Saturday, April 9, 2011

A Journey Ends

My last day in India was very sweet and special. I awoke to sunshine at the Embassy and after breakfast with Thomas, Ulla and Anna, I struck out with Raja on some errands. I met Nikhil, Arjun and Nivriti (Arjun's girlfriend) at a place called Have More for lunch and what they were calling, "my last truly Indian meal." Arjun presented me with a book, The Exile in the Forest, a beautiful collection of lithographs telling the epic tale of Ramayana. Thriving on a largely vegetarian diet and little coffee and little alcohol, I've lost nearly 10 lbs. Today we feasted on lamb and chicken specialties.

Since arriving in India, I've been admiring the nose pierces on women of all ages. Northern Indian women pierce on the left, Southerners on the right. I thought about a nose pierce for myself and decided  if I was still interested in it by journey's end, I'd go for it.

I held Nivriti's hand at a jeweler's off Connaught Place while Arjun and Nikhil circled around in the car. At the counter with people selecting jewelry all around me, I got a gunshot to my nose. There was no blood and it didn't hurt first. I chose a pearl stud to start, hypoallergenic. Its fairly obvious but  the permanent one is a tiny white stone with a classic silver wire backing that I bought in Benares. It will sit flat on my nose and be but a shimmer. The left nostril must clearly be on some kind of meridian because one of my left teeth and my left sinus began almost immediately to ache. It's been so long since my ears were pierced and felt like a really big adventure. "Do you have any whisky," I asked the salesman afterwards. He was expecting me to ask after a different kind of alcohol, I think, and this caught him off guard. Then we all burst out laughing.

My good-byes with the boys were swift and heartfelt. They have been part of my life almost since my arrival and we have made sweet, sweet songs together. They're young and eager to learn and it was a joy playing with them and teaching them more about the art of accompaniment - about cabaret and the jazz in their blood. I know we'll perform together again. Arjun's brother lives in Manhattan and we'll likely reunite there at some point.  Then I'll find us a stage and introduce him to my musical world. We'll play in India when I return.

In the afternoon Bharat came to the Embassy for a short visit and to say goodbye. He was my first partner in the Aryuvedic yoga massage class. His work on my hip and pelvis unlocked a year's worth of trauma in that area. He's also one of the three with whom I got so stoned at Holi and we laughed again about that. A beauty of a guy, full of life, smiles and vigor.

My last partner in the massage training class is one with whom I discovered a deep and lovely connection for life. Daman is a Sikh, an actor, a man of parts, a bird of a different feather. We didn't find very much time for each other in these 5 weeks but the hours we had were always extraordinary. He was busy with Fashion Week today and came late in the evening to retrieve me and drive me to the airport. Fin is a nickname. He calls me Ivory Fin.

As my plane took the air, I had not the pangs of longing I've experienced leaving other places in my life. India is another home for me in this world and I have but barely scratched the surface of all she is and has to teach me. Rarely have I felt so deeply happy for so many days on end. Rarely have I been so completely purposeful and so perfectly seen. I had no real idea why I was coming here. I had applied for the residency while nursing a broken hipbone a year ago - put it into the ether with no expectations, no plan, and barely a hint of understanding. I came here on a feeling and because I felt called. I arrived wide open and India poured herself into me. 

There comes a point in flight where the distance behind me is the same as what lies before me and I begin looking forward. My 2:00am flight from Delhi to Frankfurt lasted 7 hours. I managed to sleep for 5 of them and was soon landing in my original birthplace and in the embrace of my uncle Alfons for a layover of 7 hours - a second breakfast, a warm shower - and time with he and his partner Helga. It was sunny, and quiet, and spring hung in the air. The streets were so clean it was shocking. I phoned my mother's sister, Renate. A traveler who's seen most of the world herself counts Goa as one of her favorite places. She was eager to hear how India was for me.

Back at the Lufthansa check-in counter, I was enjoying a light and playful banter with the purser of my flight to JFK, when he presented a big surprise:  an upgrade to business class on the brand new Airbus 380, the largest airplane in the world. Champagne, a reclining bed, cameras on the wing to follow the flight...such a ride...oh my! I could only pinch myself. The symmetry didn't escape me either. 42 years ago I made the trip on the same airline with my Mom, Dad, and two little brothers... I left my homeland and birthplace of Frankfurt for a new city, New York City, and a new world.

A world where lots of love and exquisiteness awaits me....


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Ulla's Birthday

I was happy to be invited to stay in India a week after the Zorba residency ended to celebrate Ulla's birthday. Wife, mother of three - a gracious, gorgeous, multi-talented ambassador, not only of Germany, but of womankind is she!

In the morning I gave her an Aryuvedic massage. Afterwards, one of my students, Zorian, came to do a tarot card reading for each of us. Then the residence was decked out in splendor and Ulla's daughter Anna stepped in as mistress of ceremony of the evening's entertainment she'd organized. She and Thomas prepared a slide show of Ulla's life. Arjun and Nikhil came and we reprised a few of our favorite songs from these concert outings. Other friends performed opera and modern Indian dance. To the soundtrack of the 60s, we danced the night away. It was a great bash to round out a lovely friendship that has deepened for us with this visit. So much of my stay has been influenced by Ulla's passion for music and her great spirit. It was really wonderful having the Matusseks here in the city where I would come as an artist in residency, a fellowship I applied for while nursing my broken leg last year. April 7th happens to also be the one-year anniversary of that auspicious event in my life. Thank you Ulla for helping make my first journey to Indian so especially rich. Happy Birthday my dear!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Let's Go To Benares

Benares Song
(written in English by Bertolt Brecht, 1927)

There is no whisky in this town
There is no bar to sit us down, Oh!
Where is the telephone?
Is here no telephone?
Oh, Sir, God Damn me: No!

Let's go to Benares 
Where the sun is shining
Let's go to Benares!
Johnny, let us go.

The first time I heard the word Benares was in this song by Brecht from Mahagonny Songspiel some 15 years ago. Brecht liked using Asian place names in his works - Surabaya, Mandelay, the Punjab.

So I'd been thinking about where to travel in the three short days after my workshop and before Ulla's 60th birthday party. Some friends recommended a mountain getaway in the foothills of the Himalayas which aren't too far. Others suggested places like Jaipur and Jodhpur but also cautioned that since these were desert towns they were already very hot now. There was Rishikesh where the Beatles attended a transcendental meditation back in 1968. Most of these spots were an 8-hour bus or train trip.

When Ashwin asked me where I really wanted to go, without thinking about it, I said Varanasi, or what Indians have always called Benares. What I read about this strange city on the banks of the holy River Ganges captivated me. People bathed in the river in evening and morning meditations, and burned their dead out in the open on funeral pyres. The city has a rich musical heritage - many musicians have come from Benares. It all sounded compelling. Something was calling me there like India as a whole had called me.

My friend Ian in NY suggested a book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Venice is already near and dear to my heart as the place where I fell in love with my soulmate at age 19 and that the two cities are linked in this book was interesting enough. Turns out I haven't much like the book, but the author's descriptions of Varanasi are richly construed and spot-on.

It was my ambassador Thomas Matussek with whom I sat at lunch out under the pergola at the residence one afternoon who convinced me to choose Benares and also solved the travel problem. "Fly there," he said. "It'll take an hour and not cost very much. In fact, we'll set it up through our travel agency here." And so we did and on Monday morning at 9:30am I boarded a SpiceJet (India's commuter airline) and flew southeast. I got into a terrible traffic jam with my taxi driver (Varanasi's traffic is even worse than Delhi's with cars, bikes, rickshaws and animals and no lanes in any direction. The hotel Ganges View had come up in conversations and in the book as the place to stay, but it was full and so I got a room a few doors down for two nights at the Palace on the Ganges. It was sweet indeed...small with a big bed and a view to the Assi ghat below.

I've had a deliriously charmed experience in this maiden visit to India and there have been angels accompanying my footfalls. Truly, I have often sensed a presence larger than my own guiding my steps and my awareness. Traveling now alone to a place that is intensely weird, "equal parts fantasy and utter repulsiveness" as one visitor to Zorba told me, I was open yet guarded. Ready to flow in the stream of life as I have come to know it -  trusting that a few benevolent and unseen beings always have my back.

I walked along the ghats after checking out my room. It was mid afternoon and already hot. Cows were everywhere, on the steps, in the water. There were goats and monkeys too. Lots of men were hawking boat rides, lots of children were hawking henna tattoos and souvenirs. "What country, what country?" they would ask. Eventually I started answering "Mars." That didn't deter them. "You like a pretty necklace for Mars? You got some rupees for me?"

I thought I knew what dirt was, what waste was, what shit was. Na. On the surface this was easily the most disgusting place I'd ever seen. But then I'd already been in Delhi for a month and my resistance to the things of this world like filth, poverty, overcrowdedness, noise and shoving had been broken in the first week. Here it all smacked me in the head again and then vanished. The Ganges is so polluted to my Western sensibilities as cannot be believed. But the people who bathe in it and clean their clothes in it don't believe it's dirty, they believe it's holy and so it doesn't make them ill. They flock from all parts of India to take a splash of it in their palms and annoint themselves. They come to Benares to die at its river banks and be cremated here.

I ate the best chicken butter masala of my trip at Fair View rooftop restaurant a few doors down and that's where I met Ricki. Ricki became my guide that night, procuring me a boat for the trip upstream to the evening prayer ceremony and the laying of candles into the river. What a sight when night comes and all these little candle boats are afloat on the river. "This is your luck," Ricki said as I placed my floating candle into the water. Alas a stroke of the oar sent water into my offering drowning the flame. I cried out in dismay. Ricky retrieved my candle and relit it and my luck returned. Isn't that how it is in life? A year ago almost to the day, my luck went out and I fell and broke my femur. Today I was bobbing on the Ganges far away from home and all I knew about myself. And I had walked here on two good legs.

Getting the low-down:

Recovering my luck flame:

The chant of the Brahman:

Ricky procurred me another boat the next morning at dawn, an experience that was so tranquil, dreamy and surreal that I know it will play in my dreams to the end of my days. 

The Ganga at dawn:

Ricki wanted to be my guide for the rest of the day, but I opted instead for some alone time. Something slightly terrifying happened outside my hotel after the morning boat meditation. I returned to my hotel for the complimentary breakfast, showered and put on my sandals which it turns out were wet on the undersoles. As I came out of the hotel, I slipped on the marble staircase and went kerplunking all the way down on my rump. In that instant half a dozen men from as many directions shouted out in horrow and flew to my aid. As soon as I had stood and brushed myself off, back they were to peddling their wares and services. Humans at the core, salesman after that.

Jesus! What is it with all the falling at this stage of my life!?! walked off the plunge, wondering if the titanium pins in my hipbone had held together and wandered again alone along the ghats. At 

Manikarnika Ghat at 3:00pm, I 
observed the laying down of a corpse on the funeral pyre in silent reverance and with no camera recording it. The head was exposed - stony and still. The body had been lathered in many essential oils and in ghee (to facilitate burning) and was now wrapped in cotton and colorful sashes. The next morning when I came down to the ghat at dawn to meditate in the stillness while people bathed and laid their laundered saris and sheets out on the steps to dry, I saw that this body and all the logs above and beneath it had burned overnight. All that remained was a pyramid-shaped cone of ash. I wondered about myself, my sensibilities. My best musical endeavor to date is all about the coming and going of life, creation and destruction, the sex act and the death act. How is it that I'm made for such things?.... How did I become like this?....

It was Tuesday afternoon and I ventured up into the neighborhoods through Benares' famous alleys and up along the main street called Shivala. I sparred with flying monkeys and got kids to stop selling and smile. I texted Arjun and Nikhil back in Delhi: "Benares is con artistry bobbing on waves of enchantment. Where nothing is as it appears or appears as it is. Where shit and gold shake hands." And later: "There is no place on earth like Benares. I've known border towns in Texas, Arizona, in Europe. This is a border town too. Not to another land, but to another world."

Here I walk along Shivala Road:

A South African woman has opened a coffee shop called Open Hands where Westerners can chill out and collect themselves from the intensity of the Benares experience. I was served the largest piece of carrot cake I've ever had alongside my first coffee in weeks and then I went nuts buying textiles. Two 4x6 cotton rugs for $25 a piece, 2 sets of curtains for the new apartment, pillow cases, tunics and recklessly lovely silk scarves. Back in Delhi, Raja would help me buy another suitcase for the journey home. I arrived with one and left with four.

And after I took this photo my camera phone lost its juice. I had not wanted to schlepp the large charger and converter with me to Benares in my small day back and so that was the end of the filming. Henceforth I would have to carry my impressions on the silver screen of my mind. At Open Hands I asked one of the sales guys where I could hear some tabla and sitar music and he told me to come back at 7:00 that night which I did. I was told that Bablu was waiting for me in the street on his motorcycle and would take me to a place. In my previous life, I would never have gotten on a motorbike with a strange man and no sense of where he was taking me. But now I hiked up my long skirt without question, grabbed him tightly round his belly and held on for dear life as we entered the crazy traffic stream of town. Several times I thought one of my knees would take out a cow utter or some goat testicles...but it never happened. Turns out Bablu brought me to his own music hall and then went off to find more guests. What an ingenious way of producing music - I have something to learn from him. This night, along with a few other visitors from Australia and Japan, I took in a private concert of tabla, sitar and the beautiful sarangi (a kind of violin). Here's a photo of an old one I snapped in my hotel lobby upon arrival. 

After the presentation, they invited the singer from New York to the stage. I merged my Summertime by the Gershwins with Faiyez Ali Khan's sarangi as accompaniment and can say that I sang in Benares. One of the Japanese gals captured the duet on video and has promised to send it to me. I hope she does. The next day Nanu, the tabla player, drove an hour to town and gave me a singing lesson in Indian ragas (9 beats and 16 beats). One of them is happily named Raga Saraswati. He used a harmonium to find our pitches, though what what he called Middle C was more like Ab as I know it. But it was pure bliss and my gratitude for being "led" to this artful space made for a lump in my throat then and does so even now.

At the end of the lesson, Bablu zipped me back to my hotel on his motorbike in time for me to catch my cab to the airport for a 4:00pm flight back to Delhi. God, I'm glad I came here!

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Days After Zorba

Since my day trip to the Taj with Simar, the days have been action-packed. My arts residency at the Global Arts Village (newly renamed Zorba the Buddha) officially ended on March 31 and that night I moved to the Embassy to prepare for a concert at the grand re-opening of a restaurant called Second Sin in MGF Mall in Saket the next night. The gig was great fun - photos are forthcoming from Laurent Guiraud, its manager and French ex-pat whom I've befriended here. I'm grateful to him for giving me a public venue to which I can invite the people I've met in this fantastic first month.

Meet Raja (below on the right). He is the major domo at the Embassy and a lovely man. Took me around to run some errands - a fitting for the blouse for my first sari which will be most beautiful indeed, and shopping for another suitcase. His tailor has a stand in a nearby market where sewing machines whirl and sacks of rice (rice?) are stored in the shadows. My silk sari costs $120. The blouse will cost $8 to make and the ready-made petticoat is $6.

Back at the Embassy, the landscapers and some of the staff were felling a rotten tree, a Shisham (hardwood similar to Rosewood). Ulla wants to have furniture made from it. This task proved to be an interesting diversion that I captured on film. Clearly I'm feeling very much at home here at the ambassador's residence.

After my late night at the Second Sin restaurant opening, I arose early and headed to Neemrana Music Foundation to teach my first workshop, Beyond the Beautiful Voice: The Art of Singing a Song, to singers and actors. I had 17 students in all and we worked from 10am to 5pm. The class was organized by another French ex-pat, Antoine Redon, artistic director of Neemrana who also participated in the workshop as a singer. It was a wonderful day spent with talented and daring artists and I was happily exhausted by the end of it. Sadly, I forgot to bring a camera, but Antoine's wife Capucine (great name!) filmed bits of the class which will surely prove very edifying once I'm back home. One of the students, Doris, drove me back to the Embassy, pointing out some Delhi highlights along the way such as Humayun's Tomb and India Gate. One isn't supposed to stop near India Gate, so Doris (an ex-pat from Holland who's lived in India for over 25 years) pretended that her car was overheating so I could get out and snaps some pics. Swell!

Yesterday I returned to Zorba to teach the same workshop in a different environment. This time I had two singers in the group, an actor, a dancer, three public speakers and a voice-over artist. The luscious natural beauty of Zorba's surroundings lent the day a decidedly spiritual air. Teaching felt very organic to me as new ideas were born into my method. It was very exciting and I learned as much from these passionate students as they learned from me. 

Last night Ashwin threw me a party and I said goodbye to he and Simar and my good friend Nishant, head of facilities, who arrived the same day I did - March 1st - which seems like eons ago. These partings were bittersweet but I'll be back, sure as rain, and  will see all these people again.

Shortly, my taxi driver will arrive and whisk me off to the airport. I have three days to spare before Ulla's birthday and am flying to the mysterious city of Benares (called Varanasi today) on the holy Ganges, just me and my day pack. It will be good to leave Delhi and see what the "real" India is like. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Oh Taj Sublime

After leaving Agra Fort we had lunch at a restaurant in a hotel with which Rao Travel has an arrangement. The food and service were quite good. Simar and I shared our table with a gal from Iran and a guy from South Africa, each traveling solo. Regrettably I didn't write their names down on a napkin and have forgotten them.

The bus dropped us about 200 yards from the entrance to the Taj Mahal, the rest of the trek was accomplished by camel or horse buggy. We jumped on a horse buggy. It was so tipsy I thought I would slide out the back right onto the road. The camels fascinated me - never have I seen one outside a zoo. In fact I can say that about India in general...never have I seen so many zoo animals out in the streets among the humans...cows and sheep and goats, of course, and monkeys and kingfisher and cobras and now camels. Where is the wise elephant of my dreams...perhaps around the next corner...

Admission for Indians into the Taj Mahal is a whopping 30 rupies (about 6 cents). For me, the non-Indian it is a shocking 750 rupees or $16! (The Empire State Building costs the same.) The queue for nationals was endless yet there was no line for foreigners. I approached, received a warm greeting and was welcomed inside. The guards stopped Simar in her tracks. She's got a look that can pass for many nationalities and has said she's often asked if she's Israeli. The guards refused her entry in my queue and she obediently headed to the long line of Indians. Seeing her go, a deep voice rose up in my belly and I surprisingly blurted: "Wait! She's with me. She's mine." The guards turned to me equally surprised. I reiterated calmly and firmly: "She's with me. Come Simar. Come." They let her pass. As we walked together, I shot her a glance and a smirk. "I feel like an imperious white woman during the height of colonialism."

We arrived at the Taj at the peak of day. It was a scorcher and there were many people there. I had to wet my scarf and wear it on my head for air conditioning. And I vowed that the next time I visit the Taj I will leave Delhi at 3am and arrive at dawn, or wait until dusk when the shadowplay is grandest. Ashwin told me the Taj is at its ethereal best on the night of a full moon. The grounds are amazing, all the buildings so beautiful - the stone, the carvings, the details...

No matter where we've all grown up in the West, we've heard of the Taj Mahal, seen an image of this great wonder of the world, a tomb erected in the name of true love. But until we lay our eyes upon it we cannot fully fathom its incredible beauty and majesty. It is something from dreamworld and completely breathtaking.

So Simar and I spent an hour there, strolling under shade trees and slowly making our way inside.

I let a song go out of my heart (albeit sideways):

And someone answered:

The view to the north, west and east.

Auf Wiedersehen Taj!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Day Trip to Agra

I've known all along that I wouldn't have much time to travel and see other parts of India on this maiden journey, but I quickly decided that a day trip to Agra to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal, was a certainty. I booked my bus passage through Rao Travel and in the last minute Simar decided to come along.

I recently met a really sweet taxi driver named Ravi on one of my many trips between Zorba and the Embassy and elsewhere and have been calling him often. He picked me up at Zorba at 5:00 am this morning. The bus left an hour later from the neighborhood of Vasant Vihar which is where my pianist Arjun and his family live. The bus was comfortable with mostly Indian tourists aboard and soon we were out of Delhi and stopping for a road-side breakfast.

Our first stop in Agra was the very impressive Red Fort, an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Red Fort and the Taj Mahal bear testimony to a civilization which has disappeared, that of the Mogul Emperors. Agra's history goes back 2500 years but only during the rein of the Mughals did it became more than just a provincial town.  This 16th-century fortress of red sandstone was built in 1565 by the Emperor Akbar on the right bank of the Yamuna. Within its 2.5km-long enclosure walls it contains many fairy tale palaces such as Jahanguir Palace and the Khas Mahal, audience halls and two very beautiful mosques.

The Emporer Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son Aurangzeb in Agra Fort from which he had a view of the sublime building he erected for his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal. There in the distance it shimmers.....

Monday, March 28, 2011

Chhartarpur Temple

Delhi has many wonderful temples and historic sites. I have not yet a chance to really visit them. Seems my time is spent in the streets and in the homes of India. But I heard there was a temple near Zorba and our Ghitorni stop on the Metro line. The station was two stops away at Chhartarpur. On my way into town to do a little more shopping, I decided to pay it a visit. It might even be more interesting being way off the beaten tourist path...

In my travels on the elevated subway, I've been spotting several huge statues sprinkled throughout South Delhi. Today on my way to the temple I passed one of them - Hanuman - the mighty monkey deity - a central character in the Indian epic Ramayana. Hanuman aided Lord Rama in his expedition against evil forces and is one of the most popular idols in the Hindu pantheon. Believed to be an avatar of Lord Shiva, he is worshipped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion.