Of Red Soil, Ragas and Rides of Fancy

Sangam House Writing Residency

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This is the tenth in a series of blog posts by guest contributor Nabina Das, who writes about Indian books and authors.

One of India’s most talked about writing residencies, Sangam House, is in full swing right now. Housed in Nrityagram (literally, the dance village), an Odissi training center 40 km from the “silicon valley” city of Bangalore, they say the red soil of the campus–which incidentally has also been used to plaster the walls of Sangam House’s residence–makes its imprint on clothes, flip flops, and even the soles of feet to remind you of the ambiance for a long time to follow. Nestled close to the village of Hesarghatta, Nrityagram was founded by Protima Bedi, the legendary danseuse. Sangam House moved in to the campus only recently after hosting fellows in and around Pondicherry.

Purely one of its kind, Sangam House prides itself on being an international residency. Sangam literally means “a confluence.” A good balance of new and emerging writers from India and abroad are placed in groups to arrive as the season starts. We have writers go in and out in batches as I write; and stories in print and memory flow like the seamless dawn and evening of the Sangam sky.

I write about Sangam House because I’ve spent some highly fruitful time at the residency this January, for about three weeks, taking in by the eye and the earful and clicking several photographs. So, as the 2012-13 residency got rolling, I felt the pangs of both jealousy and longing. What are the new fellows doing? Are they enjoying more than I or we did? There is so much to write about Sangan House–the venue, the people, the food, the readings, the mutual learning and sharing, and other curious experiences. Could others have had more exhilarating time than me and my group mates? If, so, how?! What could be more exciting than frying fish for my co-fellows at dinner while they did a story writing exercise, with our coordinator Nimi Ravindran coming in to have her share at midnight?

Karthika Nair, who just finished her time at Sangam House in November, and has a book, was excited to let me into her experience. Before that, I was aware that Nitoo Das, poet, academic and avid birder, had an exciting Sangam House stay right after I finished the residency and left Bangalore. Given that Nitoo and I knew each other for a long time, it was a little distracting that we went in different groups and had to forego the chance of spending time together. Meanwhile, one of the fellows who went to Sangam House before Karthika, Nitoo or me, was V Ramaswamy, also known as Rama among friends. An acclaimed translator, writer and grassroots organizer, Rama’s kitty of stories was quite diverse. He has a wicked sense of humor too, and could be trusted with some exploits. So I wasn’t disappointed when I asked Rama to tell me an interesting story from his residency during January 9-28, 2011. Rama recounted his trip to Bangalore city in an autorickshaw with Joao, his co-fellow from Brazil. They were hunting for a much desired stimulant, ordinarily found easily in low-income back-alleyways and hippie quarters in Indian cities, if not straight up at a shop counter.

“And thus began a journey through various parts of Bangalore… ” said Rama. Everywhere they were assured of it, the seller was absent, apparently due to recent raids. Joao, who actually did not smoke, was enjoying this ride along with a commentary from Rama. A ride it was indeed.

“I had harbored a negative perception of Bangalore, on account of its traffic, the breakdown of civil sense, for being elite India’s hub, etc.,” said Rama, recalling his “epic” hunt for the kiss of the magical. “This was another Bangalore: of the poor and the low-income, of old neighborhoods, and tiny lanes with people, people and people, and wares, and activities…” Rama’s view of Bangalore had changed. This was a city of people and he felt one with them.

“Sadly, despite the long Jim Jarmusch-esque auto ride through working class Bangalore, nothing was obtained and we returned to Nrityagram,” said Rama who also goes on to acknowledge that the friendship thus fostered with Joao–despite his limited English–remains for him a lifelong asset, thanks to Sangam House. Joao shared with him the turbulent, tempestuous experience he had gone through, owing to a relationship. “It was as if he was right there, in that traumatized condition…Everyone needs a friend to talk to.”

I did not have this sort of close angle view of Bangalore’s underbelly, but in one night, all of us fellows had an intriguing brush with the local police. As far as I could remember, we were returning from the famous Koshy’s after dinner and drinks and a session of intense poetry and flash fiction reading with some friends in the city. Invariably, our taxi driver decided to run the vehicle through back-roads to speed up the 40-km trip to Nrityagram and avoid toll check points. And as if to surprise us, the police had displayed its keen presence on those very roads we had taken.

“We are writers from various parts of the world–India and abroad.”

“And going to the dance village? Are you also dancers from different parts of the world?” This accompanied by loud laughter as a constable flashed a light on our faces huddled together in the car. The driver had his license duly checked and was interrogated about possible alcohol consumption.

“That was easy,” the driver said. “Sometimes they make you get out of the car. Lucky they didn’t think the madams are up to something else. There are rackets in these parts you know, with white women, foreign women, women in general.”

We knew. Of course. Right after twenty minutes or so, we ran into another police post, a rather crude one set up with country bamboo barriers. Although not exactly a cold night for Bangalore, the police had worn vests and hats on that January night.

“We are writers from various parts of the world–India and abroad.” We delivered the same line.

“You ladies write books, you mean? When are you gonna win the Nobel Prize?”

This time we laughed loudly. Bangalore police weren’t that bad to chat with!

Karthika, well known as a dance producer and poet, was true to her deeply ingrained artistic vision. On being asked about her Sangam stay, Karthika sent me a bunch of verses that capture the subtleties of the place. Indeed in her writing, Kula (the Sangam House residence); our resident dogs Guru, Swami and Thamp; the daily routine at the dance village, and the rehearsals by dancers and musicians come alive. She calls these poems “Gifts from Kula.”

In the formal sounding “Fare Thee Well,” she refers to the “Sky, patch by uneven patch,” a stunning feature of the Nrityagram sky we have all witnessed. What rings in truer is her remembrance of the residents’ exchanges “around crisp toast dipped in mist/or within fresh, warm stories.”

Fare Thee Well

Shed layers of night,
Sky, patch by uneven patch.
Day shivers within,
still tender; and teal, claret
the words we won’t spell: goodbye.

For we meet again,
surely and soon on the shores
of other mornings,
around crisp toast dipped in mist
or within fresh, warm stories.

Karthika’s simple humor is profound, especially when it comes to the dogs of Sangam House, loved and tended by the visitors and staff of Nrityagram alike:

If a dog could speak,
he would drawl: “Here is the trick:
I let you believe
you are God, divine, adored.
Now throw me some bread, my lord.”

What Karthika tells me in her brief but elegant composition is worth a thousand words.


We feast all the time
we eat like emperors
each meal a banquet
sip the smell of rain the stubbly moon
spread uneven fingers over trees
drink in the quiet of shared thoughts
divide light with moths, mites, crickets
and the odd visitor toad
devour the music of words
words in eight voices and accents
and moods sometimes ten or twelve
toast to the exuberant delight
the laughter of a mama bear laden
with honey and meat dip long
into the magic of revisited tales of beginnings and ends
filled with a Danish bumbling god with no sense
of shape and heroines with a predilection for puns
and one cranky rhino who saves the world
once glimpse the quicksilver
puckish god of poetry

We multiply them the laughter and words
thought and delight and sorrow and this time
leave some in the alcoves on eaves
beside windows sprinkled on butterfly
wings stray sunlit free verses
on the grass and carry others
in wallets and pockets dangle
them from ears you’ll still find a few
in the hollow of a throat

(Copyright Karthika Nair)

The poems are a source of constant delight as I read them and rediscover my Sangam memories wrought in the papaya field, the amphitheater (she writes another poem called “Samhara,” quoting from Merce Cunningham, and structured as a “square,” forming a proscenium space), and the cow-shod path embracing the pebble-shored Kula.

Nitoo Das’ experiences of the Sangam House fellowship couldn’t be imagined without her discerning eye for details that very few would care to notice. This included the flowers, the red soil and most importantly, for that is what she documented most avidly, birds.

“On the evening of my arrival, the exposed tree in front of Kula birthed a Blue-faced Malkoha. My first sighting. A good sign. A new bird. He wore eyes kohled by white. Prarambha was the name of my home. It signaled a start as bling-filled as the Purple-rumped Sunbirds that ambushed the Jacaranda trees.”

Nitoo felt, just like her poems, the baby papaya and plantains grew outside her window, “rose out of incongruous red soil.” And for me that was the only ritual of the morning, for I stayed in Prarambha (literally, “pre-beginning or the beginning of a beginning”) too! While I had a green gecko inside my room to share the habitation, Nitoo mentioned that everything she wrote seemed like visitations: “brief, meant for escape, slithery like the guest of that first night,” referring to a certain other reptile.

How does one describe Sangam House? Nitoo puts it perfectly well.

“Sangam House was about minutiae. There, I studied the ruined edges of seedpods and listened to the angle of a singing voice. I waited for conversations to turn into dragonflies. A dancer stayed alive in the veins of their wings, I was told. I also wrote about a woman called Padmamma.”

I’ve had the good fortune of reading from “Padmamma Stories” as it was being written. The stunning image Nitoo draws with the start of the “stories” constituted our diurnal cycles at Sangam House:

Padmamma rides a wheelbarrow horse
and turns
the day around
with big circles.

The beautiful earthy women who cooked our food, the ever-smiling Kula staff who brought her daughters to play with us, the dusky girl who swept and cleaned the work sites–all of them are embodied in this series of poems:

Padmamma whistles on the back of a red soil storm.
She comes rustling,
swirling, dancing
from the plateau beyond.

She rolls up her sleeves,
tucks in her sari, plants
her feet apart
and wails a song.

All I can say, what these above impressions convey, is only “that single fleeting moment when you feel alive,” to re-quote from the Merce Cunningham (the colossus in 20th century dance) phrase in Karthika’s poem “Samhara.”

After all, for a literary residency situated among world-class music and dance activities, genial local people and their homegrown food served in the dance village kitchen, and pursuits like singing “Piya ki nazariya jaadu bhari” in Raga Yamankalyan with my co-fellow from Canada (while she taught me a thing or two about choir music), how else does one capture the delight and flight that result from a writer’s pen? Personally, I would urge all writers to go experience Sangam House. With no one to instruct and no workshops to bog one down, the sights and sounds birth exquisite writing here. At least we think so.