Please excuse the delay I was without wifi in Kolkata and for my first few days back here in Chennai. Let’s pretend I posted this on Wednesday…
This week in Kolkata was maybe the loudest and most colorful of my life. If the past six weeks were characterized by their solitude and contemplation this one contrasted with constant interaction, noise, and activity. It was a little like a parody of a twenty-something going out and seeing the world. I found myself seeing amazing local art and music in the day and meeting musicians at night. I performed for the French ambassador (Jordan flashback), I ate at amazing restaurants, and I ended up on Indian TV… Twice. The world that people kept using to describe the city was “relentless” I think this applied to my week quite well. In my memory it is a little like a blur of color and sound. I don’t think it’s worth recounting the details so I’ll just give some highlights and some thoughts. I’m writing this on the plane home trying to stay awake!
Durga Puja is a twelve-day festival celebrating the victory of good over evil. The story goes that a Mahishasura prays to the Gods to make him invulnerable to the attacks of others. They grant him this wish and he uses his invincibility to start killing everybody. The gods get together and fuse into Durga. 10-armed Durga fights Mahishasura who first comes to her in the form of a bull. After she kills the bull Mahishasura emerges and she kills him too. There is much more to the story most of which I don’t know, but that the nuts and bolts.
During this festival nearly every community in Kolkata erects a Pandal. A Pandal is like a temporary shrine/art exhibit for Puja. They vary widely in their size and aesthetic. There are house Pandals in private homes, community Pandals in neighborhoods, and there are Pandals that have corporate sponsors and attract thousands per day. They are really beautiful structures and the sheer size and number of them is mind-blowing, not least because they are all temporary. During roughly hourly ceremonies small groups of percussionists ranging from 2-8 members play in the Pandals. These are mostly people from rural areas who do menial labor for a living. The feel and sound of their playing is indescribable, and it was fascinating to watch the pedagogy of older musicians teaching younger drummers on the job. Dura Puja is the largest outdoor art installation in the world. I can’t really describe it in words so I suggest you look at some pictures: https://www.facebook.com/max.bessesen
On my second day I lucked into a connection with the French Consulate and I fell into a crowd of about fifteen or twenty people going out to see the festival. About half of these people lived in Kolkata and of these most of them worked for the French consulate. But there were people from all over India and visitors from England, Ireland, and Argentina. It was a really interesting group of people. There were filmmakers, doctors, politicians, journalists, businesspeople, and a musician completing a PHD in Hindustani percussion.
Because of the government and press connection the group had a few VIP passes. These were used for the whole crew and we were able to bypass huge two-hour lines to see into the biggest Pandals. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see so much of the festival but I felt strange walking past throngs of people crammed against one another. In some places police officers (about a third of which were teenagers in uniform) literally joined hands to make a human fence to allow our party through.
Each Pandal, concert, and trip between them was a different adventure. It would be impossible to describe but a few things stick out to me from this week. First is that India is a HUGE country. I already knew this, but Kolkata is totally different from Chennai and even the North of the city of Kolkata is totally different from the South. I knew there was a big difference between North and South Indian music but I realize now that there are enormous differences along the East--West gradient as well. I’m also experiencing that the whole strip from East India up to China has a lot of common cultural and musical language… But I’ll write more on that in my post in a couple days stay tuned.
I am continually made more aware of how income inequality deeply affects life here. Kolkata is loud. My hotel room was never silent and the street noise woke me up many times in the night. The group of people I was hanging out with mostly have the privilege of quiet rooms but most people in the city don’t. I imagine the way that this constant over-stimulation would affect someone living on the street and I find it hard to deal with. Violence is very normalized in everyday life. I saw many children who were clearly homeless but had toy guns. I doubted that they have any other toys to play with. Somebody came up to our stopped car and punched the driver. They yelled at each other but when the light changed he just kept driving and stayed with us for the rest of the day. He didn’t go home or take the day off. I the US an assault that would have legal repercussions. No one talked about this incident after about an hour. The times that we were in large crowds I felt very claustrophobic. I was being pushed and shoved on all sides by a hot crowd of a thousand people. I was able to bypass most of these crowds and I saw many Pandals but I probably wouldn’t have done as much touring without the consulate connection. I find myself at once confused and inspired by the number of people who choose to make and visit these structures.
I also had a number of musical connections in this city. I went out to some shows and had the chance to play with some very good improvisers. I felt I made more headway in this scene after a week than I have in Chennai for the last two months. Some of the music was really compelling and all of the people I met were gracious and welcoming.
These musical interactions were different in many ways from those I’ve had in the past first because they’re in a different country but second because I have spent so much time practicing alone without as much ensemble play in the last two months. My practicing in the past was always accompanied with regular group application so I realized a few new things:
I am much more aware of sound and rhythm than I was before.
Grooving with others has always been hard but I have a whole new appreciation and sensitivity for how much I need to do to make the song feel good
The American music that makes it to other parts of the world is not always what you would expect and that is good
In a country with less diversity than the United States explicit and implicit artistic discourse both in the context of conversation and musical interaction is more limited in breadth but may contain depth I don’t perceive fully yet
More observations on this to come in a couple days too!