Our Belief in Humanity is Enhanced
Upon arrival in India, the passport controller at the airport stamped our entry visa and then counted 30 days upon arrival and wrote into our passports that our departure date was for Jan. 27. When I told him that our flight was leaving Delhi on Jan 29 he became quite agitated and said we had to go to this special office in Delhi and get permission to stay longer. In my typical Greek way I shrugged him off and said so what is a day too late?? The worst they can do is deport us and we are leaving anyway. However, after staying with our dear friend Sangeeta Gupta in Delhi and her son Tanmay, they both advised us not to let it go. So somewhere in the back of my mind was this nagging thought that we really need to take care of this visa issue, but we were heading south into Rajasthan and the villages and new adventures both physical and spiritual.
We left the wonderful comfort and hospitality of Sangeetas home in Delhi and boarded an early morning train to Jaipur. After experiencing our first bit of railroad madness we finally boarded our train and we’re waiting patiently to depart when my eye caught a sudden movement under my feet. Scurrying backward and forward was a good sized rat..so my instinct was to raise my feet onto the seat and yell RAT! Pretty soon everyone in our carriage was yelling RAT so finally two men with bi sticks showed up and that was the end of the rat.
Jaipur is a big and bustling city but we stayed in the wonderfully quiet and clean Athiti Guesthouse, our home away from home. We took a delightful full day tour of the palaces, forts and temples, sights and sounds and got our first taste of what India had in store for us. After two days, the noise and bustle was too much for us and we chose to head south to the small temple town of Pushkar. That is where we had our first camel ride into the desert and saw the gypsies who sang and danced for us. Very colorful gypsies living on the fringe of society.
Six years ago I had heard Bunker Roy speak about the Barefoot College on a Ted Talks and his talk left a lasting impression on me. I always wanted to go to his school and meet the solar Mamas. Here was our opportunity. The school was located just 100 kms north of Pushkar, we hired a car and driver who after quite a it of sleuthing found the tiny village of Tillonia and the old campus of Barefoot College. We arrived just in time to join a tour of the various handicrafts which included making wooden toys, cloth bindings for books, sanitary pads and solar cookers. There was a welding shop, carpentry, sewing room in addition to a dental clinic and a hospital. After a delicious vegetarian lunch we went on to see the solar Mamas who were a group of about 50 grandmothers aged anywhere from 40-60 years of age from different parts of Africa and South America. They were the heart and soul of the school. They were there for six months to learn how to build their own solar lighting system from scratch. Most of them were illiterate and only knew how to read by colors. We arrived about halfway through their course so they were already capable of welding together a mother board which was then hooked into a solar panel which provided three, four or five lights depending on the size of the panel. They were so excited about what they were learning and the potential of being able to return to their villages and teach this whole process to someone else..but most importantly, their solar lighting had the ability to also charge their cell phones which was a huge blessing as they sometimes had to walk 4-5 hours just to charge their phones. The following day we had the great privilege of meeting two extraordinary personalities. After breakfast, we walked over to the old campus with our new friend MJ, a volunteer from Australia. While we were walking about she mentioned that there was a VIP group visiting and it included the grandson of Gandhi. So when we saw the group, we introduced ourselves only to discover that Gandhis grandson now lives in Rochester, New York where the Lansdale Family was from originally. Of course we invited him to. One and stay with us in Greece and he was most interested. After a bit more touring, we were invited into the home of Bunker Roy just as he was lecturing to a group of students from Princeton. After they all left we stayed on for a bit and absorbed his vast knowledge and charisma. After learning that I was a potter, he told me about an organization called Potters For Peace which was doing good work in India and also Central America. As it was time for us to catch our train south to Udaipur, we took our leave of this most wonderful school and had just enough time to buy an embroidery of the Tree of Life to hang in our living room in remembrance of such a special visit!
Before leaving Greece, we had made contact with Gagan Dadich, a ceramic artist from India. He lived in the town of Nathdwara where he was an art teacher in the local college. He also had a studio in the small pottery village of Molela just a 15 minute drive away. But how to get there from Tilonia? We decided to catch a direct train to the larger town of Udaipur, considered one of the most romantic towns of India as it is situated on a lovely lake. When I wrote to Gagan that we were going to Udaipur it was the perfect solution for us to meet as he was attending an art exhibit in a private gallery and we could meet there. We were invited to the private home of Reikha who was originally from Bratislava but had settled into a beautiful old home in Udaipur which she had converted into a gallery. It was a joy to finally meet Gagan face to face and I could tell from the twinkle in his eye that we were going to be good friends. We met Reg, the painter from Sweden whose work was on display. Extremely creative and impressive wall graffiti which he had made on paper and cement from old wall posters from different parts of India. He also had spent time in Molela with Gagan so was full of great stories. The next day we got on a very local bus and one hour later we were in Nathdwara where we were very warmly welcomed into the home of Gagan and his lovely wife Sunam. Their daughter was living and studying several hours away and we subsequently learned that their other daughter had passed away from an illness at the age of 15, and it was quite obvious that Sunam was still grieving deeply her loss.
For the following week we settled into a routine of walking into Nathdwara to experience the local market, followed by breakfast and then heading out to Molela for the day. It was such a treat for me to watch the very masterful potters at work. Mostly they were creating ceramic plaques for religious purposes of various Hindu gods and goddesses, always telling a story of their lives. Some of the larger plaques were two meters long by one meter wide. I learned so much just by watching these Master artisans as they worked on each piece. In the meantime, we were making just a few pieces and also trying out the four new Terra Sigillata recipes that we had made ..one was with ball clay that I had brought with me, while the other two were using the local clay on hand. The fourth recipe we used a yellow ochre color which never really made a Terra sig but had a rich red color in the firing. One afternoon we were joined by a lovely group of children and their teacher and mothers..we all played with clay and they made some very inspiring figurines. Gagan had taken two of the local potters on an excursion to France where they participated in a workshop. So we were planting the seeds of bringing some potters from Greece to also work in the village and have a creative experience and share their knowledge together. Later in the week we were joined by two lovely young artists, Abichek and Mahesh who really added a lot of enthusiasm to our group. Our final evening together we fired the kiln with cow dung and wood but I don’t think the temperature went very high. The results were fairly good and at least we saw how some of the Terra colors were looking after being fired. All in all it was an extremely successful week for me as I gained so many new experiences and new techniques. Makes me curious to see what outcome this will have on my own work when I get home!
Sunday after the firing, David and I headed off to Mt. Abu, the spiritual center of the Brahma Koumaris, a worldwide organization of highly spiritual and devout people. After a three hour bus ride followed by 27 kms up a long and winding road we reached the summit of the mountain and the tiny town of Mt. Abu. We settled into the delightful Mushkill Assan guesthouse where we were greeted with hot masala chai. Our goal was to learn as much as we could about the Brahma Koumaris University and their spiritual university. Our first stop was their spiritual museum where we bought almost every book they published and then we went to their world headquarters. Someone there pointed us into the direction of a waiting bus so off we went. A 10 minute bus ride took us to Gyan Sarovar where we were invited to join in for lunch. We sat with Margaret from York, England who took the time to tell us her story and what it means to be a follower. We were deeply impressed with their motives and devotion to create a world peace, the independent search for the truth and their communication with God through meditation. There are two groups of BK in Thessaloniki and we look forward to meeting them and learning more about their faith. After lunch, we had made plans to go on a three hour trek with Dan our guide right up to the peak of Mt. Abu through a wildlife sanctuary. Dan was the perfect guide for us and also a deeply spiritual and profound thinker. He and David had a lot in common and I have this sense that we will see him again.
Back at our guesthouse, I went into Google and typed in Potter in Jodhpur and the very first site that came up was the Chhotaram Homestay in Salewas just 20 kms out of the city. It was the perfect match for us. Chhotaram came from a family of weavers and had started a cooperative with the fellow weavers in the village to help sell their carpets and wipe out the middle man, so that the profit went directly into the hands of the artisan. They had built 9 traditional Rajasthani clay huts with thatch roof, exactly what we had in mind for our own dream at La Montanita. It was the perfect place for us to stay and we cooked and ate with the whole family over their open hearth in the mud floor kitchen. Not only was the village full of weavers but their was also a good number of potter families who made large clay pots for cooking and storing water. So, I was in seventh heaven just watching them work and fire their kilns with sawdust. So now we go back to the beginning of our story. Our visa and why our belief in humanity was enhanced. I called the visa office in Delhi who said there was a visa office in Jodhpur in the High Court. It was Thursday morning and we got a ride into town with Sambu, Chhotarams brother. We found the right office but the lady in charge was out to lunch so we had to return later. When we returned later we met the lovely lady who said we could extend our visa but the bank was now closed so we had to come back in the morning as there was an $80 fee each. Pretty steep for a one day extension but that is what we had to do. Fortunately for us the #6 bus which went to Salewas left just one block away from the high court so we boarded this very local village bus and were the talk of the town. I don’t think any foreigners had ever ridden that bus. But it was fun and got us home. The following morning we caught the bus back to the High Court of Jodhpur and found the bank where I paid in euros and David in Roupees. With our bank voucher in hand, we returned to the nice lady at the visa office and she sent us out with the local scribe to fill out our application online. Well, that took an age as we had a young scribe who was very computer literate but not too much English. He spelled my last name Willsi and my country of origin was St. Bartholomy but we at least had the application in hand and could go back to the visa office where we were assured that the extension had been granted. One last glitch. The visa cannot be granted on the same day that the application is submitted. So we had to come in the next day which was Saturday and they were closed on Saturday and we were leaving on Sunday. Not to worry says the nice Visa lady. I will come in tomorrow just for you. Just tell us what time you can come in. We agreed on 10 am and after thanking her profusely we caught our # 6 bus. Not long after we got home, David was having a nap and I was looking for the Internet when someone from the family called me to come quickly. The Bank manager from where we got our voucher for the visa extension was looking for me. Now this is where our belief in humanity and Indian generosity of spirit was blown sky high. It turns out that I had given the bank 4 bills which I thought were all 20’s whereas one of the twenty’s was a 100 euro bill. So he drove all the way out 20 kms to the village to return 40 euros. We were blown away and thanked him profusely for his kindness and honesty. “Just doing my job” was his response! The following morning on Saturday at 10 am we were waiting on the steps of the High Court when our very nice Visa lady showed up. After a few prayers and some computer glitches we finally got our extension printed, stamped and signed and we were set to go! We said our final goodbyes and set off for our village safari with Chhotaram as our guide.
With just a few days left in India, we chose to head back towards Delhi by local bus and stop off in Jaipur for a day of rest. We were warmly welcomed back at the Athiti guesthouse where we had started our journey three weeks earlier. It sure was a treat to find a working shower with hot water and a sparkling clean bathroom. Simple pleasures in life!
The week before while still with Gagan in Nathdwara, he called a fellow potter Rekha Aggarwal, who is a trustee of Delhi Blue Pottery and also editor of the Indian Ceramic Quarterly. She knows everybody in the pottery world of India and was a terrific resource person. She arranged for us to spend our final two nights at the Sanskriti Kendra Foundation. What a perfect way to end our pottery tour of India. Sanskriti was the brainchild of a wealthy businessman who chose to build a place of peace and beauty where artists could come to create, workshops could take place and residencies were possible. It also housed the Museum of Everyday Objects, a very large and comprehensive Museum of Indian Terra cotta and a textile museum. All three museums were of an outstanding quality and the whole place was a beehive of activity. During our stay there was a leadership workshop for young adults looking to find their way in the world, a group of 8 artists from Brazil who were setting up an exhibit of photographs and interactive graffiti and also a young potter from Thailand who was in India for an art residency and was making a foot high Buddha out of clay in the pottery studio. It was great fun sharing meals with this group as we got to share in each other’s creative process. For our very last day we rode the Metro out to Rekha’s house where we had breakfast and she showed us around her house and studio which was a Museum of itself. There is no doubt that Rekha and I were supposed to meet as our passion in life is to promote Ceramic Art both in our respective countries and around the world. There are so many workshops happening in different places we just need to network and let people know what’s going on. That’s where Facebook is really making a difference.
The icing on the cake was that Sangeeta was back in town for the India Art Fair, so after breakfast we picked up our luggage from Sanskriti and headed back to our familiar digs in the Gupta household. There was dear Anita who prepared lunch for us and then off we went with our VIP passes to see the largest and one of the most prestigious Art Fairs in the world. Once again doors magically opened when we are with Sangeeta so we had the opportunity to meet who’s who in the Delhi art scene. So much to catch the eye and so much talent and scope of expression. It was a perfect way to end our magical journey of India, where our senses have been heightened, our spirits have been refreshed and our challenge is to move forward with our new knowledge and proceed to make this world a better place!