Sven and Nichon - One month in India - Part 1


So Abhi, what’s the difference between Delhi and New Delhi?

“In New Delhi you can breathe. In Delhi that’s impossible!”

We (Westerners) would have probably described the history, or the geographical differences first, instead of the current differences here and now. This is India!

At two in the morning, as Abhi drives us into the city, it is quiet. Can we image how crowded it will be a few hours from now?

In about a week we will start ten days of silence: Vipassana meditation. Ten days of no talking, no reading, no music, no running, no alcohol, no coffee, just ourselves, other participants, and endless hours of meditation.

If all goes well it may lead us onto the path of ‘Freedom from the Ego Self’: the objective of Abhijeet’s NGO organization ‘NIVRITI’.

He has just sent two films off to the Cannes Festival. One called ‘Petals’, the other ‘Once upon a Time in India’. Now he’s waiting whether or not they will be selected; it will be the fifth year in row that he’ll be admitted to the festival. In the meantime, we will enjoy his company.

A dog sleeps in the street down from our hotel room. Next to him sleeps a man. There is a rectangular opening cut away in our curtain; behind it the AC. Cars are non-stop honking from early in the morning.

Breakfast is spicy. Our busy Dutch lives already feel a million years away.


First day, we sleep in. We meet with Abhi at a metro station for dinner. We’re early at the Southern Indian restaurant. He brings his befriended filmmaker DurbaSahay, and we talk about the art of filmmaking, Delhi and of course Indian food.

An ultra-short visit to a neighbouring art gallery is followed by a visit to ‘Port of India’, an Arc de Triomph-like monument for the Indian WWII victims. Indian soldiers had to fight for the English, who eventually lost their influence in the country shortly after the war. Confused history. The Dutch have throughout history been colonizers, not the colonized. Does this still influence our intercultural relationships today?

It starts raining. Very unusual for this time of year. In the middle of the night a truck arrives right before our hotel and starts pumping the sewer system. The noise is unbearable. After an hour we ask for a room in the back, which we get. Still we can hear it, and our jet lagged brains don’t help: we lay awake until 6 am.


Annelieke – a Dutch relative who happens to live in New Delhi – wakes us up with a phone call. We decide to have lunch with her at one thirty. We meet her at the central metro station on Connaughan Square; not hard to spot a blond woman even in the Delhi crowds. The restaurant is popular; we wait for almost an hour to again enjoy the Southern Indian kitchen. Annelieke is great and teaches us a lot about India. We visit Bangla Sahib temple; religious music, vents, a pond with not too dirty water which is nice to walk around, and then the Sikh’s community kitchen, which feeds twenty thousand (!!) people on a daily basis. All volunteers. Now that’s an NGO with outreach.

Just at sunset we reach Emperor Humayan’s tomb. It’s a grand, square and elevated building in red sandstone in a square garden divided into squares by square waterways – I’m unsure whether this celebrates the circle of life or squarely commemorates the dead and the end of it all. Either way it’s impressive.

As the mosquitos chase us out we visit the neighbourhood where Annelieke lived her first year in Delhi. We grab dinner in Andra Pradesh canteen. All you can eat curries in an anti-posh setting.

Annelieke has told us about both her half time consulting job - advising the world bank on water issues - as well as her NGO project: building a school in a nearby village. And about her Vipassanameditation experience. Simple but powerful, cleaning the soul she calls it. She does advice us to stay for all ten days. We will try, certainly, but are somewhat afraid that it will be boring, painful and difficult. Well, only one way to find out.


We try to go to the Red Fort but are lured into a tourist office, stupidly. And we had been warned. In India people try to lure tourists into tourist traps. We loose so much time here that there’s no point in going anymore. We go to the BaghwanWaminarayanAkshardham temple instead. Everything looks new, that is what we see of it after clearing the security and leaving our bags, phones, everything. Turns out it is new: the temple has been finished in 2005. Something us Europeans are not used to: there, everything that has tradition and spirituality is old! Here, spirituality is so much more alive, so much more experienced and cherished. The temple complex is surrounded by an army of almost large as life elephants carved out of sand stone, in all kinds of mythological settings. The wisdom of the writings is told trough these stories cut in stone. It’s beautiful.

We wager a roadside snack (our stomachs are definitely not used to India yet so we try to source the one that looks the best heated), then head off to the National Drama School to meet with Abhi.

The performance is eclectic, an assemblage of scenes from campus life, improvised by the students. The central theme is dealing with homosexuality. Everything is hyper: the costumes, the sets, the acting. The set design is also hyper, but more in line with what I am used to: the space changes all the time, all corners of the theatre are used, video projection mapped and overlaid when appropriate. From an aquarium to a life-sized book-cave (indeed, a cave dug out in a giant pile of books), it’s all there.

The audience sits in the college setting, benches with small tables; we are part of the set and part of the play itself. Nichon is singled out, to improvise from the audience, and comes away with a chocolate she will share with Abhi and with me.

At a restaurant near our hotel we talk about what it means, how theatre can heal, and that the reality is that all things are essentially the same but in our Western-style determination of things we tend to forget about that fiercely. I recognise the idea of healing theatre; we’ve been making performances about xenophobia and how to meet with strangers, to heal a fraction of the wound that cuts through Dutch (partly European) society: fear of immigrants. We now discover that even our ideas about homosexuality differ in some way. In many parts of Indian society this subject is totally taboo. Regretfully, recently The Netherlands homosexuals also report that they increasingly are discriminated against. There’s a lot to heal. This evening was inspiring!


Only two days before ten days of silence. Again try for the Red Fort. After quite long subway ride and walk we find out it is closed on Mondays. This fort sure is hard to conquer.

We make our way to the spice market in ChadniChowk. One of the most crowded places I’ve ever been. At times the spices tingled our noses so fiercely, we had to make a run for the exit, sneezing.We buy some nuts and a padlock we need for the Vipassana course.

As we use theater and music in our work, Abhi has arranged for us a special concert that night. We meet with his good friend and famous Tabla-player Mustafa Husain. Whenever a professional tabla-player is needed in an Indian theatre play, Mustafa is called upon. He has toured extensively throughout the world. And he is a great, modest, warm person!

We are warmly welcomed in the efficient house of Mustafa and is wife Anouk. In the background is a humming tone, playing from a speaker. The bed serves as a stage today. Abhi is making a video recording. We have the honor of being merely audience. A private concert in India.

So what’s a Tabla? It’s a drum. Mostly you play two, one higher pitched, one lower. Mustafa spends a lot of time meticulously tuning the instruments. The wonder is, the drums sound particularly melodious. The higher pitched has a ‘zing’ to it, the lower makes different tones as the top of the drum is pressed. The rhythm settles into your bones in no time. But the concert starts with Anouk playing Citar, a guitar-like instrument with many strings, played like a kind of western slide guitar-harp-combo. The two musicians work out a mesmerizing improvisation, and for over an hour we sit and listen, suppressing the impulse to get up and move, at times.

After the concert dinner is served; their sweet little daughter wakes up and comes in to be immediately spoiled by Abhi who has brought her a large bag of sweets! We learn that Indian government pays for the tickets for musicians playing abroad. What if we could get Mustafa to play in the Netherlands? Could we use this music in our work? How can these rhythms carry our mutual stories?The night is ended in style with a family ride in Abhi’s car. We visit a shrine and are totally taken into the Indian spiritual lifestyle: you buy some sweets and flowers, throw yourself into the frenzy of hundreds of people ringing bells and bringing offerings, you receive some sweets and a red dot on the forehead in return.

Done! Some rupees to a beggar, and off we go. The kid who watched the car in our absence looks older, smart, awake. Sure, in this country you don’t wear seat belts. You offer to the gods of cars and all will be taken care of. Plus you tip the boy who guards your car.

#JobShadowing #India

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