Between December 28, 2011 and January 14, 2012 twenty students and three staff from the University of Iowa participated in an extraordinary trip through southeast India, to explore the art and architecture of the state of Tamil Nadu. The trip was an enormous success because of the quality and quantity of the art and culture that we experienced, because of the superb organization of our contacts in India, and because of the extraordinarily mature and adult behavior of the students who participated in the class.
The class was made up of twenty students from the University of Iowa. Most of the students were undergraduate art majors, but there were some graduate students, and a few of the students were history or anthropology majors. Two of the students had been to India before, but most of the students had never traveled abroad. The staff consisted of Prof. Roy, his wife Mrs. Nora Roy and Nathan Popp, a graduate student in art history.
The group traveled by bus. The bus was extremely comfortable, very safe and clean, and appeared to be almost brand-new. The prospect of traveling throughout Southeast India on dangerous roads was a little bit intimidating, but the entire venture was made safe by the great skill and care of our driver. I personally have traveled on bad roads all over Africa, and seen some very heavy traffic, and very bad roads, but I realized very quickly that our driver was so skilled that we would arrive safely at our destination every day. At the end of the trip we took up a small collection among the students and staff to thank the driver and his assistant.
The class began on December 28 when the students arrived at the airport in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Over the next three weeks the students and staff participated in the following activities:
1. Shop at Saravana Stores, Chennai
2. Vist Lalit Kala fine arts school, Chennai
3. Shop at Spencer Plaza, Chennai
4. Attend evening Musical Performance at Kalek Shetra, Chennai,
5. Visit Egmore Railroad Station, Chennai
6. Visit/shop at Good Earth Shop, Chennai
7. Lecture on Hindu Temples by Dr. Chitra Madhavan, at Dakshina Chitra
8. Visit Dakshina Chitra museum and living history village
9. Visit cave temples in Mamallapuram
10. Visit the Five Rathas and the Shore Temple in Mamallapuram
11. Visit stone carvers in Mamallapuram
12. Visit lighthouse, additional cave temples, and Krishna’s Butterball in Mamallapuram
13. Visit Papermaking facility in Pondicherry
14. Visit Auroville
15. Visit Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry
16. Visit French part of Pondicherry
17. Visit three temples in Pondicherry with Dr. Deepa Reddy
18. Visit temple outside of Pondicherry with Dr. Deepa Reddy
19. Visit temple in Chidambaram
20. Visit temple in village of Darasuram
21. Visit weavers in village of Darasuram
22. Visit temple in Tanjore
23. Visit palace in Tanjore
24. Visit outdoor village market in Chettinad region
25. Visit weavers in Kanadukathan, Chettinad
26. Visit an old Chettinad mansion in Kanadukathan
27. Visit tile makers in Chettinad region
28. Visit basket makers in Chettinad region
29. Visit an antiques market in Kanadukai, Chettinad
30. Attend traditional Indian dance performance by Kuldeep Singh at Chettinad Mansion, Kanadukathan
31. Free time in Kanadukathan for yoga, massage, bullock cart ride, walking, or other activity of your own choice
32. Visit bird sanctuary north of Madurai
33. Attend sound and light program at the Palace in Madurai
34. Go on Heritage Walk in Madurai with Dr. Bharati
35. Visit Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, with Dr. Bharati
36. Visit Meenakshi Temple in Madurai on your own
37. Visit temple in Trichy
38. Visit one or more temples in Kanchipuram
39. Visit Government Museum in Chennai
40. Visit/shop at Anokhi shop in Chennai
41. Visit Chola Mandal Artists’ colony, Chennai
42. Walk on the Marina Beach, Chennai
The only major problem during the whole trip occurred in the first couple of days when a violent cyclone struck the coast of Tamil Nadu, and brought driving rain to the city of Chennai, and caused terrible destruction along the coast of the South especially in the area of Pondicherry. There was significant loss of life locally near Pondicherry and to the south, but no one in the group was ever in any danger, and by the time we arrived in Pondicherry power had been restored, and the hotel in which we stayed was in good order. Throughout the trip students and staff remained in reasonably good health, although there were a few relatively minor incidents of gastrointestinal distress. In addition none of the students or staff ever got lost, or left behind when the bus left. Most importantly, the students all behaved impeccably. They were mature, responsible, they participated eagerly, they produced significant creative work as a result of their experiences. They enjoyed themselves tremendously, and they learned an enormous amount about a very rich and ancient foreign culture. I was extremely proud and pleased by the behavior and participation of every one of the students, and I would be happy to travel with any of them to any part of the world.
We visited the enormous, active, and historically important temples in almost every city we visited. We visited artists workshops where we saw art being created, both by local village artists, and by well-known international contemporary artists. We visited shops, where local art was being offered for sale, art that ranges from very beautiful silks, department stores where students were able to buy things that they needed, including sandals and clothing, and shops where objects of the most beautiful and sophisticated contemporary design were being offered. We visited major museums where we saw examples of both ancient and contemporary Indian art. For most of us the highlight of the museums were the two (Chennai and Tonjore) that featured the very famous Chola bronzes from the 9th to the 13th century A.D.
Among the highlights of the trip were three lectures and tours by Dr. Chithra Madhavan, Dr. Deepa Reddy and Dr. Bharitra. These professional scholars were able to present the history and culture of Southeast India in the kind of detail and depth that brought it to life and made it truly meaningful for all of the students and faculty. Dr. Chitra Madhavan spoke to us at the living history museum south of Chennai, where she explained at great length and with beautiful images the development of Hindu temple architecture over the centuries in Tamil Nadu. Dr. Deepa Reddy who teaches at the University of Houston, took us on a long and detailed tour of the area around Pondicherry. Her presentations were extraordinarily detailed and rich. Dr. Bharitra took us on a tour of an bird sanctuary north of Madurai, and then through the temples of Tanjore and Madurai. The quality of the class would have been significantly reduced without their participation.
We were also extremely fortunate to be accompanied on the entire trip by Kuldeep Singh, who teaches art history at an art school in Delhi, and who is a classically trained dancer. His knowledge of Indian art and culture is encyclopedic, and he was available at every step of the trip to explain what we were seeing. One of the real highlights of the trip was a lecture he gave in front of the Chola bronzes at the Government Museum in Chennai. As we stood and admired these fantastic ancient works of art, Kuldeep was able to interpret every gesture and pose and explain to us what they meant, and why they were important. To watch him dance and assume the poses while he explained what the pose meant was a unique and enormously instructive experience. He also gave a personal, individual performance at the mansion in Chettinad. Before each dance he took the time to explain to us what each of the gestures and poses meant so that we could understand the story, and the way the story was communicated through the dance. He is an extraordinarily talented scholar, teacher, and performer, and it would be wonderful to invite him to come to the University of Iowa to lecture and perform for the art history, studio art, dance, and Southeast Asian studies programs.
Each of the students had planned a project to be undertaken during the trip: some students kept careful and detailed journals in which they wrote down descriptions of what they had seen and done, and attached different documents, tickets, photographs, and other souvenirs. Other students carried out photographic projects, in which they documented the people, places, and art that we saw. Still other students did sketches, collected art, and created their own art in various ways. In the weeks since the class returned from India, for Professor Roy has met with the students to look at the art that they created, to read their journals, and to look at their photographs. I do feel that one of the very few problems with the trip in terms of planning was that there was not quite enough time for students to sit quietly in a temple or in a museum and make sketches or some other kind of personal art to record their experiences. I realize that had time been allocated for these activities other students might have been left with empty time, but I think that in the future one or two hours should be set aside in different places, especially temples, when the students can work individually, seated with a sketchbook, drawing materials and watercolors and have the time to create their own art.
To summarize, this was an extraordinary trip in every possible way. The trip was very rich, and it was a first-class educational experience. The students were a pleasure to travel with. Our experiences at studios, museums, galleries, workshops, and temples made it possible for everyone involved, including students and faculty, to enjoy and understand the ancient and rich culture of Southeast India.