Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Saga of the Bangle Lady Continues

A while ago I wrote about the Bangle Lady who, with many other women, sits on the ground in the marketplace in Jodhpur, India, near the Clock Tower and sells plastic bangle bracelets all day long. She is among the anonymous poor of India who somehow scrabble out enough to keep their families alive.

My daughter Eleni first encountered the Bangle Lady in January 2006 and took her photograph as she sat with her young baby boy in her lap, thrusting bracelets at potential customers. I liked the photograph so much—an Indian Madonna multi-tasking—that I painted her portrait in watercolors from Eleni’s photograph. (That’s a detail from the painting, above left)

As I painted, I noticed how carefully she had adorned herself with jewels in her nose, on her forehead, in her hair, on her arms and around her neck. Later , when I went to India this past December, I learned that a Hindu woman is supposed to wear 16 adornments. The bangle lady certainly followed that rule and I thought she was as beautiful as any movie star in her bright pink sari.

A year later Eleni went back to the same place and handed the Bangle Lady an enlargement of the photograph. She was thrilled, because she had never had a photograph of herself before. Now she was happy to let Eleni photograph her in her green sari. The little boy who had been an infant in her lap was standing behind her.

That was January of 2007. The Bangle Lady never knew that I painted her and hung her portrait in my solo show last spring at C. C. Lowell’s First Gallery in Worcester, MA.

Now two years later, in January 2009, I went with Eleni to the marketplace in Jodhpur and there she was. I recognized her immediately. The Bangle Lady greeted us with enthusiasm. This time the baby by her side was a girl. We took her photo and, although we didn’t have any language in common, she made it clear to Eleni that this time she wanted two copies of the photo. When she smiled, I saw with surprise that one of her front teeth was missing and the ones on either side were discolored— this had happened in the two years since Eleni’s last visit. But when the Bangle Lady smiled with her mouth shut, she still looked as beautiful as a film star, young and serene.

That same day we went to a digital photo store and had the photos developed. The next day, when we went to give them to her in the market, we saw the Bangle Lady had brought her mother with her to be photographed --a toothless crone in a bright pink sari. (“Pink,” as Diana Vreeland famously said, “is the navy blue of India.”) I realized that this toothless hag, hunkered on the ground behind her beautiful daughter, was probably a good bit younger than I am. Maybe in her forties or fifties?

The Bangle Lady insisted that Eleni take some special plastic bracelets that she had selected for her – as a gift.

So here are photos of three generations of the Bangle Lady’s family. Eleni made sure that a friend took the latest photos back to the marketplace after we left. The Bangle Lady may be among the poorest segment of Indian society, but I noticed that she was beautiful and proud and wore a different sari in every photo.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tell Me About These Civil War Soldiers

I’ve been collecting antique photo images for about 15 years, especially daguerreotypes (the first photographic process, revealed by Daguerre in 1839). Also ambrotypes, tintypes, CDV’s (cartes de visite) and Cabinet cards. My favorites are the cased images (housed in leather or gutta percha cases for their protection). Best and earliest of all are the dags.

Last Monday I went to Elizabeth’s Auctions in Auburn, MA, which regularly has sales of ephemera – books, advertising, newspapers, maps, posters, photographs – everything that is ephemeral. There were some cased images there which I bid on, including this super quarter-plate (about 4 by 3 inches) image in a leather case.

I call this a tintype but it’s also called a ferrotype. Daguerreotypes are photographic images on a copper plate which has been coated in silver. Ambrotypes are negative images on glass which turn into a positive image when you put something black—cloth, paper or painted metal—behind them.

About the time the Civil War was starting, tintypes became very popular because they didn’t need to be protected behind glass in a case (although this one is.) They were usually CDV- size (like a business card). A soldier going off to war could go to a studio, get his tintype image taken, and mail it to his loved ones or he could carry a tintype of his sweetheart in his pocket—unlike the bulkier and more fragile cased images.

When I opened this case at the auction I said “WOW!” The rarest things to find in an antique photograph are: a CW soldier, a gold miner with his gear, an animal (hard to get them to sit still for a photo) or, best of all Abe Lincoln—in a dag, ambro or tintype. (If you’ve got one of those, e-mail me immediately at Also Edgar Allan Poe or any other recognizable famous person whose image is very rare. Lincoln gave out tiny tintypes for his campaign photos—those go for big money too.)

Anyway, I said “Wow!” because this image had not only one civil war soldier but TWO, and they were each holding a rifle! And the rifles have bayonets! (You get extra points for all this.) On the negative side, there is some kind of blur or bend on the image below their waists, and the case itself has come apart on the spine, but this is very common.

These two soldiers, in their new uniforms, with their new guns, went to a photographer’s studio to have this image taken as a kind of farewell. If you look, you can see the bases of the posing stands which are bracing their heads so that they won’t move while the photo is being taken. Afterward, the photographer tinted their cheeks pink and tinted their brass buttons, belt buckles, etc. with gold paint.

Collectors of Civil War images are usually men, and they are very specialized and knowledgeable. If they have an image of a soldier and also his name, they can tell you where he fought, when he died, what unit he was in, etc.

I, on the other hand, am very ignorant about Civil War images –I know the hats are called kepis, and that’s about all.

So I’m asking you Civil War experts if you can tell me more about these two handsome soldiers, after looking at their image.

Before the auction, a young man looked at this image after I did, and when he opened it he, too, said “Wow! The only thing missing is if they were holding up name tags.”

Often if you take an image out of the case you will find an identification (or even a lock of hair) hidden behind the image—but not on this one.

I thought I wouldn’t have a chance at winning this great photograph but I did—I guess none of my Civil War collector pals was there last Monday. Now I’m really curious to find out more about these two handsome young men going off to war.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Recession? The $150 Burger & $1,000 Frittata

I just got back from New York City where I was taken to lunch by a magazine editor to discuss an article I’m going to do. This kind of expense-account lunch has become almost as rare as the 15-cent subway token (and yes, children, I do remember the 15-cent subway token.) In fact, most people I know working in the media in New York are lunching at McDonald’s and waiting to be fired.

The editor took me to lunch at DB Bistro Moderne on 55 West 44th Street. It was crowded with very well-dressed people crammed shoulder to shoulder at little tables.

As soon as I looked at the menu I realized this was the home of the famous DB Burger—“A Sirloin Burger filled with Braised Short Ribs and Foie Gras” for $32. (DB stands for the famous chef Daniel Boulud.) Next came the DB Burger Royale which adds “10 grams of shaved black truffle” to the basic burger, bringing the cost to $75. If you really want to splurge, you can order the DB “double truffle burger” with 20 grams of black truffle. The price is $150.

No, I didn’t order any of these burgers, although the editor encouraged me to. I ordered some gnocchi that was on special. It was good, but a much smaller portion than you would get at Café Espresso in Worcester. She ordered a skinless chicken breast, which they make special for her, because she doesn’t want to “look like a blimp” (She was probably a size 0.) She also insisted we share a dessert of berries. They brought a small plate of assembled blueberries, raspberries and strawberries. Probably individually chosen, but they were just plain. No sugar or cream or anything. I have no idea how much they cost per berry.

It was a good meal – especially the ice tea which was made with Hibiscus. (Have you noticed that nobody drinks alcohol at lunch any more?) The editor requested liquid sugar in a tiny pitcher, which the waiter had forgotten to provide. It was fun to revisit the long-gone days when we magazine journalists thought nothing of expensing a lunch like this. But now even a $32 burger seems immoral, never mind a $150 one. And who eats foie gras any more, after finding out what they do to the geese? My own liver recoils at the thought.

The mega-priced burgers reminded me of the $1,000 frittata that’s on the menu at Norma’s on West 57th Street. The menu calls it the “Zillion Dollar Lobster Frittata” and adds “Norma dares you to expense this.” It comes with 10 ounces of Sevruga caviar. (You can get the lobster frittata with only 1 oz. of caviar for only $100.)

Norma’s in the Parker Meridian Hotel is the ultimate power breakfast place (not the Regency on Park Ave.) where they serve the most decadent breakfasts imaginable from 7. a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. There’s always a tiny smoothie of the day gratis. Just people-watching is worth the price of admission. I certainly don’t order the zillion-dollar frittata and I don’t think anyone else does either.

After the extravagant expense-account lunch at DB Bistro, I walked over to Cartier because I had to replace the leather watchband on my Tank watch (a gift.) I had replaced it several times over the past 20 years. Normally it cost about a hundred dollars. When you went up to the second floor, you had to announce your name to the receptionist and wait until you were called. This time there was no one else in the store except for the smartly dressed employees—all in black. No waiting. The cheapest watchband cost $140. (To replace the alligator one that was broken would cost me $240. Just for the band.)

I was alone until four Japanese tourists came in. Two older men had trouble explaining what they wanted done to their watches. A staff member told me, when I asked, that the employee who speaks Japanese was off that day and it was too bad, because they had loads of Japanese customers every day.

Later, walking up Fifth Avenue and looking into the expensive stores like Tiffany’s, I realized that the best customers—almost their only customers—were the Japanese and the Russians. I wonder if they order the Zillion-dollar Lobster Frittata at Norma’s.

Sunday, February 8, 2009



(Benaras is now properly called Varansi, but I liked the alliteration)

In my last post I said that the Ganges River and the holy city of Varanasi on its banks are believed to be a “crossing” or sacred place where mortals can cross over to the divine (and vice versa). That is why all Hindus want to die there or have their ashes thrown into the Ganges so that they can achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. (You may have seen in the film “The Namesake” that the family brought the ashes of the dead father from the United States to throw into the Ganges.)

As soon as we arrived in Vanarasi, riding in a taxi from the airport, we encountered a funeral procession – four men carrying on their shoulders the poles of a stretcher on which was a body wrapped in red silk and covered with flowers. (We later learned, if the body is wrapped in a red sari, it’s a woman. If it’s wrapped in gold cloth, it’s a man.)

When you walk along the ghats or steps on the sides of the Ganges you will see two cremation ghats where male untouchables cremate bodies all day and night. We went near with a guide but kept a respectful distance and did not take photographs, of course, because it would be disrespectful. The photos above of dead bodies are post cards I bought.

Later, after dark, like all other visitors to Vanarasi, we hired a small rowboat to take us down the river where we saw the burning ghats from a distance in the darkness and then anchored near the shore to watch the holy men perform their synchronized fire worship with torches. (They now perform beneath neon-lit “umbrellas” which represent the large umbrellas under which they sit all day.)

On the river there were two larger boats full of Japanese tourists who wore masks over their nose and mouth, which was not a bad idea since I managed to inhale enough ash in the smoky air to have a coughing fit. One can only wonder about the lifetime effects of breathing in that smoke (which casts a constant fog over the river). But somehow the natives don’t seem to become ill from swimming in the polluted river or inhaling the endless smog.

Fascinating facts about the cremation of the bodies on the huge wood fires made from logs of teak and sandalwood. The bodies, wrapped in silk, are first bathed in the river, then coated with a flammable paste and incense powder to hide the smell. Fat people burn faster, thin people more slowly. It takes about four hours for the body to be reduced to ashes which are then thrown into the river by a male relative. It’s also a male relative who lights the funeral pyre.

Our guide told us there are seven kinds of people who are not allowed to be cremated (due to bad karma, I guess, or the danger of spreading germs in the smoke.) I can name five of these: people who died of suicide, snakebite or smallpox, pregnant women who died with the baby unborn, and newborn babies. (I don’t swear this is accurate—it’s what I was told.) Those who are not cremated are wrapped with stones in the wrappings and tossed into the river, to sink. An estimated 45,000 UNCREMATED bodies are dumped into the river each year!)

Watching the fires burning at night from the distance of a boat on the river, it’s an awesome and beautiful sight. Even watching close up from the shore, it’s a moving and sacred thing to see these individuals being delivered into the afterlife with such ceremony and love. While we were there, the children were all practicing kite flying because the nationwide Kite Festival was approaching. As the dead were being burned, women in saris were doing laundry, the holy men were bathing and chanting, the children were playing and selling necklaces of flowers to throw into the river. On the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi the bustling activities surrounding life and death all take place side by side , unremarkably, because birth, play, work and death are all threads in the tapestry of life in India.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Naked Yogis, Clothed Goats & Recyled Cow Pies

Varanasi -- Naked Laughing Yogis, Clothed Goats and Recycled Cow Pies

No amount of photographs and words could convey how strange and wonderful, bizarre, surreal, jaw-droppingly amazing…is the holy city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges in India.

Mark Twain described it as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Varanasi grew up on the banks of the Ganges. Long rows of steps called “ghats” line the banks, and the steps are crowded day and night with pilgrims and holy men and just plain folks who live there, as well as goats, cows, water buffalo, and the occasional monkey. Every day you will also see funeral processions and bodies wrapped in silks being burned on giant wood fires before their ashes are thrown into the river

Varanasi is considered a “crossing” (tirtha) or sacred place where mortals and gods can cross into each other’s worlds. Every Hindu wants to die in Varanasi or have his ashes thrown into the River Ganges because that is how to achieve moksha, the salvation of the soul from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. (In other words the river is an express train to salvation without having to go through all that reincarnation first.)

For this reason, fires burn on the steps of the Ganges as people from the untouchable class cremate the dead 24 hours a day. But the cremations are something I’m going to write about in my next posting. Today I’m just going to list some of the other bizarre sights that soon become “normal” in Varanasi, which is perhaps the oldest surviving Holy City and the most efficient recycling plant in the world.

The banks of the river-–the steps of the ghats—are like a three-ring circus that can be viewed while you are sailing down the river in a row boat or walking along the steps.

You will see:
-- Herds of cows and water buffalo that are periodically bathed in the Ganges and decorated with leis of marigolds by the faithful (they’re sacred cows after all!)

--Women in saris and men in turbans doing laundry in the murky river and laying out rainbow-colored saris to dry on the steps. (Somehow the clothes come out clean.)

--Holy men, wrapped in saffron-colored loin cloths sitting under umbrellas, praying, chanting, waving torches in fire worship (after dark), stripping down to bathe and brush their teeth in the river. At dawn, the “Laughing Yogis”, swim out into the river (which was freezing when I was there) and shout out their loud Ha-Ha-Ha’s of laughter, as they are answered by guffaws from yogis still on shore. Their laughter is part of their worship.

--The goats in Varanasi wear shirts. At first I thought this was some sort of exotic religious practice – naked sadhu’s (holy men) swimming in the river and clothed goats on shore. But everyone assured me when, I asked, that they put shirts and sweaters on their goats “so they won’t get cold.”

--Everywhere you walk in Varanasi you have to be careful not to step into the cow pies left by the sacred cows and water buffalo. But in a brilliant example of re-cycling, there are men on the ghats who gather the cow poop and pat it into neat little patties and dry it on the steps (see the photo above). This way, everyone can use the product of the sacred cows to burn as fuel.

(Next posting: Burning Bodies in Benares.)