Saturday, March 27, 2010

Morning Sun

Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

Soft morning sun, echoing
     the iron drums of bastar musicians
          on raku colors of fire.

I woke up this morning to mellow March sunlight streaming in through the window, creating intriguing patterns of light and shadow on my favorite raku fired pottery. The three rustic musicians heralded my weekend morning. These stylized, slender and elongated brass figures are distinctive of the dhokra craft tradition of metal casting in the Bastar district of the southern part of Chhattisgarh in India. I acquired the raku pottery at the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair several years ago. Creations of two artists, so separated in time and space, now bathed together in the glow of early morning sun.

A few other dhokra pieces from my collection:
Elephant. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

Owl. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

Rickshaw Puller. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tea/Chai, Part II: Ann Arbor

Tea and Chai have certainly journeyed well out of India and taken root in distant lands such as Ann Arbor, Michigan. But now we have globalization to blame for such redundancies as Chai Tea Latte - staple beverages at Starbucks, Espresso Royale or Borders, to say nothing of packaged products from say Oregon Chai, Chai concentrates and flavored Chai tea bags with spices mixed in. 

In Hindi Chai means tea, so to say Chai Tea is redundant. We wouldn't want to say Tea Tea, would we? To add Latte to the mix is introducing another country and idea, leading to a confusion in terminology as well as concept and taste. But some of this mingling of influences is inevitable and in my opinion it is best to just observe and smile. After all, don't Indians in India savor the morphed taste of distinctly Indian/curried Chinese food? How about McAloo Tikki Burgers? Or Keema Do Pyaaza and Paneer Tikka topped Domino's pizza? So can we really complain about the worldwide proliferation of Chai Tea? 

As we (happily) live with some of this confusion in taste and nomenclature, I want to mention TeaHaus, a wonderful haven for tea connoisseurs, right by the historic Kerrytown in Ann Arbor.  

Tea Haus, 204 North 4th Avenue, Ann Arbor. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

On a cool, rainy morning a couple of weeks ago, I sat down with Lisa McDonald, the owner of TeaHaus for a cup of tea and conversation. Lisa opened her place in December 2007, when her second son was only 5 days old. Originally from Colorado, she met her husband, an Ann Arbor native, in Germany. Germany, the world's largest tea purchasing country (especially Darjeeling), is also where Lisa got introduced to the wonderful world of real tea. (As an interesting aside, Germany has the world's largest Ayurvedic centers.) When one of the shops there offered a tea sommelier course, Lisa signed up, thinking of it as a fun hobby. But back in Ann Arbor some years later, she missed good tea and bread. But being sure that she didn't want to wake up at 3am every morning to bake, her other option was to open a tea shop of her own. Nine months of planning and TeaHaus was ready to open. 
Lisa McDonald in conversation. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

TeaHaus carries around 200 classic black and green, Oolong, white, herbal, Ayurvedic, fruit, aroma, Rooibus and seasonal teas. "I feel that although it is in its infancy now, in about ten years time, the US will become competitive in the world tea market," says Lisa. She gets all her tea supplies from Germany where they are rigorously tested before sales. 
The impressive stock of loose leaf tea at TeaHaus. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

I talked to Lisa specifically about tea from India. Almost a third of all the tea she carries is from India, while the rest are Japanese and Chinese teas. The wonderful range of her Indian tea includes Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, Sikkim and Nilgiris, as well as Ayurvedic, blends and flavored teas. All of this tea is purchased directly in the tea gardens and not in commodities markets in larger Indian cities such as Kolkata. She mentioned that some of these tea plants are very, very old...I imagined them as age-ripened old men and women, mellow and rich with experience, with many stories to tell, surviving the ravages of time but continuing to thrive.

India is known for its fully oxidized black tea. But tea growers in India are cognizant of the world trends toward green and white teas. As a result, there is now a green Darjeeling, a Nilgiri Jasmine (dark green) and a South Indian white tea. Although deeply rooted in traditional tea culture, India is now more innovative and marketing savvy, making itself competitive in the world tea market.

I asked Lisa about her customer base. Characterizing her customers in general, Lisa says, "Most of my customers are foodies, wine drinkers and connoisseurs of specialty items in general." However, her typical customer comes in with only enough information to ask for either black or green tea. At that point, Lisa or Andrew who works at TeaHaus full time, makes suggestions. The number one bestseller is Earl Grey, followed by Indian Chai which can be in two forms - one with the masala or spices already blended in with the tea and the other where the masala is added separately. More Indians come to her shop now and they are a little more discerning than the average customer. I found it very interesting that she has noticed that for some Indians, walking into her shop and discovering this world of tea from India is a moment of regaining pride in the old country. As I had mentioned in my last post, many Indians are not very aware of the finer distinctions between the different varieties of tea, so it takes a tea shop in Ann Arbor to open this world for some! All power to globalization!

Andrew at TeaHaus. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010 

I was gratified to learn that TeaHaus is doing very well business wise, which means that it will be around for those of us that crave access to good tea locally. And with a wide variety of tea accessories that the shop carries and periodic tea-tasting events, it is quite a full experience.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Tea/Chai, Part I: India

Not unlike many in India and all over the world, my day cannot begin without a bit of Darjeeling. The highlight of my morning is brewing my cup of tea from leaves grown on the tea estates on the lush green hills of Darjeeling in the northern part of Bengal. The steaming golden liquor with its distinctive delicate flavor beckons every morning and then draws me into its invigorating and comforting warmth. It is my daily ritual, yet every morning I wait to discover what the flavor will be because it is always a little different, unique each time. I also love to cycle through the choices I have, based on the season when the leaves were plucked. What will it be today? The light and clear liquor with the mild flavor of the First Flush? The amber cup with the fruity muscatel flavor of the Second Flush? Perhaps the stronger flavor of the Monsoon Flush? Or the coppery tinge and delicate flavor of Autumn Flush?
Darjeeling Second Flush leaves for this morning's cup. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

A part of my collection of teapots. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

The history of tea cultivation in India dates back to 1823 when Robert Bruce discovered tea plants growing wild in Upper Brahmaputra valley in the state of Assam in northeastern India. My father-in-law, who lived in that region for almost two decades, recently commented that the first tea garden in India, called "chabua" (or cha/tea planted) was started in 1831 and is about 25 miles east of Dibrugarh on the main trunk road to Tinsukia, and that it should be producing tea even now. In May 1838 the first Indian tea from Assam was sent to England for public sale. India produces several different varieties of mainly black tea. Darjeeling is a beautiful town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. With its cool and moist climate, rainfall patterns and terrain, it is a premier tea growing region of the world. The fine and delicately flavored tea from its famed gardens is exquisite and distinguished, enjoying a place of pride similar to champagne among wines. The Assam region, the land of the great river Brahmaputra, tigers and the one-horned rhino, is home to rich, full-bodied, bright and strong teas. The Nilgiris or the Blue Mountains of southern India produces some wonderfully fragrant teas, with great body and brisk liquor. 
 Temi tea from Sikkim, similar to Darjeeling First Flush. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

While it would not be accurate to say that all tea drinkers in India are connoisseurs, or even know the differences between a Darjeeling or an Assam tea, it is no less than a lifeline for millions. Tea or chai is an ubiquitous drink for Indians, available on street corners, on trains, roadside eating joints and in people's homes. What people commonly drink in all these places when they are outside the home or traveling is a concoction made out of some kind of tea leaves, granules or powder, and boiled in water with milk and sugar. Thick and syrupy, it may occasionally have an added flavor of freshly grated ginger or spices such as cardamom, although the relatively high price of spices often precludes its use on street corners or in roadside eateries called dhabas.
On a cool February morning, the chai-wallah at the street corner of my parents' home in Kolkata makes tea for her customers. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2008

Train travel in India and tea have an intimate connection. Tea sellers or chai-wallahs abound the railway platforms and the trains, including moving ones. They carry their wares in a metal pail - a large tea kettle with steaming hot chai and a stack of tea cups, either made of clay or more commonly, plastic in this day and age. They are not shy about getting business, enticing travelers to drink their tea with their characteristic "chai garam!" call which means "hot tea!" They can often be seen running alongside a moving train and thrusting the little cups of tea in the hands of the train passengers through the windows. They still manage to get the paid somehow, even if it means collecting the coins the passenger would fling on the floor of the platform in return for a hot cup of tea...almost an unwritten code of honor between the tea seller and the customer.
A tea cup on the window of a train moving through rural West Bengal. 
Still capture from my friend Sandeep Ray's wonderful film "The Earnest Years"

In 2007, my friend Charlee Brodsky, a distinguished photographer and a professor of Photography at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, made a trip to India with me. One of the things she was particularly struck by was the little clay teacups used by street vendors to serve tea in. These eco-friendly cups are beautiful to look at and add a special earthy flavor to the tea. Charlee was quite taken by them and was determined to bring some back home with her. She asked a tea vendor to sell her some of these cups (without the tea) and he was quite heartily amused at this unusual request! Later that day, she happened to find a naturally beautiful composition of three clay teacups on the ground, among leaves, twigs and stones, now filled with rainwater. Here is her photograph of it and it is one of my favorites.
Photo: Charlee Brodsky, 2007

I can just smell the tea these little cups once held, the damp earth after the rains and the lovely fragrance of the wet clay cups!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fossil Snake from India Fed on Hatchling Dinosaurs

An exciting discovery, just announced at the University of Michigan! This story is about a snake that was found in 67 million old rocks in Gujarat. It was preserved in a dinosaur nest with hatchlings, and it is thought to have fed on baby dinosaurs. Jeffrey A. Wilson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences and Assistant Curator, Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan headed this project.

Press Release from the University of Michigan:
ANN ARBOR, Mich.---The remains of an extraordinary fossil unearthed in 67 million-year old sediments from Gujarat, western India provide a rare glimpse at an unusual feeding behavior in ancient snakes. An international paleontological team led by the University of Michigan’s Jeff Wilson and the Geological Survey of India’s Dhananjay Mohabey will publish their discovery online March 2 in the open-access journal PLoS Biology.
The remains of a nearly complete snake were found preserved in the nest of a sauropod dinosaur, adults of which are the largest animals known to have walked the earth. The snake was coiled around a recently-hatched egg adjacent to a hatchling sauropod. 

Snake Dinosaur Fossil: Life-sized reconstruction of the moment just before preservation. 
Sculpture by Tyler Keilor. Photo: Ximena Erickson
Remains of other snake individuals associated with egg clutches at the same site indicate that the newly described snake made its living feeding on young dinosaurs. "It was such a thrill to discover such a portentous moment frozen in time," said Mohabey, who made the initial discovery in the early 1980s.

Working with the sediment-covered and inscrutable specimen in 1987, Mohabey recognized dinosaur eggshell and limb bones but was unable to fully interpret the specimen. In 2001, Wilson visited Mohabey at his office at the Geological Survey of India and was astonished when he examined the specimen. "I saw the characteristic vertebral locking mechanism of snakes alongside dinosaur eggshell and larger bones, and I knew it was an extraordinary specimen---but I also knew we needed to develop it further," Wilson said.
 Jeff Wilson records the location of exposed snake fossils just in front of his knee
Photo: Monica Wilson
 From that point began a decade-long odyssey that led to a formal agreement with the Government of India Ministry of Mines in 2004 that allowed preparation and study of the fossil at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, weeks of museum study in India, and field reconnaissance at the original locality in Gujarat by a team that included Wilson, Mohabey, snake expert Jason Head of the University of Toronto, Mississaugua, and geologist Shanan Peters of the University of Wisconsin. The field research was funded by the National Geographic Society.
Geological Research: Jeff Wilson and Dhananjay Mohabey take a break on a charpai and discuss their interpretations of the sauropod nesting ground. Photo: Monica Wilson
Preparation of the fossil at the University of Michigan revealed the snake was coiled around a crushed dinosaur egg. next to a freshly hatched sauropod dinosaur. "We think that the hatchling had just exited its egg, and that activity attracted the snake," explained Mohabey. "The eggs were lain in the loose sands near a small drainage and covered by a thin layer of sediment." The arrangement of the bones and delicate structures, such as eggshells and the snake's skull, point to quick entombment. 
 Sauropod Eggs: Field Assistant Rathore carries two Sauropod eggs. Photo: Monica Wilson

"Sedimentation was unusually rapid and deep for this formation---a pulse of sand, probably mobilized during a storm, resulted in the preservation of this spectacular association," said Peters, who interpreted the paleoenvironment of the site.  
 Geological Research: Geologist Shanan Peters and Dhananjay Mohabey discuss the conditions that led to preservation of the snake dinosaur fossil. Photo: Monica Wilson

The new snake, which was named Sanajeh indicus or "ancient-gaped one from the Indian subcontinent," because of its lizard-like gape, adds critical information that helps resolve the early diversification of snakes. Modern large-mouthed snakes are able to eat large prey because they have mobile skulls and wide gapes. Sanajeh bears only some of the traits of modern large-mouthed snakes and provides insight into how they evolved. 

"Sanajeh was capable of ingesting the half meter-long sauropod hatchling because it was quite large itself, almost 3.5 meters long,"noted Jason Head. "This points to an interesting evolutionary strategy for primitive snakes to eat large prey by increasing their body size." Although the sauropod dinosaurs that Sanajeh preyed upon include the largest animals capable of walking on land, they began their life as small hatchlings that were about one-seventh the length of Sanajeh. Sauropods appear to have achieved their enormous size by virtue of a fast-growth phase, which would have got them out of danger from Sanajeh-sized predators by the end of their first year of life.

This discovery of Sanajeh adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the Indian subcontinent retained ties to southern landmasses for longer than once hypothesized. Sanajeh’s closest relatives are from Australia and speak to its strong ties to southern continents, collectively known as Gondwana.
A life-size flesh reconstruction of the scene immediately before burial was designed and executed by University of Chicago paleoartist Tyler Keillor. The team will donate the first cast to the Geological Survey of India at a formal function to be held in Mumbai, India on March 12, 2010.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Summer in South Asia - a unique program for students to experience India

Photo: Lainie Kokas, 2008
The Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan offers a special opportunity to undergraduate students to chart their own course in India every summer. A generous endowed gift to the center by an anonymous donor has made it possible for 6-7 undergraduate students to design their own projects and travel to India on a fellowship annually. The fellowship program, called Summer in South Asia, is meant for students who have not had prior exposure to India. The idea is for the students to go with an open mind and a sense of discovery. The hope is that through their immersive experiences, they will come back with a new vision and understanding about another part of the world, thus making them more informed, sensitive and experienced world citizens, apart from significant personal growth.

Some student comments:
"It was indeed a life changing experience, and one that I will never forget...I hope that you realize what a difference you've made in all of our lives."
"At times it was challenging but upon reflection I realize that all of the challenges were as educational as the research I did and the projects I worked on."
"I certainly miss India and all of the amazing people I had the privilege of working with, and I intend to return someday soon!"

Photo: Lainie Kokas, 2008
The program encourages a strong service component and the students are urged to think about how they can make a difference to the organizations or people they will work with. At the same time, the work is connected to what the students are studying at UM, thus offering tremendous potential for experiential learning. The program is unique because it offers flexibility to the students to customize their projects to their interests, skills and passion, and to that extent it is completely driven by the students themselves who do all the preparatory work such as conceptualizing the projects, contacting the NGOs in India to work with, setting up the logistics and all travel arrangements, and finally reporting on their work in a symposium in the Fall.

The best projects receive funding to cover all the costs. Though primarily student-driven by design, the Center does assist the students in thinking through their ideas, making some contacts with organizations in India, communication with people in India and also preparing for the trip by providing information on what to expect culturally, health and safety tips, etc. Often, faculty members associated with the Center provide guidance to students as they conceptualize their projects. The Center stays in touch with the organizations that the students work at and collects their feedback in order to evaluate the usefulness of the students' work.

Photo: Caleb Heyman, 2009
Now in its fifth year, this program has been extremely successful in providing the students with valuable, life-changing experiences. This program not only complements the students' academic course of study but also provides them with insights about a very different region of the world in a hands-on manner. Students almost always come back with fabulous experiences, exciting stories of initial difficulties but eventually making meaningful connections with the people they work with, and a sense of having experienced something significant. Many times, this experience proves to be the initial spark that leads to a lifelong connection with India and many go back in the future to work there or pursue their interest academically.

Photo: Rory Crook, 2009
Over the years, the projects have spanned a wide range both in terms of the geographical location and the nature of the projects. More than 140 students have applied to this program and between 2006 and 2009, 24 students have completed their work in India on this fellowship. The students have majored in Anthropology, Political Science, Sociology, Nursing, History, Ecology and Environmental Biology, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Economics, Kinesiology, Business Administration, etc., with an equally wide range of project topics.

In the next few weeks, I plan to feature a few of the interesting and meaningful projects on this blog. Please come back and read about them!