Erik Sowa, Ph.D.

My Hyderabad weekend was taken up by a fascinating public art project. I'm here with two colleagues who have a side project. Julia di Biasi, our Director of Quality Engineering, is also an accomplished artist. See www.juliadibiasi.com. And Carrie Hotz, one of our Product Managers, has a background in art education and museums -- she actually worked as a DBA building computer catalog of art for museums. They have banded together on a mission to bring communities together via art projects (see www.myatlantis.org) and this weekend was the first time they have executed a project. I ceded complete control of my weekend agenda to this pair of pagal lardikkiya (hindi for "mad girls") and was rewarded with perhaps the best cross-cultural experience of any of my India trips. They say all the interesting physics and chemistry happens at surfaces and interfaces, and by golly we were at the interfaces all weekend long.

As you can see on the mezzamatta site, Julia likes to design and build mosaics. The first order of business was to find a wall we could get permission to decorate, and procure the materials. All this happened the prior weekend, so last Friday we split work at lunch time and headed for the wall of choice. This was the wall in front of the house belonging to relatives of Sangeeta N, Julia's QE manager in Hyderabad, on an ordinary street in an ordinary neighborhood, or at least it was ordinary before we arrived. Imagine a pack of artists, led by two mad girls in shorts and tanktops, descending on a mixed (Muslim and Hindu) neighborhood. Yes, we did attract attention. The contrast between shorts and tanktops vs. black burka shrouds was intense, particulary given the 100 degrees F heat. It shouldn't surprise you that the icebreakers were the neighborhood children. I myself played a supporting role, providing the tunes and documenting the project with pictures -- I had three cameras (mine, Julia's, and Carrie's) hanging from my neck most of the time, and there is nothing to attract a pack of Indian children like digital cameras! "Uncle, uncle, just one picture!"

Yeah, right. Just one, indeed. It took me most of the weekend to get over the feeling of personal space violation, as the kids had no inhibitions about getting really close to see the camera screens. The tunes came courtesy of some cheap $15 hotel-room-class speakers I picked up while killing time in the Singapore airport and my mp3-capable cd player.

The second most powerful kid attraction was the changing of the cds. They are sooo curious about the gadgetry. The crazy white guy (me) dancing in the street to the tunes drew out the some smiles and attempts to imitate. Fun!

Anyway, Friday afternoon the artists drew the picture on the wall, and we started breaking up the tiles. Crazy white people smashing perfectly good tiles drew quite a crowd. The street vendors all stopped to watch. Fruit sellers, broom sellers, pots and pans, you name it -- it all comes through the street, and we were stopping all the traffic. We tiled up a couple of test patches as dusk fell. Friday afternoon was marked by cloud cover (what a relief) and the threat of rain. As rain would ruin the project, we had to procure a tarp and cover the wall overnight. Fortunately, the rain held off all weekend. The tarp turned out to have another purpose -- curious kids would pick at the wall overnight while we were away without the covering. The soundtrack was pretty much all Stones from the late 60s and early 70s, with some Merle Haggard (Live at Billy Bob's) thrown in.

Saturday was the big workday, and we started by 9am. We mixed lots of cement and broke up more tiles -- approximately 10 colors in all. Several colleagues from the office here joined us to cement the tiles to the wall. It was like a giant paint-by-numbers project. It was hot hot hot and I huddled under my chico state bucket hat with my oakleys all day long. Boy oh boy did the kids like the oakleys. In addition to the parade of street vendors, we were entertained by a procession of about 50 goats. They came up the street in the morning and down the street in the afternoon. "Mutton" here is just as likely to be goat as lamb, and that herd was a lot of Muslim meals on the hoof. Remember, this was an ordinary residential neighborhood. With goats. There was some urgency about finishing the cementing job on Saturday, as the cement has to dry for a day before grouting can begin, and none of us wanted to extend our stay here. So we cranked and cranked, and finished just as the light faded. Musically, we started the day with Coltrane and Harding (Savoy sessions), which gave a kind of New Orleans jazz brunch cocktail mood, and worked our
way up the energy scale through John Prine (In Spite of Ourselves), TJ Kirk (both studio albums), and finally Ratdog (St Louis 11/15/03 with Johnny Johnson). Back at the hotel, after a much-needed shower, I floated in the pool for a while. There was a thin crescent moon right above the hotel, the muezzins were calling the faithful to prayer, and bats were flying out of the palm trees down to the water, presumably to munch on bugs. Wow.

Sunday was finishing day. We started at lunch time to give the cement more time to dry. Mixing grout in the blazing 40C sun was no fun at all, at least until I put on "Secret Treaties". The grouting work commenced to the sounds of Etta James "Sweetest Peaches v.1". Then I had to abandon my camera to refill and carry water buckets for the process of wiping off the grout haze. TJ Kirk's "Talking Only Makes It Worse" was the soundtrack for a while. Towards the end of the afternoon we had to take an hour break to let the last of the grout haze dry enough to polish it off. By the end of day three we had been in conversation with the neighborhood adults long enough that our break occasioned an invitation for tea in the backyard garden across the street. This invitation came from a cardiac surgeon who had spent time in Houston. "Deep in the hearts of Texans." I lingered over three cups of excellent tea and talked about university fellowships and the like with college professors until my colleagues dragged me back out to photograph the finished wall. Wow, does it look great.