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  • A Curator’s Travelogue in West Bengal

    In February, a team of Folklife staff and interns headed for Kolkata, India, for two weeks on the first portion of the Communities Connecting Heritage cultural exchange project, “Learning Together for a Brighter Future.” They returned with many stories to tell. This is the first in a series of article that will relate some of those stories.

    Reading through the agenda for our trip to West Bengal, thoughtfully and thoroughly prepared by our partner organization, I knew the two-week trip would be packed with rich experiences. Reading an agenda on paper and living that agenda in real life, however, are two very different things.

    The main goal of the project seemed clear: to facilitate an international exchange between young people to explore common ground in cultural heritage research, presentation, preservation, and sustainability. My professional role as the senior staff member guiding the trip also seemed clear. One of the goals articulated by World Learning, the organization administering the exchange, was “making personal connections” between participants. I hoped that would happen, but I couldn’t predict the way it would became the heart and soul of the trip.

    As a scholar, I try to keep objective during work travel, much of which involves research for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I had planned to gather documentation during this trip, to use in an academic publication perhaps, and to guide the interns in their own exploratory research. Instead, I found myself joining my young and enthusiastic team members, plunging into this new cultural experience head first and absorbing the experience with all senses.

    Sur Jahan Festival 2018
    Betty Belanus in Kolkata, India
    Photo by Maya Potter

    I tried being “in the moment” instead of viewing everything from behind a camera lens. I made (not very artistic) sketches, wrote some passable poetry, and entered long and rambling impressions in my journal instead of writing up proper “field notes.” I even sang on stage and acted as the narrator of a hastily conceived stage production, both of which are totally outside my comfort zone. I also cried on more than one occasion.

    I found something out about myself, which I should have known all along, and which I am sure I share with many others. When presented with a new cultural experience, I automatically make a connection to something I have encountered before in my own or another culture. From masked dancers to milky tea, my mind was constantly whirring in West Bengal, making connections that I sometimes expressed and sometimes kept to myself. (Did my explanation of “lining out a hymn” in the Southern U.S. tradition make any sense to the singers in the scroll village? Probably not.) Culture and traditions are unique everywhere, but they have their counterparts in other parts of the world. This is what makes our shared human experience so interesting.

    We returned with pages and pages of notes, over 1,200 photos and videos, and many hours of audio recordings, so we have plenty of documentation to use for any number of scholarly purposes. But it is the more personal experience of making meaningful connection between ourselves, the members of Contact Base, and the community members and folk artists that stand out for me. Every day was an adventure, as the agenda took on life minute by minute.

    Here are a few snapshots to illustrate how the events on the agenda actually played out in real time.

    February 3, 11.00 a.m. – 1.00 p.m.: Observe and participate in Day Time Music Workshop where international musicians share their music and jam with Indian musicians.

    Sur Jahan Festival 2018
    Traditional Polish musicians and their Bengali counterparts jam at the Sur Jahan Festival in Kolkata, India.
    Photo by Maya Potter
    Sur Jahan Festival 2018
    Folklife intern Violeta Palchik and project assistant Maya Potter (dancing with boy in red) join in the joyous dancing during the second half of a cross-cultural workshop at the Sur Jahan Festival.
    Photo by Betty Belanus

    During the first three days, still reeling from jet lag, we attended the Sur Jahan Festival, a long weekend of international music exchange in Kolkata. Arriving at the afternoon workshop, we found the Polish group Muzykanci trading tunes with Bengali musicians and attempting to teach everyone the chorus of a wedding song. An impromptu conga line formed and moved the crowd from under the trees to the nearby stage, where another exchange soon began between Bengali musicians and a Hungarian group called Muzsikas.

    Members of our group were on their feet, dancing happily with audience members. Nationality and age differences melted away in the musical moment. The Hungarian dancer, who was urging us all to join him, told me later that he had been a participant at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and he had particularly enjoyed meeting the Tuvan throat singers who were also there that year.

    February 4, 10.00 – 11.00 a.m.: Discussion with the natural fibre clusters.

    Sur Jahan Festival 2018
    Betty Belanus and Violeta Palchik listen to the personal stories of native grass weavers during a gathering of natural material craftspeople at the Sur Jahan Festival.
    Photo by Maris Jones

    On the Sur Jahan Festival grounds, we gathered a semi-circle of hard plastic chairs in the meager shade to meet with a group of Bengali rural artisans working with reeds, grasses, and jute. With the help of Contact Base’s Art for Life program, they have transformed their crafts from very utilitarian and undervalued to more marketable, while preserving traditional techniques. We asked them not only about their work, but about how craft production fits into their daily lives. As examples of the crafts were passed around, I took a deep whiff of an intricate grass mat, and my mind flashed to the Peruvian craftspeople who fashioned the Q’eswachaka Bridge at the 2015 Folklife Festival. Worlds apart, both geographically and in their finished product, both use skills passed down through generations to make something beautiful and useful from strong, fragrant grasses.

    February 6: 11.00 a.m. – 1 p.m.: Visit Patachitra village and spend time with the artists community.

    Patachitra community center
    Patachitra (scroll) artists display their work and sing the stories that accompany the scrolls at Naya village.
    Photo by CCH Team
    Patachitra community center
    Patachitra artists demonstrate the use of natural materials such as berries, leaves, and flowers to make paints for their scroll art.
    Photo by CCH Team

    We left Kolkata later than intended (due to a last-minute visit from the U.S. ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster), reaching the rural village of Naya in the Pingla district around 4 p.m. What seemed like the entire population of this small enclave—men, women, and children of all ages—piled into the upstairs all-purpose room of the community center.

    We joined them, sitting on the floor, to learn about their scroll painting art and to hear some of the songs that accompany the scrolls. We participated in a natural paint workshop during which we squashed berries, squeezed flowers, and mushed fresh turmeric with glee. Community member Bapi Chitrakar asked (with gestures) if he could borrow my phone, and I readily gave it over. The resulting photos are extremely creative, and some of my favorite photos from the whole trip.

    February 8, 2.30 – 5.00 p.m.: Move around Joydev Kenduli and interact with Baul musicians, understand their philosophy, and listen to their music.

    Baul singers in Joydev Kenduli
    Baul singers Sudhu and Kangal Das share music in their outdoor performing space near Joydev Kenduli.
    Photo by Maya Potter

    Arriving late in Joydev Kenduli, closer to their rush hour than to 2:30, made “moving around” quite a challenge. Truck traffic kicked up angry red dust on the main drag, and the sun glared from a blinding angle. Baul musicians Sudhu and Kangal Das seemed to materialize from nowhere and led us down a quiet dirt road on the edge of town. We saw monkeys in one of the trees along the way.

    We settled ourselves on cloth mats in a small bamboo structure, and they began playing and singing as the muted orange sun was setting. The music continued into the darkness. We did not come near understanding their complex spiritual philosophy, but we enjoyed their songs. We had been told that they wanted us to share an American song. We had picked “This Land Is Your Land,” which despite our underwhelming vocal talent was a big hit. This land is their land, but for one evening it was our land too, and we think Woody would have approved.

    February 9, 6.30– 7.00 p.m.: Theatre show by theatre practitioners of Tepantar

    Patachitra community center
    A scene from the play performed by members of the resident theater group of Tepantar ecovillage.
    Photo by Betty Belanus

    Tepantar is the small ecovillage which we called home for three nights. The four-acre oasis is run by a traditional theater group, whose members also raise chickens and fish and cook for visiting tourists, creating a self-sufficient enterprise that allows them time to develop and rehearse new theater projects. Their theater space is intimate; we sat on the stage with no barrier to the action. With minimal scenery and live music, a story of rejection and redemption based on a Hindu tale unfolded. Afterward, in the cool dark evening, we sat with the members of the theater troupe, discussing their hopes and dreams for the community’s future.

    Now that we have returned, the exchange participants will be share more articles about their own personal moments of significance. The project will expand this spring with more participants in a virtual exchange. Soon we will also draft our agenda for the team coming to us from West Bengal during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the Fourth of July. It will be fascinating to see how the team from West Bengal lives out our agenda in their own way. We will try to craft an experience that will allow them to experience many surprising and meaningful moments as our paper agenda becomes their reality.

    Betty J. Belanus has been a curator and education specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage since 1987. She is looking forward to the rest of the “Learning Together for a Brighter Future” exchange, and hopes we will be able to be offer more international exchanges for staff and interns in the future.

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