Author Archives: annacoufalinIndia

Kuva-no-Ker

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Well performance with Bhavai troupe (still from video by Barrett Griffin)

 

There’s no such thing as being a “fly on the wall” visiting a community that rarely meets outsiders. This is especially apparent when your professor is a prince. In anthropology, it is important to consider this when situating oneself within a field site so that the novelty and subsequent centering of the anthropologist does not take away from the observation or interview processes. Here in Dhrangadhra, we have found the avoidance of being centered to be nearly impossible. Wherever we go, we are treated like celebrities. People don’t just stare at us; they follow us, tap us and grab us, and constantly implore us for “selfies.” While this can be annoying, especially when we have work to do or we can’t understand what they are saying about us or why they giggle, their behavior makes sense. In the ‘melting pot’ of the United States, even the most sparsely populated areas have exposure to a number of different cultures. In towns like Kankavati and Jesada, meeting people from other countries is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Our scarves may not be tied correctly, our hairstyles and textures might seem strange, and our conscious and unconscious behaviors may be vastly different from their own. Furthermore, our professor, Dr. Jhala (Bapa) is a prince, which makes our presence all the more noteworthy. It is very difficult to convince people not to hold you in such high regard in a society in which social status is so fixed and paramount, especially with the language barrier. Most of the time, we don’t have a choice but to go with the flow, accepting this privilege in order to go where we need to go, see what we need to see, and talk to who we need to talk to. The best we can do is simple gestures of kindness such as smiling, waving to people, and taking pictures of or with them. One of the photographers brought a polaroid camera, which really helps in terms of being able to give something tangible back. Sometimes with kids, I’ll cross my eyes, stick my tongue out, or generally act goofy just to break the barrier of intimidation and bring out a smile or laugh. Most kids seem to respond very well to that.

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Kankavati woman insisting on a photo with Sam following the Rajput sword dancing performances

When we attended the revival event at the Well of Sorrow, we had a slightly different experience. Though we were greeted like celebrities, by the time the ceremony began the attention was no longer centered on us. The rituals and presence of the royal family became paramount, and we were able, for the first time, to observe these people without being a focal point. This event was in remembrance of the Jhala clan’s Eight Ranis (queens) who in 1486 jumped into the Well of Sorrow with their maidservants and subsequently drowned during Sultan Mohamed Begawa’s siege of Kuwa. This historical event is known as Kuva-no-Ker, the destruction of Kuwa, and people still use the term to refer to any great calamity.

Several large tents were set up around the well, and many people came from surrounding villages to witness the ceremony. We were given chairs to sit near the royal family to watch the ritual. Then we were invited, along with members of the royal family and female Rajputs (warrior caste) to pour water into the well as a symbolic gesture of remembrance. The Jhala clan is part of the Rajput caste. We then moved to a tent where we witnessed Rajput girls from one village, dressed in turbans and jeans, then young men from another village, perform sword dances. These were possibly one of the most exhilarating performances I have ever witnessed. They were swinging swords feet away from us, close to each other, sometimes climbing on each other’s backs or even blindfolded. We were not allowed to take footage out of respect, but it was an unforgettable experience. Afterwards we enjoyed dinner in the garden with the royal family.

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Rajput women and girls (sword dancers wearing turbans)

A couple of days later, we filmed a dance around the well with some of the Bhavai (male) performers, who were dressed like the Ranis. We had been rehearsing this performance for two weeks in addition to getting henna tattoos, buying costumes, and making masks. We each represented an animal deity representative of each Rani and her descendents. I was a tiger. The other animals included a parrot, horse, cobra, magical bird, crocodile, and a lion. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anyone to perform the role of the rooster. We developed movement to represent these creatures and performed our individual one-minute dances, with our homemade masks, around and near the well. Many people from the village came to watch. After that, we changed into our “queen costumes” which included elaborate saris and large skirts. We kind of just followed what the Bhavai performers were doing, dancing around the well, and standing with them as they reenacted the Ranis deciding to jump in the well. Although the rehearsal process had been time-consuming and frustrating for some of us, it was a rewarding experience and an honor to take part in an event that held so much significance for these people. Though it can be very difficult to navigate the issue of privilege, it felt good to be included in this event in a way that showed the people that we recognize and honor their heritage.

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Me in my tiger mask (photo by Camilla Martinelli)

The Negotiation Phase

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Desert Sunrise (Photo by Shaniece Maldonado)

Addiction is a subject most people try to avoid. The reality is, however, we are all addicts. We live in a world in which we are increasingly being alienated from our most basic sources of sustenance, so we fill those voids with other things. Maybe it’s something obvious like drinking, smoking, drugs, or prescription pills. Maybe it’s the internet, TV, or video games. Maybe it’s work. Maybe it’s school. Maybe it’s never simply allowing oneself to be alone in silence. Whatever it is, it is very hard to break away from this pattern of constant stimulation. When you travel, however, you are forced to adapt your defenses and coping mechanisms.
When I was eighteen, I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety disorders. Basically, I had a complete mental breakdown and could no longer deal with any of my obligations. It took several years of therapy and antidepressants to get to a point where I was somewhat emotionally stable and reliable. These treatments were not especially effective for me after a few years, and I discontinued them once I felt stable enough to manage my issues. Since I have managed to do very well academically, I wasn’t worried about coming to India without consulting a therapist. Gujarat is a “dry” state, which means alcohol is prohibited, and since I don’t drink very much I didn’t consider that to be an issue either. I figured the stimulation and opportunities available here would be manageable enough without the aid of medication or other ways to “take the edge off.”

I certainly didn’t anticipate the difficulty I would have regulating my emotions in frustrating situations. That is not to say I wasn’t warned. In the manual, it specifically says that after the initial “honeymoon” phase where everything is new and exciting, a second “negotiation” phase would follow in which simple things become extremely frustrating. For one, there were technical issues such as the water not working and the power (and thus air conditioning) going off during the hottest parts of the day. Another issue that really bothered me was the obliviousness of some of our photographers, whose equipment and copious photo-taking, in my view, often proved disruptive to our explorations. The people we were visiting were often so wrapped up in wanting to get their pictures taken that we were not able to properly observe their activities. Of course, our presence itself was inherently disruptive to a degree. What made it worse was the fact that, for example, when we attended the wedding, people were more interested in getting their pictures taken than the event that was taking place. This angered the priest and the bride’s father, and we had to leave early.
What set me over the edge was when we went to the desert to meditate. First of all, I was grumpy, as we had to wake up at 3:00am after being asked to stay up until 10:00pm the previous night to rehearse for a performance at the end of the month. So when one of our photographers decided to fly a loud buzzing drone overhead during the entirety of our meditation session, I was enraged. I tried not to be, but at that moment I realized with all the stimulation and lack of alone time, I needed a moment to connect to myself in silence and appreciate the magical moment of the sunrise and the whispering wind. After that point, I lost control emotionally. When we got to the next stop and some of us were told we weren’t covered enough to go into the temple, I burst into tears. For most of the day, I felt like an overflowing well. The water just kept on coming. That upset me even more because I felt myself slipping and was terrified I would have another serious breakdown. Thoughts started surfacing in my mind that I didn’t realize I was still capable of having. I watched as everyone else enjoyed themselves, wishing I could partake in their happiness but feeling incapable of doing so. At the end of the day, I was solely responsible for my misery.
I took the next day off to process what had happened, and I realized that being in this vulnerable position was bringing up lots of old feelings that the busyness and comforts of home had allowed me to avoid dealing with. The fact is, the people taking all the photographs and flying drones were coping too. To engage deeply is not easy. It feels safer to be behind a screen or camera lens, especially if that is a skill one has confidence in. In fact, for some people like the photographer with the drone, it is easier to engage deeply from behind the lens. Additionally, the photographers were not usually able to capture authentic, candid moments as the attention was so centered on their equipment. We all have to deal with our own challenges and obstacles. One photographer dropped her hard drive, and another dropped an important lens. We are all human and vulnerable, which is not a comfortable feeling, and we deal with it in different ways, some of which are at odds with each other. As we have gotten to know each other, many of us have revealed tragic losses and difficult experiences which we haven’t dealt with emotionally yet or in a long time. I feel so grateful for all of these amazing people, even if we occasionally drive each other crazy. They say that you learn as much about yourself as you do about these places on study abroad, and I wholeheartedly concur. Although this experience has been emotionally challenging, I’m so glad I have this opportunity to challenge myself to feel things I haven’t let myself feel in ages. I’m grateful for the realization that I needed to connect with myself without the distracting comforts of home.

Getting Settled in India

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Wow. So much has happened in the past week, and between three days of travel and five days of adjusting to a different culture and time zone, I’ve had basically no time to process my experience in writing. It feels like I left Philadelphia a month ago. First of all, I couldn’t have been luckier in terms of the group of people that have decided to embark on this journey with me. There are eight of us undergrad students, one grad student, and one alum. Our teacher, Dr. Jhala who we call Bapa (which means father) is a prince, though since India declared its independence in 1947 the Jhala clan no longer holds political power. Nevertheless, the family is still held in extremely high regard, and maintains this palace compound where we stay called Ajitnivas.

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Ajitnivas (Photography by Sam Romero)

Getting to India was quite an adventure in itself. Four of us decided to arrange our flights to have a fifteen-hour layover in London. The flight to London was about seven hours, and from London to New Delhi was another seven hours. From New Delhi we took a one-and-a-half hour flight to Ahmedabad, which is a three-hour drive from our destination, Dhrangadhra. Most of us are still adjusting to the time difference, a week later. It wasn’t until yesterday that I could sleep for more than an hour without waking up.

We certainly learned the importance of keeping track of our things while exhausted in London. We had a great day walking around the city, drinking ales at a pub, and taking a short boat tour to see famous landmarks. On the way back, Shaniece left her phone on the Underground (the subway). As the doors closed, a man held up the phone and waved to her. The people in the car all pointed to a button, which Shaniece tried in vain to press only to the effect of giving her a slight shock. In a moment of desperation, she rushed past the gate blocking the entrance from the station platform to the tunnel, which caused all the trains on the line to stop! It was a crazy situation, but fortunately the Underground employees and other people at the station were extremely kind to us. After giving her several lectures about how she could have died rushing past that gate, to our amazement, they were able to get her phone back. We chuckled imagining how SEPTA employees would have handled this situation. As we got off the train to the airport, I realized my wallet was not in my purse. As I frantically searched for it, a security guard walked by carrying Sam’s wallet. Apparently she had dropped it exiting the train. Soon, she realized she had my wallet in her bag, which I must have dropped earlier and she had been keeping safe. We were extremely relieved to know that somehow we had managed to hold on to all our most valuable and necessary possessions. Of course, when we got to New Delhi our checked luggage was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, it was merely delayed and we were able to get it back several days later. Lesson number one: travel is unpredictable and it is easy to get disoriented and lose things.

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London

Dhrangadhra is very hot at this time of year, about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is dry, though, which makes it much easier to handle the heat. In addition, most people do not go out between the hours of 10:00 am and 5:00 pm, so it is perfectly acceptable to take naps. It is both wonderful and a bit unnerving to be living in a palace. While we are told the people who work here consider it a good opportunity, it is strange to have people essentially waiting on us. Because most of them do not speak English, it is difficult to communicate with them other than to say abhar, which means thank you in Gujarati. Nevertheless, most of them are very warm towards us, and we communicate through gesture, and more than anything, simply through smiling at each other. Shaniece brought nail polish, and yesterday she, Camilla, and some of the women have had some very nice exchanges painting nails and doing henna together.

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Camilla (L) with Barati (R) (Photography by Sam Romero)

In addition, a woman named Jayshree speaks English and is almost always with us, helping us to navigate these places. Jayshree works as a social worker at an NGO with women and children. She is extremely warm and makes us all feel loved and safe. As Camilla remarked, she feels like a combination of a mother, a sister, and a wife. She makes her own clothes (which are all gorgeous and expertly tailored), and she teaches women to sew at the NGO. We all feel very lucky to have her with us.

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Jayshree (L) dancing with Chrissy (R) (Photography by Liliana Jacobson-Peregrino)

Because most of our names may be hard for Indian people to remember, we were given Indian names. My name is Anande, which means “joyful one.” We like to wander the beautiful palace and its grounds at night, most of which is not in use and in varying degrees of ornateness and disrepair. We are not to flush toilet paper, and we are warned the water is not safe to drink or brush teeth with. Only certain areas of the palace have wifi, and most of us do not use data on our phones as we have discovered data is extremely expensive and quick to be used up. Apparently, however, this wifi is a recent development along with the air conditioning in the bedrooms.

So far, we have been busy visiting temples and sacred sites, buying clothes in the city, hearing music, going to weddings, etc. We are served four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. I was surprised how easy it was to adjust to eating Indian food every day; I love Indian food, but as an American I’m used to being able to enjoy a variety of cuisines day to day. But the food is delicious, and I always look forward to the next meal. It is also very fun to wear the clothes here. Though us women must cover our legs, shoulders, and chest, the fabric is light, loose, comfortable, and beautiful. It is amazing to walk down the streets of Dhrangadhra and see so many beautiful women adorned with lots of jewelry with long pretty hair. I don’t think I’ve seen an outfit I would consider “ugly.” Though dress codes for women can be restrictive, at least the options are flattering.

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Women praying at Ranmal Temple in Dhrangadhra

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Wedding in Jesada

Navigating the streets of Dhrangadhra is not like anything I’ve experienced before. First of all, there are no road rules. While sometimes this doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of safety, other times certain drivers scare the crap out of us. In general, though, I’ve noticed people here don’t seem to get road rage. The lack of rules has an effect of making the people who drive on these roads much more aware of everything that is going on, rather than relying on rules and boundaries to ensure safety. People drive wherever they can, and there seem to be more motorcycles and rickshaws than cars. Bulls, dogs, goats, and boars roam freely, eating the colorful trash adorning the brown roads.

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Because animals are considered to be manifestations of Hindu deities, they are respected here. They are left to roam free and are not generally kept as pets except for in situations where they are utilized for a purpose. I treat my cat like he’s my son, so it feels strange to me to see all these dogs walking around and people paying them no attention. My first night here I tried to call to one of the dogs, and he seemed extremely confused. It wasn’t until I called him multiple times that he even realized I was talking to him, and when he figured it out he seemed very confused that a human was trying to interact in that way with him.

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Dog enjoying milk libations at stepwell in Kankavati

Because this experience is delightful and exhilarating, it can be hard to recognize feelings of culture shock. I expected culture shock to be a conscious experience, but it is actually a rather unconscious process. Out of nowhere, several of us have experienced feelings of depression and heightened emotion. I think, at least for me, part of this has to do with the poverty many people are living in as well as how much women are repressed. While it is clear many people live in tents outside the palace ground, it seems so normalized here that it sometimes takes a while to comprehend the extreme difference of our lives in this palace with their lives on the sides of roads. In Ahmedabad, women with babies would come up to the car, gesturing that they needed food. It also takes a while to realize how different it is to be a woman here. Since in America we often associate bright colors, beautifully draped clothes, bare midriffs, and piercings with empowered females, it is easy to forget how patriarchal this society is. When a woman is married here, she is not supposed to wear certain colors like blue, black, white, and grey as they are associated with widowhood. Women are also supposed to wear certain jewelry to indicate their marital status. It was difficult to watch a young girl marry in a neighboring village called Jesada, as it was clearly the worst day of her life; she looked absolutely devastated. She did not get to choose her partner, she was about to be separated from her family, and she now had to lose many freedoms she once had in order to serve her husband. In addition, an eleven-year-old girl was also to be married. Though she does not have to leave her family until she is older, it was shocking to witness something like this. Now I know, especially after feeling so happy most of the time and then occasionally terrible out of nowhere that these experiences can be wonderful, but they must be processed. As anthropologists we must keep our minds open, but at the same time, we must recognize when certain issues push our ethical buttons.

Getting ready for India

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Hey folks! My name is Anna, and I am an undergraduate anthropology student at Temple University. This week I embark on my study abroad journey in Dhrangadhra, India! Fortunately, the children I nanny are 2nd generation Indian-American, and both parents speak Gujarati, the language spoken in Dhrangadhra. In fact, the seven-year-old daughter taught me the phrase modhu bandh which means “shut your mouth.” Surely this phrase will be invaluable in my field work! The parents have been generously helping me prepare for this experience by teaching me about food, inviting me to Indian-American community events, and telling me about their experiences as Indian-Americans both in America and in India.

For the past semester, I have been studying the craft of ethnography in anthropological and sociological fieldwork. Ethnography is a tricky medium. There are a variety of methodologies that can be used in field work. Among these approaches, some are more successful than others in avoiding ethnocentrism and considering cultural relativity. They may be specific to a social structure, comprehensive, or comparative. Ethnographic construction may involve writing, film, audio recording, and/or performance. I believe that now, at a time when globalization is spreading faster than paranoia and biases are eroding, it is important to establish ways to interact cross-culturally and publish these findings that are effective, respectful, and non-exploitative. Staying in Dhrangadhra for the entire month rather than dividing my time traveling to several different countries or regions will allow me to gain an appreciation for what it takes to adjust to life in a different culture far from home.  This skill is critical in anthropological work.

On an intellectual and spiritual level, my foremost curiosity is what is spirit and how is it linked to the body? From what I understand, there is an infinite number of answers to this question shaped by various cultural, temporal, geographical, and political factors. I know that what I want to do someday will be rooted in this question, and spending time in a place like Dhrangadhra will be a transformative experience that will allow me to explore it in new ways by observing and learning about religion, nutrition, medicine, and performance.

That’s all for now. See you in Dhrangadhra!