Monday, June 28, 2010

Kolattam Stick Dancers

One of Tamil Nadu's traditional dances is the stick dance known as Kolattam. Derived from the words Kol (meaning small stick) and Attam (meaning play), this dance is typically performed by small groups and combines rhythmic movements, the sound of the sticks, and music. The differences between the girls' performances and boys were quite stark. The way the boys whacked each others' sticks while performing complex moves was quite aggressive - wouldn't want to get hit with a wayward stick!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Milkweeds and Monarchs

Walking along rural roads of Wisconsin during the summer gives one the opportunity to see colorful wildflowers and weeds. Right now, the milkweed is in bloom. Its pink blossoms are attractive to the monarch butterflies who earlier happily munched on the leaves of this plant. The leaves carry a toxin that doesn't hurt the caterpillar, but makes them poisonous to potential predators. In turn, the butterfly also retains that poisonous status. I always enjoyed searching for  the striped caterpillars, placing them in peanut butter jars and carrying them home, watching them form a chrysalis and hopefully emerging as the beautiful monarch.

Wisconsin yellow-lined roads

Back in Wisconsin for the summer, I have a whole different set of flowers to look at and enjoy. Along the country road where I go for walks, these flowers are now in their glory. Yellow lines both edges of the road, accented by purple, white, and pink. A joy to look at.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Other Flora of the Theosophical Society

Besides the Cannonball trees discussed this week, there are other vibrant plants at the Theosophical Society. I'm not sure what this flower is called, but I sure liked its feathery petals and long pistil.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Canonnball Tree Flowers

In addition to the brown fruits resembling brown cannonballs, this tree also bears large, brilliantly-colored flowers. Also growing from stalks extending two to six feet (.6 - 1.8 m) from the trunk, these nectarless flowers are revered by the Hindus who liken the petals to the hood of the Naga - a snake who protects Shiva lingams. It is for this reason that Cannonball trees are grown around Shiva temples. In Sri Lanka, the tree is often planted near Buddhist temples, as it resembles (but is not) the tree species that Buddha passed away and the Buddha Vessabhu received enlightenment.

Other parts of the cannonball tree have been used in their native tropical places for medicinal purposes. The young leaves can ease toothaches, and the juice of the leaves can cure certain skin diseases. The tree is also used to cure colds and stomachaches.

Canonnball Tree

Thanks to my friend Pat (an excellent  blogger and friend who visited me in December), I found out that this tree is actually called the cannonball tree. It is very aptly named for the large, brown spherical fruits that sprout from the trunk of the tree. This native Indian tree is advised to be planted away from main pathways, as the ripe fruit falls to the ground without notice, landing with a loud exploding sound. Inside the fruit are lots of seeds covered by hair, likely making it easier to pass through the stomach of a host. The inside of the fruit can be used to disinfect wounds The fruit of the Nagalingam tree (as it is known in Tamil - the language of the region) emits an unpleasant, strong odor when exposed to air - yet another good reason why one should not plant it close to the main walking areas.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Door to Door Knife Sharpening Service

Need your coconut chopping blade sharpened? Kitchen knives? This man can do it for you. Like the coffee seller and greens vendor, the blades sharpening man wanders through the street, carrying his sharpening wheel seeking customers, announcing his service in Tamil. 

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Construction Crew

Summer is a peak construction season for Wisconsin. During this time, orange barrels, cement trucks, yellow vests and hardhats, tattooed muscled arms, and cranes are common. Not so in India. Here, scaffolding is made from bamboo or narrow rickety poles. Construction crews consist of men wearing lungis and sari-clad women - both of which typically are barefoot, or perhaps wearing flip flops. The only "hat" worn is a wrap of cloth, designed to balance loads of gravel/cement and to soak up some of the incessant sweat. 

Friday, June 18, 2010

Smilin' Sisters

Even older residents like their photos taken. Here we find two sisters in front of their simple home in the slum area of Gandhi Nagar. I love the toothless smile of the older sister - so natural and warm. 

Digital Draw

Bring your camera along in India (particularly a SLR which "looks" like a camera) and you'll likely attract curious onlookers. They are all too eager to have their photo taken. Shoot one photo and show them their picture, and you've become the Pied Piper, with a draw of kids (and some adults) following you, eager to have their photo taken as well. 

This photo was taken in my Adyar neighborhood in Chennai, with my friend Pat being the photographer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Drive-by Shoeping

In Chennai, sidewalks are not for walking. They are for parking one's motorcycle or autorickshaw, sleeping, placing signs of the upcoming political event, begging, and most importantly, setting up shop. On the sidewalk, you can buy fresh fruits, chickens, sheep carcasses, fresh jasmine garlands, get your bicycle tire pumped up, or get your shoes fixed. Here along the shaded walkway by the Theosophical Society, these two enterprising men quickly set up a display of shoes and sandals. You don't even need to leave your motorcycle to buy a pair!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sounds and Sights of Chennai

A shallow plate of strung jasmine, carried by an older woman in a sari. A man peddling a trike with a large bin in back, stopping at garbage bins to find paper to recycle. A customer waiting near the sidewalk, anticipating the refreshing from the coconut being whacked by a large blade. A young woman wearing a salwar-kameez, tennis shoes, and an iPod, taking advantage of the cooler morning by going for a walk. A young child playing next to her grandmother with a shaved head, while the grandfather heats up the coal for his iron. A young woman in a loose dress, pulled forward by the large dog she is walking. Massive prop roots of banyan trees, jutting down into the sidewalk below. Fuscia bougainvillea petals gathering on the small termite mound next to a wall.  A small gathering around the bicycle of the coffee seller, enjoying hot, sweet coffee before throwing the tiny plastic cup on the ground. A rickety-looking bus barreling through, honking its horn for all to get out of its way. An auto-rickshaw swerving from one side of the road to the other and past another vehicle, attempting to get one car length ahead. Laughter on the beach, coming from both the young men already gathered for a game of cricket as well as boys jumping into the surf. Families wading into the shoreline, with the women lifting up their saris to avoid getting wet.

These are a few things I saw this morning while going for a walk. In a little over a day, I'll be in Wisconsin, where the scenes will be replaced with rolling fields of corn and hay, red barns and silos dotting the landscape, strawberries in the garden, and nearly vacant country roads.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Dupatta

While the traditional dress for women of South India would be the sari, the salwar-kameez has become popular throughout India. This pant and tunic ensemble, originally from northern India, is usually accompanied by a scarf known as a dupatta. Made from a length of fabric between 2 1/2 - 3 meters, the dupatta is an indispensable fashion accessory for today's modern Indian woman, worn with both Indian and western-style clothing. In south India, the most common way to wear the dupatta is over the chest, with the tail lengths trailing over the back. Often times it is more gathered together, as shown by the young woman on the right of this photo. When the air conditioner is a bit too high or the temperature drops below 22°C (71°F), the chilled woman can bring the cloth over her arms. Or, the fabric can serve as a slight sun block, mask to cover the face from dust, and much more. Safety pins over each shoulder help prevent the dupatta from flying away - essential if one is riding a motorcycle. The dupatta can also be draped over one shoulder or covering the head - more common in north India.
Dupatta fabric is as varied as Indian textiles used for dresses. It can be printed, embroidered, or plain. The material can be translucent or opaque; lightweight or rather heavy; beaded fringes or straight; stiff or flowing. Typically the dupatta matches the pant in terms of color or pattern. Regardless, the dupatta adds to the already regal look of the modern Indian woman.

This is a photo of two young women in my neighborhood picking through the garbage to find recyclable or usable items. 

In the Skies

Well, with school now officially over, it's time to head for the skies. Tonight, the mass exodus of expats heading out of Chennai and back to their homelands or vacation areas begins. Tomorrow night will be my turn. Looking into the skies over the Theosophical Society as pictured here, perhaps my plane will be spotted...
Upon landing in Wisconsin (many flights later) I know the scene will look very different. No fruit bats, coconut trees, mango trees palms, desert plants, bougainvillea. Plenty of oak trees, apple trees, and all my mom's beautiful flowers.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Coconut-like Tree

Also on the Theosophical Society grounds was this tree. It had coconut-like balls dangling from vines, as well as orchid-like blossoms. Anyone know what it's called?

Theosophical Society Banyan Tree

Perhaps the star attraction of the Theosophical Society here in Adyar, Chennai is the Banyan Tree. One of the largest in the world, it measures over 238 feet from north to south, and 250 feet from east to west. In all, it covers over 59,500 square feet. The first time I visited the Theosophical Society, I left wondering exactly where the tree was, expecting to see a massive trunk. In actuality, I had photographed it, with the tree's many prop roots extending downwards from the branches. Over 3,000 are said to be able to fit underneath this 200 year old tree.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Indian Flying Foxes

Mango season must make these furry creatures very happy. These are the Indian Flying Foxes, also known as fruit bats. I took this photo at the Theosophical Society in Adayar, Chennai, which is very close to my apartment. This one banyan tree alone held hundreds of these mammals. Since it was daylight, I was surprised by how noisy and active they were. Many were flying to and from the tree. Others were flying out in the open, dwarfing the crows in size. These megabats have a bout a 5 foot (1.5 m) wide wingspan, making them one of the largest types of bats. Unlike their smaller cousins, the flying foxes do not get around by echolocation, instead relying on well-developed smell and eyesight. I recall in Mali (West Africa) seeing fruit bats seemingly dive towards the mangoes on a tree in my yard, expertly crashing into the leaves by the fruit and grabbing the mango. The mangoes that were left had gaping holes in them. So much for sharing with us!

Monday, June 07, 2010

Greeting the Couple

After the formalities of the wedding reception, guests had a chance to walk up the stage to congratulate the wedding couple and have photos taken. It was a great opportunity to see the beautiful saris and jewelry the women were wearing. Such a rainbow of color!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

All in a Row

This photo reminded me of a wedding I attended in Mali (West Africa). At that wedding, all the women were congregated together, dancing, talking, clapping, etc. Huddled to one side were the men. In both weddings, the women were dressed in their finest; men - it varied. 

Saw U Player, Chiang Mai

Saw U Player, Chiang Mai, originally uploaded by melissaenderle.

Here's my latest painting, a watercolor of a young girl playing a traditional Thai instrument. Painted on handmade paper.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A Chennai Outdoor Wedding Reception

Last night a number of teachers and I attended the wedding reception of Sweety, a co-worker at AISC. The Christian church ceremony happened earlier that afternoon, so most of us weren't in attendance of that. Being that it was a Friday night, getting to the north side of Chennai took about 45 minutes. We joined some teachers already sitting in plastic chairs near the front. The evening air was still and rather hot. Indian women sat next to each other in their gorgeous saris, with garlands jasmine tied in their hair. Gold hung in abundance around the necks and wrists of women.

After a bit, a processional band entered through the entrance gate, announcing the arrival of the bride and groom. Sweety and her new husband (an agreed-upon arranged marriage) then walked through the carpeted middle aisle, beaming with characteristic wide smiles. Sweety was wearing a beautiful silk sari from Kanchipuram (city in Tamil Nadu), gold jewelry, a tiara, and carried a large bouquet of cascading orchids. Her husband Ezhil wore a suit. Both wore large garlands of flowers around their necks - the same type used in Hindu weddings. Ascending the stairs, the couple sat on the throne in the middle of the stage. Special fans on each side provided a bit of cooling.

Prayers and kind words about the bride or the groom were offered - sometimes in Tamil, and other parts in English. Colored confetti was released in the air as the couple cut the cake, assisted by a special guest of honor. Guests then began lining up to go on stage to meet and congratulate the new couple. The members on stage then had their photograph taken with the bride and groom.

We then went to eat. Seeing that the long narrow tables were presently occupied by people who had just begun eating, we decided to to to the self-serve area. Briyani (a delicately spiced rice dish - this one had meat) and a few other items were placed on the banana leaf on our plate. In typical Indian fashion, food was eaten with the fingers. A dog sat near us, begging for any scraps. A small container of ice cream served as dessert.  After a long day at school, it was time to leave. Thankfully, traffic was a bit lighter, making the ride home shorter.

Congratulations, Sweety and Ezhil!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Backpacks and Braids

Walking home from school today, it was hard not to notice all the giggling girls and smiling boys, all dressed in school uniforms. For girls, the standard issue was a salwar outfit (typically light checkered top and plain pants), and a dupatta (scarf) matching the pants. Hair was shiny and tightly braided, accentuated by bright ribbons - different colors which likely denote grade level. For boys, short sleeved shirts (also light checkered) and solid pants were the uniform. Plain backpacks, "Hello Kitty," Dora, and other cartoon characters were common. Some carried empty lunch containers in plastic mesh baskets. For the local students, June marks the beginning of the new school year. The months of April and May were their summer vacation, avoiding school during the two hottest months of the year - logical, seeing that most schools do not have air conditioning. So as the American International School kids prepare to finish their school year, the local kids are starting theirs. complete with the high academic expectations and rigors so typical of the Indian education system.