Field visit- a joke on folks who are visited!

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A set of school kids engaged in making quill greetingcards post school hours to raise funds for their community work. Location: Agra slums, 2013

Field visits (of sociological nature) , from my limited understanding, were a part of Masters in Social Work (MSW) courses alone in the past. Nowadays its mandated for program that study Development, Public Policy and others dealing with matters of public or social nature.

The whole idea of field visit and exposures is to help people see from real close quarters what it means to – live under certain conditions, do a particular job, and understand many aspects of their lives. It is to de-number the identity of the people whom we statistically study from census data or quantitative reports. It is to see them as peolpe like you and me.  When I started to do these  field visits it was as a part of my Master’s theisis to understand the impacts of a marine engineering project on lives of fisher community. Since then I have been learning and absorbing everytime I go into the field. These visits have helped me bridge the knowledge gap I have due to irregular readings. More than this, they have helped me stay more rooted, human and reminded me about the values like humility (Not that I claim to be humble all the time, I do tend to have my own streaks of arrogance now and then, 😉 ). A field visit can be to a village, surban slum, a factory floor, a manufacturing unit, some local organization or school or any place that is relevant to study that one is engaged in.

As a part of this course there was a mandatory month long field visit in the first year.In the second year of the course few electives have field visit as part of thier curriculum. I am writing this post to just reflect on the attitudes some of us have towards these visits, and how it is uselesss for people with certain attitudes to make such visits.

During the first visit of mine as a part of this course, the attitude certain members of the team visiting exhibited was that of entitlement. It is as if, just because you are from a city ( which in the heads of the visitors is a proxy for developed) the vilagers should be obilidged to share information about all the things we vistors question. This is pretty evident from the way we sat, questioned and interacted with people. It is amazing how we would want to pay and stand in quess to go to some places and act all civilized and nice, for instance a famous pub in a city. At the same time when we are recived with warmth and given the space to interact, we act all bossy and cocky. The villagers/laborers or slum dwellers have no reason to spend their valuabel time in talking and providing information to you. Our research and study is useless to their lives, if anything they are doing favour on us by sharing about their lives.

Similarly when few of the classmates came back after visiting a labor union organization, their remark  about the life of an indiviudal shared is  – “it sounds like a hindi soap opera” or mock at the fact that, now they may be assigned a project to write a biography of the live of the lady who shared her life story with them. Another set of smart alec from the class  want to practice their ability to argue and debate with these poeple by asking “smart theoritcal” questions on gender discrimination – about not having a “single” male members on the organization board. This is being asked to a woman who has  just shared her life story on the kind of  discriminations done to her by men all her life.

I have felt quite sad seeing the way these people go about doing their field visits. I dont mind if one doesnt like to do field visits. Its ok to not like it. But when engaging with it , the attitudes that these folks carry is not right. The attitudes of – carelessness, of disregard, of disrespect and of lack of sensitivity. This is sad, utterly sad. I am not excluding myself from this. There have been times when I have also been careless, I have my share of faultlines too! I am taking an opprtunity to reflect on myself and other in this program with respect to these attitudes.

Why is their experience of life, be it difficulty or struggle less valuable than our own struggle to study late nights to get good grades? Why is their life less important than our lives? If we all cannot appreciate an individual sharing their lifestory with us and if we can not respect them just like we will want anyone else to do to us, what policies will we create? What public policy professional will we become?

The idea of these visits and interactions is to atleast have a peak into the lives of those individuals differnt than us. We most of the times visit people who have lesser social and economic capital than us. Experineces shared usually are about their struggles-matters that are quite close to their hearts and minds.  Fieldworks of social orientation are sledom on rich lives. Just because these people are weaker, should we be careless about it? Simply asking.

No point being a gold medalist or knowing all the books. By the end of the day experience of our lives is enrichened not by our shopping experineces, or moments of arogance or ruthlessness but by the number of moments of gratidue, happiness and humility.

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Photography – Breaking the mould

The past two days have been a delight for the artist within. I have spent a whole day walking through Tate Britain‘s collection of art works from 1500s until present day and another day with looking at works of modern art from across Europe and the americas in Tate Modern. The experience in both places have been wonderful. These galleries hold huge collections of arts of the periods and the regions they are dedicated to.  You love art or not, everyone loves beautiful sights. One must to go to these museums just to experience that sight of those beauty from centuries. And the best part about these museums is the guided tour around the place provided by the volunteers. That helps one understand the context, the reasons and the times when these museums were initiated and the times the art works were made.

The walks and time spent in the galleries of these museums is not enough for me. There were many comparisons, thoughts , observations going on within. A thought and a marvel that recurred as I walked from one gallery to another was about photography, its advent and its contribution to fine arts.

Photography is classified as one of the fine arts along with drawing, painting, sculpting etc. But the entire scene of fine arts have gone through a revolution with the invention of cameras. Life of photography and the techniques- to capture light and capture images from chemical mediums to digital mediums is another fascinating journey. But its undeniable what this field of arts have done to the others. Its contribution to others is enormous. If you look at the collections in Tate Britain and Tate Modern there is stark change in the style of paintings and expressions. There seems to be a sudden shift in how an artist expressed himself. And to me that sudden shift in expression was made possible by photography.

Wivenhoe Park by COntable

Before photographic techniques were found, artists mostly painted scenes, portraits and situations to document stories.  If you look at the collection of 1500s in Tate Britain, every painting has a story to tell. Every detail of a painting had a reason – what dress a person is wearing, the number of rings they wore in their hands portrayed etc, all of it was trying to say something of those times. Many art works commissioned were to tell those stories in one single frame. The art works of Turner, Constable and others of those times are so important in that respect. They helped us see what it would be like in their times.

The field of waterloo by Turner

With the carrival of photography, the responsibility of documentation to a great extent was lifted off from the artist.  This provided the kind of freedom that artists in the past did not have. The sublime art of Turner’s times now gave way to the abstract art of the modern times. In a way, my journey as an artist have been like that of classical art to that of modern art. I did not have a camera of my own until I was 19 years old. I had basic training in classical painting and drawing techniques- water colors, oil on canvas etc. I used tomake landscapes with oil on canvas and portraits of faces with pencil or charcoal on paper. After the point when I had a camera of my own, I started to experiment with color, papers and different medias simply expressing what I felt on those papers. The need to document and capture moments of importance is now taken care of by my camera.  Photography bestowed me with that mental freedom.

Weeping woman by Piccaso

I have always been able to relate to Pablo Piccaso’s or Jacksonn Pollocks work without knowing why. And lately my interaction with colors look like the way Gerhard Richter’s play with colors. In an interview Richter says ( i paraphrase it here) – colors are so beautiful to simply be with, i simply play with them until I feel satisfied. The rage and agony Piccaso must have felt painting the weeping woman, or the surging emotions that Pollock felt while slapping and dripping colors on his canvas or the delight of playing with colors that Richter felt is what I could connect with.  This to me was a contribution of photography to fine art.

One of the paintings of Gerhard Richter exhibited at Tate Modern

 

2013 : The year that was

It has been more than 4 months since I wrote any post. Most of what I wrote in 2013  have been in spurts. A period of writing followed by a lull and lull alone! I maintain an idea notebook especially for TMN, where I keep writing down things I want to write about. But I ended up writing none of them. This year, I resolve to write at least once in a week. 🙂

2013, has been a rewarding  year in which work has begun to take a new shape and some major shifts in ways we function.

A pontoon bridge with pilgrims flowing across the river,Kumbh Mela

Along with a year long consulting with a water agency, we did assignments that were interesting, meaningful and some ways different. We documented Maharashtra drought and how people faired on the ground, we were at the Kumbh Mela to study the overall sanitation situation and how a particular product worked, we also took up Disaster Risk Reduction analysis of WASH situation in Odisha post Phailin.

One of the water tankers criss-crossing the dry and parched landscapes of Maharashtra, during the peak of drought in summer 2013

A village devastated by cyclone Phailin in Ganjam district, Odisha

We also took up some work outside the WASH space. This was an exciting bit for me personally because the thought of expanding our work into other areas of development has been on my mind for a year now. We worked on legal data analysis and we closed the year with a new assignment working on a land governance project.

With all this work came a lot of traveling which was all the more rewarding. Year 2014, we look forward to having a firm incorporated, work on more consulting projects and do some actual enterprising projects. Consulting has been paying our bills and has facilitated a lot of understanding of real issues contexts. Its time we shift gears and start participating in real development as entrepreneurs.

Expressway…speed… biking …symphony

A road through an Indian village where we can not do an average more than 50kmph

I was on the Mumbai-Pune expressway last week. Its not permitted for 2 wheelers to ride on this road. But sitting on the seat beside the bus driver and with the whole windscreen to myself is a delight, and I cant have enough of it. I wish I could ride on this road on my motorbike.

Speeds of 90kmph or more on a motorbike on well paved roads gives an adrenaline rush, only a biker can understand. With all the four wheelers crossing you at 120kmph or more, it makes me feel vulnerable, highly alert  to everything happening around me- left right, front, behind , below , across the road, on the bylanes 100meters ahead and 100 meter behind. With helmet, jacket and gloves on the vulnerability is partly shielded, none the less its hardly near complete safe. The wind that slaps you from the front and from the right when a mammoth of a truck passes you is the music that I ride the bike to.  Its been more than six moths since I rode long distance. But the very thought of being on the road, make my eyes go wider, and every cell of my body gets excited about it.  Indian roads do not give enough opportunity to do such speeds for long distances. One highway where in certain stretches this experience is possible is NH4.

The experience is about speed, but a lot more about the realisation of how vulnerable and transient is life. This realisation stays on for sometime after a ride and it changes the ways one goes about life. It translates into  gentler mannerisms, care for things and people and humbler attitudes.

These speeds are dangerous, until one does enough distances on lesser speeds, one should not attempt these speeds; especially not on Indian roads. I would not suggest even a adept biker to do something like this. I only do this on very short streches that are  scantily populated and less trafficked.

♫ The power of Music ♫

I go through my share of high, upbeat and beautiful  days and smaller but a felt share of  down, deep in dungeon states too.

In the dungeon days, earlier I sought for external support, from friends and other near ones. As time passes, a self healing process seems to be lot better an approach. There is very little effort one has to put to make self understand about their own turmoils. 🙂 .  Of course this process of reconciliation and healing of self is not completely by myself. There is a big aid in this process, music.  I either sing by myself or listen to music compositions that come to my mind or something I happen to listen during the troubled times. This is not a very unique process, most of people I know do it unconsciously. Until few months ago, even I would have to remind myself – “listen to something” and that was enough to see me through the blue days and come out of it all happy and optimistic about everything life. But it was not a very conscious process. Now the attempt is more conscious.

This post is not to praise myself of this ability to get out of lows with the help of music, but to share about a beautiful school that takes this approach to reach out to children from troubled backgrounds. This was a movement initiated by José Antonio Abreu. He talks about this initiative at TED in 2009.

The school that he started in Mexico is called The El Sistema. There is another school by the same folks now in  United States of America as well . I smile with pride and joy when I see these children from El Sistema perform.

I indulge in arts ( paint, sketch), music and yet I never realised that these so called “softer forms” of practice have a powerful bearing on the work done to people and situations that needs the most attention and care.  Art and music is much needed in places where there is and was trouble. It is not something only the elite need to indulge in. It is more needed  and  is quite a powerful instrument to address the problems of the world. As most problems of the world are problems of living beings who have hearts and minds.

Of course we need  – houses, water, food and all the necessities to meet basic needs. But it really matters to the world that each and every individual in this world  is happy within themselves. That makes them capable of facing their challenges and struggles of life gracefully without causing pain to themselves or others.

‘Flaneur’ing – Mumbai Sea front

Mumbai Sea frontI set out from home with an unknown anxiety that had crept into my being later in the day. I reach the sea front with an expectation that the expansive skies and water (ignoring the filth) will settle me.
“I carry this book everyday and not write a word”, I begin to think. Also expecting secretly to also get rid of the anxiety, I pull that small A6 notebook out and begin to scribble what I see…

Its a monsoon evening and the night bears the promise of a new moon.The water line appears a bit receded than the usual and the wind mildly stronger. The sky is unlike those of a rainy season, with flaky, clear clouds. Cranes fly lazily past. The waters brimming with filth and the poles in the water near the shores, embarrassed of their own dying utility,  meekly tell you not to venture beyond. The crabs come out of the gap between the cement tiles of the paved shore. Talkative children returning from school, college kids’ bantering, tiny tot’s gibberish, and elderly people’s conversation make the background sound. Just a typical evening in most coastal city in India.

Time passed by, just as the wind that rushes in, into the city from the sea. The stillness drives a sense of being fixed like those poles in the choppy waters. The sun has set in the horizon splashing the people with few solemn moments, like the curtains drawing close on a stage. The city meanwhile rushes to catch the suburban trains to head back home.

An alternate ending to this post before editing the last para was: 

An hour as past and I have become that pole in the filthy waters.The Sun has set and its time to go.