The Berlin Wall Today

 If you claim of having been to Berlin, then you must necessarily post pictures of the Wall. Or so I thought. The coming down of the Berlin wall perhaps marked the onset of serious television viewing. Raise your hand if you remember “The World This Week” by Prannoy Roy. Those images stay fresh in the mind. Of course, on this trip, I went to see the wall. Or whatever remains of it that is still standing.

At every street corner near the wall, the one thing that gets sold is a small assortment of broken concrete, purportedly remnants from the wall. Souvenirs, I am told. I cant imagine what people would do with a small piece of broken silly concrete. But then I was politely pointed to the fact that whatever pieces of the wall that fell have since found its way to strange places. Like a loo in Las Vegas. No, am not kidding. Odd things happen in Las Vegas, but a portion of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop to urinals perhaps reflects on Vegas. Or the Wall. Or pee. Whatever.

There are other places in the world, like a Conference Hall of the offices of Microsoft, in Redmond, where a portion of the wall still stands. (Gifted by Diamler Benz to Bill Gates). So, thats the other end of the spectrum. I have no idea why Diamler Benz chose to gift a portion of the wall to Bill Gates. Nor does it clearly occur to me, why this should adorn a conference room. Of course, all of this is clearly out of place if you start thinking of the monstrous cruelty of the wall coming up in the first place.

The wall came up in 1961 and went down in 1989. The wall was a wire fence to start out with and became a brick and mortar wall in 1965. The wall in its final concrete form was completed in 1980. Imagine one midnight, barricades come up along streets that you commuted to work for. Houses that came under the arc of a line drawn on a piece of paper, get vacated and destroyed. Neighbours find themselves in different countries. Two different ideologies to divide one city. With a thick concrete wall running in-between as a sordid reminder of how life could have been if it weren’t there.

Touching the wall now and wondering how successful it was to keep people of one city, divided for thirty years was quite something. Yet, in its fall, more than just concrete was felled. It fueled far more. in far away lands, than what people saw being felled. The Berlin Wall today is proof that art triumphs over divides and can well serve as both a balm and a reminder of a cruel bruise. Am glad some of it stands.

One side of it, the West German side had graffiti over the years, as people had access to go touch and do anything with it. The other side, the East German side, was supposedly a white thing, which nobody could go near. (They had one more wall built as some kind of a buffer wall). Naturally, when the wall came down it is the white blank wall that attracted artists from all over the world to come and express themselves. There is one long stretch which has been preserved and is still standing. After getting moved from where it stood, to where it stands today. It’s called the East Side Gallery in Berlin. .


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The East Side Gallery is perhaps the worlds “largest long lasting open air gallery”. There are works of art on either side and it can take a whole heap of your time, if you are into standing, staring and appreciating such stuff.  If you are up for it and want to go on a bike trip tracing the very places where the wall stood, well there is a guided tour. The Berlin Wall Trail. I discovered it much later and have put it down on the list of must dos for a later time.

The website proudly announces “Travelling along the Berlin Wall Trail, the traces of Cold War tensions are never too far away. Much of the trail runs on border patrol paths in the west (Zollwege) and their equivalents in the east (Kolonnenwege). You cycle through the city centre, past the museums, memorial sites and the last remaining watchtowers, and along the old border outside the city. This mix of nature and dramatic history means the Berlin Wall Trail offers the best of both worlds. It is a themed city tour and scenic route rolled into one”

Doesnt it sound alluring? I would have loved this. Having limited time and a surfeit of things to accomplish, I let go of the wall trail. I must hasten to bring to your kind notice, ladies and gentlemen, the last three lines of the website.
160 KM circular route of Berlin that is ‘easily managed by children’. Now, go on and make your choices.

The wall in itself, attracts all sorts of views. Like this one.  Which I was pointed to by the receptionist at hotel I was staying in. She was from the erstwhile East Germany as we chatted about how it was and how it is now. A structure that stood that long and attracted so much acrimony, becomes a memory aid to prep deep feelings entrenched in people.

But that the wall stood for so long automatically induces thoughts about how people tried to escape it. There were numerous daring attempts to cross over. All very creative attempts that hog attention and emotion. Nothing though like this one, when 57 people escaped through a tunnel dug by students, right under the wall. Its fifty years since that escape.

That night I ate dinner from a street side restaurant run by immigrants from Africa. As I watched them move effortlessly between tables and serve patrons, I wondered if there were new walls in the minds, that have since come up. Since the time, the old wall that stood on the ground was torn down. There seems to be many new walls around the world.

Walls get torn down when new perspectives emerge in the minds. Yes. New perspectives must emerge. Art can help. Thats the drift to catch. If there was one at all.

Art on the streets of Berlin

Writing this post for the dance, caused me to venture into a year old album of pictures. From a trip to Berlin. Fetching pictures that told many tales then. Getting me to promise that I will tell them all on the blog. Promises that remain unkept must be worked on. So, here are a few posts on Berlin.

You don’t discover the essence of any culture unless you walk the street, soak in the air, talk to people, eat some street food and gaze at life as it happens. Guided tours in air-conditioned buses with guides who crack rehearsed jokes and pause for just the right time for the laughter to get over, is too programmed and zoo like.

The streets of Berlin give you such a fantastic array of coherent rich colour and a sense of modernity, in seamless co-existence with a firm gaze towards the future. With an aimless sip of good coffee I can narrate a thousand things that struck my eye and stayed in my mind. But if you ask me to just stick to one, JUST ONE and no more it would be this : The ubiquity of ‘art’ on the streets of Berlin.

Of the galleries and artists, there are a zillion each. Lonely Planet describes it thus, here

“Art aficionados will find their compass on perpetual spin in Berlin. Home to 440 galleries, scores of world-class collections and some 10,000 international artists, it has assumed a pole position on the global artistic circuit. Adolescent energy, restlessness and experimental spirit combined and infused with an undercurrent of grit are what give this ‘eternally unfinished’ city its street cred. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s abundant space and relatively low cost of living have made it a haven for international emerging artists. Most labour in obscurity but there have also been some notable breakthroughs, including Danish-Icelandic phenom Olafur Eliasson.”

But it is what you see on the street that gives away much of the city’s positive valence for art. In the few days that I was there, a whale of time slipped by as I stood and stared at performances at street corners across the city. Different genres. An assortment of artists, instruments and art! It was perhaps the best balance to the order and symmetry that daily life of Berlin offers. (I landed from Mumbai and that should indicate a few things to you).

At all times, there is an audience that sits, stands and applauds. Sometimes its a long sit down and stare. At other times the audience is a ‘pause-for-a-moment’ and ‘shuffle-feet-to-hurry-on’ kind. The artists however genuinely didn’t seem to care. Plying their wares with such delectable ease and passion that they seemed to ooze a natural invitation for appreciation and joy, no matter your background.

TV Tower

Its a year on, but I can almost remember the fantastic songs and music of one man, sitting beneath the TV Tower. He sang in English. He sang well. He seemed prepared to go on till the end of time. That Sunday morning as the September Sun emerged from behind the buildings to be the balm to a sepulchral chill, the music refreshed me with a vigour for life and living. He was still singing when I left the place. I parted gladly with Euros that were reserved for lunch. This fed me more than the best food could possibly do.

The giving was out of sheer joy. He singing seemed to be out of joy and the implicit trust in people appreciating it all. The giving that people did, seemed seamless, logical and joyous. Berlin provides a picturesque horizon where the giving at a street performance, has no sense of decaying pity that dominates several cities of the world. The reciprocity in the average passerby is a treasure that stood tall.

Every performance tugged a chord. Each unique, complete and leaving a gnawing feeling that much has gone into the weeks gone by for such a performance to flower on this day. The streets of Berlin are testimony to perhaps how ‘developed’ a city could be. A development that is lead by a desire to trust and nourish the art as well. For the soul of the city lies ensconced in the arts and how it treats its artists.

 The next time you see a street performance in your city, in any city for that matter, pause for a moment. You could spread the joy by opening your wallet. Perhaps as valuable if you use the following payment method as well.

  • Stopping your watch
  • Stow your phone away
  • Pay your attention & appreciation

I wont tell you it will work. For there is no need to do so. Usually does. Go try!

PS : Earlier posts on Berlin are here, here and here

Soul dance

If ever I make a list of things that I wished I could do better, dancing will figure right up there in that list. The stillest of still mannequins can reek eloquence on the dance floor compared to what I can ever accomplish. Awe consumes me when I see people break into a dance. Swing arms. Shake legs and other parts of the body with such striking coherence, rhythm and synchrony that just being a fly on the wall shakes me up, stiffens my body to the bone and like I got a intravenous injection of stiff glue.

Blessed are the nice people amongst them, God bless them all, who make it a point, to tell me that its not really about getting the steps and synchrony right, but more about ‘having a good time’. So as is wont to happen, I get goaded onto the dance floor. I am reasonably sure that the nice souls that goaded me to dance were really looking to have some belly ripping laughter of seeing a human being with glue in the veins attempt dancing! I once had a nightmare that someone uploaded a strikingly eloquent video of me dancing : arms, legs, head, hips and whatever else going in such asymmetrical silly splendour that it would be hard for anyone to imagine that all of that belonged to one man! Sleep played truant for a few hours after that.

Thankfully I do not watch TV. Sometimes though, the missus points me to dance shows were purportedly normal people and kids (who barely reach my knee) do such insanely incredible dance moves with amazing synchrony, rhythm and other acrobatics in the name of dance, like some cirque du soleil show. It leaves me gaping in awe, shaking my head and retreating to my world of blogs, books and bemused looks.

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Cut to a year ago. In Berlin. On a Sunday, I was hurtling to see the Berlin wall. Struggling with the language, the chill, and a little raw from a few cold shoulders, I alighted from the metro as it swept into a station with a hurried precision.
Right inside the station, there was a performance that was underway. A dance. This wasn’t abstract acrobatics. This was a community in action. Their moves were such a joy to watch. And they were perfectly normal people. Young, old and middle aged. Or so it seemed. It was seamless motion, in a metro station.

They made slick moves with such seamless ease. They turned and paired with another with a clap. Another clap in a few seconds, another turn. A new partner. A quick elegant step and then a clap. A new partner. The background hugged a music that I didn’t understand, which didn’t matter. The inanimate pillars seemed to let go of a leap of joy, every time they clapped and turned. A trance enveloped me and kept me frozen for a while. Forgetting all about the hurried flurry of wanting to see the great Berlin wall. This dance left me soothed, refreshed and as though a sudden wave of a wand was upon me, a ton of a good mood rained on me.

It was odd that I had set out to see the broken Berlin Wall and several other walls broke, even before I saw the wall. Dance has such incredible power. Artistic expression always carries with it a little bit of soul and makes moves that aren’t so visible, or so I believe. In this case, it had pronouncedly tangible moves as well. There is no joy like the one when you witness a soul dance.

The missus was discussing a ‘Bollywood Dance’ class that is the flavour of the season in the apartment we live in. This post started there. As I write, there is a constant throb of garba music and my window pane catches a zillion lights, perhaps from tiny shiny glass pieces sewn on to dupattas that adorn swiveling bodies that hug mellifluous tunes.

Go dance people. Make your moves. Whatever they are. Pass a bit of your soul. Its good for you too.

War and Peace

There were all kinds of moments in Berlin. A couple of poignant ones for this post.  Berlin packs enough and more of history in the most modern of settings that the contrasts are not just obvious but rather arrestingly present their friendly coexistence in every crevice and corner.
Somewhere close to the Branderburg Gate are two relatively small places ( read as ‘less opulent’) that held my attention and fetchingly sought my thinking going.
One was the “Neue Wache” or “The New Guard House”.  The twists and turns of time stood firmly etched in poignant detail here.  Think about this. A building starts out as a Guard House in the early 18thcentury and gets transformed into a war memorial in the 1930s. Going on to get bombed in World War II, surviving to see a revival and continue to serve as war memorials of some kind through the cold war era and now in the Unified Germany era as well.




There are no guards there now.  Behind the huge pillars that welcome you well, I could imagine guards walking about. There are none of them now, but the iron in the gates could let you know how it was. For now, there sit a  statue of a Mother and her dead son by Kathe Kollwitz.  It is an impeccable work of art and if you stare at it for long enough and soak the wrinkle and the despondency of mother and son, and the uselessness of war will almost call out your name. 
In the middle of a large hall, the mother and son sit there and implore you to think. An opening right, a circular, and well done opening above them, shows the sky.  No glass. The statue has the sky as the ceiling. On the day I was there, a stream of light hit the statue with masterly elegance but then, it didn’t take me long to realise that the elegance of streaming light could stand replaced by the harshness of rain. Or snow, for that matter. 
And then I learnt that it was done to symbolise  the suffering commoners go through during times of war.  It couldn’t be more appropriate. 
The steady shuffle of the tourist footwear accompanied by incessant clicks of digital cameras and mobile phones didn’t for a minute cause the mother or her dead son to flinch. As people took pictures of themselves before the statue. A few of those perhaps would have made it Facebook or to other albums showing off a visit to Berlin!  
I would have preferred a trifle more of sombre. A moment in reflection.  Perhaps some silence even. But me and my preferences stood engulfed by the sepulchral mother and her dead son even as natural light continued to shower all its attention on them!
Speaking of silence, down the road, right under the noses of the horses of the God of victory, atop the Brandenburg Gate is the “Room of silence”. An incredible place of quiet.  In the thoroughfare of all the commercial cacophony that envelopes what was, until a few decades ago, a place of great history, stands this simple room. 


A room bereft of everything but a a couple of chairs, a large painting and a some amazing silence. Its website reads
“…provides an opportunity for everyone, independent of background, colour, ideology, religion and physical condition to enter and remain in silence for a while to simply relax, to gain strength for the daily life, or to remember inside this historic place the dark but also hopeful events, to meditate, to pray..”
I sat there for a while, noticing the number of people that came in and went out initially. But shortly, I didn’t notice anything beyond the peace that enveloped me. There were some details like the fact that the UN has a similar room like this in New York and Dag Hammarskjöld, the former Secretary General of the United Nations had it built and used to get there often to just sit in silence, were consumed later. 
I don’t think of a better, bigger time than now, for this room to scream ‘silence’ down your ear drum.  Poignancy personified, in the most delightful and delicate of ways. Its a small room. But if you are in Berlin and standing under the Brandenburg Gate, well, this room can be missed easily. 
And so, watch out. Step in. And be still. For a while. It is helpful.