Posts Tagged ‘richard kurin’

Desert Crossroads: Dispatch 16 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Monday, April 6th, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is sixteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

A canoe on the Niger River. Photo: Richard Kurin

A canoe on the Niger River. Photo: Richard Kurin

Our flight from Aqaba, Jordan to Mopti in Mali features several lectures by Smithsonian anthropologist Mary Jo Arnoldi who has joined us for our African stops. Mary Jo has lived and done field work in Mali for decades and her knowledge of and insight into this varied and long-lived society is most impressive. She prepares us well for the days ahead.

Mopti is at the confluence of the Niger and Bani Rivers. The former flows through Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Guinea making its way to the Atlantic coast. It is the lifeblood for people along its course—at once a source of water for drinking, for washing, for irrigating fields, but also a highway for transport and communication. We walk gangplanks into several low riding covered motorized canoes for a “folk” cruise that makes this abundantly clear. As the rickety boats putt-putt along, tall lanky pole men of the Boso tribe help give us an extra push. Life unfolds. Children swimming. Women washing clothes. Men washing trucks and cars—almost as if they were elephants bathing. Vendors hawking goods along the shore. We pass small harbors where families board water buses, and markets where Bambara merchants pile boxes, sacks, and bags onto canoes for shipment up and down stream. Pipes and canals take the river to villages along the way so that Mande farmers can water their crops and Fulani herders care for their cattle. This is Africa alive.

Mopti is the gateway to Dogon country. While the large majority of Malian ethnic groups are Muslim, the Dogon are not. Some 600,000 in number their homeland is the Bandiagara escarpment—a world heritage site. The Dogon are farmers, but also skilled in ancient knowledge and particularly famed for their astronomical knowledge. Their rituals are rich in spiritual beliefs and a group enacts the dama, a performance of a masked dancing traditionally done for funerals but now done on other occasions. The rite helps both the spirit of the deceased and the community left behind make the transition between life and death. Though somewhat transformed from its original context, the intriguing masking and adornment and the energetic—frenetic but skilled movements of the dancers capture our every attention.

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Petra – City in Stone, Culture in Motion: Dispatch 15 from Extraordinary Cultures

Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is fifteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Petra

The famous Treasury at Petra is most likely the tomb of a Nabatean king. Photo: Richard Kurin

The famous Treasury at Petra is most likely the tomb of a Nabatean king. Photo: Richard Kurin

The so-called “Treasury” of Petra—seen in many movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is more likely a tomb and memorial to a king. Indeed, Petra as a whole, extending 20 square miles is a vast ritual complex of cave tombs, memorials and monuments, monasteries and churches that grew over hundreds of years in the southern Jordanian desert. The scale is impressive, and the terrain foreboding and harsh, as sandstone of every color, striation, and pattern forms canyons, rift valleys, mountains, hills, and natural outcroppings worthy of awe and reverence. Indeed, the name given to the place—“Petra”—means “stone” in Greek.

Managing this site couldn’t be easy. A ceramic tile irrigation system carried water down the main siq or canyon. Cisterns held rainwater. Well-engineered streets and paths cross the site. Caves, with pillars, columns, statues and ornamentation were carved out of the soft sandstone. Earthquakes were not infrequent, and building techniques had to account for their impacts.

Mosaic from the Byzantine church at Petra. Photo: Richard Kurin

Mosaic from the Byzantine church at Petra. Photo: Richard Kurin

Almost unimaginably, wheat and grapes for wine were grown in this arid soil. This city of the dead was also a trading center for caravans moving between the Arabian Peninsula and the Mediterranean Sea. It was built and occupied by the ancient Nabeteans, and later subject to Roman and Byzantine influence—apparent in the architecture and in mosaics. Some 30,000 people may have lived in Petra at its peak. We are still learning more about the city and its development and decline as a result of ongoing excavations and projects, including a long-term one run by Brown University’s Martha Joukowsky and reported in Smithsonian magazine in June 2007.

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Building a Mall by the Taj Mahal?: Dispatch 14 from Extraordinary Cultures

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is fourteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part II

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Smithsonian traveler joins in the dance. Photo: Richard Kurin

A few years ago there was another threat to the Taj Mahal, a proposal to build a shopping mall and amusement park along the banks of the river, running from the Taj to another world heritage site, the Red Fort. The whole area would be commercialized with stores, rides, food concessions, even roller coasters. The proposal was backed by powerful politicians and “developers”—though one wonders what that term means in this context.

Such was the subject of the most extraordinary performance on our around the world tour produced by Rajeev Sethi especially for our group.

Rajeev is a world class designer. I first worked with him in the 1980s on the Festival of India. He created and designed Aditi—a marvelous living exhibition celebrating the traditional Indian life cycle at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He designed the Mela or Indian fair, for the 1985 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and then worked with the Smithsonian, Yo-Yo Ma, and Aga Khan’s organization on the Silk Road for the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Along the way he’s designed pavilions for world’s fairs, museum exhibitions, hotels, movie sets, numerous programs in support of traditional artisans, and government policies.

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Singers entertain the crowd. Photo: Richard Kurin

Rajeev’s production, held at our hotel amidst giant billboards, stage sets, hanging screens and curtains was called Taj Mall—Agra Bazaar Revisited. This was a truly astounding participatory experience. We walked into a multi-phonic bazaar pulsing with 170 performers singing, dancing, playing music, doing magic, acrobatics, and puppetry, juggling, doing impersonations and other Indian street art—not to mention courtesans wooing admirers or wandering mystics wooing adherents. We were visually overloaded with the sights of weavers, kite makers, pigeon flyers, embroiderers, stone workers, gem setters, talisman makers, street doctors, perfume sellers, wrestlers, bone setters, box photographers, bangle makers, shoe makers, faux vegetable vendors, and numerous others. It was as if all of India’s traditional arts, from every community, from every quarter of the country had gathered in the space of a tennis court and in concentrated, distilled form, presented the best of their work. Hindu village women danced with oil lamps afire and Muslim devotional singers extolled a sufi saint; even a Catholic girls’ choir sang—in both Hindi and English.

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India: Dispatch 13 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part I

The stunning Taj Mahal Photo: Richard Kurin

The stunning Taj Mahal. Photo: Richard Kurin

It’s always great to see the Taj Mahal—even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before. I saw it first in 1970, and it still takes my breath away. The Taj is a UNESCO World Heritage site, annually attracting millions of visitors; our tour takes us through the gardens into the mausoleum and onto the terrace overlooking the Yamuna River.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled much of northern India in the mid-17th century, had the Taj built as a memorial for his beloved wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to her 14th child. The Mughals had enormous wealth and strongly supported a varied musical, culinary, artisanal, and religious culture still with us today. Shah Jahan used native materials and craftsmen, but also brought in those from Persia and Central Asia. He built an architectural wonder out of white Makran marble, with a bulbous dome and flowing ornamentation of inlaid precious stones. Well positioned with surrounding gardens to simulate paradise, it is remarkable for its proportion and for its exact symmetry—save for one feature. It was built by Shah Jahan to house only one grave at its center—that of Mumtaz. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his zealous and fanatical son Aurangzeb, held under house arrest, and later buried alongside his long departed wife. His added grave throws off the symmetry of the memorial!

Photo: Linda Currie

The Taj has long been under threat of the deleterious effects of urban pollution, of opportunists prying out the inlaid stones, of visitors defacing the building and grounds, and of too many tourists wearing down the stone work. A number of steps have been taken over the decades to protect this world treasure—reducing pollution, allowing only electric powered vehicles near the site, and so on. Everyone who has visited the Taj Mahal and might visit it in the future will applaud such measures. We have too little beauty and too much ugliness in the world; we need to preserve what beauty there is, and encourage its ongoing creation.

This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.

Bhutan: Dispatch 12 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is twelfth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Bhutan

Young Bhutanese monks. Photo: Amy Kotkin

Young Bhutanese monks. Photo: Amy Kotkin

Tonight we dined with Her Majesty Ashi Dorgi Wangmo Wangchuck, a Queen of Bhutan. She was extremely gracious and a lovely host who greeted each one of our group personally and presided over a performance by the Royal Academy of Performing Arts.

She is one of four sisters who married the 4th King of Bhutan and is from the family whose ancestor unified Bhutan centuries ago. She has supported grassroots causes in Bhutan through her Tarayana Foundation. She also recently edited and contributed to a recent book on Bhutanese poetry. Needless to say, our travelers were thrilled to meet her.

Her Majesty also chaired the committee advising on Bhutan’s participation in the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. That program brought more than 100 scholars, monks, artisans, dancers, musicians, architects and builders, cooks, archers and other cultural exemplars to the National Mall in Washington to perform and demonstrate their traditions to more than one million grateful visitors. That delegation was led by the Prince and came as Bhutan was making the transition to a democracy by planning its first election and the coronation of the King’s successor.

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