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Taking an Anthropology Course on Mumbai . . . in Mumbai

Written by Meghan Kelly 13 and Hannah Siebold 10

A traditional Kattack Indian dancer, Meghan Kelly 13, Hannah Siebold 10, and assistant professor Denise Nuttall. Photo courtesy of Meghan Kelly

Sensory overload enveloped us as we stepped outside the Mumbai airport and into the car that would take us to our hostel in Bandra West -- our home for the next three weeks.

Suddenly immersed in an unfamiliar world, a world so unlike the one from which we came, we were accosted with the potent smells, abrupt noises, and chaotic traffic that characterize Mumbai’s crowded streets.

We witnessed the disheartening conditions that low-caste (Dalit) peoples endure. This first car ride was deeply moving and profoundly enlightening. Each of us watched wide-eyed, overwhelmed, and uncontrollably excited as Mumbai life rushed by.

 Up to 100 children are educated in a small room at the ADAPT school location in Dharavi. Photo courtesy of Meghan Kelly '13

Up to 100 children are educated in a small room at the ADAPT school location in Dharavi. Photo courtesy of Meghan Kelly '13

During the summer of 2009, the two of us, along with Ren Ostry ’12 and Matt Portman ’09, traveled to Mumbai, India, for a three-week Anthropological Field Course led by assistant professor Denise Nuttall.

Our experience in India was challenging and life-changing. We quickly came to learn that India -- or Mumbai, at least -- is a land of spices, enchanting music, intense spirituality, and intensely philosophical people.

It is a land where modernity and tradition overlap and create a contradictory society; where one is forced to look deeply within and acutely at the world around them; where one works day, night, and straight through monsoon conditions; where one learns the significance of acceptance and faith.

This field course gave us the opportunity to live the life of our professor, an anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, tabla (Indian percussion) performer, and scholar.

During our time in Mumbai, we experienced many different sects of Indian culture. We participated in the world of classical music, visited museums and temples, met Bollywood filmmakers and revered holy men (like our good friend Babaji), visited global-fusion music venues, learned the energy healing technique Reiki during an intensive meditation retreat, and completed a week of service work at ADAPT, an NGO.

The ultimate mission of ADAPT (Able Disabled All People Together) is to educate low-caste children both able and disabled, eventually integrating them into India’s public school system.

While working at ADAPT, we learned that there are significant social inequalities and educational injustices in India. In particular, the barriers facing children with disabilities in the education system are immense.

For this reason, ADAPT has established seven school locations throughout Mumbai, one of which is located in one of the world’s largest slums, Dharavi.

While visiting Dharavi during our ADAPT orientation, we witnessed severe and tragic poverty. Up to 100 children inhabited a schoolroom no bigger than the smallest Ithaca dorm room.

Large families lived together under one roof, usually constructed of corrugated scrap metal and tarp, and endured unsanitary and unbearable living conditions even through the treacherous monsoon season. However, admirable work is being done by ADAPT to alleviate the extreme conditions of poverty and social/cultural inequalities that we witnessed not only at Dharavi but on a daily basis in the city streets.

While at ADAPT, students receive an education based on the national curriculum, physical therapy sessions, yoga classes, and prevocational training. In this inclusive learning environment, all children get the chance to learn together--a chance they would otherwise be denied.

While working at the ADAPT school in Bandra West, we were able to design our own projects to help the school in ways that we felt would be most beneficial, giving us full flexibility, and an open door for creativity.

We also devoted a week to volunteering at Narika Shakti, a self-sustaining craft-based training program at ADAPT. Narika Shakti empowers mothers of students by teaching them skills that they can eventually pass on to their own children. ADAPT provides a place where these women feel safe and comfortable, helping them build relationships within a productive community.

Our last adventure was a trip to rural Maharashtra, where we participated in a four-day intensive meditation retreat and lived among the indigenous people of the Warli tribe.

Transitioning from a bustling city lifestyle to a tranquil country lifestyle was a much-needed change of pace. The retreat took place at the Sajan Nature Club and was led by meditation guru and Reiki master Prasad Karmarker.

During this time, we practiced and became certified in the energy healing modality Reiki -- a Japanese healing therapy that we were able to practice on each other and bring home with us.

Participating in this retreat was a profound experience, as we delved into the spiritual realm of Indian culture, exploring the Hindu tradition of discipleship and the guru-disciple relationship. Through silent and interactive meditation, we gained a deeper understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, and our experience in India.

We reflected on our time spent in Mumbai, the culture shock that consumed so much of our thoughts and influenced our actions, what we learned about the Indian education system through our service work, and how our lives would be changed forever. We left the Sajan Club more centered and content than we had ever been before and were ready to journey home with a new and enlightened perspective.

This Anthropological Field Course, offered by the Office of International Programs and made possible by Professor Nuttall, allowed each of us to embrace experiential learning.

After experiencing Mumbai firsthand for three weeks, we were transformed both as students and as individuals.

Traveling to India was a life-changing learning opportunity that we encourage all students to seek during their four years at Ithaca College.

During our time in India, we tested our own courage, stepped outside of our comfort zone, experienced a foreign culture firsthand, and learned immense amounts from our passionate and fascinating professor.

By throwing ourselves full-throttle into the hybrid cultures of India, we gained a deeper understanding of ourselves and a bit of insight into the raw complexity of culture.



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