The Streetplay group

One day about two weeks ago I was walking by the outdoor chalk notice board at the main circle of Ferguson College and there was a message written that said “Streetplay auditions, 11:30.” I decided to go and check it out, and after almost a half hour of searching (there wasn’t a location posted) I managed to find the Sociology Club. It turns out they were putting on a play about water privatization; given that I help lead an initiative to get Macalester to stop selling bottled water on campus I was really excited to get involved (you can read an op-ed I wrote on the issue of bottled water in the US here).

Our performance at Ferguson College- forming a graph representing increasing GDP from bottled water

I tried out for the play, and got in (it was more of an if you would like to participate you can kind of thing). I was a bit surprised on the first day of rehearsal that a streetplay here is a rather different from what we think of the in the U.S. They involve a good bit of singing and really animated. They are created to educate the general public about a given issue, so have to engage with the audience wherever they are performing, which makes it a lot of fun.

The contest is Sponsored by the Pune Rotary Club The play, called “Paniless Panipur” (a waterles village call Panipur) is about some college students who have to do a required (“so boring”) project where they go to a village, named “panipur” or water rich (pani is water in Hindi). They find that the people have no water to drink because a large corporation came in and installed a bottled water factory. Then there is a flashback to a politician who promises the villagers lots of good water resources if he is elected. He then makes a deal with a business executive (who I play!) to give her all the water resources if she will help him win the election.  A bottled water plant is installed and the villagers then run out of the water. The  students end the play by staying that we shouldn’t drink bottled water, safe drinking water is everyone’s right and we need to fight for it.

Me shaking hands with the politician

In addition to getting to learn a few lines in Hindi (which I thought I pulled off quite well!) I got a chance to meet a great group of students from Ferguson College though the play. There were in all different years, doing both undergraduate and graduate degrees. The play was student written and directed, and they really did a great job. Of all the things I’ve done in India so far getting to spend time with other students has probably given me the most insight into Pune, as well as being a lot of fun.

Getting ready for the performance

Although we performed the play once at Ferguson College it was created for an inter college competition of streetplays put on by the Pune Rotary Club. We performed it this afternoon at a park along with 7 other plays, in just one of the three days of plays going on.  It was really interesting seeing the other plays, which dealt with issues including corruption, terrorism, traffic, hygiene and farmer suicide- lots of current issues in Indian society. They are performed in the round, and several were rather difficult to hear because of the crowd. I think ours was one of the better ones, but we find out on Sunday or Monday how we did- I’ll let you know! You can also see a video of the final performance here.

The final performance

I was so excited to find that young people care about some of the issues I’ve been working on in the states in India. These guys understood the problems associated with bottled water and were doing something about it, in a way that was productive and fun. It gives me hope in way that is a lot more real then learning about some of the great initiatives India has going on in class.


Ellora and Ajanta Caves

View of a minaret in the Daulatabad fortress complex, built in the 11th century

This weekend we got a chance to visit the Daulatabad Fort, and the Ellora and Ajanta Caves.

Daulatabad is a fortress built between 1,000 and 1,400ad  century by the Mughals, and briefly served as the capitol of India in the 1300s. The fort is built on top of a hill and was basically impenetrable. One first goes though a series of outer walls and gates to where the town used to lie.

Beautiful scenery from the fort

There are several temples, wells (as part of an entire irrigation system), a mosque etc as you go up to the fort. You then cross over both a dry and wet mote to get to a series of “dark passageways” or pitch black tunnels which used to confuse the enemy into killing each other or falling into the mote, before you can reach the hill the fort actually stands on.

A view of the fort on the hill with members of our group

It was rather scary but incredibly fun walking though the tunnels, which had more bats then I had ever seen hanging form the ceiling. We unfortunately didn’t have time to reach the top but it was still a spectacular view.

Paintings at the Ajenta caves- they plastered the chiseled stone with a mix of mud and cow dung to make it smooth

We then went on to the Ajanta caves, famous across the wold for the beautiful cave paintings done by Buddhist Monks. The caves were built between 200BC and 600AD by Buddhist monks, artists and the surrounding townspeople.

A Buddhist temple- originally they did not worship Idols, this practice was taken on from Hindhuism. The sphere represents the universe, the box on top would contain relics of Buddha,

They were carved top down into the rock using chisel and hammers. After the 600s the caves were covered with vegetation and lost to civilization for over 1000 years until they were apparently found by the British while hunting a tiger.The caves were built in a beautiful horseshoe shaped valley along a river. Its amazing that despite water damage and animals these paintings have lasted over 2,000 years in some cases.

A BuddhistTemple- the acoustics are incredible, we all chanted ohm and the echo lasted for at least four full seconds

Last we went to the Elora Caves- built first by Buddhist, then by Hindus and Janes from the 500s till about 1,000AD. Some of these caves were huge, with three stories, all carved out of solid stone in the side of a hill.

Caves at Elora

These caves are known for their incredable rock carvings rather then paintings, and were used as temples until the Independence of India from the British.

Me in the main topless temple

The highlight was the main temple, which was a giant complex carved out of the rock- the entire complex was planned out before hand and carved from the top down- incredible.

Three story monastery where monks used to stay as well as meditate and pray

Another highlight of the trip was getting some great street food- from a drink of pure sugarcane and lime juice to roasted corn on the cob with spices and salt to butter roti (flat bread) and I haven’t gotten sick yet (although I don’t want to jinx it!). Coming up I’m looking foreword to the performance of the streeptplay I’m in (I have 3 lines in Hindi!) and a visit to a tribal village in rural Maharashtra.

The main temple

Ganpati Bappa – Morya

The Ganpati idol, along with his two sisters and large amounts of food offerings at our cook's house, in a poor neighborhood near our house

The internet was being slow but I’ll try and add more pictures soon!

The first of the festivals I’ll experience in India is Ganpati. This is a Hindu festival celebrates the God Ganesha, also known as Ganpati, who brings knowledge and stability.

People will buy Ganpati Idols, hold Arti ceremonies in which Sanskrit prayers are chanted and you move a candle in a circle in front of the Idol.

The food offered at our cooks house- so incredible!

Special foods are made and offered to the God. The ceremony goes on for 10 days, at the end of which you immersed the Ganpati idol in the river. Our hosts only kept the idol for 1.5 days,  but different households will keep their idol for different lengths of time. About a 150 years ago a group of freedom fighters (Indians working to overthrow the British Rule) made this festival a public affair. Today there are thousands of public idols placed in giant stands around the city. One the last day, which was this past Sunday, the idols are taken in a giant 24 hour procession from their places around the city to the river to be immersed.

Me participating in the Arti cerimony

I got to participate in a couple stages of the festival. Becca and I got to play mini cymbal like instruments at the arti in our house. We then got to visit the Gampati idol of the cook, who lives in the semi-slum area behind our apartment building. It was incredibly interesting to see inside this community. The houses are quite permanent, and although our cook didn’t have running water she lived in a two story house, where each floor was basically one large room divided into two sections. She has one of the most incredible kitchens I’ve ever seen and made us some amazing curry rice and stuffed piranhas (flat bread with a sweet filling, cooked on the stove).  She and her family had a built a large step-like pedestal for their Ganpati with tons of delicious food put out for offering (all the food is eaten after it is offered to the God) (see picture to the right).  Becca and I actually got to hold the plate with the candle and participate in the Arti (see picture to right).

Awesome Rangoli (pictures made out of color powder mostly by women) on the street

People and the procession for the end of Ganpati

Throughout these 10 days music would periodically be blasting by out house, either from the speakers at the restaurant right next to our building or from Ganpati processions going down the street. It was a little disconcerting to hear Justin Beiber and Low at club volume in our room while trying to do homework, but this was nothing compared to the final Ganpati procession.

This Sunday we went down to the main procession. Before the procession started women made amazing Rangoli, or drawings made out of color powered in the streets (see pictures to the right). They really were amazing.

Walking though the crowd to get to a viewing spot

While I have been in a lot of crowded places in my life this was really incredible. Our group had to hold each others shoulders and walk/push though single file to make sure we didn’t get separated. We got orange headbands that said “Ganpati Bappa – Morya”. Traditionally when you are carrying the idol to be immersed someone will shout “Ganpati Bappa” to which the crowd responds “Morya.” This happened constantly throughout the day. The Ganpati festival embraces all cultures, a lot of Muslims participate and everyone in the crowd had really great energy.

Dancing in the parade!

In addition to the Ganpati idols the procession has teams of drummers. There were some smaller timpony sort of drummers beat rapidly with plastic wand looking flexible sticks. But the main drums were much deeper.  It seemed to me that they took big plastic or metal barrels and put a skin on both sides to make giant drums. Probably close to 50 or 60 were then beat in unison along with a giant gong type of metal plate that was hit to an accompanying beat. You could feel the beats going though your body and it was really incredible to watch. In between the drummer sections of the parade people were dancing, so we got a chance to join in which was really fun!

Overall it was an incredible experience and I’m really glad I went.

A Ganpati idol in the procession

School Week 1

The front of the Program Center

Now that I have better internet access I’m trying to catch up from the last two weeks. At this point I’m done with my first week of classes down. I am taking Contemporary India, Environmental Perspectives, Development Economics and Public Health. I have been quite impressed with the professors so far, they all seem knowledgeable and engaging, and I think I will actually learn quite a bit about these subjects, and a lot about India. While I’ve often heard about the American Education system being one of the best in the world I am truly impressed at the level of scholarship these professors have displayed. We also have an awful lot of reading to complete before the end of October, when our classes end and our Internships start.

Outside of the classroom I already feel like I am getting to know Pune a little bit better. Highlights of the week included trying a variety of different Indian food when getting lunch around Fergison college each day, bartering for several nice pieces of Indian clothing (although haven’t yet gotten the hang of making sure I have matching tops and bottoms), walking though a small informal housing area right near my school (its amazing the contrasts you see literally feet apart), successfully getting to and from home to a restaurant in rickshaws and participating in an Arti ceremony for Ganpati.

A typical Idol of the God Ganesh, brought into homes for Ganpati

This Thursday was the start of a 10 day festival, Ganpati, for the God Ganesh, it has been really interesting to watch and I’ll write more about it after we get to witness some of the final processions next weekend.

It has rained almost non-stop for last 24 hours here, and the incredible flow of water rushing down the street in front of our apartment building I’m really starting to understand the term ‘monsoon. Uncle took Becca and I down the river to see the flooding- they are releasing water from the dams about 20km to the north, none of the city has been flooded yet but several slum settlements are underwater. It was really interesting to see, below are some pictures.

Flooding of the River

See the steps on the side that would typically lead to a walking path along the river

The view of upriver

Earlier this week we also got a chance to explore some of the other Indian arts forms we had a chance to learn. Unfortunately, I accidentally deleted all my pictures of the performances we saw (I’m really bummed!) but will try and put in some examples. While Becca (my roommate) and I am planning to take a morning yoga class (and by morning I mean 5:45-6:45am) with Aunty, the Alliance program has an ‘expressive culture’ component where they let you take 15 classes of an Indian art form. In addition the entire group also gets to take Bhangra lessons, a form of Indian dance. Earlier this week we had a demonstration of several of the different classes we could take. It started out with an overview of Indian music- it was really interesting but as the man who was leading the lecture said, Indian music tends to put people to sleep…

Next we saw a really spectacular man doing Bharatnatyam dance. Traditional Indian dance is very different from most western dance, in that it uses a language of symbols made with your hands, body and facial expressions, to convey meaning. The dancer also uses facial expression in a much more deliberate way then most western dances I’ve seen. They were able to make the most incredible stomping noises with their feet, and hold difficult poses balancing on one leg with incredible eases.

Traditional Tabla Drums

We then heard Tabla player; table in the Indian context a set of two traditional Indian drums. The music we heard was set to a 16 rhythm beat, with a single undertone, within which the player can improvise using a large number of drum ‘syllables’. Next we heard a Shehnai Player, this is a traditional and ‘auspicious’ instrument played at temples and weddings. It is a double reed instrument, like an Obo or the bagpipes, shaped somewhat like a recorder which produces incredibly rich tones. We were told that Indian music sticks to one base note that is traditionally played throughout the song on a tambura, but now produced by an electronic synthesizer; music doesn’t change keys. The music also only plays one note at a time, there are no harmonies. It was really cool to hear. Lastly was saw Kathak, another form of dance. It used much more subtle gestures then … and was much faster with a lot more foot work. The woman was able to produce all kinds of sounds using her feet, and was incredibly graceful and beautiful. I don’t know what I’ll end up taking but it was all really cool.

Overall all’s well in India. Watch out for more updates on: eating with your hands, “It is auspicious” and the Ganpati festival.


After landing in Mumbai all the Alliance students met up at a hotel where we spent the night, before heading out to a forest lodge for a three day orientation to India and the alliance program. All of the people I’ve met here have been really nice and everyone is excited to be in India. The ‘lodge’ was built by an Indian couple as place for youth and families to get out of the city and experience nature though adventure sports. They only employ local people at their lodges, and have done their best to re-habilitate the land that they have built upon.

Trekking to a rural village during orientation

We spent most of the days going over the expectations of the program, what our schedule will look like, Indian customs and culture, safety etc. One of the heads of the program gave us a fascinating lecture on Anna Hazare, who fasting for 12 days to pressure the Indian government to pass a Lock-Pal bill (a people’s bill againts corruption). The entire nation seems to have been swept up in the ordeal.

We got to go on a ‘trek’ to a village. It was raining but the landscape is incredibly beautiful. We saw a lot of rice patties, a 50 foot deep well, and even got to try carrying water on our heads which is incredibly difficult despite the grace of the women we saw. We were also introduced to some Indian games that women apparently play, one was rather like jacks, the one I liked most involved two people crossing arms and holding hands and then spinning around really fast. I can’t imagine this is something people do on a regular basis, but it was really fun, both to try and to watch. We also got to see a Bollywood Movie with Shahrukh Kan, one of the most famous Bollywood stars. The movie was quite modern, about the Indian girl’s field hockey team who wins the world cup (I’m pretty sure it’s fictional), and didn’t have any singing or dancing, but I liked it.

Last Friday we finally got to Pune and met our host families. I’m staying with another girl on the program, Becca, with a couple whose children are in the US. They have asked us to call them Aunty and Uncle, and have hosted a number of Alliance students before. They have really welcomed us into their home and I feel incredibly comfortable here.

Driving around Pune in a Rickshaw

Pune is a large city, but a lot less hectic then Delhi. The program pairs students with an Indian buddy, so Saturday Becca and I’s took us around Pune. Riding in Rickshaws is quite fun, although when its raining (as I think it will be doing here until the end of September) it can be rather wet. We got a chance to see Pune university and some of the major markets. Pune is particularly busy as this Thursday is the festival of the God Ganesh, which is particularly celebrated in the state of Maharashtra where I am. They take idols of the God (who has an elephant head) and submerge them in the river. There were large temples and idols being constructed all over the city, and I’m excited to see my first festival.

One of the things I am learning most about is Indian food, which is really wonderful. Indians eat most food using only their right hand; they use their right hands for most everyday things, the left hand is considered dirty as it is generally used for toilette functions, so you use your left for silverware and glasses etc. Its surprising how difficult this can be, especially when you’re left handed, but I’m starting to get the hang of it. I really love the food, it’s incredibly flavorful and I haven’t found anything to spicy for me to handle yet.

Making a slightly different type of flat bread we eat at every meal, its just flour and water!

Aunty is a wonderful cook, and she is showing Becca and I how the things she makes are made. I was incredibly impressed at her skill making Roti- one type of flat, round Indian bread. She gets them to be perfectly circular and toasted just right. We also got a chance to watch one of their helpers make Bhakari, which is just flour and water dough rolled into flat round, that if you do it right poufs up when heated in a pan over the stove (see picture). Indian food uses an incredible variety of grains, many of which I’d never heard of before. As most food isn’t processed and cooked fresh at home its seams really healthy as well as delicious.