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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India.
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From Delhi to the Deep South

Tue, 04/12/2016 - 03:22

Hello everyone! Hi from Mumbai/Bombay!

I’ve spent a little over a week in the city and have met some incredible people who are doing some fascinating work in the theatre. But, I want to save my experiences in the city for my next blog post, where I’ll definitely have more than just some wide eyed enthusiasm to share.

What I do want to take you through today is a series of experiences that kept me busy in February and March. Every week, I would pack my small bag, lug my tripod and get on a train to go to the deep south of Tamil Nadu, to follow the work of a theatre company called “Manal Magudi.”

This company was founded by a man called Muruga Boopathy. He hails from a family of writers and poets, and was inspired to take up street theatre/activist theatre when Safdar Hashmi was killed in Delhi.  When I read about this, I was absolutely intrigued by the strong political reverberations that emanated all the way from Delhi to a sleepy village in Tamil Nadu.

I first read about Boopathy in a newspaper article that I stumbled upon during my research. I reached out to him via email and one of his company members invited me to Boopathy’s “theatre house” in a village called Kovilpatti, in southern Tamil Nadu. My friend Radhika and I walked in to his house rather groggily after an overnight train journey. Under the shade of a neem tree, Boopathy and his company of actors did yoga and warm ups, and then moved straight into their rehearsal. They were performing the next day for the people in the  village.

The Tamil word “Manal” means sand, or earth. The actors of Manal Magudi practice in a rectangular clearing on sand. In their heavily stylized and physical theatre, they are encouraged to interact with the “Manal.” This involves picking the sand up and letting it fall through their fingers, rubbing it on their chests and flinging it at other people and objects. The next day, when the actors moved to a wooden stage for the actual performance, some of them felt their performance was lacklustre because of the absence of the sand.

At the Theatre House, in Kovilpatti, rehearsing in the “Manal”

For each of his plays, Boopathy uses a long devising process, usually about a month or so long. Actors live together and do chores at his ancestral home, referred to as the “theatre house.” They work with indigenous instruments and art forms (such as puppets and dolls) that Boopathy has learned about through decades of travel and research in the most interior parts of Tamil Nadu. During the festival season of the Tamil calendar, he travels to various villages and observes temple rituals.

Each of his plays is usually built around a theme. I’ve seen three of them, and with their poetic language and highly physicalized movements, they evoke stories of oppression and injustice. Actors lament about the plight of construction workers who have been driven to suicide by hunger, about the shrinking seed diversity because of the use of fertilizers and genetically modified crops. Some of the concepts are quite abstract, and the Tamil so dense that it’s difficult to follow the story (despite my fluency in the language), but the visual images and the sounds still evoke a very visceral reaction.

In the ensuing weeks after my first visit to Kovilpatti, Boopathy invited me to various events and workshops. One was a workshop conducted by local puppeteers who recount various tales from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. This particular group is a travelling group. In a Question and Answer session, a few of them got emotional and spoke about the financial tolls of their profession. These puppeteers only have secure employment during the festival season of the Tamil calendar, which is about six months long. During the remainder of the year, many resort to contract work in farms or construction sites. Many lamented about how retirement wasn’t really an option because the government typically never kept its promise of a monthly pension of Rs. 1500. Usually, the paperwork drags on for many years, and these artists don’t start receiving their pension until they are about 70 or so.

Setting up for the puppet show

Getting ready for showtime

One man, seeing me take pictures with my camera, spoke about how he wanted to buy his son a similar device and couldn’t even dream of affording it. For me, this was the most jarring aspect of travelling between Chennai and these villages. Most of the artists in Boopathy’s troupe are not very well off, financially. When they are not rehearsing for a play with Manal Magudi, they either work for other groups or they freelance. Many of them talked about debt, about how they didn’t have enough money to send home to their families. It’s a shocking shift to come back to Chennai and be invited for a meal that costs far more than what some of these actors make in a week.

After my interviews and travels with Manal Magudi, I was invited to join the troupe in Delhi, where they were performing a play at the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META). I boarded a plane with about twenty other people, some of whom had never been on a flight before. I am not a frequent flier, but I’ve travelled enough to acquire a sense of near-haughtiness on flights. I’ve picked up some rules that accentuate that trait –  seat must be near the exit, only aisle seats for flights longer than one hour, don’t invite the wrath of the stewards by asking for too many things (bring your own water), look busy or fall asleep. But when I travelled with these first time fliers, I was infected by their enthusiasm. Much to the chagrin of the stewardess, there was a lot of standing up and selfie-taking and a barrage of Tamil phrases being exchanged across the length of the plane. But when the plane was ready to descend, everybody went hush and just enjoyed the view. And I realized how much of a jaded person I’ve become. When my sister and I were kids, we would be so thrilled by the prospect of flying to India to see our relatives. We would hold each other’s hand excitedly during take off, amicably decide that one would have the window seat on the “to” journey, and the other on the “from” journey. We would pilfer the in-flight magazines and look at them longingly for months afterwards, wishing for longer flights that would take us to cities more exciting and exotic than Trichy. I was served a granola bar for the first time on an in-flight meal, and I saved it for about a week. When I finally did eat it, it tasted like cardboard. I was underwhelmed. When I did eventually fly longer distances, I was struck by how everybody seemed to be in a bad mood, and so I also adopted the same attitude.

At the META Awards, March 2016

I’ve met people across this urban-rural spectrum who are very committed to theatre. The theatre that they’ve dedicated hours of their time and creativity to is quite different in each of their cases. Boopathy’s theatre is not conversation, dialogue or plot based. In Chennai, I’ve watched plays where the playwright shines through with her dazzling use of wit and plot and structure (the kind of theatre that I’ve watched the most in all my life). Each of these theatrical practices contain a world within themselves, with very different realities for their creators and actors.

First Podcast- With Indian Actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan

Thu, 01/28/2016 - 05:19

Hello everyone!

Even before I left for India on the Sobti Fellowship, I knew that I wanted to share some of my experiences through a podcast. I’d been listening to a lot of podcasts in the weeks leading up to my departure (the usual suspects – This American Life, RadioLab). And now in India, when I take my lunch break, I usually motivate myself to chop my vegetables and make myself a curry by listening to a podcast or two.

Today, I release the first episode of my podcast. Entitled Notes & Remarks, my podcast is an exploration of the various aspects of my life in India.

In today’s episode, I talk with Kalieaswari Srinivasan, a Chennai based actress. Kali has been working as a theatre artist for more than five years now, but I first heard about her when her debut film Dheepan by Jacques Audiard, garnered a lot of attention at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

Dheepan is about a family of Sri Lankan refugees who flee the civil war, arriving in France. Kali plays the female lead in the film, and for her role as Yalini, she mastered “Sri Lankan Tamil,” a dialect of Tamil quite different to that spoken in India.

As a Sri Lankan, I was naturally curious about Kali’s work in the film, but my chat with her proved to be about much more than just Dheepan. Kali’s history in theatre is rich, and replete with interesting anecdotes. As she reminds me, “the great things started happening before Dheepan.” She speaks of her experiences with a level of insight and wisdom that sometimes gave me the shivers.

After releasing the episode this morning, I discovered that Dheepan was nominated for 9 César awards yesterday!

I came home from my interview to find out that my microphone had malfunctioned soon after we started the interview. I was pretty heartbroken about it, but I was determined to salvage whatever I could of the interview. It would be a shame not to share Kali’s story.

I hope you enjoy listening to this episode!

Music: “Cute” –

Passport to India MOOC Open on Coursera

Wed, 01/27/2016 - 21:13

By now you may have heard of Passport to India, a U.S. Department of State initiative to encourage and enable young Americans to study and intern in India.

Founded by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it is a sister program to the mobility initiatives 100 Thousand Strong to China and 100 Thousand Strong in the Americas.

One of the program’s major objectives is to increase interest in India at the student level. One way we hope to achieve this is through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the Importance of India.

Click here to enroll (for free) in the course right now! Check out the course trailer below.

The course will feature interviews with all kinds of people, including our very own Aparna Wilder talking about the CASI student programs!

The US Ambassador to India Richard R. Verma officially launched the course on Jan 13 at the American Center in New Delhi with visiting students from Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) and the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The first week of the course is scheduled to start March 22.

Please help us promote the course by sharing it with your friends! Hope to see many of you active in the discussion forums.

For updates, you can follow Passport to India on Twitter or like our page on Facebook.

“If you take just one online course this year, make it this one.”


People & Partnerships

Wed, 01/27/2016 - 18:01

It is difficult to think about summers in India when the blistery cold of east coast winter sets in! Around November, I start to feel a bit disconnected from my work and get caught up in looking at a calendar instead of people. But the number one reason I love my job is because I get to work with so many inspiring individuals! Beyond the students and faculty at Penn I feel so lucky to have in my life, I am time and again floored by the visionary leaders at all of our CASI partner organizations. And as I start thinking about partnerships for the upcoming summer I am launched out of my little university bubble and into a very different reality: India.

As part of my trip in December, I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Venkatesh and Ms. Priya from Aravind Eye Hospital in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu. For the past four summers we have been sending students to Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai, a five to six hour drive southwest of Pondicherry. Hat’s off to the first class of CASI interns known as NanWuWare (Sam, Christina, and Sindhu) for paving the way for many future internship classes – Doreen, Diana, Gaby, Zach, Jane, Abhi, Olivia, Busra, and Vivek! Even our first Sobti Family Fellow, Vignesh Selvakumaran, spent nine months at Aravind in Madurai and Pondicherry working on several different projects! They know firsthand just how inspiring this place is.

In the past, our students have worked with LAICO, the management consulting arm at Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai. There, they have found a comprehensive support structure with a steady list of projects and a team of researchers ready to be lifelong mentors. This year we are expanding our Aravind partnership to include the Pondicherry hospital. What makes this hospital unique? I had to find out.

First off, the entire campus is smaller. And with a smaller team, there is a lot more that needs to get done! It turns out many visitors have come to observe the hospital and generated project ideas through their outsider perspective. Dr. Venkatesh, Chief Medical Officer, spoke to me about several projects scholars and students had taken on in the past.

Over time, it can become challenging to locate patient records in the database due to simple spelling mistakes – an extra “a” in someone’s first name, a missing number in the street address, changed cell phones etc. So how can you get the first input correct on site? At the Pondicherry hospital they implemented a two-screen method where a patient will be looking at the same screen facing outwards while the administrator behind the desk is typing in the information. In this way, the patient is more likely to catch any typos and errors as and when they occur.

Another scholar had come to Pondicherry to understand the carbon footprint of cataract surgery at Aravind versus hospitals in the U.S. and UK. See “Carbon footprint and cost–effectiveness of cataract surgery” (Venkatesh, Rengaraj; van Landingham, Suzanne W.) What does a hospital’s carbon footprint consist of? 1. Emissions from energy use by buildings; 2. Emissions due to travel of patients/staff; 3. Emissions associated with the production, consumption, and disposal of all goods – think cataract lenses, surgical supplies etc. Turns out Aravind had a pretty low carbon footprint in comparison to other places in the world, no surprise there.

Dr. Venkatesh pulled up a video made for the Cleveland Clinic in the U.S. and spoke about how they might like a video that would help everyone at the hospital understand each other’s emotions, fears, and apprehensions. What a great project! Especially in India where patients do not have the same sense of empowerment or engagement in their own medical treatment. This could be a neat way to bring the nurses, doctors, staff, and patients together to understand each other a little better. We decided this might be a great CASI internship project for summer 2016. To kick start this, I decided that we should make a little trial video and called Sindhu Nandhakumar our 2015-16 Sobti Family Fellow and former Aravind intern to come and visit an eye camp the next day!

Here we are

And yes, that is a 360 camera on my head! The videos require a google cardboard viewer. We have a little viewer at CASI so come check it out if you have some time. Or, open it in Chrome and click on the video and scroll around in any direction to get the full 360 effect.

While I wanted Sindhu to put her Tamil skills to work and actually talk to people about the emotions of going through the eye camp, this really is a multi-part process. We should have made individual videos of each station. And then gone back through and done little interviews of the patients and nurses and then put it all together. Instead, you will see our trial run with Sindhu holding a mic and us talking to each other, laughing with the nurses, and trying to explain what is going on with the camera on my head. But check out the refraction – it’s for real.

Sindhu had never been to an eye camp during her Aravind internship! And well, there is nothing quite like going through that experience and seeing how community leaders mobilize to put the day together. A bus brings the doctors and nurses out to a town or village often 1-2 hours drive from the hospital. Sometimes 300 people show up, sometimes less. Because of the recent floods they were expecting fewer patients this time around. There are six stations where people get tested for glaucoma, diabetes, refraction, and glasses are made on the spot! For those who require cataract surgery – they are fed lunch and travel by bus back to the hospital where they spend the night and are operated on the next day before returning home. The ability to attract and push so many people through the camp is mind-boggling. And it comes at no cost to the patients.

I think Busra Gungor, C’17 and 2015 CASI-Aravind intern said it best when asked what was so unique about her summer experience: “I think working in India made me realize something that I don’t notice as much in the states: passion. The number of hours the doctors work and the number of patients they see within a day is truly remarkable. Seeing them in that environment and still be able to maintain a smile was incredible. Their passion for the organization was truly evident in everything they did.”

Applications are still open! Aravind is one of seven CASI internship partners we have for 2016.

More 360 videos and stories on CASI partners coming soon!

Aparna Wilder
Associate Director CASI Student Programs and Outreach



Thinking About Delhi

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 01:01

To think that I am almost halfway through the Sobti Fellowship is a pretty startling thought. If that is the case, then by now, should I not have at least half a clue as to what I’m doing in India and what this experience means for me?

In terms of the actual work that I am doing, I do have “clues,” and I am getting more enthused and excited about my interviews and scholarly research. I see patterns developing in what I study, and as a researcher, that excites me. In terms of “processing” India and making sense of my time here, I am not so sure that I have much of a clue. Over the past month, I travelled within India: first a trip to nearby Pondicherry to see Aparna! Then to Bangalore to meet friends for New Years’, then to Bombay and finally to Delhi.

My time in Delhi was quite amazing. I’ve been to the city a few times, all in 2011. I was there during the hottest time of the summer. I remember sitting on a pavement stone at the Red Fort, drinking the last drops of water from a Bisleri bottle, and wishing myself away from the scorching heat.

This time around, I landed in the smoggy winter, grateful for my North Face jacket,but also feeling left out when I saw local aunties rocking the sweater over a Salwar-Kameez look. People exchanged quips about how Delhi was experiencing the lowest temperatures of the winter. It felt like a pleasant Fall day in Toronto or Philadelphia, and I was happy.

I stayed at the Habitat Centre in Delhi, and spent some amazing time with Aparna, Nathalie (currently a Fulbright ETA in Kolkata), Kristie (working for LEAP Skills in Delhi) and of course Alex Polyak (Fulbright Researcher in Delhi, and the casting director for a play that I directed at Penn).

In Delhi, I was interviewed by Aparna and a formidable looking film crew for a CASI video; we were invited to the homes of Patty Dhar, Penn Alumna, for an Alumni Mixer event. In defiance of a typical Penn stereotype, I never became a good networker, and so, it took a lot of my willpower to not sit at the couch eating guacamole and chips. When I did get off that couch and converse though, I met some very interesting people and heard some great stories. The alumni community in Delhi seems very vibrant and I keenly miss that in Chennai.

During my three days in the city, I also tasted copious amounts of tea in a wonderful tea shop that Alex took me to (with frequent visits to the loo to relieve my full bladder). I met up with some theatre friends of mine, and explored Delhi Haat. I got late night kebabs at a stall with Aparna, drank beer and ate goat cheese ice cream at alumnus Anant Ahuja’s family owned clothing store Bhane. On my last day, I spent some time at Khan Market, buying books about English theatre, and then explored the Afghan quarter with Alex, ending our outing with a wonderful meal at an Afghan restaurant.

Tea Tasting in Old Delhi.

Delhi Haat.

Blurry Metaselfie with Aparna the Selfie Expert, at Bhane, Meherchand Market

Delhi was good for me. The conversations with the other  former CASI interns helped me situate my emotions and feelings within my experience. Even though I grew up in the Indian subcontinent, I had a very different experience to how I live now. I grew up in a small city in Sri Lanka, in a middle class family that worried about money. And yet, I lived in a big house with a sprawling garden, a father who was ever obliging to take me to my various social events and extracurricular activities. I was immersed in a society by merely being born into it. As much as that society felt small and stifling at times, I never questioned that I was a part of it.

In Chennai, where I have lived for the past four months, life is just different. It is not comparable to my life in Toronto, Philly or Sri Lanka. And it is, to an extent, defined by the fact that I didn’t grow up in this city. I have extended family that I am close to, but the journey of feeling like you are a part of something is a very individual and personal journey. Moving from A to B is sometimes a mental challenge. I wanted to live like a local and take the bus, but whenever I have tried to do that, I’ve found myself exhausted. Chennai is hot; getting to the bus stop is difficult because there are few traffic lights with pedestrian crossings; buses during rush hour can be extremely crowded and suffocating. This makes me feel like an overprivileged human, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t change myself overnight and I need to be a bit more patient with myself.

Of all the major Indian metropoles that I have visited, I find Chennai to be the most insular. It has been easier for me to connect with like minded people in Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi, either through the alumni community, or by reaching out to theatre companies and theatre practitioners.  I know kindred spirits exist in Chennai, but I don’t know where they are, and what the public spaces for community building are. I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge that life in Chennai has been difficult for me, probably because I thought it would be an admission of my inability to settle in faster, but it’s actually been a relieving realization.

I had an insightful conversation with Alex about energy. The amount of energy (mental and physical) that one dispenses on small, seemingly innocuous tasks in India, can be mind boggling. Receiving an Amazon package, getting an electrician to fix something in your home – these tasks take a large amount of time, disproportionate to their importance in our lives. Alex and I both agreed that probably the best reaction is to laugh about it, because it is funny in a rather absurd way when you wait five hours for an electrician to only discover that he hasn’t brought the correct tools with him.

Stitch by Stitch: A Visit to the Factory Floor

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 05:45

It takes me approximately two minutes to get ready in the morning

  • 00:00-00:30 – “what is clean and matching?” [flurry of options thrown on my bed]
  • 00:30-00:40 – “can I get away without ironing?” [exchange top and bottom pieces until I can]
  • 00:40-01:00 – “did I wear the same thing last week to a meeting with the same person?” [memory is a little slow in the morning]
  • 01:00-01:30 – put on clothes 
  • 01:30-01:40 – mirror check to confirm matching status
  • 01:40-01:50 – locate socks, shoes, accessories if any
  • 01:50-02:00 – ready! [now to more important things like packing lunch]

Last week I visited one of CASI’s partner organizations Shahi Exports in Mysore, Karnataka and I can say with total confidence that my two minute routine of wearing ready-made clothing for 30+ years will never be the same.

18 lines, 2,000 employees, bolts of fabric stored for exactly 2.5 days of work flow, cad drawings, electric saws, stickers, stitching, collar turning, zipper attachments, flap ironing, color checking, washing and drying, folding, labeling, quality inspection (again and again and again), packing, shipping, and then to a shelf somewhere in the world!

This little run down did not do any sort of justice to the real process flow diagram but perhaps can give you a sense of how fast things are moving and how challenging it was for me to keep up. I had the pleasure of visiting the Mysore factory with Mr. Prasad, Senior Manager HR and Mr. Natesh, Manager Industrial Engineering who knows everything thing there is to know about running this factory. Mr. Natesh spent several years in Vietnam working in the garment industry before joining Shahi.

Most of the people that work at this factory are women – they come from nearby villages and arrive at the factory by 9 am and leave by 5:30 pm. Their children might attend the nursery (creche) on the factory grounds and if any employee ever falls ill at work, they can easily drop by the doctor who is just a few steps away.

Day in and day out most workers perform the same task – over and over and over and over. Whether it is operating a sewing machine, pressing a small piece of fabric, matching shades of colors on finished products, operating a larger machine, or running quality checks at different check points – the work is routine and steady and there is a lot of pressure to keep time. I learned that there are a few unique workers called “floaters” who are able to do several types of tasks and can fit in anywhere along the production line. Each line works together as a team to maximize their efficiency and they are rewarded as a group if they are able to improve their work.

Time is of essence, and Mr. Natesh has worked creatively to minimize the distance between employees to improve their team work.

I saw the Kanban system in action! Check out these cards here.

My few hours spent at the factory with eyes wide open could have observed 16 different styles under process in that single day (likely only one color and size was moving thorough the factory line). It takes around 41 standard allowed minutes (SAM) from fabric cutting to final piece for a garment.

60 operations for these pants!

Hundreds if not thousands of people handle the clothing we wear without us even knowing it. Have you ever thought about the people who put each and every stitch into what we wear everyday? What would they be doing if they were not sitting at a machine? What are their worries in life? How do they consider their jobs, their futures, their relationships with their families and colleagues? What do they want for their children? What could make their lives easier, better, happier? Are these even questions that people might ask themselves? Turns out, this is what CASI internships are all about.

Two days later I visited the Shahi Exports factory in Bangalore and was greeted with a warm celebratory welcome! I already knew that Amy, Chan, Kendra, and Valentine were hard-working CASI interns from the 2016 class with passion for listening, asking questions, and creating long-lasting relationships and friendships. It is certainly a gift to follow them a few months later and see how well they are remembered and loved!

This morning I am thinking differently about my jeans as I pull them on – the color that was oh so carefully selected before it got worn out, the designer who took a pattern and made it simpler for a factory line, the stitching that is tried and tested before advancing to repeat mode by the thousands, the zippers that were sourced specifically and shipped in bulk, the pockets, the flaps, the buttons, the logo, the ironing, the packing, the label.

Perhaps I’ll move a little more slowly as I pick through the options in my closet knowing that it took so many people to put it together.

More soon from my visit to unit number 12.

Aparna Wilder
Associate Director, CASI Student Programs and Outreach