|(Top) Sabyasachi Mukherjee takes a bow while a model displays one of his creations at Milan on Saturday. Pictures by Indranil Mukherjee
The Duomo is the third largest church in the world. Located in the heart of Milan, it is the hub of activity for tourists and the Milanese alike. It took four centuries to complete, with construction starting in 1386, and Napoleon, who was crowned king of Italy here, finally finished the grand facade.
The Piazza de Mercanti, across the beautiful, bright Duomo square, is the venue for the Asia Week handicraft exhibition. Entering the hall, the first thing you see are three craftsmen from Bengal. Jyotish Debnath, jamdani weaver; Gurupada Chitrakar, pat artiste; Madhumangal Malakar, shola carver. Not only are they displaying their craft, they are working on the spot.
Language problems are huge. Jyotish's tiny loom generates some excitement, but he, unfortunately, cannot communicate his distress about the sagging support for hand-woven saris back home. Gurupada and Madhu are seasoned travellers, having taken their work around the globe for various festivals. They are happier, though the large number of artificial flowers being sold at one of the many Thailand stalls is eating into sales of Madhu's shola pith creations.
Valuable exposure is being gained. 'I know now that here dark and bright colours sell far better than whites,' says Jyotish, for whom this is the first passport stamp. The others, more experienced, have learned some tricks. Gurupada's modern-theme scrolls include the A-bomb and HIV.
Response has been healthy, with sales, and even a few enquiries for bulk orders have come through. The good news is that another invitation for an India festival next April has already come in. Emy Blesio, an Italian yoga instructor, organises an annual festival. This time, he would like to bring artisans as well.
'It started because my daughter was learning Bharatanatyam and I realised her training wasn't proper. So I invited a teacher from India. I had to raise the funds for it. This is the fourth festival and last year, 20,000 people attended it,' smiles the 57-year-old woman. Punjabi MC, she hopes, will provide the pop music touch, thus far absent from the line-up.
Foreign travel, however, is not without its hassles. Food, for one, is hardly satisfying. 'Aajke ekta pijja khelam. Besh bhalo laglo (I had a pizza today and quite like it),' smiled Jyotish. Madhu, a vegetarian, has been the worst hit. Nandita Pal Choudhury, who has brought them here as part of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation entourage, has been struggling to fill rumbling tummies. 'I took them to the supermarket and asked them to pick up whatever they wanted. But they just don't consider this kind of thing proper food,' she frets.
Culture shock was acute on another account. There is romance pouring out of every shop window, breezing through cobbled streets drenched in the crisp September sun, oozing from creamy cones of gelato (Italian ice-cream), revving out of powerful engines of the most breathtaking cars on earth. So it is not surprising that people are a little, er, well' amorous.
It has all been a little more than poor Jyotish can handle. 'Why are they doing this, he keeps asking,' grins Nandita. 'The other two have faced it before and are acting as though they have taken it in their stride. 'Hoy, hoy, erokom (All these things happen)', they mumble.'
Big Mac fades
Sometimes even McDonalds has to sell out. Such is the beauty of the Piazza that the bright yellow M of the global fast-food major has turned a muted shade of gold.
Just around the corner from the craft venue is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The glass dome ceiling of the arcade makes this one of the most beautiful places in Milan. At the centre is McDonalds. Beside it is Loius Vuitton, across from it is Prada and just beside that is Savini, one of the city's best known historic restaurants.
Walk into McDonalds and the first thing you see are not Big Macs but croissants, not sundaes but freshly baked pie. Even Henry Higgins would be proud.
A streetcar named confusion connects this rather small city quite beautifully. Navigating Milan can be a stressful activity. With no one really speaking English, even the most mundane tasks become a challenge. Catching a tram, for example. Having figured out which line goes where, one would think the rest should be a piece of cake (or tiramisu, under the circumstances). Not so.
While an attempt to flag one down yielded little more than a disdainful glance from the unconcerned driver (many of whom are women), once on the sleek, fast-moving vehicle, things don't get any simpler. Asking the driver where to pay proved futile, confronted with a stream of rapid Italian, which perhaps is better uncomprehended and untranslated. Something about the back was all one could fathom. A glance towards the rear of the vehicle revealed a small, unmarked yellow box. Fellow passengers are also no help. So, that was the first free ride of the trip.
The second at least shed light on the whole sticky affair. Finally, an English-speaking passenger piped up: 'You can't buy the tickets here. You have to buy them from a news stand before getting on. If the controller comes now, you will have to pay.'
Grazie (Thank you).
It turns out news stands can be any tabacchi, or tobacco store, which apart from cigarettes, sells all kinds of useful items.