INDIA, Week Three (August 10-16): Siddhartha Central School

August 18, 2015

INDIA, Week Three (August 10-16): Siddhartha Central School

750 million people around the world lack clean drinking water – roughly one in every nine people. The water crisis is our number one global risk based on impact to society according to the World Economic Forum ( In India, over half of the rivers are polluted, an estimated 75% of the surface water is polluted and water pollution accounts for over 500 deaths every day.  

Water Cyphers: Art, Performance, Science and is a pilot for an international arts training, outreach and mini-festival program focused on sharing water stories through theater, music and dance. Along with community members and artists from Kochi and Kollam, our international team gathers stories, creates dances and writes music that illuminates these critical concerns.  Public performances at Amrita University on August 12 at 4:30pm, August 14 at 3:30pm at Siddhartha Central School in Kollam in and at Sacred Heart College in Kochi on Aug 24 and 25.  

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A view from the artists retreat at Siddhartha Central School.












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Rag, Kanta and Sen work with the students at Amritapuri

This week our team completed and premiered our piece River to River at Amritapuri University for a small student audience. The students from the workshop also performed  (to applause and cheers.) The college was so helpful in executing this multi-cultural, multi-media theater piece they must be applauded as well – our demands are unique.

(NOTE: Last week, I wrote about never sweating so much as I did in kalare class, but at dress rehearsal for the Amritapuri performance sweat was literally pouring off my head onto the ELECTRIC keyboard. I had to twist my body so the sweat would flow onto the floor because I was afraid I might short out the electrical system.)

Working with the students at Amritapuri University was incredible-they are smart, brave, creative, sincere, curious, respectful and full of joy. Exchanging art and ideas with them was an unforgettable experience

A drawing of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s hydraulic machines complete with his signature “mirror writing”.

Our team also began work on another piece called The River is a Line. Kanta, our director, has asked that we explore the more scientific and technological aspects of water environments.  She introduced us to a book called Design in the Terrain of Water by Anuradha Mathur and Dilip da Cunha.  In the book they discuss many of the themes we’ve been exploring including “the water to which people are increasingly turning to find innovative solutions to water scarcity, pollution, aquifer depletion and other problems that are assuming center stage in local and global politics, dynamics, and fears.” 

Kanta has asked me to write a humorous piece about Leonardo da Vinci and his work/obsession with hydraulics.  I will most likely be playing da Vinci as well so I’m trying to write in a lot of other characters. Anyway, if you’ve got any funny da Vinci stories…


Amma hugs two devotees

Last week, I wrote about the chancellor of the University and founder of the Ashram – a very famous Hindu leader called Amma (the “hugging saint”.)  It is estimated that she has hugged nearly 50 million people worldwide.

Sunday night was our turn to hug Amma. Everyone experienced something a little different and my experience was fittingly awkward and hilarious at the same time. (Maybe Amma really does understand everyone who comes into her presence.)

[NOTE: In order to better represent the diverse spiritual experiences people have, I have included another perspective on Amma from one of the workshop participants, Sadanand Sebastian.]


Amma sits in a chair center-stage in a large yet inauspicious outdoor auditorium.  There is a smaller stage in front of her where a rotating group of musicians sing Hindi hymns (which I love.)

We surrendered our electronic devices, go through a security scan and are escorted backstage where there are rows of chairs leading up to Amma. The rows begin on either side of the stage and each person begins in the back chair and works their way to the front. (Imagine a very methodical game of musical chairs where no chairs get taken away.) We are told by Prichant Swami that we can ask Amma anything – personal questions, health questions, anything.

When I finely make it to the front row, a young boy begins singing one of the hymns. He has one of most clarion and distinct voices I can remember.  It reminds me of a young Andrew Penning singing the opening “ah’s” in Amahl and the Night Visitor.  It puts me in a trance.

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Candy, a kiss and a bag of kumkuma for my tilaka

The rows of chairs coming from stage left and right converge at Amma’s feet and before receiving their hug, people kneel down in front of her alternating left and right, back and forth. There are about five or so “hug handlers” around her making sure things go as smoothly and efficiently as possible. I kneel down and standing next to me is a ninety-year-old woman. She is so small that she and my torso are the same height. She can’t really kneel so one of the devotees bring her a small stool.

Once I enter the hug stream, things move quickly with a dizzying sense of urgency.  I am very very very afraid I am going to fall on the old woman and crush her with my massive frame.  Right there at the feet of Amma.  The “hug heard ’round the world!” I insist she go first but they won’t let her.  One of the handlers looks at me and asks: “Speak English?”

“British” I reply for reasons that will forever remain a mystery to me.

“You with the dancers?” I nod as he turns to talk to Amma.

“No,wait!” I say and tug at the his sleeve, but it’s too late.  He is already telling her I’m a dancer from England.

Suddenly, a space opens in front of her and I knee-waddle into my position.  The hug-handler who just told her I’m Billy Elliot (and probably that I’ve “really let myself go”) is now reaching across her lap for something so I have to sit there for a moment before I can see her.  The ninety-year-old woman wheezes and grabs my shoulder for balance.

The moment arrives.  We’re face to face.

I take a breath and say: “Amma, I was wondering-”

File Aug 16, 8 17 14 AMWithout warning my head is firmly (yet gently) planted in her bosom. I place my right arm on the floor in front of her to keep my (and the old woman’s) balance and my left arm goes akimbo.  Another handler guides the akimbo arm to rest on her right side and she places her arm over mine. I try to give her a little squeeze he pulls my arm away from her so my hand is sort of stuck in mid air blindly searching for a resting place.

Amma holds my head and says in my ear… “Momomomomomomomo”. Then another handler shoves something in my hand and I am released. I back knee-wobble away from the action and stand up.  I can hear the boy singing again.

“Momomomomomomomomomo?” I think.  But I don’t understand Malayalam!  Or was she speaking in tongues? I hear that sometimes she speaks in tongues!  (I later decide that momomomomomomomomo comes from an ancient Indian dialect and means “you are a super enlightened, crazy-talented child of God, Billy… and you’re looking very trim.”)

I go back to the place where the line starts and am motioned to sit down cross-legged on the crowded carpet beside her. I am surrounded by meditating devotees. I look in my hand – a chocolate kiss, small paper bag containing white powder and an “Amma candy”. Should I eat them?  Should I save them? Should I share them with the people meditating? The chocolate melts everywhere while my leg falls asleep.

Later, Rag applies the powder (kumkuma) to my forehead with his finger.  The dot (tilaka) represents the third eye.

My third eye suddenly recalls countless Christmases where we would spend an afternoon bundled up, waiting in an endless line to meet Santa. Without fail, the moment I was plopped on Santa’s lap and he asked me what was on my wish list, all I could do was sit there with my mouth gaping.  Some people never learn.



Sadanand Sebastian, a student in business management and workshop participant

“My family has been Amma devotees for over 35 years. We live at the Ashram where my mother works as a nurse and I attend Amritapuri University where I study for a degree in business management.

“I was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there until the fourth grade. In my town there was a huge hill called Jabal Sawda. When it rains heavily there, huge water falls and landslides can occur at any moment. People actually come from miles around to see them.

“Fifteen days before we were scheduled to move to India, a huge storm occurred and the water was running very fast off the mountain. I went to look at the waterfall and while I was standing there, the earth beneath me gave way and I was sucked into the current.

“Everyone assumed I was dead. The water was flowing at about 50 km/hour was flowing fast toward the Red Sea. I closed my eyes and asked that Amma would save my life. I was pulled along for about a half a km, but then Amma placed a thorn tree in my way so I got stuck on the river’s bank.

“It was a miracle and since then I have never feared water. Even my fear of dying is gone.”

Jabal Sawda, Saudi Arabia

Landslides can both catastrophic and for humans and good for the environment at the same time. They occur when rock, earth, or debris flows on slopes due to gravity. They can happen on virutally any terrain given the right conditions of soil, moisture, and the angle of slope. Important to the natural process of geology, landslides serve to rearrange soil and sediments in a process that can be in sudden collapses or in slow gradual slides. The factors affecting landslides can be geological or man-made, and can occur in developed or undeveloped areas, or in areas where the terrain has been altered for roads, houses, utilities, buildings and mining activities


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Sen discusses personal boundaries with a crow at the Ashram

Our collaborator and Indian dance specialist Sen Jansen told us of how, when he was little, his auntie would tell him stories of Thor Anna.

“Back when I was a girl,” she said, “the monsoon rains were so strong that the flooding could take six elephants away”.

Sometimes, Sen’s family would need to move everyone and everything to the attic and let the waters flow through the bottom of the house.  Even when Sen was a little boy they streets would flood and everyone would go play in them.

“The monsoon season impacts the region for the rest of the year. Last year was the hottest on record and their was no rain. None,” he told me.  Now there’s no predicting what will happen.

Sen’s also remembers taking a class trip to Thekkady.  

The waterfalls of Thekkady in Tamil Nadu.

“That was my best water experience.  The milky-white waterfalls lead into a beautiful pool surrounded by rocks where everyone could sit and swim.  And you could walk right into the waterfall.  I was the happiest I’ve ever been there.”

When asked if anything has stood out to him during the project, Sen replied: “For me, water is primarily coming from the shower and the tap.  So these water memories I’m telling you are important to me.  It’s easy to get frustrated by the amount of garbage and the state of the water and choose to ignore the problems, but someday I want my country to be like Heaven so I know that I have to do my part.”


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Beth and Morgen get a tour from principal Sri Sujith Kumar.

Visiting Siddhartha Central School was another happy reassurance that there are amazing organizations doing everything they can to insure the future of people and the planet. Their mission is “to promote physical wellness  and unity among young people through sports and games, create and eco-friendly society by implementing a bio-manure agriculture system, keep students “close to the nature” and lead healthy life without modern medicines and organize art and cultural activities that preserve the national heritage.”  To learn more about Siddhartha Central School, visit

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The (enormous) outdoor theater at Siddhartha where we performed.

The campus is so peaceful and everyone was so welcoming and genuine. They also have an artists retreat, two stages and a dance pavilion and will begin providing artist housing in the next two years. All artists should look into this as an ideal place to do a cultural exchange.


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Rag’s Farm House in Kollum

This week, as we toured from Amritapuri University and Ashram to Kollum and Siddhartha Central School back to Kochi and Sacred Heart College, we had a variety of food experiences. (There also seemed to be a little bug going around and eating wasn’t always very easy – which is sad for a food-lover like me.) That said, we had a real treat while staying at our colleague Rag’s house – country home cooking. Rag’s family owns a farm and so the food was amazingly fresh, flavorful and abundant. It was so gracious of Rag’s parents to open up their entire home to us and treat us so royally. In addition, the teachers at Siddhartha Central School made us a traditional Kerala sadyha before our performance which was wonderfully spicy and delicious.

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Kashmirian Na’an

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Mutton Biryani (wrapped in newspaper)

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Morgen eating her sahdya

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Papadam, cassava, pickles and river shrimp roas

Our colleague Sen’s teacher wrote a beautiful poem which Rag set to a melody called


Water Cyphers: Art, Performance, Science, a pilot for an international arts training, outreach, and mini-festival program, focuses on sharing water stories through theater and dance. The project will be directed by Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Folded Paper Dance and Theatre (Seattle/Hong Kong) along with project partners Sen Jansen TF (Sacred Heart College of Thevara/Sensations Event Management/Kochi,) Rag Saseendrababu (Sruthi School of Dance and Music, Kollam) and Jebin JB (School of Drama, Thrissur).

Water in Kerala focuses on generating new methods for exploring the intersections of performance and science through participatory cultural heritage experiences, such as storytelling, dance, theatre, musical theatre, and mixed performance modes. This work will increase our understanding of water stories as crucial markers of a community’s cultural traditions, history, sense of place, and relationship to the environment.

United States artists include Beth Graczyk (Seattle/NY), Morgen Chang (Minneapolis, MN) and Aaron Gabriel (Minneapolis, MN).INDIA

One Comment

  1. Do al the wonderful things in this installment, the one that impresses me most is your willingness to experience such heat! I know this is lame, but I have no heat tolerance and I barely sweat, so it sounds unbearable. But you be ear it, for love, for art, for a better earth. I am so impressed.


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