Updated: Nov 8, 2021
The first Ladakh Bengal Education Exchange Programme was a pilot project, run as a collaboration between Achi Association and Seagull foundation for the Arts, working with a group of 30 students—15 from each region. The session began with a brief introduction by Abeer to set the context for the entire series. Prior to the first session, the students had been given a short activity, where they were paired with another student from their region/ school. Each student drew out a description of their partner by way of introducing them to the larger group, which they then shared. They spoke about each other’s interests to a large extent that enabled the discussion to become more personal beyond the larger issues that we were trying to address. Following this, there was much curiosity among them about each other’s region that emerged from what they hear as comments or stories about the place from people around or the representation of these places in popular culture, which they asked each other, therefore opening up the dialogue that we were hoping to build. For instance, students of Kolkata brought up that they keep hearing about the breathing difficulty in Ladakh and wanted to understand what drives it and how they cope with this. Therefore, we could start conversations around the representation of these places in popular memory, by way of understanding their shared culture which often misses the eye.
This session aimed at exploring culture critically beyond the stereotypes that it is often reduced to within the popular imagination. The students had been grouped under sub-categories of food, festivals, places of interest, clothing, transport, sports, flora and fauna, custom. They each shared a picture from their assigned category for the “other” region, stating their reason for choosing that image. Following this, students from the respective regions discussed whether that image was representative of their own region. They also suggested alternate things that they would share with each other, had they been showing them around the city. An interesting instance that came up in this conversation was under the customs where a student from Ladakh showed an image of a dance form from Bengal. Upon discussion, we realized that participants from Bengal were also not quite certain about what that dance form was, therefore encouraging them to do some research to address the questions that the students from Ladakh had posed. Another interesting instance was from the Transport sub-category, where a student from Bengal described the image as a bus with tourists, describing how those sitting on the roof were enjoying the scenic beauty of Ladakh. To this, students from Ladakh pointed out that, although sitting on the roof of the bus has now been banned, it was not so much about enjoying the sights as a necessity to meet every day needs in Ladakh because transport is not as easily available in the region. That paucity drove people to get hold of whatever seats were available to them on the bus. This was an important point because it challenged our popular imagination of Ladakh and its linkages with tourism, enabling students to think about how the inhabitants of this region navigate their everyday lives. This discussion concluded with who they think is a ‘Ladakhi’ and who a ‘Bengali’ to explore thoughts around markers of identity and what they think are the acceptable or even credible markers.
This session began with a collage of images that the students had got from the last session to give them a sense of the popular imagination of each other’s regions that they had put forth juxtaposed with the lived realities of the people of the region. The students were then divided into breakout rooms with an equal number of participants from each group, where the groups had to alternately discuss about one dish from each region which they would qualify as festive meal, and one that they would define as an everyday meal. This made for an interesting conversation highlighting how food is deeply interlinked with climate, geography, histories of trade and migration, and the economy in being identified as “local” to the region. For instance, a student from Bengal discussed how ‘Bhetki Macher Paturi’ is a delicacy which is an intrinsic part of the Bengali menu to mark festivities. However, we then discussed how this dish which is now such a relevant marker of Bengali food culture in fact has a strong Parsi connection and has its origins in the Parsi cuisine. In the process, they also discussed how their food palette has evolved and widened over the years, particularly with most kinds of food being fairly accessible across regions in the country today. This led them to talk about some similarities that emerge in their interaction with food across both regions, despite the distinctive specificities. Another interesting point that came up from the discussion of the students was the nuances and variation in the cultural implications of food within a particular region. For instance, two groups from Ladakh picked the same dish, Thupka, as an everyday dish and a festive meal. Therefore, establishing that the cultural connotations that food carries in our memory has strong linkages with our personal association with it.
This session began with a discussion to tie up the thoughts emerging around food and culture from the last time. Through multiple examples including biryani, Chinese food, Italian food, the question that was posed to them was what they understood as the idea of ‘authentic food’ and is there anything such as ‘authentic food’ in the first place? To this the students pointed out that there is hardly anything that can be held as a marker of authenticity of food, and it all comes down to personal choices, preferences and availability that determines how it travels and gets adapted into different food pallets across regions. Therefore, creating an interesting entry point into larger questions around authenticity and diversity within culture. Thereafter, students shared their presentations around the changes in culture and architecture in a specific area in their region for which they had interviewed people from that area. The first group of students from Ladakh interviewed some of their grandparents, asking them about the changes in architecture and culture that they have seen around them over the years, including how houses were constructed, who constructed them, what went into the design. Following this, the students from Bengal shared a presentation on how the city of Asansol has changed over the years, in terms of architecture, infrastructure, occupations, lifestyle, drawing from an interview that they held with one of the participants’ aunt, who had grown up there. Another group of students chose to study the area of Choglamsar to trace changes in culture, and the main market in Leh to study the changes in architecture. The final group traced changes in culture and architecture through the town of Matigara in West Bengal drawing from an interview held with one of the participants' mother.
This session began with a few thoughts from the previous one to connect it with the idea of space and how it is constructed, in terms of towns and cities, drawing from the presentation that the students had made. Some crucial questions also came up around the social implications of changes in occupations. Thereafter, the students made brief presentations of their neighbourhood. This was a crucial turn for this series, from discussing larger public spaces to those that are linked to their everyday, leading to questions around how dailiness is constructed across these regions. These discusions also led to highlighting some exciting intersections and divergences emerging from the difference in geography, climate, topography, history and how these converge to develop the lifestyles that do in these spaces. A substantial comparison that emerged was the high-rise buildings that mark the cityscape of Kolkata versus that of Ladakh where houses almost blend with the natural landscape, creating that sense of continuity. This also led the students to think about how these high-rise buildings have come up where they have because this was not the way the city of Kolkata was historically built. This led the participants to introduce each other to a more personal space of conversation among them. Finally, this was a clear indicator of how this series had progressed from the popular imagination of these two regions that the students had held to the deeper nuances that construct these spaces and the lives of the people that inhabit them. Therefore, also highlighting critical questions of heritage, conservation, identity, migration, diversity, and the evolving life of a city, among other things.