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A Brief Recap: Last weekend’s cultural fieldtrips

July 23rd, 2012 | dustin

I am writing to you, good reader, confined to the bedroom of our Taltala apartment, banished here until Dustin finds my general presence less hilarious. It is approximately 3:11 and we have not yet left the house. Dustin has devolved into hysterics; but more on that, and how, perhaps, he reached this state of delirium, to follow.

But before I tell of our slow languishing in the summer heat, I feel it is my [Anna jane jones'] to provide you with a brief recounting of our weekend last. As may or may not be evident from the introductory paragraphs on runningstitch.org, Dustin and I are here in Kolkata researching the revival of the kantha quilt through non-governmental organizations; the field work component of this research entails interviews, along with site visits to the homes, workshops, and production centers where kanthas are being made. Last weekend, Art Illuminates Mankind,one of the NGO’s we are working with, was kind enough to organize a veritable field trip (car, translator, meals included) to the district of Birbhum north of Kolkata. Though well aware that we would be visiting kantha artisans, the exact details of our schedule were hashed out in Bengali–leaving us pleasantly in the dark at each turn of our voyage.*

Our first stop–signaling, immediately, that we were in good hands–Cafe Coffee Day, where we experienced the delightfully competent cappuccino and the ubiquitous ‘cold coffee’ via one Iced Eskimo (coffee a la mode? No, not quite. . ni afogato**, more frappuccino if I am completely honest with myself). After managing to spill 1/2 of the contents of the soap dispenser on myself, tactically endearing myself to our fellow travelers as the clumsy and vaguely flustered one, we moved on.

To more food!

Not even 20 minutes later, we stopped at the Balaji Food Park, famous for its sweets (is not all of West Bengal famous for its sweets?) (Apparently not) (no, and this place deserved its reputation). Dustin and I shyly opted for water at the grocer-cum-sweets counter***, but as we turned around to pay, we realized that our gracious NGO director-cum-tourguide**** had purchased two of what appeared to be oblong, deep brown, vaguely sausage like (?) logs that had been only recently swimming in a vat of hot syrup.

ButYUM! No, really. Langcha is my new favorite dessert. Think “Donut.” And then, before you’ve finished that thought, think “Pancake dripping in syrup wrapped around a breakfast sausage.” And before you finish that thought, take away the sausage—but not the flavor that it surely imparted to your pancake-y-donut-y-breakfast-sweet. Tender. Chewy. Filled with little pockets of airbubbles which soak up every breakfast sin you’ve every really wanted to commit (granted, every breakfast sin in a world without bacon). Behold sweet reader! Langcha!

Well, folks, I was finally awake, we were finally headed to see some traditional kantha, we’d finally made it to the parking lot after two consecutive rest stops, and then . . . I finally drank coconut water with a straw, directly from the coconut after a man scythed off the top with (well, you know) a skythe. All my childhood fantasies, completed beside a state highway in West Bengal. My childhood dreams, I suppose, were less geographically specific than I initially realized.*****

At the risk of turning our weekend to visit the kanthas into a culinary retreat, and our updates-blog into a food-blog (we’re rapidly heading in that direction), our next stop was decidedly not food based. We were going to see the “guru-spiritual-leader-philosopher-type” + baul singers Sadhan Das and Maki Kazhumi in his small complex. On the floor of one of the small open-air huts, mercifully cooled by an electric ceiling fan, Dustin and I accepted the language barrier whole-heartedly and sat listening to our hosts chat in Bengali about the upcoming folk-culture-festivals. Yet our patience did not go un-recognized, and was in fact rewarded with an all-too-generous gift of a mini, private Baul concert. And, of course, lunch. I do have more to say on both of these matters, but my description grows much to long for a simple blog post. I want to keep you updated. I do! But I do not want to force you to slog through my writing. . . so for now, we shall leave that concert luncheon at “amazing,” with plans to elaborate more later.

The rest of the trip was more or less devoted to Our Research. We met 3 separate kantha creators, all making the quilt in different capacities—in their household, as artisans, as businesswomen. Our reception was always incredibly warm, our interviews hectic, with our translator attempting to paraphrase, Dustin attempting to record (and photograph), me attempting to write down notes and simultaneously ask questions. That anyone, ever, is able to glean both useful information and quotes from an interview without recording it (that is to say, from their written notes) is a marvel to me. I need to learn shorthand.

While it may seem wholly disproportionate (1:7 paragraphs about kantha research: paragraphs written), I’m going to leave it at that. You’ll all be receiving a healthy dose of kantha before you know it.


*But don’t be fooled. The resident West Bengali’s were similarly in the dark about each literal turn—as we progressed towards and through the small villages of Birbhum, we paused every 100-400 meters or so to ask some person standing roadside for directions. Their response, invariably, was to point in the direction we were already heading.

**hint hint

***very Bengali use of the word cum. Really…

**** I did it again there. Wow, I’m realizing its just so easy to use. So efficient. Such a streamlining, slickening of the english language.

*****And, more colonial. (But please tell me you remember the scene where she is on the beach, drinking coconut water directly from the coconut? If not, reread immediately). Additionally, it’s only fair to mention that she was also called the Lupine Lady and that her life’s mission to travel the world and then make it a more beautiful place. Also, the footnotes have reached 5 stars! Going to quit while I’m ahead and offer you no more wisdom via the footnote.

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