CALCUTTA IN A WEEK

 

What follows in one traveler's first experience over a week in December 1999, the turn of the millenium. I am on the journey to almost the other side of my Hawaii as the organizer and featured artist for India's first "cyberart" (digital art made for the Internet). I was scheduled for January but gave in to the nagging concerns about the possibility that Y2K could create havoc on high tech equipment like airline terminals and airplane control panels. So here I am on Indian Air- or is it Air India? Workers at the Bangkok airport say it is the same. I take their word and  stand in line at "Air India," even if my tickets attained in Honolulu read "Indian Air." Besides, it was the only line for travelers to Calcutta, less India, at this time on this particular evening outta Bangkok.

On this plane things were already different for this seasoned Western traveler.   Most belting in were Indian young males, say 97 percent, and this was not a military charter. The cabin was alive with energy and chatter, equally in Indian dialects and in English. The usual stewardess - passenger relationship was replaced with something I haven't seen before. Although all the incoming passengers, mostly men, received baby roses with pins for their shirts at the door, in here it was "them against us." The middle-aged Indian attendants look weary, as if this wasn't their day's first commuter  flight, or even a pleasant flight to be assigned to.  "Accidentally" bumped from the back, one of the hostesses shriek at the jerk. He innocently put up his to arms to extend opened palms and said "Sorry." As he past her in the aisle, the woman once more bent over to fetch drinks for passengers, he smirked at his chuckling seated friends and winked. He had intentionally come up upon the woman's rump as she bent to get drinks off her cart's lower shelf. And she knew it.

The big bearded guy seated next to me kept bumping into my elbow with his elbow. His never ending jerking knees intruded on mine. His bag under the seat fronting his also took up a part of my front seat "storage space." All this did not offend me as I realized the brute didn't have any inkling at all that he was intruding on my "personal space." Instead of making it an issue, I gave him the elbow support and rode to Calcutta with my left leg crossed over onto the right. I was determined to remain in an upbeat mood, finally on the last leg of my trip to exotic I N D I A!

When we touched down the intercom commanded "For your own safety please stay in your seats until we taxi to a complete stop."  As if on cue, everybody jumped up, seemingly in unison, all hastily reaching up to get their overhead compartment carry ons. No more voice from the intercom. Obviously just a routine message which the crew knew wouldn't be obeyed.  Within seconds chatter was everywhere, the aisle lines were packed,  in anticipation of having arrived back at their homeland. I sat there alone, with safety belt affixed, probably looking totally weird and naive, until the plane came to a halt.

The doors open and it felt humid. There wasn't the customary traveler chute that connected the plane's doors to the terminal.  We had to walk down the ladder to the turf and were met by Indian soldiers with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. Welcome to  Calcutta at the millennium!  Getting your bags, getting through immigration is slow. And hot and humid while standing in a sweating crowd. No wonder everybody on the plane got up in a rush to get an edge in line for immigration.  Of course I was the last in line.

Finally, exiting the door of this very modest airport terminal building,  there in the Indian night crowd were  two faces I had never actually seen, accept on the Internet. Yes it was Shuhbojoy and Yogi , waving me down in jubilation - finally see Pygoya from  America. Yogi Chopra made it, after all, from Bombay (by train) for the show and me.  Like a dream becoming reality, I was in India!

We felt we had known each other for a long time. After all I have written "tons" of email to both to organize this show from afar.

Out in the dark you can still see all the taxis are old. India's own manufactured cars, probably of 50's vintage. My friends haggle with the fare agreement to the hotel Shubho at picked out for me. I told him no 5 star place but something clean, Indian and close to the gallery as I had to go there everyday. We finally ride off into the dark and dusty road, blaring our share of horn noise, seemingly every 15-20 seconds. At what?  Seemed the horn was programmed to honk automatically in constant intervals.  For a purpose-

There are pedestrians, rickshaws, bicycles, buses and other taxis all over the place and the road is not well lit. I am riding down a road in India!

We talked of the thrill of finally meeting each other and about the plans for the show and tomorrow's full schedule. There is a splendid Victorian front to this long old building but we take a back dirt road. Adjacent is a small field of dead grass, totally lost in most of the "park" revealing well worn dirt surface. There is a step down small entrance to the "hotel." The front entrance of Bengal Chambers is dark from the dim street light of this dusty road, silhouetting a standing figure also   illuminated from a harsh fluorescent source from above. He turns out to be the "lift" (old cable driven cage elevators of past) operator. Then I get my first shocking experience of India. There lies on these stairs to the second floor elevator, what I call the "living dead." Three of them, men sleeping totally shrouded by fabric like encasements for a pyre.  Men, I guess. It humid and a bit hot, yet these people choose to breathe from within their enclosures. There is no noise or stirring, even with our talking and that bright fluorescent tubing on the ceiling. I have to leap over the one lying straight across the entrance of the elevator's door. That night, jet lagged and trying to sleep with a noisy air conditioner (only "Fan" worked) in a room with a misaligned, inoperable bolt lock, I couldn't sleep all night  -  those haunting homeless figures indelible affixed to my visual  cortex.

Mornings of Calcutta are announced by the multitude of "caws" by hundreds of huge black crows with gray necks. This provided a background for the ceaseless honking of horns in the morning traffic below. After dressing, I took the lift, walked the backstreet with the open space now revealing slum-like tenements around it. Other street entrances of this huge and once proud building had the morning activity of dishes with smells of breakfast evident to all passing through. Another turn, stepping through a entrance gate and I was on the mainstream - Park Street, with several lanes both ways.

Oxford Bookstore and Gallery was down further, across the street. I could see it's big store front sign.  Ah, finally the gallery.... so this is what it looks like.   Snapped a picture with my disposable camera, including street dweller sitting in front of it.

The homeless line the store front streets, most still asleep. Men and woman, children young and older. I wonder how to cross this congested early morning snarl of taxis and buses. I eventually follow some other local, snaking through the honking and fast braking taxis and make it alive to the other side. Over seven days I get better at this daily defying of death act.  I feel almost like a football running back, juking to gain some yards.  I read the morning paper - twenty three people dead doing this in the past week and a half. Frustration has come to a boil and I learn of 3 bus burnings with the drivers beaten by pedestrian mobs before the police ever arrive- in riot gear. They say if a taxi driver hits and heaven forbid kills a pedestrian, he quickly gets out and runs for his dear life. They say when a person becomes a taxi driver something takes over inside his brain. He becomes mad, contributing his share of the daredevil taxiing to the manic street environment. He drives on the wrong side of the street to avoid huge unattended to pot holes as well as to overtake the taxi in front of him. He honks almost every 10 seconds in this traffic, pedestrian not even looking at his vehicle but instinctively move away from the horn source. Other taxis cut in and out at the last second, all contesting for that little extra space within the traffic jam. It like a race on an overly crowded race track. Intermittently there is a dead halt and the engines are turned off. Things stir again and everybody's engines come back to life.  I imagine hearing, "Gentleman, start your engines!" Simultaneously  everybody honks even as there is yet no place to budge. Our driver horns the locked in old vehicle in front of him as the guy behind honks at him. Without AC and with all windows down on this hot and humid night, the street's dust limit our vision and  irritate my eyes as my ears are assaulted by the noise. Every night before bed  my white Kleenex displays two black circles where I had blown.  In retrospect I realize these taxi drivers are real pros for adapting and surviving in such traffic conditions.  Drive with any less bravado and we would never get where we tell them to take us as customers.

Later after visiting the very British, intellectual hangout of Oxford Bookstore and Gallery, I go with Shubho, my art show and tech local support, to the U.S. Consulate's American Center where my lecture on "cyberart" will later take place that day. My presentation rested on surfing the Internet to show the features of my Web site art museum. The Net chooses not to work today. I can't find my lecture notes in the frenzy of making it here to India. Suddenly the moment is here, I am formerly announced by the Center's prominent director and I, they're testing the attach microphone to my suit's lapel, and  like a condemned man, walk to the front of this group of professionals and intellectuals to face what seemed like a firing squad as they later would fire away with questions. Imagine my predicament - an art lecture with no art to show, for those who never saw this type of art for which they had come to see! I could see panic in the eyes of those that had helped planned this event.  In a pinch, the adrenaline kicked in and the brain maneuvered itself through the ordeal, basing conviction to cyberart beliefs as something that had to be said, even without forethought and  rehearsal. At the end, many stood and applauded, many  shook my hands as we all made our way to the door. Some wanted to find out how to become a "cyberartist." It was the delivery of my life. Later the director, who I later found out to have been a New York museum curator, seemed serious when he said that maybe the U.S. Government, as sponsor, could help take this show that I had organized  around the world. Since this presentation was the night prior to the opening of the exhibit, many came the next evening to the Oxford historic digital art opening,  since they had seen no pictures during  my improvising presentation about art of the Internet. 

This Indian gathering relished the precious moment of experiencing the first art show downloaded from the Internet. An reality different from the beggars outside, looking up and in through the store front glass walls, at the well dressed crowd within - munching, sipping, laughing under gallery and televising lights,  during this momentous   social occasion. The gallery and myself are totally satisfied as 3 newspapers, 3 television stations and India's "top magazine" came and scheduled interviews. Again, like at the American Center talk, I have a suit on. In every case, I parlayed down my interviews to a simple definition: "Cyberart IS - digital art made as contribution to online cyberculture, where such Internet artists choose to display their work."   It is evident they have never heard anything like this before and loved it. Maybe because less than 50,000 of this subcontinent of 1 billion has a connection to the Web. I now  realize I could not find Indian digital artists for my Webmuseum shows because digital art to still way ahead of their art times, but because of prohibitive costs and limited local Web access. Everybody that I met seemed to have more pressing life situations that required financial attention - before purchasing a home PC or getting wired.

Anyway, the show is a tremendous success and word gets to me that one of the distinguished regulars (on the gallery's distinguished folks mailing list) rates this show the "best event of the year at Oxford." What more can a show director  want to hear?!

Opening for the India lst International Digital Art Exhibition was fabulous. Mrs. Maina Bhagat, director of the gallery, lit the customary candles on some sort of golden Indian ceremonial candle holder. Then she handed the lit candle to the Director of American Center of the U.S. Consulate of Calcutta. I then lit the third and last candle and exhibit was officially opened. Bumped into TV and Press and many other interested Calcuttans desiring to know, experience the latest art thing from the West, that is  happening on the world internet. I was the source to some one-on-one questions about art on the Internet. Being a veteran at this scene, I judged the event to be a very successful intellectual (aesthetics, psychology, cross-cultural, high tech) as well as artistic one. Money could not measure success as nothing was on sale. Star TV, the " number 1"   television network of the Asian region and nation, called to book time to interview Pygoya, Internet artist.

For the rest of the stay the pressure is not off this artist. There's daily scheduled press interviews and TV taping. I later found out that Shubho's girlfriend Priti, "Calcutta's lst digital artist,"  was praying for him and me from the lst floor book sections below. It was her boyfriend's first time on national television and I remember how that felt long ago. He did exceedingly well and I was proud of him. The schedule further swelled with visits to artists' studios. Three had come to the show to see new art but also to solicit me to see their work during my limited stay. They had to be that good or experts in promotions and  marketing. None had connection to the Web and I was in town as America's Internet art museum director. One is a seasoned pro with strong works of Mother Theresa and her life of dedication to the sick, destitute and dying. Another just came back from the United Kingdom, having been selected for a year's scholarship abroad as working artist. She was young, a freshly minted M.F.A. and did wonderful painting mixing feminist, emotional charged colors and strokes of a sense of displacement and detachment. A third proposed a show of photography of Calcuttan life over the last two decades. I suggested titling it "Calcutta at the Millenium." Evidently it has come very far and he wanted to show it to the Web. I will give all three shows on my Web site. Each content will add further depth to lastplace.com's new online Indian cultural identity. Links to each other's work and personal introduction as artists will be secured, detouring some of the the hordes attending the digital show to the side shows provided by Calcutta residential nondigital artists. The three artists, by stepping forward and introducing their work, are now online with exhibits of their work. Everybody wins.  CalTiger, Calcutta's first ISP and server, will link to lastplace.com's Indian coverage here.

On the third day I finally give in and permit the doorman to take my clothes for washing and pressing. I told him I need certain items by 3 p.m. that afternoon. I needed the clothes to attend Shubhojoy's sister's wedding, a 2 hour drive by taxi to the outskirts where his family lived and where the ceremony would be held. As you guessed, no clothes at 3 p.m. It was time to go to Plan 2. Seems like you always have to improvise here.  I ran down the hallway to the receptionist and asked if somebody wanted a tip for taking me out into the madness of the marketplace to buy something to  wear to the event. The Hindu female manager said, "For what do you need these clothes?" I said for a Hindu wedding. We scuttled down to the bus stop and for 2 rupees (1/43 of $1 USA) rode like sardines crammed in a can. She jumped off, I push aside 5 men obstructing the exit and just made it out, leaping from the rickety busas it  pulled away, belching black smoke from its polluting diesel engine.

She led me into "New Market." Some sort of multi-floor people's mart with stall after stall after stall compacted over the total square footage of several expansive building floors.  Sort of had a carnival flavor to it.  The curious followed us about to see what we would buy and how the bartering would turn out.

We were looking to buy Hindu men's "kurta" or "punjabi", a traditional North Indian long sleeve collarless shirt with pleats on each side at the waist. I reminded her about the time and she said "Don't worry. We'll catch a taxi back." After a couple of stalls one fit the bill: Medium, simple design, dark brown, beige or black, 100 % cotton. Matching pants and some Indian leather shoes. Almost every place she turned to there was a shouting match, drawing a crowd. Once the argument was intentionally in English. The man said to the woman, dressed with a traditional sari, sash over her shoulder and with that Hindu dot on the forehead between the eyes: "You're Indian. I'm Indian. He wants to pay. Why don't you let him pay?!  Help India. Besides this is between man and man and you are (just) a woman." This woman could explode. You wouldn't guess it, seeing her slide gracefully but quickly by, with big round eyes looking as benevolent as a loyal Beagle. It was WAY past the time I was supposed to be ready to jump into another taxi for the wedding location. But at this point I knew to shut up and follow, led like a little boy, until this woman got a satisfactory price, or "Indian price" as she put it. At this point it was a personal thing for her. My money yes, but her pride and reputation. Eventually she agreed to let me by one. I liked the gray, beige and brown ones too but she said she had a better plan. Tomorrow she'd come alone and get these extra shirts without me complicating the process through my physical presence. In fact the next day I got the shirts for 300 rupees each,  which seemed damn cheap from the 550 they wanted from me. It's like she almost got an extra shirt  free. I was so proud of her I gave her a 300 rupee tip. Unhesitantly she snatched up the money and said that cute "Thank You" by dipping her face to the side, placing a grin and momentarily closing both eyes. Upon opening they were directed and beamed at me,  basking in my personal conveyance that I'd rather give you the large tip than be cheated by those "bad men."

I finally jumped into my friend's cab to go the wedding. During this ride, nothing spectacular, a normal daily activity, I got the idea for "Calcutta Rollercoaster," a Web video of a camera from the backseat of one of these Calcuttan taxis.  Shuhbo said he'd do it. Let me try to describe the joy ride of taking a cab in Calcutta.

They drive British here and steer from the ride side of the front seat. Nobody uses safety belts, there's none for backseat customers. These funky oldie but goodie Indian made heavy metal yellow and green vehicles run about like Crazy Cars of the carnival. They dash in and out of each other, cross to the wrong side of the road seemingly every 20 seconds.  They come within inches of pedestrians jaywalking all over the place, honk every 15 seconds even if it's just to announce its presence and domination of a space the size of his car. The driver blasts his horn at the taxi in front, immobile from the pack of cars ahead and on the sides of him. He horns everybody- pedestrians, rickshaws, motorscooters, bicyclists, buses, other taxis. They are all quiet, totally focused it seems on the current traffic situation. They are pros driving like maniacs in a crazy road situation. The overall apprehension has risen so much that bus and taxi drivers who hit pedestrians literally run for their life to avoid a beaten or lynching by the local pedestrian mob. So they drive as they must do, stuck in traffic all day due to transportation systems overwhelmed by traffic pouring in from the countryside, get customers where they want to in bumper to bumper. Daring each other for the next meters of space on the rode,  our driver rides a solid line to keep both lanes for himself until he can see which one to commit to after surveying the traffic per lane in the immediate distance. They come within an inch of each other, amazingly without hitting! They exchange glares seemingly stating "Don't you dare scratch my car." And miraculously they hot rod about as such, proving their extraordinary talent as Calcutta taxi drivers. Big time pot poles anywhere in the streets, dim lighting, dogs, people, bicycles and rickshaws, anytime suddenly in front of the dashboard. Other taxis vying and speeding to open lanes. Huge buses can block by becoming stuck in the maze of traffic at intersections. Where's the traffic road lines? None and many times there's 5 cars abreast with 4 equally spaced behind this first row. Big buses? Some take 1.5 of lanes, creating a niche for a motorcyclist as it covets the other 1/2 lane as he maintains his bike parallel with the moving bus. Watch for "Calcutta Rollercoaster."

When we arrive at the bride's parents home, on the outskirts of Calcutta, I realize that, other than the groom, I am the only guy wearing Hindu clothes. All the men had dress shirts or suits on. There I was, with my bleached hair, Ghandi glasses, Hindu clothes and painful Indian leather shoes with the front curled and pointing backwards. I felt like a nerdy tourist. Which I am.  At least all the woman had native saris on so I fit in with them. Some said I didn't look silly but in fact "carried the kurta or punjabi well." I was starting to think my slender and relatively tall built was made to wear this native shirt. We all sat and drank and enjoyed the moment of giving away a daughter.

While there I got to send an email to my family to inform them I was OK. Big, fat, black mosquitoes started to pounce of the bright monitor. Then I remember I had not put on mosquito repellent at the hotel and there they were, next to me, mosquitoes that could be carrying malaria. I didn't finish the email and rejoined the others in the living room. Darkness lit by candlelight was the moment as an electrical outage turned off everything, including the bedroom computer.  I was instructed to sit between two locals on the living room couch and they commenced to fan with their arms any mosquitoes thinking of drinking Hawaiian blood.  We instead drank and all soon forgot about the mosquitoes and all that laborious fanning.

As it turned out I never felt any bites, went in a caravan of cabs to enjoy a   wonderful wedding feast at a high end Chinese restaurant. I especially liked the Indian crab with flesh so sweat, simmered in yummy black bean sauce. Then there was some sort of sumptuous fish on a dish and roast chicken in some type of curry. All in all, I loved the food, washing everything down with a glass of Coke- without the ice.

On another day we went Salt Lake, on the southern outskirts of Calcutta. The floors of CalTiger.com's new building was not complete but the one that was was impressive. We were welcomed to learn their marketing strategies, take a tour of the equipment and personnel work stations. I was really impressed with the speed of talk and response of the young female CEO of this latest India Internet server and ISP. She offered to give us a free Internet site to create a duplicate of my online art catalog of the Indian show on this free space. She said this would insure much Indian traffic for the show. She wanted to exchange links with my lastplace.com and it's Virtual Web Art Museum, mentioned on national India TV. Hopefully we can profit together online through some sort of mutually beneficial affiliation.  They were very friendly and cordial people from Mumbai.

I did find time to go to two different discos on separate nights. The one at the Park Hotel is more like a single's bar, filled with smoke and with a centrally located long bar. I didn't dance on that small, overlit makeshift dance floor at the corner of the room.  But the disco in ritzy Taj Bengal was truly world class with it marble dance floor, lit system, large video screen for Hindu pop videos. There ancient Hindu music and dance gestures are integrated into a disco sound that requires fast hip hop type of dancing. Hindu disco dancing was something new to me. It was interesting, a local adaptation of Western disco, but not my speed. I did however, manage to dance to some disco standards. One of the Indian woman in our party said I danced "Spanish or like a Cuban."

Throughout all this activity was apprehension and daily visits to the printer of my book. "Cyberart - Emerging Art From the Internet" was supposed to have been available before I came to Calcutta. There were so many reassurances during the 7 day course of my stay but in the end, it never got done. Too bad - would have been a great scenario to be signing this book as participating artist of the digital art show within the Oxford Bookstore and Gallery. Given the fate of outcome, now I have decided to take my time, make the images color instead of black and white, create a bigger edition with offset press printing instead of laser copying,  and probably copyright date it 2000 instead of 1999.

On my last night in Calcutta I went back to the gallery that stayed open to 8 p.m. every night except Sundays. Shubhojoy's family, here in Calcutta for the wedding, where in the gallery to see it for themselves. Then suddenly Bengali TV, which broadcasts out of Hong Kong, was on the premises and interviewing fellow Bengali, Shubhojoy Mitra.   Shubho called me over and HE interviewed me instead of the reporter. I thought that was creative. We talked like friends with TV camera nosing in like some sort of inanimate busy-body.

After that Shubho, his girlfriend Priti and I went to an evidently popular restaurant. We feasted, the works, for what came out to be around $27, USA. As we stepped out there were the beggars. They're all over the place. Once I was surrounded by 6 little boys. Anywhere I looked were waiting sadden eyes, asking "Uncle, Please!" A tug there, a tug here. Like a weary captured prey I finally succumb and hand over money. Suddenly the pack is gone.

The weather I am told was exceptional at 70 Fahrenheit degrees and no humidity. Looking about for one of the last times, I shall remember Calcutta for its decaying British mansions, street people, and the orchestration of a multitude of overlapping horn and crow sounds, both day and night. There is also the sea of people hurrying along the sidewalks, each with an interesting face with a story to tell. The hurrying businessmen, oblivious to the beggars spread out along the sidewalks, each in its living quarters consisting only of concrete, a rug and bag of clothes and other stuff. An occasionally young girl in modern Western dress exposes the shape of her body. School children idly walking to school.   Men at makeshift sidewalk sites, swat and  sell cigarettes, polish shoes, shave beards, fry snacks in pans for passers by.  But more in the majority are women in traditional saris, wrapped up ever so tenderly in delicate and embroidered laced fabric, gliding about like mystical Greek goddesses. The murmur of people conversation on such living streets of an inner city. 

I must say I will miss the acceptance, goodwill and hospitality of the people that took care of me during my stay in Calcutta. It was special to be granted a glimpse into their private lives and lifestyles. It was a chance for a tourist to penetrate into Indian family life as well become an nationally recognized artist overnight!  Yes, I shall return.


Pygoya - December 18, 1999

Traveler's Notes