sound travels:
phil dadson in india
dispatch #1

phil dadson
june 18, 2008

Phil Dadson is a New Zealand sound and intermedia artist who was recently in India for 4 months. For three of the four, he undertook an artist residency supported by the New Zealand Arts Counci, at Sanskriti Kendra in south Delhi, where he produced a series of video and sound works, drawings and writings. While in India he travelled north as far as Sikkim, and south to Pushkar in Rajasthan, meeting classical musicians in Varanasi, Baul musicians from Bengal, Qawalli singers in Delhi and the nomadic Bhopa who frequent the Rajasthani festivals. Sound Travels, Dispatch #1 is the first of a series, where he relates some of his adventures.

Varanasi... my God, if there’s anywhere on the planet that puts death into perspective, this has to be the place. At the same time, it’s a city of bizarre contradictions with more hustlers and hasslers to the square meter, more dirt and pollution per square inch, more classical musicians per square mile, more life in the streets and more death up your nose than in any other measure of heaven’n hell on earth! Where else might you see the shocking sight of a dead child floating down a river and be able to somehow piece it into the fabric of normality? This after all is the historic city that devout Hindus desire to die in, and the sight, while sobering, of 24/7 cremations at designated sites along the banks of Mother Ganges is also, somehow, liberating, and accepting of life’s impermanence.

A more joyful window into local culture is the unexpected opportunity to attend a couple of all-night classical music concerts – from 8.30 in the evening thru to 5 in the morning – at one of Varanasi’s most venerated Shiva temples, festooned with colourful, rhythmically flashing light bulbs, and pulsing with electrical energy. In this three-night festival of tributes to the Goddess of Destruction, we strike some of Varanasi’s finest singers and musicians; a consort of father/son duos, including the memorable Vikash Maharaj on sarod and his eldest son on tabla, plus some impressive solo singers & violinists.

I’ve often wondered, when listening to a high-powered amplified band, just what the effect would be if the power suddenly cut out... no sound, no lights (the kind of thing we might wish on some bands). Well it happened, totally unexpectedly, one night in the Varanasi Shiva temple right in the middle of a classical raga recital by a distinguished elderly woman vocalist. Complete silence and total blackout. A tense few minutes later, a generator started up, lights blinked on, the PA burst into life and the singer and her accompanists resumed exactly where they had left off. Old hands, no fuss. They’d been there before!

When things eventually wind down I leave to make my way home on a rickshaw. Another power cut plunges the narrow streets into darkness as I leave the temple, the rickshaw-wallah narrowly skirting around dogs lying in the centre of the road, and cattle, standing like statues concealed in the shadows.

A Dehli-style schoolbus

To be missed, or not to be missed? We travelled on an overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi, and then again from Varanasi to Jaidalpuri, with a bunk seat each to sleep on. What starts out as a group seat late afternoon converts later to two bunks, the back-rest folding up to become a second bed. Another unhinges from higher above making three tiers in all, a total of six bunks to each compartment. For many of the locals, one bunk is a shared bed for as many as three, but for foreigners, booked in advance, you have one to yourself, and it’s a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly comfortable way of bumping up against the locals for a 14 hour journey.

Zoe, our youngest daughter who is travelling with us, isn’t too well, so we put her in an air-conditioned coach while we rough it with the hoi polloi. Joggled awake early in the morning, I make a long return trip along the rocky corridors in search of Zoe, a microcosm of life’s dailys on exhibition within a quarter kilometre of train; chai swilling, hoicking and toileting, teeth-brushing, dressing; sleepers and sleepwalkers just woken, beggars and endless sellers of trinkets, toys and tinsel; food cooking in vast vats, and a lone eunich-transvestite clapping locals awake and demanding money, (foreigners excluded, thank god), who, if they don’t fork out, risk being cursed, or worse, shown her privates.

Darjeeling we reach by shared-jeep, a phenomenon of the Himalayan foothills, especially within Sikkim where the geology is so fragile that the roads (roads?) require 4 wheel drives to negotiate their avalanche-ruined, potholed, cross-country character. A product of regular rains and landslides, the rough cobbled, mine-blasted dirt tracks would have to be the worst roads I’ve ever driven on. But I’d do it again for the fantastic mountain views, the remote pastoral landscapes, the forested hills and clean air, but mostly for the welcoming Tibetan monks and their deeply moving ceremonies of ritual chanting punctuated with mind-booming, crashing music. Sikkim is atmosphere. At nearly 2000 feet above sea level, it’s a very different India to the hot sticky lowlands we’d come from.

An amusing mishap: The share-jeep joureny to Darjeeling takes about four-hours, with 11 people crushed into front, middle and back. Crossing a bridge over a river chasm at one point, the driver stops suddenly and three guys from the centre row jump out with a bundle of what looks like rubbish in their hands. Camilla, my wife, immediately crys out “NO, Don’t ! I’ll look after it!” The guys hesitate and look at her in a confused, bemused way, pause briefly, and then throw the bundle over anyway, with Camilla continuing her protest out the window. They had called a halt to make a Puja food-tribute to the holy river! Oops!

In Siliguri, north of Calcutta, bicycle rickshaw drivers make their presence known by ringing bells or parping horns. Short, straight horns with rubber bulbs you squeeze. In a lane near the hotel I notice a bike with a caged seating contraption at the rear, and attached to the handle-bar is a much bigger circular-shaped horn, a vintage car style one with a big rubber bulb. A short while later I hear one in action. A school-bus rickshaw-wallah goes by pedalling smartly dressed little kids to school, barping and parping his low-pitched burpy hooter as he goes by. Just the thing I’m looking for. I promptly hail the next rickshaw, explain in gesture and limited Hindi what it is I’m after and off we go hurtling down one narrow street after another across to the industrial side of town, eventually winding up at a cycle repair shop. The owner, after a quick discussion with the boy, jumps on his bike and shoots off, returning ten or so minutes later with the coveted item. After a minute or two of hard bartering, we pedal away, my young rickshaw-wallah jubilantly commandeering the horn and proudly burping and parping it all the way back to the hotel. I should have bought two!

A garden in Sanskriti

Back in Delhi, I am back on my own at the oasis of Sanskriti Kendra, an hour or so to the south. Compared to the chaos and mayhem of inner Delhi, Sanskriti is a welcome respite. Run by Jainists (Mr O.P. Jain, the ageing visionary behind the Kendra), the centre is also home to 3 museums of Indian living traditions; terracotta art, textiles, and everyday utilitarian objects. Set amongst the scrubby farmlands of south Delhi, it’s far from the gritty reality of Delhi’s pollution, and a far shot from the passing parade and global village of old Delhi and the Main Bazaar. The difference is so great, that at times it seems a fiction; a fanstasy where bird and animal life is rich and varied, the food is heavenly and the grounds – planted, landscaped and manicured – are a world away from the everyday. I’m here for 3 months!

One hellish experience was walking the threatening Mehrauli-Gurgaon highway in south Delhi at night. I’d told Gus – an Australian artist at Sanskriti – that the local liquor shop and bar is only a kilometre or so up the road and that maybe we should walk there one night for a beer. He was very enthusiastic so I thought I’d better check out the exact location. M-G road is an irritable, noisy procession of vehicles, drivers compulsively blasting horns, loudly and often, to assert their presence. A cloud of dust and grit shrouds the highway. A new arm of the Delhi Metro is being constructed slap-bang down its middle, and combined with the relentless tide of traffic, the road is in a constant state of disrepair. There is virtually no street lighting, the road lit solely by the headlamps of cars, trucks, buses and motorbikes; those that have lights that is!

The side of a road in Mehrauli

An endless stream of wobbly silhouettes cycle, without lights, along the edges of the highway dissolving in and out of the darkness, trusting their fate to the warp and weft of vehicles. Pedestrians, like me, loom unexpectedly out of the blackness, picking our way along the road-sides, front or backlit with vehicle headlights. How anyone safely reaches their destination remains one of life’s mysteries, but of all the traffic, including occasional bony-ribbed long-horned cows that dreamily cross the road oblivious to the surroundings, cyclists without lights undoubtedly take the biggest risk and yet appear to think nothing of it.

With a handkerchief wound around my nose and mouth, I cautiously negotiate the edge of the road, waving a pathetic, but nevertheless comforting light at the end of my mobile phone.

I did find the bar. A crowded, dusty affair at the edge of the highway. Open air, dirt floor, broken down tables, not enough chairs and warm beer. I drank one, gazing in mesmerised amusement at the bar’s proximity to the traffic flow and how normal this all seems in India.

To be continued ...