Friday, 24 January 2020

Exploring the lanes of Mawlamyine

Mawlamyine is one of Myanmar's larger cities with a population of around 300,000 people. It was chosen by the British as the first capital of colonial Burma, a status it held between 1826 and 1852 and became an important centre for commerce in the late part of the 20th century. This was in large part due to the arrival significant numbers of Indian merchants and workers. By the late 1880's, they had formed the largest ethnic group in the city living and working alongside Burmans, Chinese, Malays, Armenians and even a handful of Jewish merchants. 

Preparing a new well, lanes of Mawlamyine
During the colonial period, the city was called Moulmein and gained mention in the writings of both George Orwell in Shooting An Elephant and Rudyard Kipling in his poem Mandalay. The streets are lined with some very fine examples of architecture dating from that period although much of it is now crumbling. There are also many buildings that show the strong influence of Indian design, particularly those with wooden facades carved in intricate patterns and of course in the numerous mosques and Hindu temples that can be found across the city.  There are also several important churches and pagodas including the spectacular hilltop Seindon Mibaya Kyaung which is under the care of a single, famously grumpy elderly monk. All of this should attract visitors in significant numbers but Mawlamyine does not receive the number of guests that other cities can boast. It is usually seen as a one or at most two nights stay over and a base for visiting other places. As regular readers may expect, I am about to disagree with this.

Indian influenced architecture
Red shutters, Seindon Mibaya Kyaung pagoda
Shop houses
The cosy, chaos of Mawlamyine's back lanes
I spent three days there and realised that this was not enough to see some of the big ticket items but more importantly to explore in detail the cramped, crowded, chaotic back lanes of the city or to exhaust the busy, sprawling markets. Hidden from the main streets and easily missed the lanes are noisy, dirty and sometimes hazardous to walk in yet I was drawn back to them several times. In these hidden alleyways life has not much changed in a hundred years and a warm welcome is given to those who venture into them. Living conditions are challenging and many of the homes have problems with accessing electricity and a regular clean water supply. Many people use the open wells that are scattered around the city, drawing water to wash clothes or to clean the home despite the fact that some of them contain rubbish and in some cases free roaming chickens, ducks and other fowl deposit their droppings in them. New wells are established to serve the demand for water. I witnessed several workers detailed on this work including the one pictured at the top of this post.

Despite this, there is an easy atmosphere in here. People sit outside their houses talking to their friends and neighbours whilst their children play in the street. They are curious about visitors as not many venture off the main tourist trail of churches, temples, mosques and pagodas. It is amazing how much goodwill a simple "Mingalabar" (hello in Myanmar) can win for you and how quickly it will be followed up with questions about where you come from, what your work is and where are your family. This is often accompanied by offers of tea or snacks, reminding me of the warmth of the people living in the lanes of North Kolkata.

Abdul and his grandson
Waiting for the tutor
The gang, back lane, Mawlamyine
In one of the lanes I noticed an elderly man crouched on the floor and using a hammer to work on a sheet of metal. Abdul is 87 years old. In fact it happened to be his birthday on the day I met him. He is a little deaf and one of his daughters came across to help us communicate. Despite being retired, Abdul likes to keep busy and he makes metal boxes to earn a little money. He confessed that he has few customers these days but he still enjoys working. His daughter was holding one of his grandchildren. I asked him how many he had. He wasn't sure and said  "I have grandchildren and great grandchildren. About 20 I think". He stood for a picture, proudly holding one of the twenty.

In the same alley I noticed three small children looking down from a first floor balcony. Others were arriving at the building carrying satchels and books. It was too late in the afternoon for them to be going to school and I asked a woman standing outside the building what was happening. She explained that children came here after school for private tuition. Competition for jobs is very tough in Myanmar and parents who can afford it send their children to these places in order to improve their chances. Many children do not get the chance to complete their formal education as the family needs them to work and help pay for food and a place to live. How humbling that parents in one of Mawlamyine's poorest neighbourhoods had prioritised education and the hope of a better future. At the same time other, poorly dressed children played in the alley amongst bags of cement. We sometimes forget how fortunate we are.

A little further on I met U Aung Khaing, also 87 years old. He was born in Kayin state but is from the Mon ethnic group, once rulers of a mighty empire and the predominant group in Mon State of which Mawlamyine is a part. They are now numerically in decline, to some extent due to inter-marriage with other groups. The Mon language is also in danger and work is being done in local schools to preserve it. Each ethnic group in Myanmar has its own customs and dress and U Aung Khaing was wearing the red lungyi of the Mon.

U Aung Khaing
Maulana in a Pashtun cap
As in India, drinking tea is a bit of a national pastime in Myanmar and there are teashops on every corner. I met Maulana sitting outside of of one of them. I was struck by his appearance, particularly by his wearing of a Pashtun cap, usually associated with Afghanistan and Pakistan and an unusual sight in Myanmar. I was keen to photograph him and was a little surprised when he immediately and enthusiastically agreed. He told me that he understands Urdu as well as Myanmar and invited me to sit and take tea for a while. A woman wearing the hijab sat at the next table and helped translate for us. I realised that she was his wife. It would be interesting to know more about their story.

In another lane I spotted a small shop with two sides open to the street. The customers were mainly elderly Chinese men. Myanmar has a significant Chinese minority and Yangon has a vibrant Chinatown. I stopped to talk to the two old men sitting in a corner facing the street and asked them if the tea was good. They told me that it was and that it was the best tea shop in Mawlamyine. I asked if they come every day and one of them confirmed that he did. I also asked about the name of the shop but was told it is nameless. A few minutes later his friend told me that the man who came every day was the owner. That might explain the regularity of his visits and the claim to it being the best tea shop in town. I haven't tried them all so I can't say.

As well as the ubiquitous tea shops, the city streets are filled with vendors offering various delights. In the lanes I came across a man selling tamarind from two containers held together on a yoke, allowing him to operate a "mobile" service and a woman selling thick, sticky jams from a street corner stall. And then there are the city's two large markets offer fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, huge bags of rice and salt, spices, household goods, electrical items.clothes, children's toys and more. Most of the vendors and shoppers are women. Shopping is a serious business here and it is educational to stand back and watch the expert hagglers reduce the price of a cauliflower using perfectly honed methods - cajoling, scowling, smiling and pretending to walk away before the deal is secured.

The best teashop in town?
The tamarind seller
Street corner jam vendor
Shopping is a serious business
In the Lower Market, I met the utterly charming Tin Ohn. Aged 67, he was born in Hpa An but his family fled to Mawlamyine when he was a child due to a period of inter-communal strife. He has never married and used the English word "Batchelor" to describe himself and also his two sisters who share a home with him. He is one of seven siblings, three of whom have already died. He spoke affectionately about his school days when he studied at an English medium Catholic school. He recalled the priests being strict disciplinarians "to drop litter was a very serious matter, we even had to be careful with the shavings from sharpening our pencils. Not like today". He especially remembered Father Francis who he said was a very good teacher. Tin makes his living by selling metal boxes but says that business is not so good these days. The family originally came from India but he does not know exactly where. His Indian name is Nadul Chowdhury which may (or may not) indicate that they came from Bengal.

I thought about this conversation a little later the same day. Away from the markets and the lanes and whilst admiring the city's largest mosque, I saw a small boy eating pieces of fruit from a plastic bag whilst maintaining a serious expression. "What are you eating" my friend asked him. "Pineapple" he replied. "Sour or sweet" we asked. "Sour. I like sour" he said. "Why aren't you at school?" I asked him. "I don't live here. I'm visiting" he replied. "Does your teacher know?" I asked. "No" he said and laughed. I felt sure Father Francis would not have approved.

Tin Ohn
The pineapple boy
A welcome smile
I look forward to returning to Mawlamyine before too long, to spend more time in the lanes and the markets, to test the theory of the best tea shop, to admire the eclectic architecture and to hear more stories of its friendly citizens. And perhaps to again meet the lovely friendly lady pictured above, one of the first people I met on arrival in the city and who welcomed me with her wonderful smile.


You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Meeting the Kayan Women of Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma is a country about which relatively little is known in the west. The city of Mandalay is familiar to us due to Kipling's now problematic poem of the same name and also perhaps because it is mentioned in the children's song Nellie The Elephant familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1960's. There is also a widely held (although inaccurate) belief that Road To Mandalay was a title in the famous Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie series. Initially there had been a plan for a film of this name but the final title replaced Mandalay with Singapore. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell also wrote about their experiences in the country but offer insights from a relatively narrow point of view. However, there is a particular image that many people associate with Myanmar, that of the Kayan women who wear brass coils around their necks and legs. I recall seeing pictures of these women in a set of encyclopaedias purchased by my grandparents from a traveling salesman in the 1960's. I never thought that I would get to meet them but during my recent time in Myanmar I was able to visit the village of Kasae Kum and meet some of the women who continue to wear the coils. 

Best friends, Bilot and Bilone
Muthan aged 71 welcomed me into her home with a glass of tea and invited me to sit down. Both she and her husband are artisans. Muthan spins cotton and makes and sells scarves whilst he is a woodcarver, producing small figures of Kayan women for sale to tourists. Together they had eight children, five of whom have already died, some in childhood. She explained that until fairly recently there was no access to modern medicine here and that it was difficult to reach the nearest town with no easy roads out of the village. This was a story I was to hear several times over the course of the morning. Despite this, they have 20 grandchildren, all of whom live within walking distance. One of them spent some time peeping at me from the upper level of the house before deciding that going outside was a more interesting option. 

I asked Muthan how long she has worn the coils. She told me that she first put them on at the age of five and that initially it was very painful as her muscles had not developed sufficiently to support their weight. Whilst explaining this, she lifted the coils slightly to show me a heavy dark bruise on her shoulder. They are rarely removed other than for renewing perhaps every five years or to undergo a medical examination. In recent years some women have stopped wearing them altogether. This is said to result in pain which subsides after a few days but which leaves permanent discolouration. 

Muthan



Muthan's grandson
Muthan's daughters and granddaughters do not wear the coils. She has mixed feelings about this and said that she respects their decision but is sad that the tradition is being lost. This was to be something common to the families of each of the women I met in Kasae Kum.  I asked her about the origin of the custom and how it began. There are various stories relating to this but she produced one that neither I nor my guide and interpreter had previously heard. She said that the Kayan women were told to wear them in case they should be scattered from their homeland, dispersed and unable to find each other. The coils were to be relied on as a means of identification. 

One explanation given is that they were meant to protect the women from enslavement by other ethnic groups, making them less attractive to other tribes. At the same time there is also a widespread belief that the coils enhance the beauty of the wearer, emphasising their slender necks, whilst a third explanation compares the appearance of the wearers to a dragon, a key figure in Kayan folklore as well as that of other tribes.

She also had questions for me, questions that were asked by each of the women I was to meet. They were focused mainly on my family, marital status and how many children I have. All of them were surprised that I travel alone and told me I should come again and bring my family next time. She offered me home made rice wine, the drink of choice amongst the Kayan and other communities and was a little surprised when I declined, explaining that I don't drink alcohol. She poured more tea instead and told me that she also likes beer but that it is bloating and can make you very fat! Before leaving I bought one of the scarves she makes. She placed the money inside the coils before thanking me for visiting.

Mutayant
Mutayant's busy granddaughter!
Mutayant lives a short distance from Muthan's home. She is 78 years old and a widow, She was not born in Kasae Kum but came there from her mountain village when she married a local man. The marriage produced ten children, six of whom have already died for reasons similar to those of Nuthan's. Like her neighbour she has 20 grandchildren and four great grandchildren some of whom were playing in her compound. Both Mutayant and Muthan are Animists as are many Kayans. There are also significant numbers of Christians amongst the community as well as Buddhists and people who mix Animism with another faith. Choice of religion appears to have no impact on maintaining Kayan traditions.

Mutayant put on the coils at the age of 10. She said that her daughters and granddaughters do not wear them as they "don't want to face discrimination when going out of the village to study or work". She said that she would never try to force the younger generation to wear them but had been angry with one of her daughters who had worn hers at a conference and sold them to a Chinese delegate. One of her granddaughters, two years old, was very busy playing outside the house, pulling faces, saying a few words of English, pretending to be working and generally entertaining us. It seems that her life will be very different to that of her grandmother. 

Bilot aged 73 and Bilone, 82 are best friends. Both of them widows, they spend most of their day together, talking, helping each other and enjoying the taste of rice wine. Bilot said "ask anyone in the village, everyone knows us, Bilot and Bilone". Both women had ten children. Bilot says that this is not considered excessive within the community and adds with a mischievous laugh "fortunately my husband died 32 years ago or I am sure I would be nursing another baby even today". Bilone joins her in laughing as do I, perhaps surprised at her candour. Both women put on the coils in their early teens and both wanted to wear them. Bilot said that the coils should be worn because "girls are more naughty than boys. They run around more so their parents say they need to wear them to prevent them from doing this. I used to climb trees and misbehave". Bilot is the only one of the women to give this explanation.

Bilot
Bilone
As with the other women none of their daughters or granddaughters wear the coils. I asked them how they feel about this and in response they said that if young women don't wish to wear them it is their choice. Earlier I had seen a group of eight young girls in the centre of the village, all of them wearing coils but later learned that these are not the same as those worn by the older women and are easily removed. It may be that they are being worn for the tourists. I asked the two friends what they think about people coming to see them. They said that they enjoy it. "We can't travel so people come to us. We like to hear about the outside world". They wanted to know how far I had traveled to meet them but had no concept of where I might be from. The interpreter told me that they have little knowledge of the world outside the village and would not really know where Yangon is or what it might be like.

Kayan girl, Kasae Kum village
Kayan girl, Kasae Kum village
Bilot and Bilone had several questions for me, most of them the same as those asked by their neighbours - why do you travel alone? how many children do you have? how old are you? They enjoy rice wine and drank it from a special bowl throughout the time I spent with them. They wanted to know if people drink rice wine in the UK and if I would like to try it myself. Bilot also enjoys chewing the betel nut, known as paan in India and this too was offered to me. Unfortunately I had to decline both as I don't drink and don't chew betel. She told me she chews it in order to keep her mouth fresh and laughed when I asked her if she was worried about the negative impacts it can have on the mouth and teeth, not least dyeing them bright red. She seemed genuinely happy as did Bilone whose grand children came in and out of the house as we spoke, one of them stopping for a quick cuddle with his grandma.

I enjoyed my time in the village and learned a lot not just about the lives and customs of the Kayan women but once again about how similar our ambitions are despite the differences between us. All of the women I spoke to wanted whatever was best for their children and grandchildren even if it meant abandoning some of their cherished traditions. I liked their curiosity about the outside world and their willingness to be open with outsiders. As I left I realised that they may well be the last generation of Kayan women to wear the coils and that many of their traditions will end with them.

A cuddle with grandma
Please note I refer to the women throughout as Kayan rather than the other term sometimes used - Padaung. I am advised that this is considered to be pejorative despite being used throughout Pascal Khoo Thwe's 2002 book From The Land Of Green Ghosts. I also met two women in the main market at Loikaw who used the term to describe themselves although they did not wear the coils.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Travels With My Camera 2019 - The Best Pictures

In 2019 I visited Cuba for the first time as well as making return visits to some of my favourite places including India, Myanmar and Israel. As ever, I spent my time exploring the streets of towns and cities with a camera in my hand, attempting to capture a little of their character by photographing the the daily lives of "ordinary" people, although many of them are extraordinary. Whenever I can, I try to spend time talking to people, often with the help of someone who can interpret and who can help ease the way to some, hopefully, authentic pictures. Capturing the stories of the people I meet is as important to me as taking their pictures. It helps to give context to a photograph, hearing the stories as well as seeing them in their faces.

During 2019 I was privileged to meet many new people. Anthony lives in Melbourne. He became homeless through no fault of his own and now sits outside the Hill of Content book shop in Bourke Street each day, reading or doing the crossword. He loves talking to passers by and also has a strong liking for the capuccino sold at the  iconic  Pellegrini's Espresso Bar, a few steps from where he sits. I was able to post his picture to friends in Melbourne who took it to him, together with a pastry from South Melbourne Market. If you see him, stop to talk and buy him a coffee.

In Hong Kong I met a delightful woman in her eighties. Born in Shanghai she had memories of the Japanese occupation of her home city and then the terror that followed with the Communist takeover. She now spends her days pushing a trolley around the streets of her neighbourhood, collecting waste cardboard for sale to recyclers. She said that she does not need to do this for money, but enjoys being outside and talking to people.  Some of the shopkeepers and vendors place a small stool outside their shops so she can rest from time to time.

At the younger end of the age range I took perhaps my favourite picture of the year in Nan Hu, northern Myanmar. When walking through a village I hear someone calling out "hello hello". I turned to look and saw first one child, then two, then several standing in the window of their school room shouting and laughing. I especially like this picture for the expression of hope and joy the children wear. I hope to see them again during my current time in Myanmar.

Central market, Mandalay, Myanmar
School children, Nan Hu, Myanmar
Monks doing the morning round, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar
Modern communication, Hong Kong
I staged my first, small exhibitions during 2019. My first show was held in the Maison Bertaux Gallery in Soho, combining two of my passions - photography and cake. I was both astonished and grateful that so many people came to my opening and this led to further shows in public libraries in Canning Town, Hornchurch and Romford, bringing my pictures to different types of audience. I also exhibited in the Fry's Gallery in Hornchurch where again I was encouraged by the response and feedback which included a double page spread and interview in the local newspaper. I am especially grateful to Havering's Libraries and Arts services for being so supportive and for giving me the chance to take part in the annual Havering Literary festival in November. The festival features dozens of events including appearances from top authors. My contribution was to run two workshops for Year 6 students involving a tour of my exhibition, discussion with the children about what they had seen and about their own travels as well as a small creative writing exercise afterwards. I must admit I was extremely nervous beforehand as it is several years since I last did anything of this nature but I thoroughly enjoyed it and the children were extremely engaging. The pictures featured in this post are amongst my best received works from various social media and from feedback from the exhibitions.

Woman in purple, Hong Kong
Luisa with cigar, Trinidad-de-Cuba, Cuba
Boy with new fan, Trinidad-de-Cuba, Cuba
Anthony with capuccino, Melbourne, Australia
Woman with red hair, ShukHaTalpiot, Haifa, Israel
In 2020 I have an exhibition planned for the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch during July and am in discussion about shows with another library service and possibly an independent gallery in south London. Thank you if you came to any of my shows during the year, or for following me on various social media. I hope to see you again in 2020.

See more at @adrianyekkes and at flickr

If you are interested in any of these pictures please contact me at adrianpwhittle@outlook.com

The samosa boy, Daryaganj market, Delhi, India
Waiting for customers, Kolkata, India
Flood water, Patan, India
Please note: All rights reserved. None of these images may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without my prior written permission.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Delhi's New Gramophone House - Albela, Bhagwan and the Delights of Classic Bollywood Vinyl


Old Delhi's New Gramophone House, a treasure trove of vinyl recordings of all genres, opened in 1947. Bhagwan Dass Rajpal opened the original store in Lahore in 1930 but moved his family and the business to India during Partition. The store can be difficult to find. It is located on the first floor of a building on the main road of the extremely busy Chandni Chowk and there are no obvious signs of its presence from the street. Visitors must pass through a different shop on the ground floor, then scale a steep set of steps that sit below a low ceiling (watch your head) before reaching their destination. But it's worth persevering as once there the vinyl fan enters paradise - a small room packed with thousands of recordings stacked on shelves and in cabinets. 

I make a pilgrimage to the shop every time I am in Delhi with the objective of adding to my small but growing collection of vintage Bollywood soundtracks from the 1940's, 50's and 60's. Regular readers will know of my love of jazz but thanks to a former work colleague I have been smitten by classic Hindi film songs. Playing them on youtube is no longer enough - I want to handle the vinyl recordings and have them in my collection.

Of course Bollywood churns out hundreds of contemporary musical productions but I do not enjoy these so much and prefer contemporary Indian dramas. In recent years Indian cinema has dealt with many social issues in films including Dangal, Dhobi Ghat and Aligarh as well as producing delightful romances like Lunch Box and suspense stories such as Aandhanhun. But you really can't beat those vintage movies and I've grown to love the films of Raj Kapoor, Johnny WalkerMadhubala, Nargis, Guru Dutt, Nadira and Bollywood's best dancer, Helen. They tell a story, tackle issues and have memorable songs performed by the classic playback singers - Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, Geeta Dutt and of course sisters Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar.


More recently I came across a film called Albela. Released in 1951 it was directed by Bhagwan Dada who also starred in the film together with Geeta Bali. It tells the story of Pyarelal the son of a poor Bombay family who needs to accumulate money to help marry off his sister, Vimla. Not only does he fail to raise the required amount but he also loses his job. The resultant quarrel with his family leads him to leave home vowing not to return until he is rich and famous. He goes on to pursue a successful career in the theatre and eventually decides to return home only to find things are not as he believed them to be. You'll need to watch the film to find out how it ends! Albela was the third highest grossing Indian movie of 1951 and its soundtrack by C. Ramchandra continues to be acclaimed today. Ramchandra performed most of the songs himself (under the name of Chitalkar), dueting with Lata Mangeshkar on several tracks and with the superstar Mohammed Rafi on one song. The film also made use of westernised style cabaret dance and choruses as well as using bongo drums, oboes, clarinets, trumpets and saxophones, little used in Indian film during that period but which still influence cinema today.

Director and leading man, Bhagwan Dada was born in Sindhudhurg, Maharashtra in 1913. The son of a textile worker, he originally worked as a labourer but had a strong ambition to work in cinema. He eventually obtained work in silent films, making his debut in a movie entitled Criminal. He went on to learn film making, co-directing his first film in 1938 and from then until 1949 he made a number of popular low budget movies. As well as producing Hindi movies, he made at least one Tamil film, Vana Mohini, in 1941. This film was significant for including an elephant as one of the leading characters! A year later he worked with prolific film actress Lalita Pawar. There is a story that he was required to slap her in one scene and that hitting her too hard he injured her eye leaving permanent damage.

In 1947 he set up his own Jagriti Studios and four years later produced his all time classic Albela. Shola Jo Badhke, the best known song from the move is still popular today and Albela is often performed by students as a high school musical. He went on to produce a few more hits in the 1950's but then his success dried up and he was forced to sell his home and cars and take on bit parts in other people's films. He was eventually reduced to living in a chawl, a one room home in a tenement block originally built to house textile workers. Bhagwan died of a heart attack in 2002. A biopic of his life, entitled Ekk Albela, was released in 2016. The original vinyl soundtrack of his masterpiece can still be found and I returned from my most recent Delhi trip with a copy - purchased at the New Gramophone House of course!

New Gramophone House , Shop No 9, opposite Moti Cinema, Main Road, Chandni Chowk, Delhi. It is also possible to browse and purchase items online here.


See pictures from India here.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Jambur - An African Village In India

Jambur is a village of about 5000 people in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. For several centuries it has been home to a Siddi community. The Siddi are people of African origin who have lived in India for several centuries. There are also Siddi communities in Karnataka, Hyderabad and Pakistan. It is thought that they first arrived in India in the seventh century with more coming as part of the Arab invasion of 712. Some came as merchants and sailors whilst others were brought to India as slaves.

There are no accurate figures for the total number of Siddi living in India and Pakistan with estimates varying enormously from 270,000 to 4 million. The vast majority are Muslim but there are also small groups of Hindu and Christian Siddi. The Jambur community are Gujarati speakers with no memory of African languages. They have adopted local dress and identity as Indian.

Helping mum at the shop
"Take as many pictures as you want"
During my recent time in India I was able to visit Jambur to meet and photograph some of the people. The village is similar to other rural Gujarat settlements with small single storey homes, a few shops and life lived in the narrow streets. My first visit was in the early evening when people were enjoying sitting outside and talking to their neighbours whilst their children played. People were welcoming, happy to talk a little and the children curious about this unexpected visitor. The villagers were happy to be photographed. Immediately I arrived a woman who sat having her hair plaited by a friend invited my companion to make a video of the process and told me to take as many pictures as I wanted! The young people were particularly interested in the camera and some of them asked for pictures in different poses. A few proud parents also came forward pointing to their children indicating that they would like me to photograph them.

As well as visiting the village I was introduced to two prominent members of the community who told me their own stories and spoke about the current issues facing the Siddis of Gujarat. Siddi Babu Nathubhai lives in nearby Sasangir and was born locally. He studied to grade seven at the state school and unlike many local children did not attend the Madrassa, the Islamic school. He spoke affectionately about his younger days saying that his school was integrated and that he enjoyed his time there. His father worked as a labourer but Siddi Babu trained as an electrician and obtained work in Mumbai. Unfortunately a serious problem with his leg prevented him from being able to carry out the full range of tasks and so he had to leave his job and return to Gujarat. After coming back to his village he studied for and passed exams to qualify as a guide, specialising in wildlife.

Falaluddin, a young man of Jambur
"Happy"
Hirabaiben Ibrahimbhai Lobi (Hiraben) is perhaps the most prominent Siddi woman in India. Born in Jambur, her parents died when she was just 14. Married young, her husband like her father believed in women's equality and they worked side by side on their small patch of land - just 0.5 hectare. They inherited a huge debt of 100,000 rupees but refused to sell the land, preferring instead to work to pay it off. They listened to radio shows together and it was from this that she learned about and decided to begin producing organic compost. Wanting to start a business making and selling the compost she looked for other women to work with but initially could find only one taker. In the first year they managed to produce 160 bags. The following year this increased to 500 bags with nine women involved and a small profit being made. There are now 95 women organised into 12 groups that produce and sell organic compost. Hiraben believes passionately in the importance of education and although she is willing to take on and train any woman interested in her project she will only retain and promote those who also study. Today most Siddi girls are educated to grade ten or twelve.

Over the years, this kindly, reassuring woman has led a number of projects to promote health and hygiene within her village and she reports that these principles are now widely adopted amongst the Siddi. More controversially she has also promoted birth control as a way of helping women in particular to have a better life and to be able to provide for and look after their families. Her commitment to education and learning is something she returned to frequently throughout our meeting. None of her own family were literate and she is determined that this will not be the case for current and future generations of Siddi. Some years ago a playschool was set up in Jambur but few parents were willing to take their children. Worse than this, the school building was subject to vandalism. In despair, the teacher came to Hiraben to ask for help. Her intervention led to the school being respected and many more children attended. It was with obvious pride that she told me her own grand daughter attends an English medium school.

She also continues to work tirelessly to better the position of women in her community. This includes helping them achieve financial independence. Thirty years ago no Siddi women had bank accounts. Now several do but only because she helped them set the accounts up, going to the bank with them to help deal with officials. That said, she is keen to ensure that the women become self reliant and able to help each other and so has established a self-help group to encourage this. Her work has been recognised by the great and the good and she has a cabinet full of awards as well as pictures of her with various politicians, multi-millionaire Mukesh Ambani and Bollywood superstar Amitah Bachchan. None of this is for her personal gain and it is clear that her only interest is in promoting the well being of her community.

Hiraben
A young man of Jambur
I asked both Siddi Babu and Hiraben about issues currently facing the community. Both of them spoke about employment and the need for greater ambition amongst the younger generations. The Siddi have traditionally worked in agriculture, construction work and other manual jobs. Tourism  now offers other opportunities and the chance to put traditional knowledge of plants and wildlife to good economic use. However much of this work is seasonal and many young men involved in tourism return to labouring out of season. Women are mainly employed in agricultural work. Siddi Babu also spoke about social problems, particularly with drugs and alcohol - problems that also affect other areas of Indian society. He sees tourism as a good thing for the new opportunities it brings but also has concerns that too many visitors could be a problem citing the relatively "easy money" from this work as an issue. Most visitors come to this part of Gujarat to see the wildlife. I was astonished to hear that I am one of just a handful of people who have been to find out about the culture and daily life of the community.

I also asked about knowledge of African culture and tradition and if there is a memory of these things in Jambur. Both Siddi Babu and Hiraben told me that although people know they are of African descent, there is no real knowledge of African culture. The only remaining tradition is a particular dance, the Dhamal, performed by some of the young men and which is related to nature. There has been no systematic recording or documentation of Siddi culture. I was especially interested in this subject because when photographing some of the children they repeatedly said (in English) "say Africa, say Africa" seemingly in the same way some people like to say "say cheese". It was explained to me that this comes from a TV advertisement for motorcycles which includes a reference to Jambur being 100 kilometres from Junagadh and describing it as "Africa in India".

A woman of Jambur
A woman of Jambur
Some Siddi are now becoming well known in non traditional fields. Siddi Babu proudly told me that one community member represents India at judo and another plays soccer at national level. Researching this article I also came across Abdul Rashid Qambrani, a Pakistani Siddi who represented his country in boxing at the 1996 Olympics. Still in Pakistan, Noor Mohammed Danish is a well known Urdu poet. Social change is also happening. More women leave the village now to find work whilst marriage with non-Siddi partners has begun to happen - although always within the same religious group. Hiraben is happy with these changes but wants things to improve more quickly.

Visiting Jambur and meeting the Siddi was a very special experience. I was touched by the easy acceptance of my visit, helped to a large extent by my being in the company of a young community member and I was honoured to be welcomed into the homes of Siddi Babu and Hiraben. It seems appropriate to give her the final word "I dream that not all Siddi will be labourers and that one day a young person will knock on my door and ask for help to become an engineer". 

A proud father with his daughter

You can see more pictures from India here.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Lucknow - tradition in the Chowk

Lucknow is perhaps best known today for the many Islamic monuments dating from the time of the Nawabs, Muslim royalty who ruled over the city until they were deposed by the British in 1856. The city was the capital of Avadh a princely state that broke away from the Mughal Empire in the mid eighteenth century. It became a centre for the arts with many poets, singers and dancers gaining fame there. It also became an important centre for Shi'a Islam, something that continues until today and which can be seen in the annual Muharram processions and events. Today it is the capital of Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state and home to about 4 million people, although a range of figures can be found for its population.

Ejad Emaz, kitewallah
A busy, bustling place, in 2015, Lucknow was named as India's second happiest city. Residents gave numerous reasons for this, including improvements to the infrastructure, cultural activity, parks, great food and most of all, the helpful and friendly people.  I spent a few days there earlier this year and can attest to much of this but the place I most enjoyed was a long, narrow street known as Chowk.  There are more than 5000 businesses in this street and the narrow lanes leading off it and you can find just about anything here. Hundreds of small food outlets sell the city's famous kebabs, and there are countless chai stalls and some excellent sweet shops. The Chowk is also home to businesses dealing in traditional crafts including the famous Chikan (embroidery), jewellery, wooden items and attar - essential oils and perfumes made from flowers. In addition to this, some of India's disappearing arts and traditions can be seen in the Chowk but mass production, foreign imports and changing social attitudes are inevitably placing pressure on a number of small, mainly family run businesses. 

Ejad Emaz' family have had a kite shop in the Chowk for more than 100 years. He is 60 years old and has worked in the shop since he was 20. His colourful kites are made by homeworkers who then bring their work to him for sale. He has both male and female workers but says that the women are more efficient. All of the kites are made in the traditional way, from paper rather than the modern plastic versions imported from China. Kite flying is still popular in India, both throughout the year and at special times such as Independence Day and during religious festivals. Ejad told me that although business is rather less than in the old days, it is still enough to survive at least for the time being. 

Mohammed Ibrahim Warsi, surmawallah
Mohammed Ibrahim Warsi is 65 years old. His family have sold surma in the Chowk for more than a century. Surma, sometimes called kohl, is a traditional cosmetic used as a type of eyeliner by both men and women. Made from various ingredients, it generally includes sandalwood paste, castor oil, ghee and soot. Some communities believe it to have medicinal properties whilst there is also a belief that it prevents children from being cursed by the evil eye. In the 1990's health concerns were raised about surma when high concentrations of lead content were found in some products. This can  cause lead poisoning and a range of other symptoms. Ibrahim assured me his products were healthy and beneficial. His shop was not in good physical shape and it seemed that business was not good. Despite this he was eager to talk and insisted I drink chai with him. He proudly told me that he had six children, three boys and three girls. As well as Hindi and Urdu he speaks some English learned some years ago at Hussainabad Intermediate College. 

Haji Sahib Sikkewale, coin seller
72 years old native Lucknawi Haji Sahib Sikkewale (real name Abdul Khalid) sells antique coins. He saw me before I saw him and he waved me over. He wanted to show me a newspaper article that included a photograph of him and more importantly that identified him as having a bit part in the next Amitabh Bhachchan film. Not only this, the Bollywood superstar had also bought 20 coins from him, result happiness. As well as coins, Haji Sahib sells rings and small metal objects. I noticed that like many of  the  neighbouring shopkeepers, he chews paan whilst waiting for customers. Paan, a combination of betel leaf and areca nut is chewed for its stimulant effect and is popular throughout Southeast Asia and the India subcontinent. It is often mixed with a lime cream and tobacco. Regular users are easily identifiable from the red stains on their lips, teeth and tongue caused by the red liquid released when chewing. Depending on the mixture, it can have a serious impact on health,  destroying teeth and being linked to cancer. Some reports say that use is now decreasing but it can still be found almost everywhere including in the Chowk. In some countries the sale of paan is now banned. Many people depend on the industry for their living, including Mohammed Ali, a paanwallah who has a small stall outside one of the street's mosques.  It is hard to know how people like Mohammed would survive if this happened in India.

Mohammed Ali, paanwallah
Faizan, spinner
Lucknow is famous for its textiles and brightly coloured garments can be seen throughout the Chowk.   In the past the bright yellows, reds and oranges were achieved through using only natural dyes. Today there is significantly more use of chemicals to achieve these colours but there is still enough demand to support a few shops selling natural dyes. Mohammed Shami has a shop selling only natural  products and at the time of my visit was so busy that he had to continually break off talking to serve customers. His neighbour, a young man called Faizan also as a traditional business - spinning.  

Mohammed Shami serving customers in his dye shop
I have already mentioned Mohammed Ali the paanwallah. He has a namesake aged 58 who sells wooden printing blocks for use in hand printing designs on the Chikan garments. He has managed this small business, established 75 years ago, since his father died. He has two sons one of whom will eventually take over the business and another one who will study for a profession. This Mohammed Ali is a talented self-taught artist. Between serving customers and managing the business he produces designs for clothing, draws pictures of the city's architecture from memory and practises Islamic calligraphy. He only studied until the end of elementary school and has no formal training. A little shy at first he was very happy to show his work to me and like several of his colleagues, sent for tea so that we could sit and talk. He produces art only for his own satisfaction and does not use it commercially.

The Chowk has many delights, treasures and secrets. Some of them are being lost as traditional methods are overtaken by rapid modernisation, mass production and changing tastes. A number of shops have already fallen victim to the wreckers' ball as older buildings are demolished to make way for new developments which often lack character despite the advantages of air conditioning and other technologies. Change is inevitable but at least for the moment, Lucknow is managing to sustain many of its traditional businesses too. Maintaining this balance might well help the city retain its status as a "happy city" and to attract new visitors.

Mohammed Ali, artist and seller of printing blocks


You might also like Chawri bazaar - a Delhi delight and Sidhpur's Bohra havelis

You can see more pictures from India here.