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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Bangalore, Mysore, and Kerala

Bet you're all wondering where I've been. In a tropical paradise, that's where. Those of you who have traveled with me know how little appeal tropical paradises tend to have for me, but even I am impressed by this one. (Luci and Melina, I'm thinking of you particularly here.) We're at the Leela in Kovalam Beach, Kerala, and it is stunning. Just when you think the hotel can't become any more beautiful, it does. They have bowls of floating rose petals everywhere; last night I discovered that once the sun sets they put candles in the bowls too. I mean, seriously. There is no point to these things except to be pretty, and they certainly succeed. Building aside, the setting is superb - the hotel is terraced into a bluff over the Arabian Sea, coconut trees all around ("Kerala" means "the land of coconuts"), waves crashing, and stars overhead. I realized this is the first time I've seen stars in India, since I've been in big cities everywhere else.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Bangalore continued to be fun, and mad props are due to Gangarams bookshop, recommended to me by one of my Mumbai friends. Debbie (the librarian, totally my favorite perosn to pal around with) and I went crazy in there, buying books and presents. Then we strolled over to the customer service desk where they estimated my shipping costs and brought me tea. While this was incredibly convenient and kind, I had a moment of feeling really guilty about the color of my skin and the baggage of that: a staff person brought over a chair and kept saying "sit, sit" even though I told him I didn't need to, and the Indian man behind me made some sort of clucking noise, making me think he had probably had enough of white women getting special thigns. This was not the first time it has appeared that we've gotten to do or see something special, or at least something a little unusual, because we're a bunch of mostly white American scholars/tourists, but this was the first time it had happened to me by myself. It's tricky - I certainly don't ever intend to act like a memsahib but when the government is putting you up in the hotels like we're in, I can see why everyone thinks I am one (or thinks that I think I am one).

From Bangalore we took a day trip to Mysore. Bollywood people please note that we drove through some hills in which parts of Sholay were filmed. We stayed in the maharaja's guest palace. Yes, that's right. It was like being in a period piece; one felt wildly underdressed in trousers and a shirt, wishing one had a ball gown on and a bejewelled prince on one's arm. One, however, did not have any such things, but one did have the chance to celebrate a colleague's birthday, so one celebrated royally. We squeezed in two visits to educational institutions and then some sight-seeting to Mysore Palace and Srirangapatnam, an island city.

Museum-related detour: everyone keeps asking me what I think of the museums in India, so I will just say: I think they're abysmal. Let me say right up front that I had made some assumptions about how museums here would tend to funciton - namely that due to the British legacy, many museums would appear to have similar purpose and methods to ones in the US, Canada, and Australia. Based on what I have observed, I am very, very wrong about that, and I apologize to the entire Indian museum community about the befuddled comments I have made as I have poked around the nine musems I have visited. It now seems pretty clear that as a whole Indian musems have different missions, purposes, and ways of operating that I do not intuit.

That said, there are major problems in both conservation and education in every institution I have visited. This country's physical cultural heritage is being baked, steamed, and eroded; it is dusty, dingy, overly lit, and encased in plastic that I'm sure was PVC; metal artifacts are mounted with unbuffered metal nails, furniture fabric is water damaged, and textiles are pinned to backing boards with thumbtacks at the corners, sagging in the middle. In Bangalore I noticed a stone sculpture had actually fallen through its wooden support furniture and had just been left there, only its top portion visible amidst the splintered wood. That same museum had rows of miniature paintings nicely framed but the frames were all crooked on the wall. It's like nobody has worked there in the last 100 years, even though I saw at least three staff people there.

Some more examples: today at an art museum we had to take off our shoes before going in, which is fine and not at all uncommon in various types of institutions and homes here of course, and we were told it was so we would not track in dust; we get inside to find the windows all wide open. The National Museum of Modern Art in Mumbai had signs in English and Hindi telling us to be quiet, but the labels were only in English. What kind of message is that? Only people who can read English deserve to know what something is? I don't know why I ask - text of any kind is not a habit here and I have been able to find out very, very little about any artifact in any musem. The Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai provided some context here and there, especially in its Indus Valley civilizations section, and the musem in the summer palace in Srirangapatnam had some very clever labels with pictures of artifacts from that time/place that had been given away or taken, with an explanation of what it was and where it had wound up. I thought this was an exceptionally smart way to raise the issue of conquest and cultural heritage without making a big stink about it. These labels left the reader to wonder why that stuff had gone away and whether India might like it back, which is what we should all be wondering. Anyway, overall, most artifacts have only a name attached to them; sometimes you can find a date and place. Very seldom is there any kind of overarching contextual panel with information on what the exhibit is about and why anyone should look at it, what it can tell us, how it fits within Indian culture.

Okay, that's done. Please, please, please believe me that I'm sure there's a lot I don't know about Indian museums, how they are intended to function, what services they hope to provide, etc. And I can only imagine how big a question resources mgiht be. But there are so many things that oculd be improved so easily, almost for free. And yes, please do write in and tell me what I don't know. And yes, I'm willing to come help, if someone can put me up for a few weeks at a time. But I'm not helping in July - November through February only.

Museum detour over. What was I talking about before? I have no idea. Anyway. Now we're in Kerala. I bought a sari. I have no idea what I'm going to do with a sari, but it was so pretty I had to have it. (I also bought a sari for Spurlock but frankly it's much less lovely, but that's fine, because it's going get little grubby kid hands all over it.) Today we visited a film studio and we met a famous Malayalam (is that a fun word to say or what?!?) actor. I have no idea who he is but I promise to post a piture when I get home and people can write in and tell me. We also got to see the sound studio where they dub in the dialogue, and there was a cluster of music stands, I assume for playback singers. Super cool. South India has really delivered on movie posters and I've seen two of the giant painted actor cut-outs. Again, pictures will come in August. I've been flipping through my photos and a shocking proportion are movie-related. Well, maybe not so shocking.

I'm sorry, I'm completely running out of steam. A cold has been making its nefarious way around our group and I have a touch of it, and the steamy weather makes me sleepy. Truly it is hard to be me. (Those who know will dial Sting for me, na?)

The other day we were talking about our top five Indian experiences and I was hard-pressed to choose; just being here, just realizing every few hours that oh my goodness I'm in India, is amazing to me; meeting friends has been the highlight, though, these wonderful people who have shared so much with me and been a continual supply of fun and interesting learning. Very special apologies to the two in Bangalore I wasn't able to meet up with - phone problems, schedule problems, bah!

Okay. The power keeps cutting out and it's time for dinner. On the beach.


At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Tamara said...

I stay at the Leela when I'm have my sincere pity. I hope you are able to get past the stench of those rose petals so you can swallow the rest of your champagne :-)

okay, seriously, I don't even know where to begin asking questions and making comments! Everything continues to sound absolutely AMAZING and I am really intrugued to hear about the state of the museums there. Agreed that it is quite surprising given the British heritage.


At 4:28 PM, Anonymous Nidhi said...

THe museums and other historically significant places managed by the Government are highly mismanaged in India, it is sad but true.

At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a big "ditto" to everything Tam wrote above.

so many things to say... but mostly i want to say that i love how HAPPY you sound in all of your writings. so very, very happy. and for that i am so glad.

i miss you muchly and cannot wait to hear all about the museums and rose petals and stars and the arabian sea and your new friends and ... oh goodness... just *everything*!

hugs and kisses to the kids!

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Kim said...

I'm so glad that you are taking the time to write down all these thoughts about your adventure. It means that you have impressions written while they are still fresh and not weathered by time and eroded by the next hundred experiences that are bombarding your brain.

I'm thrilled, as others noted, that it also sounds like you are still having the time of your life, even if that note of fatigue slips in on occasion. I'm thrilled at the idea of talking to you about your experiences when I can see your face, though I can hear your voice so clearly in the writing.

Like Luci, we all miss you here. Continued safe journeys.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Nidhi said...

there is a significance to the bowls of rose petals in water, it is to ward of evil or something like that ...will enquire from my Keralite friend.


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