India: Experience the Culture



The movie "2 States" that I discussed in my last post is full of stereotypes. The South Indian mother is an amateur singer of carnatic music - South Indian classical music. Obviously, not many South Indian women actually sing carnatic music, but the movie is just trying to touch all the cultural bases that distinguish north from south. 

Last week, I went to a performance in Chennai, the center of carnatic music and bharata natyam (the amazing classical dance form of South India). I mentioned to Vibha, our colleague in the ELI India office, that I'd like to see a dance concert. She found one at a local theater operated by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (site is sometimes down) a charitable trust that supports the arts.

When my wife Dorota and I showed up at the theater, we were greeted with open arms by the locals who were putting on the performance. They were very surprised to have foreigners in attendance - and indeed, we were the only ones at this standing-room-only event. Before entering, they gave us a blessing, the red powder used for the forehead dot - a tika - for my wife, holy ash for me that is applied horizontally on the forehead. Then they sprinkled us with water - a blessing called abhishek. All attendees went through the same ritual.

The event was the debut for two young female dancers. Clearly it was an important event for the families and there friends. The front row was reserved for local holy men. One, we were told, was 97 years old. His arrival caused quite a splash. The dancers were not international quality performers - maybe someday - but it was still an enjoyable performance. The musicians that accompanied them were excellent.

We had to leave at intermission, but as we walked out, the hosts ran up to us, thanking us for attending and handing us takeout meals from the well-known South Indian chain Saravana Bhavan. Each guest was provided one of these meals, to be eaten at intermission. Quite a night - oh, and did I mention it was free?

Volunteering or interning in Chennai puts you right in the middle of this cultural capital. There is so much to see and do, things that the average tourist misses out on. The fact that we were the only tourists at the event underlines this. If you are at all interested in Indian culture, there is no better place to be. Check in with Vibha for ideas.

By Kevin O'Neill


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