Wednesday, October 2, 2019

The "Body" of NIRMAN

I awoke in what felt like to me, the middle of the night. Mind still dreaming, still reeling in the question of where I was. I noticed the texture of the walls in the once-cloister turned guesthouse. The weight of the iron ring in the ceiling. The weight of the wooden door, the warmth of the air that flowed freely over my skin and into the courtyard. Upon emerging, the sweetness of the North Indian monsoon air hit me again—as it had landing in New Delhi, and again landing in Benares. Despite the beckoning of countless rickshaw walas, we decided to walk to Assi Ghat.

Stepping onto the road toward Lanka Crossing, I noted the distantly familiar texture under our feet, the din of early morning horns and exhaust pipes, the gentle bowlegged peddling of men in their checked lungis, flip flops, and lazy turbans, burlap sacks, hanging softly from the racks over the back wheels of their bicycles. The image of Ramesh Bhaiya in his tank top, with one eye still dreaming comes to me now, remembering this episode. Remembering all the mornings when I took this same early morning stroll toward Assi Ghat almost everyday three years before. Children washing themselves before school in front of their houses; people drinking chai at the stand near the little bridge, the occasional auto zooming by. The prayers being said at the orange temple and at the foot of a great tree overhanging the road after the little bridge. The slowly rising and diminishing feeling of Nagwa stirring into wakefulness. The Ganga ma, waiting patiently at the ghat, was already higher than she’d been on my last visit which began in late October 2016. Still nothing like the level we saw on our last passing to the ghat in late August this year, when she had already engulfed the stage of Good Morning, Benares and yet, wasn’t finished rising.

Was it something about the rise in her waters between our arrival and our parting that made the visit feel somehow complete? Even knowing that not seeing the waters fall meant the witnessing of a sort of a half-cycle or her monsoon activities. Was it that rising that made our visit exciting, novel, full of waves of gentle discovery? Was it the fact that we left before she rose even higher, that we escaped the possibility of flood (of water and books from Claremont alike) that left me feeling still thirsty for more experience by her side? Was the widening of perspective that we received during our four week stay simply a repercussion of her widening? How does a person, sheltered and protected from the natural world, from “foreign” cultures, from the unknown, from the experience of the unfamiliar—protected by parents, by neighbours, by nationalist philosophies, by the too loud drone of media, nationalistic tendencies, and even wellmeaning friends, widen the aperture of perception to witness the life that a river gives?

I don’t have an answer, but my experience this summer at NIRMAN points the compass needle toward the value of community. NIRMAN is a real community. It’s complex, even complicated, impossible to understand. It’s alive. It’s dynamic. One feels that one has entered a kind of web. When I’m there, or rather when we’re here, from the perspective of being inside, we feel gently swaddled. We feel like we can grasp on to a fold in the communal sari, a little like the baby monkeys who so often visit the yard, to its mother, and ride through heat of the day. And yet, we see that the whole organism only works, only exists even, because of the efforts of its members. Many of those members are children. Because I teach classes that don’t fall into any of the familiar categories associated with education of children, NIRMAN is the perfect place to teach what I love. What we do as movement educators does fall into the category of “the arts,” and since NIRMAN is a great supporter of such a field, teaching and thus experimenting with teaching methodologies is possible.

This time around, I saw a different aspect of the student body, having worked on my previous visit primarily with first and fifth standards. Without a performance date on the horizon, students allowed me to lead them into explorations of balance and suspension, working on the slack line, the gymnastics rings, and the aikido tatamis. Working on singing while moving, on matching the rhythm of one’s voice to the rhythm of one’s movement, to the rhythm of the partner. Pulling from acrobatics, capoeira, and research on developmental movement, we entered a very brief, but very real practice of self-localisation. For the slack-line especially, there is no pretense needed, no way to cheat or to escape the callenge. You’re up there, you’re walking and balancing, or you’re falling. On the other hand, the students who were supporting their classmates while walking, were required to be the kind of stable support that helps one get through the most fragile and nerve-inducing moments of the day.

Outside of class, one of the continuous pleasures of being at NIRMAN were our dealings with the residents and merchants of Nagwa, Lanka, Assi, and Madanpura as well. After an initial trip to Jalans, we started almost daily visit to the tailors. First to drop off the material, take measurements, and explain designs, with pictures from the web included of course—phones taking pictures of phones. Then a few days later to pick up and drop off new fabrics, new designs, then to bring back the first set of designs to be hemmed, taken in or let out, etc. back to pick up the second designs and drop off a third set of fabrics. To make something for ourselves, for someone else, for the joy of feeling what it’s like to be a fashion designer, for something practical, for the pleasure of experimentation. Little by little, we got to know the tailors, the men who stand in their shop, even other clients. Little by little our sense of community expands and is enriched.

We also got to know a particular shop of silks on this trip, Sofee Saree Center, as we made multiple trips to see them. Their philosophy is that a great deal of laying the ground happens for humans pre-birth, and that when we come into this world, naked and knowledgeless, we have already a great awareness of being, one that spans cultures and religions, castes and races. So, to house this awareness, one needs to wear cloth with a certain level of care put into it’s making. Pretty intellectual for a sales pitch, eh!? Well, we bit the bait, doing all of our holiday season shopping for family and friends in the span of two three to four hour visits. While Célia played along wonderfully in the scene, I was made drowsier and drowsier by seeing the coloured scarves fly across the store and must have nodded off a few times as purples blended into blues, turquoises into light pinks, and lower prices into higher ones!!!

Aside from fabrics, there are also, the sweets maker, the pan shop, and the tea shop at Ravidas gate; the emporium with singing bowls, and the little shop of notebooks and postcards at Assi crossing, ithe ice cream parlour across from my Taiji teacher’s old house, the paint seller and the bamboo salesman on the way toward the bridge. They all know NIRMAN, and it being the case, they all welcome us with what might be a little extra fondness as we enter their various planets of material and knowledge. It’s clear that NIRMAN spans far beyond the edges of the campuses, as we saw while walking around the central living area of Betawar, Samira ogling baby buffalo and the residents in turn, looking our strange group up and down for signs of either welcoming or alienness.

The lines as to what is inside and what is outside of the NIRMAN realm blur no matter where we go. If NIRMAN was a body, we might say that the parents are like the muscles, the staff like mitochondria and organs, the children like somatic nerves and connective tissue, the teachers like bones, the drivers like feet, the Majumdar family like the brain and central nervous system, gangaji like the circulatory system, the visitors like skin, everyone sharing the work of the heart and receiving the oxygen of the breath, everyone acting together to digest food and eliminate waste, the communal interactions that spread into the surrounding communities linking the soul of NIRMAN to wide and deep spans of time and space, to Benares, to India and its history and future.

We feel that even as we see the didis cooking everyday, the drivers getting into their cars, the endless discussions of managers and organisers with staff, students, and parents, the endless reflecting, listening and writing of Nitaji (not to mention the teaching of children’s songs), the cleaning of cars, cafés, clothes, kitchens and courtyards, the ceaseless social activity of children, planning, teaching and re-planning of teachers—there is so much that is unseen. So much that is to us, certainly, and perhaps, to each individual, individually, unknown. So we all share in the mystery of the place. How does it exist? Why does it exist? How does it evolve? Why does it evolve? At NIRMAN, whether looking forward or back, what’s left to discover will always be more than the sum of what’s been discovered. That’s how I leave feeling—looking forward to another challenging, eye-opening, lovely visit.


Davis Saul

Davis is from South Carolina, U.S.A.  He is a graduate of Pomona College, California.  He has studied Corporeal Mime, and many kinds of movement and bodywork. He runs a Contakids group in Toulouse, France and has collaborated with different kinds of NIRMAN projects. This is his second visit to NIRMAN, India and he has taught movement and performances in Vidyashram-The Southpoint School.  Our students, teachers, and staff thoroughly enjoy his workshops and conversations with him.