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Cutting Chai

cutting%20chai.jpgLater in the afternoon, our driver asked if we would like to make a special visit to “the best chai-maker in Mumbai”. It’s a recognition of the relationship we’ve been able to build this week; he says that it’s somewhere very few foreigners would ever go. I ask you: how can you pass that up?

The area of the chai shop and the shop itself made no attempt at putting on airs. The place was smack in the middle of one of the city's most pedestrian areas. Beyond the general surroundings, the statement that foreigners never visit this area rang true the moment we exited the car. For example, no english words were posted on signs. All hindi here. More telling was the fact that several of the local children out and about could not help but stare at the white guy. My simply saying "hello" rewarded us with an eruption of children's giggling.

After making ourselves known, we proceeded to get that chai. Chai in India means tea and the variety we were after - cutting chai - is particularly associated with Mumbai. Said chai is a savory concoction of milk, sugar, ginger, masala and green tea boiled together in a large steel kettle and served steaming hot. Cutting tea is so called because its flavor is so strong that it is served by the half-glass. ("Cutting" is the transliteration of the hindi word for "half".)

According to its maker, cutting chai is the favorite of locals, but apparently not well-regarded by most foreigners. The strength of the ginger and spices probably create the dissatisfaction. Because of the ginger, in particular, cutting chai burns the throat a bit on the way down. This sensation gave rise to the frequent misconception among foreigners that the burning is that to which cutting refers.

The "best chai-maker in Mumbai" turns out to be nameless to our driver, who refers to him only as "kaka", the hindi word for Uncle and a term of endearment. All of the tourist car drivers visit Kaka in the morning for their half glass of quality cutting chai. (In a private moment later, I shared that “caca”, which sounds exactly the same as "kaka", is not exactly a term of endearment in English. Explaining further appeared to bring our driver some unintended displeasure, so I quickly changed the subject!)

While Kaka was a shy fellow, he seemed quietly pleased that some foreigners had come to appreciate his work. Mostly through points and nods, he walked us through the process of making his chai, which truth be told shares a common thread with sausage: sometimes things that taste great should not be viewed in the making.

As an added bonus, we complemented our chai with a traditional bun-masca, a bun baked with candied fruit and spread with butter. These buns are associated with Iranian bakeries, at which ours were procured. The reason for Iranians cornering the market on buttered buns, however, was not within the means of those around us to explain. No matter. Together with the tea, they tasted great.

When in Mumbai, give chai and bun-masca a try, particularly if you can find Kaka in the process!


Tabla 2

12427-1213846-thumbnail.jpgAs planned, we arrived back this morning to pick up the tabla. As anticipated, they were not ready when we arrived. No problem. Took off the shoes, sat down on the ground and enjoyed watching these craftsmen at work. As an added bonus, one of Anand's assistants went for coffee, coming back with steaming glasses of it sweet and light.

The tabla building process is far more involved and time-consuming than I thought. For starters, the creation of the siyahi - the black pad in the center - takes an unexpectedly long time: about two days per drum. The selection, cutting, stretching and stringing of the skin also requires time and care. Between building up the siyahi and the rest of manufacture, one craftsman can make only about one set per week.

Within the hour, however, mine were completed, the completion announced by a strong ringing note from the small drum and a confident nod and smile from Anand. As if further proof were required, I asked him to play the finished goods just to make sure. Play he did. First, a 16 beat rhythm, which he said I would need to learn early on, and then a syncopated seven beat rhythm which was noticeably Indian in character. After the quick jam, he handed the drums over to me for my first "lesson". I won't bore you with the details; let's just say I have a lot of work ahead of me to make the drums sing!

There's nothing quite like sitting with the maker of a fine product you really want. In today's internet world, I could easily have ordered a tabla with a credit card at the click of a mouse. The experience of watching mine being made and shaking the hand that made it afterward, however, is priceless. I'm sincerely thankful for such a special opportunity.



1773977-934827-thumbnail.jpgIn my recent work with Heart+Passion, a foundation dedicated to expanding voluntourism opportunities for travelers of conscience, I've learned that one of the best ways to get under the skin of a place is to seek out one or more of a region's most accomplished NGOs. My colleague and I did not want to miss such an opportunity in Mumbai, so we requested a meeting with Aseema. Thankfully, they obliged.

Aseema, Hindi for "Limitless", is a non-governmental organization (NGO), registered under the Bombay Public Trusts Act, whose mandate is to protect and promote the human rights of underprivileged children. Aseema executes this mission through the management of a full school for underprivileged children from Mumbai's slums ("street kids").

Aseema was established in 1995 in Bandra, Mumbai and conducted its first classes with 18 students. Since that time, Aseema has grown to serve more than 700 children, has adopted and reconstituted an abandoned neighborhood school and has broken ground on a second education center outside the city. Perhaps more important, in the last year, Aseema has seen the first of its alumni graduate from college and enter the workforce as professionals.

Our visit to Aseema and their school in Bandra instantly became the highlight of our trip. Aseema's dedicated staff conveyed both warmth and purpose and their school radiated both efficiency and love. We spent almost three hours with the staff and students of Aseema and left wishing we could have spent more.

I could attempt to craft words to describe our experience, however in this instance I think it best to rely on the age-old truth that a picture's worth a thousand words. Visit our photo gallery to get a sense of the people of Aseema and their accomplishments.

For us, the key memory is that of otherwise option-less children being given a chance to soar. Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in the art produced by the students in their art classes. To view some of this uplifting art, visit the Aseema gallery. While there, consider making a purchase of one or more of their products, or making a donation. Having visited, we can say first hand that the products are worth it and the support is worthy.


Tabla for Two

TABLA_DRUMS_COPPER_SAJID_PRO.jpgEver since hearing world music artists Niyaz perform last year, I've become infatuated with the sound and technique of tabla. Their tabla virtuoso, Satnam Ramgotra from fusion band Alien Chatter, rocked so very much that I became inspired instantly to release my inner child by banging drums.

(Buy Alien Chatter's new EP here. Right now!)

The tabla is a traditional Indian instrument comprised of two drums, commonly known as the dayaan (little) and bayaan (big), played with the hands like bongos. Unlike bongos, however, tabla drums have a voice. In other words, tabla allow their players many different note and sound options from each drum all from one drum head.

The variation in notes and sound is accomplished in three ways. First, the heads of each drum itself have different thicknesses. The thicker outer ring has a different note than the thinner inner one.

Second, at the center of each drum is a pad known as the "siyahi". The siyahi is a thick, black pad of material built up to deaden the ring of the drum. When tapped directly, instead of a note you hear a clipped thud. At the core of the siyahi's material is an iron compound, however tradition has it that the recipe of each tabla-maker's material is a closely guarded secret. What I can report is that proper creation of this pad is considered one of the finest points in the art of tabla making.

Third, drum tones can be controlled by the manner of strike, as well as the hand's position on the drum. Herein lies the art of tabla playing! The most notable impact of hand position comes on the bayaan of the set, where the heel of the hand can be used to compress and release the skin to create a vibrato effect.

While playing the tabla requires talent, it more fundamentally requires actually having tabla to play. To fulfill at least this base requisite, this morning we went in search of tabla. To be more precise, we went in search of one of Mumbai's most revered tabla makers: Anand. Instead of shopping in an established music store, we decided to see how far upstream we could swim in the supply chain. With the help of our driver, his boss and several other friends at the end of cell phone calls, we located Anand in Dadar, a suburb of Mumbai.

The visit to Anand was a powerful experience. We now know how and in what conditions some of the best craft products from India are produced. Anand's shop consisted of a shack to store materials and the dirt patch in front of it where one sits to craft instruments. That's it.

After a brief series of questions from Anand and an unfortunate series of completely inadequate responses from me, my credentials were established: I was a complete idiot that had no business buying a tabla from Anand. Despite the realities of the situation, however, Anand and his staff took pity on me. Perhaps my genuine interest in their art was communicated or I'd earned brownie points just for approaching them: either way, they proceeded with patience to explain to me what I wanted and why. They also took time to fit the drums to my hand.

Regarding those brownie points: the walk to Anand's shop did create some pause. Their shop, we were told, was in a "quiet place" so he could better hear the tone of the drums. Well, it turns out "quiet place" is code for "down a secluded alley". Had it not been for the trust developed with our driver over the week, the opportunity to see Anand at work would likely never have materialized!

In the end, the exact dayaan he selected for me was not yet finished, so Anand asked us to return tomorrow to pick up the finished product. As he promised to make it "just right" for me, I was pleased to wait the extra day. Tangentially, I also suspect those in the hotel rooms adjacent to mine are equally pleased with his perfectionism.


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