Greetings from the Garden City. Before this city was known as an IT hotspot, it was known as the Pensioners’ Paradise, and also as the Garden City. It was the Pensioners’ Paradise because the low costs, relatively pleasant weather, and defense sector brought retired military officers and civil servants here. It was the Garden City for the many trees shading the streets, and for the municipal gardens surrounding the lakes and dotted across neighborhoods. Today, when we meet people who grew up in this city, and whose families are from here, most conversations begin with a lament that the city is not what it once was. The weather has gotten hotter; half the trees are gone; it was never meant to be so crowded.
Still. Be that as it may (and it is true) the city remains quite vibrant and an enjoyable place to be. The great difficulty in writing this post is that I kept getting distracted by discoveries of other upcoming events and things to do, far more than we could ever reasonably attend.
So. What is keeping this sleepy town up? (“Up” is relative: only in March did closing hour for pubs extend from 11 pm to 1 am). Theater: local, Anglo, and hybrid. Film festivals. Lectures. Archeology talks. Book groups. Music: some jazz and blues, some Carnatic. Arts. We have been enjoying ourselves here. Also, and on a related point, we’ve gotten much better at understanding the bus system. I’ll leave my thoughts on signage for bus stops and timetables for bus routes for another time, but the bus routes are extensive and some of them are frequent. The other remaining difficulty is simply figuring out what is going on in a city as large and varied as this one.
This weekend, we took the bus out to Whitefield, the suburb east of the city where many expats live, and where some people we’ve met expect we live (we do not live there). The destination was Jagriti Theatre. We spoke by chance to one of the theater’s founders. It seems that when a number of acres of land was sold off to a developer—Whitefield is a recently booming suburb—the sellers required that the developer put up a smaller number of apartment homes than the ordinary amount, but also erect a theater. That theater, in 2011, was honored as the best public space in India. It is home to both its own theater troupe, as well as host to many visiting troupes. And—as I just learned—Jagriti makes gutsy choices in the plays it chooses to host, even to the point of being “Donigered” last month in a pre-election crackdown.
Jagriti’s current shows are less likely to be censored. The theater is doing a spate of productions related to Shakespeare: a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by a local troupe; a family quiz day on Shakespeare; and a Bengali translation of Midsummer Night’s Dream. We went to see Romeo and Juliet (which I had never seen performed live). It was done as a comedy: five actors, four of whom claimed to be puppets, performing this play together for the last time, while complaining about the limitations and dead-end choices their characters faced. All the while they occasionally switched from speaking to song, from original dialogue to non-, and from English to Hindi.
We also took the bus a short ways across town to the local branch of the National Gallery of Modern Art. The museum itself is a large complex in two white buildings, one original and one more recent, connected by walkways on the upper level and separated by courtyard gardens and fountains. Surrounding the buildings and shading the walkways are tall trees, blocking the sounds of the streets and giving the perception of being in a treehouse as you stand on the balconies and walkways.
The museum was hosting a travelling exhibit, Amrita Sher-Gil: The Passionate Quest, on the works of this artist at the foreground of Indian modernism. I’d first heard of her by chance, through an article in the Indian Quarterly, which I’d picked up to read on the trip to Delhi, and then discovered the exhibit had left the National Gallery in Delhi a few days before we arrived.
Sher-Gil was the daughter of a landed Punjabi Sikh aristocrat from Gorahkpur, Uttar Pradesh and a Hungarian Jewish musician. She was born in Budapest in 1913; raised partially in the hill station of Shimla; educated in Paris, where she was elected an Associate of the Grand Salon in 1933; returned to India in 1934; and ultimately relocated to India in 1938, along with the Hungarian cousin she had married. She painted in India until her death in September 1941, age 28. She was trained in Europe, and influenced by Gaughin, but was also drawn to portray and to live in India, and was influenced by the Ajanta and Ellora murals. For this, perhaps, and perhaps also for her direct and challenging self-portraits, she is compared to Frida Kahlo.
The previous weekend, we’d been to the Goethe Institut for a panel discussion on Gender Justice. Among the presenters was Jasmeen Patheja, artist and founder of a collection action network called Blank Noise. Blank Noise protests and combats street sexual harassment by organizing volunteers—“Action Heroes”—of all genders. Action Heroes can commit to a photo, a conversation, a blog post, a pledge against harassment, or to safely and proudly occupy public space. In Talk to Me, people sit down, one-on-one, at tables on the sidewalk to have conversations with strangers, talking about any issue other than sexual violence. A current project, I Never Ask for It, collects photos of the clothes people wore when they experienced sexual violence. Blank Noise has taken on an important issue; I wish it much success, and may see if there is a way to get involved myself.
So, this is one side of our city. The city has its challenges (among them: where to find Hindi films with English subtitles) but it never fails to be interesting, and on the whole, we are enjoying living here.