Greetings from the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music, located in the town (or should I say, future town) of MARG Swarnabhoomi, located in the state of Tamil Nadu, in the country of India! Phew. It’s taken me a few weeks to post an update, because journaling is really not a regular activity in my daily life, here in India, or back at home, but because I have lots to share this should come a little more naturally.
I’ve joined the faculty at SAM for the second session of school; this is the inaugural year of the program, directed and founded by guitarist Prasanna. This academy focuses on bringing Carnatic music (traditional South Indian style of music) to the styles of Western rock, jazz, world music, and all that lies in between. Prasanna himself designed the architecture of the music academy’s building; it’s a beautiful, modern, well-equipped space for jams, performances, private instruction, solo practice, dining, coffee breaks, and computer usage (and Halloween parties, but you should check out my Facebook photo album to be posted soon for more about that). I will post more about the classes, performances, and shows as stories unfurl. For now, Ill share my first impressions of my new surroundings.
When I got off the plane, I was hit with Chennai like a ton of bricks. I stepped into the outdoors area looking for name placards, you know the section where private drivers are sent to pick up company’s clients…. a place where you must rely on recognizing your name in a stranger’s hands, and hopefully it’s written legibly. And I was greeted by a sea of faces and signs; a row that maybe was 50 yards long, drivers on both sides, four rows deep, holding up signs bearing barely visible names. I’m glad my driver was tall, because at 4:30am in the sweltering heat and the honking, the yelling, buzzing of crickets and cawing of birds, all just within the airport parking lot, I felt overwhelmed instantly. It seemed to be quite possible to get lost and disoriented in that crowd of unfamiliar people. And then there was Muti, the school’s hired driver, with “Natalie John, SAM”. We jumped in his car, and I was greeted inside the car by friendly welcome mosquitos while I tried to kindly show them the way out the window (I wasn’t very kind though), as we sped off into the insanity that is India city driving. Really India, anywhere, driving. It’s only slightly more terrifying in close quarters. Leaving the city, moving south towards out destination, it was dark, yet there were tons of people out, hanging out on the street, talking, eating at roadside shops, just there, awake, at 5am. It still is odd to me to have seen that. And there were dogs, cows, tons and tons of motorcycles. Everyone drives them. We sped by a slow motor rickshaw…BEEEP! Bike with two kids on the back, swerve, HONK! Lady sitting side saddle on her man’s bike… just maneuvering around, speeding up into the merge to pass. Horns are really used like turn signals and high beams. And I’m still just now realizing, oh yeah, LEFT side driving, that’s right, didn’t think to expect that.
We got out into the palm trees and high grasses of the countryside, approaching Mahabalipuram, just before Swarnabhoomi, and on the left, the beach emerges, then a gorgeous red sun slowly peeking out from behind the omnipresent cumulus clouds on the horizon. Something about the skies here, it’s like you can see the whole thing! Pardon my ineloquence, but there are not too many words for its beauty. Having lived only in major U.S. cities and suburbs, I’m not used to it. The sky is just massive, and the clarity of vision is unreal. Although, the vibrant cloud-framed blue skies will inevitably disappear as the monsoon season is slowly approaching. We’ve already had some massive thunderstorms that managed to do some damage to the buildings here. But its warm, exciting, and pretty impressive. I’m loving the rain, at the expense of my clothing not being able to dry properly on the balcony. I do have a slight fear of lightning, and walking home at night, under clear skies, I’ve been made aware of the cumolonimbus thunder clouds out in the distance that are undetectable, especially when you look up and see stars. Lightning strikes, and the whole sky lights up bright, then goes back to black. It’s like God is snapping photos from above… really crazy and unsettling for me.
The car dropped me off at campus in the balmy morning, and I was shown to my room by Mr. Ricky, the housing manager. At lunchtime, I walked the kilometer to the music building, where the cafeteria is, to eat and meet the faculty who had made it in already from their respective days-long plane rides from Los Angeles and New York. The first thing after introductions, somebody walked me to the side of the kitchen and offered me a freshly hacked open coconut and a straw. I would come to discover that these coconut water offerings would be daily, and multiple times a day. Siviraj is the coconut man. He hangs out with the kitchen staff and his machete, and hacks them open by the dozens for the students, the faculty, or whoever’s got 15 rupees for the miracle water. It’s supposed to be the best thing for your health, plus it’s refreshing and tasty. Nothing like drinking it straight from the source. I’ve come to eat the gooey innards too, which although texturally unsettling, contains a ton of nutrients as well. The food served here is traditionally South Indian, meaning that the starch base is not chappati or naan, but rice, all day every day. Other staples in the cuisine are eggplants, okra, green chilis, tomatoes, eggs, and lots of chicken.
India, the country to which some of the oldest civilizations in the world belong, and where long standing traditional households and communities exist and function as a majority, is also advancing technologies and lifestyles at a rapid speed. I’ve been given the impression that India in 2000 and 2010 are completely different places. MARG Limited is the infrastructure company that has taken on the development of Swarnabhoomi, which is to be a thriving modern city located 80 km outside of Chennai (formely Madras, the fourth largest city in India). For more information about the development, check out www.margswarnabhoomi.com. The graphic simulations of the completed town are dazzling, in a word; from living in one of the only completed apartment buildings available, it seems there’s about 15% of the structures completed. The rest of the acreage, minus the music academy, the hospital, the global school for children farther down the road, and the corrugated shack that construction workers and musicians buy their smokes and Pepsis, is completely flat, tilled dirt. There’s so much activity all day and night, people working towards completing the Utopian-esque gated community. Today, the occupants of the dirt fields where the buildings soon will be are dragonflies, butterflies, goats, stray dogs, crickets, a ton of bugs I’ve never seen before, and cows. The cows really go anywhere they want. It’s not unusual to come up fast on a cow taking her sweet time meandering up the East Coast Highway, which is the main road from Chennai to Swarnabhoomi.
Well, this is what happens when you try to cram 2 1/2 weeks of an experience into one post. There’s just too much to write about, yet I know there’s a lot more new experiences to come. Performances, day trips, journies to temple towns, class projects, and who knows what, awaits me. Tonight I’m travelling to Chennai for the first time with a few other faculty members to judge the final round of the Battle of the Bands competition, so I can post more about that this weekend. Plus, although last weekend included a trip to Auroville and Pondicherry, I’m planning to go again this weekend and spend more time observing and taking pictures. For now, I can leave you with this: I’d prepared as much as possible for this two month long trip, speaking with the previous faculty and current staff for any advice or guidance, but I realized that besides any general medical preparations and clothing suggestions, the best I could expect was not to expect anything in particular and roll with it once I got here. Which I found out, seems to be the way that life is lived here. I’m more inspired than ever to learn about teaching, to learn about learning music, to learn even more than I’m aware of at this moment. Stay tuned for more stories!