None of us got any sleep the night before. Michael was up virtually all night arranging for a taxi that would pick up me and Ali, and then take us to pick up Reena 25 minutes outside the city, and then come all the way back to the train station by 5:15 am. In the US, this is not as much of an organizational event as it was here. When Michael wasn’t on the phone, he was wondering whether it would all work out. In the end, everything came together.
Everyone was up all night packing and being with friends or family one last time before our tour headed out for the rest of the month. And while Ali and I hardly slept with our 3:45 am departure, Ali softened the pre-dawn taxi ride by singing Afghan songs all the way to Reena’s.
A little bit about Reena: she is a volunteer at Gandhi Smriti (the place where Gandhi last lived and was assassinated). Just as this is my first trip to India, this is Reena’s first time leaving her parents for longer than a few days although she is over 21 years old – quite typical situation for girls. This is also only her second time performing in a play. Her parents were very concerned that she be well taken care of and I feel determined to live up to their expectations. Her mother cried in the early-morning darkness as Reena said goodbye and got into the taxi.
The train ride was a great idea. As it pulled out of the Delhi station, I had a keen sense of the adventure we were about to embark on together and I was flooded with precious memories from my past: first time riding a bicycle, first plane trip across the Atlantic, first day of class at Dell’Arte.
Ali and I wrote commemorative poems (in English - Thanks Ali!):
From a red shard of moon and a sleepless night,
God’s eye burns through the milky morning haze.
Together we fly faster than the birds,
protected by a mother’s tears.
Roses in our hair,
buttered bread in our bellies,
napping content as cats,
we head off to a land of new songs.
There is no other feeling like the beginning.
We wear fresh excitement for the beautiful future,
which stretches in front of us like the train tracks.
-- Sarah, Delhi to Lucknow, March 2, 2008
"A trip to my heart"
Let your beautiful eyes see all these beauties
Look at the romantic sun
It smiles on you
I love her golden hair
Around her beauty face
Let your soul feel all these joys
The trees outside the train
Want you to smile
To hug and to hold in their arms
Can you tell me why we can’t feel these natural happinesses
Yes. Because we don’t seek it around us.
Sarah, still I hear your voice and your violin’s voice
I feel your mixed in fogs
And your music too
Have this phrase in your mind forever
When we think beauty, when we see beauty and when we travel beauty so everything will be beauty for us.
-- Ali, Delhi to Lucknow, March 2, 2008
We saw the beautiful Indian countryside and got to spend some time together – arriving in Lucknow about six hours later, where members of Nisarg (Nature) Theater group – our hosts – helped us get all our many bags to the Executive Guest House where we are staying for the two-week visit.
Just a small bit about Lucknow: it’s known a City of Culture and I am told it is a center of the Hindi language. It was the home base of the Muslim kings of ancient history (Nawabs they were called). Many buildings are crumbling beauties, worn out from the heat and humidity. There are extremely modern, shiny glass buildings too. And then right near those, people live in tents and shacks and make fires every night to cook. The contrast sends me on a reverie on the adaptability and resilience of humanity.
We have had a jam-packed week and I very much look forward to further exploration next week.
Our first order of business was a performance in the village of Shram Vihar – a dusty slum area near the train station. Though we felt, as a cast, a bit shaky with new adjustments to the show, the community watching clearly had a very good time. Here is a first – in the middle of the show, a small herd of goats walked across the “stage” followed by a little old woman who looked a bit aggravated that we decided to play in her goat path. The goats were nonchalant. We stayed after to have chai with members of the village. It was pretty great to be there.
The next day we performed for and met the participants in our next workshop in a rural village of Dewa, about 45 minutes outside the city of Lucknow. In this community there is no electricity, and the people live in brick shelters.
The workshop was organized by Nisarg along with a group called Insaani Biradari and its leader named Adyog. The 30 or so girls came from different villages and Adyog told us that, of the girls there, only three had permission from their fathers. Their mothers knew about and supported their interest to learn about theater and how to use theater for education, but from their fathers and brothers it had to be hidden. The fathers want to preserve what they see as the only appropriate role for women: They must stay in the home and care for the family, far away from exposure to the outside world.
Despite all this - these girls are like smart girls anywhere. They are brave, silly, shy at times, and surprisingly not shy at others.
I ducked out of the workshop to peak at the village one afternoon. As I walked up the narrow dirt road between homes - one child up the way pointed and yelled to about 6 other children who came out to look at me, along with I think their mother. I took their picture and we all had a good laugh at it. These kids don’t see their own image frequently and digital cameras produce some amazement.
I also saw a group of men and women digging the red dirt out into a pile (I imagine for bricks). And several happy cows. And a man and woman puffing rice over a fire – the man shook and stirred this wok-type pan while the woman added grass to the fire, they moved the rice from two gigantic piles – from the raw pile to the puffed pile. They called me over and GAVE me a little bag of it! I couldn’t believe it! I ate it for breakfast all week.
It is such a beautiful place. The people are tough looking. A little on the gnarly side. In utter contrast are the girls of the workshop! The girls are beautiful and seeing the tough skin and thinness of the other villagers, it makes them seem even more astounding. I know they will take what they’ve learned in the workshop to enrich the lives of everyone around them. And what are they learning? How to express themselves freely with confidence, without shyly covering their mouth or putting their head down. To stand boldly and make a statement, or sing a song, or say their name out loud. To feel like a whole person.
This week I have come to love the car ride to Dewa and back, during which we plan for the workshops, discuss how workshops went, and communicate about upcoming events. It was during one of these rides that Shafiq laughingly pointed to one of the many brick kilns off in the distance and said, “You see that? That is a well that they are drying out. They take them out of the ground, and air them out for a while then put them back into the ground. It purifies the water!” Always joking! He also said when he reached for one grape and got a big bunch, “God loves me!” Ha! What a great spirit he has. We were all very sad that he had to return to Kabul for his work with the BBC.
I must mention that also this week we did evening workshops for members and affiliates of Nisarg. These were performers who work doing social theater, who will be able to directly apply what we taught to their own projects. Again the topic of the state of women came up! The first day, Joanna pointed out that of the 40 actors, only three were women. I guess I'm a bit of an American post-feminist. I want to assume men and women are equal and avoid making an issue of it, so I was nervous for how the group would react to the comment. Boy, they had great things to say. Families do not support a woman’s interest in theater. There are certainly many well-known female theater artists, but for most people, the idea is impossible to swallow. One young man said that there is a lot of lip service given to supporting women who want to be involved in theater, but then no one wants their own sisters or daughters to make that choice and that the men must start following through with what they say they believe, which is that there should be equality for women. And Joanna said they could also be more sensitive about making an environment where women feel comfortable to do something that is both new and socially unaccepted. I was grateful that Joanna brought up the topic. I am cracked open. I see these three women, and Reena, my excellent roommate and co-performer with even deeper appreciation.
I have also learned this week what it is like to be given the space and time to grow as a workshop facilitator. I led some workshop sessions that I wish had better transitions or more inspiring explanation, but no one criticized my work, and in fact all were very supportive. I appreciate the space and trust the team gives each other, especially to Ali and I as we step into leading workshops for people who do not share our native language.
Other bits: Shaheen from Dewa teaching me to write my name in both Urdu and Hindi, taking a 24 hour fast with Reena in celebration of Shivratre on Wednesday and getting applauded by the whole Nisarg workshop when they found out, learning about Rosa, the month-long Muslim fast, which will be in October this year, Sangeeta, the assistant manager of the Executive Guest House taking me on her moped to the mall! Having a dance party with Reena along with the Indian music video station on TV.