Independence Day in Leh

So the following few posts all took place on August 15th, but I just wanted to get them up for all to see. Also, the progression of pics below should be shifted -- the one two down should actually be before the next post. I still haven't figgered out exactly how to use this darn thing.

This is a pic of the market in Leh, I passed it on my way to the polo grounds and wanted to include.

The 59th anniversary of India's independence from Britain began wet and cold in Leh, but by 9am the rain had stopped and hundreds of soldiers, students, and performers stood at attention on the khaki turf of the Polo Grounds, all set for the Ladakhi celebrations.

Governmental and regional authority figures, their guests, and a selection of local VIP's were seated in readied silence in a covered grandstand. Owing to unspecified terror threats pegged to Independence Day, security forces arrayed impressively inside and outside the grounds rigorously scanned bags, faces, and the sheltering mountains and sky in search of anything out of the ordinary. Multi-colored flags, a reminder of Ladakh's Buddhist majority, fluttered in a light breeze across the field from the Indian colors, which sagged under the grandstand.
After words of welcome from the master of ceremonies, the assembled crowd of some ten to fifteen thousand – crammed onto bleachers, climbing up stone walls, pressed against security cordons, hanging over nearby balconies, and sprinkled with international tourists – was first treated to the sight of Lakruck Singh, Chief Executive Counselor of Ladakh, standing despot-like in a convertible and waving while being driven slowly around the periphery of the dusty field. Security forces now went about their duties with redoubled vitality, employing walkie-talkies, hard stares, and all the vigilance at their disposal to keep the audience frozen. Tour completed, Singh ascended to the rostrum and proceeded to give a speech in a language unfamiliar to anyone sitting near me.

Then the good times began. And before detailing the fun I should state that mid-morning independence celebrations are not my usual cup of tea, involving as they often do a certain degree of regimentation, discipline, and seriousness – what the hell would we all be doing here, at this ungodly our, if not for pomp and circumstance? – and a glaring lack of grilled foods and alcoholic beverages. Not to mention me getting up and motivated and across town beforehand. However, embracing cultural diversity and that sort of thing, I had steeled myself and hoped for the best.

A shout rang out after Singh's final words, and the battalions nearest the grandstand turned smartly to their left and began to march in the most exaggerated manner, with legs reaching near-perpendicularity and arms swinging above shoulders. Watching grown men "walk" in such a manner is inherently ludicrous, no matter the setting, and watching hundreds of stern-faced soldiers do so with great sincerity doubled my glee. I confess that I laughed out loud several times as these displays were repeated throughout the event, greatly enjoying this holdover from the British Raj still breathing deeply here in the Himalayan high desert. I wondered if such showy, overwrought stomping is the norm for formal gatherings across the country.

Regardless, the soldiers turned at the edge of the field and came around in front of Singh and the other assembled military and civilian guests of honor, swiveling their heads as they arrived directly in front. And now the students had turned and begun to walk in their footsteps, swinging and stomping their way along the turf, hundreds of boys and girls in packs of thirty to sixty, each representing a different school. They were aged six to about twelve and dressed in all variety of school outfits – classic Christian school plaid skirts and ties, blue button-down shirts with navy corduroys and berets, gorgeous, form-fitting green silk dresses accented with white, brilliant red and white checkered skirts paired with white blouses and colorful scarves, and, in honor of the occasion, Muslim schoolgirls bedecked in orange, green, and white clothing from head to toe. The whole lot went parading by, arms swinging up to their heads and heels kicking high, some smiling, others stern, but every darling one of them kick-stomping their way across a sandy pitch on a chilly Tuesday morn and not wondering:

"Why in god's name do we have to walk like this? This is really really dumb, and – ooph! – not terribly easy, either. And while I'm at it, Why me? I must look ridiculous."

These and other less subtle thoughts might have been coursing through my head were I one of these children. But these students, much like the soldiers before them, with their combination of great intent and unbridled delight, their melting-pot range of skill level, size, and coordination, made the marching something to behold.

"We do this because we are proud," their movements conveyed, "and we are especially proud today. This is our day. Look at us. Look at India. Aren't we something?"

And as what seemed every Ladakhi youth high-kicked her way past, I realized that these chorus girl kicks weren't ludicrous at all, or if they were ludicrous they were also something much more meaningful, because India had more reason to embrace and celebrate its Independence Day than most, mainly for two reasons. First, there is that unprecedented force of will that spearheaded the independence movement, that matchless moral and political authority, that skinny savior in a diaper, one of the great human beings of the twentieth century, Bapu, Mahatma, Ghandiji – a man who is an undeniable inspiration to students learning of his exploits, some of whom marched on Leh's Polo Grounds today. Second, the eviction of the British occurred less than 60 years ago, which means that there are hundreds of faces in this crowd who were alive to see it, to tell their children about it, and who, whether their lives were affected or not, were at the time able to appreciate the great historical moment and to feel a part of it. If they could, they would undoubtedly be out there kicking to the sky and swinging their arms with gusto. Some of that has seeped into their progeny.

The grand marches were followed by a series of singing, dancing, musical performances. Not one, or two, or ten even. There were seventeen in all. Seventeen very different, fantastic little shows of talent and movement – now that's an independence day celebration that puts the little-attended parades of the Western world to shame.

Some scenes:

"Hum Hindustani," (famous patriotic song, this might not be exact name) was the third number, a joyous tune of secular nationalist pride. If the message was distorted in the long-disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Buddhist girls doing the singing and dancing did not notice.

A yellow lab trotted out onto the pitch during that song, and ran back and forth in front of the performers, audience, and soldiers for a few numbers, seeming to enjoy his all access pass. Having had his fill, he slipped out an opening near the back.

A little skit of young Ladakhi girls embracing all variety of professions – engineer, doctor, pilot, scientist, soldier – finished with a shaved-headed, bespectacled and rail-thin local boy wearing only a dhoti leading the multitudes to the future, and to freedom.

A man wearing an Afghani Muslim hat (what is name for this??) sang a beautiful a capella song in Urdu.

They were all excellent displays of local customs, dress, and talent, but my favorite was the seventh, in which little girls – about six to ten years old – in black dresses with white shoes and sashes, wearing makeup and earrings, began by first standing stock still, then bowing gracefully towards each other and the guest of honor, Singh, before sliding back upright. Then – bang! bang! – two sharp drumbeats and they broke into what I affectionately call "the Indian dance." A part of almost every Bollywood routine, performed solely by women, and articulating some deep-rooted expression of India's endless grace and mystery, the dance involves swaying of one's hips broadly, then reaching bended arms out towards one side and twisting wrist and hand at precisely the right speed and timing, and repeating in opposite direction. The movements are incredibly simple, yet they are also deeply subtle, and when done right, and joyously, the way some of these Ladakhi girls performed Tuesday, the dance is sublime. A flick of wrist, a flared hip, a flash of smile, and you've been seduced.

The locals were mesmerized, jockeying for better seats and staring intently towards the canvas on which the performances took place. Caught up in the moment, soldiers relaxed their restrictions, letting small children and some elderly through the security lines for a closer view. One security guard with his own compact camera took snapshots on the sly.

As the ceremonies concluded awards were given for best performance and for best presentation, and all – marching band, soldiers, dancers, singers, Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus – received a consolation prize of one sort or another. And as each and everyone one of them high-stepped to claim their award, awash in jubilant applause, I couldn't help thinking that India had been the real winner. Posted by Picasa

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