On Mortality

I met Keith at the guesthouse’s restaurant, and we hit it off. He recently left a corporate job in Los Angeles and bought a one-way ticket to Cambodia, his only plans being to see what he finds. He’s a musician, and we spent much time talking about music—both Cambodian and western—but it’s his reasons for traveling that stuck with me. After he turned 40, he lost any satisfaction with his job and his body began showing signs of aging; a sports injury that he used to overcome easily suddenly became a significant setback. With priorities reevaluated, he decided to travel the world. Such awareness of one’s mortality makes a drastic change like that seem easy, even necessary.

Mortality is on my mind, too. There is my Great-Uncle Bud who sits in a hospital room silent and motionless, needing support for even his most basic of needs. I remember him as a vibrant, energetic man who was always smiling and laughing. But, age and a stroke have taken hold, without any sign of loosening their grip.

Then there is my main Cambodian music teacher, classical wedding music master Sok Duch, whose age has finally caught up with him. In March, when I was still unsure whether or not to make this trip, I heard from friends that Sok Duch was very sick, even close to death. Since then, his health has mostly stabilized, but still, his condition made my decision to travel easy: I had to come, for what could be a final visit to my teacher and friend.

Since arriving in Cambodia two weeks ago, I have been to his house twice, the second visit easier than the first. There are the normal difficulties of countryside visits—a slower pace of life, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, no running water—but the hardest thing is watching someone you love and respect grapple with a failing body.

In some ways, Sok Duch is still himself. When I first arrived at his house, he inspected my kse diev (a one-stringed Cambodian instrument) and fixed a part that had been installed incorrectly. He can listen to songs and say when they sound good or if a mistake is made, and he can still play the kse diev, but only quietly and for a very short time before his hand cramps up. On good days, he can walk across the yard to the roadside shop where his Granddaughter sells goods to passing motorists. Other days, he can hardly sit up. I imagine that, for him, the emotional pain is worse than the physical; he has a willing mind in an unwilling body.

When I arrived for my second visit and greeted Sok Duch in the usual manner, he took my hands and held them to his chest, pulling my close for a long time. I told him about my past few days and he asked life in Phnom Penh, but mostly we just sat together.

A day and a half later, when it was time to leave, I couldn’t. I had plans to get together with friends that evening, but something compelled me to stay another night. We didn’t do much that night. We ate dinner, talked a little, and watched the news before he grew tired and fell asleep. But, it meant we had more time together, which right now seems to be the most important thing.

I plan on visiting once more, for a few nights, right before I leave. Sok Duch, his son and daughter, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have become family, and they are always the last people I see whenever I leave Cambodia. Still, I expect the last visit to be difficult; there is not much one can do when a good friend is living on borrowed time. You sit together, hold hands, and hope that small show of companionship provides some balm against an old man’s pain.


Gaining Perspective

When first arriving in a developing country, one can easily react with alarm and even outrage as the corruption, poverty, pollution, overdevelopment, and human rights abuses seem overwhelming. For example, on Tuesday, July 1, my first day back in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh Post reported on the government’s efforts to remove “undesirables”—the homeless, beggars, and even street vendors—from the city’s streets. This development is alarming, in the government’s characterization of a significant demographic as “undesirable” and in its lack of any plan to address the underlying roots of the problem. However, Phnom Penh’s approach is reminiscent of Denver Colorado’s controversial camping ban, which seemed to unfairly target the city’s most disadvantaged. Contextualizing Cambodia’s problems is essential, I believe, before casting any judgment.

This point has been on my mind over the past few days, for at first glance Phnom Penh seems to be a vastly different place than when I first arrived ten years ago. As I have been visiting friends and teachers, talking with researchers, and beginning my own research projects, a constant background has been Cambodia’s fast pace of development, which primarily benefits the political and social elite, leaving the vast majority of the populace—including those “undesirables”—behind.

But, that is far from the complete picture. Along with the skyscrapers, shopping malls, and increased traffic come things like parkways and night markets. Families, groups of friends, and couples leisurely stroll these public spaces. People exercise in the early mornings and late afternoons, and groups of dancers congregate in the parks for aerobic workouts. And, modernization does provide economic benefits. On my first trip to the countryside, I sat next to a woman who works at a KFC in one of the new shopping malls, and said that the job is the best she has ever had.

To me, central Phnom Penh retains its small-town feel despite the expansion and modernization. The riverside walkway and the temples shaded by verdant trees are as picturesque as ever, and the street vendors along the side streets help one feel at home.

I hope that the government changes its stance concerning any “undesirables,” and the city’s consumerism and overdevelopment do not align with my personal ideals. But, I also believe that it is not my place to judge these things. I have benefitted greatly from America’s modern and capitalistic society, and I cannot fault any Cambodian who wants to shop at a mall or live with air conditioning. It remains my biased hope, however, that the old traditions and a sense of the past are retained as Cambodia continues to develop.

Teaching Music

ImageI would watch as Granger, a normally gregarious student, would sit quietly for long stretches, listening to the others and adding his own contributions sparingly. This provided room for the more reticent students like Robert, Isaac, and Joss to lead the performances. Joss liked to establish the foundation, a regular beat over which others could play. Robert, true to his personality, waited for holes in the sound, which he would fill with subtle touches. Isaac loved to experiment with different sounds and instruments.

These exchanges were the heart the weeklong “intensive” class that Dan Lederer and I co-taught in April at Four Rivers. The course was part a study in drumming improvisation and part a survey of different musics from around the world. Dan and I wanted to expose our students to different types of music, stuff they had probably never heard before, and to give them the space to experiment, at times imitating the odd meters and different forms we studied from different cultures. We prepared curriculum on various musical traditions—music from eastern Europe, India, Cambodia, and Africa—but the drumming performances provided the most learning. That was when students could play and discover within the safety of our group, something that seems to be missing in much of traditional music education, where a student quickly learns the sharp distinction between correct and incorrect.


Being able to explore and make mistakes is essential, I think, to developing an innate musicianship, a quality that my organ teacher Stephen Best said is “something that cannot be taught.” This approach favors feeling and emotion over knowledge, and it values an emergent product over one that is pre-planned. Knowledge and planning are certainly important, but they seem to be over-emphasized in today’s American society. The freedom to take risks and see where they go is something I have found more prevalent in other cultures, so it makes for an important lesson for American youth.

By the end, Dan and I seemed to have succeeded in instilling a sense of adventure in our students, and through it a high level of musicianship. The drums leveled the playing field, as they don’t require refined technique, so everyone could contribute. Even when students began to experiment with other instruments, their sense of discovery prevailed. In a matter of days, students learned to listen to and play off of each other; how to respond to a piece’s mood; and how to begin and end a piece collectively, without a leader. They also came to take pride in their new status as improvisers. After our final performance at the school’s assembly, Robert commented to me that, “We should have told them that the whole thing was improvised. We made it all up right then!” When a self-declared “non-musician” conveys a sentiment like that, a sense of musical adventure has clearly taken root and reaped benefits.


An Authentic Audience

ImageWhile in college, a good friend of mine would start a paper by typing his name at the top of a document and then staring at the screen. He would stand up, do something else, and then return to the blank page. For days, sometimes a week, that is how the document remained—a name followed by white space—until one or two nights before the due date, when my friend would stay up late, drink too much caffeine, work himself into a frenzy, and complete an insightful essay. Needless to say, my friend is now a middle school English teacher, with—by now—somewhat different work habits for creating his lessons.

ImageRegardless, there is something about a deadline that instigates action, and higher stakes often lead to greater action. When I taught ninth grade at Northpoint Expeditionary Learning Academy, I would organize public presentations for my students, when they would talk to state politicians about issues concerning their local watershed. The week preceding each presentation would be hectic but efficient, with students working diligently and staying after school to finish their products and refine their scripts.

Something similar happened a few weeks ago at Four Rivers Charter Public School, when my ninth grade students had a week to prepare tri-fold boards and presentations for the culminating event of their three-month-long independent research project. Without much time to spare, students stepped up, and amid the flurry of activity, even the most lethargic of workers turned productive.

ImageThis heightened focus seemed to come, at least in part, from higher stakes. This year, for the first time ever, students presented their work at Greenfield Community College, where college students and faculty could wander among the displays and talk with the Four Rivers students. In my opinion, and in the opinions of many others, my students’ products matched the venue: their displays were beautiful and their words eloquent, high school students impressing a college audience.

An authentic audience and a pressing deadline. Expectations to remember whenever producing high-quality work.


Arn at Four Rivers

Afterward, one student said, “I loved how he didn’t diminish our stories.” Another nodded in agreement and responded, “Yes, everyone has a story.” Still another took away a different message: “I loved what he said about everyone having to get along and treating each other like siblings.” The last student brought the comments full circle, to a class of talented ninth graders that had been struggling recently, behaviorally and academically: “Our grade needed that.”

ImageThese unsolicited reflections followed Arn Chorn-Pond’s presentation for my students, part of an Immigration Expedition they had recently started. In Expeditionary Learning schools, outside experts are essential to student learning; experts put classroom learning in context and deepen students’ understanding on specific topics by drawing on their life and work experiences. In this case, the expedition is about immigration’s impacts on national, state, and local communities, as well as on individuals, and Arn’s experiences and work perfectly complemented the content.

For a case study of one type of immigration, students have been reading Never Fall Down by Patricia McCormick, a fictionalized account of Arn’s experiences during the Khmer Rouge and his adoption and resettlement in New England. From the outset, the book made an impact; it is a gritty account of real-life horrors that students had previously encountered only in dystopian texts. The book reads like a novel, but students responded to the fact that the depicted events actually happened.

ImageBut, the impact is multiplied when students can listen to the book’s protagonist talk about watching his sister starve to death, and being forced to kill others to save himself, and being beaten and called “monkey” once he arrived at high school in what he calls “the jungles of New Hampshire;” when they can ask how the experiences continue to haunt him; and when they can tell their own stories, with Arn responding to each with focus and compassion.

One student spoke of his German ancestry, with palpable pride in his family’s heritage. Another said she was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1999, and was adopted before she was one. She wanted to know what the city was like during the Khmer Rouge and in the 1990s. A third spoke about his love of dance and said that he was never accepted by his peers until he arrived at Four Rivers. All three had never shared those stories in any comparable setting.

These are the outcomes of a quality expert speaker, and Arn was one of the best I have ever worked with. He told his own story, then he encouraged them to tell their own stories. My students gained a deeper understanding of the refuge experience, but even more important to the expedition and to the school in general was Arn’s message of our shared humanity. “Inside of us, we all have Hitler and Pol Pot, and we all have the Buddha,” he said. In their lives at school and beyond, it’s now up to the students to decide which side to choose.


Back At Hamilton College

As a high school English teacher, I don’t often feel the tangible satisfaction of other professionals. Although teachers have great impacts every day, many of our efforts come to full fruition years later, as our students grow, mature, and go on to impact the world. This is one of the joys of teaching, but also one of the challenges.

Because of this, I relish any opportunity to recognize my own teachers and my own influences. Such an opportunity fell in my lap recently, when John Burt—a great artist and supporter of the arts, as well as a good friend—emailed to see if I could introduce Arn Chorn-Pond for his presentation at Hamilton College, my alma mater.


Arn is the subject of the documentary The Flute Player, and his life story inspired Patricia McCormick’s novel Never Fall Down; he is co-founder of the nonprofits Cambodian Living Arts and Cambodian Volunteers for Community Development; and he is most recently working to promote Cambodian music through the Khmer Magic Music Bus initiative. He is also the initial inspiration for my own involvement with Cambodian music.

It was over ten years ago that I saw The Flute Player, dreamed of following in Arn’s footsteps, and with the help of Lydia Hamessley, Heather Buchman, and Ginny Dosch at Hamilton College, earned a Watson Fellowship to study music in Cambodia.

Last Thursday night at Hamilton, it was Lydia who introduced me. I spoke about my instrument—the one-stringed kse diev—my Cambodian teacher Sok Duch, and the fragility of Cambodia’s artistic traditions, before performing the song Bot Haom Roung, which honors the spirits of those who have come before, asking for their support and guidance. I then introduced Arn.


Arn, of course, was brilliant. He spoke with the conviction of a survivor, at once vulnerable and confident. As he unraveled his life’s story—one of horror, pain, and ultimately healing through music—Arn enraptured the audience and brought many of them to tears. He has a unique ability to empower others and involve them in his work and vision, and that ability was on full display Thursday night.

It may sound self-centered, but for me the evening’s most powerful impact was personal. Ginny Dosch put it well: In her sixteen years of working at Hamilton College, she had never seen a Watson Fellowship come full circle like this, with the fellow and his project’s inspiration returning to campus together.

After the presentation, the event’s sponsors—as well as Ginny, Heather, and Lydia—treated me and Arn to dinner. Steve Riege, who is working with Arn to support the Khmer Magic Music Bus and who drove from Connecticut to hear Arn speak, also joined.

It was one of those rare moments in life when past and present merge in an almost mystical way. I am not sure what will come of the dinner conversations and the renewed friendships, but in this wild and precious life that too often flows uninterrupted, the evening seemed to become an important, seminal marker. It was both a thank you and a gift to my teachers, and I am excited to see where it leads.


My Fellowship Ending

It was late morning by the time I arrived in paharganj, the backpacker ghetto at the heart of Delhi’s tourist industry, and it wasn’t long before I missed the solitude that accompanies travel to places like Ranchi and Dhaka. It is a quality of South Asian cities that are off the beaten tourist path that one can be surrounded by people and remain mostly alone. You stand out and eyes follow you everywhere, but there’s no one familiar with whom to share the experience, and the loneliness can be almost as overwhelming as the encroaching mass of people. But, another type of invisibility permeates the backpacker communities, where everyone becomes “just another tourist” seeking adventure, and all of one’s interactions with locals revolve around money: us having it and them trying to get it from us.

And so, it was with pleasure that I boarded the busy Delhi metro, once again disappearing into a sea of Indian faces, and rode to the southern terminus at HUDA City Centre, where I caught an auto-rickshaw to the Heritage School of Gurgaon. This time, familiarity predominated as I greeted Kay Jacobs, the school’s head administrator and found a middle-school teacher I recognized to spend a period in her classroom. The following day I returned to the school and spent the morning with the high school English department, talking about revision, the six writing traits, and the workshop teaching model. I spent most of my time, however, in the music rooms.

For years, I have been impressed by music’s ability to bring people together. I saw it in Cambodia when I studied there for a year; I saw it in Ranchi when I spent a week with Mukund, Kali, and the others; and I saw it with Somnath, the Heritage School’s classical music instructor and an expert classical slide guitar musician, in our limited time together. It may be that musicians share a dedication to detail and discipline; Somnath practices every night from 10 pm until 2 am, and I followed a similar practice schedule in college. Maybe it comes from music’s impact on listeners—how it transcends language—and Somnath spoke at length about how “music can purify everybody’s mind and soul.” My best guess, however, is that music is a window into a person’s identity, his self. More than most other professionals, performers reveal themselves through their art. This is why, I think, music and dance are so important to people; Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge, for instance, organized music and dance troupes even before their basic needs were met. When I showed a genuine interest in Somnath’s music, I also showed an interest in himself, in his whole being. Like numerous other musicians with whom I have worked, Somnath responded with joy and friendship; he seemed to recognize a kindred artistic spirit and opened up to me. We spent hours talking about Indian classical and folk music, sharing digital files of music, and discussing the philosophic elements of performance. I am so grateful for this opportunity to see a soul unbarred and to make a new friend.


After the final bell, we said our goodbyes, and I walked to the street to catch an auto-rickshaw to the HUDA City Centre metro stop. In an hour, I was back in paharganj amid the crowds of other tourists. I walked the main street, buying gifts for my family and friends back home; enjoyed a sweet mint tea at my hotel’s rooftop restaurant; ate dinner with a friend; packed my bags for the long journey home; and caught a taxi to the airport. Those travel logistics don’t stay with me, though; they did once, when I first started traveling internationally, but their novelty has mostly worn off. My fellowship ended when I said goodbye to the Heritage School and Somnath, and when I come back to India, he is the first person I will look forward to seeing again.

The BRAC Purpose

There were gifts, heartfelt goodbyes, and an unexpected escort to the airport producing another round of goodbyes. With a mixture of sadness at leaving my friends in Ranchi and excitement for the upcoming travels, I boarded a plane for Kolkata, and as we ascended I had a final view of the land of rolling hills and any forests that had escaped the loggers’ saw. That night I stayed at a transit hotel near the airport and in the early morning took a plane that lifted out of the rain and descended through the same cloud system toward the dim confines of Dhaka’s airport.

My first sense of the city wasn’t much better. The airport is located in the suburbs, but once in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, the taxi wove through the increasingly congested traffic, past an overwhelming concentration of slums and heaps of garbage and thousands of bicycle rickshaws proceeding slowly, one after another. Outside the hotel, child beggars competed for attention with the elderly, swarming any foreigner to demand money or a scrap of food.

I tipped the driver and retreated to the hotel, relieved to escape Dhaka’s chaos. “You are the one here for the brack purpose,” replied the jovial man behind the check-in desk when I told him my name and said I had a reservation. He beamed a smile at me that glowed in the otherwise dark and drab reception room. At first I didn’t understand his meaning, but soon it dawned on me: “the BRAC purpose,” as in BRAC International, the organization that had made my hotel reservation and would give me a tour of its schools tomorrow, the largest development non-governmental organization in the world.

Begun in 1972, BRAC’s mission is to “empower people and communities in situations of poverty, illiteracy, and social injustice” (Annual Report 2012, 1). The organization understands that poverty has many causes, so it seeks to effect large-scale and long-term change. Indeed, its scale is staggering. BRAC operates in ten developing countries outside Bangladesh, with programs as diverse as women’s empowerment issues, education, healthcare, farming, and micro finance. In its Bangladesh education program alone, BRAC enrolls 700,000 students annually in its 37,000 schools, with five million already graduated and another ten million having received a basic education (Annual Report 2012, 16).

I visited two schools in one of Dhaka’s largest slums, the first a pre-primary classroom with thirty students, the second a fifth-grade class of thirty-four. Both are clean but poorly lit one-room schools down dirt alleys turned nearly impassable by the rain. But, the students’ energy is infectious. They dance and sing and recite poetry and show off their drawings while the teachers direct the youth, noticeably on edge because of the foreign visitor.


A BRAC Pre-primary classroom in a Dhaka slum

BRAC’s pre-primary and primary school teachers are almost all female, and for the ones I met at a training session, their profession seems to be a labor of love. One teacher is a housewife who had received an education and wanted to pass her learning on to the youth. Another is a former BRAC student who was so inspired by her experience that she decided to become a teacher. Still another is moved to teach street children. “If I can help them, I am so proud,” she said. Each teacher lives in the school’s community, so she brings to her job an intimate knowledge of each student’s life outside of school, a knowledge that aids any teacher in any country but seems essential in Bangladesh, where living circumstances can be a nearly insurmountable hindrance. Many families are involved in the garment industry, and student absences often arise when both parents go to work and students have to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.


A BRAC student working on a drawing project. Students use mini chalkboards so that materials can be reused.

I wish I could say that my trip to Bangladesh was inspiring, but despite my “BRAC purpose,” the passion of the teachers, and the youthful energy of the classrooms, it was difficult. Dhaka has thirty slums and one of the highest population densities in the world (Cox), with “more than 115,000 people per square mile, or 45,000 per square kilometer” (“A look into Dhaka, Bangladesh”). Even after I had spent three weeks in India, a country known for its own population density problems, Dhaka’s poverty and mass of humanity were overwhelming. The statistics give a perspective that only comes to life with the images of endless rickshaw peddlers looking for work and houses piled nearly on top of each other and laborer after laborer streaming by, hauling metal, ice, wood. What common human experience could possibly unite lives as disparate as theirs and mine?

I asked my guides from BRAC to take me to Rana Plaza, site of the April, 2013, garment factory collapse that killed over 1,100 people. By the time we arrived, I had lost any sense of direction and geography, only noting that the outskirts of the city trickled into in a maze of lush waterways before the apartments and factories of Rana Plaza began. The collapse site is marked by absence: two abandoned factory buildings with a space in the middle where there should have been a third. Rubble is everywhere and a small shrine to the victims fronts the barbed wire fence that demarcates the site. I snapped a few pictures and tried to imagine what it would be like to come there every day, telling my oldest child to stay home from school and look after the younger ones. It started raining so we hurried back to the car, the silence of the collapse site trailing us as we started back toward Dhaka.


Young men observing the site of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.

Since then, I have vowed to buy a few pieces of handmade clothes each year, a small symbolic gesture toward a large and difficult problem. I have come home with handmade clothes from Bangladesh and India, both for myself and as gifts for relatives. And, I have followed the international collaborations meant to improve Bangladesh’s labor conditions, the binding agreements of the Europe Union and the voluntary measures initially proposed by American corporations.

If only the executives from Wal-Mart, Target, and the Gap would visit Dhaka and take the drive from the city past the outskirts and delta marshlands to Rana Plaza. If only they would stand by that vacant hole and face the woman who approaches, holding a sign with a picture of the daughter who has been missing since the day of the collapse. If only they would feel the hopelessness that accompanies such a sight, knowing that any symbolic gesture or change in policy will do nothing to assuage that woman’s grief. If only.

That woman took my breath away, and her image still haunts me. What can one do in the face of such devastation? I handed her a few hundred takas then gave a hundred more, walked away without looking back, and went home to write, hoping that my experience and my words may eventually result in some good.

Works Cited

“A look into Dhaka, Bangladesh—The most densely populated city in the world.”             Risebd.com. Research Initiative for Social Equity, Society (RISE Society). 9             March 2013. Web. 20 August 2013.

“Annual Report 2012.” Brac.net. BRAC International. 2012. Web. 20 August 2013.

Cox, Wendell. “World Urban Areas Population and Density: A 2012 Update.             newgeography.com. New Geography. 03 May 2013. Web. 21 August 2013.

Considering Teenagers

When I was growing up, my family, like most others I knew, would fill the weekends with trips and activities. Baseball games at Fenway Park and McCoy Stadium, the Boston Science Museum, movies, hikes in the Blue Hills, visits with families throughout New York and New England. I clearly remember the museums. I would speed through, looking at the pictures and displays, while my mother and father would take their time, seemingly reading every word at every display and pausing in between to fully absorb the information or maybe just to further infuriate my sister and me. Other adults followed similar patterns, but my parents were particularly ponderous and slow.

Of course, now I am like them and am probably even worse: I carry a notebook, and I take the time to write down new information. Now, it is my teenage students who can infuriate with their rapid pace through museums and seeming lack of reverence for historical sites.


Northpoint students at Vietnam’s Reunification Palce.

This played out in Cambodia and Vietnam, where I took students to the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Memorial, Cambodia’s National Museum, the Angkor Temples, and Vietnam’s Reunification Palace. My co-instructor Alison Zych and I would wander the sites and at the end happen upon a group of our students huddled together in what appeared to be typical teenage apathy. Later, we would bemoan their poor attitude and discuss ways to address each individual’s behaviors.

We wouldn’t always complain. Mrs. Zych is one of the most compassionate educators I know, and we both acknowledged that many teenagers don’t display the same attention span or interest or ability to handle difficult subjects that adults possess. Even adults can balk at issues such as genocide, and for teenagers a place like the Killing Fields can inspire behavior meant to deflect the subject’s gravity.

I am transitioning from learning everything for my own benefit to planning for student learning. And, those activities are different. At one time, I thought that simply taking students to vastly different and impactful places was enough, that they would eagerly absorb the culture and want to learn everything a place offered. But, it is important to remember my teenage self, a good student and eager learner but one who moved at a faster pace and was entertained by more frivolous endeavors.

For a student expedition to India, I think this means adding variety to an itinerary. A purely historical tour of India, visiting mostly Mughal forts and monuments, or a cultural one focused solely on music and dance would bore any teenager. A Bollywood movie, a few shopping stops, and a wildlife sanctuary or day hike will be a must. Home-stays and interactions with Indian teenagers are just as important. And, for the museums and historical sites, creating assignments that will focus the teenage mind while not appearing to be typical school worksheets will be, I think, the main challenge. All these things happened during my expeditions to Cambodia, but they can be improved for the India Expedition. Most of all, I need to remember that what appeals to me now was not always paramount to my teenage self.


As Nandlal hunched over his drum, ready to start, he said, “In our state, there are no observers. Everyone participates.” I had asked him how he learned to play, and he gave a similar answer as others I had asked. “I went to the Dancing Ground,” the area of every village where ceremonies and performances occur and from where, according to legend, the village’s music and dance emerged, “and I listened, I watched, and I participated.” With that spirit in mind, after Nandlal and Suda Masin performed for me on the mandar and dhol, I sat down with Suda for a drum lesson on the mandar. Nandlal left to attend to some business, so I followed Suda’s lead, attacking the drum with the different strokes he was teaching me, until my hands pulsed in pain and I begged to stop.

When Nandlal and I met, we bonded almost immediately, connecting over the shared knowledge of location. Like everyone, he asked where I am from. “America,” with a rolled ‘r,’ pronounced something like “Amay-ree-ka,” is my answer, spoken in an approximation of the way Indians speak English. He asked where, and I said “Boston,” and he chuckled and again asked where. I said, “Milton, just south of Boston,” and he said, “I know Milton.”

Around twenty years ago, a woman came to Ranchi to study tribal music and dance with Mukund Nayak, Nandlal’s father. She and Nandlal met, fell in love, married, and Nandlal moved to Somerville, Massachusetts, which is just north of Boston, with his new wife, Wendy Jehlen. Two years ago, Nandlal moved back to Ranchi. He and Wendy are still happily married, and Nandlal says that every day he misses her and their two daughters. However, he feels a sense of obligation to his state and its culture.


Nandlal and I spent most of our time together sitting and talking. He is a professional performer, having traveled around the world playing the dhol and other drums, directing collaborative performances, and working with musicians from many different countries. He still performs, but now he sees his role as more of a grass-roots organizer. He envisions India and the world recognizing Jharkhand for its heritage of performing arts, and his experiences around the globe make him one of the few able to bring that vision to fruition. For example, when TED Talks came to Ranchi, they invited Nandlal to speak about his life and his culture. Still, how to turn his vision into reality remains a problem, and that was the topic of many of our conversations.

Nandlal approaches the problem on multiple fronts. He is building a recording and teaching studio in the heart of Ranchi. He wants to develop an exchange program, giving Ranchi’s most promising students the chance to visit America. He is trying to work with Jharkhand’s politicians and hopes they eventually come around to support the arts. He is organizing performances with two hundred drummers, where the drummers are paid internationally competitive salaries. Most of all, he sees himself continuing where he thinks his father’s work will leave off, bringing his culture into a more professional and highly modern world.

Throughout our conversations, my thoughts often returned to the idea of participation. If active participation is the norm in Jharkhand, then why are there so few performing artists? Nandlal thinks it has something to do with pride. In the world, America is perceived as the biggest country with the best culture. Even within India, it is the classical music that is the respected art form, not the tribal arts. As he says, “In the great development of India, [my people] were left behind.” So, in Jharkhand, established artists gave up and the youth stopped going to the Dancing Ground.

But, Nandlal works on. Many people question his move back to India, and even Nandlal says that, at times, he is unsure of his purpose. Still, little by little and person by person, Nandlal will reinsert the pride, the work ethic, and the intense drive to revitalize tribal culture—all hallmarks of his own performing career—into the DNA of his people. One new participant at a time, his work will pay off.