Sunday, August 15, 2010


Chennai was our very first stop in India, and I thought I'd take a moment to list some quick impressions and surprises. Also, there will be some photos, because Tarina has asked for them.

--ornamentation: On cars, on humans, on doorways, folks here are really good at adding color and character to the everyday. I particularly like the designs made of flour that are drawn out on the sidewalk in front of a home to protect it through the day. I think someone told me they are called kolom, but I have no idea if I've remembered that right.

--jasmine: Many women wear jasmine garlands in their hair, and drivers sometimes hang jasmine garlands from their windshield. Pushed up against someone on the bus yesterday, I found it a welcome scent.

--dress: Before I got here I thought that saris would be more for dress-up rather than everyday. Not so! Almost every woman I see is dressed in a sari, and a few in salwar kameez, and all in very bright, vivid colors. I am struck by how plain and colorless my garb is by contrast. Even the women cleaning the theater and sweeping the floors with long twig brooms were wearing beautiful saris.

--hair: I also feel like the only woman in all of India with short hair. Will this change when I get to Mumbai and Delhi?

--markings: I expected bindhis and red dots on the foreheads of married women, but I didn't expect the metallic markings some men wear, including a man I saw on the street with three lines radiating out from his third eye, or the gold smudge that glowed from the forehead of the man in charge of lighting at our theater.

--bobble heads: It took me a while to get used to this very Indian head movement, a kind of side-to-side wobble of the head that indicates the listener is hearing you, but that I first took as a kind of annoyance or signifier that what I was asking for was impossible.

--language: My ignorance of the diversity of India was pretty astounding. (I still know very little, but I'm learning.) There are so many languages here! In Chennai the theater technicians all spoke Tamil, with someone there to help translate for me, and here in Hyderabad it's Telugu and Urdu. But even that makes it sound more streamlined than it actually is. Most Indians speak two or three tongues in addition to Hindi or English.

And now, some pictures, accompanied by guest commentary from Mike!:

View from our hotel room. I feel like this illustrates the nature of luxury in India--when it exists, it exists in islands, and the state of one's surroundings makes it clear the vast differences that exist right next to each other. Perhaps this is why the hotels try to be more like fortresses, locking the luxury in and the squalor out.

A roadside shrine. These are everywhere, and the colors are intense--the ones with huge Ganeshes are my favorites.

A comparatively calm street scene in Chennai. I love the retro seventies filter on this, achieved accidentally by the polarization on the US Consulate vehicles we were riding in.

The 1200 seat venue is fascinating. Filled with mosquitoes during the performance, it was a great space nonetheless. The outside is dominated by corporate sponsors and food stalls that makes the event of the show have some of the feel of a street fair and a car show combined.

Me posing next to an image of myself. This started a furious round of picture-taking.

Talking with folks after the show. The performance was extremely well received--Indians, it turns out, love to hear someone who knows very little about their culture provide insights into their fundamental natures. The fact that Foxconn has factories in Chennai doesn't hurt, either--it really makes globalism feel like a real presence, instead of just a dry business concept.

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