A component of the UnBox 2013 fellowships that made them a bit different and unique was the potential for acquiring additional funding for the fellows to continue their projects. This made the month-long engagement leading up to the festival the initial, proof-of-concept phase in which the top-level ideas were created. In essence, the projects were outlines that the additional funding would allow to be fleshed out.
Saw some very beautiful Mughal tombs in the middle of the countryside. They seemed like islands of stone in the ocean of lush green wheat fields. The charisma was epitomized by big old trees that were growing around and complementing the structure. The tombs were built in the 1400’s onwards for people with prominence. They have a very peaceful and serene quality to them. It was very moving to find out that people would pray there or pay their respects.
It was the coldest day that we have faced so far in Sirhind, with rain and strong winds. Filming and photography was a difficult task. But the changing light and drifting clouds enhanced the scenery. The sky kept on changing colours at a fast pace and we had to keep up with it. The caretakers or the tombs were welcoming and hospitable to offer tea to counter the cold; they had a makeshift stove where they heated the milk in one corner of the Sadna Kasai mosque. It was a long cold day but enriching enough to make us realize the rich heritage of the place.
Churnjeet: Today is Sankranti and Lohri. We went to see Pal Singh Mann, or Mann Sahib as I’ll call him, who showed us around a Hockey Nursery for school kids run by the Mehar Baba Charitable Trust. The kids are provided with food, extra nutrition, equipment, clothes and some are even selected for the national team. This provides kids from underprivileged backgrounds a route into gaining scholarships for education and finding a means of independence. It was nice to see a male and female team (the female team looked meaner). It was at this meeting we learnt about the trust’s work with water in the area. Ground water in Punjab is contaminated with high levels of nitrates which can cause serious damage to children as well as adults. Learning about the kind of contaminants found in the water was shocking, especially when you realise that everyone was drinking this water, and even the food we were eating had been cooked in it. In the afternoon I met Captain Mann and there were long conversations about how tourism could change Sirhind and how it could be an important stop off for tourists on their way to Amritsar. As a place that used to be one of the primary stops on the GT Rd, its fall from grace has also been accompanied by an erasure of cultural significance and visibility of its sites and monuments.
Ioanna: In the meantime, Simran and I made a stop at the Gurdwara Fatehgarh Sahib for the Sankranti (celebration of the first day of the month). We observed the food preparations of the Langar, the communal kitchen that offers food at no cost to anyone attending, 24/7, 7 days a week. This non-stop kitchen works solely with volunteers and due to the day being extra special following the Lohri cellebrations (1st day of the Sikh year) it was quite busy. Men sat by the fire were making rotis at a frantic pace, dal and saag pots were transported left and right in the open air eating space, dirty plates were stacking up by the washing team, into the soap buckets, quickly rinsed off and out again…
The Gurdwara F-S is the largest in the town, built on the site where the suns of Guru Gobing Sing were walled alive in 1705 by the then governor of Sirhind, Wazin Khan as a punishment for the Guru’s resistance to convert to Islam. The retaliations that followed were equally fierce, marking the end of the Mughal rule of the city. As a result of these events a large part of the existing Mughal architecture in the area is suffering from considerable neglect and has become target of vandalism during the annual re-enactment of the killing of the two boys and the celebration of Jor Mela (Show of Strength) that commemorates these events. Changing stances on these highly charged monuments is a pretty hard task but we have been ‘playing’ with the idea of designing an interactive experience that could potentially trigger different associations and relationships with place.
Simran: At night we went to a Lohri celebration in a local village. A fire, throwing in peanuts for a good crop to come, dancing, food, talking, sweets, everything was laid on for us. Our first Lori ever and my first attempt to Punjabi dancing (Gidda), it was fun! Our hosts were warm welcoming people, Mr. Singh told us about his numerous stories and adventures as a taxi driver around the world. His wife the lady of the house was a big hearted woman who invited us in her house, fed us great Punjabi food and played the perfect Punjabi host and hugged us tight.
After spending the morning designing a new project plan, we went to the Rauza Sharif Mosque to catch the last light and meet some of the travellers that have come from Pakistan and Kashmir for the annual 6 day celebration. Had some chai and arranged a meeting with one of the caretakers, on the following morning.
The day started well, since whilst the five of us and the three cameras where packed in a rickshaw on our way to the Mosque, a rickshaw wallah spotted us and arranged for a piece of equipment that we had left on our ride back the night before to be delivered to us. Blessed be the rickshaw wallahs of Sirhind!
We where offered amazing halva upon our arrival at the Roza Sharif and a very generous tour. Ethical issues arising; can we use footage of people praying?
So, we’re going to drive up the GT Road with the film crew.
It sounds like a great idea (great shots for the documentary) but
between toilet breaks, an extended brunch break, tea breaks, and the
film crew’s directions (sticking my head out of the window for the
whole wind blowing in hair thing was not my favourite, seriously, you
can’t breathe when you’re going that fast, Mudit!), this was the
slowest progress I’ve ever made up this road. Our lunch break was at a
Haveli, which I secretly love. It’s like India doing a heritage tea
shop but on a much bigger, better organised, bling level. Totally
kitsch. The road itself changes from a small two lane road to a large,
busy, multi-lane highway. There are signs of construction everywhere.
Dust, debris and concrete were the flavours that day. Eventually we
reached the hotel which is on the edge of town.
On the second day, we had an excellent meeting at CRCI with a guy designing a new website for CRCI on the Grand Trunk Rd. Well, excellent and sort of disastrous all at the same time. A lot of the functions we imagined for the app are already being covered by the website. AHHHHHH. It’s entirely fitting to think about going back to the drawing board in an architect’s office. We thought about adding to the website in some way and also perhaps trying to reach a different kind of audience.
We plundered CRCI’s offices for whatever we could get: maps, historical information, contacts, anything. We were definitely a chaotic blip in the office’s otherwise serene and focussed operations. We also had the film crew with us (who were going to be travelling with us to Punjab) who added another layer of conspicuous disorder to CRCI. Gurmeet loaded us with contacts, gave us some parting words, and off we went to get together the remainder of our kit. CRCI staff are joining us later in the field.
This will probably be the site that we will use for our interactive installation. It is a beautiful space worn down by time, with multiple historical layers, one of the great Sarais of the GT Road where the emperor would stop for a few days or weeks when travelling between Lahore and Delhi and all the travellers of the long journey would be offered food and shelter for the night. There are a lot of people passing their time here during the day but the lack of historical (or any other) information together with the strong association of the place with the tragic killing of Guru Gobind Singh’s sons and the general state of neglect, has left the buildings crumbling.
We had a long discussion about the graffiti on the walls that some of us interpreted as an acknowledgement of the space’s importance (you decide to leave your mark somewhere that is significant to you) however this arbitrary interaction to the already vulnerable set of building has disastrous effects and we would like to find ways to engage the community towards it’s maintenance and protection.
Our first day at CRCI was the beginning of a necessary information overload. We didn’t have much time to prepare before coming to India so a lot of the research had to take place on site. We were given excellent instructions on how to find the offices, but in a move which has become increasingly typical for me when going anywhere in India, we got lost. The irony considering the title of our fellowship however, was not. While we were at CRCI we began planning out our mobile app and the kind of functionality we would like it to have. Simran created a basic hierarchy for the functions and at that point we begun to feel more grounded and focussed in the project.
We arrived at the British Council with the other fellows on the project. After the intros there was the usual stand up and present yourself and your ideas bit, which I always find mortifying. It didn’t help that Padmini from UnPlay went first with her slick powerpoint slideshow. The other fellows and there projects sounded really interesting and I experienced that kind of research envy I always get about other people’s work. However, meeting Simran and Ioanna was great and we got along really well from the beginning. Seeing the presentation from our host, CRCI, reinforced was very inspiring: hearing words and phrases like palimpsest, cultural mapping, bridges, immediately triggered a series of connections for me and underlined the importance of this project for me. Our project concentrates on Sirhind, a location on the Grand Trunk Road in Punjab which has a unique heritage. As well as being an important site in Sikh history, it has a wealth of historical remains from the Mughal period and nearby excavations have uncovered remains of the Indus Valley Civilization. Sirhind is a unique crossing point between different cultures in different times, a place that offers a salient history of change, conflict and history in the north of India. The evening was drinks on a revolving restaurant/bar, the kind of place you’d expect to see in a Godfather film (just before a mass shooting).
After our meeting at the CRCI I made a visit to the buzzing camera market by the Chandni Chowk tube with Sheila and Mudit (the amazing Unbox filmmaking duo), where one can find some branded but mainly non-branded filmic equipment and all kinds of adaptors at a very low price, it’s practically a paradise for the low budget self-shooter. We had some masala lime/lemon juice from a street vendor, one of those funny fruit hybrids that one finds in India and can’t quite define what they are by the looks of it but taste exactly like the two original fruits mixed together. It was the precise Vitamin C kick needed to get into the meandering maze of little alleys, looking for a certain shop number amongst at least a few hundred. I scored an Ahuja clip-on-mic for our interviews and an XLR adaptor for £9 (800 rps). The visit was combined with a stop at the Parathe-waali Gali on the other side of the road, where you can get parathas with all sorts of fillings, from mint and lemon to almond and banana, tomato and cashew, made right in front of your eyes
Taking a rickshaw on the way to lunch and having a gold flake ciggie overlooking the impressive and somehow dystopian 1920’s – 60’s high rise buildings of CP made me feel more in ‘place’. Apparently, apart from Chandigarh, Le Corbusier designed a few building around this area as well. Had a much desired glass of wine on the concrete revolving building with the fellows and the Unbox and BC crew, overlooking the sunset of the impressive Delhi skyline. India has a long history of wine production with a few local varieties, brought over by the Persians at the time of the Indus Valley civilisation (around 3000 BC) and the excellent climate for viticulture that even allows some areas to have two crops over a year. It was a very nice Cabernet Sauvignon from the Maharastara region and I was happy to knock off 200rps from the original price after a bit of haggling, since although good, wine here is definitely not the cheapest.
[Another Indian wonder I discovered that day thanx to Padmini is the all mighty D’Cold, barred from being exported abroad but rich enough in paracetamol and caffeine to wipe out any muscle ache, headache, fever and remnants of jet lag… It even gives you a little high! Perfect to put you on your feet in case you’re feeling ill and there is no direct access to a warm bed]
I haven’t been to Delhi in 15 years… A lot has changed in that period, namely the creation of the metro that allows for fast and efficient commuting between the centre and all the satellite towns that have become an integral part of city. Small clusters of inhabitants back then, now sprawling hubs of the creative industries and multinationals that have set base here and the growing middle class. I had my first masala tea in Gurgaon, one of these suburbs where we’re located, enjoying the winter sun and trying hard to identify memories of place.
People mention the growing gap between rich and poor and the effects of the economic crisis but it’s hard to identify them amongst the thousands of commuters, shopping centres and luxury apartments that spring up like mushrooms the whole way between the centre and the outskirts. According to my generally not very accurate guide book, by 2035 India will have reached 3rd place in the largest economy countdown, next to China and the US.
Through the ‘Crossing of Death’, a two triple lane road with no traffic lights, Churnjeet and I had our first ‘meeting’ at the Marriot. The nutella jars presented neatly within lighten glass compounds like precious Fabergé eggs made me laugh (yummy signifiers of modernity and affluence) but the delicious Dal Mackhni and slow roast lamb on the bone proved to be a great cure for the jet lag and the perfect addition to our encounter and the initial discussions around Punjab and the project.