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Photo: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, this double-decker bridge in India’s Nongriat village is among the most famous of the region’s many living-root bridges. Locals say it’s about 250 years old.

I’m reading a quirky, amusing novel about India right now, Tomb of Sand, in which at times the author reminds one that many of the things Westerners think they invented already have a long history in South Asia.

Today’s post shows that at least some Westerners are garnering architecture ideas from Indian villagers.

Anne Pinto-Rodrigues reports at the Christian Science Monitor, “Covered with thick subtropical forests and streaked with streams and rivers, the hilly state of Meghalaya in India’s northeastern corner is one of the wettest places on the planet. During the monsoon season, torrential rains turn docile rivers into raging waterways, and people rely on centuries-old bridges to access farms, schools, and markets. 

“But these aren’t typical overpasses made of wood or steel – the bridges are alive. 

“For hundreds of years, the Khasis of Meghalaya have manipulated the aerial roots of the rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) to build sturdy bridges, known in the Khasi language as jingkieng jri. There are at least 150 such bridges in Meghalaya, according to Morningstar Khongthaw, who works to preserve and educate the public about the community’s architectural traditions. The figure includes the famous double-decker living root bridge of Nongriat village, which locals estimate is about 250 years old. Mr. Khongthaw’s village, Rangthylliang, has 20 living root bridges. ‘The oldest one is about 700 years old,’ he says, with great pride.

“Today, the jingkieng jri are not only a big tourist draw, but also an important proof of concept for engineers and designers interested in practicing living architecture. Integrating plants into architectural design lessens the need for harmful construction materials and promotes biodiversity, but it can also take generations to test and develop the right building methods. Bioengineers from around the world are studying the living root bridges in the hopes of applying aspects of the Khasi tradition to projects in their own countries.

“ ‘The Khasis have a brilliant understanding of architectural engineering, totally different from the western way,’ says Ferdinand Ludwig, professor of green technologies in landscape architecture at the Technical University of Munich. …

“ ‘There are different ways of designing, building, and growing a living root bridge,’ says Mr. Khongthaw. The most popular model of construction, and the fastest, involves the creation of a bamboo framework, over which the roots of a nearby rubber fig tree are pulled and intertwined, until the roots reach the opposite bank. The bamboo framework itself serves as a temporary bridge while the living root structure takes shape. Over time, the bamboo rots away while the roots grow and merge together, making the structure sturdier and more stable. 

“Mr. Khongthaw says a bridge crossing a stream would be about the length of a school bus, and take nearly 20 years to become functional, whereas a bridge across a river would take 70-80 years. In places where there are no rubber fig trees nearby, villagers must first plant a sapling on the river bank and wait 10-15 years for the aerial roots to appear before building the bamboo framework. 

The time required to reach the first functional stage – when the bridge is strong enough to hold about 500 pounds, or roughly three people with loaded baskets – depends on the required length of the bridge.

“In all stages of their development, the bridges require regular maintenance. This happens in monsoon season when the roots are more pliable. ‘Everyone in my village takes part in maintaining the bridges,’ says Mr. Khongthaw. ‘Whoever crosses the bridge, spends five or 10 minutes working on the roots to make the structure stronger.’ …

“In addition to bridges, the Khasis construct cliffside ladders, tree platforms, swings, and tunnels using traditional techniques passed down orally from one generation to the next. …

“In Germany, Professor Ludwig has been studying examples of living architecture from around the world for nearly two decades. He has designed and overseen the construction of several structures that integrate plants, including a footbridge that uses living willow plants as the sole supports.

“Professor Ludwig first learned of the living root bridges of Meghalaya in 2009, via a documentary, and was struck by the Khasi approach to building. ‘They do not prescribe the structure itself. They only prescribe the aim,’ he says. ‘They want to go from A to B in a safe and comfortable way.’ …

“One of his students at the Technical University of Munich, Wilfrid Middleton, is studying Meghalaya’s living root bridges as an example of regenerative design – an increasingly popular concept wherein structures are not just sustainable (built with minimal and efficient use of resources) but they also replenish the resources required for their functioning and enrich their surroundings, thus having a net-positive effect on the environment.

“In cities, living structures like the footbridge designed by Professor Ludwig can help sequester carbon, create a cooling effect, and provide a habitat to birds and other urban wildlife. …

“Mr. Middleton has visited 70 jingkieng jri so far, and with the consent of the village elders, he photographs the bridges to create precise 3D models. ‘Each year, as the bridge grows and changes, we are able to capture its incredibly complex structure,’ he says. ‘We are trying to learn from the Khasis.’

“While there is increasing international appreciation of the living root bridges, back in Meghalaya, Mr. Khongthaw says many villagers aspire for a modern lifestyle, complete with concrete houses and bridges. Worried that traditional Khasi knowledge may feel irrelevant to younger generations, Mr. Khongthaw founded the Living Bridge Initiative in 2016, with the objective of preserving, protecting, and increasing the number of living root bridges. He regularly visits educational institutions to speak about his work. …

“Mr. Khongthaw has also started a sapling center to address the shortage of rubber fig saplings, which are not easy to find in the forest. The biggest threat to these ancient bridges, however, are the development projects in their vicinity.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall. Additional pictures at the Better India, here, are also worth checking out.

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Photo: PriyaShakti.com.
Indian superhero Priya Shakti was named Gender Equality Champion in 2014 by UN Women.

Superheroes are not all brawn these days, bending steel and throwing cars around. They are not all white males, and they don’t spend all their time chasing gangsters. Gangsters may be bad, but there are other problems in the world that need to be addressed just as urgently.

Chhavi Sachdev writes at the radio show the World, “India’s first female comic superhero has previously tackled issues like masking up during COVID-19, surviving assault, trafficking and acid attacks. On Earth Day, Priya [returned] — astride her faithful flying tiger — to show young children the power of collective action in tackling air pollution.

“When Ram Devineni decided to create India’s first female comic superhero, he had plenty of inspiration.

“Indian mythology is full of gods and goddesses who come to the aid of mortals in trouble. The goddess of fortune, Laxmi, shows up riding an owl. The goddess of knowledge, Saraswati, travels on a peacock.

“Devineni’s hero, Priya, travels around the world on a flying tiger named Sahas, helping people find solutions to the problems they face. In the seventh comic of the series, Priya and the Twirling Wind, she tackles climate change in northern India and the toxic haze that affects New Delhi.

“The comic book is 18 pages long, but there are also puppets and a short animated film online. And the physical comic book itself has an extra element: augmented reality. If you scan certain panels, you can see and hear the puppets on a smart device.

“The story is fairly simple. Little Somya’s asthma is so critical that she ends up in a hospital. Her cries for her mother catch Priya’s attention, who is passing by with Sahas. So, Priya takes her to a magical land where the air is clean and easy to breathe. But unfortunately, there’s trouble even there — miners are cutting down trees. 

“ ‘And then, it becomes up to Somya, Priya and the women in the village to stop deforestation of this forest that Priya and they live in,’ Devineni said. 

“Somya, Priya and the village women put their arms around the tree trunks, forming a human chain so that the miners’ henchmen cannot cut them down — a direct homage to what’s known as the chipko movement that began in 1973 in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand, referring to how women pressed their bodies against trees to defend them. It’s been hailed as one of the earliest women-led environmental movements.  

“Devenini said that they found images from the 1970s in northern India. Village women had realized that deforestation was affecting not only their food chain and natural resources, but also causing unprecedented flooding, so they decided to take a stand.  

“In her first five comics, Priya tackled gender issues — like women who survive acid attacks and trafficking. …

“Priya survives an assault and finds herself being judged and blamed. She flees to the jungle, where she notices a tiger stalking her. Finally one day, she finds her shakti, or ‘power,’ and looks it in the eye. Since then, the tiger (whose name Sahas means courage) remains her loyal companion in the fight against injustice. …

“Devineni is a documentary filmmaker, but he chose to address these issues in graphic novel format to reach wider audiences.  

‘I felt it was important that Indian men needed to talk to teenage boys about how we treat or mistreat women,’ he said. ‘And I know teenage boys just don’t watch documentaries.’ …

“The new comic, Priya and the Twirling Wind, is for younger children. And the goal is to make the problem of air pollution feel less overwhelming. … Devineni hopes that children will channel their own superpowers to find a solution.”

More at the World, here, where you can also listen to the news report. No firewall.

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Photo: Tohumtoprak.
Working with his team and villagers, retired forest chief Hikmet Kaya has helped create a forest on once-barren land in Turkey.

Around the world, people have learned that planting trees can help us fight back against global warming. But it’s not as easy as sticking them in the ground. You have to ensure they live. And thrive.

Jessica Stewart reports on one initiative at My Modern Met, “Hikmet Kaya has proved that good intentions and hard work can yield big rewards. The retired Turkish forest management chief has posed proudly in front of the barren land that he and his team have transformed into a lush forest.

“He began his career in the town of Sinop in 1978 and while he retired 19 years later, his legacy has continued to grow — literally.

“Working together with his team and villagers, he brought in and planted 30 million saplings over the course of his tenure. Long after his retirement, these trees have continued to grow; and today, this barren stepped land has undergone an incredible transformation. … Needless to say, he admits he’s very happy with the results.

“It’s a wonderful example to set for the rest of the country. According to Global Forest Watch, Turkey has seen a 5.4% decrease in tree cover since 2000. … Combatting deforestation often comes down to governmental policy changes, which makes it important for individuals to know who they are voting for and to make sure their environmental concerns are heard. Still, that hasn’t stopped people from taking matters into their own hands and taking action.”

More at My Modern Met, here (where you’ll also find links to tree-planting stories from the Philippines, Pakistan, and Ethiopia).

There’s a tree maven in India who worked without help. You may have read about him. I’ll share Andrei Tapalaga‘s History of Yesterday story in case you missed the news.

“When talking about saving the environment, most people come with the comment of ‘how much difference will I make?’ … In this article, I want to present a man who has defied any kind of odds and showed the world that if you set your mind to something it will become possible.

“Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng spent 40 years of his life planting trees, gaining the nickname of ‘Forest Man’ in India for transforming a [barren island] into a forest. [At this point] Payeng had covered 1,400 acres with trees. There is no exact number of trees as he never kept track, but we are looking at around 1.5 million trees planted in 40 years.

“Payeng was born in 1963 near the small rural town of Jorhat, India. From a young age, he saw a small island near the coast of the Brahmaputra River suffering from erosion. In many of his interviews taken by the media in India, he described that he had spent some of his [childhood] playing in that forest and it was heartbreaking seeing its vegetation slowly die.

“That is why in 1979, when Payeng was 16 years of age, he decided to plant at least one tree a day for as long as he lives, calling it giving back to Mother Nature. … The start to this incredible journey was difficult, not only [considering] the road ahead, but it was simply difficult to find tree seeds to plant. His vision was not to plant only one type of tree, but many different types. …

“As the years went by, the problem of finding seeds was solved as the trees he had planted years ago started to give seeds. With more seeds, he was able to plant even more trees every day. The island is surrounded by a flowing river, so the water supply was never a problem. …

“There are many people out there just like Payneg who have dedicated most of their life toward an honorable cause but rarely get noticed. The media in India actually discovered Payeng by mistake when in 2008, a herd of over 100 wild elephants strayed into the forest he had created.

“Payeng notified the forest department about the elephants and they thought he was crazy at first as there was no forest on the island. Upon the forest department’s inspection of the island, the community around Jorhat told them about Payeng’s efforts, at which point the media from India bombarded Payeng. [He] was also made an official forester for the forest he had created on Majuli island.

“In 2012 Payeng was interviewed by the Times, where he confessed that he had always asked for help but no one wanted to assist him. … Now the island is greener than ever whilst being inhabited by all sorts of wildlife from rabbits to tigers and even rhinos. The plantation of trees had slowed down as Payeng is becoming old and tired. However, he is trying to make his children continue what he had started.”

For more on Payeng’s initiative, click at History of Yesterday, here.

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Photo: Anupan Nath/AP.
Actors in Awahan mobile theater group perform in a village near Guwahati, India, after a two-year hiatus because of Covid.

So many activities got suspended during Covid, and many workers wondered if they would still have a job when the world reopened. That was true for everyone from servers in struggling US restaurants to actors in rural India.

In April, Al-Jazeera posted about a traveling theater in India that, to everyone’s relief, is reemerging after two years.

“Traveling theater groups in India’s northeastern state of Assam are reviving the local art and culture scene after the COVID-19 pandemic forced a pause in their performances for nearly two years.

“Seven roving theater companies are back on stage playing before crowds in villages, towns and cities across the state. These mobile theaters are among the most popular forms of local entertainment.

“ ‘The public response has been very good. They love live performances. We have no competition from television and the digital boom,’ said Prastuti Parashar, a top Assamese actress who owns the Awahan Theatre group.

“Before the coronavirus hit the region, about 50 theater groups, each involving 120 to 150 people, performed throughout the state. They would start in September, coinciding with major Hindu festivals such as Durga Puja and Diwali, and continue until April. …

“Drama is an integral part of Indian culture and the mobile theater groups do not restrict themselves to mythological and social themes. They have in the past covered classic Greek tragedies, Shakespearean tales and historical subjects like the sinking of the Titanic, Lady Diana and the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.

“The groups travel with directors, actors, dancers, singers, technicians, drivers and cooks, in addition to all the stage infrastructure to perform three shows in one place before moving on to the next makeshift venue.”

For a bit more background, let’s turn to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which states that “Indian theater is often considered the oldest in Asia, having developed its dance and drama by the 8th century BCE [Before Common Era]. According to Hindu holy books, the gods fought the demons before the world was created, and the god Brahmā asked the gods to reenact the battle among themselves for their own entertainment. Once again the demons were defeated, this time by being beaten with a flagstaff by one of the gods. To protect theater from demons in the future, a pavilion was built, and in many places in India today a flagstaff next to the stage marks the location of performances.

“According to myth, Brahmā ordered that dance and drama be combined; certainly the words for ‘dance’ and ‘drama’ are the same in all Indian dialects. Early in Indian drama, however, dance began to dominate the theater. By the beginning of the 20th century there were few performances of plays, though there were myriad dance recitals. It was not until political independence in 1947 that India started to redevelop the dramatic theater. …

“Classical Indian drama had as its elements poetry, music, and dance, with the sound of the words assuming more importance than the action or the narrative; therefore, staging was basically the enactment of poetry.

“The reason that the productions, in which scenes apparently follow an arbitrary order, seem formless to Westerners is that playwrights use much simile and metaphor. Because of the importance of the poetic line, a significant character is the storyteller or narrator, who is still found in most Asian drama. In Sanskrit drama the narrator was the sūtra-dhāra, ‘the string holder,’ who set the scene and interpreted the actors’ moods. Another function was performed by the narrator in regions in which the aristocratic vocabulary and syntax used by the main characters, the gods and the nobles, was not understood by the majority of the audience. The narrator operated first through the use of pantomime and later through comedy.

“A new Indian theater that began about 1800 was a direct result of British colonization. With the addition of dance interludes and other Indian aesthetic features, modern India has developed a national drama.

“Two examples of ‘new’ theater staging are the Prithvi Theatre and the Indian National Theatre. The Prithvi Theatre, a Hindi touring company founded in 1943, utilizes dance sequences, incidental music, frequent set changes, and extravagant movement and color. The Indian National Theatre, founded in Bombay in the 1950s, performs for audiences throughout India, in factories and on farms. Its themes usually involve a national problem, such as the lack of food, and the troupe’s style is a mixture of pantomime and simple dialogue. It uses a truck to haul properties, costumes, and actors; there is no scenery.”

Great traveling-theater pictures at Al-Jazeera, here. More detailed information at Britannica, here. No firewalls.

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Photo: Bihar Museum.
Tens of thousands of schoolchildren have visited the Bihar Museum in Patna, India, thanks to a government initiative.

I like being exposed to parts of the world I know nothing about. That’s why most of the mystery books I read are set in froreign countries.

Today I’m learning about a region just south of Nepal in India’s northeast, Bihar. In the town of Patna, the government-owned Bihar Museum is working to expand the horizons of its large population of children.

Kabir Jhala writes at the Art Newspaper, “At India’s last census, Bihar was the nation’s youngest state, with 58% of its more than 104 million citizens under 25 years old. The museum hopes, through a unique scheme, [to] create a generation of future art lovers.

“Since 2019 Bihar’s Ministry of Education has pledged to provide 20,000 rupees ($260) to every primary school in the state for museum visits, with the money going towards transport, entry tickets and lunches. While the sum might not seem great, multiplied by the state’s 67,000 eligible schools, it amounts to more than $17.4 million, a considerable sum in a country where most public museums have virtually no engagement programs.

“At the museum, children can explore dedicated sections for young visitors, including works that can be touched, labels at child-friendly heights and workstations in which they can mint their own coins and simulate parts of an archaeological excavation.

“So far the scheme has only been rolled out in the nearest districts to Patna, the state’s capital, and Covid-19 has limited its reach. But from April 2019 to March 2020, the only full year in which the scheme was untouched by the pandemic, 33,000 students from 1,000 schools visited the museum. …

“ ‘I want the children to go back to their communities and rave about their time at the museum,’ says the institution’s director, Anjani Kumar Singh. ‘Through word of mouth, I think we can transform not just this generation into museum-goers, but the whole state, too.’ …

“ ‘Many of these children live in rural areas with parents who can’t read or write [Bihar’s literacy rate is one of the lowest in India] and the concept of museums and art are totally alien,’ Singh says. ‘But despite Bihar being one of the country’s poorest states, I am proud that we have pioneered a scheme that is totally unprecedented in terms of scale in India — no other museum comes close to this level of youth engagement.’ …

“Singh says his next plan is to fill a vehicle with photographs, films and replicas from the collection to create a traveling museum to tour the state.”

More at the Art Newspaper, here.

I went to Wikipedia to learn more. Of the Children’s Gallery, it says, “Its collection of artifacts and exhibit items is divided into six domains: the Orientation Room, the Wildlife Sanctuary, the history sections on Chandragupta Maurya and Sher Shah Suri, the Arts and Culture section and the Discovery Room. Among the exhibits are a simulated the Asian paradise flycatcher, the Indian giant flying squirrel, animals, birds, trees and plants native to the state of Bihar. The gallery’s focus is family learning; most exhibits are designed to be interactive, allowing children and families to actively participate.’

A history gallery boasts “artifacts from the Harappan Civilization, also known as Indus Valley Civilization, the second urbanization and Haryanka. The whole collection of this gallery represents the advanced technology and sophisticated lifestyle of the Harappan people. The gallery has objects from the fourth century BCE to the first century BCE. It has objects spanning three major dynasties of India: the Mauryas, the Nandas and the Shishunagas. The gallery also houses fragments of railings from various ancient Stupas that are carved on with episodes from Buddha‘s and Mahavira’s life.”

And I’ll just add a bit about the Diaspora Gallery, which “provides the historic context of how Biharis were relocated to countries like Mauritius, Bangladesh and beyond. Some were recruited as laborers in the early days of the East India Company, and others explored foreign lands on their own initiative. Activate an interactive map to learn about the origins of Bihari culture, trade routes and how the population has relocated in foreign lands. Aside of the past movements, also discover recent stories of the people of Bihar, their accomplishments and their involvements, to understand the influence Bihar has had around the world.”

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Photo: Pebbles.
India’s entry for the Oscars,
Pebbles, focuses on the inequalities that life inflicts on women in Tamil Nadu.

This year’s Oscars are scheduled March 27, and although I haven’t stayed up to watch the whole awards ceremony for years, I like reading about the winners later. I especially like getting ideas for foreign films my husband and I might eventually be able to order from our retro Netflix DVD service.

Hannah Ellis-Petersen, South Asia correspondent for the Guardian, describes one film that looks promising. The story of grinding poverty might be too painful for some potential viewers if they didn’t know that the director himself had lived that life and risen to be a filmmaker.

“As a child laborer working in the flower markets of Madurai, there was nothing more exciting for PS Vinothraj than when the film crews would descend. He would put down his sacks of petals and look up in awe at the camera operators who sat atop cranes to get dramatic sweeping shots. It was, to his nine-year-old mind, intoxicating. ‘I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,’ he said. …

“The odds were stacked heavily against him. Vinothraj was born into a poverty-stricken family of daily wage laborers in Tamil Nadu. He left school, aged nine, to support his family after his father died and by 14 was working in the sweatshops of Tiruppur.

“This month, his debut film Pebbles [Koozhangal] a Tamil-language movie made on a shoestring budget and set in the arid landscape where he grew up, was unanimously selected as India’s entry to the Oscars. In February this year, it had won the Tiger award for best film at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam. In a New Yorker review, Vinothraj was described as an ‘extraordinary observational filmmaker’ whose film presents ‘a gendered vision of rage.’

Pebbles is, as Vinothraj describes it, a ‘snapshot of a life.’ It depicts the journey of an abusive, alcoholic father and his son as they walk back home through the barren, overwhelmingly hot landscape of rural Tamil Nadu, after the father has dragged the boy out of school and taken him to a village where he wants to force his estranged wife to return home.

“It was inspired by true events; as Vinothraj says, ‘the story chose me.’ When his sister married a man from a neighboring village, the family were unable to provide a dowry. In a humiliating march, his sister was sent back to the family home by her new husband through the parched landscape. It was this walk of shame, that so many women are still forced to endure, that Vinothraj wanted to capture.

“ ‘But I wanted to make it so it was the husband who had to make the walk, not the woman,’ he said. ‘It was my small way of taking revenge for this humiliation of my sister.’

He also chose to portray the journey through the eye of a child, the son, to inject ‘hope and humanity’ into their journey.

“The film focuses on the small but devastating tragedies and inequalities that life in rural Tamil Nadu inflicts on women. … Women forced to get off buses in blazing heat when their babies, awoken by men aggressively coming to blows, need to be breast fed. Women forced to patiently scoop water from the ground and into jars as the merciless sun beats down.

“Tamil Nadu’s oppressive environment is omnipresent in Pebbles. ‘The landscape is the third main character in the film,’ Vinothraj said. ‘I wanted to explore it in detail, the role it plays in the plight of the people.’ For authenticity, he filmed during the hottest days of the year in May. Temperatures got so high during the 27-day shoot that cameras began to malfunction.

“Vinothraj’s determination to make films never wavered. While working in garment factories at 14, he enrolled into college between 6am and 10am before back-to-back shifts, realizing he would need education to go into cinema.

“Small things would bring glimmers of joy. In Pebbles a girl, whose family are depicted in such abject poverty that they hunt for rats to eat, is pictured momentarily euphoric as she collects helicopter seeds in her dress and then scatters them into the air. ‘This was how I used to feel when I was a child,’ said Vinothraj. ‘The conditions of my life were bad, but I could still find moments to be happy. I did not feel like I was suffering because I did not know anything else.’

“At 19, after his bosses tried to marry him off – a tactic used to keep child laborers working in factories once they grow up – he decided it was time to leave. He had heard that Chennai, the bustling main metropolis of Tamil Nadu, was where films were made and movie people mingled.

“ ‘I had no idea how I would survive; my only thought was that I had to pursue my passion for cinema,’ he said. On arriving in Chennai he slept in the streets until he convinced a DVD shop to hire him.

“ ‘In the DVD shop, I used to watch three films a day,’ he said. “English films, Korean films, Japanese films, Latin American films.’ … The DVD shop also gave Vinothraj access to film directors, who would borrow or buy films, often on his recommendation. After almost three years, he was hired as an assistant on a short film and began to work his way up. …

“The success of the film has left Vinothraj in a state of disbelief. He thought its only audience would be the villagers whose lives inspired the story.” More at the Guardian, here.

Click here to see 10 other foreign films submitted for this year. Several look like my cup of tea, maybe yours, too.

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Photo: Ozy.
Thirty-year-old Abhinav Agrawal is helping India’s rural folk musicians survive and thrive. He uses a backpack studio developed by Latin Grammy winner Gael Hedding to go where the musicians are.

If there’s a moral to today’s story, it might be, “Stay close to your interests, to things you love.” Young Abhinav Agrawal loved India’s rural folk music.

As Tania Bhattacharya reported at Ozy in fall 2020, “In 2016, Abhinav Agrawal set off to Rajasthan to record folk musicians on the go and set them up with CDs, a website, videos and business cards free of cost so they can market themselves.

“His first find was Dapu Khan of the Merasi heritage community in Jaisalmer. But after Agrawal returned home to New Delhi, he couldn’t contact Khan. ‘We suddenly saw an article in the paper that claimed he had died as a result of communal violence,’ says Agrawal. Heartbroken, the musician-entrepreneur headed to Jaisalmer to look for Khan’s son, who began to cry the moment they met.

“As Agrawal consoled him, Khan’s son was surprised to hear his father had died. ‘But he’s in Germany, performing!’ The tears were of joy and gratitude, and Agrawal’s experiment of empowerment had succeeded.

“India’s countless folk communities are in dire need of funding and technical and creative upskilling to revitalize themselves in an increasingly globalized world. Live and festival-centric performances, which is all these musicians have known through generations, barely bring in money, and an online presence has become mandatory for creative mileage. Many music traditions are dying out, with practitioners taking up menial labor to make ends meet. And the pandemic has dealt a fatal blow, with performances off the table for the foreseeable future.

“Cue 28-year-old Agrawal, whose passion for folk music birthed the nonprofit Anahad Foundation in 2012, and the creation of the BackPack Studio that remains one of a kind in India. Developed by Latin Grammy winner Gael Hedding for Anahad, the portable recording studio is a high-quality wireless recorder with 12 mics that can run on battery for three days and shoot 4K videos. It’s designed to meet rural Indian challenges such as lack of electricity and the unwillingness on the part of musicians to leave their hometowns (and daily livelihoods) to travel to studios in cities.

“Anahad, meaning ‘limitless,’ is also aimed at preserving India’s oral folk traditions, and has extensively covered artists from Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Punjab and Rajasthan — helping 6,000 artists in all.

“Born and raised outside New Delhi in the historic city of Bulandshahr, Agrawal is a trained classical vocalist and tabla player, and was heavily influenced by folk songs. Much of the region’s traditional music revolves around nature and seasons, and Agrawal ‘felt closer to nature through music.’ Growing up, his town was very green, but rapid urbanization adversely impacted its scenic beauty.

‘When components of nature like the trees and birds began to disappear, the tradition of singing songs about them also began to die,’ Agrawal adds.

“With architects for parents, Agrawal also studied architecture but combined his love for nature and heritage by exploring the connection between music and urban spaces, because ‘architecture is frozen music.’ He formed an open music society, experimented with folk songs and set off on lengthy train journeys recording traveling artists and burning CDs for them. ‘All I had was a laptop, mic and sound card,’ says Agrawal. ‘But an interesting pattern emerged — these artists began to sell out their CDs.’

“He formed Anahad soon after, but the reality of running a nonprofit in India proved daunting. ‘I realized I needed business knowledge,’ says Agrawal. He headed to Berklee College of Music for an advanced degree, writing a thesis on how to design a music-based nonprofit in India.

“His organization now attacks all elements of a musician’s life, from approaching event promoters to legal tutorials. The idea has always been to empower these musicians toward dignified livelihoods as opposed to giving them handouts, which is unsustainable. Many singers have broken down in tears listening to their playbacks because they couldn’t believe how beautiful they sound. …

“Having raised some $400,000 over the years from the likes of Google as well as author and philanthropist Sudha Murthy, Anahad is now developing its own music distribution system via an app that will allow artists to earn through streaming. …

“ ‘His compassion for artists is beautiful, with no sense of envy despite being a musician himself,’ says partner and Anahad managing director Shuchi Roy. ‘At the same time, he is very tactical in thought.’ Roy, who is a lawyer and has practiced in India’s Supreme Court, handles all copyright and intellectual property issues for the nonprofit.

“Like a musical score, Agrawal’s journey has had its highs and lows — his music society’s first-ever recording that is yet to be released because the lead singer died a week after recording; dealing with depression after returning to India from Berklee in 2016; and making it to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list last year. ‘Whenever I’m frustrated with work, I play my music and instantly feel better,’ he says. ‘Now I carry my guitar everywhere.’ ”

More at Ozy, here. There’s music on Spotify, here.

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Photo: Anamni Gupta/Indian Express.
One aspect of the 2019 Shaheen Bagh protest organized by Muslim women against India’s Citizenship Amendment Act was the emergence of free libraries.

Most Americans don’t keep track of politics in India, but it was hard to miss the news back in 2019 when the Modi government decided to change the rules about who could be counted as a citizen. Muslim women organized a protest that spread across the country from the original site in Shaheen Bagh. One aspect has remained.

As Harshvardhan reported at India’s National Herald in January, “The Shaheen Bagh protest site is gone, but its legacy continues to inspire those who dream of a more egalitarian and democratic India. Led mostly by Muslim women, the Shaheen Bagh protest site inspired one of the most aesthetically-pleasing and thought-provoking experiments with protest art in recent times. Walls and streets of Jamia Millia Islamia and Shaheen Bagh protest site exploded with creativity as students and artists camped there and experimented with ideas. …

“One of the most distinctive contributions of the Shaheen Bagh movement was the introduction of a ‘protest site library.’ The idea of a ‘protest library’ came up during the Occupy Wall Street protest, one of the largest popular demonstrations in the United States. Occupy protesters erected a tent and established a ‘People’s Library’ in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in November 2011. This one of its kind library held over 5000 volumes of books along with magazines and newspapers, and was finally razed down by the police.

“Since then, the concept of a ‘People’s Library’ captured the imagination of protesters all across the world. It travelled to Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013 when people resisted the commercialisation of public spaces. Make-shift libraries cropped up in different parts of Spain during the anti-austerity 15-M movement (2011-15) and then it travelled to Hong Kong during the pro-democracy movement there.

“At Shaheen Bagh, a group of students decided to convert a bus stand into a makeshift library in the heydays of the anti-CAA protests [CAA stands for the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019]. The ‘Fatima Sheikh Savitribai Phule Library’ captured the imagination of people and soon the make-shift library started to attract a lot of donors and also inspired similar libraries at different anti-CAA protest sites.

“The year 2020, an otherwise gloomy year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic … ended on a high note with the farmers’ uprising against the three farm bills, passed by the BJP-controlled Parliament in haste. … By blocking the entry points of nation’s capital, farmers are actually attempting to block the privatization and corporatization of Indian economy. Along with that, the protests are also a powerful assertion of the right to dissent. …

“It is but natural that such a huge protest in terms of both mobilization and concerns will also develop into a rich site for cultural production enriching the protest repertoire of the country. In one of the most innovative moves, protesting farmers launched their own bi-weekly newspaper. … They also set up libraries at the protest sites. [It] clearly carried on the legacy of the Shaheen Bagh protests. Now, we can be sure that protest site libraries are going to feature every time there is a sustained peoples’ movement.

“The first library came up at Tikri Border, Pillar no 783. On December 22 [2020], a group of students began the ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh Library’ with a single book stand with almost 200 books standing against a yellow tent. Farmers at Tikri border welcomed the idea and people could be seen browsing through the limited books available there. Soon the idea picked up and similar libraries came up at Singhu border as well as Ghazipur border while attempts were being made to establish one at Shahjahanpur border. …

“From the anti-CAA movement to the anti-farm law movement, the protesters have been accused of being ‘uneducated’ and … of ‘not having ‘read the law’ or ‘not knowing what they are protesting against or for.’ …

“The protest-site libraries stand as proof that these people are not ‘uneducated folks’ [but] are mature enough to develop a concrete socio-economic-political understanding and act upon it.”

More at the National Herald, here. Search Suzanne’s Mom’s blog on the word “library” for examples of other unusual libraries around the world.

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Illustration: Shivani Javeri.
Many artists in India donated their work to fundraisers such as the Fearless Immunity art sale to help others during the height of the pandemic.

You can trust artists to come through when there’s a need for empathy. They are often sensitive enough — perhaps wounded enough — to feel someone else’s pain and want to do something about it.

For example, as Rohini Kejriwal reports at Hyperallergic, India’s creative community became a beacon of hope during Covid-19, using their talents to raise money for vulnerable populations.

“In April and May, amidst a devastating second wave of COVID-19, India faced an overwhelming shortage of hospital beds and vaccines, choked crematoriums, and a rising death count. …

“From their homes, artists took to social media and used visuals, words, and even cake to raise funds for frontline workers and organizations helping affected communities get basic supplies like oximeters, thermometers, basic medicines, and masks. From every part of the country, illustrators, photographers, poets, and bakers came together to do their bit. 

“Hundreds of illustrators across the country have sold their prints, calendars, and other merchandise in exchange for donations to individuals and organizations most affected by coronavirus. … Keeping transparency in mind, the artists and their supporters shared donation receipts publicly, and Instagram was suddenly flooded with posts by good Samaritans doing whatever they could. 

“Several artists also took on commissions, like Shivani Javeri and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya, who made digital portraits for COVID-19 relief, and Divya, who did pet portraits on commission. Ria Mohta of Artisan’s Arbor created Feel Good postcards, through which people could buy postcards and write a customized message for loved ones. Creative Dignity, a volunteer-run movement, has been working to help traditional artisans and craftspeople from India who face the double threat of a health crisis and livelihood uncertainty. 

“Several print sales have been hosted by the photography community as well, like Art for India, Ode to India, and Prints for Hope by Eight Thirty; Chennai Photo Biennale’s PhotoSolidarity, as well as the Print for Srishti sale, with 45 participating photographers, initiated by photojournalist Smita Sharma.

“A series of art sales, in which multiple artists pooled and sold their work to raise funds as a collective, also arose. Author-illustrator Devangana Dāsh brought together 26 talented women artists to sell digital artworks; Kulture Shop ran two Art Fights Covid campaigns with 50 artists selling their art for oxygen relief; the Fearless Collective created an art sale Fearless Immunity; and LOCOPOPO and a group of artists and illustrators sold their original works and art prints.

A Friendly Fundraiser was started by a group of friends who decided to donate their time in exchange for donations, offering a variety of services and experiences from home coffee brewing, writing better college essays, personalized digital portraits, and even guidance on raising a puppy in lockdown. More recently, community fundraisers with various workshops and panels have grown in popularity, like student-run initiative Moonflower COVID Relief and Sensory Expansion by Unlocked

“India’s poetry and music communities have also had a part to play. In May, a group of writers hosted an evening of poetry, In the Dark Times, There Will Be Singing. Poet Nakuul Mehta is currently running #PoemsForHumanity, where he writes and performs an original poem for those who donate. 

“Even the independent music community has been doing their bit. Producer Arjun Vagale mobilized his friends in the Indian electronic music community, and together, they created a charity compilation album titled SOS. Producers Sanaya Ardeshir and Krishna Javeri collaborated with the coffee estate Kerehaklu to create Kerelief, natural soundscapes intended to bring calm. Sanaya, along with 11 other producers, also helped create CRSP (Covid Relief Sample Pack),  a bespoke sample pack of sounds produced from across the globe.

“Offering workshops as a way to share practical knowledge also became a way to incentivize donations. Shub (also known as the Hungry Palette) hosted a visual journaling workshop, and natural color maker Manya Cherabuddi started a fundraiser called Find Your Calm and donated all the proceeds from her classes on natural dyes and pigments. In June, NPI Collective hosted a 3-day workshop on children’s books as maps to help navigate the pandemic.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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The Journey Junkies blog doesn’t seem to have a Reblog button, but I have their permission to share this post about an unusual garden in India.

They write: “The Nek Chand Rock Gardens had been on our radar for a long time before we finally made it there. Located in the city of Chandigarh, at the foot of the Himalayas, the gardens are one of India’s hidden gems. In fact, they largely undiscovered by foreign tourists. Indeed, on our visit, we were the only foreigners enjoying the gardens. Interestingly, although they are largely overlooked by visitors from overseas, the gardens are the second most visited tourist attraction in the country after the Taj Mahal. Around 5000 visitors a day enter the gates of the gardens to experience Nek Chand’s captivating wonderland.

“Although the gardens themselves are incredible, the story of the Nek Chand Rock Gardens is even more so. Nek Chand was born in 1924 in Pakistan and moved to India during partition in 1947. Two years later he joined the Highway Department in Chandigarh as part of the Refugee Employment Programme. In 1951, he secured a position as a road inspector at Chandigarh Public Works Department. His job was to supervise the construction of a re-vitalisation of the road system in the city. …

“It was Nek Chand’s job to supervise the re-vitalisation of the road system in the 1950’s. However, Nek Chand was a man with a vision. It was during this period, that he started to collect unwanted materials that had been discarded throughout the area. These were items that had been abandoned when the city was being re-built, as well as objects that had been thrown away by residents. He searched for rocks, broken crockery, coloured glass, along with tiles and whatever else he could find. With these materials, he secretly built a sculpture garden hidden on government land. It started small, just a patch of land, with stones bordering the area, together with a few sculptures. However, before long, the garden had expanded significantly and various courtyards were added.”

More here.

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Saving the Stork

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Photo: Gerrit Vyn at Living Bird.
A conservation army of women has worked hard to revive the population of an odd endangered stork, the Greater Adjutant. The work is tied to Aaranyak, a nonprofit focused on biodiversity in northeast India.

As I was trying to decide if you’d be interested in another initiative that might be on hold because of Covid-19, I read the article more carefully and saw something that confirmed it is merely experiencing a pause. “When the entire nation of India was placed into lockdown in spring 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, public festivals were canceled, but the hargila army still celebrated the storks by making Greater Adjutant face masks.” 

Hargila? Greater Adjutant? The story of an inspiring Indian conservationist comes from Arundhati Nath at All About Birds.

“Dr. Purnima Devi Barman carefully balances her feet as she clambers down from an 80-foot-tall bamboo platform. She’s been scanning the treetops above the village of Dadara in northeastern India, looking for the giant stick nests of Greater Adjutants — huge storks named for their stiff-legged, almost military gait.

“These tall, majestic birds were once widely distributed in wetlands across India and Southeast Asia. … The Greater Adjutant is now confined to the northeastern state of Assam, their last stronghold. Elsewhere, small populations persist in Cambodia’s northern plains. The species is endan­gered, one of the rarest storks in the world. …

“In study­ing this species, Barman has noticed a change in the storks’ behavior. Greater Adjutants are now increasingly leaving the rural wetlands where they have historically nested and becoming village dwellers.

“Through her tireless work with Aaranyak, Barman has empowered an army of local women to make another big change happen. Once scorned, the storks are now wel­comed and celebrated in the villages — and people who once destroyed Greater Adjutant nests now care for the birds like their own children. …

“Greater Adjutants can be smelly neighbors. They bring rotting flesh to their nests to feed hatchling storks, and they rain smelly droppings down on villagers’ gardens. People in the Assamese villages of Dadara and Pacharia, where the storks are most common, tended to see the huge birds as a bad omen, a plague. They were even willing to chop down magnificent old trees in their backyards to get rid of stork nests.

“One day in 2007, Barman watched in horror as nine baby storks fell to the ground when a villager chopped down a nest tree. When she tried to stop the vil­lager, she was taken aback by his anger. …

“As other villagers gathered around her at the fallen nest tree, she asked for their help in taking the baby storks to a rescue center at a nearby zoo. … They laughed at Barman, ridiculing her and asking if she wanted to eat the baby birds on her way home. It was an inci­dent that could have discouraged her from enlisting locals in an effort to save the storks. But instead, Barman marks it as a turning point that led to a lot of good and necessary change.

‘I realized that it wasn’t the people’s fault,’ she says now. ‘They were com­pletely unaware about the ecological significance of the endangered stork.’ …

“She made a huge personal sacrifice, stepping away from her PhD studies to dedicate herself to shifting people’s attitudes. Barman started by reaching out to several women in the villages, speaking to them about the importance of these birds and their dwindling population.

“She chose women as a first point of contact for her conservation outreach effort, because she felt the women in these villages don’t often get a chance to weigh in on social issues. And within their families, women can serve as the gatekeepers.

“A big part of Barman’s conservation challenge was access to nests, with Greater Adjutants nesting atop trees on private land, in people’s yards. By striking up friendships with the local women, who were mostly homemakers, Barman figured she could gain permis­sion to enter their premises and work to save the storks. She organized activities such as cooking competitions to attract women to her meetings.

“The meetings were a hit, and they gained a big following. Today Barman has organized a group of more than 400 local volunteers in what she calls the ‘hargila army.’ (In Assamese, Greater Adjutants are called ‘hargila,’ which literally translates as ‘bone swallower’ because the storks sometimes swallow whole bones.)” More at All About Birds, here.

adds a bit more on Barnum at the Better India. “Fondly referred to as the ‘Hargila Baideu’ (Stork Sister) by the local community for the work she has been doing for the birds, Purnima has dedicated her life to protect the Greater Adjutant. …

” ‘My grandmother instilled my love and passion for nature. But it was during my Master’s studying ecology and wildlife biology, when my professors spoke of the endangered Greater Adjutant Stork, which were then nowhere to be seen in my grandmother’s paddy fields. I volunteered at Aaranyak, a Guwahati-based non-profit wildlife conservation organisation, but saw that people’s interest was restricted to glamourous species like the rhino or tigers. So, why shouldn’t I work towards protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork,’ says Purnim.” More here.

By the way, this week I’m drinking a vey nice loose-leaf tea from Assam, home of the Greater Adjutant. Upton Teas has a huge selection, and they ship fast.

Map: Jillian Ditner. Greater Adjutant image: Amol Marathe/Macaulay Library.

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Still image from video: BBC Hindi
This is Jyoti Kumari, a 15-year-old who cycled more than 700 miles from New Delhi to her village, transporting her injured father, a migrant laborer, on her bike.

Some kids take on a lot of responsibility really fast. That was the case of a girl from a poor family in India who told her mother she would bring her injured father home even if she had to bike halfway across India. There are many such children who never get a media spotlight, but for those that do, good things may follow.

As Jeffrey Gettleman and Suhasini Raj reported at the New York Times, “She was a 15-year-old with a simple mission: bring papa home. Jyoti Kumari and her dad had nearly no money, no transport, and their village was halfway across India. And her dad, an out-of-work migrant laborer, was injured and could barely walk.

“So Jyoti told her dad: Let me take you home. He thought the idea was crazy but went along with it. She then jumped on a $20 purple bike bought with the last of their savings. With her dad perched on the rear, she pedaled from the outskirts of New Delhi to their home village, 700 miles away.

‘Don’t worry, mummy,’ she reassured her mother along the way, using borrowed cellphones. ‘I will get Papa home good.’

“During the past two months under India’s coronavirus lockdown, millions of migrant laborers and their families have poured out of India’s cities, desperate and penniless, as they try to get back to their native villages where they can rely on family networks to survive. Many haven’t made it. …

“But amid all this pain and sadness now emerges a tale of devotion and straight-up grit. The Indian press has seized upon this feel-good story. … And a few days ago, the story got even better.

“While resting up in her village, Jyoti received a call from the Cycling Federation of India. Convinced she had the right stuff, Onkar Singh, the federation’s chairman, invited her to New Delhi for a tryout with the national team. …

“Reached by phone on Friday in her village of Sirhulli, in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, Jyoti said in a scratchy voice barely above a whisper, because she still sounded exhausted: ‘I’m elated, I really want to go.’ …

“Her father, Mohan Paswan, a rickshaw driver from a lower rung of India’s caste system, was injured in a traffic accident in January and was running out of money even before the lockdown. … Jyoti came out from their village in Bihar to care for Mr. Paswan. She had dropped out of school a year ago because the family didn’t have enough money. Things got even worse after the lockdown, with their landlord threatening to kick them out and then cutting off their electricity.

“When Jyoti came up with the escape plan, her father shook his head.

“ ‘I said, “Look, daughter, it’s not four or five kilometers that you will drag me from here. It’s 12-, 13-hundred kilometers. How will we go?’’ ‘ he said in a video broadcast by the BBC’s Hindi service.

“The two bought a simple girl’s bike for the equivalent of about $20. On May 8, they set off, Jyoti at the handlebars, dad sitting pillion on back. Jyoti was pretty confident on a bike, having ridden a lot in her village.

“Many days they had little food. They slept at gas stations. They lived off the generosity of strangers. Jyoti said that except for one short lift on a truck, she pedaled nearly 100 miles a day. It wasn’t easy. Her father is big, and he was carrying a bag. …

“After they arrived in their village last weekend, her father went into a quarantine center. … Jyoti’s mother convinced village elders to let her quarantine at home. .. Then, a few days later, on Thursday morning, she got The Call.”

Read more at the New York Timeshere.

 

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karnad-indiapollutioncoronavirus

Photo: Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty
A nationwide lockdown has had positive effects on India’s air quality. Says the
New Yorker magazine, “The sky is clearer, rivers are less contaminated, and people have awakened to possible change.”

Will less air travel, commuting, and industrial smoke mean long-term improvement in global warming and pollution? One expert I heard on the radio said no because there has also been a slowdown in work on alternate energy.

But I do think if people see a difference in their skies, they may be more motivated to keep carbon reduction going. When they can see that clear skies are not a hopeless dream, it makes an impression.

In the New Yorker, Raghu Karnad has written about what people in India are seeing.

“On the morning of April 3rd, residents of Jalandhar, an industrial town in the Indian state of Punjab, woke to a startling sight: a panorama of snowcapped mountains across the eastern sky. The peaks and slopes of the Dhauladhars—a range in the lesser Himalayas—were not new, but the visibility was. … On March 24th, as a national lockdown was imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, nearly all of Jalandhar’s road traffic came to a halt, along with its manufacture of auto parts, hand tools, and sports equipment.

“Ten days later, suspended particulates had dispersed from the air, and the Himalayas were unveiled. Residents gathered on their rooftops, posting photos of far, icy elevations towering behind water tanks and clotheslines.

‘Never seen Dhauladhar range from my home rooftop in Jalandhar,’ the international cricketer Harbhajan Singh, who was born there forty years ago, tweeted. ‘Never could imagine that’s possible.’

“The view from my own rooftop, fifteen hundred miles to the south, in Bangalore, has not revealed any equivalent surprises. Instead, there is the birdsong. … I could never have imagined it possible, in an Indian city, to wake up not to the sounds of traffic but to the sovereignty of bulbuls and mynahs over the morning air. …

“The silence on the street may be therapeutic, but it can also feel grim, suspenseful. It suggests the held breath of a country bracing for disaster — not only for the brunt of a pandemic but for empty savings accounts, purses, and pantries. Millions of Indians eat only if they are paid wages each day, which means that when the lockdown was announced, a second epidemic, of hunger, began to unfold. …

“Of the thirty cities with the worst air pollution in the world, twenty-one are in northern India. … The World Health Organization has linked exposure to PM2.5—particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or less—to a hundred thousand deaths in India each year, and that’s just among children below the age of five.

“The coronavirus will only compound these morbidities. Studies of viral pandemics such as the 1918 flu, or the 2003 SARS outbreak, found that residents of areas with more polluted air were far more likely to die. … The worst of the smog is seasonal, drifting over the city when the farmers of the Indo-Gangetic plain burn crop stubble after the harvest, in October. …

“The lockdown, whatever its effect on the virus, has given Indian cities the kiss of life. In a week, Delhi’s PM2.5 count dropped by seventy-one per cent. The sky is bluer now, the Yamuna River less black, and my friends say that the stars are out at night. ..

“The lockdown is also improving our understanding of the complex phenomena that contribute to pollution. ‘From a research viewpoint, this is a fantastic experiment,’ Sarath Guttikunda, a founder and director of UrbanEmissions.info, told me over the phone. …

‘What we’re seeing now is unprecedented: drops in commercial activity, industrial activity, and transport, all at the same time — not just in a city but, significantly, across a region,’ he said. The past few weeks have allowed his team to assess, for example, how responsible a given city is for its air quality. …

” ‘Now we don’t have to blindly say, ‘Look, you are responsible for seventy per cent of your pollution. Please do something about it,” Guttikunda said. ‘We have that proof.’ …

“To truly revitalize our air, we need to change how we cook, build, farm, travel, consume, and produce—bearing in mind, through it all, how we breathe.

“Such comprehensive action can seem impossible. Guttikunda’s hopeful analogy is to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, a turning point for Beijing. …

” ‘For two months, people got to see the change possible in the city. … As soon as the Games were over, the restrictions were lifted and the PM2.5 levels shot back up,’ Guttikunda said. ‘But now there was a public outcry saying, “Look, we could have those blue skies for longer. We don’t mind the restrictions.” ‘ ”

More here.

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27tb-leopardadoption1-jumbo

Photo: Dheeraj Mittal
A lionness with her adopted leopard and her biological son in Gir National Park in Gujarat, India. Although the leopard cub didn’t survive, his story lives on.

Here’s a cute story about interspecies adoption in India.

Writing at the New York Times, Cara Giaimo observes that although it’s rare, one lioness thought her leopard cub fit right in.

“The lions and leopards of Gir National Park, in Gujarat, India, normally do not get along.

“ ‘They compete with each other’ for space and food, said Stotra Chakrabarti, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota who studies animal behavior. ‘They are at perpetual odds.’

“But about a year ago, a young lioness in the park put this enmity aside. She adopted a baby leopard.

“The 2-month-old cub — all fuzzy ears and blue eyes — was adorable, and the lioness spent weeks nursing, feeding and caring for him until he died. She treated him as if one of her own two sons, who were about the same age. This was a rare case of cross-species adoption in the wild, and the only documented example involving animals that are normally strong competitors, Dr. Chakrabarti said. He and others detailed the case [in February] in the ecology journal Ecosphere.

“The paper’s authors, who also included a conservation officer and a park ranger, first spotted the motley crew in late December 2018, hanging out near a freshly killed nilgai antelope.

“Initially, they thought the association would be brief; a lioness in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area had once been observed nursing a leopard cub, but only for a day before the two separated.

“[But] for a month and a half, the team watched the mother lion, her two cubs and the leopard roam Gir National Park. ‘The lioness took care of him like one of her own,’ nursing him and sharing meat that she hunted, Dr. Chakrabarti said.

“His new siblings, too, were welcoming, playing with their spotty new pal and occasionally following him up trees. In one photo, the leopard pounces on the head of one of his adoptive brothers, who is almost twice his size and clearly a good sport. …

“Unlike their counterparts in Africa, Asiatic lions live in small, sex-segregated groups. After they give birth, lionesses often separate from the rest of the pride for a few months to raise their offspring on their own. If the makeshift family had interacted more with other adult lions, the leopard may have been identified as an impostor, Dr. Chakrabarti said.

“But they were never tested in this way. After about 45 days, the research team found the leopard cub’s body near a watering hole. A field necropsy revealed that he had most likely died because of a femoral hernia he had since birth. …

“In 2004, a group of capuchin monkeys took in an infant marmoset. And in 2014, a family of bottlenose dolphins fostered a baby melon-headed whale, who learned to surf and jump like his new peers.

“In all three cases, a lactating mother brought the new baby into the fold, said Patrícia Izar, an associate professor at the University of São Paulo in Brazil and a member of the team that studied the capuchin-marmoset adoption. It’s possible that the hormonal changes associated with motherhood ‘might facilitate bonding with an extraneous infant,’ said Dr. Izar, who was not involved in the new research.

“As puzzling as this adoption was, it also underscores the similarities between cubs of different feline species, Dr. Chakrabarti said. Until they reach young adulthood, when social differences emerge, lions and leopards play, meow and beg for milk in similar ways.

“For this mother lioness, these commonalities may have overridden the cub’s more leopardlike features — his smell, size and speckled appearance.

“ ‘He just blended in,’ Dr. Chakrabarti said.” More here.

Babies are babies. Who doesn’t want to protect them, even those that aren’t our own?

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2019-5-act-ph1-wb

Photo: Jen Siska
Shreya Ramachandran holds workshops on how to install graywater systems.

I know we shouldn’t be leaving up to kids the solutions to our intractable problems, but sometimes it seems that they’re the only ones showing leadership. At least, they’re the ones who focus their leadership on a single issue. Thanks to their focus, energy, and not knowing what’s impossible, they them seem more likely to succeed than political leaders who must address a million issues at once. I think of David Hogg on the issue of gun violence and Greta Thunberg on climate change.

Here is a Sierra Club story on Shreya Ramachandran, who started very young with big, practical ideas on water conservation.

Wendy Becktold writes at Sierra, the Sierra Club magazine, “When Shreya Ramachandran was in sixth grade, she became obsessed with water scarcity. It was an unusual preoccupation for an 11-year-old, but when visiting California’s Central Valley for an archery competition, she had learned about the historic drought then underway that was devastating the area’s farmers. Not long afterward, she visited her grandparents in India and encountered taxi drivers who’d been forced to abandon their farms when the annual monsoon had failed to arrive.

“Ramachandran began researching water conservation online. She grew fascinated with graywater systems–plumbing designed to reuse household water by redirecting water from washing machines into lawns and yards, for example. ‘It’s water conservation on a whole different level,’ she says.

“But Ramachandran also learned that toxic chemicals in some laundry detergents can render water unsuitable for reuse. She started to experiment with soap nuts – the berry shells of Sapindus mukorossi (a tree in the lychee family), which release a natural cleaning agent and are traditionally used for shampoo in India – and determined that they were safe to use in graywater systems. She presented her findings at various science fairs, and people were intrigued.

“By the time she was in eighth grade, Ramachandran had built her own graywater system; her parents let her drill a hole in the side of their house to install the PVC piping that channels water to the plants and trees in their yard. Shortly after, she started the Grey Water Project (thegreywaterproject.org) to teach others how to install their own systems.” More at Sierra, here.

And in case you want to learn more about soap nuts, the Australia-based environmental group 1 Million Women has a post about them, here.

“They’re really simple to use, you just pop them in a small fabric bag, chuck them in with your load of washing, the berries contain saponin which is a surfactant that can be used like soap. …

“[But] here is one little point that planet friendly women have pointed out and that is that they only work in hot water.

“Most of us self-proclaimed eco-warriors have never washed a load of clothing in hot water in our life, or for at least a very long time. The amount of energy that is takes to heat up a load of washing seems pretty wasteful and pointless, but for without hot water soap nuts don’t turn soapy.

“Some have figured out that by adding the soap nuts to a cup of boiling water and then pouring the water into the wash eliminated the need to waste … However a few have expressed that this step was inconsistent and made switching to soap nuts from their current homemade, planet-friendly laundry detergent not worthwhile.

“While the warm water and make-your-soap-nuts-into-tea step may be a deterrent for some, others have made another valid point, soap nuts are better for your skin. They’re all natural and non-toxic, which makes them especially good for sensitive skin and those prone to allergies. Also, due to the very gentle, mild detergent they produce they’re safe for your delicates. (Excluding dry-clean only items.) Read next: 9 Ways to lower the carbon impact of laundry day.

No perfect answers, I guess.

 

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