Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Finding Connections

Our trip so far has afforded many striking impressions. One has been the great generosity of local speakers in taking time to talk to us as they cope with the devastation of Cyclone Thane.

Some of my other momentary impressions involve recognizing connections of different sorts. As nine of us sat in a stark basement restaurant on Monday night awkwardly eating dosas with our right hands, we realized that the Kinley club soda that had formed the base of our lime sodas was a Coca-Cola product.

On the road to Puducherry, as I watched for the unfamiliar, I caught a glimpse of the "Jesus Tea and Cool Drinks" shop, whose sign features the well-known Warner Sallman image, "The Head of Christ."

But there have also been more complex experiences that open up the richness of subjects that had only a casual presence in my mind. I had heard of Madras cloth, of course, and knew that Chennai was formerly called Madras. The DakshinaChitra textile exhibition, in a small hall at the back of a model weaver's house, explains the cultural meaning of the Madras hand kerchief, the significance of the dhoti, and the iconography of textile design.

It also features a large framework loom, the form of which local weavers adopted from a group of Swiss missionaries from Basel in the 1850s. Walking through the hall I felt the power of a deep-rooted cultural practice and saw a token of the possibility of beneficial cultural exchange.


  1. your specificity regarding "awkwardly eating with right hands" makes me wonder, are there strong cultural taboos present against left-handedness?

  2. What IS the cultural meaning of the Madras handkerchief?

  3. In response to the first question, Padma told us that the custom is to use the bare right hand only to eat. It is considered extremely rude to use the left hand. Since I am left-handed, I found being polite a real challenge in this instance!

    As for the second question, the exhibit said that at birth a child was given its own RMHK (real Madras handkerchief) and that the handkerchief would be worn on special occasions (such as important civic events and weddings).

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