Christian James '14: The Past 8.5 Months: Joyous, Trying, Disheartening, Inspiring, and Freeing

Christian James was the 2014-2016 Shansi Fellow at Jagori Grameen. This is his first year narrative.

Transcribed from my personal diary: an entry from 12/25/2014

“ कोलकता –

never before have I felt British India, about which I have been reading in Paul Scott’s novels, so close to the surface of my environment. It may be that the experience of Christmas has a special effect of emphasizing the history of British Raj, but it is an emphasis on its permanence, which only two hundred years of direct rule could establish:

December 2014: Shown here are one of the cover bands, playing away at the Kolkata Christmas festival

As I have written the above passage, I have been sitting in a small park (could my eyes deceive me in reading its name – Allen?) under the influence of amateur jazz players, strolling away to bland interpretations of Paul Desmond and Miles Davis compositions. “Kolkata Christmas Festival.” I’m tired. I’ve been uncharacteristically rude to panhandlers—but then there are more of them in this city than I’ve encountered before.”

While I struggled to connect my newfound understanding of the social nuances of English communities in India during the late 1930s and 40s (the topic of 20th-century Novelist Paul Scott’s critically acclaimed Raj Quartet, which I finished reading in January) to the distressingly apparent yet dialectically evasive form of cultural oppression that I can thus far only think to label as “commercial imperialism,” a pigeon, perched high up in a tree, performed the boldly gracious gesture of commenting on my intellectual endeavors by projecting into my diary the only substance that could further soil this medium in which I routinely record my most intimate thoughts. At first confused by the interruption, then shocked at the sheer probability, I found my surprise unmet with any interest from my neighbors: some of among two thousand people reportedly enjoying that sunny Christmas afternoon in Allen Park. In retrospect, I now recognize the indifference, with which these people interpreted the physical anomaly of pigeon shit falling what may have been fifty feet and landing neatly onto the above words as I wrote them, as a reflection of my own mental detachment from both my social environment and my identity in relation thereto. By attempting to draw some bloated philosophical connection between the creative recollections of a dead British army veteran and my own discontent towards the capitalistic media through which religious holidays are so often celebrated, I was only retreating further inward, diving myself deeper into a cis-male, white, English-language perspective.

All my extant attempts to carry out Shansi’s mission at least lead to one unerring suggestion: only a critical awareness of this perspective—that of my own inalterably powerful identity—can enable me to engage in meaningful cultural exchange in South Asia.

August 2014: A nice view of the mountains from Rakkar. The building furthest to the right is on of the buildings owned by Ghoomakad.

Nothing short of the most enriching—the most joyous, trying, disheartening, inspiring, free—of experiences have characterized the past eight and a half months. Naturally, the place where I live and work serves as the setting for most of these experiences. A small, not-so-remote village in the heart of the Himalayan foothills, Rakkar can easily be described as a place of staggering cultural diversity; considering the dimension of class, language, ethnicity, education, age, and profession, I am unable to count the permutations of the collective backgrounds of those people I have come to know. Although undoubtably a unique place, Rakkar is not an atypical example of the degree of diversity that may be found in any one place in India. Only by traveling across the country have I come to some understanding, however superficial, that each place in India has its own unique formation of deeply-layered cultural variety. Due to the unceasing nature of NGO work, I have as yet only once indulged in this opportunity (from which I drew the anecdote that opens this report), wherein I took three weeks to travel by train to the distant states of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu over Christmas and New Year. So this report attempts to narrate experiences within two kinds of density—one of space (the density of experiences possible within the village of Rakkar and its immediate surroundings) and the other of time (the density of experiences from my short trip across the country)—as a means to illustrate the need I have described for a critical awareness of my situation within spectra of power that qualify systems of oppression.

December 2014: A picture of my some of my English students—one of the days Elaine came to visit. Those pictured include (from left to right): Manisha, Shivali, Monu, Elaine, Vandana, Monika, and me, Christian!

During my first four months at Jagori, my work with the organization comprised of shadowing and participating in many of the organization’s workshops and public events, as well as teaching English classes three times a week. I taught two course sessions, each one roughly two months in duration, which involved a commute to the nearby town of Khanyara. The first of these courses aimed at providing field-specific English skills to students at a nearby college of food service and production, where they conducted an accelerated diploma course in response to support from Jagori’s youth livelihood initiatives. So, over the course of this supplementary class, I formed a small repertory of lesson plans surrounding topics of food service. As a transition from this into the next course, which involved group English lessons for some of Jagori’s employees stationed in Khanyara, I decided to break the ice with a lesson that involved this vocabulary within the context of a unit on questions in simple present tense.

6 March 2015: This picture shows (from left to right) Gurleen, Prakram, and I at their home. At the time, we were celebrating Holi, also known as the festival of colors. What a blast! Photo courtesy of Gurleen.

Considering that I had been happily subsisting on the local fare of chapattis, dal made from various kinds of beans and lentils, rice, many kinds of curried vegetables, and sweets of assorted colors and contours (working at the food service college had provided at least one penitential benefit: a very elaborate lunch three times a week), I had the idea to introduce my new students to food from my daily life back in the U.S. I found it difficult to come up with something that my seniors at Jagori would be challenged to identify and that would fit everyone’s dietary needs (many are vegetarian, which excludes eggs as well as meat in India). Most vegetarian-friendly foods that I would identify as American appeared already widely known and available to buy in some form nearby. In the end, I decided on oatmeal; it seemed unlikely that most people would have gone out of their way to try such an unassuming breakfast food, and I could vary the dish with different spices, dried fruit, nuts, and other garniture.

December 2014: A group of Baul singers, whose identity is unknown to me, performing at the Poush Mela in Shantiniketan, West Bengal.

On the morning of our first class, I gathered all the necessary ingredients into a pot and caught the morning bus to Khanyara. I arrived at the office just in time to cook my oatmeal on the electric hot plate—one of few amenities to the modest kitchen designed for preparing tea and simple refreshments. Having ensured that it had attained the right consistency, I brought the pot of oatmeal into our classroom and invited each of my six co-workers present, in English, to take some oatmeal, provided that they would like to try it. Some refused, but most reluctantly allowed me to serve them a moderate spoonful. Although everyone’s reactions conveyed something less than satisfaction, the rest of the lesson went fairly well and all were able to engage in a discussion about the oatmeal, its ingredients, how it’s made, etc. Following the end of the lesson, I took the liberty of eating what was left in the pot; people had taken less than I had anticipated, and some even left most of the oatmeal on their plate unfinished. After a couple of bites, I realized that the oatmeal tasted strange, different than I had expected. It tasted—burnt.

As it turned out, the burnt oatmeal incident was a classic case of ‘correlation ≠ causation’. At first, I was sure that the reluctance of my co-workers in Khanyara had resulted from oatmeal being an unfamiliar food, and that the peculiar taste would make them less willing to try the food I would prepare for lunch (cooking is a passion of mine, and team members nearly always insist on sharing their packed lunches at midday). It became clear to me later on that all my co-workers share this reluctance to some degree, and that people often appeared more willing to share in my food when I had prepared something familiar that they particularly like (popular dishes include dal from red kidney beans and gajar matar—curried carrots and peas). In retrospect, I believe that people have been disinclined to share my food because of my gender and age. On most days, people would ask me who prepared my food, and when I would respond with “I made it myself,” people would appear very surprised (“you made it yourself ?!”), and usually proceed by declining my offer to share it with them. I interpret such surprise as resulting from the anomaly of a young man my age preparing his own lunch. I now understand that most male-assigned volunteers make arrangements for someone in the village (invariably an older woman) to pack their lunches. Eventually, I decided that others may find it easier to relate with me if I follow this convention. Although I take pride in my ability to independently sustain myself, I have found it easier to connect with people over lunch since I began in March to pay Dr. Kusum—one of Jagori’s regular leasers for short-term volunteers and a well-respected member of the community—to prepare food for me.

24 December 2014: Pictured here are the Hajras, the family with whom I stayed for three days in Shantiniketan, posing by one of their beautiful mud-brick houses, part of a resort they run as a family business.

One beautiful day in November, while enjoying the walk back to Rakkar from my English class at Jagori’s Knowledge Centre in Khanyara, a young man on a motorcycle stopped to speak with me. I identified him as Vishal, an intriguing guy from Rajasthan via Delhi, whom I had met once before at a place called Ghoomakad. One of Rakkar’s many diversifying assets, Ghoomakad is a eco-friendly group home-stay that also serves as a studio and “hackspace” for Infinity Hackbase, a group of young designers and computer programmers that host events and workshops on experimenting with technology. I have had the pleasure of meeting many interesting people there, among them both long-term residents and short-term visitors. Vishal is one of Ghoomakad’s early residents following its establishment nearly three years ago, and has since moved into the village to live with his wife Lili, who comes from France. Vishal asked me if I would like to join him for tea at his house, which I gratefully accepted.

While the the three of us were enjoying each other’s company that day, Vishal invited me to feel comfortable coming to his house at any time, announced or unannounced, telling me that I would always be welcomed there. While I was deeply moved by the sincerity of his invitation, Vishal also introduced me to several other families of more local origin with whom I now share the same kind of familiarity. I am grateful to Vishal for his explicit description of what I now understand as a fairly ubiquitous definition of friendship among those born and raised in this general area.

Vishal and Lili are just two of many people in this village and its immediate surroundings that could not be accurately described as ‘local’ people. Many are attracted by the area’s proximity to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but everyone also has their own unique reason. My friend Gurleen, for example, moved here over two years ago from Mumbai with her husband Prakram, who was born and raised in Dharamsala. I met Gurleen while volunteering for the annual Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF) at the end of October, and she and Prakram have since also become very dear friends to me. They are culturally unique among my friends in Himachal; they live in a spacious second-floor apartment in a neighboring village, in which they keep a large flat-screen television, a small library of novels, and five friendly house-cats, to name a few conventions that they brought with them from their lives in Mumbai. I often feel comforted by the ways in which their lifestyle resembles those of family and friends back home.

Since Gurleen and I both have birthdays in early March, we decided to have a joint birthday party at her place, for which we each invited a few of our closest friends. Although the outset of the party included a few too many awkward silences, everyone managed to surmount the discomfort of meeting so many new people at once, and I was pleased to see how my small networks of friends were beginning to connect as a result. One week following the party, Gurleen called to tell me that Vishal and Lili had paid a visit to their house unannounced. While Prakram had explained to her that this was fairly normal behavior in this part of the country, Gurleen expressed surprise at what impressed her as a very bold gesture, and it appeared that she had turned to me for validation of these feelings. After giving it some thought, I shared with her the fact that I also find it difficult, at times, to adjust to this conception of privacy, which Vishal and Lili appeared to have no trouble adopting. Commiserating with Gurleen on this matter helped me to process the fact that this aspect of my life here is fundamentally different from the way friendships develop for people of an urban or suburban middle-class background. By fully admitting this difference, I was able to both strengthen my relationship with Gurleen and to begin consciously conceding to the fact that I am from a privileged class background—something I have often had a hard time doing back home.

The realities of one’s class background are always informed by the appearances of one’s racial identity, but nothing has made this relationship more clear than my travel within India. Up until my departure for a cross-country trip between December 18th and January 8th, I had grown used to receiving special attention from merchants and panhandlers on my frequent visits to Dharamsala proper, and I had experienced a greater extent of this kind of attention from a brief sojourn to Delhi in October. This did not prepare me for the kind of regard to which I would find myself subjected in West Bengal.​

December 2014: Here I tried to capture Wassir Ahmed Khan singing a climactic moment at ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata. Accompanying him on Sarangi (the bowed lute) is Sarwar Hussain, along with two students of the academy on tanpura.

On the recommendation of a fellow volunteer at Jagori, I had arranged to stay near the small town of Shantiniketan for the duration of its annual Poush Mela, a three-day harvest festival famous for its Bengali folk art and music. Everything about my short visit was refreshing; I stayed in a comfortable mud-cottage guesthouse run by a Kolkata-based family, enjoyed a full day of Baul music (the Baul are a particular religious sect comprised of Bengali minstrels), and I managed not to see another white person for the duration of the festival. Nonetheless, my ability to communicate in Hindi proved to be of limited use in this part of the country, which made me feel no different from any other foreign tourist who may have happened upon the same festival. This feeling effectively functioned to reconnect me with the reality that, as long as I was traveling on such a short-term basis, no amount of fluency in just one Indian language or familiarity with one niche of Indian culture could make me any less of an outsider. The most obvious reason for this is my racial identity, and keeping this reality in mind was an important first step to forming an understanding of myself in relation to other contexts, which I hold closer to heart.

My choice to travel to West Bengal and Tamil Nadu reflected my persistent interest in the musics, particularly the classical musics of South Asia. Although the concept of ‘classical’ art and culture is western in origin, the term gives an apt description of what constitutes the relationship of this music to society at large. Labelled in Hindi with the term शास्त्रीय संगीतshāstrīy sangīt—more accurately translated ‘music associated with scriptures and traditional learning’—public performances of Indian classical music rarely occur outside of urban centers and are generally appreciated by Indian people of middle- to upper-class backgrounds. During my time at Oberlin, I was privileged to receive private lessons in North Indian classical voice, which supplemented my primary coursework in contemporary western music and ethnomusicology, and to have access to an extensive collection of classical Indian music through the conservatory’s library. Through these resources, I became familiar with the basics of Indian music theory, performance conventions, and a range of important musicians—particularly vocalist of the North Indian, or Hindustani, traditions. My decision to spend ten days in the city of Kolkata was chiefly motivated by a compulsion to witness two unique performance by one such vocalist: the immensely skilled and versatile Ajoy Chakrabarty. I would learn more about myself from attending these and other concerts than I have ever learned from listening to the sounds alone.

January 2015: Pt. Ajoy Chakrabarty focuses in for the slow outset of a raag, which is called an alap. He singing and accompanying himself on harmonium at Khelat Bhawan, a performance venue in Kolkata’s old city.

Spectatorship at concerts of classical Indian music seems always to encourage far more involvement than does attendance at concerts of western classical music. The most avid spectators of Indian classical music exhibit no restraint in their positive emotional reactions to moments of musical innovation, in moving their appendages vicariously to the flow of musical gestures, and in their attempts to express the ताल tāl—cycles of the metric structure and proportions to which the rhythms of the music refer—with a prescribed set of hand gestures. Having only attended a handful of such concerts in the U.S., I was finally thrilled to participate in such a vivacious culture of spectatorship for a music with which I could claim some familiarity. From the first concert of this music that I attended in Kolkata—a powerful yet intimate performance by Wassir Ahmed Khan at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy—I decided, within reason, to free myself of mimetic inhibitions; while making sure not to exceed the enthusiasm of my neighbors, I allowed head, hands, and voice to respond freely to the music. I also enjoyed the challenge of keeping up with the tāl, an activity that helps me appreciate the complex rhythm and phrasing of a performers’ improvisations. For the duration of these concerts, I couldn’t help but have the time of my life.

28 December 2015: I would have liked to include a picture from a dance performance in Chennai, but this will serve to convey an impression of kathakali. This is a troupe of dancers from the state of Orissa doing a classical dance of the kathakali genre at a venue Kolkata.

All feelings of ecstasy aside, every concert I experienced on this trip carried with it a feeling of being noticed, if not watched, which distracted me from the performance in an unpleasant way. Since the first concert was attended by a small audience in an enclosed, well-lit space, I identified this feeling as an incarnation of one to which I had grown well accustomed: that is, the general consciousness that I am standing out or receiving special attention because I am white. As I would soon discover, this comprised only a part of what my intuition was telling me. At the third concert of music I attended in Kolkata, Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty performed a stunning set of pieces in various classical genres, conveying with ease and natural decorum the pathos of each composition to a large audience in one spacious auditorium of Kolkata’s old city. At the intermission, a stranger came up from behind me to tell me that he had enjoyed watching my reactions to the music. Although the ensuing conversation comprised a pleasant commentary on the music and an opportunity to share my own relationship to the performance practices, it awoke in me a sense that this may not be the only kind of attention I was receiving as I sat in the first few rows of the auditorium, a tall white boy with long, blond hair displaying bouts of joy at every cadence. This realization led to my decision at future concerts to position myself more discretely within the audience, and to curb the visibility of my reactions.

For the remainder of that trip, my general enjoyment of each concert I attended did not by any means suffer as a result of my decision to keep visibility in check. In fact, I felt better able to relax once I convinced myself that I had avoided creating any conspicuous distraction for other spectators, thereby allowing myself to pay better attention to the performance by way of feeling less self-conscious. More importantly, these attempts to literally situate myself within the context of a concert of Indian classical music led me to the realization that, no matter how much I tried lessen my visibility, my own relative ontology is such that I could never make myself fit in. In other words, no matter how much I gain from these performances, my appreciation of this kind of music can—and should—only continue in spite of my identity in relation to society.

Following my stay in Kolkata, I spent the final five days of my trip in Chennai. There, I was able to catch the tail end of the Chennai festival of classical music and dance, a month-long extravaganza of performances hosted by many different institutions, during which time many talented artists of diverse repute come from all over South India to prove their chops. Although most of the musicians whose names I might recognize had already come and gone, I became acquainted with the work of several people—especially young people—of formidable musical ability. In addition, I gained a newfound appreciation for kathakāli and other forms of classical South Indian dance. Compared to my time in Kolkata, these concerts were hosted by a greater variety of venues: various in scale and capacity, urban vs. suburban environments, and public availability.

Of all the concerts I attended on this trip, I only paid for one: an evening of classical dance performances at a very large, famous arts institution known as The Music Academy. More than any other, I noticed by the end of this performance that it was attended by a very international audience, including a lot of other white people, many of whom, women and men alike, were neatly dressed in traditional Indian clothing. Instead of allowing the presence of other white people to let me feel less self-conscious, my natural reaction instead comprised a feeling of indignity. How could these people possibly appreciate the quality of the performance we just witnessed? Then it hit me: even with the differences in clothing, the way these people are perceived in this cultural context can hardly differ from the way I am also perceived. Even though I can appreciate Indian classical music, dance, and drama under the guise that they are abstract experiences, their position as uniquely South Asian cultural icons, identifiably separate from any foreign art form, constitute an important part of what makes them valuable to South Asians as well as to myself (Note: I make this claim with full knowledge that these art forms as we know them developed because of conditions made under British imperialism). This is how feeling indignant at flocks of other white people helped me keep my perspective in check: no amount of familiarity with forms, conventions, and performers of Indian classical music will ever, socially speaking, bring me any closer (than any other random white person) to being able to identify with that music.

Back in Rakkar, music also colors my experiences in various contexts. In addition to my own independent musical pursuits, I have managed to find a place for myself within the music-making that goes on at Jagori. While the majority of my work since January has concerned monitoring and documentation (helping with the translation and compilation of reports, developing a standardized report format, collaborating with other team members to develop effective monitoring strategies, etc.), I feel most valued when I play the guitar and singing along to rally songs—drawn from a long list consisting mostly of songs written by the famous co-founder of Jagori, Kamla Bhasin—which are performed at Jagori’s many events and workshops. I realize that what I bring to these performances—guitar accompaniment and vocal harmonies—impart a significant change of quality to these songs. Rather than diminishing the authenticity of the songs themselves, I feel that these things reflect the reality of my participation in the organization. By bringing my own skills to these performances, Jagori’s admission of foreign volunteers becomes more salient to the community for which it works. The cognition of such realities, both within and outside (but not without) Jagori as a host institution, enable the growth of relationships, through which cultural exchange and mutual understanding can be sustained.

April 2015: The group poses one last time at the end of the monitoring workshop described above. Photo courtesy of Jagori Rural Charitable Trust.

February 2015: A crowd begins to gather for our V-Day event in the town of Dharamsala. This day represents culminating event of the One Billion Rising campaign, an international movement to end violence against women.

So far, the most important part of my Shansi experience can only be described by the relationships that have grown in the past eight and a half months. Taking three weeks away from Dharamsala over Christmas and New Years gave me the distance to better understand the orientation of these relationships within the fabric of society and its hierarchies, but it is ultimately my long-term relationships with people in this locality that enable deep, sustainable cultural exchange. From among these relationships, valuable learning opportunities have already begun to arise. When I met my close friend Fauja, a retired shepherd and proud Gaddi (just one of Himachal’s native ethnic groups), he did not own a flute, although he plays the instrument with spirit and compassion. Since I gifted him a flute from my small collection, he has begun informally to teach me the words and melodies of several Gaddi songs. The simple fact of this exchange, however grateful I feel for it, does not serve to fulfill Shansi’s mission; as I have tried to convey in this report (my apologies that it is so excessively long), meaningful cultural exchange and mutual understanding as I interpret them can only be sustained if I am meticulously aware of the power and privileges that encompass my identity in a given social context. This means I need to embrace with honesty my relation to local class boundaries, to adjust my behavior in relation to certain gender norms, to recognize that my relation to other people begins with colonialism; only by making such compromises, by living within the social boundaries that divide me from others, can I elevate my social life into an atmosphere of compassion—that’s where understanding and exchange should start. Compassion is the foundation of all things mutual, all things meaningful.

April 2015: The group breaks for a song during the third of a three-day intensive workshop on monitoring, located on Jagori’s TARA (Training and Research Academy) in Rakkar. Those pictured include (from left to right): Asha, Navneet, Rajni, Nassim, myself, Mast Ram, Chandrakanta, Jyoti, Jintender, Kamla Bhasin, and Mamta. Photo courtesy of Jagori Rural Charitable Trust.

16 December 2014: Here a choir consisting of myself and my co-workers performs a song “Bekhauff,” which originally featured on the popular television show Satyamev Jayate, at an event in the town of Shahpur. This event was associated with the OBR campaign, and served to commemorate the infamous Delhi gang rape that took place two years earlier. Pictured here are (clockwise starting with myself): myself, Shivali, Ritu, Manju, Vandana, Manju, Manisha, and Manisha (yes, there are two Manjus and two Manishas in this photo!). Photo courtesy of Ryan Corrigan.