(Seven) With or Without You

The Joshua Tree

In 2001 I attended one of my first big rock concerts at what was the MCI Center in Washington, DC. While a great band with an amazing repertoire I was (at the time) a really a big fan of their most recent album. It was a great concert. I had a lot of fun.

Five months later I went back for more. This time, we were a little further north at the Baltimore Arena and unlike the first concert which was an enjoyable experience, this night filled an emotional need, converting me for life. The band, of course, was U2 and that second concert was one month and eight days after the horror of 9/11. I didn’t realize it until I walked out of the Arena but those two hours helped make sense of a month of chaos and insanity. Continue reading “(Seven) With or Without You”


What Would Dolly Do? Public History in Music City

Gate at the Hatch Show Print shop and workspace. | Credit: Priya Chhaya

This past April I was in a small exhibit space at the Country Music Hall of Fame learning the history of country music through the years. There were CMA awards and costumes, record covers and photographs. In front of me was a screen cycling through the songs of the featured artist. As it shifted to a new song first my foot began to tap, then my head began to bob, and though I was dutifully avoiding eye contact with anyone else in the room I knew I wasn’t the only one.

And then we just started to sing:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Because when The Gambler comes on, you can’t help but surrender and smile.  Likewise coming to Nashville means settling in and embracing the music. Continue reading “What Would Dolly Do? Public History in Music City”

The Revolution in 1865

A common image of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s Assassin. From the Library of Congress collection.

For a long time I have devoted my energies, my time and money, to the accomplishment of a certain end. I have been disappointed. The moment has arrived when I must change my plans. Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me. Men who love their country better than gold and life.

–John W. Booth, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt

When we think of history it is linear. One event follows the next tripping forward, action precipitating reaction. And so when the line loops around it provides a sense of historical congruence, a symmetry of understanding that while obvious, feels like puzzle pieces dropping into place.

Continue reading “The Revolution in 1865”

Welcome Back Howard Theatre

The Marquee of the Howard Theatre
Credit: Priya Chhaya

Just a quick post to share some pictures I took at the Howard Theatre (link to info on the restoration) re-opening this week. If you want to read a great account of the night, that included performances by Trombone Shorty and George Clinton check out this post at PreservationNation — complete with great interior shots that my basic digital camera could not take successfully.

As you can tell from my previous post I love the theatre/theater, and while I often talk about the plays, movies, or performances that occur inside these buildings, these performances are enhanced by the places where they occur. Ambiance, acoustics are often what takes a concert to the next level.

One of the places I saw the Hunger Games was in the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, DC. It’s an old, one screen theater–complete with a balcony. While the movie was the same (I had seen it a few days earlier) there was a sense of grandeur in seeing it again, something that you sometimes miss out at the cookie cutter, stadium seating theaters.

So when an old theatre or theater is rehabbed and brought back to life it’s a wonderful thing. Often these spaces are transformed from original use, but as was the case with the Howard Theatre there is still that origin story of its original place in the community. In this case the memories of performances by musicians of the present and days gone by are about to be added to by a new generation with performances by Savion Glover, Wanda Sykes, James Brown, the Roots and the like.

For more on historic theatre’s visit the League of Historic American Theatres.

Some more pics:


It has been a long, strange, year. On one hand it felt like it disappeared without a fuss, slipping away, month by month, day by day. Winter became Spring, Summer then Fall in a blink of an eye, but so much happened, both in the world and personally that it has its own weight and import.

And now here we are. Over the anticipation and into the 3rd day of the year two thousand and twelve (try saying that three times fast) with resolutions crying to be made, and best of lists flooding the Internet. I’ve had a year of personal triumphs and losses along with professional challenges that forced us to embrace change.

So 2011, Twenty-Eleven 2-0-1-1 I’d like to bid you adieu.

Guaranty Building in Buffalo, NY

I am grateful for another year of family. For a wedding that made it grow, and for support when personal losses flew in unexpectedly.

I am grateful for another year of friends. As my thirtieth year on earth begins, having known some of these people for up to ten years has enriched my imagination, my world view, and my heart in the ways that only friends can do.

I am grateful, once again, for a year where I could walk into work and write and talk about something I believe in and love, even when it was hard (and at times, it still is). Change is a funny thing. When you know it is coming it can be frightening, a looming monolith–daunting, but as it sweeps in it can force you to look at old ways of working and push you in new directions. Optimism is my greatest weapon.

I know I haven’t made mention of some of the larger events of the year—of stories that we’ll be talking about as historians for years to come. Tsunamis, Earthquakes, Tornadoes changing the narrative of nations and small towns for decades to come. Believe me those larger events made an impact on how I view the meaning of place and where we came from in a new light. And the death of a friend this summer emphasized that life is fleeting, and that so much of what we have needs to be embraced right here, right now. 

Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AZ

And then there  are the typical “best of” lists. As always this is a reflection of things I’ve discovered/read/listened/saw this year.

Books : The Help, People of the Book, The Hunger Games Series
History Exhibitions: Maximum India, Taliesin West, Martin Luther King Memorial
Music: Sigh No More (Mumford and Sons), Collapse into Now (REM), We Are Young (Song by Fun. As heard on Glee and Chuck).
Television: Game of Thrones, Downton Abby, The Hour, Doctor Who
Movies: The Help, The King’s Speech, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II
Theatre: Les Miserables, Hamlet, The Heir Apparent

Many of the items on this list I wrote about on the blog this year, while others have flown in under the radar (including my recent love for David Tennant and Dr. Who. As a historian, watching a Time Lord fly around space during different historical periods is amusing and at times, surprisingly poignant.) Downton Abby (Season 2 starts January 8, Season 1 is available on streaming via Netflix Instant and PBS.com) and The Hour are two other series that I haven’t talked much about on the blog, the first has been written about in many places—great acting, great drama. The Hour, a six episode series set in England during the 1950s about a one hour news program, has an intensity that surprised me.

Each of these pieces of pop-culture fed my creative soul, made me learn something new about storytelling, and were, above all else, fun to listen to, watch, and see.

So….Twenty-Twelve, what can I expect from you?

My resolutions for the year are complicated. They range from the personal (eating habits, work out goals) to the aspirational (write more, dream more). Above all else I see 2012 as the year of getting organized, to continue to live my life in a way that helps others and sends love, peace, and kindness out in the world.

It is certainly going to be an exciting year. The Olympics, the 2012 Presidential Elections (to name two) that are sure to make headlines. There will be stories to be told, and lives that will be changed.

It is also a year of moving the needle, and raising the bar. Challenging myself to take risks and leaps that I have only taken tiny, hesitant steps towards in the past. Figuring out what does come next for me personally, professionally, and creatively. So no matter how we write it 2012, Twenty Twelve, 2-0-1-2, this is the year of living life.

Life is Bigger

I am sure many of you have heard the news. REM is over. After 31 years of working together Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills have decided to move on.

I’ve taken so long to write this post, one because I was traveling (I started this on an airplane and am now finishing it on another trip), but also because I wanted to think about how I felt, especially since reactions elsewhere ran the gamut from surprise, befuddlement, to sadness.

A band born two years before my birth I am quick to admit that my gateway song into REM fandom was the ever popular Losing My Religion. As my musical education grew I found myself being drawn to songs that were a little off the beaten track (by which I mean, not Orange Crush, Stand, Man on the Moon, or Nightswimming). At present my favorite is Walk Unafraid.

Walk unafraid
I’ll be clumsy instead
Hold my love me or leave me

Say “keep within the boundaries if you want to play”
Say “contradiction only makes it harder”
How can I be
What I want to be?
When all I want to do is strip away
These stilled constraints
And crush this charade
Shred this sad masquerade
I don’t need no persuading
I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and

Walk unafraid
I’ll be clumsy instead
Hold my love me or leave me

I’ll also admit that I kind of loved the CD reviled by many (Reveal). Especially She Just Wants To Be.

It’s not that she walked away,
Her world got smaller.
All the usual places,
The same destinations,
Only something’s changed.

It’s not that she wasn’t rewarded
With pomegranate afternoons
And Mingus, Chet Baker and chess.
It’s not the stampeding fortune,
Of prim affectations.
She’s off on her own
But she knows

Now is greater than the whole of the past
Is greater, and now she knows

She just wants to be somewhere
She just wants to be
She just wants to be somewhere
She just wants to be.

Perhaps I can say that my relationship with REM was solidified by seeing them live at the Patriot Center in 2003 where despite floor seats among a largely apathetic crowd I loved Michael Stipe’s dancing and steady vocals in addition to the energy from the whole band.

That being said REM’s last swing through Merriweather Post a few years ago with Modest Mouse and The National remains the best concert I’ve been to. With three fairly well known bands I expected a short set but REM stayed on for over two hours and put the other two to shame.

While I wrote this post I was listening to an old episode of All Songs Considered called “Splitsville: Breaking Up With Your Favorite Band“. I know that many fans out there broke up with REM a long time ago. Perhaps it’s because nothing could really compare to other earlier work, or because they stayed within their musical boundaries, which dated their sound in a world of Lady Gaga and pop music. Whatever the case may be, there is something sad about never hearing another new nonsensical yet soulful lyric.

As my bro in law said when I shared the news:

“You know, everybody hurts but I find that if I surround myself with shiny happy people holding hands, I don’t feel like I’m losing my religion…in fact, I feel like the man in the moon.”

I think what I will miss the most of all is the poetry of REM. The way the lyrics flung me into new visions and played in the background of all of my early attempts to write fiction. Despite their disbanding I look forward to their catalog inspiring me for years to come.

Oh this lonely world is wasted
Pathetic eyes, high alive
Blind to the tide that turns the sea
This storm that came up strong
It shook the trees, and blew away our fear
I couldn’t even hear


Oh this could be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen
Turn to a miracle, high alive
My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches
I’m half a world away

A Mountain Retreat (with Sari shopping, a Movie and a Play)

One of the great things about India is that it is a place you have to experience. I can describe how we get from one place to another—squeezing into a rickshaw in damp heat, or the terror I have in crossing the street—especially when cars don’t maintain lanes…but it’s not the same as being here. However, the last few days have been a hodgepodge of new experiences, though I will report that I am no closer to getting information out of my grandmother than I was five days ago despite having an excellent birthday party, with some amazing images from her past, present and future (great-grand kids who are absolutely adorable).

Baar baar din ye aaye, baar baar dil ye gaaye
Tu jiye hazaaron saal, ye meri hai aarzoo
Happy Birthday to you

Time And Again, Let This Day Return, Time And Again Let The Heart Sing This
May You Live Thousands Of Years, This Is My Wish
Happy Birthday to you

From Faarz (1967)|Listen to the song here|

The birthday celebrations launched with a trip to Khandala—a mountain retreat about an hour outside of Mumbai. The gaggle of family members that came with me (21 in all) ranged from 80 to 3. It included uncles, aunts, cousins, cousin-in-law’s who came from India and the UAE. Aside from the general family revelry (who doesn’t love 21 people in a room with a Karaoke machine) we visited some waterfalls and had exciting encounters with crabs. The one in the picture here is one that decided it lived in my cousin’s toilet—and sometime in the night crawled out to visit.

That being said, Khandala was beautiful. A tad cooler than the city, it boasted amazing view shed’s of lush greenery, though due to low rainfall the waterfalls had been reduced to a trickle. At one point we found ourselves driving up the windy roadway engulfed in a fog bank, unable to see more than a foot in front or behind. Then there were the monkey’s that hung out on the expressway as we took pictures of the Duke’s nose on our way home.

Silky Saris and Other Shopping Fun

After our trip the shopping for the wedding began in earnest. Its hard to explain the magic of a sari shop which holds rows upon rows of the six yard long garment in varying prices, sizes, and fabrics. Some come in dual tone with nothing but embroidery while others are filled with jari (translation lots and lots of beading and stones, almost like someone ran a muck with a beadazzler). When you step into a shop you sit in front of a table and give one of two things—a price point or a description of what you are looking for. Then the sales clerks pull out product after product trying to gauge your reaction. The fun in all this is seeing the flashing color swirl around you olive greens, deep purples, pinks and lavenders, oranges and blues (sometimes on the same garment) while checking out how the blouse piece contrasts with the actual sari. Then once you decide on the color you have to remember to take a a critical eye to the “palu” the end of the garment that drapes down your back (or in front depending on how you drape the fabric—trust me, there are many, many ways). Click here for a video of how we try on Saris at the store (starring my sister).

Another way that we shop is to take older sari’s of my mothers and take it to a tailor who transforms them into gaghra choli’s (basically a blouse/skirt/scarf) or a punjabi suit (a long top with pants). In order to get those made you have to buy lining which involves a whole other type of shopping—as seen here. I know that fabric shops exist in the United States but the process of making and buying clothes here is a full-service one that uses a different set of skills than one usually uses.

Bollywood & Kaanji

I’m not going to lie. We didn’t spend all our time inside stores, ogling clothing. When we first got back from Khandala we went to see a Hindi movie called Dabaang (Fearless). It stars Salmaan Kahn, an actor who I don’t particularly like but was what we call a timepass movie. Turn off your brain and enjoy….the colors, the fights (which were a combination of Kill Bill and Matrix style feats and acrobatics). Not to mention the song and dance numbers which I still can’t get out of my head. (Click on the link for a music video).

Then on Viserajan— we decided to brave the crowds to go see my cousin’s husband in a Gujarati play, something we’ve always wanted to do but have never had the chance. I know I mentioned earlier that I don’t have a firm grasp on either Hindi or Gujarati, something I always vow to fix, but I was amazed at how much I understood. Entitled Kaanji versus Kaanji (Kaanji being another name for Lord Krishna)it was essentially an adapted piece about a man who loses his lively hood due to an earthquake (“an act of God”)  and upon being turned down for insurance decides to sue god.

It was fantastic. I’m not saying this just because my cousin was in it, but it was funny, serious, and meaningful all at the same time. It dealt with issues of spirituality, ritual, and made some cutting observations about the practice of Hinduism in the modern (and digital) age.

The final part of the play, which dealt with belief, practice, life and death asked the audience to first find god within yourself before looking for him/she/it out in the world.

This is India I suppose, one part spirituality, one part entertainment, and another part full of vivid color and family. A portrait, a rendering of philosophical theory, mixed in with millions of unique stories and lives.

Click here to view more pictures of Khandala and Shopping.

Roots. Roots. Roots. (And Lord Ganesha)

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a first generation Indian-American. My parents came to this country in the 1970s (my dad for graduate school, my mother after marriage). I’ve been back to their country of birth many times in my life, and every time I gain an increased appreciation and love for my extended family and the country in which they live.

No….this is not an Eat. Pray. Love. moment. I’m not going to tell you all of my innermost thoughts about the wonders of India and my life, but I thought I might try and blog every few days about the sights, smells, and sounds of my trip.

We are here for three reasons.

  1. My grandmother is turning eighty years old.
  2. My older sister is getting married, so naturally we are doing a little shopping.
  3. A few days of fun in Goa.

The first two are probably the most relevant for this blog—because they have to do with my personal history. Mostly because of a communication barrier, I never really asked my dad’s mom about her life growing up in India or for stories about my father—something that I regret.  And both my grandfathers passed on before I was born/old enough to ask questions. Therefore, one of my missions for the next three weeks is to get my remaining grandmother to talk. It will be tough, since in her words, she has lived eighty years’ so now all there is left to think about is eating well, living well, and having fun.

A Word About Roots

I am an ABD. An American Born Desi. I take out the “C” which stands for confused, because I don’t really believe that is an issue (and for those who don’t know a Desi is another word for someone of South Asian descent). I know where I stand—both as an American and as an individual of Indian heritage. That being said, I don’t have family that came over on the Mayflower (or the Susan Constant), or a relative that fought in the Civil War. Both sets of grandparents lived during the time of Mahatma Gandhi and Partition—both things that shaped the way my parents grew up, and consequently the way I was raised.

11 Days of Lord Ganesha

Mumbai is in full on celebratory mode. For ten days India, especially the State of Maharashtra, celebrates the birth of Lord Ganesha (otherwise known to some as the Elephant god).

A quick interlude:

Here is a one sentence crash course on Hinduism (as I see it). Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. There is one god, fathomless and infinite. In order for humans to recognize the unfathomable, God—known as Brahman is qualified into three deities—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These three—the Trimurti (representing the creator, maintainer/preserver, destroyer) are further broken into avatars as a means of giving a face and a name to something that is beyond human understanding. Lord Ganesha is the “child” of Lord Shiva and Parvati, and is the god of many things including new beginnings and opportunities.

So for 11 days Hindus, particularly in the State of Maharashtra (where I am) celebrate Lord Ganesha’s birth with ten days of prayer, pomp and revelry (Ganesh Chaturthi), and on the 11th day (Visarjan.)the statues are immersed and returned to the sea/ocean. This symbolizes sending Ganesh back home where he takes the misfortunes of his devotees with him. I wanted to share a few pictures of one of the statues from the city of Pune (above).

It has been an impressive cultural experience with four days filled with songs of devotion and prayer booming from loudspeakers until well past midnight, and loud bursts of fireworks coupled with dancing in the streetsright now a group is playing a flute and drums in a steady, rapid fire beat. (Click on the link to watch a video/hear the music. It is a bit dark, but makes the point).

This is one of the things I love about coming to India every few years. No experience is the same, and aside from touching base with my extended family it is nice to be fully immersed in a world that is in my blood—and is very much a part of my Indian-American life.

Understanding another culture is hard, and while India is a mix between the old and the new, it is a Nation much more complex than what you see in a Bollywood movie. So while investigating my roots, I’m going to sally forth on another one of my missions: to bring a little bit of India to this blog.

As an aside, one interesting note is the environmental impact of this festival (there is some information about it in the article linked above)–how the plaster of Paris that the statues are made of effect the bodies of water in which they are immersed.

Click here to view full album from India.

Songs of the Preservationist

Latest post from PreservationNation.org, based on a discussion from the email list I help run.

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

Music — a bunch of lyrics, poetry put together to a rhythm and a collection of notes that riot our emotions, pull at our heart strings, or soothe the soul. For a preservationist a song can remind us of a place, or a building; an architect or a time long past. They are sounds and words that remind us of home, a nostalgic look back that often isn’t completely rose-colored.

A few weeks ago the preservationists on Forum-L compiled a list of songs that seem to “speak” to the field. In the end, I had a list of more than 200 songs, some with obvious preservation connections, others that are more like “save our building” anthems.

Click here to read more and listen to some of the songs.

The Lies That History Tells Us

Wicked Logo
Wicked Logo

I finally did something last week that I have been looking forward to doing for months. I saw the musical Wicked. Based on the book by Gregory Maguire the story essentially inverts the Wizard of Oz on its head and and asks “What if the Wicked Witch of the West Wasn’t Wicked?” Its one of the “certain point of view” stories and the musical is filled with incredible performances and musical numbers that do everything a musical is supposed to do: make you laugh, make you cry, and make you sing.

Here are some lyrics to start this discussion (for those who haven’t read the book or seen the play, Elphaba is the Wicked Witch):

Elphaba, where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true.
We call it – “history.”

(sung) A man’s called a traitor – or liberator
A rich man’s a thief – or philanthropist
Is one a crusader – or ruthless invader?
It’s all in which label
Is able to persist
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don’t exist

—the Wizard, “Wonderful”

When we think about and write about history we take some facts as exactly that—as facts. Hitler was evil, the Holocaust did happen, but historians know more than anyone that the “label” that persists sounds very much like the adage that “history is written by the winners.” In the case of Wicked we’re brought into a world that begins long before Dorothy takes her first steps into Oz, a land that is inhabited by animals who can talk and teach but are mysteriously becoming uncivilized and speechless.

Enter Elphaba who, in the classic hero’s journey makes sacrifices and choices to right a wrong, and ultimately finds herself vilified in the process. The ultimate strength of the story is its ability to turn the “wicked” into the underdog, and Dorothy into a footnote.

As a historian I can see how this applies. Every source we read, every oral history we listen to comes form someone with a point of view. We know that social history (that which looks at the slaves, the women, the ordinary people instead of merely the Big White Men) changed what we know about various facets of American History, and that different administrations are looked at and analyzed differently based on how conservative and how liberal our own bias’ are. We make choices as to what is important and what is not based on training and the ability to interpret and read between the lines to piece together history.

Now I’m not saying that if we looked a little bit harder the great evils of our time will miraculously be not as bad, or that the invaders will turn into “liberators.” I guess I’m merely acknowledging that what we do in thinking and writing about the past is as much of an art as it is a science and that sometimes opposing views give us a bigger picture of what actually happened.

Consider this image for another point of view:

Better History, Bitter Future
Better History, Bitter Future in Chelsea, NYC
Liberty from the Highline

While I was in NYC we walked by this piece of graffiti in Chelsea, just near the bottom of the High Line. It provides another interesting perspective. Histories document the good, the bad, and the ugly—but to some it seems like it is all with the wide brush of progress, rather then with strokes of reality. I believe that we document the past so that our futures are better, that injustices can be prevented before they happen. I’d like to think we aren’t writing better histories while ignoring the future, but do know for some, that is exactly what seems to be happening.

I am, in the end, ever the optimist, and so I’ll leave you with a few lines from another of Wicked‘s hits:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap

—Elphaba, ‘Defying Gravity”