Saturday, June 30, 2012

Going here, there, and everywhere


Members of the Y's Men Young Cochin Club set out on a 2000 kms journey without any fixed plans or itinerary

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Kochi-based Franco Jose and his friends reached Kemmangundi in Karnataka, it was pitch-dark. “There was a power cut,” says Franco. Since they had no hotel booking, they searched everywhere till they landed up at a lodge, belonging to the Karnataka government’s department of horticulture. 

“We saw a dormitory, with the help of a candle,” says Franco's friend, Binu Marangoly. “It was a dingy place. Some of us had apprehensions. But what made us stay was the wonderful weather.” It was cold and pleasant, because Kemmangundi was 5,000 ft above sea level. But there was one sight which created further unease.

Just outside the door there were more than 30 dogs milling about. “They were waiting for some food,” says Franco. “We were frightened to see them.” Nevertheless, because of the late hour, they stayed on.

After they ate food, they threw the leftovers to the dogs. “Unfortunately, the whole night, these dogs were fighting with each other and we could not sleep,” says Binu.

The next morning, the group was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the hills all around them. “In fact, it is more beautiful than Munnar and there were few people and buildings around,” says Franco.

Thereafter, they followed a mountain trail for a while. It was much later that when they checked on Google Maps, they were able to locate the same trail. “It seemed Google has mapped out the entire world,” says Franco.

And as for the dogs, when the group went to the canteen to have breakfast, the animals followed them silently.

Franco, Binu, and their friends – M. Benny Thankachan, Jayan Charles, Paul Sajan and Thomas Joseph – belong to the Y's Men Young Cochin Club. All of them are successful businessmen and professionals, in their forties. They wanted to do something different. 

“Somehow, we did not want to go to the routine places, like Chennai or Ooty,” says Binu. “We wanted to travel in an unplanned manner. Instead of going directly to one destination and staying three or four days, we wanted to explore places we had not seen before.”

It helped that they were travelling in the ‘Discovery' Land Rover. “It has such wonderful suspensions that even when we went over rough terrain, the glass of water that I placed on the dashboard did not overturn,” says Binu.

From Kochi , they went to to Peravur, near Thalaserry. There, they explored the Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary. There was a watchtower, which they went up and were able to get a 360 degree view. “It was a wonderful sight,” says Franco. “The trees were about 40 feet high.” At a nearby stream, the group indulged in swimming.

From there, they went to the Manipal, where three of them – Jayan, Thomas, and Benny – wanted to see their former alma mater: The Manipur Institute of Technology. At 7 p.m., they set out from Manipal and landed at Murdeshwar. At a resort, an elderly man, on seeing the group, quipped, “Guys, are you running away from your wives?”

The next morning, the group was amazed to see that they were near the Arabian Sea. “The beach was unspoilt,” says Binu. “We helped the fisherman to pull the nets.”

When they left, they stopped at a Shiva temple. “The Shiva statue, 123 feet high, was jutting out into the sea,” says Franco. The statue was built by several sculptors, and financed by a Karnataka businessman and philanthropist R.N. Shetty, at a cost of Rs 50 crore. The idol is designed such that it receives the sunlight directly and thus appears sparkling all the time.

As they travelled on Highway No 17, randomly, they would take detours and explore the countryside. Says Franco: “The beauty was breath-taking with rains giving a mystique look and feel throughout our journey.” Adds Binu: “We just wanted to follow whereever our whim took us. Thanks to the Land Rover, we could drive over any sort of terrain.”

At night, they landed in Goa and spent two days on Baga Beach . They loafed around, even though it was raining heavily and ended up having meals in shacks. One shack had the unusual name of St. Anthony’s bar. “We were wondering what would have happened if a name like that was put up on a bar in Kerala,” says a smiling Binu.

On the journey from Goa to Bengaluru, they visited the Jog Waterfalls. But since Thomas knew of a small waterfall deep inside a forest nearby, they went in search of that and found it and had a gala time. Thereafter, they took more detours, before reaching Kochi after travelling a distance of 2540 kms.

“We could do this, because we did not take our families along,” says Franco. “There is an element of risk. But to pacify our wives, we told them we would be taking them along on our next trip, which is to explore the north-eastern states.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A yarn about the yard

Author Vadayar Sasi has written a book about the Cochin Shipyard 

By Shevlin Sebastian 


In 1966, the members of the Shipyard Evictees Association made a large bamboo-framed paper boat called the ‘SS Cochin Rani’. Thereafter, they took the boat all over Kochi and let it down from the Venduruthy Bridge. “The point they wanted to make was that the shipyard existed only on paper,” says author Vadayar Sasi of ‘Cochin Shipyardinte Katha; Kochiyudeyum’ (The Story of the Cochin Shipyard and
Kochi ). "No action had been taken despite acquiring 100 acres.”

This act received wide coverage in the newspapers all over India. Finally, it came to the attention of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who decided to take action. The Cochin Shipyard came into being on April 29, 1972.

However, the first employee, Jacob Chandy, was appointed on June 8, 1961. Soon, a watchman and an estate manger were appointed. The Central Government opened a small office. “But for a few years there was an uncertainty about whether a shipyard would be set up or not,” says Sasi. “Sometimes, there would be news in the media that something was going to happen. Then there would be silence.”

The people who lived in the area wondered what to do. Some sold their land to the government and left. Others were waiting to see what would happen. Finally, the paper boat protest took place and things began moving forward. Eventually, the Government of India acquired an area of 170 acres.

Sasi, who retired as Senior Manager (Civil Engineering), after a 36-year career, had always wanted to write about the shipyard. “I was doing day-and-night supervision at various construction sites,” he says. He had a pocket diary where he jotted down points linked to his supervisory work, but also made notes on whatever he saw, from a literary point of view.

This is because Sasi is a short-story writer. One of his short-story collections, ‘Abhilash Nagarile Ayalkar’ won the SK Pottekkat award. “In fact, the shipyard has been an inspiration in my creative writing also,” he says.

At that time, the engineers used a jeep to travel from one site to another, and for rescue operations, in case of accidents.

One day, the jeep was parked on top of a ramp. Suddenly, it rolled down and landed at the bottom. Between the repair and the building docks, there had been a crematorium. “When accidents took place, the employees would put the blame on the ghosts roaming around,” says Sasi. “This time also, they said that  a ghost had pushed the vehicle. Most probably, the driver put the jeep in neutral gear and that was how it rolled down. But I wrote a short story to show that there was no such thing as ghosts and got it published.”

Incidentally, the first ship, ‘Rani Padmini’, was built in 1981.It is the only yard in India which can build ships upto 1.10 lakh DWT and repair them up to 1.25 lakh DWT (DWT = Dead Weight Tonnage). At the shipyard, tankers, bulk carriers, port crafts, passenger vehicles, as well as aircraft carriers for the Indian Navy have been built.

The yard has two international class dry docks. Apart from that, there are three quays, having a total length of 1000 metres, and 80 cranes, including two gantry cranes of 150 and 300 tonne capacity.

Financially, the shipyard is doing well. In 2009-10, the turnover was `1248 crore, with net profits of `223 crore.  At present, the employee strength is 1850. This includes officers, supervisors and other employees. In addition, there are thousands of indirect employees.

The 148-page book has several black and white photographs of events that have taken place in the shipyard. Sasi had focused on the history, on ships (from wood to steel), employees, quays, and the changing face of Kochi.

Priced at `100, the book is available at all National Book stalls all over Kerala.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A timeless melody

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Ashwin Shashi courted Shweta Mohan for eight years before marrying her

By Shevlin Sebastian

'Ashwin, I am happy we stood the test of time
Cause without you I could not have sung this song of mine
Right here, right now, I have you
And life cannot get better!’

When Ashwin Shashi got engaged to the singer Shweta Mohan on April 18, 2010, she gave him a MP3 recorder. “I thought it was just a gift,” says Ashwin. “But then Shweta told me to listen to the song in it. I did so and was shocked.”

It was in English. Then Ashwin understood it was in Shweta's voice, and finally, he realised that the song, ‘Music in my heart’, was about him. “Shweta had written the lyrics and composed the music,” he says.

Of course, one sentence was telling: ‘I am happy we stood the test of time’.

Ashwin first met Shweta in July, 2003. Ashwin’s sister, Arati, and Shweta were friends and studied together at Stella Maris College at Chennai. While Arati opted for a mathematics degree, Shweta did economics. “But they were members of the culture club at college and sang together,” says Ashwin. Now and then Shweta would drop in at Arati’s home. Soon, Ashwin and Shweta became friends.

However, in 2004, Ashwin graduated from the College of Engineering, Madras University, and then went to Pennsylvania, USA, where he began working for General Electric. “We stayed in touch through the phone,” he says. “By this time, we realised that we had something much more than a friendship.”

But the years did go past. In 2009, Shweta's family – singer Sujatha and her husband Dr. Krishna Mohan – began looking for a groom for her. “That was when Shweta and I seriously started discussing the next step,” says Ashwin. “There was no doubt that we wanted to share our lives together.”

Fortunately, both families knew each other well, and so there was a mutual agreement. The couple got married on January 16, 2011, eight years after they first met.

Asked about the qualities that he admires the most in Shweta, Ashwin says, “She is calm and composed. Shweta has an accommodating nature.”

Many people had told Ashwin that there was a strong possibility of Shweta not being a good match. “The fact that she could be a pampered girl, because she is an only child, and the daughter of a celebrity,” says Ashwin. “But Shweta is nothing of the sort. She is a down-to-earth girl and I have to thank her parents and grandmother for keeping her grounded.”

Apart from her character, Ashwin admires his wife's talent. In fact, whenever this Chennai-based businessman travels to and from work, he only listens to Shweta’s songs. And he has a few favourites: 'Aaraanu nee' from the film, 'Thiruvambadi Thamban', 'Aaro nee aaro' from 'Urumi', and 'Mavin chotile' from 'Oru naal varum'.

“Singing is a passion for Shweta, just like her mother,” he says. “She is completely focused on her career. I like people who are like that.”

In fact, her dedication is so intense that if a recording does not go well, it haunts her for a long time. “Shweta self-evaluates her performance all the time,” says Ashwin. “And that can get stressful. Thankfully, after our marriage, it has reduced a lot.”

It is difficult to hit the bull's eye every time. “On certain days things can go wrong and I tell Shweta that she has to accept that and move on,” says Ashwin.

But, at the same time, Ashwin knows that this sort of behaviour is part of Shweta's nature. “For an artiste, the right brain is more dominant than the left. So, she is sensitive and emotional. And at times, she can feel hurt when things don’t go well.”

Asked about her negative points, Ashwin says, “I am an organised kind of guy, and fix a daily schedule for myself, but Shweta is not like that. She goes with the flow of the day.”

Today, of course, Shweta is the celeb in the family but Ashwin has no problems with that. “It is important for her career that Shweta becomes widely known,” he says. “And at the end of the day, when we both return from work, it is not like I am living with a celebrity. She is just my wife.”

Ashwin has the same practical and clear-eyed attitude about relationships. “If you decide that one’s end goal is to stay together, then you will make the right moves,” he says. “It is like running a company. There will be ups and downs, and a lot of fire-fighting that goes on. But you don't quit just because there is a problem.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Trumpeting his music

Trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and his band, 'Gatecrash', impress a well-heeled audience with their jazz-pop repertoire

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Amsterdam, one day, Eric Vloeimans heard his friend, Sandip Bhattacharya play a tune on the tabla. “It was a haunting sound,” says Eric. “I was immediately attracted to the music.” Soon, he learnt to replicate the same sound on the trumpet. So, it was no surprise that when Eric and his band gave a performance at Kochi, organised by the CGH Earth group, he launched into the same song.

Interestingly, he did not know the name or its significance for the Indian psyche. Very haltingly, in heavily accented Dutch-English, he repeated what a guest told him, 'Sare Jahaan Se Accha'. Not surprisingly, the audience reserved the biggest applause for this intense rendering of the classic, famously sung by Lata Mangeshkar.

Eric was accompanied by his band, 'Gatecrash', which included Jeroen van Vliet on Fender Rhodes and keyboards, Gulli Gudmundsson on bass, electric basses and effects, and Jasper van Hulten on drums.

They began the recital with a song called 'Bolero', which had a slow beginning, then built up a solid tempo, before ending again on a soft note. On some songs, Eric dominated with the trumpet, while on others it was the keyboard and, sometimes, the bass. When he was not playing, the curly-haired Eric, wearing a multi-coloured shirt, pink trousers, and silver shoes, closed his eyes as if he was in a state of meditation.

Music is very spiritual,” he says. “It is something you cannot touch. It contains an energy of the heart. I play it with utmost sincerity. Every human being is connected to each other through the energy that is present in the Cosmos.”

Eric admits that he is not a believer in a God with a white beard. “There is so much of trouble in the world because of religions,” he says. “People go to war with each other saying, 'My God is better than your God.'”

Incidentally, Eric is one of Holland 's feted musicians, and has travelled all over the world, playing in front of diverse audiences. Occasionally, he has been taken aback by the reactions of the listeners.

People can be very enthusiastic in India,” he says. “In China, they are impolite and talk on the phone right in front of you. That can be unsettling. In South Korea, they shout and go crazy. In certain countries in Europe, like France, the audience can be snobbish, and will clap sparingly and show no emotion. But the Germans, who lead a regimented and disciplined life, are voluble at our concerts. As for the Kochi audience, they showed their enjoyment with good applause.”

One of the Kochi audience members was businessman Satish Pratap. “It is difficult for those who listen to jazz for the first time to connect with the music,” says Satish. “But Eric’s mix of jazz-pop made it very popular with the crowd. It was a classy performance.”

At Kochi, ‘Gatecrash’ had an unique experience. They played in front of mentally challenged children. “I was touched,” says Eric. “Most of the time, our audience comprises of people who are well-off. So, to play for the disadvantaged was a privilege.”

Eric, of course, leads a privileged life. “Music is my passion,” he says. “I work 24/7 and enjoy every moment.” Asked whether it is difficult to make ends meet, Eric says, with a smile, “I am not a millionaire, but I am earning well enough to pay the mortgage and have a comfortable life.”

But like all musicians they are losing money to rampant piracy and the menace of free downloads. “There are too many loopholes and the music industry does not have an answer on how to plug it,” says Eric. “In China, and many other countries, illegal downloading is commonplace. It is a sad situation for all artistes.”

It is the only moment in the interaction when his face droops. Otherwise, he is lively, sincere, and joyous all the time.

Just like his music.

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The 'Second Show' goes on....


Rising star Dulquer Salman and the crew celebrate 100 days of the film

Photo: Dulquer Salman (extreme left) with the crew of the 'Second Show' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Jose Thettayil, the MLA of Angamaly, saw a preview of the film, ‘Second Show’ at the Cinemax, Kochi, in March, he was taken aback by the swift cuts and shooting done with a hand-held camera.

“It was a film far ahead of the times,” he says. “'Second Show' was an explosive experience for me.” Later, Thettayil called up superstar Mammooty and told him, “Your son [Dulquer Salman] has acted better than you on your debut.”

Thettayil was speaking at the 100-day celebrations of ‘Second Show’ in Kochi, organised by the producers, AOPL Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Says Managing Director, Prashant Narayanan: “It was a journey of one-and-a-half years. We have come to the end of the ‘Second Show’. Now it is time to move on to the third show.”

The audience comprised members of the film industry, theatre owners, and the media. Film director Srinath Rajendran says that it was a genuine effort made by all during the making of the film. “That is why the film has crossed one hundred days,” he says.

While the other actors spoke, the cynosure of all eyes, was, of course, on rising star Dulquer. He was dressed in a tight white shirt that revealed his muscular arms, blue jeans, and pointed black shoes.

“When I flew to Kozhikode for my first day of shooting, I was all alone,” says a constantly-smiling Dulquer. “I knew I was going to spend the next two months with a group of people I have never met before. Nevertheless, I felt a sense of peace.”

Dulquer went on to praise the crew of the film. “It was a team without any egos,” he says. “All the guys, including Gauthami [Nair, the heroine] are very close to me. Even now when I receive a SMS from any of them, I feel as if it is a member of my family who is sending it. It was like a college project. Thanks for giving me the break.”  

Meanwhile, all the theatre owners, across the length and breadth of Kerala, who had shown the film, as well as the crew members, received plaques commemorating the 100 days. Prize-givers included veteran actor Kunjan and Vinod Mathew Jacob, the Resident Editor of the New Indian Express.

In his vote of thanks, Vivek Ramadevan, the CEO of Content and Marketing, AOPL, spoke of how they stumbled on the idea of making Dulquer the hero. “I went and met Mammooty a few times, and wanted to narrate the story, but was not able to do so,” says Vivek.

One day, Mammooty told Vivek, when the latter asked once again for time, “I don’t have time to listen to the scripts of my own films, how will  I find time for my son’s script?” Eventually, the superstar gave his son’s number, and Vivek contacted Dulquer. The latter liked the script and agreed to act in the film.

And changed the course of his life.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

“He does not have the airs of an actor”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Betty talks about her life with husband Munna

By Shevlin Sebastian

Betty got an invite from her friend, Sarah George, to see the preview of the Tamil film, ‘Kandein Kadhalai’. At that time, she was working in a public-relations agency at Chennai. At the show, Betty was introduced to actor Munna by Sarah. “I was instantly attracted to him,” says Betty. “He did not have the airs of an actor. Instead, he was a simple, sweet, and down-to-earth person.”

After the film, Betty complimented Munna on his acting. He plays the boyfriend to the heroine, [Tamanna], but loses her in the end to the hero, acted by Bharat.

From then on, they remained in touch through SMSes and phone calls. On December 20, 2009, Munna invited Betty to the inauguration of his coffee shop, S-Cafe. “We had a long conversation that day,” says Betty. “I met all his friends and cousins.”

Thereafter they went for a long car ride in which Munna told her about his family and spoke about life. “I was wondering why he was telling me all this,” says Betty. “Then he asked me whether I was planning to get married. I said yes.”

At that time, Munna was recovering from a broken engagement. Soon, Munna’s family met Betty’s parents in Thrissur and a wedding date was fixed.

The couple tied the knot on February 7, 2010. So, within three months of meeting Betty, they had got married. “We are crazy about each other,” says Betty. But now, after two-and-a-half years of marriage, Betty has a clearer picture of Munna’s character.

Munna never forces anything on me. He allows me to dress in any way I like. He gives me a lot of freedom and encourages me to do whatever work I like to do,” says Betty, who is doing freelance online movie promotion.  

Negative points: “When he gets angry he never opens up,” she says. “Instead, he will remain silent. I get irritated by that. When I lose my temper I tell him what is in my heart.”

Both of them had a heart-stopping experience on December 4, 2010. Munna, Betty, her brother, Stalin and wife, Dhanya, and a cousin Edwin George had gone for a brief holiday to Nelliyampathy. One early morning, they decided to visit a forest. “So we hired a jeep,” says Betty. “But the local people warned us that there was a rogue elephant somewhere in the vicinity. We did not see it. We went to the top of a hill, but when we were returning, the elephant stood on the road staring at us.”

The road was narrow and there was a deep gorge on one side and rocks on the other side.
The driver stopped the jeep and told the group that they all had to flee. “So we ran back the way we came, shouting and screaming,” says Betty. “The elephant started chasing us, but it was rushing through the forest, instead of taking the road.”

The group, along with the driver, reached the top of the hill and waited with panting breaths. For a while, because of dense fog, they could not see the animal. But suddenly they saw it making its way to the top. So they again ran down the road and reached the jeep and got in. The driver pressed the accelerator, and they made good their escape. “We were exhausted,” says Betty. “But we thanked God for the narrow escape.”

But the incident left an impact on Betty.  “Whenever I see an elephant, nowadays, I begin shivering with fear,” she says.

Anyway, life is going on. Whenever Munna is at home, he is busy indulging in his passion of watching films and cricket. “He spends a lot of time in the gym and plays badminton in the evenings,” she says. “If there is no shooting, Munna will relax and put on weight. But once he has signed a film, he will immediately hit the gym and get fit.”

Not surprisingly, Munna has a svelte figure and strong muscles. “He has lifted many heroines, but, till now, he has never lifted me,” says Betty, and bursts out laughing.

Yes, Betty knows that many girls are attracted to him. And when they go out in public, Munna constantly introduces Betty as his wife, but that does not faze the girls. “They just come up and hug him tightly,” she says. “It seems to me that girls like married actors, more than unmarried ones.”

So, does Betty feel insecure? “Not at all,” she says. “I trust Munna completely. I know that he loves me. To have a good marriage, you have to be loving, caring and believe in each other.”     

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

An island of tolerance and intermingling


On Mattancherry island, off Kochi, the Kutchi Muslims, Konkanis, Gujaratis, and the Jews, apart from locals, have lived next to each other for centuries 

Photo: The wedding of Shahran Sait and Zeba Abdul Kader

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the stage of the Town Hall, Kochi, the Imam leads prayers from the Koran. The bridegroom, Shahran Sait, is resplendent in a brown sherwani, with a red turban and a violet stole placed across his shoulders. Family members sit on the stage and observe closely. After fifteen minutes of prayers, Shahran signs the nikaah document and the marriage is over.

Then the girl, Zeba Abdul Kader, is brought to the stage. She is wearing a lehenga, her arms and hands covered in mehendi, apart from a gold necklace and earrings. Her face is covered by a dupatta. Then after a bit of teasing, where the groom's family has to shell out money, the bride's face is revealed.

Zeba then reaches out and takes Shahran's hand and places it over her right and left eye and to her lips, as an act of taking a blessing from the spouse. And thus a Kutchi Memon wedding was concluded with hugs and kisses all around.

The Kutchi Memons came to Mattancherry island, near Kochi, in 1815 because of a severe drought in Kutch, Gujarat. “They began their lives in Kerala as businessmen,” says Abdul Azeez, the former joint chief manager of the Bank of India. “Many of them exported dry prawns to countries like Burma. They would also bring back clothes, dates, and sugar.”

Often, the local people called them Saits or Sethu (owners). In 1875, the Memons constructed a Kutchi Hanafi mosque, which still exists. It is a traditional type house with wooden windows and a sloping red-tiled roof. In 1895, the Memons set up the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as the Coronation Club. It was built in an area which was gifted by Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin. The name was given in honour of the Coronation Durbar held in Delhi in 1911, to celebrate the ascension of King George V.

Today, there are 700 families comprising 3000 members, and they identify themselves as Hanafi Muslims. “We believe that there is one Allah and Prophet Mohammed is his messenger,” says A.S. Abdul Latheef, a managing committee member of the Kutchi Memon Jamaat.

The families are close-knit and loyal. At home, they stick to traditional foods. The most well-known dish is Muttiya. “These are dumplings set in meat and vegetable broth,” says homemaker Raziya Yacoob. “We also enjoy Gundh Ka Laddoo, which comprises gond (gum crystals), semolina, and dry fruits.”

Most of the Memons continue to be businessmen. “The Abad group is the biggest,” says businessman Gaffar Essa. “They run several hotels, are sea-food exporters, and into real estate.”

But there are a few who are poor. To help them, the Kutchi Memon Association has been formed. “It looks after the medical and educational needs of these people,” says Dr. Sadith Sait.

Fleeing persecution

On a hot sweltering day, educationist and author N. Purushothma Mallaya is sitting under a fan in his home at Kotuval Lane. The foremost proponent of the Konkani language, his desk is filled with papers, files and several books.

The first batch of Konkanis came in 1294, when Allauddin Khilji had attacked Goa,” says Mallaya. “Later, during the Portuguese Inquisition in 1568 A.D., the Konkanis were given the option: convert to Christianity or leave.”

A few thousand Gowda Saraswat Brahmin families left the region. They were accompanied by the Kundumbis (who do field work), Vaniyars (traders), and Sonars (who do the goldsmith work).

The Konkanis went all over South India. A group arrived at Calicut, but the Zamorin King asked them to leave. “The Konkanis came to Cochin and met the Raja at the Mattancherry Palace,” says Mallaya. “Behind the palace, there was a filthy area called the Cherlai. The king donated the land and the Konkanis prospered and made it a commercial city. The Raja was happy.”

In 1627, through an inscription on a copper plate, the Raja gave them permission to build houses of brick and stone. “In those days, homes of that kind were allowed only for the native Brahmins,” says Mallaya. “He also gave us the right to do business in foreign countries.”

Later, the Konkanis constructed the Thirumala Devaswom temple, in which Sree Venkateshwara is the presiding deity. Eventually, the community built 16 temples.

Incidentally, Mallaya’s mother N.M. Saraswathibai was the first woman teacher in Kerala.
She taught Marathi at the Thirumala Devasom Balikadharmam Patshala in 1908. “People called her ‘Missy,’” says Mallaya. “I was the ‘son of missy. ’”

Today, there are 30,000 Konkanis in Mattancherry. Most of them are businessmen. “People said business is supposed to be done by the Vaishyas [traders], so why are Brahmins doing it?” says Mallaya. “But at that time who would give us jobs? And according to Manusmriti, Brahmins can do business when necessity arises.” So the Konkanis did trade in rice, ran hardware and provision stores, and were dealers in Ayurveda medicines. They also became prominent because of their papadam-making skills, as well as the jewellery business.

One of the most prominent jewellery shops is the Geeri Pai showroom in Kochi, which belongs to the Pai family. “My great-grandfather M. Madhav Pai landed up at Pallipuram from Goa during the Portuguese Inquisition and later moved to Mattancherry,” says Ramesh Pai, a member of the current generation. “Initially, Madhav Pai began dealing in Ayurveda medicines, before branching out into gems, stones, and gold jewellery. He used to supply jewellery to the Royal family at Tripunithara and other members of the elite.” Today, the thriving business is more than 100 years old.

The land of Gujjus

When you step into Gujarati Road, it seems that you are back in the state that Chief Minister Narendra Modi presides over. There is a large Gujarati school, which has more than 1200 students. Near it, there is a sweetmeat shop which sells jalebis and gulab jamun. There are wayside shops where the language spoken loudly is Gujarati. And in a ground-floor apartment lives Mulraj N. Ved, 83, the patriarch of his clan. “I was born and brought up here,” he says. “But we have retained our Gujarati customs and religious rituals.”

It is easy to do that because there are eight temples within a one-kilometre radius. “We celebrate Diwali, Holi, and Navaratri,” he says. “During the festivals, we also do the garba and the dandiya raas dances.”

Mulraj has been a businessman all his life. For more than 50 years he has dealt in stationery, agency work and the export of coir yarn. It helped that Mattancherry has an all-weather port, so trade could be done throughout the year. Now his three sons have followed in his wake. Interestingly, all of them have married girls from their caste, but two are from Mumbai, while one is from Vidarbha in Maharashtra. “My sons had arranged marriages,” says Mulraj. “But nowadays, inter-caste weddings also take place.”

As he talks, Mulraj's daughter-in-law, Rashmi Tushar, brings steaming cups of tea made in the Gujarati way: with masala powder, cloves, ginger, and cardamom. The community has retained their food habits. So they eat chappatis, puris, bajra, and lots of vegetables, as well as sweets. “But we also have Kerala-style idlis, masala dosas, and sambhar,” says Rashmi.

Today, there are 4000 Gujaratis in Mattancherry. “Nearly half are businessmen,” says Chetan Shah, the secretary of the Sri Cochin Gujarati Mahajan. “There are also people who work in banks, insurance, and in other jobs in the private sector.”

Like the Konkanis, the Gujaratis moved out their state when Mahmud Ghazni attacked the Somnath Temple in 1025 A.D. “We came to Mattancherry by country boats,” says Chetan. “First, we went to Calicut, Alleppey and then to Kochi and Mattancherry. The Kings of Cochin, Calicut, and Travancore accepted us because they were educated, cultured, and broad-minded.”
  
Going, going... gone

There are only nine Jews left in Mattancherry.  “We range in age from 40 to 90,” says Yael Hallegua, 40, the warden of the Pardesi Synagogue in Jew Town. “Our population has been declining for years, so I am not surprised that we are only so few now.”

The white-skinned Jews came to Mattancherry from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition of 1478, when the Jews were persecuted during the reign of Queen Isabella.

On Jew Street, the most prominent structure is the Pardesi synagogue. It is more than 450 years old and was built on land given by the Raja of Cochin. In fact, the synagogue and the Mattancherry palace share a wall.

Inside, there are glass chandeliers and a brass pulpit. The floor comprises Chinese-make porcelain tiles. There is also a carpet donated by Haile Selassie, the last king of Ethiopia. “We use it only during important functions,” says Yael.

On the street there are other houses where Jews live. One in which Queenie, the wife of the late warden of the synagogue, Sammy Hallegua, lives, is more than 100 years old. 

To run services in the synagogue, you need a minimum of ten male Jews, over 13 years of age. “So the Malabari Jews from Kochi, who number about 45, help to fill the quorum,” says Yael.

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

At home with Dracula

Director Vinayan shot scenes of his film on Dracula at the Bran Castle in Romania. He talks about his experiences 

Photo: (From left): Sudheer Nair, director Vinayan, and Priya Nambiar in front of the Dracula castle

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a cold April morning, the 6’ 2” Sudheer Nair is relaxing inside a Tempo Traveller at Bran town near the Castle of Dracula in Romania. He has two jutting-out teeth, shoulder-length brownish hair, a blood-spattered white shirt, a black cloak and thick leather boots. Suddenly, somebody peeped inside, and the word spread like wildfire – ‘Dracula is inside the van.’

Soon, all the shopkeepers, customers, and local people rushed to the van. “They wanted to get the blessings of Dracula,” says director Vinayan. “Everybody took photos with him.” They also showered him with donations. After six hours, Sudheer was richer by 1500 leu or Rs 24,000. Said one townsman: “Dracula is not a ghost, but our God. We earn our livelihood only because of the castle.”

Vinayan, with a crew of 16 people, had traveled all the way to Romania to shoot scenes from his latest film, Dracula, a 3D film which is being made in Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu

In Romania , Vinayan hired 24 locals. “There were quite a few junior artistes,” says Vinayan. “While in Kerala we would pay Rs 300 a day, in Romania the daily wage was Rs 15,000 including a food allowance of Rs 2000.” To hire Thomas Fernandes, a 3D stereographer from Hollywood , Vinayan had to shell out Rs 15 lakh for ten days of work.

Meanwhile, when the crew entered the castle for the first time, they got a shock. A tall man, wearing a red cloak, and jutting-out incisors, jumped right in front of them, yelling and screaming. “For a moment I was stunned,” says Vinayan. “Then the people clapped.” The man, a guide, showed the various sections.

“The bedroom and dining hall are large and spacious,” says Vinayan. “But there are many dark and narrow corridors and staircases. The people were very happy that a film on Dracula was being made, because that meant more tourists from India would come to visit the palace.”

In Vinayan’s ‘Dracula’, the hero is a man called Roy Thomas. Although a Christian, he is interested in all religions. Roy goes to the Dracula Castle and becomes a missing person. His wife, played by Priya Nambiar, goes in search of him. “I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot,” says Vinayan. “But my Dracula is different from earlier versions, because there is a lot of Hindu mythology in it.”

The director chose to shoot it in 3D, because it is the trend of the future. “Within five years, I expect all films to be either 3D or even 5D,” says Vinayan. “Many people are skeptical, but when 35mm shifted to 70 mm, people said that it would not succeed. But now 35mm has become extinct.”

Fine, but why a film on Dracula, which is so far removed from his ethos as a Malayalam filmmaker? “When I was a teenager, I did read the novel by Bram Stoker and was fascinated,” says Vinayan. “There was a writer called Kottayam Pushpanath. In a Malayalam magazine he would write about Dracula. It would be serialised over several weeks. I would read at night and feel very scared. That memory remained. So when I wanted to do a film on 3D, which would have a good visual impact, I thought of Dracula.”
The Rs 10 crore film will release in October. 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)  

“I have very little time to be Mohanlal the person”

Book by the superstar on his blog writings released

Photo: (From left): Priyadarshan, Sathyan Anthikad, Mohanlal, Ranjith and Balachandran Chullikad

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Many years ago, all of us used to meet at the Woodlands hotel,” says noted director Sathyan Anthikad. “Now, after a long gap, we are all together once again.”

Anthikad was talking at the book release of Mohanlal’s book, ‘Hridayathinte kayyoppu’ (the Signature of the Heart), the collection of his blog writings, published by Mathrubhumi Books. Present on the dais were directors Priyadarshan and Ranjith, poet Balachandran Chullikad, and Mathrubhumi Deputy Editor S. Krishnankutty, apart from Mohanlal. 

“Mohanlal is a person with a heart,” says Anthikad. “It is very difficult to maintain a quarrel with him. I stayed away for many years but when we met, it seemed as if there was no gap. Today, Mohanlal has reached a stature beyond our imagination.”

Many people were surprised to know that Mohanlal is a writer. “But I have always known him to write poems instantly,” said Anthikad. “He can also write stories quickly. And today, he writes a blog where he did make a mention of the TP Chandrasekharan murder.”  

Priyardarshan said that even though he knew Mohanlal for many years, he was not aware that he was a writer. “So the book did come as a surprise,” he said.

As for poet Balachandran Chullikad, he said, “For 30 years, people know Mohanlal as an actor. Through this book, I have come to know the mind of a great artiste. It is a book from the heart.”

Balachandran quoted the great American poet, Walt Whitman: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ The poet went on reciting shlokas and verses from Shakespeare, and made references to legendary Western artistes like Charlie Chaplin and Isadora Duncan.   

Director Ranjith said, tongue in cheek, “People always say you should not release a film at the same time as Sathyan Anthikad. That is the case with me, when I am talking just after Balachandran’s brilliant speech.”

Ranjith said that it is only when you come to known Mohanlal well that you become aware that he knows everything that is happening in the world. “I hope he continues writing,” he said.

Throughout, as speaker after speaker praised him, Mohanlal stared intensely, his concentration never wavering, sitting still, in a black shirt and stone-washed jeans and red leather shoes.

When it was his turn to speak, he said, “I believe in something extraordinary happening all the time. And this book is one such incident.” The superstar spoke about how he started writing casually on his blog, but with one difference: he wrote by hand. “I am not computer savvy at all,” he said. Incidentally, the blog can be found on www.completeactor.com.

Mohanlal then went on to praise Jayachandran Nair, the editor of Malayalam Weekly, the sister publication of The New Indian Express. “Jayachandran created a revolution in Malayalam journalism,” said Mohanlal. “He was instrumental in discovering many new writers. So I am deeply honoured that he has written the foreword to my book.”

The superstar then made a poignant statement: “I have very little time to be Mohanlal the person. However, thanks to the blog, I am able to express my deepest thoughts.”

 It was a scintillating evening, with superb speeches by some of the stalwarts of the Malayalam film industry. In short, one was in the company of remarkable people.  

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition) 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A celestial singer on earth


Parvathy Baul, one of the premier Baul singers in the country, enthralls an audience with her soul-stirring singing

Photo by Smriti Chanchani/Kabir Project 

By Shevlin Sebastian

“A song can melt a stone, so why not the human heart?” says singer Parvathy Baul, at her concert at the Fine Arts Hall in Kochi. “The path of love has been shown by [social reformer] Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Oh Lord, take me across the endless ocean of life.”

The diminutive Parvathy is a splendid visual sight. Her hair, in long coiled braids, reaches all the way to the floor. She is wearing a saffron coloured saree with an orange border, apart from a red blouse with long sleeves.

Parvathy holds the ektara (a one-stringed instrument) in her right hand, and taps on the duggi (a small drum) tied across her waist, with her left. On her feet are ghungroos, with a red string in front attaching it to one of her toes. Parvathy’s face is remarkably unlined and glows when she smiles, which is often.

“I learnt about the inner meaning of the Baul singing tradition only when I came to Kerala,” she says. And what may not be well known is that Parvathy is married to a Malayali, Ravi Gopalan Nair, a photographer. They met when Parvathy came to attend a course in Irinjalakuda in 1997 and subsequently, got married. They now live in Ravi’s home town of Nedumangad.

Parvathy sings a song called ‘Anondo Bazaar cholre mon’ (the Market of Ananda). She has a high-pitched voice. Frequently, she takes a few steps forward, goes back, then does several pirouettes, while all the time, she is singing and playing the ektara and the duggi. It needs a remarkable coordination to do it perfectly.

She closes her eyes and shouts, “Anondo.” And the plaintive appeal pierces the audience’s heart like an arrow.

Between songs she says, “I am delighted that so many of you have come. I experienced a lot of love in the way that it has been organized.” The concert was set up by the Centre for Theater in association with Tharangam Samskarikavedi, Biennale Supporters Forum 2012, and Edcb.

In a nice innovation, the programme was held on the floor, instead of the stage, with the chairs placed in a semi-circle. As a result, there was a sense of intimacy and the audience could get more involved in the proceedings.

Parvathy says, “My next song is about the need to be patient when one wants to get married. Your real marriage will happen only when you are taken to the burning ghat. You will be kissed by fire and massaged by the bamboo.”

And soon, she starts singing. People cannot understand the words, because she is singing in Bengali, but slowly, but surely, she casts a spell on the audience. Most of the time, there is a soft sound from the ektara. Usually, it is her voice that carries the performance through. And in a technology-heavy era, her recital is being captured endlessly on mobile phones, handycams, video recorders, and cameras.

“I would like to sing about longing,” says Parvathy. “It is only through longing that you can merge with God. When longing becomes divine, it is powerful and intense.”

Parvathy also sings a song by mystic poet, Kabir, as the Bauls believe in all religions. As the most famous Baul poet Lalan Fakir (1774–1890) said:

Everyone asks: "Lalan, what is your religion?"
I ask: "How does religion look?
I have never laid eyes on it.
Some wear malas [Hindu rosaries] around their necks,
some tasbis [Muslim rosaries], and so people say
they have different religions.
But do you bear the sign of your religion
when you come or when you go?"


At the conclusion, Parvathy sings 'Bolo Radha Gobinda Bolo', in praise of Lord Krishna's wife, Radha, and invites the audience to sing along. And, most remarkably, the people pick up the tune and sing along, creating a brilliant and unforgettable climax to a wonderful evening of song and dance.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Chocolate in a different avatar

The 'Chocolat' festival at the Brunton Boatyard, Fort Kochi, is unusual, because it gives a different taste of chocolate

Photo: The perfect black forest cake

By Shevlin Sebastian

“We wanted to tests the limits of traditional chocolate,” says Brunton Boatyard executive chef Ajeeth Janardhanan. “For the common man, if you mention the word 'chocolate', it means the Cadbury bar and nothing more than that. Very few people know what can be done with chocolate.”

Ajeeth has really pulled out all the stops. So there is what is called chocolate water. “To the naked eye it is like a glass of water,” says Ajeeth. “But when you drink it, there is the essence of chocolate.”

One of the salads has pasta, layered with spinach, accompanied by cheese and chocolate. The cauliflower soup has grated white chocolate. The minced beef dish has kidney beans and dark chocolate, while the chicken is mixed with dry fruits and coco-nibs, and served with white chocolate.

One of the aims of the 'Chocolat' festival is to remove transfat from the menu. “Apart from the transfat present in chocolate, we have eliminated it, apart from all essences, colours, additives, and preservatives in all our food items,” says G. Radhakrishna Shenoi, general manager.

In chocolate, to avoid trans fast, the chef has used corvecture chocolate. “This consists of 71 per cent chocolate and the rest is cocoa butter,” says Ajeeth.

If you have a sweet tooth and if you are thinking a chocolate festival means just that, be warned in advance that none of the dishes taste sweet. It is just like an ordinary meal, except for the tang of cocoa now and then. But the cocoa has no sugar in it. “There is more to chocolate than just sweetness,” says Ajeeth, with a sweet smile.

But if you are patient, delight will appear on your face, when dessert is served. And again, Ajeeth has done some innovations.

“We have tried to make the perfect black forest cake,” says Ajeeth. “The bottom layer has a madeline base, which is a kind of cake. We have topped it with kirsch cream, a cherry brandy, which is a popular German beverage. On top of that, we have put a flour-less chocolate cake and layered it with cherries, and finished it with a chocolate ganache. You can see the individual layers.”

Another unusual dessert is a deconstructed traditional chocolate brownie. Instead of putting all the nuts into the chocolate and then baking it, individual layers have been cooked. “So there is an almond, pistachio and walnut sponge, and on top of that we have layered it with chocolate,” says Ajeeth. “It looks like a chocolate wafer, but tastes like a brownie.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

“He is everything that I wanted in a man”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn
 
Meher talks about life with her actor-husband Rahman

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1992, the actor Rahman had gone with his friend Essa to have a bite at the New Woodlands hotel in Chennai. Soon, he noticed a family, which included three daughters, walking in. The moment Rahman set his eyes on Meher, he was smitten. He told Essa he wanted to marry the girl. By coincidence, Essa knew the family. A couple of months later, a formal proposal was given.

There were two hindrances,” says Meher. “We are an upper middle-class family. My father was a pilot with Indian Airlines and, later, Saudi Airlines. We were apprehensive because Rahman was from the film industry. Secondly, my elder sister Saira was not married.”

Nevertheless, Rahman came to meet Meher on November 18, 1992. Meher felt an excitement at seeing the film star at close quarters. “He was everything that I wanted in a man,” she says. But Meher wondered whether her father would agree. But there were no fears on that account, because Rahman made a good impact on his future father-in-law, Abdul Sattar.

My father was very impressed,” says Meher. “He told me Rahman is a simple and down-to-earth person.” The family accepted the proposal, and the marriage took place on April 2, 1993. [Incidentally, Saira got married to double Oscar Award winner, the music composer, A.R. Rahman, on March 12, 1995].

So what are actor Rahman’s plus points? “He is a loving person and gets attached to people very quickly,” says Meher. “He gets worried about whether I can manage to run the household in his absence. When he is at home, he tries to share the responsibilities. Rahman drops our children to school every morning.” The couple has two daughters, Rushda, 16, and Alisha, 9.   

Of course, the big drawback is that Rahman is rarely at home, thanks to long shooting schedules. So when Rushda was celebrating her 16th birthday on January 28, Rahman was unable to be present, even though he was in nearby Kochi, shooting for the film, ‘Bachelor Party’. This was a single schedule of 40 days, in which there was a combination of several actors in most of the scenes. “If Rahman came to Chennai, then one whole day would go to waste for the director, as well as the producer,” says Meher. “So, he had to stay on in Kochi.”

Meher also misses Rahman when there are programmes at school and during parent-teacher meetings. “I have learnt to accept his absence,” she says. “After all, he is the bread-winner of the family.”  

It is clear that absence makes the heart fonder. “When he comes home, he is pampered by the three of us,” says Meher. And because Rahman does not enjoy going to a beauty salon, his wife does the facials at home. “I told him, ‘Will anybody believe that in the 21st century, a wife is doing this?’” she says.

One reason is that Meher is still smitten with him, even after 19 years of marriage. “Whenever I see him, I feel a strong sense of love,” she says. And in October, 2011, after many years, the couple went for a holiday to USA, without their daughters, and spent time at Disney World at Florida. “We were like kids,” says Meher, with a smile. “He made me take part in all the rides.”

At lunch time, Rahman encouraged her to eat a turkey’s legs. “It was huge,” she says. “At least five to six times a chicken’s leg. Rahman is a fun person to be with.”

The actor is six feet tall and looks smart and handsome. So, does Meher feel apprehensive that other women will get attracted to him? “I am sure girls like him, but this happens to all stars in the film industry,” she says. “You have to accept that. When I was younger, I would feel insecure. But he would tell me that this is what stardom is all about. Ultimately, whereever you go, in the end you have to come back home.”

Meher has her own theories about the husband-wife relationship. “When a man is given freedom, most of the time he knows how to use it,” she says. “If you are over-possessive and nagging, it has a negative impact. I believe that to have a successful marriage, you need to have trust and give a lot of space to each other.” 


(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Chronicling a little-known facet of Kerala




In her book, ‘Mosques of Cochin’, architect and author Patricia Tusa Fels delves into the history and the architecture of the wonderful mosques in the state


Photos: The cover of the book; author Patricia Tusa Fels


By Shevlin Sebastian  


In 1510, a Hindu and a Muslim, both merchants, were travelling on a ship. When a large storm occurred, they realised that their lives were in danger. Both the Hindu and the Muslim promised that, if they survived, they would build a temple and a mosque respectively. Eventually, the ship reached Ponnani Beach in Mallapuram district in Kerala. One businessman built the Thrikavil Bagavathy temple, while the other made the Juma Masjid. “If you walk east from the Juma Masjid for eight minutes, you will reach the temple,” says the architect and author Patricia Tusa Fels.

There is another story about the founding of the Kochangadi Juma Masjid (Chembitta Palli) in Mattancherry, near Kochi. A local Jewish merchant was so impressed with the knowledge of Sayyid Fakhr Bukhari, a spiritual leader of the community, that he donated all the timber for the construction of the mosque. Another tale, probably apocryphal, is that the merchant converted to Islam after hearing the Sayyid's talk on the Hebrew prophet Moses.

Whatever it may be, today, the Juma Masjid and the Chembitta Palli are some of the premier old mosques in Kerala. Many of these places of worship have been documented in Patricia's authoritative 'Mosques of Cochin', brought out by Mapin Publishers.

The Seattle-based Patricia had accompanied her husband, Donald, who had come to Kerala on a Fulbright scholarship. As she wandered around, especially in Mattancherry, she noticed these old mosques. A chance meeting with Mohammed Iqbal, a former Cochin Corporation councillor, got Patricia interested in these buildings. 

“Iqbal told me about the strong likelihood that many of them would be torn down,” says Patricia. She decided to write a book, but the lack of written material was daunting. But, thankfully, there is a strong oral tradition in Kerala. Many people told Patricia stories on how the mosques were set up. “Each story has some truth in it and had been passed by word of mouth for hundreds of years,” she says.

What has also lasted for a long time is the traditional conservativeness among the Muslims. “Some of the people allowed me inside the mosques only if I came at a time when there were no prayers,” says Patricia. “Others gave permission for me to look in, from the verandah. I don't blame their sense of caution. After all, I am an American woman who suddenly shows up, wanting to know more about the mosques.”

Asked to elaborate on what is common in most of them, Patricia says, “The mosques are built with the local stone. Because of numerous windows, there is an ample air circulation inside. All of them have large timber-framed roofs.” Other elements include wood panels with carved inscriptions, screens, columns and carvings. In every mosque, of course, there is an ablution pool, a mihrab (an arched niche) facing Mecca -- 20 to 23 degrees north of west for Kerala -- and the mimbar (pulpit), where the Imam gives his weekly sermon.

Meanwhile, to facilitate the research, Patricia and the Kochi-based Centre for Heritage, Environment and Development received a Rs. 3.6 lakh grant from the Ford Foundation. Says Director Dr. Rajan Chedembath: “We decided to support Patricia’s project because it is a pioneering work. When we describe the heritage of Kochi, mosques are seldom mentioned.” 

Patricia is also worried about the lack of attention paid to these mosques. “Locals say that half of the old mosques in Kochi have already been razed,” she says. In the new mosques which have been built, there is a tendency to mimic the styles of Persia, Arabia, and North India. “Unfortunately, the addition of domes, minarets, columns and flat roofs lacks proportion and integrity,” says Patricia. “There is little relationship to the climate outside. Low-ceilinged spaces turn into broilers when there are power cuts.”

Apart from this, the use of concrete has a jarring effect. The mosque at Cranganore, which is one of the oldest in India, is totally encased in concrete, with a tiny portion of the old tiled roof peeking out. Changes have also been added to the Juma Masjid, Chembitta Palli and the Calvathy mosque. “It is modern kitsch,” says Patricia.

So, this book has come along at the right time. “Patricia’s work will bring welcome attention to the old mosques and the need for preserving them,” says Dr. Rajan. “Undoubtedly, it is the prerogative of the believers to do so. I am sure they will step forward.”

Says Patricia, “Through the book, I wanted to show how beautiful the mosques are, and the need to celebrate their history. Hopefully, in future, the old mosques will not be demolished.”

(The New Indian Express, South India and New Delhi)

‘The greatest fear is the fear of death’



Religious and secular motivational speakers talk about their experiences 

Photos: Swami Sandeepananda Giri and Fr. Augustine Valooran

By Shevlin Sebastian  

In a television studio, at Thiruvananthapuram, Swami Sandeepananda Giri, preacher of the Bhagwad Gita, sits cross-legged in front of two mikes. Behind him is an image of Lord Krishna riding a chariot.

He says, “There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist. The human being inhabits the body through the stages of childhood, youth, and old age, but at the time of death, he will go into another body.” The bearded Sandeepananda is wearing a saffron shirt and speaks in a simple language using expressive hand gestures.

Ever since he debuted on the Doordarshan channel on April 14, 2006, Sandeepananda has been a popular speaker on the Bhagwad Gita. So far, more than 2000 programmes have been aired. He has also travelled to Europe, USA, Australia, Canada, and has been a speaker at the Convocation of Hindu Spiritual Leaders at the 2009 Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne. “The doubts and problems that Arjuna faced in his life is present in every person's life in the 21st century,” he says.  

Sandeepananda has interacted with all types of people. So what is it that troubles the average person? “The strongest fear is the fear of death,” he says. “But there are many other anxieties. When elections take place, there is an apprehension of losing among the political parties. When a woman is pregnant, she is worried. A girl sits for her examination, and she is scared. When a youngster is about to get married, he is terrified. All this happens because of the intense attachment to life and things.”

Man has a spirit, which connects him to God’

Fr. Augustine Valooran is the director of the hugely popular Divine Retreat Centre, at Muringoor, about 42 kms from Kochi. A veteran speaker of over 25 years, he says, “My main message is that man should lead an honourable life on earth. He should be transcendent. Man is a body, but at the same time there is a spirit in him, which connects him to God.”

Apart from Muringoor, he has preached all over the world. “The biggest problem in people is selfishness,” he says. “And this brings about excessive consumerism, immorality, and greed.”

Asked about the qualities of being a good public speaker, Fr. Valooran says, “You should have a message.
And that is to challenge individuals to lead a greater life than what he or she is leading now. Secondly, do not look down on anyone. Whoever came to Jesus Christ, He never condemned them. Finally, you must make the audience feel important. And the truth is that each and every person is important in this world.” 


Follow the tenets in the Quran’

Since Kunju Mohammed Pulavath, a lecturer in Kochi, is fluent in Arabic, he is invited to give talks on the Quran. “The Quran provides solutions for all of life’s problems,” he says. “I talk about the relevance of the Holy Book.”

Pulavath says that people suffer from all kinds of problems: financial, social, mental, and spiritual. “The only way out is to have a deep belief in God,” says Pulavath. “The first and last resort is always Prophet Mohammad. If you want peace of mind and a good life, always follow the tenets as propagated in the Quran.”

To be an effective speaker, it is important to know the profile of an audience. “If the audience is a highly-educated one, you can give an intellectual speech with a lot of scholarship in it,” he says. “When the audience comprises ordinary people, I use simple language. I don’t shout or yell. I tell a lot of stories. I always keep my speeches short and to the point.” 

Every thought has an electrical impulse’

After securing his MBA, Sajeev Nair began his career in corporate planning and marketing and spent several years working for blue-chip companies. But in 1998, he moved to the direct-selling industry. “All types of people join this industry,” he says. “They need to be brought up to a certain level. Training has to be given on how to be a good entrepreneur, how to dress and talk and develop the right attitude. I wanted to transform people’s lives.” For several years, he worked with Amway and now he is involved with Mona Vie, the fastest growing direct-selling company in the world.

Sajeev’s theory on transformation is simple. “The way a person thinks determines many outcomes in his life,” he says. “Every thought has an electrical impulse. The neurons are communicating through a neurotransmitter. When you have the same thought over and over again, the same bunch of neurons is firing. Soon, a strong neural pathway is formed. So, it is difficult to change your habits and attitudes, which are usually negative.”

He bemoans the fact that in Kerala, there is an atmosphere of negativity. “It has been built up over a period of time,” says Sajeev. “That perspective has to change. People should have an attitude of appreciation and encouragement.” 

'Delete negative files in the mind’

Dr. P.P. Vijayan is standing among a group of eager listeners at a conference hall at a five-star hotel in Kochi. “People behave badly because of the memory of negative events lodged in the subconscious mind,” he tells the audience. “It is necessary to delete these files. Patanjali says the mind is like a fog. That is because of emotions like anger and resentment.”  

The group is a mix of entrepreneurs, professionals, housewives and students. Vijayan, wearing a black suit and trousers, has been a motivational speaker for 25 years.

Vijayan continues in the same mode. “You have to understand the language of the subconscious mind — the images and the emotions behind it. First, something is created in the mind, then in reality. For example: the Burj Al Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, was first conceived in a person's mind. If the image created is perfect, then the resources will come, along with the right financier and architect.”

Vijayan speaks in a measured tone and yet there is something compelling about his speech. “You have to understand your audience, only then can you be effective,” he says. “If we are able to give solutions to their pain, they will be happy.”

However, to enjoy this happiness the price is a bit stiff: the cost for each participant for a one-day programme is Rs 4900. 

(The New Indian Express, south India and Delhi)