Wednesday, July 19, 2006

No More McLeod - Amritsar and then Delhi

All right, all right. So I haven't really given you guys much to read these past weeks. I've been finishing up research in McLeod Ganj and welcoming the rest of the BYU group, who came up from their research in Tamil Nadu to see McLeod Ganj for a while. It was busy.

Let me give you a quick run-down of how my last days in McLeod Ganj panned out. With about three weeks left in my research, I finally made my way up to TIPA, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. That sounds like I was just wimping out or scared to go, and actually in part that's true: at the gate to TIPA there's a sign that says no visitors or photography are allowed. That kind of restriction can make it difficult for an American hoping to shoot a documentary. But a friend of Ben's, an influencial monk in the community, had a connection up there and said it would be no problem for him to walk up the hill to TIPA and give me a recommendation. It took a week more than we were expecting, but when he reported back to Ben that I could go, I didn't waste much time at all making my way up to the office and saying hello. Still, I had to go through three people over the course of four days to feel like I was okay even spending time on the campus there. I was really looking for a way to help out around TIPA, too, and it turned out that they had received a couple of Macs and Final Cut Pro to edit on, so I was able to contribute that way. So volunteer I did, usually in the mornings, followed by fits of filming in the afternoon and at night. I did most of my shooting while students and staff were hanging out between and after classes, and eventually I started shooting during classes as well. Everything was blurred as I'd planned to shoot it, and I got some good stuff.

Interviews took me a while longer. I should point out that it took me a while to feel like folks at TIPA were really comfortable with me, both students and staff. At first no one would talk to me at all, and even after three weeks only a handful of students would just come up and speak with me or call me over to them out of the blue. But those that would, did, and after some time I would say we were on our way to becoming pretty good friends. One moment that sealed it was at the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration, when I was just hoping they would let me tag along. Instead, one of the guys from TIPA met me outside the gate and invited me in with him and his friend and told me that he thought I should have lunch with them all. I sat at and shot from TIPA's mixing board and helped out whenever I could, and eventually I found my way back to the room where TIPA sat between performances. Then after the celebration we were straightening up and sweeping the room, when the oldest man from TIPA grabbed my hand and pulled me out the door. I followed him around the building we were in to a rooftop where there were bins and bins of food waiting for us. He had invited me to have lunch, too, and I really appreciated it. I sat down with a group of the male students and ate under the overcast sky. After lunch I waited with them and the male staff members for the TIPA truck to arrive; we loaded it up and went back up the hill to the TIPA campus together, unloading amidst good feelings and smiles.

After that I was pretty at ease asking the kids about going on camera. The first girl didn't want her face to appear on screen - which is fine, that's why I added the option to my consent form. I hoped other students would be more willing to show their faces, and of course I would blur their faces, but I couldn't know. Only one other kid decided not to show his face. Again, everyone's been blurred.

The interviews went pretty darn well. I did a bit of cognitive mapping on my (admittedly small) sample, asking them to draw a map of Tibet and then the places in Tibet that were important to them. After that I asked them to draw the places they thought all Tibetans should know or know about and finally asked them to mark the place they would go back to with a star. I think it was across the board that the interviewees marked the place where they had been born with a star - or if they hadn't been born in Tibet, they marked the place their parents came from. Almost as universal was the data my study became most interested in: with no pushing (that I can remember - we'll see when I go back to the tapes) almost all of the interviewees doing the map activity drew or listed the three 'ethnic' regions of Tibet, Kham, Amdo, and U-Tsang. (Some people call them provinces.) I have a feeling this is pretty important in understanding the dynamic of Tibetans living in exile, and I think that will be the focus of the edited piece I finally put together.

I'm really glad I came up with a sound research method besides the participant-observation-and-interviewing combo that so many folks have relied on before. I understand those tend to be the backbone of anthro research, and to tell you the truth they were really the center of mine too. But I'm glad I got to use this time to work through another method, one I may be able to use in future research or films. And I'm awfully pleased to have been in a research site that allowed for this specific method because it's so visual. After each drawing activity I filmed the person holding the map in front of his or her face, only his or her eyes showing (and, of course, blurred). I think this might work.

Not that this piece is going to be the most entertaining thing in the world. A month and a half ago when I was talking about filming the Tibetan rock band in McLeod, a buddy of mine named Evan found me online and we chatted about how much cooler he thought my project was than his because of entertainment value. And while there is a certain sexiness in rock and roll that isn't quite there in an NGO down in Tamil Nadu (let me know if that spoils your surprise for my readers, Evan), I though both of our projects were at least interesting. Now they're both just interesting. Maps aren't sexy.

Anyway, that's pretty much how I spent my final weeks in McLeod Ganj. The folks at TIPA were just too good to me, despite their reservations. (Somewhere around 60 filmmakers and photographers have come through promising to send TIPA advance copies and give full credit to TIPA, but not a single one has followed through - getting in took some convincing.) I also finished doing English conversation with my friend at the restaurant and even found a little time to read Holes there over the course of about four lunches. (It was a quick read, my first 'quick read' in years!) But really all my time was focused around TIPA.

Pretty soon I was saying my goodbyes and we were taking a taxi to Pathankot and a train from there to Amritsar, where you'll find the Sikhs' Golden Temple. This town is so beautiful, full of kind people and pilgrims. When we stepped off the train, of course, we were surrounded by rickshaw drivers competing for our tourist money, but one man who spoke perfect English ("I just learned from people," he said) stood with us and kept them at bay, and two other young Sikh guys, Bawa and Miki, insisted on helping us catch the free bus from the station to the Golden Temple. When the free bus arrived it was being mobbed by potential passengers and was going to be absolutely packed, but the tall, aging Sikh driver stood and held a bamboo pool between the bus's front door and a compartment to his side. He motioned to pass our bags through the window there. Bawa looked at me and said, "I will guard your seat!" I figured he just wanted money, but it turns out these guys just wanted to make us welcome. When the bus finally arrived at the Golden Temple complex (it's huge), they guided us to the free housing for tourists and talked us three through getting a few beds. Before they left they made sure to leave their numbers and tell us that at the gurdwara we could get free food, 24 hours a day. These Sikhs are just so kind.

We've spent hours and hours at the golden temple. One Sikh man with only his front teeth, who seemed to not speak a work of English, took interest in us and guided us around the temple's big pool (google it and find pictures - worth it!) and then into the temple. From there he showed us staircase after little staircase, leading us to places we never would have known about or been gutsy enough to enter without him. One of these was a long gallery just packed with historical depictions and portraits of significant Sikhs, of men being killed or tortured or in the middle of glorious acts. One was of a famed woman military commander. I couldn't help but feel a certain brotherhood with the Sikhs; Mormons too look to their past with keen interest and are often told to remember their history. Mormons too have gone through persecution that united us in a common, beautiful cause.

Tomorrow we leave for Delhi, where I'll be studying Baha'i. I don't have much to say about Baha'i now - that's why I'm going to be studying it - but I'll have something soon. I have in fact decided to head down to the Taj Mahal, even though it's a big-time touristy thing to do and I don't really have a reason. (Sorry, Dave and the rest of the ISP crowd. Peer pressure is something else, I'll tell you... I'll try to get in an interview about Bollywood on the way or something.)

Okay well time to get going. Lots to do today if I'm going to feel like I've made the most of Amritsar. Much love. Thanks for everything.

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