Wednesday, December 23, 2009

that ocean

The pull of the Indian Ocean is strong. It connects me to places and people as well as to the past and present. I am continually drawn to its blue immensity. And in the light of this discovery, I wonder what else is out there in the depths of that ocean, what else is held in that vast body.

I want to tell you this. The person who became my latest follower, Trevor Kidd, is now part of this connection. I was mistaken, we hadn't met before.

He has been researching the Alkin family and was googling when he found my blog. You see, his grandfather was my great-grandmother's younger brother.

That's him, Reginald Alkin, Trevor's grandfather.

In the last week, Trevor has sent photos, family trees, birth certificates and more, for which I am grateful, intrigued and delighted. It seems that Edward and Kate had ten children. Annie, my great-grandmother was the second. Reginald was the youngest child, born in 1888. He would have been seven when his father died in Madaripore.

Trevor tells me that both Reginald and his brother Horace were sent from Calcutta back to the UK to board at the Asylum of Merchant Seamans Orphans in Snaresbrook. This was 'an institution founded for the support and education of the children of deceased and shipwrecked marines'.

At 15, Reginald joined his family in Calcutta and worked for the Indo-Burma Petroleum Company of Calcutta, as well as the State Shipping Service. In 1918, he married Elizabeth McMahon in Fremantle and two of their children, Avis and Aubrey, were born in Albany.

He died in Sydney, 1941 on the HMAS Kybra and is buried in Rookwood Cemetery.

Trevor lives in Perth and he has Reginald's sea-chest.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

purple carpet

Last weekend I went to Perth for my friend Andrea Cartwright's 50th birthday. That's her dog Momo.

Perth is awash with blossoming trees at this time of year. Purple jacarandas, orange christmas trees, melaleucas, red flowering gums.

It was hot, 39 degrees on Saturday and we swam in the ocean.

When I was on the other side of the Indian Ocean, just over two weeks ago, I noticed a new follower on my blog. Trevor Kidd was the only one I didn't know personally. I sent him a message, thinking we may have met through mutual friends. I even thought we had connected in Perth when I lived there years ago, his name seemed familiar.

If I had been more attentive to my blog, I would have read the message from him via Liz Chater in the UK, wanting to contact me. If I had been more attentive, I could have met him when I was in Perth.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

where things begin and end

I've always been drawn to the edge, where one surface meets another, where one thing finishes and another begins. Conjunctions, boundaries, places of transformation.

My Masters research gave me an opportunity to give this deeper thought and look more closely at thresholds and liminal space. I read widely, wrote a paper and worked in the studio. The tiger from my father's childhood, the zoo, Calcutta ... all was on hold.

And once free of this course, I began to consider the tiger in a light of liminality, particularly in relation to colonisation and control. Skin, claws, teeth were all covetable trophies to be had. A demonstration of culture over nature, of man over beast, of ultimate power. I began to seek out these feline relics of the Raj.

When I visited London earlier this year, I found several pieces of jewellery made with tigers' claws in various collections. This necklace made from tigers claws and gold (c. 1865) is in the South Asia Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was purchased from the Paris International Exhibition in 1867. Each claw is between 30-40 mm long and about 30 mm wide. They are quite thin with a fine edge and a sharp point. The claws also have an interesting 'grain' and subtle variations in tone and colour. The sign suggested that tiger claw jewellery was worn as a protection from evil, and was very popular among the British as an 'exotic souvenir of their life in India'.

I want to make a set of claws, one that I can wear, on my fingers ... just in case.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

tiger trace and time to go

Today is the last day of my residency and I've been sitting at the computer most of the morning. The doorbell has been busy. One person called to see if I was interested in a portable gas stove cooking demonstration, a man from the water company downstairs came to collect the empty bottle, and someone else came looking for a Khoj person. I managed 'no thank you', 'it's here' and 'come back at three' ... in Hindi.

I haven't told anything of the Sunderbans trip as yet and I have some photos I'd like to share, so I will add some more posts post-Kolkata. However, here is one of my favourite images.

One morning in the Sunderbans, we came across some tiger pug marks. Sambhu said they were very fresh, probably from early that morning. They emerged out of the water, across the mud and disappeared into the mangrove forest. This tiger had swum across from one island to the other, most likely in search of food, a distance of about 1 kilometre. Just a trace.

It's my last day, and there is still more to write. And much more to think about. It has been an amazing experience, or rather an accumulation of experiences, that I'm sure I'll carry with me for a long time. I farewell some good friends and look forward to meeting them again. I will return in late January to finalise and install the work for the exhibition at Harrington Arts Centre.

A huge thank you to Khoj for hosting my residency, for their generosity and in making me feel so at home here. It has been great to share many things, especially all the fantastic meals we've eaten together. I can't recall how many conversations I've had with my friends about food and cooking. At the end of the day, friends, family and food is what sustains us all. I'm very glad to have been included in theirs. Special thanks to Abhida, Smriti, Bhutu, Kaushik, Paula, Chhatra, Tamal, Kazima and Sayak.



There is such a fabulous variety of breads here in Kolkata. My local dhaba, Azad Hind, has a bread maker out the front. Last night he was making rumalis over an upturned dome made of terracotta. We had a small mountain of them with dinner on Monday back at Khoj. They are paper thin, light and delicious.

Rumali means handkerchief.

khoj songfest

Dinner and drinks after my presentation, back at Khoj. Any gathering eventually ends up with singing ... and this began with the national anthem (hence they are standing ... Oindrilla, Prabhat, Chhatra, Saikat, Tamal, Abhida, Kaushik).

As part of the Khoj residency tradition, I was requested to sing something. Blankness gave way to one feeble verse of that fine drinking song ... Nico's After Hours. My Bengali friends love to sing and have an incredible wealth of songs, from traditional to Tagore. They also have beautiful voices.

edward and kate

Early yesterday morning, I went to visit Edward and Kate Alkin's grave at the Lower Circular Road Cemetery, via the phulwallah at Lake Market.

The headstone has been cleaned, the lettering regrooved but without the need for reinterpretation. The back of the stone is polished to a mirror finish and some of the small plants are beginning to flower.

And although I know where his bones are now, I hope to find some more traces of his life still.

calcutta port trust

This clock was purchased for R/- 1,998 & 8 annas in 1897 by the Calcutta Port Trust.

I spent several hours there yesterday searching the archives register for any trace of my great-great grandfather, Edward Alkin and also great grandfather, Charles Macdonald Shield.

At 1.50 pm, I stopped for a cup of tea.

I compiled several pages of notes and references for another visit, and did find a report 'List of River Surveyors and Assistant Surveyors since 1878' in which Charles Macdonald Shield's name appears. He joined in 1900 and resigned in 1911.

In 1899, three River Surveyors drowned.

The file for 1895, the year that Edward Alkin died, was not available. I don't know if it might have contained anything relevant. Edward was in the Sunderbans and the Port Trust documents mostly relate to the Hugli and Calcutta, though I did find a later reference to the Matla river.

Other reports included:

'Arrival of their Royal Highnesses, the Prince and Princess of Wales', 1905;
a 'Summary of accidents etc of light vessels', 1881;
'A dying River Irrigation vs Navigation', 1902;
'Acquistion by European and Anglo-Indian staff on the knowledge of the vernacular', 1925;
a 'Petition from the widow of Mr G. Thurlow, second mate light ship, Canopus, for a gratuity', 1904.

I'm curious if Kate Alkin received any compensation after Edward died. I now want to find out what he was doing out there in Madaripore, who he was working for and what the conditions were like. It is possible that the India Office at the British Museum may hold documents that could shed some light on the Sunderbans in the late 1800's.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

red velvet

Did someone leave this out for me?