Shivering with Joy: Shantala Shivalingappa dances

On a clear night at the end of February, snow frozen in layers knee-deep, Shantala Shivalingappa danced at Williams College. She danced with her fingertips, with a lift of the chin, a flexed ankle, a ripple in the small of her back.

She moved sometimes with carefully controlled gliding and stillness — sometimes leaping, whirling, skipping in deft footwork across the stage. A woman who knows her body has power, a woman who can express playfulness, pride, anguish or joy in the tilt of her head, her shoulder, her bare feet.

She is beautiful.

Photo by Christopher Duggan / Courtesy of Shantala Shivalingappa

Photo by Christopher Duggan / Courtesy of Shantala Shivalingappa

That night, in ‘Akasha,” she danced Kuchipudi, a South Indian style. She danced in close-fitting supple cloth like golden silk, smooth across her back and pleated at the knees. For some pieces she wore bells at her ankles. She had painted the tips of her fingers a deep rose, so that stage lighting would bring out each quick movement.

Kikkeri Suryanarayana Jayaram accompanied her with live flute music, rising and falling in runs that reminded at times of the way French Canadian music can put in another turn and filip of notes every time you expect a lilt or a pause. Two percussionists, Ramakrishnan Neelamani and Haribabu Balan Puttammaplayed with rapid pattering like a hard rain, their fingers and voices building steadily faster in a rolling beat — and what kind of drum carries that warm, low thrum like a stringed instrument in the background?

It was music to fill a room, and I leaned into it. When Krishna played in the mud like a child, and Shivalingappa danced in a light, swift spinning across the stage, the singing lifted into a warm tenor as frankly joyful as the folk songs I grew up on. I would find myself unconsciously leaning forward, smiling with my head and shoulders, and at another point quivering, almost in tears, as she embodied a woman with anger and grief in the set of her shoulders — lithe, strong, passionate and deeply aware of honesty.

She embodied a  woman in one place, a man in another, a god playing like a child, a goddess in triumph, all in words more than 600 years old. Ramesh Jetty (J. Ramesh) sang poetry, and she danced poetry. The idea of making a poet’s words live in the body and bringing them on stage, moves me strongly.

In one work, she danced a scene from many points of view, moving from one to another with a whirl. It was a poem in a woman’s voice —the goddess Alamelu Manga turning with bitter sadness from her husband, the god Venkateshwara, who had deceived her. 

It was not written by a woman. Wanting to know more about the writer, I looked up the name in the program: Tallapaka Annamacharya. In his long life, 1408 to 1503, he composed songs that have strongly influenced the musical traditions of Southern India — as many as 36,000 of them, though more than two thirds may have been lost.

He wrote in Telugu, a language close to Sanskrit. And he was well-known in his lifetime as a writer and composer — and then forgotten for more than 300 years. Some of his writings were re-discovered, etched into copper plates and hidden in a temple at Tirumala.
Think about that. Hundreds, thousands of songs and poems — and they were gone, so completely that no one knew they existed. 

Who found them again? What brought someone into that room … and how did they feel when they knew what they had found? How did it feel to read those words for the first time, after all that time?

And now his words have such a range that I can hear them in a college theater on a winter night. Here in the single digits and sparking cold, Shivalingappa danced to a poem written 8,000 miles and 600 years away. Where Annamacharya was born, in Andhra Pradesh, right now people are expecting thunderstorms on a warm night. And on warm nights at this time of year he wrote prayers and arguments with his god and expressions of desire in women’s voices. 

In 2005, Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman translated some 100 or more of those poems into English. And I read one that said what I felt when I left the theater, walking across Greylock Quad in the sweet, cold air, and feeling my blood move, feeling awakened. Curiosity should never be quenched.

“You say you want to bathe 
when the waves subside.
Is there an end
to the endless mind?”

Monet, memory and museum storytelling

On Sunday, while the wind blew loose snow into crests and fissures, my parents and I slid into one of the last days of the Monet/Kelly exhibit at the Clark Art Institute. The show took up a long gallery divided by a white wall. In the first half hung later Monet works — the sparkling coves and steep coast of Belle-Ile, Rocks at Port-Goulphar.

The seascapes contrasted sharply with scenes from his garden at Giverney in thick brush strokes and dark color, blood red, yellow, green. I could make out the surface of the water, looking at a distance, but the bridge and the tree canopy above  wavered in thick jagged lines. Kelly saw these, we read, in Monet’s abandoned studio.

Wait, we said, what happened? He painted that dark tunnel of overgrown rose garden four years before he died — my mother checked the dates. How did he come to paint these scenes and leave them behind?

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Probing into the future of books

“Books are changing,” she said, “but I don’t see them being replaced.”

She sees technology and physical books evolving side by side to complement one another. And as people can get things more readily online, she sees more value put on physical objects.

Kate Barber is a book artist and bookbinder, member of the Book Workers Guild and publications assistant at WCMA. As the liason in charge of the Publication Studio, she has spent the fall and winter making books and showing people from the inside out how books are made.

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Digital books may have advantages for research, she said, as more people can get access to more books and can search the text. Digital books may also be accessible to people who cannot easily read books on paper, including Barber’s mother.

But digital books raise questions of ownership. A physical library will not vanish because a corporation gets into a copyright dispute, because Amazon pushes a button or because the power goes out. And for an artist, digital texts have limitations.

“There’s an art and craft to physical objects you can’t produce digitally,” she said. She can see her own art books online, but the experience of reading them is not the same.

She knows artists who do make books for e-readers, she said, but she finds richness in the physical works, the craft in them, the textures and the materials. She makes her own paper.

“It’s difficult to get away from the codex,” said Wayne Hammond, assistant Chapin librarian at Williams.

Even online, it appears in digital form, he said. Ideas of proportion and legibility developed centuries ago and carried over into printing.

Barber has found those ideas holding firm even in younger generations of readers who have grown up with digital alternatives as a given.

In the Publication Studio, students of all ages have been excited about making their own books, she said — working wtih the equipment, seeing how it’s done and watching theor book become an object. School-age children, fifth-graders making journals and olders students who have all grown up in a digital world have all seemed to feel that a project was not fully real until they had a book in their hands, she said.

Publication Studio has both digital and physical copies of the books made with their presses, she said. She has an iPad loaded with almost 200 Publication Studio materials and often has students look at them both digitally and on paper, to talk about how the medium affects their reading.

She finds a difference in her own.

“There’s a time and space books employ,” she said, “and losing it affects how I translate what I’m reading.”

In reading a book she paces herself by the turning of a page, and the constant speed seems to affect her concentration and ability to sink into a text and think concretely about it.

In print and online, writers themselves keep a different pace.

A book burrows deep into its content, she said. On the web, content comes in short stretches.

Hyperlinks can create a matrix or network of intormation. She takes notes online now so she can hyperlink them, and she has seen digital textbooks with embedded video and links.

She finds them useful, but at a cost. Hyperlinks break concentration — a reader constantly has to choose whether to read one narrative or move to another.

Wayne Hammond agreed that digital resources can do more, in-depth and low-cost, than print resources — and that print resources can in other ways do more than digital ones.

The brain works in a different way when people read online, he said. Some people look at a paragraph and think it’s too long.

A webinar she recently attended encouraged Christine Menard,  head of research services and library outreach at Williams College’sSawyer Library, to write at a seventh-grade level for an adult audience. She did not find this assessment encouraging.

“I’m reading two biographies now,” Hammond said, “one written at that level and one clearly not — it uses words like ‘perduring.’ They’re accurate, precise and unusual. If you never expose people to hard words, they will never learn them.”

Life in the newsroom

The Features and A&E editors are laughing at the desks next to me. The sports editor and the business editor are talking about the Packers. It’s a quiet late afternoon in the newsroom right now, as the day shift winds down and the evening shift (smaller now than it used to be) begins.

Mine is a mid-size regional newsroom, a close-knit group, some young and some old. Most of us have lived here for awhile. Some of us have advanced degrees and some worked their way up from cub reporter (and some have both). Some have decades of experience and some a few years. One thing we all have is a lot of tires-on-the-road, feet-on-the-ground and seat-in-the-meeting-chair time in the towns around us. Another is a lot of experience in talking to people. A third is a friendly tendency to argue over the desks about what we need to ask, who to call to find out, who has confirmed that figure and who disputes it, and how can you show Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s friendship concretely in your lead sentence?

And a fourth is a deep handed-on knowledge of this place, a fabric of contacts and background and excavations and names to faces, and for me — a deep love for the mountains, the tough, bright people who live here and all they make and do.

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What you’d see, though, looking at me right now, is a computer on a desk and a double row of books under a tall window. Looking around this old mill under the fluorescent lights, I wonder how this place feels to someone walking in.

My friend Ethan recently recommended the Nieman Lab weekly e-newsletter, and I read today a conversation about preparing non-journalists for fellowships in the newsroom. An organization called OpenNews sends technology fellows into newspapers of various sizes and has taken a look at ways to help the fellows find their feet.

I know there are elements of working here that I know without thinking but that are not obvious to everyone who has not absorbed the thinking of a working newspaper. Reading this conversation, I’m thinking about what I would like to tell people and what I have told people in seven years of interns and conversations about conversations. Here’s a start.

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Museum Hack

A Nubian woman is sitting in a rowboat with her knees drawn up. Water ripples under the bows in Arabic script. I wonder where she is going with her few goods tied in a cloth bag and a weight on her shoulders.

I’m standing in a gallery of Fathi Hassan’s paintings at the Williams College Museum of Art on the one night of the month when the museum stays open past 8 p.m. A young guide has just asked 10 of us whether art without meaning has a purpose, and I am at the farthest end of the spectrum saying “no.”

I explain, when she asks, that I want the artist to think and feel — that’s part of making — and give me something to think and feel. I don’t mean these paintings should make sense to me, but to the man who made them. If they mean something powerful to him, they will become powerful for me, and these are powerful. I would say the same thing about Georgia O’Keefe’s abstract “skunk Cabbage” flaming orange and blue across the hall.

Does the guide agree? I’m wondering now as I write this, because she is part of the Art Hack team, independent guides here to take us digging in the museum. And from where I stand, giving meaning is what they do. WCMAWestH

I can hear the people around me that night saying “Really? In a risque Broadway-style send-up of Franz West with Mad libs? A pipe-cleanered wearable homage to tin-can telephones? An ugliest-selfie-with-early-American-portrait contest?”

Yes. Because the burlesque came along with a conversation about what it was like for West to live in Vienna after World War II, knowing that most of the people around him had probably supported the Nazis in silence if not in action. He grew up across the hall from his mother’s dentistry practice, where they didn’t use anaesthesia. Think of being a child with that kind of dislocation and tangible pain on all sides.

Our tour guide in this room said West wanted to protest against what he saw as rules in the art world: art had to mean one thing, and it was made by a genius who was usually male … But he is male, and his work is also frankly, comically, glaringly male. (I know what people in North Adams call those tall, bulbously pink pillars at Mass MoCA.)

He didn’t want people to feel distanced, confused and out of place when they saw his work, she said. He didn’t want to baffle people in galleries. But what he did was baffle people in galleries. He made shapes that had no meaning at all.

If I want people to feel connected to my work, I don’t give them meaninglessness. That’s exactly the arrogant, distancing tactic he disliked. I would give people something in the work to think or feel. I would give them something that meant something to me. In fact, I would want to give them what the Museum Hack team were giving me in their stories and games and music — and sheer excitement.

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It felt good to laugh and banter with hashtags, and to have a lithe woman with dancing eyes and a you’ve-got-to-see-this excitement pull the group over to a miniature scene. I am still baffled by Franz West’s work, but I will remember the glimpse of him as a scared boy in a dingy hallway. And I’ll remember even more William Michael Harnett painting onions and a wooden pipe with a cream and amber bowl on a table top in Munich next to a folded copy of the Deutche Presse 1882. He painted with a photographic precision in the days when impressionism was hot. No wonder he liked newspapers.

The enthusiasm among these intelligent, laughing people filled the museum. And it gave me ways to slow down and absorb the artwork. In Fathi Hassan’s exhibit, paintings on paper glow with writing, black against white, gold against black, filling and forming shapes of distant hills, water falling over high barriers, a crescent moon.

In a silent kind of charades, I moved a group of people by touch into a tableau to suggest a word. A beautiful young woman with thick dark hair falling about her shoulders stood in the center, hands on her hips and feet planted firmly.

As our guide told us about Fathi Hassan’s childhood, growing up in a Nubian community respectful to women and at the same time in Egypt, in a city where women are hassled and shamed in the streets, I thought about our word — it was “matriarch.” It comes from the Latin, “mater,” mother, and Greek, “arkhes,” to begin, to command. A matriarch is a woman at the head of a family who descend from her, who grew in her.

In the beautiful flowing script on the wall I could trace a powerful woman guiding her family. She walked in the streets of Cairo  past hissing men. She left her home when the Aswan dam flooded her village and had to resettle in a stone-paved Italian city. She was a student Facebooking angry, hopeful messages at the beginning the Arab spring.

As the guide talked I thought what a great job this is, to find these stories. Imagine having someone set you loose in a museum exhibit to find these solid, beautiful things, to fall in love with a painting and get people talking about it. What a great job. And then I thought, it’s mine too. Maybe they can teach me to do it better.

Winter expedition in the Southern Berkshires, Part 1

Remember “Wallace and Gromit & the Wrong Trousers”? I sometimes feel about that enthusiastic about clothes shopping —being 5 feet tall can make it hard to find anything in my size that isn’t pink with sprinkles on top. So last weekend I set out to turn a useful errand into an exploration. On a clear, sparkling-cold sunny day, I went looking for vintage shops in Lee.

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It began, really, with the Dec. 18 Holiday Gift Guide. I was looking for local examples of different kinds of shops (plant nurseries, chocolatiers, booksellers, imprters of olive oil …) I was also realizing, again, how hard it can be to find anything local online. Try Googling “Berkshire Vintage” and you’ll get reams of consignment shops an hour or two away, on the far side of Northampton or Albany. The Berkshires has a good range of vintage shops, and I came up with more than 15 within about half an hour of my house, but it took careful digging to find them.

So I decided to investigate. Vintage and consignment can mean anything from opera hats and flapper beads to lightly worn brand names. They appeal to me because they often mean unusual, inexpensive and colorful and because they can be good at odd sizes. I like natural fabrics, cotton and wool and linen, and I love the kinds of colors that never seem to show up in clothing stores: forest green, garnet, amber, plum, navy blue, chocolate. Clothing with a sense of history appeals to me too. When Greystone Gardens lived in Pittsfield, I remember trying on Victorian blouses with lace collars.

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On this day, though, I began with places I had never seen before. The first one sits on Route 20 just south of the Lee Main Street, after the 90-degree left-hand turn. Beside a quiet motel (where I turned around when I missed the driveway), a long white building with a long porch houses “Re-wear.”

This is clothing on the comfortable end of fashionable, and they have a reasonable selection in my odd size, form-fitting in soft fabric. The place feels pleasant, uncluttered, and the woman at the counter welcomed me with friendliness without pushing. The light felt warm, the dressingroom spacious, and the bright bead necklaces, costume brooches and hats give it color. I left meaning to come back.

More to come …

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Generating ideas

I’m looking for new story ideas — something I do constantly in small movements, the way a rower feathers an oar to keep the boat trim, and more vigorously once or twice a month.

Ideas flow through here from emails, conversations, posters on coffee shop walls, observation. Day by day, I can trail my fingers and pick up what I need. But every few weeks I will scout more actively, brainstorming with my friends in the newsroom, digging through the web and reaching out to people I know.

And I today find my way to Tupelo Press in North Adams, and a conversation between three poets about prompts.

I’m intrigued. I’m also puzzled. Both the prompts and the responses to them feel different from my experience in MFA writing workshops, YBar open mics and Inkberry classes. And this conversation overlaps with my journalistic world in interesting ways.Reading Day

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A creature was stirring

On a crisp morning not long ago, at a second-hand bookstore on the shore of a New Hampshire lake, I found a hard-bound book in green cloth: “A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809)” by Washington Irving. And I got it in honor of Santa Claus.

This late-fall discovery took me back to last winter, when I first stumbled on the link between the man who wrote Rip van Winkle, the man who wrote one of the best-known Christmas poems in the world, and a small city just over the mountain known mostly for its 19th-century iron industry.

Continuing my stroll in the archives, I’ve come across that link again. Here it is, in honor of Dec. 1.

Lenox Ginger Comp

[Dec. 19, 2013] On a cold morning nearly 200 years ago, just over the ridge, imagine a family in a city much like Pittsfield opening their morning paper. It is a wealthy small city, making steel and shipping produce from Vermont farms down the Hudson river. The Eerie canal will shortly make it still richer.

And over breakfast, children waiting eagerly for the holiday will read over their father’s finger, for the first time, a poem in a newspaper column: ‘… and all through the house not a creature was stirring ...”

The classic is local. I’ve just stumbled on something many of my readers may already know: Clement Moore lived right around the mountain.

“In December of 1823, ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’ better known as ‘The Night Before Christmas,’ was first printed, anonymously, in the Troy Sentinel,” explains Seth Kaller, a historian and collector of manuscripts. (www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc)

Kaller believes that Moore actually wrote it. A recent controversy has evolved, claiming that the poem belonged to another local writer, Henry Livingston. Kaller offers a vigorous conterargument.

I would need more time to sort out the various arguments fully — maybe an afternoon to sit down with the Berkshire Athenaeum’s copy of Stephen Nissenbaum’s “The Battle for Christmas” and follow the history of the holiday in America. (Now that they allow hot drinks downstairs, I might be able to read it over a cup of cocoa with a candy cane to stir it).

But I find Kaller’s argument compelling because he gives it in clear and simple English — and because he has a sense of humor. He shows us Clement Moore laughing at himself. Here is Moore unbending from his professorial height to discover that he has fallen in love — laughing in helpless delight at the force of his longing for the woman he would marry and the thought of his scholarly self looking for her at all hours, walking with her, trembling to hold her hand.

Moore did have some height to unbend from. He was professor of “Oriental and Greek literature,” scholar of Hebrew and son of an Episcopal Bishop in New York. Moore got his bachelor’s and master’s at Columbia College (where his father served as president). He also, according to his own poems, liked a romp with his children and a drink with his friends.

Uncovering and renewing thanks for the Mountains

Strolling through the archives always interests and often warms me. Today I’m jump-starting our Pinterest account (now that I have an Eagle computer made in this century, and we’ve gotten through the change to the new software and pagination system and the redesign and sent the Thanksgiving magazine to press with the Holiday Event Guide and the Holiday Gift Guide …) So I’ve been looking for stories to highlights.

And I’ve just run across this column from Thursday November 22, 2012.

I’m thankful for cold nights. When I leave this building late at night, the crisp air, and the frost on the oak leaves in the grass remind me that I live in the mountains. They feel clear and clean.

SHaker heritage

Friends invited me to a bonfire on the first cold night of the fall, on a night when the leaves were finally deep enough on the grass for children (and the adults running with them) to swish through. Crisp air brightens the stars, heightens the night sounds and makes the fire a welcome relief.

I say all that knowing that I can heat my apartment enough for comfort. I am thankful for my insulated walls and wool blanket.

This is a holiday made for thanks, and as I think about it, we must have an unusual perspective on it, because it was invented right about here. We have adapted most of the holidays we still keep to our own climate — no matter how many camels they come with — but this one began not far over the ridge. Turkeys, cranberries, corn, squash all simply grow here. Row over bog pond in Savoy in mid-summer and you’ll see the wild cranberries blooming.

Thanksgiving is a dinner of whatever happened to be in the storehouses at the time of year when the harvest was in, and before families left the villages in the light snow to set up the winter hunting camps Pontoosuc Lake is named for. I am thankful that New England has a holiday with the flavor of its own, though I wonder whether families in Sonoma or the Bayou or the Mojave Desert change the menu.

And I am thankful that the people who had spent long spring days tapping maple trees, long summer hours growing the corn and chasing the birds from the fields, gathering mussels and smoking sturgeon, drying strawberries and juniper berries, and tending the woods to grow hickory and chestnuts, butternuts and beech nuts, asked my waterlogged ancestors to dinner.

The earliest Abbotts in my family tree to reach this coast are supposed to have dropped anchor farther south in the 1600s, and if I could meet them we would undoubtedly disagree on many things (if we could understand each other through their 15th-century Scots and my 21st-century American). They would want me to wear petticoats. They’d be scandalized that I can read.

But I’m thankful that the people they met, when they climbed off of their grubby ships after months at sea, kept them alive. I have to be thankful, because if they had not come, I would not be here. And I love this place — its hills, limestone, hemlock and red spruce and hard rock maple, glacial till and wild turkeys.

So I am thankful for the young turkeys who surrounded my car not long ago when it was parked at Cricket Creek Farm and called to each other in a soft whistling I had never heard before.

I’m thankful for all the small farms who raise turkeys.

I’m thankful that if I take the right back road, on the right sunny afternoon, over the right shoulder of the hill, I may still see a line of wild turkeys crossing into the hayfields, the hen and the turkey cock and this year’s half-grown chicks, and I will stop as long as it takes to let them all go safely by.

Prince Achmed, Peri Banu and pioneering women in film

In the blue dusk, a sandy path shows between fronded plants. This is the time of bird voices, when the deer come down to the water’s edge. A woman wades out toward a fallen tree with her long hair loose down her back. A man sits in the fern, in shadow, looking out.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

The birds’ voices ripple on a keyboard, and the people are delicate shadows against the sky. Prince Achmed, stranded by a magical flying horse, meets Peri Banu on a warm south sea island. (Peri, in Persian,  means a spirit, a good djinn (genii), and Banu means lady, woman of power.)

They meet in silence — the kind of silence I can imagine by a lake on a warm night touched by frogs or crickets. But they are silent on film. “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is the first full-lentth animaged film, an Arabian Nights kind of adventure told in Chinese shadow puppet play. Pioneering film director Lotte Reiniger created it in Berlin in 1926, and I’ve just gotten to see it for the first time, tonight at the Little Cinema.

And it’s beautiful. It’s impishly funny, powerful, delicate. Reiniger took three years to make it and more than 100,000 still frames. With a camera, paper and scissors she has made a fairy tale of night skies, mobbing spirits, lamps in the dark and love and freedom. Ben Model, the MOMA’s silent film accompaniest, came up to perform and improvise the score for us. And I waled through the late fall night afterward thinking I’m still surprised, day by day, at the magical places I can find so near home.