clip from our visit to the village yesterday, a brief selection from the question and answer session we had with the village elders. If I have time I'll try to post the longer clip of the music they played for us.

Today we attended a day-long series of lectures, one from an activist who told wonderful stories to us about her meetings with Gandhi as a teenager in the last years of her life, another from a poet who talked to us about some of the differences between thinking of Gandhi as a political leader and thinking of him as a spiritual leader, a lecture on Islam with an emphasis on the distinction between seeing Islam in historical terms and as a set of doctrines and principles (and some discussion of the role of women in Islam, both historically and in our own time), and finally a discussion of Gandhi as a philosopher. It was a full and very thought-provoking day. Wish I could go into more detail here, but I'm shot and have to get up at 5:00 a.m. for the trip to Bangalore. More when I resurface in Chennai.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bombings in India

I know most of you are aware of the bombings that have occurred in India in the last few day. This is just a quick note to let you know we're alright. It's a little unsettling to have this happening, especially in a city like Ahmedabad that we just visited. Regarding Bangalore, where there was also trouble, though we're headed there tomorrow we're just driving through on the way to a rural farm, so we won't be in the city. We're aware of the dangers, but they're really quite remote -- flying or riding the crazy autorickshaws is a much bigger risk, believe me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Life in a Village Near Pune

Today we had another chance to visit a rural village, this one about an hour’s drive from Pune. We were picked up in the morning by Ashwin Paranjpe, the Principal Coordinator of the Gomukh Centre for Rural Sustainability, an NGO devoted to supporting organic farming among a group of 17 villages nestled in a beautiful valley. When we arrived we were met by the village elders and a swarm of children. The elders ushered us into the spacious Hindu temple off the main plaza of the village that’s also used for town meetings. There we had a chance to hear them talk about their lives as farmers, how the village is structured and governed (the caste system and attempts by the government to overcome the forms of discrimination it sustains are a charged topic in villages like this, we discovered), and to engage in a discussion with them about village life in India and farming in the U.S., a topic they were quite curious to explore. Some of the village children performed songs for us, and the whole group performed a traditional song accompanied by harmonium (which Ted later played) and sitar. This visit was particularly special for me because the elders traditionally welcome groups by presenting a set of gifts to the eldest member of the visiting group. That was me. I was invited up to stand with the group of village elders, and was given a traditional cap and shawl, along with a coconut to symbolize good luck. It was a moving moment for met, and I’ll treasure the gifts. Later we broke up into small groups to have lunch in a village home. Our group had a wonderful meal with a gracious family, a couple, the mother-in-law, and the couple’s two daughters. Language was a bit of a barrier at first but we got past it and had a lot of fun figuring out how to communicate with one another. Indians traditionally sit on the floor to eat, but for us the lunch was spread out on the family bed and we sat in plastic garden chairs. After lunch I asked to see the kitchen and eventually ended up in a little cooking room with an open fire on the floor. There I took a hand at working with the wife and mother-in-law to make roti bread. I failed miserably but had a wonderful time trying. It was amazing to watch the women’s hands at work making the roti. At one point she got to slapping the bread flat on a round little cutting board with a rhythm that got me clapping first, then scat singing. They got quite a kick out of that.

The visit with these people was very special, a chance to sit down with villagers and to talk with them about their lives and how Gandhian principles of self-sustainability are beginning to transform their lives. But they have a long way to go. It is important to remember that the so called “Green Revolution” in the 1980s and early 1990s swept away traditional forms of farming and instituted a whole economy and set of practices based on the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and machinery. Though yields go up with this type of farming the cost of transition puts many farmers in debt, the quality of the food produced is low, and worst of all, the environment becomes polluted by pesticides. Organizations like Paranjpe’s are dedicated to helping farmers return to traditional organic methods. Another factor at work here is that traditional crops (grown both for consumption and local sale) have been replaced by sugar cane, a cash crop of now value to the sustenance of local farmers. The transition to sugar cane works like this: large sugar can companies come into an area, build a processing factory, then systematically get each farmer to change their production to sugar can. Soon whole valleys like the one we visited go from producing a variety of vegetables and rice for their own consumption and local sale to the production of sugar cane for the world market.

We had an interesting discussion on a range of topics with Ashwin on our drive to the village. At one point we drove through a bustling commercial district with homes that branched out along streets running off from the main road. We stopped here to buy some bottled water and umbrellas (it rained lightly most of the day). Ashwin commented off handedly that this used to be a very small village but now it was a bustling commercial center, but one that had outgrown the older infrastructure of roads, drains, sewage, etc. that sustained the original village. It was still in place, while the village had grown into a town. I asked him if this growth was evidence of significant economic expansion, and he said that yes, it was, that things really had gotten much better here. The problem is that the village panchyat (like a city council) didn’t have enough revenue or technical expertise to keep up with growth. So, in miniature, this area in some ways represents the India we hear about in the West, a country which, along with China, is supposed to be modernizing rapidly and where economic expansion is roaring along. It often doesn’t look like it as we drive around India, but if we had been in this commercial town 25 years ago we would have seen a small place with little money and few jobs. The expansion here is apparently representative of that taking place in the country at large, but it’s very uneven, and in places like this is happening so fast they can’t keep up with it, so jobs and population growth far outpaces necessary improvements in the infrastructure of the country.

Please click here to see some pictures associated with this post.

Autorickshaw Ride in Ahmedabad

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These little three-wheeled auto rickshaws are one of the main forms of public transport in Indian cities. You haven't visited India unless you've been whizzed around in one of them. You just have to put your trust in the driver and hold on--the traffic is horrendous and zooming around in one of them seems life-threatening, but it works. Here's a short clip of what the ride is like.

Video Clip: Music at Sevagram Ashram

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Here's a clip from a wonderful impromptu concert by staff members at Sevagram. See below for some other videos and a long entry on yesterday's activities.

Cooking at Navdanya II and a Brief Note About Today

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For the first in this series from the kitchen at Navdanya, see the post below. My latest narrative, from Pune, is below these video clips. More news tomorrow when I get back from a visit with my group to a village outside Pune.

Today we met with a lawyer, Asim Sarode, who has devoted his practice to social justice for impoverished people unfairly accused of crimes. A selfless lawyer who rejects high salaries and the pretensions of the legal system here, he does what in the U.S. we call "pro bono" work, but on a systematic scale. Another inspiring person putting Gandhian principles into practice to deal with social issues right now. He is particularly devoted to the protection of exploited sex workers and the whole issue of violence against women in Indian society, as well as working with HIV/AIDS discrimination cases. He's got a group of wonderful interns working with him and has begun to get a lot of attention here and in England. The press attended our meeting, and Madhuri and Katherine were interviewed by a TV station for broadcast tomorrow.

Cooking at Navdanya I

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Navdanya is the wonderful organic farm where we spent a week earlier in the trip. I talked the cook into letting me help out with dinner one night. This is the first of a series of clips I shot while cooking that I'll try to post in the next couple of days. I wish you could smell the food.

Congratulating the Kitchen at Ranjani Restaurant, Delhi

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I'm finally going to start posting my backlog of video clips. This one is from our second night when we got invited back into the kitchen after our meal.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Our First Days in Pune

Saturday, July 26. We all had a wonderful time at the rural Sevagram Ashram and the surrounding villages, as I reported in an earlier post, but we were also pretty elated to arrive at the Park Central Hotel in Pune, which is air conditioned, roomy, and just on the edge of being a little swanky. Our first afternoon we just enjoyed the hot showers and air conditioning (not to mention the free wireless internet, which, alas doesn’t work in my room so all posting is done in the lobby) and we treated ourselves to pretty competent pizza and red wine at an Italian restaurant not far from the hotel. I felt like I went back to the U.S. for a few hours to recharge.

Pune is very different from the other cities we’ve visited, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The fact that it has sidewalks, which I’ve been remarking to others seem totally absent in India, immediately caught my eye and has become for me a kind of symbol of the relative prosperity and sophistication here. Pune is known as the “Silicon Valley” of India, and you can see the effects of software industry money everywhere in the new buildings, fancy shopping districts, and the abundance of restaurants. This last adds to the city’s cosmopolitan feel. There’s a much wider range of cuisines here than we’ve seen elsewhere, and the city is full of, hip, sophisticated looking young people in western dress. Which is to say the effects of globalization with its general trend toward westernization and homogenization is pronounced. It’s a little too easy to romanticize India (women in flowing saris, orange clad wandering sadhus, cows in the middle of traffic, men in turbans and imams hurrying to mosques, makeshift Hindu temples and cobbled-together commercial districts right out of the 19th-century or earlier) but this India is a little harder to find in Pune, which is westernizing at what appears to be a pretty torrid pace. The city is also one of the intellectual centers of India, which helps account for some of the sophistication and cosmopolitanism I’ve noted. It has some of the feel of a large college or university town. Everywhere there are huge billboards advertising new, luxury condominium complexes marketed as resorts (swimming pools, golf courses, gyms, etc.). They seem indistinguishable from what we’d see back home and caught my attention for the way they underscore the rapidity of modernization here, and the huge gulf between the poor and the young, aspiring middle classes who are being seduced by a kind of globalized style of living that seems rather incongruous when experienced in the context of all the poverty we’ve seen. I suspect, too, that some of these are stand-alone complexes with their own water and power sources. Some even have their own schools. Organic farmers are finding ways to live “off the grid” but so too are these luxury complexes, which I can’t help thinking of as versions of the 21st-century village. But not the kind of village Gandhi had in mind, that’s for sure. Pune in this respect represents all of the changes the Gandhians (or most of them) we've met with on our trip despair over, for the economic effects of globalization in India (as elsewhere) are dramatically uneven, sap resources (and poepole) from the villages, contribute to environmental pollution, and undermine or erase traditional cultural forms and practices.

For a selection of pictures associated with this post, please click here.

Yesterday, our first full day in Pune, was pretty jam-packed, fascinating and moving. We began our day with a long visit to a substance abuse rehab center called Muktangan Mitra. It’s run by Dr. Anil Awachat, a noted writer and social activist. The facility incorporates elements of AA and the kind of programs you can find in U.S. rehab centers but with a Gandhian focus on promoting self-sufficiency (derived in part by Dr. Awachat’s devotion to Thoreau, who of course influenced Gandhi as well). Dr. Awachat, trained as a medical doctor, gave up his professional practice (and his early devotion to socialism) to help set up Muktangan with his wife, and he’s particularly interested in working with people living in villages to promote self-sufficiency along the lines Gandhi advocated. We had an informative meeting with him, and a very moving exchange with a group of around 75 male patients at the center. Some of them told us their own stories about how they became involved in substance abuse, and we were able to ask (and answer) questions in a wonderful give and take. Muktangan Mitra is another in a series of examples of institutions created by people influenced by Gandhi who opted out of mainstream careers to work on behalf of other who are marginalized, deprived, or suffering.

After our visit to the center we had a wonderful lunch at a Persian restaurant Madhuri recommended. It was wonderful, a huge open-air wood and bamboo structure in a kind of tropical setting that was part restaurant, part hookah bar (lots of young people sitting around smoking and just hanging out together), and part jazz club, with huge posters of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Billie Holiday, and others on the wall. The food was fabulous (I had an Iranian dish, cranberry rice with chicken), and the ambience great. After lunch we went by coach to one of the main tourist sites in Pune, Shaniwar Wada Palace, a huge 18th century fort and palace that became one of the last centers of resistance to the British. The vast array of wood-built structures that formed the palace burned down in 1828, but the grounds and foundations are intact and the huge fortified wall in the front with its beautiful rooms above were wonderful to visit. After I’d seen the fort I walked out to the street and around to the front to get a picture of the whole fort, but I got distracted by the array of sidewalk merchants who were running ingenious little businesses on blankets. There was a woman selling locks, another fellow selling keys who was repairing the lock on a suitcase, jewelry vendors, palm readers and fortune tellers, and, my favorite, a woman sitting on a chair who simply had a bathroom scale sitting in front of her. That was it. A business pared down to the bare minimum. She didn’t care if I weighed myself but she wanted me to take her picture and she whooped with delight when she saw her image on my LCD screen. For me she symbolizes Indian ingenuity and the drive to find a way to get by under difficult circumstances. Again, it's easy to idealize or sentimentalize people like her, but she impressed me, and she seemed just as happy as could be.

Riding the Train

One adventure you don't want to miss in India is riding the trains, and I've just posted a few shots I've taken from our rides between Delhi and Dehradun. These train rides are a great way to experience India, both because you see so much of the countryside, and because you inevitably get to meet some Indian people, who are wonderfully friendly and curious. Some of these shots are of people in the group relaxing at cards, and there are a couple of shots of Ellen with a youngster who adored her. Then there are the hijra, Indian transsexuals I mentioned in a previous post. Barbara got to talking to them and soon a number of us got involved. I've included a few shots of them. They were great fun, gregarious, spontaneous, playful, open, and as curious about us as we must have seemed about them. You can view the pictures I've posted by clicking here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Update on Pictures

It turns out the hotel in Pune has free wireless internet, blogger heaven. And the uploading of pictures to my web gallery seems much quicker now, so I'm slowly uploading a backlog of selected photos. While I'm pasting links to the photos into my previous posts (Jambughoda and Temples and Shrines so far) you can just go directly to my web gallery home page and see the pictures I'm uploading. Newest galleries will be in front. Click here to go to the gallery. The shot above is of me romping in a monsoon downpour yesterday. If I get the courage later I'll post the picture of Paulo and I dancing in the rain . . .

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Note About Pictures and Posts

It turns out that Apple's introduction of the new iPhone, which also involves a revamping of their mobile software, which is what I've been using to upload my photos, is not going very well and wreaking havoc with my ability to upload photos to my web gallery. I'm trying to upload some now, but it's horribly slow, so blame Steve Jobs (who I normally idolize) for screwing up my photo posts.

NOTE: If you're having trouble finding the posts from Jambughoda onward I published the other day just scroll down to the bottom of the current posts and click "Older Posts" and you'll find them. Just published a few photos from the Jambughoda Palace.

Sevagram Ashram


This post was written yesterday and comes to you today compliments of free internet access at the Indore airport, where we're waiting to change planes for Pune. I'll try to post pictures later to get caught up.

Tuesday, July 22. When Gandhi left his ashram in Ahmedabad for the Salt March he vowed not to return until India gained it’s independence. He eventually relocated to a very small village called Wardha, near the dead center of India. Having taken a stand in favor of people returning to the village, he felt he ought to follow his own advice. Eventually he founded an ashram and a school, and his mail became so voluminous they had to create a separate post office for him. Sevagram is now a vibrant institution. People come from all over to visit and study, the school was reinstituted in 2005, and there is building going on all around. Sevagram is a kind of living museum, dedicated to the historical responsibility of maintaining the buildings where Gandhi and his associates lived and worked directing the independence movement in the final decade or so of his life, keeping up the ground he walked and the shade trees he sat under. But it’s also a living, thriving hub of activism and education.

We arrived yesterday late morning after getting up at 3 a.m. in Delhi and taking a short flight to the city of Nagpur, making our way in a convoy of jeeps to Sevagram in time for tea and a rest before lunch. In the afternoon we had a long meeting with one of the principal administrators at Sevagram, Shiva Dutta, with the discussion focused on Gandhi’s theories about education and how they are being employed at the ashram’s school, Na Talim , which means “New Education.” Dutta was formally trained in economics and math but decided to renounce a mainstream career and dedicate his energy to the educational mission of Sevagram. According to Dutta, Gandhi’s approach to education was to focus on producing people for the “future, a process that involves growing ideas that can lead to productive, collective change. But the key thing is that the process of education was linked inextricably in Gandhi’s mind to the central importance of the small, independent, self-sustaining village. Peoples’ needs ought to be basic (austerity is the hallmark here) and they ought to be fulfilled by local goods and local labor. Indeed, Gandhi insisted everything villagers need ought to come from no more than 5 km. away. His educational model is linked to this idea by its stress on producing knowledge that has practical use in this context, knowledge that breeds self-reliance, ingenuity, and the ability to understand local conditions and to work with them to produce the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Education at the ashram’s Na Talim is organized around handicrafts, so that knowledge about math, geography, science, and history grows integrally out of learning about how to produce things the village needs. As an educator myself I found this approach to education a challenge to some of my own assumptions, which is a good thing. Here the problem I’ve been productively struggling with the whole trip, how nurturing a simple and austere village life can lift everyone in India up, those who live in rural areas and those of live in cities, and how the life of the village can be made appealing enough to people who find modernity in the 21st century so seductive kept dogging me. No simple answers here, of course.

There are prayers every evening at 6:30 in the evening and again at 4:30 a.m. I attended the 6:30 prayer and, though I’m not a religious person myself, I found it quite moving and relaxing. Hindi, Muslim, and Christian prayers were chanted and in a variety of languages. A man playing what looked like a very simple sitar occasionally played a quiet tune, another person beat time with finger cymbals, and here and there men were meditatively spinning cotton on portable wheels. After dinner we were treated to an informal concert by two of the teachers, one who played the sitar and the other the tabla (drums). Staff members from the ashram joined us and sang along. This was the kind of special experience we’ve been privileged to have on a trip where we’re able to move beyond the tourist sites and have access to people in their homes, offices, villages, etc.

Today, the 23rd, was a very full day. We began with a visit to an ashram run completely by women. It is situated on a lovely spot above a wide, rocky river. The living quarters surround a small farming plot, and many women were working the field or cleaning the property. We heard a wonderful talk by one long-time inhabitant, Nirmal Bhen, who spoke to us about her own spiritual life, the power of the mind and the senses, and her belief that the purpose of life is to experience joy. She defined her life at the ashram as “spiritual experimentation,” and I think we all found her soulful energy contagious. We spent the rest of the day at an extensive center devoted to engineering and scientific innovation. They have a dizzying array of environmentally friendly, sustainable projects, everything from honey harvesting to metal works to paper making to textile weaving and dying. One whole section of the place is devoted to experimenting with toilets that process and purify their own waste materials, either to recycle them into the earth or capture them to produce gas. While we were all impressed with the ingenuity guiding their various projects there were some questions about just how all these projects will directly effect villagers. The textile production section in particular seemed dedicated to finding ways to market fairly high end khadi projects as commodities, a project that one of the directors of the ashram here later told me wasn’t really in accord with its Gandhian commitment to austerity with a focus on the production of goods to be consumed by the villagers.

This again raised for me the question of what relationship there would be in this Gandhian vision between the village and larger urban areas, between a culture of consumption focused on basic needs and one based on the production of new products and services tied to the kind of complex market economy we currently live in. While this predominantly western-driven market economy, and the patterns of consumption it feeds off, clearly isn’t sustainable world-wide, I am still having trouble seeing the “village” as an answer to the overwhelming problems of poverty, environmental pollution, and a crumbling infrastructure I’ve observed all over the country. The Gandhian principles we’ve been learning about, based on a mix of beliefs and practices that are both traditional and innovative and which tap into and thus preserve deep cultural roots, seem promising as vehicles for stabilizing and improving the quality of basic life in India’s villages. But we’re talking here about the basics, food, clothing and shelter, and a system (depending on who you talk to) that seems narrowly focused for reasons both moral and practical on austerity and on staving off the effects of modernization. Yet modernization is everywhere in India, aggressively marketed on billboards and television and realized everywhere in planned communities and building projects both in the countryside and the city. This makes for the kinds of stark juxtapositions only a visitor to India can appreciate, you see poverty and wealth side-by-side everywhere, ox-carts pulling piles of shrubs to feed cows being passed by shiny new cars and dwarfed by gleaming new buildings. Our trip has heavily emphasized how Gandhian principles can help renew and sustain basic life in villages (which make up some 70% of the population), but we’ve seen little to help explain how the quickly modernizing urban centers of India, with their vast slums and decaying infrastructure, can be stabilized and transformed. The challenges are enormous. Opting out of continued modernization and some kind of global system of linked economies (which is going to bring cultural change, but what’s new about that?) seems to me rather inconceivable, but that system needs to be made fairer, more socially just and environmentally responsible, less exploitive all the way round.

Monday, July 21, 2008

I'm Back!

Hi everyone. Sorry about being out of touch for so long but I've been without an internet connection for almost 2 weeks. But as you'll see below, I've been writing, and I've just posted everything to bring you up to date with our travels and my own thoughts about what we've been doing, hearing, and discussing. If you go down this page to "Jambughoda" and work your way up you can read these posts in chronological order (but see the headnote to the first post, below). Alas, I don't have time right now to upload pictures since we're just passing through Delhi on our way to Nagpur and no more internet for 3 days. But soon after that we'll be in Pune and I'll catch you up with what we've been up to and hopefully post some pictures.

One more thing. More and more these new posts reflect my own thinking about what I've been hearing, my own responses, and my evolving ideas. Of course they don't reflect what others may think, i.e the ideas and opinions below reflect those of the writer and aren't meant to speak on behalf of the group. I just wanted to be clear about that.

Later, Paul

Adivasi Academy

PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS POST IS OUT OF ORDER. It should have been posted below between "Jambughoda" and "Dinner at the Jambughoda Palace." Sorry for the slip up.

Friday, July 11. Gandhi was committed to reviving life in the villages of India, and this, coupled with his sweeping and controversial critique of modern civilization, was a key component of his vision of an independent India. This means that any trip to India to explore Gandhi’s legacy has to include time in the villages and a look at the work of people who are actively involved in helping to sustain and enhance the quality of life in them, where poverty is rampant and the impact of globalization on farming has vastly undercut the ability of rural Indians to grow the crops they need to sustain themselves, let alone to make a living. This means that the economic viability of village life is in a critical state, and the culture of the village is in danger or disappearing. All of these problems are even more acute in tribal areas, where the indigenous people of India (called adivasi, which roughly translates as indigenous) have been marginalized and oppressed under the British, who branded them “criminals,” and even the independent Indian governments, which have been slow to find a way to help insure the economic viability of tribal villages and to find ways to preserve the cultural traditions of the adivasi. Many of these villagers are leaving with the hope of finding work in the cities, adding to the population of slums like those we saw in Delhi and Ahmedabad. Moreover, the state government in Gujarat, where we are, is totally preoccupied with modernization and seems content to have these tribal areas disappear altogether, sucked up into the drive toward urbanization and industrialization.

Ganesh Devy and his staff at the Adivasi Academy (also called the Tribal Arts Academy) have a deep institutional commitment of helping tribal societies to recover and sustain their histories, traditions, languages, and artistic practices, and today we had an inspirational day meeting with Devy and visiting his academy. Devy himself is a remarkable man, having left a successful position as a professor of English literature (he is an eminent critic with an international reputation) to commit himself, initially, to the preservation of tribal languages and then, more ambitiously, to the education of students from the villages surrounding the academy and the creation of a museum dedicated to the preservation of adivasi arts and crafts (though Devy doesn’t like the term “crafts” and rejects the separation of art from life--he underscored in his talks to us both the artistic quality of the objects produced by the adivasi and the link between their art and their daily lives). Devy started from scratch with his project, first by publishing materials aimed at studying and preserving tribal languages, then constructing a museum space on the academy property, then developing an academy or school complete with library and computer resources. He has attracted the attention of both private foundations and the government, successfully developing a solid funding stream for the academy and gaining recognition by the government as a “Center of Excellence.” The academy is wholly staffed by young adivasi men and women who have studied at the academy and taken by Dr. Devy’s passion for preserving adivasi culture and enhancing the economic status of tribal peoples.

During our visit to the academy we had a number of meetings and discussions with Devy about the importance of sustaining and enhancing tribal cultures and the villages where the adivasi live, and particularly of preserving their languages. He talked with us about the archival work the Academy is doing and the educational philosophy he has instituted there (non-hierarchical, decentralized). We saw a short play put on by some of the students that dramatized the history of oppression tribals have faced, had lunch with Devy and his staff, and later heard some songs sung in both Hindi and English by the students (including “We Shall Overcome”). Particularly illuminating for me was the final discussion we had with Devy regarding the influence of Gandhi on his work. Like many Indians we’ve talked to, he grew up with Gandhi as only a dim presence and came relatively late to a serious engagement with his work. Others who have spoken with us were committed Marxists when they were younger or, like Devy, taught literature. Like them he’s wary of making a saint out of Gandhi, approaches him with an appreciative and a critical mind, and seems focused on the practical, imaginative application of Gandhi’s thought for our own time, inspired more by his principles and methods than by a desire to follow Gandhi in some kind of dogmatic or devotional way. For example, he doesn’t have his students spinning cotton every day as is done in some other schools, and he said at one point that if advocating for micro-credit for villages will help them, he’d rather do that than teach everyone how to spin cotton to make their own clothes. I was impressed with the mix of principle and pragmatism he was taking from Gandhi. His contemporary approach to Gandhi seemed consistent with what other speakers had said to us about avoiding thinking of Gandhi in conventional, quasi-devotional categories some acolytes put him in.

Today, by the way, was the first day we experienced India’s famous monsoons. It rained hard the whole day, but though we met outside a good deal of the time we were sheltered from the rain by a series of porticos where we sat. But it turned out it had rained so heavily that the dip in the road leading into the Academy was traversed by a roaring river and we had to roll up our pants and wade through the waste high water to get back to our jeeps. I shot some video but don’t know when I’ll have a chance to post it. Lot’s of incredulity at having to do this, initially, but then it turned into a lot of fun.

Temples and Shrines

For some pictures related to this post please click here.

Monday, July 21 aboard the 5:00 a.m. train from Dehradun to Delhi. We all got up at 3:00 a.m. today to pack and head off to the train station for our 6 hour return trip to Delhi. Tomorrow we have an early flight to Nagpur, and then we head by coach to the Sevagram Ashram, established by Gandhi during the last decade of his life, where we will stay for three days.

Since some of our lecturers at Navdanya unexpectedly cancelled over the course of the week we had enough free time yesterday to explore some sites in and around the small city of Dehradun, which is a kind of gateway to the hill towns that eventually take people up into the Himalayas. We’d all had a very relaxing and intellectually stimulating time at Navdanya, but there seemed a collective sense of excitement too about getting away for an afternoon and diving back into the maelstrom which is India. We weren’t disappointed. Our first stop was a huge Buddhist temple or “stupa” outside of Dehradun in an area that was predominantly Tibetan. It was striking how quickly the look and feel of people and things changed as we made our way into this district. The temple itself (called “The Great Stupa” at the “Mindrolling Monastery,” at 60 m. high it claims to be the world’s tallest stupa) is immense, a full three floors that constitute areas of worship and meditation, each of which are filled themselves with smaller shrines. The walls on each floor are painted with fantastically intricate scenes from the life of the Buddha. Here and there young monks sat under windows where the sunlight flooded in, deep in study. Others worked to guide tourists through the temple. One was so young I saw him playing with a small green plastic car or toy of some kind while standing watch. A stairway on the top floor leads to a small terrace that rings the top of the temple and provides spectacular views of the outlying buildings, the town, and the countryside beyond. Faded, weathered prayer flags hung in small clusters in the trees, and in the far distance a large swath of prayer flags at least a dozen rows high and 25 yards across flickered in the light breeze. In the farther distances you could see the mountains below the Himalayas, but we weren’t really high enough to be able to see the Himalayas themselves. This was a spectacular place and full of an interesting mix of people, some whom were clearly on a pilgrimage but others, mostly tourists like us, were just curious to visit the carefully tended temple and finely manicured lawns that surrounded it.

After our visit to the temple we made our way back into Dehradun so that some of us could get on the internet and do a little shopping. A chain of clothing stores called “Fab India” has become a favorite destination for a lot of us (women’s blouses, men’s kurtas, pants and scarves), and a few of us spent some time there. They’ve got a big website so just google the place if you want a vicarious shopping experience. At 4:30 we piled back into our convoy of jeeps and headed for what we were vaguely told was some kind of Hindu shrine or monument just outside of Dehradun. We threaded our way through town, then past a forested area where some military training camp was located (a number of security checks here since Muslim/Hindu tensions are high and there have been occasional bombings throughout India), then through a smaller residential area until the road narrowed into a dead end where carts selling colorful devotional items ringed a huge tree wrapped in layers of rope and fabric, at the base of which were a number of small shrines. Vendors cooked food or sold candies and snacks, and the atmosphere was relaxed and festive. At the end of this area was a large gate and beyond that a wide stairway that spilled in a curve to the left down to the rain swollen Tons Nodi river and the Tapkeshwar Temple.

Descending this stairway took me, stunned and literally open mouthed, into another world. On each side of the stairway were small, open-air rooms inhabited by “sadhus,” holy men who wander through throughout India but often reside at the entrances to temples, setting up small but elaborate shrines and asking for money. Some were simply dressed, others were more elaborately clothed in flowing robes and bright turbans. One had his face painted orange and wore a kind of crown, mimicking the monkey god, Hanuman. Scruffy children and old women begged for coins on the steps among the sadhus, and Hindu families taking the day off (it was Sunday) threaded their way down to the shrine or back up to the parking area. Descending the stairway I could see the river and, on the other side, a strip of small structures running from right to left that eventually met a stairway that led to a large shop and restaurant with a broad terrace looking back across the river and up the stairway where I stood. At the base of the stairway and above the river there is a small shrine and a lookout, providing views up and down the river. From here I could see the entire area was comprised of natural caves, one on each side of the river, caves that had been carved out by the flow of the river over the centuries. To my left steps led down to the main temple area, housed completely inside a cave the outer walls of which are painted a light blue. To my right, upriver, a wide walkway led to a narrow set of stairs that took me up to a shrine, and then to the left there is a bride over the river. Reaching the other side I turned left and walked through a kind of grotto, moss covered overhanging rocks dripping streams of cooling water that eventually opened into a vast open-air cave filled with shrines and statues (each of the major shrines has an attendant, and Hindus leave small offerings they have brought with them, or coins and bills). I explored each of these, then made my way down to the river and then up the stairway to the restaurant and terrace. From here I saw that all my friends were on the other side, having gone the other way at the base of the stairs for a visit to the main temple in the largest cave. So after a few minutes taking all of this in I backtracked over the bridge and entered the temple, which consists of a small labyrinth of brightly lit shines (all housed deep in a cave) leading into a much larger interior space where a sadhu waits to bless you and mark your forehead in red. Behind him another man sat in the lotus position on an elevated stand with a bed behind him, incense burning in the shrine beside him. Beyond this man’s platform, inexplicably, was a large, wide office space, which seemed to be the administrative center of the complex. This also housed small sleeping areas. Moving past this space took me back to a narrower path through the cave, filled on each side with shrines and burning incense. Eventually I spilled out again into the light of day above the river and made my way back up the stairway filled with sadhus, beggars, and families leaving the shrine area.

It is difficult to describe without clichÈs the sense of wonder I felt here, especially as I first began to descend the stairway, saw the sadhus on either side of me, and the then the roaring river below and the colorful buildings and shrines in the far distances across the river. I’d seen photos of sadhus before, and the iconography of Hinduism is somewhat familiar to me, as are the small shrines and the imagery you see in them of various Hindu deities. But the collective effect of what I saw, the reality of the teeming panorama before me, the smells, the sounds, the hubbub of movement, the fact of actually being in this place which was real but felt in part hallucinated, theatrical, unreal, was finally a kind of physical experience of the senses. There were moments I just stood there, my mouth slightly open in wonder and my body literally tingling at the sights and sounds. These are the kind of moments when you get jarred out of your body and your everyday, familiar self, when the world turns and resets itself and you enter another place, another dimension of experience. The only thing I can compare it to was the feeling I had marching up the side of the mountain at Delphi, in Greece (where the “Delphic oracle” resides) and spilling out into the large athletic stadium the Greeks somehow built there. At that moment my whole familiar world spun away and I wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore. That’s what it was like here at this shrine. It’s a quite wondrous place, and a striking contrast with the Buddhist temple we’d visited earlier. The temple was monumental, impeccably clean and groomed, sited on manicured grounds and carefully guarded by attendants. It was a site for tourists, and we marched through in the orderly way we were supposed to. By contrast, the Hindu shrine was a place only the imagination over centuries could cobble together, built bit by bit in a river gorge, all haphazard but somehow hanging together. Worn, scruffy, well tended but gritty, and full of everyday people, families, and devotees whose experience there was inextricably connected to their daily lives. We were the only tourists there, from what I could tell, and we were about as far off of our beaten track as we could get. This was another India, at once like the India I expected from travel books, yet unimaginable until I actually found my way to this place.

A concluding note: We just pulled into the first station since leaving Dehradun. We’d had the car we’re in pretty much to ourselves, but there was a large crowd of people waiting to get on, and they poured into our car. Among them were Hijra, the name that has been historically used for transsexual males in India. I’ve read about the Hijra before but it took me a moment or two to realize who these colorfully dressed women taking seats nearby actually were. You can read more about Hijra and the communities they form online. There are lots of sites about them, some with wonderful photo galleries.

Models of Social Activism at Navdanya

Saturday, July 19. I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ll call the different activist styles modeled by our last two speakers. It’s easy for me to find Chisti’s style more appealing, but easy too to see why I might want to think critically about that choice. Sharma tends to see the world quite starkly in terms of good and evil. For him the world is a little too neatly defined in terms of industrialism (evil) and agriculture (good), between states and multinational corporations who work in close collusion to manage the flow of cash and commodities and regularly turn to violence to ensure their hegemony, and people who are inherently peaceful, beyond corruption, and are overtly oppressed by the operations of state and corporate colonialism. There are some fundamental truths here, but I find his vision much too simplistic and conspiratorial. I’m attracted more to Chisti’s sense that the world we live in is a mix of the designed and the chaotic, that there is a level of idiosyncrasy to the social, political, and economic structures we inhabit, and that good and evil are spread around in fairly complicated and contradictory ways. It seems to me that in some key ways this vision is closer to Gandhi’s than Prof. Sharma’s, which is for me too doctrinaire and too often based on pat, overly simplified analyses. But, on the other hand, Sharma is much more serious about radical political change than Chisti, and once could argue that his historical analysis of the relationship between state colonialism and corporate colonialism, and what is required to reverse their disastrous effects, is both more comprehensive and politically hard-headed than Chisti’s. Sharma makes it much more challenging to be an activist in his insistence that we need to be “freedom fighters” in the specific mode outlined by Gandhi (including celibacy and non-possession), while Chisti makes it relatively more easy (be yourself, use your energy, be creative, accept that the world if crazy and full of contradiction). Sharma is a political worker, Chisti a cultural worker. If you’re committed to the idea that real change has to be effected politically and that cultural work is in some senses secondary to the primary work of changing political and economic structures, then Prof. Sharma is going to seem the more compelling figure. If, however, you see the political and the cultural as inextricably intertwined and view the whole history of political and economic development over the course of the late-19th and 20th-centuries as more chaotic and less managed than Prof. Sharma does, and if you buy into the idea that cultures and economies are always fluid and changing in ways that make it difficult to identify “pure” cultural forms, then Chisti’s vision of things is going to seem more comfortable.

One striking contrast between the two speakers that underscores the difference I’m trying to get at is that Prof. Sharma was insistent that multinational corporations and industrialism itself had to be eradicated altogether, whereas Chisti sees her artisanal production of khadi as a supplement to mass produced textiles. The two forms of production, in her view, ought to be able to exist side-by-side in a symbiotic fashion. What’s troubling here, of course, is our need to recognize the massive level of worker exploitation and environmental pollution produced by mass market textile production. The whole point of producing khadi is to produce textiles in a way that does not exploit workers and that does no harm to the environment. Prof. Sharma, I believe, would respond by saying right, that’s why the textile industry needs to be eradicated and be replaced by local production utilizing indigenous methods. Chisti, I expect, would respond by arguing that the mass production of textiles is simply a necessity in the contemporary world we live in and that the best approach to reversing exploitation and environmental pollution is through regulation and restructuring, not by a massive and inevitably violent overthrow of “the system.”

Backward Into the Future: Spinning Khadi for the 21st Century

Friday, July 17. Yesterday it was politics and manure, today it was spinning and textiles. Our speaker for today, Rta Kapur Chisti, is the founder of Ananda Delhi Textile, an organization devoted to the marriage of organic cotton farming and hand spinning in the production of khadi, the Indian textile championed by Gandhi. Gandhi’s vision of “swaraj” or self-rule was centered in part on the rejuvenation of the village organized around the spinning of cotton, which also had the political goal of freeing India from its artificially created dependence on British textiles produced in Manchester. Chisti is hard at work reinventing Gandhi’s kadhi revolution in the 21st century as part of her commitment to what she characterized as “alternative culture,” a movement aimed at developing a positive response to contemporary material culture fueled by globalization. I think of her work as analogous to the slow food movement. This is slow textile in the classic sense of “slow” as a response to the quick mass production of goods under globalization. Her organic cotton, grown here at Navdanya, the spinning done in villages throughout India she coordinates, and the careful vegetable based dying processes her workers use, are wonderful examples of the world-wide return to local products produced by local artisans that is the hallmark of the slow food or slow culture movement.

Chisti’s overview of the production process her organization facilitates was detailed and fascinating, but I was also quite taken with the comments she made about how she came to the work she’s doing and, especially, her attitude toward Gandhi. Like many of our speakers, Chisti grew up as an activist but became disenchanted with what she came to believe was the level of dishonesty in contemporary politics (on both the left and the right). A political science major, she also studied theater. Later, she began to write a column for the Economic Times that profiled craftsman. Through this work she was asked to do a series of profiles of spinners and weavers, turned that project into a book, and eventually became involved in the production of khadi. Her commitment to helping foster a business culture and artisanal practice that resists the practices of the dominant culture seemed rooted in her desire to spend less time writing and talking and more time taking some kind of action. Her metaphor was “getting off the bus.” If you’re dissatisfied with the status quo, how do you “get off the bus?” For her the key is to find something to do that will both make a contribution to social change and allow you to remain “true to yourself.” There are huge parts of the population of India and in countries throughout the world who have no choice. We’re privileged to have a choice about how to channel our energy and our productivity, and for her that choice was to get involved in rejuvenating a dying practice (much like Ganesh Devy has done with tribal languages at the Adivasi Academy, or Vandana Shiva is doing with her seed bank here at Navdanya). Her challenge to us as educators was to get our students to see that they’re privileged to be able to make a choice as well, to educate and energize them, and then to let them go and see what they will do.

About Gandhi she reflected an ambivalence characteristic of many of our speakers, insisting that you can’t “throw him out the window” but you can’t “live with him in the house” either. Her Gandhi was brilliant and comical, idiosyncratic and imaginative, a man who embraced contradiction and lived it. Chisti is much less interested in devotion to Gandhi as a historical figure or as someone whose principles and ideals must be applied in some kind of absolute way, than as someone whose imagination ought to be an inspiration for action in the present. This is a thread running through what for me are the most inspiring speakers we’ve heard, those like Ganesh Devi and Vandana Shiva who have found ways to construct institutions which draw on Gandhian principles to deal with contemporary problems. They have Gandhian imaginations in the sense they’re able to replace the spinning wheel with another object that has both real and symbolic value (tribal languages, indigenous seeds), or, in Chisti’s case, to re-imagine the function of the spinning wheel and the products it can produce for a new century. This is becoming, for me, the most impressive kind of Gandhism. It isn’t doctrinaire and rigid, it isn’t stuck in the past, it isn’t politically smug or self-righteous. This Gandhism emulates Gandhi by deploying his genius for invention and his ability to respond strategically and morally to contemporary problems in imaginative ways.

Politics and Manure

Thursday, July 16. We were introduced to Navdanya on our first day as both an experiment in organic farming and a political movement, and true to that introduction, our second and third days here have been organized around lectures and discussion about the politics of Gandhism and a hands-on introduction to methods of organic farming. Our speaker over the past two days has been Banwari Lal Sharma, a mathematics professor by training and a life-long political and social activist devoted to using Gandhian principles in the struggle to free India from what he sees as the grip of corporate colonialism under globalization. In his lectures Prof. Sharma distinguished between three facets of Gandhi, the rebel, the inventor, and the liberator. Together these three versions of Gandhi represent for Prof. Lal a model for social and political action in the 21st century. Like most of the contemporary Gandhians we’ve met, Prof. Sharma doesn’t see Gandhi as a static historical figure to be revered, the “father” of Indian independence, but rather, as a deeply moral and inventive thinker whose philosophical outlook and political strategies can be used today to fight against a new form of colonialism related to globalization. As he argued in his provocative final lecture today, India, like other so-called developing countries, is being run on economic polices formulated by organizations like the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, and GATT, groups dominated by huge American run multinationals who have, together, developed policies designed to ensure new markets for themselves, markets that too often undermine local forms of productivity wherever they become dominant. He made a compelling (if, at least to me, not a wholly convincing) case that economic globalization is being designed and run by western multinationals in ways that flatten local economies and cultures of scale into markets for the consumption of mass produced western commodities, commodities produced in ways that pollute the environment and which are uniformly inferior to those produced locally. Prof. Sharma believes nothing short of a revolution against these multinationals and the industries they support is required, a revolution that will liberate India and other developing nations from corporate colonialism. On the one hand, his vision of social change was breathtaking in its scope and a testament to how Gandhi’s thought can help us to confront contemporary problems. On the other, it seemed to me to be unrealistically ambitious in the scope of change it envisioned, and failed to consider the massive level of economic and political upheaval, and, I believe, mass violence the changes he envisions would probably unleash. The other approach to fighting the destructive effects of corporate colonialism would of course be through regulation, sanctions, restructuring, etc., a more piece meal approach to change but one that perhaps has a more realistic prospect of success with a minimum amount of violent upheaval.

The American literary and social critic, Kenneth Burke, once told me that the cure for a few good ideas was digging in the dirt, and the cure for digging in the dirt was a few good ideas. He had a piece of property in rural New Jersey and, when he got tired of theorizing and writing, he would work in his vegetable garden. But sooner or later, while working in his garden, he’d start getting some new ideas and would rush back to his study. The rhythm here at Navdanya reminds me of Burke’s story, because for every every hour we’ve spent discussing Gandhi’s thought and its impact on political activism we’ve been getting our hands or feet dirty becoming familiar with the whole cycle of organic farming, from the production of manure to the cooking of vegetables. Over the course of the past two days I’ve shelled peanuts in the hot sun with my friends, sat outside sifting rice for stones and bugs, trudged through rice paddies and corn fields to listen to the staff discuss experiments in planting and soil preservation, and attended an on-site seminar on how cow dung and water are used, in conjunction with twigs and leaves, to produce manure. I can also explain to you how cooking gas gets produced from cow dung and fuels the stove in the kitchen. And last night I spent an hour with the cooks in the kitchen helping to prepare dinner, chopping vegetables, cooking a few pieces of chapati bread in a frying pan, and helping with the dal (I did a video clip while cooking and will try to post it at some point).

There’s a link, of course, between these two sides of our experience here, for organic farming, is, in a very real sense, a political act, especially when done within the framework of Gandhi’s wider vision of “swaraj,” or self-rule, and “ahimsa,” or avoiding doing harm. Organic farming, as it’s taught here, can be the basis for the decentralized, small-scale production of foods that are healthy, environmentally friendly, and free of pesticides, and thus in a small but important way can be integral to the resistance to what Prof. Sharma characterized as corporate colonialism. This focus on organic farming in a village setting was central to Gandhi’s vision of a liberated India, an India free not only of British colonization but of the grip of modernity itself. Gandhi’s critique of modernity and western civilization was, of course, extremely controversial (Nehru, for example, was quick to reject it), and it remains so, even within our group. What role can villages and small scale farming play in saving a country like India, which is rapidly urbanizing and whose economy is being driven increasingly by industry and technology? Can its economic problems be solved by shifting most people back to the villages where they must be content to farm and to spin their own cotton? What role does the city and urban culture play in a Gandhian vision society? If it does have a role, what kind of balance can be created between rural and urban India in the 21st century? These are questions we all look forward to exploring as we continue with our trip, but there is no doubt that as a a model for small scale, organic, sustainable agriculture Navdanya is a very impressive, even revolutionary place.

In the late afternoon we took a short walk to the nearby village of organic farmers, who are predominantly Muslim (each afternoon the prayer calls from their mosque faintly echo through Navdanaya, along with the “hut, “hut” shouts of the men employed to scare the birds out of the mango trees). There we met with two different families. The men discussed with us their experiences as organic farmers while their children scampered about and there wives stood nearby. If I am able to post pictures from this walk you’ll find them here (I’ve also included a couple of shots from the main road from which we could see the Himalayas in the distance).

Navdanya I

NEW: Selection of pictures from Navdanya are here.Some of these pictures are of the grounds, a few of us shelling peanuts, and others of people who work at Navdanya, including women working in the rice fields. The interior shots with paintings are of the seed bank.

It’s early evening on Tuesday, July 14th, and I’m sitting on the stone veranda outside my modest room at Navdanya, the biodiversity farm founded by Vandana Shiva, just outside of Dera Dun, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas. From this spot I look across unmown grass, a footpath, a few rows of wide, flat tumeric plants, fruit trees further in the distance, and beyond, in the grey mist skies a faint outline of the Himalays shimmers above the trees. There is a light rain, and thunder in the distance, punctuated by the shouts and laughter of a group of Navdanya staff members sitting under a huge thatched roof meeting room playing a card game called “Uno” with Wendy Brown, a member of our group.

We arrived at Navdanya late last night after a 6 _ hour train ride from Delhi. We had gotten up at the Jambughoda Palace Resort at 4:00 a.m. and driven for an hour to the airport at Baroda, where we caught a plane to Delhi. We had another driver committed to showing off his reckless driving to the Americans. We started off behind the other two cars in our convoys but our driver passed the other two cars and sprinted into the lead as if we were in a race to the airport. Contemporary Hindi Hip Hop blared from the stereo, and we careened through the dark swerving to avoid the dim images of children, adults, cows, goats, and the occasional autorickshaw or truck. At one point I heard the back door to the jeep slam shut and turned to see the driver’s companion crawling up onto the roof. He made his way to the front of the car and swung himself around so that he could wipe the windshield clean, then crawled back over the roof and into the car again. This was all done while we were driving at a good 45 mph. I guess the windshield wipers don’t work and, like I said, these guys like to show off.

We had a nice lunch break in Delhi at a very fancy restaurant in a large hotel. We could have been in Chicago. Most of the patrons of the hotel seemed to be very well off westernized Indians or, perhaps, NRIs (non-resident Indians) visiting from somewhere else. I decided I needed a break from Indian food and had, of all things, pasta carbonara. It would have been a disappointment at home but under the circumstances I loved it. From the hotel we took our private coach to the raucous New Delhi train station, a place I’ve described before that is absolutely teeming with people from all over India, some seemingly carting their whole lives around with them (others seems to have next to nothing, or perhaps live in the station, for there are people with no possessions sleeping on the floor everywhere, and here and there you see the occasional sadu or holy man). A group of men who make their living as porters at the station contracted to carry our bags to the train and store them in the small overhead bins. More than one man carried two full suitcases on his shoulders through the crowded station in the hot, humid heat of the day, up and down stairs and across platform after platform until we got to our gate at the far end of the station. It was quite a scene. The ride itself was quite relaxing. Everyone napped or read or played card games, which attracted quite a crowd of kids. Barbara has now run out of balloons but the kids loved to watch a group play scrabble and hung around long after to chat with us.

The scene at the Dera Dun train station, much smaller than Delhi’s, was quite a contrast. The floors were clean and the place well lit, and where in other stations people were sleeping everywhere and whole families dined on blankets spread with food, pots, and utensils, here people were simply making their way out of the station or onto cars. As we drove from Dera Dun to Navdanya we could see the town was much cleaner and relatively more prosperous than anywhere we’d been before. As we left the town itself we drove through what looked like a very nice, middle class neighborhood of stucco homes with courtyards, parked cars, and verandas. Eventually the neighborhood turned predominantly Muslim and we drove by a large mosque. By the time we settled into our rooms at Navdanya it was nearly 11:30. A long, long day and I slept like a baby under my mosquito net with the fan whirring as fast as it could go. No airconditioning out here.

It wasn’t until morning that we could see what a beautiful place we’d arrived at the night before. We’re in lush foothills, with green and tropical plants everywhere and the sound of birds, many of them, singing nearby and in the distances. The low, redbrick buildings, all single story, are spread around the property so there is plenty of open space. All of the sleeping quarters are small and modest, but each has a large stone veranda that opens out to views of the countryside. We were offered elephant grass tea in the morning before breakfast. For a guy who takes two espressos every morning to wake up it was a shock, and at first I could barely taste anything, but the more a drank the more I appreciated the subtle flavors, and later we were served classic masala chai, which got my system kick started. Breakfast was a delicious mix of hot, whole grain cereals, fruit (local bananas and, of course, mangos) and a potato patty crusted with amaranth seeds. Delicious. At Navdanya everyone wipes off their plates with newspaper sheets into a bin for composting, and then washes his or her dishes.

During the morning we had an introduction to Navdanya from one of its senior staff members, who gave us an overview of the on-the-ground experiments they are doing here with organic farming. He also discussed the social and political advocacy Vandana Shiva and her program are involved in as they urge farmers and villagers around the country, and the Indian government, to modify their reliance on mass produced hybrid seeds and return to the use of indigenous seeds for the production of crops so that the diversity of crops historically grown in the country can be rejuvenated. Where Ganesh Devy is hard at work at the Adivasi Academy preserving, cataloguing, and reviving the indigenous languages of India, Dr. Shiva and her organization are working to preserve, catalog, and revive indigenous seeds in India. Both see their projects in metaphorical as well as practical terms, for in their view the reviving of languages and traditional methods of farming can form the seeds for the rejuvenation of villages and peoples all over India.

Navdanya was described to us as both a “seed college” and a movement. Dr. Shiva told us she thinks of seeds as “the spinning wheel of now,” a vehicle both practical and symbolic for rejuvenating village life and providing swaraj or self rule for Indians. Taking control of seeds away from multinationals driving the hybrid, pesticide driven business of agriculture under globalization by returning to basic organic farming methods is, for Dr. Shiva, like Gandhi’s earlier move to counter the British textile industry’s decimation of Indian cloth production by encouraging the spinning and weaving of local cotton. At Navdanya they keep a seed bank and offer the seeds free to farmers, asking only that at harvest they return a portion to replenish the bank. Most of the planting areas are devoted to various forms of experimentation with soils and planting techniques, all of which are monitored in their laboratory by the staff scientist. Navdanya encourages mixing crops on a single property, part of their commitment to diversity. The educational component of the institution is a mix of lecture and hands-on work. Dr. Shiva’s lecture today was exemplary. She provided a condensed overview of the effects of globalized farming techniques on Indian farmers (who have a high suicide rate—they drink the pesticide when smothered in debt), the positive effects of organic farming, and the success she has had both in getting Indian farmers to adopt Navdanya’s practices and in rolling back at the international level some of the more insidious practices of the multinationals, like Monsanto and Coca-Cola. Be sure to visit their website to find out more about the inspiring work she and her organization are doing.

Art and Heritage Among the Adivasi

Friday, July 12. This morning we took an unplanned trip at the suggestion of yesterday’s speaker, Ganesh Devy, to a World Heritage Site only a _ hour from hour hotel. The site consists of the ruins (very intact, as you’ll see from the photos) of three early 16th century mosques. It was a rainy, misty morning and we were the only visitors. We explored two of the mosques. The largest, the Jama Masid, had a large enclosed courtyard and a vast pillared area designed for prayers. The layout here was very similar to the mosque we visited in Delhi. The place is inhabited by about a dozen monkeys who had the run of the place, hanging around inside and scampering about the roof and minarets. Adjacent to the mosque was an enormous, very deep well, about 50 yards across. A second, smaller mosque lay about 10 minutes beyond along a very muddy, pool-filled road. Just as we were turning to enter the gate to this mosque a man appeared in the distance carrying a baby goat in his hands. It had just been born and still had the umbilical cord attached. The mother came trotting along behind and we spent a few moments watching her clean the baby off as it tried to figure out how to begin to nurse. A number of us climbed the interior steps of the minaret in this mosque for a panoramic view of the countryside. You could see the minarets of the third mosque in the distance, towering above the forest below.

In the afternoon we set out in three jeeps for a long drive to a remote village and the home of a tribal man whose father is a well-known painter. The particular painting we saw on the wall of what is now his son’s home, is a ritual painting called “Pithora.” As it was explained to me the next day by a man who has dedicated his life to studying tribal practices, when a family has run into some form of misfortune (it might be related to farming, or to personal relations within the family) they may decide to take an oath with the village shaman to have a Pithora picture painted on the wall of their home. This involves a heavy financial commitment on the family’s part. It’s hoped that making this special commitment, which involves an elaborate feast and festival at the time the painting is done, will help the family overcome their misfortune. There are accomplished Pithora painters throughout the area, and while historically these paintings have been restricted to village homes and have a specific ritual function related to village life and thus are not “art” in the western sense, more recently they have begun to be produced on sheets of paper or canvas for sale to visitors (or reproduced as weavings). The Adivasi Academy defends this change in its museum statement about the Pithora paintings, insisting there’s a value in having the pictures, and the cultural significance they have for the adivasi, communicated to a larger audience beyond villagers and those who study them. As you’ll see from the pictures I’ve posted of the Pithora we saw, these are intricate paintings that represent animals, spirits, and other key figures in village life. Some sections seem to have a narrative element to them, as with Italian frescos, and the local villagers who took us to see the Pithora painting were able to explain the symbolic meaning of each figure in detail. It was wonderful to see the painting, meet the artist’s son, who has become a painter himself, and to spend time in his home with he and his family.

Dinner at the Jambughoda Palace

Dinner with Royalty at the Jambughoda Palace

Saturday, July 13. On our last night at the Jambughoda Palace resort we had dinner in the home of the resort’s owner, who on his elegant business card, complete with family crest, calls himself Maharana Vikrimsinh. Vikram is a descendent of royalty, one of hundreds of princely families throughout India who were given authority by the British colonialists to help administer their affairs. The Raj couldn’t have survived without them. These royal families had a pretty good deal under British rule. They lived a rich life, were cultivated and indulged by the curious British, and were able to exercise power in the areas over which they had authority. At independence these royal houses were disbanded in order to make way for democracy, and the families, while able to keep their estate properties, lost specific political power over their villages and, of course, the more general power they derived through being in the good graces of the British. Later, under Indira Gandhi, the financial stipends they had been receiving from the Indian government were revoked altogether. This meant they were left with huge estates but had little money to keep them up. These royals, who must be seen as complicit with Britain’s colonization of India, seemed bathed in a kind of dilapidated nostalgia for the days when they had stature and socialized with British officials. These days are documented in the array of old photographs and prints that cover the walls of Vikram’s large living room. There are regal family portraits and scenes from tiger hunts interspersed with huge, elaborately staged dinners in which the royal family entertained visiting British officials. It look like a pretty even trade-off. The Indian royals get to rub shoulders with the powerful western colonialists while the British get a close up view of exotic Indians. The more I looked at the pictures of these dinners the more connected our own dinner with Vikram and his family seemed to be to the earlier ones documented in the pictures. History was repeating itself as farce. Our little band of American educators in search of Gandhi’s legacy in India had quite improbably taken the place in the minds of our hosts of the British official of long ago. We came baring the imprimatur of the west and all of the trappings of “civilization” it had represented to Vikram, his father, his grandfather, and great-grandfather. To have us in their homes (bewildered guests though we were) somehow replayed those earlier times when their families consorted with western power and bathed in the illusion that real civilization somehow resided with these westerners and would rub off on them.

All of this called attention to the ruined state of the institution to which Vikram and his family once belonged, and the slow but steady decay of the house is a material embodiment of the loss of their stature and their power. Yet you couldn’t help appreciating their graciousness and hospitality (although we were presented with quite a large bill for food and drink at the end of the night, something I doubt happened to the Brits who dined there), and even having some measure of sympathy for their plight. They’re marginal victims of the very colonial system they helped support, attached to their estate and the illusion of their royal status, insistent that the country somehow owes them a living, or at least, ought to declare their estates “heritage” sites important to documenting the history of India and plow some money into their upkeep. I asked Vikram, politely, if he had a job (which I thought might help his family out), but he said no, struggling to keep the palace above ground was a full time job. And his children won’t be off to school in the U.S. or entering the IT sector in Bangalore very soon, for they’ve been called back by their father to help save the estate.

We were able to meet Vikram’s wife and some of his extended family, the most colorful of whom was his uncle, Rana Harishchandrasinji, who in his 79 years seemed to have failed successively at selling petrol at wholesale, running a painting contracting business, raising chickens, and running his own organic farm. He was an elegantly dressed man with huge muttonchops who spoke impeccable British English and spoke as fondly of his days at Cambridge as he did of his attempts to make a living at organic farming, a next to impossible enterprise, he claimed, since all of the surrounding tribal families now had their own land to work. This of course brought me back full-circle to thinking about Ganesh Devy and his work with the adivasi. What an irony that our group spent time being hosted by these two men, the one on the cutting edge of reviving historically oppressed indigenous peoples and trying to help them gain a real economic foothold in a new India, the other consumed in resentment and a decaying nostalgia for the very system that oppressed both the adivasi and himself.

Jambughoda Palace

(For pictures please click here)

Thursday, July 10. We’re now at the Jambughoda Palace hotel near Tejgadh, far from Delhi and Ahmedabad and deep in the tribal forests of Gujarat. We’ve left the city with its hectic traffic and pollution for clear air and the sound of birds singing in palm trees. Jambughoda Palace is an old estate that has been turned into a kind of nature retreat resort. We drove four hours from Ahmedabad to get here, the last hour of which took us up into foothills and into the forest where people officially categorized by the government as “tribals” are working small farms off the main road. While we passed some of the same kinds of shanty towns here we saw in Ahmedabad the people seem marginally more well off than the urban poor. Some of the homes are stucco with tile roofs, and there are farmhouses dotting the landscape. People were at work in the fields sowing seeds behind cows pulling plows, and others were busy fetching water, keeping house, or selling things by the side of the road (there is a dizzyingly complex network of impromptu roadside commerce everywhere we go) and kids in uniforms were getting off school buses and heading home. These people are working hard to scratch out a very basic living, but the conditions here strike me as better than in the city, for the landscape is beautiful, the flora and fauna are dense and green, and the whole rhythm of life is much more relaxing than anything we’ve experienced before. But the poverty remains stark, the living conditions often bleak and unsanitary.

The somewhat pompously named Jambughoda Palace Resort is beautiful, but pretty funky. The building is stately and has a lot of character, but it’s quite run down, even dilapidated, and the rooms are very basic (no AC, but we’ve got ceiling fans, and the bathrooms are in a tile room out in back of our rooms—you can have a cold shower or fill up a bucket of warm water and dump it over yourself). No one is complaining too much, however. We’re pretty glad to trade AC and hotel rooms for the sound of birds and the absence of traffic noise, the constant din of honking that dogged us in Delhi and Ahmedabad. The grounds are beautiful, as you’ll see from the pictures, lush and colorful, with a large outdoor veranda adjacent to the main house for dining (we just finished a wonderful dinner out there). The Jambughoda is adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary featuring panthers, hyenas, and antelopes. We’re told panthers occasionally roam on the property. I’ll let you know if they do. Tomorrow we head to the Tribal Arts Academy for a full day. See the link on this site for details about the academy, which works to preserve and enhance the culture of the tribal peoples of the area.

This morning before leaving Ahmedabad we stopped for a tour of the Calico museum, one of the jewels of the city. The building and grounds of the museum are beautiful, and the collection of weavings, carved statuary, and bronze work is amazing. The collection is housed in a palace with beautiful marble floors, intricately carved wood inside and out, and a maze of rooms, stairways and terraces, all of which are covered with displays of quite stunning woven work of all kinds, carved statutes and carts, replicas of the interior of royal tents, and bronze works. It’s much too vast to see properly in less than a full day, and we only had a couple of hours with a guide. More an introduction than anything else, but quite marvelous. Take a look at the website if you want to see more since, as I said, photos were not allowed.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm Coming Back!

Hey friends sorry but I've been out of internet range for the last 10 days or so. But've been writing posts and taking pictures and should be able to put them all up tomorrow when we get to a hotel in Delhi. Everyone is well and we've had a wonderful time at the organic farm called Navdanya. Right now I'm at an internet cafe in Dehradun, the small city near where we're staying. We just came from visiting a huge Hindu temple nearby, in a section of the area that's very Tibetan. What a change. More tomorrow, hopefully, when I'll catch you all up on what we've been doing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Old Ahmedabad

I’m going to keep this pretty short since we depart tomorrow for our next destination, the Tribal Arts Academy in Tejgadh. This morning many of us took the city’s “Heritage Tour,” which covers sites in the old walled city of Ahmedabad (please click here to look at a selection of the photographs I took there). As usual, half the fun was in getting there, for we finally had a chance to ride in India’s auto rickshaws, those little, three-wheeled green and yellow vehicles you’ve seen in a lot of the photos. They whiz through traffic (harrowing), zigzagging in and out of larger cars, scooters, bikes, and assorted carts. When the aim right at you, they mean business and you’d better get out of the way. But they get you where you want to go, and quickly.

The tour starts at the largest Hindu temple in the city, which was full of worshipers. These temples are colorful affairs, painted in bright colors and with lots of statuary (compared, for example, to the mosques and the Jain temples, which are built of natural, unpainted stone). The old city itself is a maze of narrow streets, alleys, and corridors divided up into discrete sections (the name of which I forget). The architecture is an eclectic mix of architectural styles (Muslim, Indian, Persian, etc.). The areas we saw were mostly residential. The entrances to homes are right on the street and you can see people preparing food, eating, or just milling around looking out at you as you walk by. Take a look at the pictures I posted to get a feel for the facades, which I thought were a wonderful play of structural styles and colors. The streets were filled with people living in the area. We never saw any other tourists, which has been the case at many of the places we visited (its off-season for tourists given the heat, and besides, we’re visiting a lot of places most tourists don’t get to), and we elicited a lot of curiosity, with some people following us for a block or two just to look. We ended the tour at the mosque in the old town, a smaller version of the one we had seen in Delhi, a beautiful place with just a few men lounging by the wash basin or sitting or sleeping among the pillars in the portico. From there we want on by auto rickshaw to a Jain Temple, beautiful again but in its own way, distinct in style from either the mosque or the Hindu temple. You’ll have to check it out online because they don’t allow pictures.

We ended our tour with another harrowing auto rickshaw ride to an elaborate 15th century well that is five floors deep and is an architectural structure unto itself, as long as a building with an elaborate array of pillars and stairways that descend to the well at the bottom, which is now dry due to a low water table. You won’t be able to imagine what this place looks like without the pictures I posted. I wish I had time to write in detail about the really illuminating talk we had later in the afternoon from a woman named Suchitra Sheth, who works at the Center for Social Knowledge and Action here in Ahmedabad. She helped clarify for us the various political debates current in India regarding Gandhi and his legacy, and reported on the important work she and her organization are doing in a state, Gujarat, currently dominated by a rigid and pretty intolerant party of Hindu nationalists (one of our speakers got arrested for saying this, so I hope they’re not reading this blog).

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dethali and The Vidyapith

Tuesday was a very special day for all of us because we finally got out into the countryside, to experience the village life Gandhi championed. Our destination was the village of Dethali, in the distract of Kheda, and to a school run on Gandhian principles, the Gujarat Vidyapith Rural Service Centre. As is often the case, the journey was nearly as exciting as the destination. The bus ride from the hotel took us through some of the busiest streets of old Ahmedabad, and busy here is way, way busier than it is in Chicago, New York City, or anywhere else. Three wheel auto rickshaws share the road with pedestrians, cars, buses, flat bed trucks, commercial trucks, bicyclists, camels, and elephants. The commercial activity along the sides of the road, which I’ve described before, is mind-bogglingly complex, run out of ramshackle shacks, push carts, stalls, and more conventional spaces like stores we’re used to back home. Many of these are make-shift repair shops, for everything here gets recycled, but these shops are interspersed with food, fruit, and spice vendors, clothing outlets, and tobacco shops. Every once in a while side streets run from the main road back to slums where people are scratching out an existence as best the can in shacks put together from discarded materials. I’ve taken to shooting pictures out of the bus windows with my camera set on the “sport” mode to freeze the movement, and it works surprisingly well. The shot of the three elephants in traffic I’m linking to this post, for example, was taken with my zoom lens from about 75 yards as we whizzed by at 35 mph.

It took a good hour-and-a-half to reach the turnout to Dethali, and after turning off the main highway we drove for quite awhile along a narrow road with rice paddies and small villages on both sides. Women in colorful saris were working the rice paddy fields or washing clothes in streams, along with a few men. Occasionally we passed camels, donkeys, and white spider monkeys, either in the fields on the road. We nearly reached the town when we found out the road ahead of us was blocked or out for some reason, so we had to turn around, drive all the way back to the highway, head up the highway to the next small turnoff, and start all over again. Nobody cared. We were enjoying the ride too much and could have gone on all day. Please click here for pictures of the drive.

Soon, however, we pulled slowly into the village of Dethali. This was the first real village we had seen the whole trip, and it presented us with a rural India magically different from the busy, kinetic ruckus of Delhi and Ahmedabad. People are poor here, the dwellings humble (mud or concrete) and the shops make-shift affairs like those we’d seen by the side of the road, but the pace of things was a world away from that of the city. More about the village later, for we drove right through and into the Vidyapith Institute where our guide had arranged for a tour. Some students from the village attend, but many are sent by their parents from all over India to get a “Ghandian” education, that is, one oriented toward hands-on practice with spinning cotton and growing organic vegetables and rice as well as courses in the traditional academic disciplines. We toured the facilities, met the director, and interacted with students in a number of classrooms. They were a joy to be with, so open and curious, waving, smiling, gawking at us in curiosity. In one room a bunch of kindergarteners began to cry when we overwhelmed their classroom. Some had never seen white people before, and it was too much. Not even Barbara’s balloons would placate them. We finally left them in peace so they could calm down. Another class, full of 9 or 10 year-olds, was giddy at seeing us and they couldn’t get enough of waving and staring. They sang us a wonderful song about the virtues of village life. It was marvelous. Later some of us gathered in the Director’s home to visit and hear one family member play the harmonium. At one point he offered Ted a chance to play, and he did a more than credible performance, with the young man accompanying him on tables. I shot a video of it and will post it some day when I can find the time (videos have been skimpy because they take a long time to upload). Please click here for pictures of the institute.

The school was an inspiring place to visit and it was exciting to see how they put Gandhi’s philosophy into practice. But I really wanted to get back to that village, and finally I decided I would head off on my own and ask the guide to just pick me up when the bus drove out. He agreed, and I headed off, joined by Adam, a great young guy who teaches history at Evanston Township High School and shares my passion for photography. We walked down the driveway to the school, out the gate, across the street, and down into a small field with a path that took us into the village. We passed a woman tending a water buffalo, saw kids with umbrellas playing on a bridge in the distance, and ended up where the road spills into town. It didn’t take long for us to be mobbed by kids and adults alike. You would have thought Brad Pitt and Matt Damon had come to the village. We chatted as best we could, exchanged names, and shared our curiosity about one another. We’ve discovered people love having their pictures taken and seeing the image on the LCD screen, so we did a lot of that. We were invited to stroll up streets and visit with shopkeepers, and at one point it began to rain pretty hard and we ran to the closest shelter along with about 20 other people. This turned out to be a Hindu shrine, tended by a garrulous man who spoke some English. He was eager to have us look in the temple and even blessed us by doting our foreheads with red powder. We chatted with him and the kids who were tagging along with us until the rain stopped, and then we headed down a road adjacent to a beautiful open field with grazing water buffalo in the distance and a huge flock of what looked like white heron nesting in a tree. Please click here for pictures of the village.

Its easy, and of course dangerous, to romanticize or sentimentalize this village and its people. Judged by the standards of modernity we bring to the village they live in economic and material poverty and seem to be scraping out a subsistence living in dwellings that seemed solid but in disrepair, with little in the way of what we think of as amenities, let alone paved streets, sewers, sanitation facilities, etc. Their happiness during the moments we were with them was clearly connected in part to the fun they were having with these curious white strangers (one of whom is 5’ 4” and the other well over 6’—Indians are quite short). Still, life here was to my mind preferable to life in Delhi (certainly in its slums) or in Ahmedabad. I’d choose Dethali without giving it a second thought. The natural beauty of the place, and the relative quiet, is striking, and people here are taking care of their basic needs with dignity. Visiting there was a highlight of the trip.