Keep it Clean, Keep it Green

May 29th, 2008


Indian public intellectual, Vandana Shiva, argues that large corporate farming practices ultimately do violence to farmers and the land. It is implied that we should model our agri-culture upon the small organic agrarian village, for these communities have lived sustainably for centuries. Having read such things, I was naively led to believe that India is an environmental Shangri-La; a country with a population dispositionally attuned to the land. But, one must resist such romantic visions. Arriving in urban Delhi, I was struck by the smog, the garbage in the streets, the syrupy nature of the standing water in the puddles and drainage troughs, and the bits and pieces of plastic that are strewn everywhere. Such perceptions were only exacerbated by our travel to and from the small towns of Haridwar and Devprayag. And yet, Indian scholars that we met stress that, environmentally speaking, India is a much greener nation when compared with other nations with comparable population size. We were told that India is a recycling nation; apparently, the byproducts/garbage in India is so picked through, that little waste is left for landfills. It has been challenging for me to square these claims with my brief experiences in these regions, but until I have better evidence I will defer to judgments of my Indian colleagues.

Fortunately, we were treated to a three-day foray into Chennai (Madras). The main streets and thoroughfares of Chennai seemed noticeably cleaner and tidier, though pieces of plastic bags and bottles still littered the open lots and alleyways. I’m not sure what to attribute this difference to, but I was intrigued to find signs around town that say: “Your Town, Your Pride; Keep it Clean, Keep it Green.” Perhaps those environmentalists are right who argue that the fostering of a sense of place is integral to the responsible management of ecological resources – perhaps people do take care of their towns when they have a sense of pride connected to their province.

Arts in Chennai

May 25th, 2008

After a brief flight, we arrived in Chennai and noticed a marked difference in landscape and an increase in the heat! As we disembarked from the bus we were greeted with shell necklaces and lime water to wash away the stress of the day. After depositing our luggage, we were quickly swept away to Dakshina Chitra, “a non-profit, community service project of the Madras Craft Foundation for the promotion and preservation of the cultures of the diverse people of India with emphasis on Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka.” (see http://www.

We were met by V.R. Devika, Managing Trustee of the Aseema Trust, who specilaizes in arts education. Because it was extremely hot we began inside with an overview of the facilities and then we hit the gift shop where we supported the many artisans by purchasing examples of their arts and crafts–some for ourselves and some for family and friends. I received great joy in shopping since the proceeds went to the artists themselves, many of whom are women brought to Dakshina Chitra to learn a craft and become empowered by their ability to provide a financial income for themselves and their families.

After shopping we began our tour. Most of the houses and huts were made from remnants of a variety of homes throughout the region destined for demolition. Classes were designated by the inhabitant’s craft and signified through the materials used to build the home (Bermese teak for the upper class and local wood painted brilliant colors for the weaver’s dwelling). We even managed to meet some of the artists, including a henna painter who decorated all of us women with beautiful drawings.

Henna - Shirley

Most significant here, however, is the preservation of cultural art–everything from wood carvings to woven fabrics demonstrates a joyful celebration of the people and their traditions.

Following our tour, we retreated to a small room where Devika provided a short lecture on Gandhi as performer, as well as a performance of her own. Part cultural historian, part actor, she managed to weave together stories from mythology with the theoretical work she is conducting around Gandhi’s life performance, including the many ways in which he managed to put his life’s work on the world stage, dressing in ritual mourning clothes, and through demonstration (perhaps the Greek mimesis?). Much of her research is grounded in performance theory drawn from the Natyasastra and the 5th Veda, which explores the primary elements of performance (the body/gesture, language, spectacle, and emotions).

Despite the sweltering heat we watched and listened attentively to the description and performance of her closing dance that embraced all of the earth’s creatures through a strong connection to the earth.


As we drove away I was left hoping that we might be able to make further connections with Dakshina Chitra and its offering of Indian cultural artifacts displayed through its strong effort to preserve the many arts and crafts.

Flight over India

May 25th, 2008


As the Kingfisher jet pushed its way up through the humid, gray air of Delhi, we watched the colorful streets of the city fade and the vast north Indian plain open below us. The flight south to Chennai was a chance to see India from yet another perspective.

The mark of humanity on the land was always visible, but the bones of the Earth show through the thin veneer. The dominant geological features in the north are rivers and streams meandering across the flat brown surface. They appear as thin threads of blue with sandy point bars too large for their current flow in this dry season. The floodplains, which are generally marked by the width of the meanders, are very large, in some cases intersecting so that vast regions must be under water during the monsoons. Agricultural plots cling to the sides of the water courses and extend outwards, following the fertile soil deposited in high water times.

As we crossed over more hilly country, the number and size of the farmed areas diminished and numerous lakes began to appear, almost all with a visible dam which trapped the waters in long, narrow valleys. Small villages could be seen below the dams in the original river channels.

During our descent into Chennai we passed over low mountains covered with deep green vegetation and punctuated by sharp white cliffs. When we crossed the coast of the Indian Ocean a large sandy beach stretched below us with a few tiny dots representing people walking the shore in the noonday sun. The longshore current was visible as a brown streak of water clinging to the shore and moving north Long stone groins stretched perpendicular to the shore to retard the flow of sediment into Chennai’s main harbor.

Chennai Shoreline