Thursday, March 27, 2014

Exotic tribals - Theme-parkification of traditions

As our cities become clones of other cities with similar looking sky-scrappers and malls, some times during our travels we look for "authentic experiences". This photo-essay is the first part of brief stories about the influences of a globalizing world on cultures. I feel that increasingly, we are making people a part of a "theme-park" experience, rather than engaging with them.

Traditional and authentic experiences

Introduction

The image above introduces some of the ideas that came to my mind when I started thinking about this subject. This picture was taken at Dilli Haat in Delhi (India), an "artificial village market" in the city. There you find city persons and tourists looking at the shops. And then you have crafts-persons from different parts of India who come here to exhibit and sell their work. You also have some persons who serve or entertain the visitors. Like those in the picture above, who wear "traditional" dresses and play "traditional" instruments.

They are acting a part that may not be completely false - those turbans, dresses, drums and been (the wind-instrument played by the "snake charmer"), may also be part of their "real" lives. These are only jazzed up with colours and accessories that highlight their exoticness.

Thus, Dilli Haat gives you an artificial "authentic" experience, in which make-believe and reality are mixed and stirred together. The aim of Dilli Haat is noble - to provide a market for humble crafts-persons. It markets this aim by making it a "village theme park" experience.

This is the area that I am exploring in this post by referring to some of my travel experiences about changing traditions and our search for our roots. I do not wish to give value judgements about this in terms of right or wrong. Rather, it is just a way of looking back at few episodes from my travels around the world. And I want to start this reflection with a travel experience from China in 2007.

Yunnan, China 2007

I went to Yunnan province in south-west part of China for the first time in 1989. At that time, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, was a typical small provincial town with old houses, narrow streets and chaotic traffic, full of horse and cattle driven carriages. I don't remember seeing any tourists during that travel.

The last time when I was in Kunming in 2010, I was staying in a hotel room on the 24th floor in a city that seemed to have been made completely new. The roads were wide, the traffic smooth, the houses new. My friends had taken me around on a nostalgia trip to show me some of the old offices - the only problem was that those old places did not look like anything in my memories.

During 1960-80s, the national government in China frowned on any showing off of differences and traditions by the ethnic minorities. Thus, minority ethnic groups were supposed to dress and speak exactly like other Chinese. During the years of Mao's cultural revolution, often their traditional dresses, music instruments, temples, sculptures, etc. were taken away and destroyed.

During the 1990s, as China opened and its economy took off, slowly minority ethnic groups regained the freedom to express their specific cultures and traditions. To boost tourism, and probably to fill the void created by cultureless sameness, people were being dressed in ethnic costumes to add colours and folklore to places and events. Many of the old temples were reopened and their some times, their sculptures were found and replaced.

With this background information, now let me move to some of my experiences about traditions, changing cultures and authenticity, from that 2007 journey when, I had visited different small towns and many "minority areas". Yunnan is home to a big number of minority ethnic groups.

The next two images are from a restaurant in Kunming, where while you eat, there is a show of ethnic dances. This first image is of two young persons who were wearing traditional ethnic minority dresses and were standing outside the restaurant to attract tourists and to welcome the guests.

Traditional and authentic experiences

Often, persons wearing exotic dresses are used in this way in tourist places all over the world to attract and invite tourists. However, over the years, my impression in Yunnan has been that these persons seem to have become more self-confident. Probably for many of them this is a temporary work, and most of them are studying or working for better careers.

I think that most of them continue to have their roots in their original clans/groups in their villages. However, increasingly they are not wearing such exotic looking dresses in their daily lives, except for some special occasions. Thus, the image they present is for tourists and not the authentic representation of their lives in their ethnic groups.

The next picture is from one of the dances inside that restaurant. This dance had guys wearing cowboy hats from the American western movies.

Traditional and authentic experiences

Wearing cowboy hats is another sign of jazzing up the exoticness for tourists (mostly Chinese tourists). They are not worried about actual representation of traditions. Thus, new "traditions" may be made all the time. With time, I think that some such new "traditions" can grow roots and become more widespread in their communities.

***
The next image is from Dali, one of the minority ethnic area, not very far from the Chinese border with India. These women working at a souvenir shop, were going out for their lunch break. They were wearing their full traditional jackets and caps like a uniform, all in the same colours.Only the top part of their dresses was traditional, below they had the practical looking pants.

Traditional and authentic experiences

The next image is from Li-Jiang, not very far from Dali. In late 1990s, Li Jiang had a bad earthquake and the old part of the city was destroyed. During the reconstruction of the old city, an artificial Li-Jiang was built - a theme park, with restaurants, discotheques, souvenir and handicrafts shops for tourists. In this Li-Jiang, the local people dressed up in their ethnic dresses and made it an exotic tourist experience.

In Li Jiang, the impression of real-meets-artificial is very strong and their boundaries are completely blurred.

Traditional and authentic experiences

***
Late one night, we reached the city of Xu Chiong. I had visited it earlier in 1996. The doctor who had been my guide and had accompanied me at that time was now the governor of the city. He had treated me like some visiting royalty!

Like Kunming, Xu Chiong had also become unrecognizable - it seemed to be a brand new city made from scratch.

There was a huge square in front of the hotel. On my first night, from the window of my room, I saw a group of people playing traditional music and dancing in that square. Though I was very tired, I was very curious. So I went down to take a closer look at them.

This was not a show for tourists. Their dresses were very different and some people had no traditional costumes. They were not young persons, usually chosen for tourist shows. There was lot of clapping, shouting and some loud singing. Clearly they were having fun. I tried to ask questions through the gestures-language to find out if it was some traditional festival, but they did not understand me.

But they were very welcoming and I joined them and learned the simple steps of their dance. It was an exhilarating experience. The next two images are from that evening.

Traditional and authentic experiences

Traditional and authentic experiences

When I think of that evening, I feel that this was an authentic experience - of real people, rediscovering and celebrating something that they had lost.

***
However, Chu Xiong was also the place where I had another surreal experience in terms of ethnic minority traditions. Near the periphery of the city, a Li-Jiang like new tourist centre had been created, with designer tribal houses, Venice like canals, lights, shops and restaurants. One evening, the governor took me there for dinner. It was kitsch, gaudy, fun and completely artificial.

There I came across some persons who had rented traditional dresses and had portable microphones. Men and women were sitting on the two sides of a Venetian canal, and were singing traditional tribal songs about persons pining for their beloveds, separated from them by a mighty river.

When I asked, I was told that they were enacting an old tribal tragic love-story that was famous in that area. In that story, the boy from another village, sang songs for his beloved from the other side of a river. These persons had probably grown up listening to that story and were rediscovering that tradition in an "artificial" or make-believe version. The were having a lot of fun and could not stop laughing.

The whole episode left me feeling a little dizzy in terms of its meanings of traditions and authenticity!

Traditional and authentic experiences

Traditional and authentic experiences

***
In another small town called Yong Mou-lu near the border with Vietnam, one night, I found another group of ethnic minority persons, dancing for themselves in a small dark city square. The men had their old traditional music instruments and they knew how to play them.

This time, I had translator with me, who helped me to talk to them. They had managed to hide those instruments and saved them from the destruction of cultural revolution. Hidden away, somehow they had also managed to keep their skills of playing those instruments.

Traditional and authentic experiences

Traditional and authentic experiences

***
So then, how do we define authenticity and traditions? Actual tribals living in a remote mountain village, like the lady in the picture below, did not have the jewellery and the costume worn by persons who play tribals in the tourist centres. She is authentic.

As a tourist, if you are travelling, would you really want to visit these places where you will not have services and comforts, and people are not wearing exotic colourful costumes?

Traditional and authentic experiences

***
The last image from the 2007 Yunnan visit is of a newly married couple in Yuan Mou-Lu.

Except in the remote villages in the mountains, almost all the young people in China today get married in very Western looking dresses and ceremonies. Wearing traditional ethnic dresses for the marriage is looked down at.

While looking at them, I felt a little sad that they had lost those traditions. Yet, at the same time, not knowing the language and thus unable to communicate with them, I also felt that some of their traditions may still be alive today, in new forms, especially in their songs and dances.

Traditional and authentic experiences

Conclusions

Today the traditions and cultures are changing faster and at a bigger scale. The changes in the past were rare and slow because interactions with outsiders were few. Now the contexts around us and the historical events force us in different directions.

I think that some of the ethnic minority groups that I had met in south Yunnan, would also have parts of their clans in India and Vietnam across the borders. It could be interesting to look at those clans to see how they have changed in other contexts.

In these reflections, my focus was more on clothes and dances. Languages, customs, rites, religions can be other areas to look at, if we wish to think of traditions and authenticity!

***

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Gods, lords and great persons

In today's Hindustan Times, there is an article by Amish in which he writes about his feelings for "Lord Ram" and his answer to a woman about use of the title "Lord":
A lady friend spoke with me after the event. I know her well and can certify that she is not a secular-extremist (the kind who have a distaste for every religion, especially their own). She is religious and liberal. She asked why I used the honorific ‘Lord’ for Lord Ram. I said I respect him. I worship him. I will call him Lord. She said that she sees me as a liberal who respects the women in his family; then how can I respect Lord Ram, who treated his wife unfairly? She then went on to make some very harsh comments about Lord Ram.
In his answer to this accusation, Amish goes on to look at the lives of three great men - Ram, Mahatma Gandhi and Buddha - and concludes that great men often think of greater good of human beings and in the process are not always fair to their wives and their families, "We have every reason to love them, because they sacrificed their own lives so that we could have a better life. But had we been their family, maybe we would have cause to complain."

Great humans and bad family persons - Gandhi, Buddha, Ram, collage by Sunil Deepak, 2014

The way Amish explains it, it does make sense. However, I was wondering about a kind of gender bias in terms of such stories, where "great men" are excused for their family lives because they were thinking of greater good of the society, but are we equally understanding about "great women", when they want to sacrifice their family lives for the greater good?

So I was wondering are there similar examples of women. The only person I could think of was Mira Bai, though I think that it is not a perfect example. She sacrificed her family life because of her feelings of devotion to Krishna. Though her husband and her family did not like it and even gave poison to her, she is considered a saint by the people.

Another similar example can be of another woman saint from Karnataka - Akka Mahadevi. Can the readers give me other examples of such women as public figures who are respected or worshipped in India, though in terms of their family lives they were less than perfect? Or is it just men who "forget" their families in their quest for greater good?

At another level, similar accusations of mistreating their wives and families have been made against a number of artists, writers, film makers and public figures. Their public image be that of sensitive persons, and they make sensitive portrayals of women and life's injustices in their works, but their wives and families accuse them of neglect, psychological and even physical violence. Perhaps in this regard, it will be easier to find examples of successful women artists, writers and film makers, who have been accused of similar behaviour by their spouses and families!

Going back to the original debate that started this reflection - Amish's explanation about why he prefers to say "Lord Ram" and not just "Ram", I have another consideration. I agree that if you believe in a religion or a god or a figure and you wish to use words like Lord, bhagwan, prophet, etc., it is fine. These titles and words should reflect the faith and devotion you feel in yourself.

However, often the faithful get angry if others do not use such titles and take this as a kind of insult to their religion. They would like to force others to use these titles - in that case, I think that such words are empty of devotion, rather they are at best, a hypocrisy!

***

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

U.N. Buildings in Geneva - Walking tour

Geneva in Switzerland is home to many buildings of the United Nations. Over the past 20 years, in the course of my work, I had the opportunity to visit many of these buildings. This photo-essay is about a walking tour to some of the important U.N. buildings.

Geneva - broken chair and Placa of Nations

Introduction

The United Nations were started as "The League of Nations" at the Paris Peace conference in 1919 following the First World War. Its aim was to promote world peace. Palace of Nations building in Geneva was built in 1929-1936 to host the League of Nations. After the second world war, League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations with its main office in New York.

United Nations have many specialized organisations such as - World Health Organisation (WHO), International Labour Organisation (ILO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations High Commission for Refugies (UNHCR), United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Many of these organisations (except for UNICEF and UNESCO) have their head offices in Geneva.

Palace of Nations building hosts the general assemblies and meetings of some of these organisations. The map below shows 4 of the UN Buildings, that are part of this itinerary.

Geneva - UN Buildings map

Start the tour at WHO

We start our tour at the the World Health Organisation (WHO) building, located at the top of a hill. Take bus number 8 from the railway station and its last stop is in front of the WHO building on Avenue Appia.

Geneva - WHO

Till the 1990s, it was easy to go inside the WHO building and move around. However, after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the USA, they have more security checks now and you need to have an official invitation to enter WHO.

Geneva - WHO

During the annual world health assembly when ministers of health gather in Geneva, the flags of all the member countries are displayed in the WHO lobby.

Even if you can't enter WHO building, you can walk around and see. In front of the WHO building is the UNAIDS building, while the park in front of it has two groups of statues - the river blindness statues and the vaccination statues. The WHO building is number 1 on the map above.

Geneva - WHO

Geneva - WHO

ILO building

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) building is a short walk downhill from WHO. The ILO lobby has some huge columns that give it a monumental feeling - its architecture somehow reminds me of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia. It is number 2 on the map above.

Geneva - ILO

Across the road from the ILO building, in a grassy meadow, there is the statue of Miguel Hidalgo Y Castilla, who had led the fight for independence of Mexico from the Spanish colonial rule.

Geneva - ILO

Palace of Nations building

From ILO to Palace of Nations (PoN), you can walk down the road that goes downhill in front of ILO or you can take the path behind the Miguel Hidalgo statue that will take you near the USA embassy and the International Red Cross museum. PoN is number 3 on the map.

Palace of Nations has public tours so you can visit it as tourist. Go through the entrance on the left side of the gate and you need a valid identity document such as your passport to enter.

In the park outside the gates of PoN, you can see the Mahatma Gandhi statue.

Geneva - Palace of Nations

PoN has the general assembly hall where the different UN organisations hold their assemblies. The image below is from May 2011 with Bill Gates speaking to the World Health assembly.

Among all the guests that I have seen at the assembly, there have been many presidents and prime ministers, but my favourites were Amartaya Sen from India and Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa.

Geneva - Palace of Nations

The main building has many places that make for good photo-opportunities.

Geneva - Palace of Nations

Do not forget to visit the back of the assembly building that has some wonderful trees, a nice view of the Geneva lake and some monuments as shown in the images below. Rather than walking around all the building to go to the back, an easy way is to go to the cafeteria on the basement level and then take the back exit.

Geneva - Palace of Nations

Geneva - Palace of Nations

Geneva - Palace of Nations

Geneva - Palace of Nations

International Intellectual Property Rights building

As you walk down from the PoN building, you will see the "Broken chair" of the anti-mines campaign and the fountains in the main square (first image on the top). Go on to the International Intellectual Property Rights (IIPR) building across the road on the right side.

Geneva - IIPR

In the images, I have labelled it as WTO (World Trade Organisation) as in my mind patents for intellectual property rights are invariable linked with WTO issues, however these are two separate organisations, though probably they are inter-linked.

I like the fountains and the sculptures in the gardens of this building.

Geneva - IIPR

Geneva - IIPR

Geneva - IIPR

Conclusions

Across the road from IIPR, there is a park with some interesting sculptures, where you can rest.

Geneva - IIPR

Geneva - IIPR

Further down the road, you can see the international workers' union building and international telecommunication organisation buildings. If you are not tired enough, you can continue. If you face PoN square and take the road going to your right, you will come across UNHCR building and then further down, main WTO building.

That will take you to the Geneva botanical gardens and the lakeside. I stop here today, that will be part of another walking tour!

***

Monday, March 17, 2014

Duck tales - Cool Wall-papers of Waterbirds

Here are 20 of my favourite wallpaper images, about cool waterbirds - completely free for you in high resolution with greetings of Holi, the Indian festival of colours.

Click on the picture you like and it will open on a new page with that image in high resolution. You can then save it on your computer and use it as you wish! If you have an old computer with limited RAM, you may need to downsize these images as they are all high-resolution big files.

If you do not know what are wallpapers and how to use them, click the "Wallpapers" tab above (towards the top of the blog) for instructions.

And if you like these wallpapers, do share the link of this page through Facebook, Google plus and Twitter. So check these out and have fun!

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

High resolution wallpapers with cool waterbirds

I hoped you have liked at least some of these wallpapers. If yes, do not forget to share the link to this page through Facebook, Twitter, Google plus etc. Thanks in advance and happy holi, the festival of colours from India!

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