December 23, 2010
On my first weekend in Calcutta, luxuriating in the Oberoi Grand, I noticed a colour supplement in the newspapers – Indian tribal art had finally become fashionable, with an artist achieving $31,000 at a Sothebys auction in New York.
TRIBAL ART: I had been collecting this artist – Jangarh Singh Shyam from Madhya Pradesh, since the late 1980’s when I visited the Bharat Bhavan, an exciting gallery/museum complex in Bhopal. It was one of the first to collect contemporary Indian art (which was about to explode) and tribal artists – long marginalised and discriminated against because of their lowly caste status. On my many subsequent trips to India I continued to look for tribal art -I am after all a curator of Aboriginal art in Australia. I collected and exhibited paintings from the Warli tribals who live in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountains (north of Mumbai), Madhubani folk/village paintings from northern Bihar, and later, I was one of the first to arrange exhibitions of Khovar art from southern Bihar. In 1994, Jenny Kee, a famous London/Sydney fashion icon and artist, her boyfriend the late Danton Hughes, and I went on a “tribal tour” of Orissa to remote villages. Adventures included nearly being arrested for photographing near naked tribals at a weekly market high up in the mountains, to Jenny being swept up in a tribal wedding party walking along the road.
When I organized the Australian/Indian Government artists exchange and exhibition at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi in 1999, I ensured that Jangarh Singh Shyam participated joining Aboriginal artist Djambawa Marawili. This was most enjoyable, despite language barriers, and a huge “collaborative” canvas (which had no evidence of any collaboration), is now probably wrapped somewhere in the basement of the Australian High Commission in Delhi! Extremely unfortunately, Jangarh committed suicide while feeling isolated on an artists’s residency in Japan in 2001. His son is now getting recognized for his own art, but unfortunately, other tribal artists I saw this time seemed to be imitating Jangarh’s unique visual vocabulary…
Later in January 2011, I am going to exhibit my collection of Indian art at the Cross Arts Projects, Kings Cross – a small exhibition to mostly work out what to do with it, and enjoy!
MUM: Another adventure I had was with my mother who adored her trip to India in 1990 and was just ecstatic when she rode an elephant. She has long been truly fascinated by elephants which I am only now beginning to fully understand and share in her enthusiasm.
INDIA: I have been asked how different I found India after 10 years – and I didn’t find it very different. What I had forgotten was just how alive Indians are! They are just going for it – often against great odds, and mostly with a smile on their faces. Traffic and queues (and queue jumpers) can of course test one’s patience. There is apparently a huge increase in the middle class and it is good if more people have better lives and greater educational opportunities. The GNP is projected to be 9% for the coming year. Unfortunately, not everyone shares in this wealth, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. I noticed a lot of zippy little new cars and some new flyovers, and some instant suburbs, but basic infrastructure like roads seemed as run down as ever, and many open drains and worrying loose cables.
Many people were fascinated with a recent documentary (Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour) that looked at the slums of Mumbai, where it is expected over 8 million people will live by next year. There is 85% employment in the slums, and most interestingly, a very strong sense of community that has been lost in wider suburbia, and that architects and city planners would like to replicate. I noticed two women sleep on the pavement opposite my hotel each night, probably after a day of sorting garbage, and could only imagine what their lives are like.
80 million children between the ages of 6 and 14 don’t go to school. Over a million schools have no buildings, or one teacher only, or no water or basic amenities.
But again, I can only reiterate my admiration for how well India works…given the challenges and the weight of the population.
READING: I very much enjoyed reading Nine Lives by William Dalrymple. I had previously enjoyed his history of Delhi, The City of Djinns. He is interested in how modern India is impacting on the past and traditions, and looks at nine extraordinary lives, and their religious and spiritual experiences. These include a middle class woman who has found fulfillment living in a cremation ground, and a temple dancer who is worshipped as an incarnate deity for 2 months of the year, but is a prison warden for the remainder. One of the many unique things about India is how, unlike most other cultures, the present is not disconnected from the past. Their mythological stories and epics are renewed, reinterpreted and evolving, with the Ramayan for example, a very popular television serial in the 1980s.
I loved the quote in the book from Shah Abdul Lalif a C18th Sufi master (especially as there was a recent hysterical wave of share-buying in an Indian coal company): “Deal only with things that are good. If you trade coal, you will be covered in soot. But if you trade musk, you will smell of perfume”.
One of my favourite writers is the grumpy but amusing VS Naipaul who I first read when I went to India. I loved his writing as a returning (for the first time) Trinidad-born Indian. An Area of Darkness (1964) – I love the quote, “To be in Bombay was to be exhausted”, and then India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977). Aravind Adiga (The White Tiger) recently wrote that Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) was “so compassionate, so insightful in it’s vision of India as a land that grows through strife” that Indians forgave Naipaul his criticisms and fully embraced him.
Good news is that Vikram Seth is writing A Suitable Girl to be published in 2013!
HOLIDAY READING: Tony Fitzjohn’s Born Wild, David Suzuki’s The Legacy (I like his mantra of “clean air, clean water and clean food”) and familiarising myself with the intelligent and very relevant work of Tim Jackson and Wade Davis, starting with their TED Talks.
COLABA: In Mumbai I rarely leave the beautiful harbour suburb of Colaba, near the now unfortunately infamous Taj Hotel, and the Gateway of India. Although people still sleep in the street there, or camp beside buildings, I did find it rather odd to see in this suburb with some of the most valuable real estate in the world, rather beautiful black and white goats tethered to fences. I then realised that it was Eid-ul-Azha (EID) and they were to be sacrificed. I was extremely upset.
CAMPAIGNS: At the same time I was emailed about Australian sheep being sent to the Middle East, and for EID were also killed cruelly. You can watch a most disturbing report that was recently screened, and to add your voice of protest email the Australian Government, click here. We are complicit in this trade…and these “sacrifices”.
TONY THE TIGER: Update
Whatever your beliefs or indulgences, Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings etc, I hope you have an enjoyable break with your families and pets. I’m most appreciative that many of you find the time to read my blog, and respond and comment – I love your animal stories and photographs! Can I thank many of you for drawing my attention to interesting stories and issues and relevant campaigns. Let’s try to make a difference next year, and I especially want Tony the tiger to be freed! My best wishes for a more peaceful and a more sustainable 2011.
December 4, 2010
I have had a long love affair with India, and had many adventures there. However, I had not been back to India since I organized a cultural exchange and exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings for the Australian and Indian Governments at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi in 1999. Michelle Obama visited the Museum recently and loved it, and I was also very pleased to see it remained one of the great cultural institutions in India.
I had been asked to India by Christine Townend (who founded Animal Liberation in Australia in 1976) to visit two animal shelters she and her husband Jeremy started in the foothills of the Himalayas at Kalimpong and Darjeeling, a “hill station” I had always wanted to visit.
KALIMPONG: Kalimpong Animal Shelter (KAS) was built on an acre of land on the outskirts of the town in 1995. It is an incredibly beautiful setting with lovely trees and views. The various buildings sit discreetly throughout the site – the clinic where people bring their animals, shelters for animals being treated, and a variety of accommodation for the vet and volunteers. After the heat of Calcutta/Kolkata, the temperature was very pleasant.
It can sometimes be exhausting just posting a letter in India, so how Christine and Jeremy Townend have purchased land, built all the facilities, secured funding, and set up and staffed two shelters, leaves me in absolute awe, and I want to help them in any way I can. Most importantly, with their dog programs in Kalimpong where KAS operates, the incidence of human rabies has been almost, if not completely, eliminated. However, in the remote villages rabies remains a serious problem. The ABC (animal birth control program), has resulted in fewer but much healthier dogs.
One day we visited one of the “camps” that KAS routinely sets up in outlying villages where people bring their animals for examinations, treatments, sterilizations and vaccinations. They are advertised in advance, and the vet and staff work all day. In the towns on an ongoing basis KAS catch roaming mangy dogs, treat, spay and vaccinate them, and drop them back where they found them. We went on several lovely walks, and Christine was always on the look out for mangy or neglected and as yet untreated dogs. Many people bring their animals into the clinic, and there is now a much better respect and care for animals.
In India, people outside of the big cities seem to maintain a strong sense of community in their villages which many of us have lost, and they also seem to be less alienated from nature and live in close proximity to their animals, many of which they utilize – goats, cows and farmyard animals and birds. Of course it is easy to romanticize their lives – the splash of brightly coloured saris of the women in the field, but the reality is they work extremely hard for little return, many young people leave for the cities, and lives in the villages seem untouched by the extraordinary economic progress of the last decades.
After a few days in Kalimpong we drove for several hours through spectacular mountain scenery and precipitous tea plantations to Darjeeling. Both towns are perched on ridges and steep inclines, and roads, laneways and alleys are narrow and congested, and many of the people are Nepalese and Tibetan. I read a fascinating book that explained much of the history of this still very contested Northern Frontier region – the biography by Patrick French of the British soldier Francis Younghusband, who amongst many extraordinary explorations and exploits enthusiastically led a not very successful British invasion of Tibet in 1904. The book was a great history lesson on India and Tibet, and the imperial ambitions of Britain, China and Russia.
DARJEELING: The Darjeeling Animal Shelter (DAS) which opened in 2007 is on the outskirts of town, smaller and in a more urban environment, but again, an attractive site with views of the mountains and valleys. It was Diwali (Festival of Lights), and this particular day was Kukur Tihar – Honour a Dog Day – and all the dogs (and cats, so they didn’t feel left out) -were garlanded with marigolds and pink tikas on their foreheads. Isn’t that a beautiful idea and celebration? It was just so gorgeous and I fell in love with several puppies and kittens, most of whom were trying to sit on Christine’s lap at the same time. Again, all the staff were so friendly and the animals so lovingly and beautifully looked after.
HOW CAN WE HELP?: The resident vet is leaving after several years and going to the USA, and Christine and Jeremy Townend will soon need a vet urgently. Does anyone know a vet who would like to volunteer? I can assure them it would be the proverbial experience of a lifetime! The Animal Shelters have the most loyal international supporters and donors. Animaux Secours (Arthaz France) have provided core funding for Help In Suffering (HIS) and KAS since their inception, and One Voice (France) funded the building and running costs of DAS. But any donations are most welcome, indeed necessary! I’m going to make a donation to feed some of the dogs not adopted out that live at the shelters, like three-legged Lolly. To view Christine’s Working for Animals Inc see: www.workingforanimals.org.au .
Christine was Managing Trustee (and later Chair of Trustees) of the HIS Animal Shelter in Jaipur, and she and Jeremy Townend lived and worked there for 17 years. They are now involved in the founding of the HIS Camel Rescue Centre on the outskirts of Jaipur, and I hope to visit next year.
ASSAM: From Bagdogra I flew to Guwahati in Assam to visit the Kaziranga National Park. The well known Wild Grass Resort sent a car to meet me, but I don’t recommend the mad 5 hour drive on a congested National Highway in darkness. The owner of the hotel is interested in many aspects of plant and wildlife conservation, the preservation of local customs and traditions (local villagers dance each night for the visitors), and he is even a poet! His son is writing a PhD at Oxford University on elephant and human conflict. A warning – they don’t take credit cards, and you are a long way from any ATMs!
KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK: Covering 1002 square kilometres, the park consists of beautiful grasslands, wetlands and woodlands. For several days I was driven to the different sections of the park and saw the Indian one horned rhinoceros of which there are several thousand and the park has successfully conserved. I also saw Asian elephants, wild buffalo, swamp deer and rhesus monkeys. There are nearly 500 different birds and the park is a favourite with twitchers. It was extremely pleasant there, but it is hard to compete with the more exotic animals of Africa. However, as part of an Indian experience, it is definitely worthwhile. I have recently been sent a gruesome video of rhinos with their horns hacked off, and poaching in the Park is a great problem. Two poachers were shot dead just after I left.
TIGERS: There are also approximately 30 tigers in the Park, and they are rarely seen. A tiger footprint in the mud was as close as I got to one. It was gratifying to read lately that Leonardo DiCaprio has pledged $1 million to save tigers. There are 39 tiger sanctuaries in India, and 8 more reserves wil be set up over the next 6 months. This comes at a price however. Leopards are usually displaced by tigers, and the Soliga tribal people, for example, who have always lived in the forests sustainably and harmoniously and are not frightened of tigers, are currently resisting offers of compensation to be relocated elsewhere.
CHRISTIAN: Christian’s story is not well known in India, and I only mentioned it once. My young guide was very knowledgeable about animals, and when I said I had been lucky enough to meet George Adamson in Kenya and spend time with him and his lions, he had never heard of George, and was completely uninterested. When I left I gave him my favourite book – Christian the Lion’s scrapbook, and shyly pointed me out, explaining it was 40 years ago. He flipped through it in a desultory way in a few seconds and then, without commenting, rolled it like a newspaper, and that was it! So I still don’t know how Indians would react to Christian’s story – although as many worship Ganesh the Elephant (amongst many other gods), Christian’s story could capture their imagination.
READING: While I was there I reluctantly began reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. My father had always loved him and I wondered what influence, if any, it had had on me and my sister as children. It was riveting – what a storyteller! I was very moved by Mowgli and his adoption then rejection by the wolves, then villagers, and absolutely terrified reading about Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose and his battle with the cobras Nag and Nagaina. I am now very curious about Kipling. I know he spent his early childhood in India, but where did his extraordinary empathy for animals come from?
CLIMATE CHANGE: At first I saw no reference to climate change, now customary in our newspapers. However, over the nearly three weeks I was there, I read references to the need to curb pollution, and for energy and emission efficiency. There were reports about “unscientific” mining and related water contamination, and the bleaching of coral reefs. The recent India International Trade Fair in New Delhi had as it’s theme “energy efficient technologies and green products”.
In Mumbai there was concern and promised government action over the ecological imbalance caused by the destruction of mangroves. There are many animal welfare organisations, and in addition to great concerns about tiger numbers, there is the serious problem of elephant/human conflict, and the number of deaths due to shrinking habitats and the encroachment or blocking of traditional elephant corridors. An elephant was killed and another seriously injured on a railway track where 7 elephants died a few months ago. On a lighter note, Pamela Anderson arrived to appear in Bigg Boss, a controversial reality show. The crowd at the airport “snowballed into a mob” which understandably terrified her. I didn’t realise we were fellow animal activists – she is a vegetarian, is an advocate for PETA and clean water (she brought water filters), and had written to the Prime Minister about examples of cruelty to animals in India.
How India juggles so many such seemingly impossible obstacles so marvellously astounds me – more next blog!