Published Jan 25 2015, by

Oil and Transcendence

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Day One. It was hard to wake up. It was likely the “gentle” sleeping aid I took the night before. I wanted to walk but had been warned not to walk alone. I didn’t hear from any members of the Delhi Sunrise Club, so I enjoyed a lovely English Breakfast Tea in the sitting room. Thanks to the Magic of George Tobolowsky, an artist in the exhibition and the co-captain of this beautiful project with Bill Fitzgibbons, the hotel thinks I am American Museum Royalty.

I watched the veil of morning stay veiled in a very dense fog: no sign of a sun rising—just light after there wasn’t. This morning many of the major streets around the hotel are closed for the “Dress Rehearsal” for the Independence Day Parade—we couldn’t make any appointments as the city is virtually shut down. There is also lots of talk of Obama’s visit. I read the “Indian Independence Times” and realize his trip to the Taj Mahal is one of the two days we planned to be there. My heart sinks. I remember Praveen, our guide, saying the night before, “This is India, anything is possible. You just can’t plan for it to happen.” I guess this is where that beautiful Sanskrit works comes from: Sva-ha, surrender.

We meet the leaders of our group for breakfast downstairs in the bustling restaurant with an exquisite spread of South Asian and non-South Asian delights. We meet a few of our guests for the trip—it’s like the first morning of camp: you can feel the excitement for what is to come. We meet a group of sculpture professors and the dean from a university in Minnesota. They just finished an installation with a group of students from a NGO school south of New Delhi. I love sculptors. George spotted them the day before in the lobby as they walked in carrying their welding helmets. We are all amused by the coincidence—but remembered how possible India is—and invited them to the opening of our exhibition this evening. The website for their project is I’m thinking this may be a school we can partner with in the future.

Breakfast: Dahl, Idli, chutneys, chickpeas, plump pomegranate seeds and a delicious pudding with almonds. Sapna writes later on my Facebook page that I chose well—all 6 tastes, vegetarian—a perfect breakfast, and it was.

After the streets clear, four of us arrive at a ayurvedic wellness center that was highly recommended for it’s authentic treatments. After learning so much at the museum from our in-house Ayurvedic expert, Sapna Punjabi-Gupta, we were eager to experience this practice in the mother land. We enter a beautiful retreat, change clothes and are asked to enter the meditation room for ten minutes of chanting. The entire spa is made up of square slats of wood resting over water, as is the meditation room. It is small, but glows with a soft yellow light. A three-dimensional mural is our focus: a grey disc surrounded by subtle, fresco-like painting of a radiating sun-shape. It is calm. Our teacher invites us to sit as she explains that it is Friday and today we focus on the color yellow. Each day of the week, the meditation is illumined by a different color. She leads us through a meditation: far away from the erratic and non-sensical traffic outside (Indian Pediatric Association is convening in our hotel), far away from our jet lag, far away from any Western notion of what this experience might be like. I remember Sylvia Boorsteins’s meditation: “I come here fully present to this moment, I come here as a friend”. And so I do. I will try on this India. We chant three long cleansing “Ohms” together: Stacie, Jill, Caron and I am enchanted by how beautiful our voices are in this little yellow space. We separate into different treatment rooms for ayurvedic massage and a hot oil treatment. In my room, my feet are washed in a copper bowl alit with rose petals, my practitioner, “Bessi” tells me that she is asking the gods to give her strength and energy to work with me, to help me get the most out of the experience and to send that energy into me. (Amen to that). Then she stands in anjali mudra pose and begins to chant with a long Ohm. Because I am in the zone, I belt out the Ohm with her but swiftly realize, that, “no, Amy this is her chant” as she goes into a series of Sanskrit phrases—I laugh to myself, grateful she didn’t laugh, too and let her glorious voice fill my heart. She works with my stiff, stressed non-ayurvedic limbs for an hour. In this Kapha season, I am making Sapna proud: we are “oiling up”—lots of oil, lots of sweeping motions away from the heart—this massage is like nothing I’ve experienced. We move to a second treatment room for the hot oil on the forehead experience. This is a perfect antidote for my sinuses—a full hour of hot oil dripping in a continuous stream on my forehead. The oil is massaged into my scalp and shoulders continuously. I’m pretty sure I levitated off the table. This is Oil and Transcendence.

When it’s over, I wobble (with some uncertainty as to where I am, and a little oil in my eyes) back to the relaxation area. I wonder how people don’t fall off of these little island stepping platforms into the water below. I don’t fall. I wash my hair three times with questionable shampoo and it still glistens with oil. Oh well, Sva-ha. We compare notes on the differences of an ayurvedic experience, gobble down a delicious peppery artichoke soup and wade back into the sea of pediatric doctors outside the spa. It was pure Indian bliss.

At five, I greet the cousin of my dear friends in Dallas: Raj and Ruby Bhandari. Ruby’s cousin and two tailors have kindly arrived to help me with my saree crisis. Her cousin, Havinder, is the Dellhi side of their company. Ruby dresses the ladies of Dallas in sarees, salwar kameez in her own designs: a beautiful hybrid two cultural influences. It was pretty comical—I’m in the lobby looking for a gentleman I don’t know, I’m chatting with George and suddenly the three gents approach me—the tallest wearing his beautiful turban. Much to George’s surprise I introduce them and assuredly (in apprearance) take them all up to my room. Yes, it was awkward. Good thing I have the complimentary suite. We try on and measure and wrap, and fold, and wrap again. Word gets around and soon three ladies from the museum are in my room asking for saree blouses and alterations. It was such a beautiful experience: the sweeping motions of four different sarees—different in color and pattern folded, unfolded and positioned just so—smiles everywhere when the tailors say they can turn this around in a day. We will be the belles of the ball, the cinderellas of India. I am grateful these kind men have come to help us—on the eve of a three-day weekend, extending the start of their own vacations to convince all of us that no, this saree will not fall off. India is Kind.

Last night we ventured to an opening at the Nature Morte gallery. Peter Nagy, a French gentleman raised in Conneticut, has blazed a bright path for contemporary art in India. I loved the work and noted that when we organize an exhibition for Dallas, Peter will be very helpful. I meet more of the artists from Texas in our group—and just like I felt on that first day at camp, I settle in with knowing that this is going to be an amazing experience.

And it continues at diner in the Vorq restaurant here in the hotel (Taj Mahal Hotel, Number One, Mansingh Road). Sixteen of us gathered to christen the cultural partnership between Texas, the Crow Collection of Asian Art and the Lalit Kala Academi. I sit with a gentleman from the U.S. Embassy and the Director of the Lalit Kala Academi. We discuss cultural exchanges-the possibilities, power and the pitfalls and ultimately agree that this should continue to happen. Exciting. The conversations are lit with energy and exquisitely prepared and served delights: Varqui Khumb (layers of spiced mushroom, morels on crisp filo sheet), Paneer Anardana (cottage cheese with pounded pomegranate) and a dessert sampler (trio of apple kheer, jalebi and Khaas malupa). Texas should be proud of its delegates—we represented well. I tumbled into bed (no sleep aid needed) just after midnight.

This morning I am watching the day arrive through a blanket of fog: today a white wall out my window. The bus tour is going to be interesting. Sva-ha. It’s time to order the tea.