This story is an excerpt from the Fall 2013 issue of the College of Liberal Arts’s alumni magazine, Compass. To download the entire issue and browse the archive, visit the Compass page.
By Charlotte Tucker
In January 2001, a devastating earthquake rolled beneath parts of northwestern India.
More than 20,000 people were killed and 600,000 were left homeless. It was his students who broke the news to Temple anthropology professor Jayasinhji Jhala in the hours afterward.
Jhala was born in India’s Gujarat state before moving to the United States for his graduate studies, and he’d been teaching visual anthropology at Temple for about 10 years when the earthquake struck. Visual anthropology is the study of the culture of a people by examining their communications. A visual anthropologist learns about the people he studies by looking at photography, music, art, dance and, increasingly, new media.
“Anthro- is the study of man, and so visual anthropology is the propensity to look at the aspect of human culture that can be seen and heard,” Jhala said.
Eager to help in India after the quake, Jhala and a pioneering group of students set out for Gujarat. Their trip marked the beginning of what would become an annual pilgrimage. It also began a cultural exchange that has shaped the lives and careers of dozens of students.
Within the field of visual anthropology Jhala’s particular focus is on fourth-world populations. He estimates that 800 million — possibly even a billion — people worldwide are members of the fourth world. They are people who have identity, but not nationality. They might live within the borders of a recognized state, but they do not see themselves as citizens of that state.
Through art, they can express themselves and tell the stories of their ancestors, and visual anthropology is the study of that expression.
In Gujarat, the students found that many of the villages that had been affected by the quake had become “media invisible,” Jhala said, because the news media and government officials’ attention were focused elsewhere. Because they’d been largely overlooked, people in those villages welcomed Jhala and his students, who entertained them with American songs.
“That their own government didn’t come but these crazy Americans were there to console them and soothe them, that had a really big impact on communities,” Jhala said.
It also had an effect on the students. Since 2001, more than 150 students have made the journey to India with Jhala, using it as an opportunity to conduct independent studies in fields including film, architecture and philosophy.
For at least one such student, the trip was transformative.
Speaking Stones & Singing Stones
Rhett Grumbkow joined the visual anthropology department in 2004 and became fast friends with Jhala. Grumbkow’s focus on ethnographic filmmaking, or the use of film to study and compare cultures, meshed with Jhala’s ongoing project involving telling the story of a his ancestors, the Jhala warrior clan who presided over much of Jhala’s ancestral homeland.
“I thought of it as a visual excavation,” Grumbkow said, envisioning a film that would focus on details of nine centuries of ruins and architectural sites with historical significance to the clan. He filmed the documentary in June and July of 2005 and was working on the music to accompany the images and voiceover when he realized the film needed something more.
Plenty of documentaries rely on actors to recreate the events of historical significance, but to Grumbkow that idea rang false. He didn’t want modern-day actors sparring under the ruins of an ancient arch. It was inauthentic. Instead, Jhala found a professional painter to craft the images.
For the job, they chose Vijay Chauhan, Jhala’s friend in India whose family has been painting in miniatures in the Rajput/Mughal style for generations. (The term “miniature” can be misleading, but in this case it serves to differentiate murals that are painted on walls from smaller images, or miniatures, such as those that are often framed in homes or museums.)
It took years for Chauhan to complete the paintings, but by 2011, 60 were ready to go. All told, Grumbkow incorporated 30 into his film, titled “Speaking Stones and Singing Stones.”
The images were displayed in an exhibit titled “Painting Story of the Floating Desert,” featured at CLA’s Center for the Humanities at Temple in early 2013.
They blend the old style and stories with newer methods of storytelling. The characters are clad in traditional clothing featuring bright colors and jewels. In many pieces, the subjects gather around a king or other exalted figure with a crown of light. But they also borrow from contemporary comic book culture, Jhala said.
In one painting, for example, two male figures sit at the bottom of the canvas. One is a storyteller or poet, and in an oval bubble over his head, the artist has painted a man riding on a horse. “The poet is telling a story to the king,” Jhala said. “You know which story is being told. It is the story of a man understanding his tradition and warrior ancestry.”
One group of paintings features a series of warriors fighting on the edge of a long sword that stretches from one side of the canvas to the other. The pictures tell the story of how the warriors live their lives on the edge of a knife. “They have to be ready to die at any time in the defense of their culture, tradition and heritage,” Jhala said. “They live and die by what is right and wrong.”
The warriors in the stories are famous characters in generations-old stories. They sacrificed themselves for what they knew was right, Jhala said.
The process of creating the paintings was a collaboration that began with Grumbkow and Mangals dreaming up the idea and ended with the delivery of the paintings years later, Jhala said. Collaboration is part of the miniature painting tradition going back to the days of kings. Back then, the king or emperor would order a painting and one artist would be tasked with painting the figures’ heads while another focused on the clothing and still another painted backgrounds or flowers. In the same way, Jhala would send his students’ ideas and sketches to the artist would might recreate them faithfully or add his own twist and then consult with the students to see if it fit the bill.
Grumbkow’s film has been well received in academic circles and he hopes to have the opportunity to show to a wider audience soon. He said making it in India gave him a unique perspective on global issues, particularly in the way Hindus and Muslims were able to live peacefully together so many centuries ago.
In one part of the film, he focuses on a pair of gates, one next to the other. The first is constructed in the quintessential Hindu style, while, right next to it, is the other, built in the Muslim style. “At a time when Muslim values were being run through the gauntlet of mainstream media under the war on terrorism, our team were unraveling a deep intertwining of Hindu/Muslim indicators apparent in the architecture of the kingdom,” he said. “In the midst of another period of upheaval, here were longstanding symbols of inclusion and plurality.”
Grumbkow continued, “This is why I believe the film holds potential for broadcast audiences. The architecture of the region stands as a mirror, inviting the viewer to ponder the wider influences which shape culture and history over time whether Hindu, Christian or Muslim in origin. The film presents these cultural indicators – as with the Indo-Saracenic elements of the city gates or the merging together of multiple traditions of miniature painting into one – as part of a framework for viewing the intermeshing of opposing cultures more clearly, and for perhaps giving new perspective for understanding these processes in other places. The film is loyal to those traditions of visual representation in a subtle way, and is why I strive to make film presentations for Temple students and other audiences wholly informative and reflective, but in that way overall inviting.”
The Temple in India program was also transformative for anther of Jhala’s students. John Infante came to know Jhala through an undergraduate class and went to Gujarat. He visited Jhala’s family home in Gujarat and began an art project that involved rehabilitating a building on the home’s grounds that had fallen into disrepair.
It was the dry season, and he pulled up weeds and invasive growth and transformed the area into a meditation space and garden. But Infante’s art is ephemeral by design. When the monsoon season came, the weather undid his work, taking the space back to its state of disrepair. It was a study in temporariness and it fed into inspiration for a new project: The Jhalavad Sanctuary for the Arts. The Sanctuary, which is set to host its first artists this year, is a nonprofit field school offering residencies for artists. It strives to provide an affordable way for artists to remove themselves from their everyday lives as a ways to gain inspiration.
“It’s about the fostering of creativity in an environment that’s really shocking and draining for those who aren’t used to it,” Infante said. “It’s about transforming the artists themselves.”
It is precisely that transformation that Jhala hopes to encourage in his students. Opening them up to a world they normally wouldn’t get to see allows their creativity to flow. From there, anything can happen.
In addition to being a professor, a filmmaker, a mentor and a friend to his students, Jhala himself is also an artist. He created a series of mobiles that was put on display at Rowan University in April. Made of eggs, papers, feathers and porcupine quills, they move because of the volume of the air moving around them, so Jhala calls them “breathings.”
He eschews the limelight, encouraging a reporter to focus on the work his students create and what that art says about them and the world they live in. But spend just a few minutes talking to those students and it becomes clear that his encouragement and openness is foundational to their work. Infante said Jhala opened doors in India that students normally would never have had access to.
“He’s able to facilitate all of these creative minds,” he said. “When you’re there, you really have the entire country at your disposal.”
All photography and illustrations courtesy Rhett Grumbkow and Speaking Stones & Singing Stones.