Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Hitting the Airwaves

Professor Acharya explaining the purpose of the SIS study tour to the media at Ravenshaw University. The SIS group attracted considerable interest from television and print media in Orissa and interviews with the students and Prof Acharya were telecast with the main news for two days.

Matt giving his impressions of Orissa to a reporter from a local TV station
Lauren and Liz

An Introduction to Sufism

On 31st December 2009, we visited the famous tomb of Saint Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi. Nizamuddin was a Sufi (the inner, mystical element of Islam) Muslim saint of the 14th century. Side by side his tomb is the tomb of Amir Khusru, one of India's greatest Muslim poets. It was a transformational experience. The Pir (chief warden) of the tomb, a direct descendant of Saint Nizamuddin, personally received us and took us inside the tombs. He allowed us to touch the tombs, which were covered with flowers and scarfs. He picked up some scarfs that had been gifted by worshippers and wrapped it around our necks. We prayed together inside the tombs. Outside, Kawali music (a local form) was being played and then the loudspeakers called the noon prayers.

The shrine gets visitors from all faiths, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians. It feeds hundreds of poor people from different faiths every day, and several thousands per day during the holy month of Ramadan. We ended our tour with a sit down snack meal with the Pir. Many of us had never been to an Islamic shrine before and none of us had entered a Sufi shrine. In an era when media reports keep stressing the radical extremist face of Islam, one wishes more people would visit the Nizamuddin Shrine and learn about Sufism. It can dispel lots of myths about Islam. I was reminded of a couple of lines from Gandhi's favourite hymn: "Ishwar, Allah Tere Nam: Subko Sanmati de Bhagwan". Translated roughly as: "Your name is Ishwar (Hindi for god/lord) or Allah, Oh Lord, please bless everyone with this wisdom."

In The News

A leading daily newspaper of Orissa, Dharitri (the Earth), carried three stories about the visit of the American University (SIS Intersession Study Abroad India) students to India. Here are brief summaries:

The main story headlined: “American Students Visit Ravenshaw”, says that the Registrar of Ravenshaw University (Mr Malay Mohanty, fifth from left, the photo also shows Mr Subrat Singhdeo - who was the India coordinator- to the extreme left) received a delegation of students from American University who are in India as part of a course on human security. They first spent a week in Delhi and then visited several places in Orissa: including Bhubaneswar, Puri, Konark before coming to Ravenshaw University. The delegation is guided by American University Prefessor Amitav Acharya and includes seven students (all the names in Oriya language are given). 50% of the assessment of this course will be based on interactions and site visits.

The next story (to the right) is headlined “Acharya Chamber Very Attractive”. It describes the donation of some 330 books on international relations made by Prof Acharya, an alumnus of Ravenshaw and currently professor at American University, since 2007 to the Kanika Library of Ravenshaw University. These books are part of a special collection which the newspaper calls Acharya Chamber of International Relations Book, which is housed inside the Library. According to students, from this collection of books on international relations, one can get much information about other countries of the world. On this visit, Prof Acharya made a further donation of 20 books which included Barak Obama’s bestseller, “Dreams of My Father”, as well as Prof Acharya’s own recent book, “Asia Rising”.

The inset news item quotes American University students saying that Orissa is very calm and quiet compared to Delhi. It is very hard to do research in Delhi because it’s so crowded. There is no such problem in Orissa.

As background, Ravenshaw University ( traces its origins to 1868. It was founded as a college by the then British Commissioner of Orissa, T.E. Ravenshaw, who was concerned about Orissa’s development after a major famine struck the region, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It has since evolved into one of the oldest and most famous educational institutions in India. The University is where almost all the political, academic and administrative leaders of Orissa were, and still are, educated.

What a fitting backdrop for educating ourselves on human security! Famine, education, achievement, all come together at this institution.

P.S.: Professor Acharya studied here for his BA from 1976 to 1980 and lived in the East Hostel, which is adjacent to the main building.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Picture follow up of the first post!

Now that I am back in the U.S., and not in a bus driving I am more able to post pictures. To rehash the main points of my last post:
Arrival in Delhi, Food, the Gandhi memorial and museum, and Interesting things of India.

A view from the roof of our hostel in New Delhi!

A close up of the Ghandi Memorial. There is a large lawn that surrounds the memorial where tons of people like to lounge.

Huong and I by a statue of Gandhi which is located outside the Gandhi museum.

"Truth is God" - outside the Gandhi Museum

Monkeys are always a good time. We were told that they may slap you but all of us were lucky enough to avoid that fate. Also we did not typically get close but these were very friendly monkeys!

India had many many beautiful flowers and LOTS of delicious looking fruit. We had to avoid some fruits because of water issues but we were lucky enough to have some home grown star fruit which was wonderful!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Odissi Dance photos

Our group (l-r: Lauran, Huong, Nathan, Jeni, Katrina, Liz, Matt and Prof. Acharya) with the Gotipua dance children.

Displaying their talent: the kid in the middle will anchor the four other ones around him and turn one full circle around.

"Jagannath" pose.

The Lord-Krishna-killing-the-evil pose by a dancer from the Orissa Dance Academy. Note the exuberance and the delicate feature in her costume.

The fantastic cast of the Orissa Dance Academy.
Meeting the Delhi University students.
Center is Professor Amitav Acharya, far right first row in tan saree is Professor Behera from Delhi Univ.

Professor Behera during lecture on the Kashmir conflict. Her book Demystifying Kashmir and State, Conflict and Violence provide unique perspective on the issue.

I have never interacted with a student body so sociable and amiable as the Delhi Univ. students. They are passionate in their studies, but are also eager to learn about us and our system of study. We have exchanged email address for future contact.

Talking over coffee. Nathan (far right) with Delhi students.

A whole host of us: mixed bag of American University and Delhi University students.


One of the most fascinating aspects of the culture of the state of Orissa, besides its long-standing, well-preserved historic temples, its distinct culinary flavor, the hospitality of the people, is its dance. The traditional dance of Orissa is a language as well as it is an embodiment of religious stories. We were fortunate enough to attend, on this short trip, two fantastic acts: the Odissi dance performance of the Orissa Dance Academy, and the Gotipua acrobatic dance performed by the young boys from the artisan village. Both were captivating, exhilarating and inspirational in their own ways.

We went to visit the Orissa Dance Academy at around 7pm on Wednesday, when night dance classes were still taking place. On walking through the gate, I got a peak at a group of young dancers rehearsing their routine. They stepped in unison as the teacher clapped his hand to keep rhythm. Our interaction with the Dance Academy allowed us to learn about the single stances and dance moves in each act and what they represent. With regards to content, there are two main types: the one that tells the stories from religious tales and the pure act that focuses more on the ensemble of moves. In religious dances, three principal and most common steps are: the tribhanga (derived from the pose of Lord Jagannath, patron lord of Orissa), the bhramari, and the khandi. Each of them has multiple variations that were singly demonstrated to us by the dancers. A sense of continuity and perfection was felt throughout each act because there is one move that connects all: whether it be the flute-holding posture of Lord Krishna, the mirror-holding in the hands of the female dancer, or peacock pose.

The technicality requires not only stamina but also a great deal of full-body coordination and balance. The eyes and their movement play an important part in the dance, for the emotions they reflect and exude. Another aspect that kept me watching was the sparkling and delicate outfit of the dance crew, which helped enhance the visual effect greatly. We watched the dancers with much admiration and excitement, camera flashing, eyes wide open and smiles lingering. I pondered upon how amazing it is for the people to be able to preserve such a beautiful cultural element, which has taken and will take generations for its continuation.

It is a tradition that has resisted the powerful absorption power of globalization. It is for the pride, the respect and the endearment for this culture from each dancer that keeps Odissi dance from being essentially commercialized, lost or forgotten. Had money been the motivator, the dance masters would be putting its tradition at the mercy of market preference, which will not stand the test of time. Instead, these dance masters certainly has a long-term vision in mind. These days, dance groups like the Orissa Dance Academy travel the world to introduce their culture and tell their stories. The younger dancers will dance until around thirty years old, when they become a dance teacher and continue the cycle, passing down their knowledge and passion for Odissi dance.

The six Gotipua boys came to us at our resort in Puri showcasing their talents for acrobatic dance. Most of them are 5-12 of age, but the level of discipline, concentration and resilience they display were quite respectable. Their act spanned 45 minutes, with remarkable coordination, leaving us all at awe. Each has a role to play in marking it a successful performance, but you could spot out a couple that really anchored the act. They did tumbling, body-staggering, and everything in between. Once again, the full-body coordination and the articulate eye movement still characterize and distinguish these Indian dances to any others in the world. What I found interesting, as my first impression told me, was that these boys dressed like girls; and I felt guilty of mistaking them for being girls. Upon my inquiry, it turned out that the dance is a boy-only given this traditionally patriarchic society, not for the reason that the girls’ body cannot handle the movements. These boys have also traveled to Europe and California to perform and have had some stage experience. At the end of the act, we gave them some a couple hundred rupees to “encourage” them in their effort, but as told, the money would be evenly shared among them. Indeed, the dance wouldn’t have been as good without any single one of them.

Some Photos

The Udaigiri and Khandgiri Caves in Bhubaneswar.


Our group posing with the Odissi dance troupe after their spectacular performance.

Feeding the monkey!

The group at the Lingaraj Temple in Bhubaneswar.

The New Year's Celebration at the Madhyam Foundation in Bhubaneswar. The Madhyam Foundation is a microfinance organization founded by our amazing program coordinator, Subrat Singhdeo.

Clearly, the best sight I saw on the roads in Delhi.

Friday, January 8, 2010

From Professor Amitav Acharya:

Here is one news item with the whole team's photo. It came out in a daily paper in Orissa, entitled Khabara (literally: The News). There were several other stories about us in various news papers, including the leading Oriya daily Samaja, and the leading English language daily newspaper of India: Times of India. We were also on TV news on two channels, repeated through the day and next day.

The headline of the attached can be translated as: "Ravenshaw-American University Tie-Up." The write up (in summary) says that a delegation from American University led by Professor Amitav Acharya and consisting of 5 boys and two girls visited Ravenshaw University to study human security in India. They were very impressed with Orissan art and culture and found it to be of high quality. The delegation also visited Puri, Konarak and other places. They visited Ravenshaw's library, sports complex, and examination halls. There has been suggestions that Ravenshaw University will open a research centre on human security. American students will be welcome to study there. There are now over 70 foreign students studying at Ravenshaw University.

The Sun Temple in Konark

A few of us are currently having a layover in Doha, Qatar so it's a perfect time to sit down and write a blog!!

Orissa was an absolutely incredible experience and everyone there seemed to be very excited that we were visiting. In Puri and at Ravenshaw University we even got spoiled with some media attention, making us feel like celebrities! A few of us were pretty exhausted after doing so many interviews but it was great publicity for American University and for American students in general. More people should visit Orissa, it has such a rich, different culture and the people are so hospitable and relaxed. In a way, some parts of Orissa reminded me of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was very agricultural and the people never really seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere.

While in Puri we got to visit one of the World Heritage sites: the Sun Temple at Konark. The temple was built in the 13th century and it is absolutely awe-inspiring. The front part of the temple was about 130 feet tall and the back part (before it collapsed) was about 230 feet tall, so the structure is enormous. The temple was designed as a giant chariot for the sun god, so the temple has a number of wheels and horses on both sides and the temple has an east-west orientation, following the rise and fall of the sun. The temple is so important to Orissan culture that the same wheel on the temple is the symbol of Orissa. The carvings around the temple are also incredibly intricate and interesting to look at. Many of them represent Odissi dancers, which we were able to see in Bhubaneshwar, but also many of them were erotic poses which is interesting in such a conservative culture for these images to be put on a religious site. Our guide told me that after adolescence and marriage, children were sent to the temple to learn about intercourse... who knows how much truth there is to that story but it seems pretty plausible to me.

The entire time that we were exploring the temple, I couldn't help but feel the history of the place and imagine the people working on the temple almost eight centuries ago. I can't even fathom the amount of time and labor it took for them to carve the intricate sculptures and details on the remaining structure, let alone a structure almost 100 feet taller! Visiting old sites such as the sun temple always makes me feel so connected with the past. Experiencing the sun temple truly helped the group develop a deeper understanding of Orissan culture.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A few group pictures

Field Experiences in Bhubaneswar

Today we had the opportunity to really get down to business and see how human security works on the ground. Personally, so far I have felt really removed from the actual problems that many Indians are currently facing after only having talked about and discussed the situation and I was really excited to get to the field-work portion of the course. One of my learning objectives for this trip was to see how NGO's and non-profits work in the real world since I often feel as if we, as students, have a deep theoretical understanding of problems but we are missing the real-world aspect of the issues and how they are dealt with.

After lunch, we started our afternoon with a visit to the Centre for Health and Human Security in Cuttack where we were given a briefing on the centre's approach and their work and successes in the community. The centre focuses on health issues from a human security perspective, recognizing that without basic health, development cannot take place. Their goal is to reduce and eventually eradicate the major diseases in the area, including malaria, leprosy and tuberculosis. They also do research on other human security indicators such as access to food and clean drinking water. One of their most impressive achievements is that they were able to reduce the incidence of malaria in one of their villages by over 20% in one year!

Next we headed to one of the villages that the centre works with to observe the conditions and meet the people of the villages. We had a very interesting welcome by the women of the village (the video at the end shows the greeting). Overall, it was obvious that the centre was extremely well-appreciated and it seemed that the community truly worked together to uplift themselves from their situation of poverty. The group had a lot of fun interacting with the people there and playing with the children.

When we returned to the hotel we came together for a quick meeting to consolidate our observations from the day. We all agreed that what we saw today demonstrated the efficacy of small NGO's and non-profits in dealing with problems such as disease as compared to the government. The townspeople informed us that their representative in Parliament has never visited their village, demonstrating that the problems for this village are not a huge concern to the government even though they are mostly active voters. The founders of the centre (including our own Dr. Acharya) recognized a problem in their own community and set up an organization to take care of it. The women in the village even developed their own association to help the community as well. These two facts demonstrate the importance of community in human security and how communities can organize to provide security to individuals. The group also found it interesting that women seemed to be the most active in the community in terms of efforts to develop and improve their situation. We are interested to know why this seems to be the case, it could be that the men were just not as visible to us today because they were still working or they simply were not interested in our visit.

All in all it was a good experience for everyone on the trip and an especially invaluable experience for those of us interested in doing this kind of field work in foreign countries in the future!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Celebrating the New Year: Delhi Style!

Happy New Years! We were lucky enough to spend the holiday in Delhi. We spent the morning of New Year's Eve attending a lecture at Jamia Milia Islamia University in the Muslim quarter of the city. Our speaker was Professor Akhtarul Wasey, a professor of Islamic Studies. He gave us an enlightening and interesting lecture on Muslims in India as they compose the largest minority group in the country. His lecture provided an excellent glimpse into the status of minorities in the Indian culture and it showed how truly vibrant and encompassing the Indian democratic culture is.

After the lecture, we visited the Niuzammudin tomb, which is the second most holy Sufi site in India. It was an amazing experience and one of the highlights of the trip so far. We were greeted by one of the high mystics, who gave us a personal tour and blessed us. It was wonderful to observe such a rich cultural site. The architecture was amazing, but above all, it was touching to take part in such an important religious and cultural tradition.

At the tomb, we also experienced the "fishbowl syndrome." Since we've arrived in India, everywhere we go people have stared at us. Whether we are driving in a cab, walking in a market or visiting the Presidential Palace, people have stared. It's such a weird feeling! At the tomb, one family actually approached us and asked to take a picture with their family. They even asked Katie to hold their son! It's been so amusing.

We spent the afternoon shopping at the Dehli Haat market. It was a fantastic experience. Not only did we get some fabulous purchases at awesome prices (earrings for 20 RS!), we got to experience traditional cultural performances. We saw a fire breather! There was also traditional dancers and musical performances. I was even followed around by a dancing dragon :)

At night, we went to Kahn market for dinner and to ring in the New Year. We ended up in an American-theme restaurant by accident, but the food was incredible because of the Indian spin that was added to traditional American cuisine. Then we went to Cafe Oz to dance in the New Year. They gave us colorful masks and noise makers. We were able to meet some local Indians and they helped us perfect our Bollywood dances moves! The start of 2010 was incredible and a good omen for the year and decade to come!

New Delhi to Bhubaneswar

After experiencing New Years in New Delhi we left this morning for our flight to Bhubaneswar, Orissa. We will be spending the remainder of our time in the eastern state of Orissa, which is the second poorest state in India next to Bihar. While the the three major cities (including Bhubaneswar) rival the GDPs of the other coastal states, the western part of the state is still quite rural, agrarian and faces a Maoist insurgency.

We flew on Air India (the country's major air line which also happens to be government-owned) and it was quite interesting being able to take water bottles and food through security while not having to take our shoes off. Our flight from New Delhi to Bhubaneswar took about an hour and fifty minutes and during that time we were served a full meal as well as tea. It is simply amazing the vast difference between India and the US in terms of hospitality. If you were to fly on an American airline for an hour and fifty minutes you would be lucky to even get a bag of peanuts and a cup of water. While being fortunate enough to have a window seat, I was privileged to be able to see the countryside and the hot sun reflecting off the lakes and rivers gave the perception of gold and diamonds being held to a light. It seems as if everything in India glitters.

Upon our arrival in Bhubaneswar we were greeted at the door of the airport with a bouquet of flowers for each of us and the drivers to take us to our hotel. The differences between here and New Delhi were immediately noticeable, for example actually being able to inhale without coughing. The air here smells so fresh (something none of us have experienced in a while) with a slight hint of incense. The second thing that struck us was how clean the city is. There is no trash lying around on the streets and while you will see the occasional cow meandering around, it really feels like a completely different country. Drivers actually stop at red lights here instead of blowing their horn and pushing through the intersection.

While staying at the Youth Hostel in New Delhi was an interesting and authentic experience, it is amazing how excited one can get at the prospect of a bed that does not feel like a pile of cardboard. Tonight we will be going to a New Years celebration that the hotel is throwing and tomorrow will begin the field work portion of the program. It was a privilege to meet with the distinguished scholars at JNU, Delhi University, and Jamia Millia Islamia University, the ability to be able to see Human Security in action and what outside actors can do to help will be a truly unique experience very few get.