Saturday, February 17, 2018

Beauty queen Yana Fillipova, selected as Goodwill Ambassador for the Kerala Travel Mart, talks about how she will promote the state

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Yana Fillipova stood in the lobby of a hotel in Kovalam, the manager came up and presented her with a saree. She had a sudden urge to try it on. Immediately, two women employees helped her to wear the saree. “It looked so amazing,” says Yana, while on a recent visit to Kochi. “Then they put some flowers in my hair.”

At Kovalam, she gazed at the Arabian Sea. “Back home, in Altai {Russia], we have no sea,” says Yana, who has travelled to many countries. “The Arabian sea is very gentle as compared to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Yana has just been appointed the Goodwill Ambassador for Russia for the Kerala Travel Mart (KTM), which will take place in September. Last year, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin had announced that this year would be celebrated as the Year of Tourism in both India and Russia.

Asked about her duties, Yana says, “I have to give publicity about the beauty of Kerala. I will mention places like Munnar and Alleppey and emphasise the importance of Ayurveda. I will do this by uploading photos and messages on Instagram and other social media platforms. They are very powerful tools.”

But Yana has a tough task ahead, to change the mind-set of the people in her own country. “The general impression is that they think India is a poor country,” says Yana. “They believe that most of the people have baths in rivers. This is the stereotype. I feel disappointed when I put up a post about a wonderful place in Kerala, and in the comments section, they ask whether it is possible that in India you have such nice places. I tell them that travelling to Kerala is worth their money, time and effort.”

Not surprisingly, Yana loves the people in Kerala. “They are open-hearted, communicative and sincere,” she says. “In contrast, the Russian people are very closed and serious. You have to spend some time with them before they open up.”

When asked whether the people are like this because of the extreme cold, Yana says, with a twinkle, “People are like this in summer too.”

Yana’s home town of Altai is close to the border of Mongolia, China, Kazakhstan and about 4000 km from the capital, Moscow. “Russia is a huge country,” says Yana. “Right now, the temperature in Altai is minus 35 degrees (centigrade).”

Interestingly she is an English professor at the Altai State Pedagogical University. She is also a singer, a model for print advertisements and a beauty queen.

In November last year, she won the Queen of Tourism award at The Queen of Eurasia competition held in Anatolia, Turkey.

Meanwhile, when asked to compare Russian and Malayali women, Yana says, “Malayali women are polite and calm, but they are shy about revealing their feelings. In most cases, they retain their femininity. Many are happy to take care of their husband and children.”

On the other hand, Russian women are very ambitious. “They behave like men,” she says. “Women take on a lot of male responsibilities, like working in the fire services or the army. They cannot accept the fact that a man should give them money and protect them. They want to do everything themselves. They have become very independent.”

There is one fall-out in this changing dynamics between man and woman. The divorce rate is more than 50 per cent. “I am told that Indian women have also started divorcing their husbands,” says Yana. “It is very sad as it has a big impact on the children.”

Yana speaks from personal experience. Her own parents divorced when she was ten years old, while her brother was four. “So I know how it feels,” she says. “Both of us suffered a lot. It is completely unacceptable. When I marry it will be for life. This is what I want.”

Meanwhile, KTM President Baby Mathew is very happy with the presence of Yana. "We expect more participation from Russia for the event, because of Yana,” says Mathew as she smiled. ” In fact, we are hoping for a record number of registrations this year. We also expect more tourist arrivals from Russia to Kerala in the coming years.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Wrath Of A Yakshi

Scriptwriter Benny P. Nayarambalam talks about his experiences in the films, 'Aakasha Ganga', 'Chhota Mumbai', 'Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus' and 'Spanish Masala' 

Photos: Benny P. Nayarambalam by K. Shijith; Mayuri in  'Aakasha Ganga', 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, many years ago, the mother of scriptwriter Benny P. Nayarambalam narrated a story. This was about a run-down house, near their own premises on Vypeen Island.

The house belonged to a rich family. There was a beautiful girl in the house. A music tutor would come to teach her singing. Soon, they fell in love. And then she became pregnant. “Unfortunately, the tutor had a wife and children,” says Benny. “When the girl came to know, she drank poison in order to kill herself.”

In those times, there was no hospital on the island. People had to take a boat to reach Ernakulam and go to the General Hospital. “But the family members assumed that the girl had died,” says Benny. “They called all their relatives and informed them that she had died of a sickness.”

However, when the girl was placed on the pyre, she opened her eyes and asked for water. “This was only seen by an uncle,” says Benny. “The rituals were going on and there was a lot of noise. The man concluded that if the girl remained alive, it would bring shame to the family especially since she was pregnant. Instead of water, he poured kerosene and lit the pyre.”

Soon, a curse fell on the family. Members began to die one by one. And they fell into financial problems. “I used this as the crux of my story for 'Aakasha Ganga' (1999),” says Benny. The film starred Mukesh and Divya Unni. Mayuri plays the girl who dies and becomes a yakshi who torments her family and kills a couple of members. Thanks to the taut script, it became a box-office hit.

This was not the first time Benny received an inspiration from real life. When the shooting of 'Chhota Mumbai' (2007) was taking place, several local youngsters of Fort Kochi were hired to act in the film. The film was about the small-time goondas of the area. “I became friendly with one man, Ramesh (name changed),” says Benny. “Later, I came to know that he was actually a leader of a gang of ruffians, but on the set, he was well-behaved.”

Many years later, Benny met Ramesh accidentally at Lal Media, Kochi, where dubbing and editing of films take place.

It took me a while before I remembered him,” says Benny. “So I asked him what he was doing at Lal Media. He replied that he had a small dubbing to do. After 'Chhota Mumbai' he had got a few roles. Ramesh said, 'Sir, now I have become straight and am earning my living like this.'”

Suddenly, an idea sparked in Benny to write a story about a man who is involved in criminal activities but has an acting talent. And then how slowly through acting, he becomes a better person and stops all criminal activities. “That is how the character of 'Daivathinte Swantham Cleetus' (2013) was born,” says Benny. “Mammootty is a goonda. Then he gets the chance to play Jesus Christ. The people do not know he is a goonda. But when he acts, he does it so well that he is purified in the process.”

Meanwhile, rather than get purified, the people got drenched during the shoot of the Lal Jose film, 'Spanish Masala'. This was taking place during the La Tomatina festival in the town of Buñol, Spain. During this event, participants throw tomatoes at each other. It is held on the last Wednesday of August.

Actor Dileep and his mother, played by Kalarenjini had to walk through the immense crowd. “Nobody knew we were shooting,” says Benny. “Kalarenjini was wearing a red blouse and saree. Most of the foreigners, including men and women, wore only shorts. Many men were bare-bodied. So when they saw Kalarenjini in a saree, they just stared at her. Then the people began talking among themselves and stared at her. We felt quite tense. But in the end, because she was a woman, nobody did anything.”

But assistant director Raghu Rama Varma did not have the same luck. He was standing at the end of the street. When they saw that he was wearing a shirt and trousers, they ripped the shirt off. “In the end, he was left with two pieces and a collar,” says Benny. “When he came to us holding these scraps, all of us burst out laughing.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Monday, February 12, 2018

M. Ramachandran, the Chairman and MD of Jyothy Laboratories talks about his perennial best-seller, the whitener Ujala, as well as his own success story

By Shevlin Sebastian

When M. Ramachandran was growing up in Thrissur, he noticed that his father always wore a white shirt and mundu. One day, Ramachandran resolved that he would also wear white. And now, for decades, he always wears a white shirt and trousers. “In fact, I don't have clothes of any other colour,” says the Mumbai-based Ramachandran, the Chairman and Managing Director of Jyothy Laboratories, while on a recent visit to Kochi.

In fact, this propensity to wear white resulted in him making a product, Ujala (named after his daughter) that has become an enduring bestseller for the company. “When I was working in Mumbai, I found that while washing my clothes, the original white was not returning,” he says. “So I wanted to make a whitener that was extraordinary and far better than all the other products in the market.”

During this time, the drug manufacturing company that he worked for as an accountant closed down. So he decided to start a business. “But I asked the chemists in the company whether they could come up with a top-class whitener,” he says. They did, but it took two years of trial and error.

Ramachandran started with a base capital of Rs 5000 in 1983 and began making the product in a shed on a property that belonged to his father in Thrissur. However, despite hiring a few girls, the sales were slow. Ramachandran felt despondent. After a few months, he was about to close down the business, when he got an order for a thousand bottles from a businessman in Mallapuram district. “That was the turning point,” he says.

Ujala went from strength to strength. And it was able to take on the powerful Robin brand of the multinational Reckitt and Colman and take a major share of the market. “There were also about 150 look-alikes of Ujala, but they could not succeed,” says Ramachandran. “These businessmen formed an association and complained to the Excise and Income Tax departments. There were a lot of raids but nothing could be found. I have a principled business, so I did not feel scared.”

Today, the company has a turnover of Rs 2000 crore and has other whiteners like Mr White, insecticides like Maxo, soaps like Margo and Neem toothpaste. The company has also acquired Henko.

My method is simple,” says Ramachandran. “Through our market surveys, we identify a niche market, and our R&D team at Mumbai will work for more than two years to develop a unique product. The aim is to provide the highest satisfaction to the consumer.”

To ensure quality, the company manufactures its own products. “We have 32 factories in 16 states,” he says.

At the moment, Ramachandran is very excited about T-Shine, which is used for toilet bowl maintenance. “There are no safe products in the market,” he says. “They are all hydrochloric acid-based. This is highly corrosive. You can see the effects because of the yellow stains that appear in the bowls. That is nothing but a sign of corrosion. When you use these products, you also experience an acid smell. It can affect your respiratory system.”

These were the reasons why Jyothy Laboratories decided to make a 100 percent organic product. “That is the need today,” says Ramachandran. “Old technologies should give way to the new. We took two-and-a-half years to create this product. Instead of corroding the surface, it protects them. We provide a film so that when water falls on it, it is like falling on a lotus leaf. It just slides away. So the shine remains forever.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the business environment in Kerala, Ramachandran says, “Politicians and ministers have a desire to encourage business. But the bureaucracy has a negative approach towards us. That has not changed. They say, 'You are going to make money, so give me something'. There is a delay in getting permission to start projects.”

For those who have manufacturing facilities, they have to contend with the high wages. Added to that is the menace of Nokku kooli (organised labour unions who charge money just to watch other people lifting loads). “It is one of the most dampening things about doing business in the state,” says Ramachandran. “People in Mumbai say, 'Don't go to Kerala, there is Nokku kooli'.”

Finally, when asked to give tips to youngsters who want to be entrepreneurs, like him, Ramachandran says, “First of all, join an organisation or a career for which you have an aptitude. Work for a few years and gain experience. In my own life, I had 14 years of experience while working in a medium-scale industry.”

Ramachandran learnt about purchase, sales, R&D, product development, distribution, controlling the field staff and financial management. “So that reduces the chances of failure,” he says. “Most people jump into business thinking that the aim is to make money. But that attitude will ensure failure. Your attitude should be, 'I want to make a very good product'. And you should be able to work very hard. The success will come your way.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

#Mramachandran #JyothyLaboratories #Ujala #Tshine # Nokkukooli #MrWhite #Maxo, #Margo #Neemtoothpaste #Henko 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Footballer Iain Hume, of the Kerala Blasters talks about his experiences in the Indian Super League

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Iain Hume with his family. Photo of Iain by Albin Mathew 

On a recent Sunday morning, Kerala Blasters footballer Iain Hume set out from his hotel in Kochi accompanied by his wife Chrissie, and daughters Keira, 14, and Alyssa, 7, to the Kodanand Elephant Training Centre at Kaprikad, 50 kms away.

There the family interacted with the elephants. They got an opportunity to scrub a bull elephant, which was lying on its side. “For us to touch and clean the animal has been a unique experience,” says Iain. “In England, we see elephants only in a zoo.”

The family had come on a ten-day holiday from their home in Birkenhead, Liverpool. “They loved it, especially the time we spent on the backwaters,” says Iain. “It was their first visit to Kerala.”

As for Iain, he is now regarded as a Keralite and has become a celebrity. So much so, that whenever he steps out in public, he is greeted enthusiastically. “Although I live at the Marriott hotel, I went to the Lulu Mall next door only once in the past three months,” he says, with a smile. “But I have no complaints. I am having such a great time.”

At a one-on-one meeting what strikes the most about Iain is his intensity and energy. What is also striking is the tattoos all over his body. There are three English roses to represent his wife and two daughters. Then a quotation goes right across one arm: 'Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but the number of moments that take our breath away'. “I have the birthdays of my children on my ribs, and elephants on my calves,” he says. “I am fascinated by them.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the status of the Indian Super League (ISL) vis-à-vis world football, Iain says, “Football leagues in Spain, England, Germany, France, Portugal and South America are more than 100 years old. The ISL is only four years old, but there is a massive improvement in the local talent. The average age of the players has gone down by four to five years. Most of them are now between 20 and 25 years of age. It can only get better.”

Having played for four teams Iain has a good idea of the personality of the Indian player. “With my hand on my heart I can say I have not met a single Indian player that I have not liked,” he says. “They have a lot of love inside them. Indian players can be quite emotional. They take a while to come out of their shell but once they do, they are warm and friendly.”

As for the fans, he says the most passionate are in Kolkata and Kochi. “When we are on the ground, we can feel the love,” says Iain. “They just love their team, state and football with all their heart.”

But he is also the first to admit that the fans have been disappointed by their performance this season. “But that is understandable,” says Iain. “Fans support the team unconditionally, but they also want success. That's the case with fans all over the world. We players also want to win. There is no lack of effort. A lot of things have gone against us. But we are working as hard as we possibly can” (Unfortunately, for Iain, he suffered a season-ending injury during a league match against FC Pune City on February 2).

Iain pauses and adds, “We play sport to win championships, not just to take part. If anybody tells you he is playing just to participate, most probably, it is a lie. You do play for the love of the game but sport is competitive. Nobody remembers the team which came second, third or fourth. Everybody wants to reach the pinnacle. Having been part of a team, ATK (‘Amar Tomar Kolkata’) which won the ISL, it is an unbelievable feeling.”

Meanwhile, Iain also had some moving off-the-field experiences. In Kolkata, he, along with a few other team members went to an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. “It was painful to see so many children who were disabled,” he says. “Since I have young children, it made me appreciate a lot of what I have. The plus side was to know that these children are being cared for and not living on the streets. These last four seasons in India have been one of the most memorable of my life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

When Her Dad Got Star-Struck by Mohanlal


Actor Priyamani talks about her experiences in the films, 'Otta Nanayam', 'Grandmaster', 'Raavan', 'Chennai Express' and 'Thirakkatha'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the film 'Otta Nanayam' (2005), actor Priyamani played a beggar girl called Chippy. A shoot was scheduled at the Ernakulam Junction station. Priyamani had to beg from real-life passengers accompanied by a group of beggar kids. She was dressed appropriately: a black paavada, a cream blouse and a face without make-up. The camera was placed in a hidden position.

Not many people recognised me,” says Priyamani. “Maybe one or two did but they were not sure whether I was indeed Priyamani.”

Anyway, Priyamani began asking for money from passengers sitting at the window seats. “Two men gave us one or two rupees coins,” she says. “But one man yelled at us and said, 'Why can't you get some job instead of begging. Every afternoon, we see people like you. Why do you beg?'”

Priyamani ignored him and went to the next passenger. “It was a strange and weird experience,” she says. “The way people stare at you. And to lead a life where you don't have any money can be so difficult.”

Priyamani had a completely different experience on the sets of 'Grandmaster' where she acted opposite Mohanlal for the first time. It was also the first time that her father [Vasudeva Mani Iyer], along with her mother and brother came to watch her act on the sets. “The main reason was because my father is a big fan of Mohanlal,” she says. “But on the set, my dad was star-struck.”

When Vasudeva came face-to-face with the superstar, he felt flustered and said, “I have been a fan since my childhood.” Later, he told Priyamani, “I should not have said that.”
Meanwhile, there were some problems with Mohanlal's mobile phone. “My brother Vishakh is very good with electronic stuff,” says Priyamani. “He tinkered with it and solved the problem. Mohanlal was very happy and grateful.”

Chicken Soup For The Soul

In the Hindi film 'Raavan' (2010), Priyamani was playing the role of Abhishek Bachchan's sister. The shoot was taking place in Jhansi. The stars were staying at a palace which had been converted into a heritage hotel. Priyamani was suddenly laid low by flu. She felt very weak. Nevertheless, she decided to go to the dining hall with her mother and have some food. Soon, Abhishek heard that she was unwell.

He came over to their table holding a white bowl in his hands. “This is a ginger chicken curry which I just made in the kitchen,” he says. “It has got a lot of medicinal value.” Priyamani was not sure whether he was pulling her leg or not.

Nevertheless, she smiled and accepted the dish. “It was quite tasty,” she says. “Abhishek is a good cook.”

In 'Chennai Express', Priyamani had the chance to interact with another Bollywood star, Shah Rukh Khan. The shoot, at Wai, in Pune district, was for the song, '1,2,3,4 Get on the dance floor'. “Shah Rukh Khan is a very cool person,” says Priyamani. During breaks in the shoot, they would play 'Kaun Banega Crorepati'. He had downloaded the app on his Ipad and acted as the quiz master. “Nikitin Dheer [who usually plays villain roles], and I betted small amounts and tried to answer the questions,” says Priyamani. “Time passed so quickly, thanks to KBC.”

When the tears rolled down

The shoot for the film, 'Thirakkatha' (2008) was taking place in a tea estate at Wayanad. Priyamani played Malavika, an actress who had faded from public view. In the morning, the shoot was of a romantic song, 'Palappoovithalil', in which she wore several bright costumes.

For the second half of the shoot, make-up man Renjith Ambadi had to change her look entirely since her character was suffering from cancer in the film. So, he had to make her head bald and give her a pale look. It took three hours. After he finished his task, when Renjith looked at her, tears began to roll down his face.

I did not ask him the reason why,” says Priyamani. “But I suspected that I was a reminder of some person who had passed away.” Priyamani realised the effectiveness of the make-up when she walked into the set. “There was a pin-drop silence,” she says. “People just stared at me silently.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthpuiram)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Meeting great mountaineers like Edmund Hillary, Junko Tabei and Tensing Norgay

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The first page of the six-page article published in Sportsworld magazine. The photo is of British mountaineer Doug Scott; At the seminar in Darjeeling: Tensing Norgay (extreme left) Nawang Gombhu and Sir Edmund Hillary. Nawang, the nephew of Tensing, was an equally illustrious mountaineer. He became the first man to climb Mount Everest twice; The tiny Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei surrounded by fans at Darjeeling 

The other day when a friend asked me who was the most interesting personality I had met in my journalistic career, the images of Edmund Hillary, Junko Tabei and Doug Scott flooded my mind. All of them were members of the Everest brotherhood: people who had climbed the highest mountain in the world.

I met them at a seminar on mountaineering in the hill station of Darjeeling in West Bengal. The date was May 15, 1985. To get an exclusive interview with Hillary I went to the Sinclair’s Hotel at 8.30 a.m. I was told he was having breakfast. So I went outside the restaurant, beckoned a waiter and passed a note requesting an interview. The waiter duly showed it to Hillary, and told me that I could meet the mountaineer after breakfast.

Accordingly, after breakfast was over, I was led in. Hillary was sitting with his second wife June (his first wife Louise and daughter Belinda had died in an aircrash in Nepal in 1975). He was extremely courteous and apologised for keeping me waiting. June smiled encouragingly as nervously I asked my questions.

And Hillary was visibly taken aback when I asked whether he thought of death during his ascent to the top of Mount Everest. I guess he never expected a young man to ask such a question. But his answer was memorable:  “I was frequently frightened. I knew one mistake would result in me plunging to my death. So, the triumph is not only over the mountain, but over all the fears and anxieties that are raging inside you.”

Later, just outside Bhanu Bhawan, I watched all these great mountaineers interacting with each other during a tea break, especially the irrepressible Junko Tabei. She was barely 5’, with shoulder length black hair and bright eyes. There was something schoolgirlish in her behavior and it was hard to believe she had come become the first woman to have climbed Mount Everest, and would later climb the highest peaks on all seven continents.  

Meanwhile, as Junko moved from person to person, she eventually came and stood beside Hillary and said, “My, you are so tall!” Hillary, who was 6’5”, suddenly bent his knees till he reached Junko’s height, and Junko put his arms around him and convulsed in laugher.  And, of course, there was famed mountaineer Doug Scott with his Gandhi specs and shoulder-length hair, who also hugged Junko. Suddenly Doug reached into his bag, took out his camera and passed it to a photographer. He too wanted to preserve the moment forever. And watching all this with an enigmatic smile was Tensing Norgay.

The passage of time results in one unavoidable circumstance: death comes calling. Norgay (1986), Hillary (2008), and Tabei (2016) have all passed away, while Scott, now aged 76, is holding the fort of being one of the first Britishers to have climbed Mount Everest. All of them have been extraordinary people. And in the process of climbing an outer mountain, they climbed an inner one, too. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India editions) 

#EdmundHillary #JunkoTabei #DougScott #MountEverest #TensingNorgay

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Remembering the Holocaust

On his recent visit to Kochi, Dr Martin Korcok, Head of the Sered Holocaust Museum in Slovakia, talks about what the Jews went through in his country during the Second World War

Photos: Dr Martin Korcok, by Melton Antony; the inside of the museum; a train transport  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every night, [in 1939], the BBC, before the news broadcast, would play the national anthem of its allies,” says Gertrude Silman. “This included the national anthem of Czechoslovakia. I would listen to it because it enabled me to be close to my parents.”

When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1938, the parents of Gertrude decided to send her to their relatives in Liverpool. So, on April 1, 1939, she embarked for England. But it was a place that Gertrude found difficult to adjust. “I was very homesick,” she says.

Her younger sister Charlotte Bushell also followed her. “When I said goodbye to my parents, I was told that it was for a year,” she says. “But it turned out to be much longer.”

In the meantime, their father was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp [in occupied Poland] in March 1942. Later, he perished there. Soon, Gertrude's mother went missing. “She was one of two million people who has not been accounted for,” says Gertrude. In the end, both the sisters, who live in England now, never saw their parents alive. As Gertrude says, “I have nice memories of home, but it is tinged with sadness because our family was destroyed.”

Adds Charlotte: “Whatever happened to us is not in the past but lives within us.”

Both Gertrude and Charlotte were speaking for the documentary, 'The Feldman Sisters', which was shown at the Uru Art Gallery in Mattancherry recently by Dr Martin Korcok, the director of Sered Holocaust Museum in Slovakia. He had come to give a talk titled, ‘Museums as keepers of memory’.

One of the aims of Martin is to educate the younger generation about what happened so that history is not repeated again.

With that end in mind, Martin has made several short films with survivors. “From my experience, I realised that young people will have a better understanding if they meet a survivor,” says Martin. “But there are very few survivors these days. Many have passed away. And for those who are alive, it is not easy for them to come to the museum and speak about their experiences. So we decided to make these short films. Thus far, we have been able to show how the Jews lived before the war. At that time, Czechoslovakia (the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993) was one of the most liberal countries. Then the Holocaust happened.”

In terms of statistics, in a small place like Slovakia, during the Second World War, more than 70,000 Jews were killed. In fact, Slovak girls, who went on the first transports on March 25, 1942, were the first Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. “The aim of the Nazis [from Germany] was to make Slovakia ‘Juden Free’ – without Jews,” says Martin.

Nearly all the Jews were initially held at the concentration camp at Sered. In 2009, Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that the camp would be converted into a museum, in honour of the victims. “The funds have come from the government as well as the European Union,” says Martin.

Meanwhile, the situation has not changed much for Jews in Europe today. “Because the people have been supporting right-wing parties, Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe,” says Martin. “However, compared to countries like Germany, Britain and France, where you have soldiers and police in front of synagogues and Jewish schools, the situation is much better in Slovakia.”

Nevertheless, Martin detects Anti-Semitism on the Internet among his countrymen. “If there is an article about the Jews when you read the comments, you can detect a lot of antipathy for the Jews, but the only difference is that there are no personal attacks,” he says. Incidentally, from a high of 1.39 lakh Jews before the war, today there are only 2700 Jews in Slovakia.

Back in Kochi, Martin was very happy with his experience at the Uru Gallery. “The members of the audience were active participants,” says Martin. “They asked whether the perpetrators were prosecuted after the war, or whether they succeeded in re-integrating themselves into society along with the victims.”

Martin paused, smiled and says, “The Indian people do care about subjects like the Holocaust, racism, xenophobia, and genocide. It was nice to see that India is a country that allows such subjects to be discussed openly. It is a sign of a great civilisation.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Artist Viveek Sharma talks about how Bollywood star Vidya Balan remains his enduring muse

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The painting; Vidya Balan takes a look; artist Viveek Sharma 

Artist Viveek Sharma was viewing 'Tumhari Sulu' in a multiplex in Mumbai recently. And he could not take his eyes off Vidya Balan who played the heroine.

It was so amazing the way she got into the character of a housewife who has a dream,” says Viveek. And it was while watching the film that he had a brainwave. He would make an Indian version of the Mona Lisa, using Vidya as the model and do a canvas.  

I will take photos and then do the painting,” says Viveek, whose ‘photo-realism’ exhibition, 'Silence, Please!', concluded recently at the ‘Gallery Beyond’ at Mumbai.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that Vidya has inspired him. A few years ago, he had gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York where he came across the works of legendary pop artist Andy Warhol. “There were numerous screen prints of the face of Marilyn Monroe, and they were superb,” says Viveek.

An inspired Viveek returned to India and decided to do something similar. One day, he went to watch 'The Dirty Picture' and that was when Vidya blew his mind away. “Vidya acted superbly portraying [Tamil dancer] Silk Smitha's life,” says Viveek. “I felt that there were similarities between Marilyn and Smitha. Both had stunning early successes, but as the years went by, the roles dried up. And both died young.” (Smitha committed suicide on September 23, 1996, at the age of 36; this was the same age when Marilyn died in 1962).

So Viveek set about, doing an acrylic on canvas showing Vidya biting her lower lip, and wearing just a blouse along with the lower half of a saree – an image from the Dirty Picture. But, unusually, right across the bottom, he had painted the tops of Coke cans.

Asked why, and Viveek says, “In the film industry, there is always a limited period for women artists to play heroines. For them, their career is like a coke can. When it is full, it is valuable. However, the moment the can is empty, you just throw it away.”

However, Viveek believes that Vidya is going to be a game-changer. “I believe she is going to be a heroine for a long time,” he says. “Vidya will be like Shah Rukh, Aamir Khan and the others who continue to be heroes even though they are 50 years old.”

Meanwhile, Viveek ended up doing nine paintings, in the same posture, but in different colours like red, green, brown, black and blue. When he finished the work, he showed it to celebrity collector, Shobhaa De, who took one look at it, and said, “It's fantastic! Now tell me do you want Vidya to open the show?”

An excited Viveek nodded his head. And that was how Vidya ended up inaugurating the exhibition.

And when Viveek saw Vidya in the flesh for the first time, he was smitten. “The way Vidya carried herself, in a green silk saree, was awesome,” he says. “Indian women look beautiful in their sarees, but many women do not know how to carry the costume. But it was Vidya's entire appearance that was so impressive.”

The paintings found buyers easily. One California-based collector Sunil Bommaji wanted an autographed work. When Viveek asked Vidya whether she would do so, the latter agreed immediately. So Viveek took the work to Vidya’s home. While there, he was taken aback by Vidya’s simplicity. “She was so down-to-earth, even though she is a big star now,” he says. “Vidya introduced me to her parents and sister.”

Viveek pauses and says, with a smile, “Like MF Husain had his muse in Madhuri Dixit, Vidya is my muse. And my Indian Mona Lisa.” 

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

Friday, February 02, 2018

London-based artist who had not heard about Kamala Das does doodle on her for Google

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The Kamala Das doodle; artist Manjit Thapp; Jaisurya Das

'I did not have the educational qualifications which would have got me a job. I could not opt for a life of prostitution, for I knew I was frigid and that love for my husband had sealed me off physically and emotionally like a pregnancy that made it impossible for others to impregnate afterwards. I was a misfit everywhere. I brooded long, stifling my sobs, while in the four tiny rooms of our home, slept soundly, the husband, the son, the old ayah, the cook and the young maid' – Kamala Das, My Story

The Malayali author's explosive autobiography, in which she spoke frankly about her sexual desires and affairs, was first published in Malayalam as 'Ente Katha' on February 1, 1973. And to honour this event, Google has put up a doodle on Das on its home page yesterday.

Jaisurya Das, the Pune-based youngest son of Kamala Das was overwhelmed. “The doodle is fabulous,” he says. “It was a lovely illustration by [UK-based artist] Manjit Thapp.”

In the doodle Kamala has jet black hair and is holding a notebook and pen in her hand. “It was the time when my mother was in her prime,” says Jaisurya. Artist Manjit confirms it. “I have portrayed Kamala at the time she published her autobiography.” Incidentally Kamala was 39 at that time.

However, what stood out in the doodle was the eyes. “Yes, I agree,” says Jaisurya. “It conveyed the sensitivity that my mother always had. Her expressions were always unique.”

What was unusual was a row of houses on either side of Kamala. And Manjit explains the reason why. “Kamala wrote her poetry at night, at home,” she says. “I read she was only able to write at this time once she had completed the house chores and would end up working long into the night.”  

Interestingly, Manjit had not heard about Kamala before she got the commission from Google. So, she quickly read a couple of articles about her life and her poetry. And today, she is a fan. “I find her writing to be inspiring, honest, powerful and moving especially when you consider the time in which she was writing,” says Manjit. “I feel very honoured to have been asked by Google to work on her portrait.” 

Meanwhile, nine years after his mother's death, the memories remain vivid for Jaisurya. “Right from my childhood, till the last two years of her life which she spent in Pune with me and my family, I remember every moment,” he says. “I am so glad that I got a chance to take care of her.”

For Jaisurya, there were three sides to his mother. “One, she was this iconic writer, which was a separate part of her life,” he says. “Secondly, she was my mother, who pampered me a lot, and in the last years, we were great friends.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

German photographer André Luetzen travelled to three cities – Kochi, Arkhangelsk in North-West Russia and Khartoum in Sudan – to show the impact of the climate on the people

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo of André Luetzen by Albin Mathew. The others are by André Luetzen

When German photographer André Luetzen saw a man on the street at Fort Kochi, a desire arose in him to take a picture. He approached him asking permission but the man shook his head sideways. So André walked away. But the man called him back. And the photo was taken. “I did not know that when people shook their heads sideways, it is a yes,” he says. “In Germany, it means a no. So, that was interesting.”

André was in Kochi recently for the inauguration of his exhibition, 'Living Climate: A Tale of Three Cities' at the Uru Gallery at Mattancherry (it concludes on February 28). It is an exhibition of photographs which focuses on three cities with very different weather conditions: Kochi, Arkhangelsk in North-West Russia and Khartoum in Sudan.

Wet Fort Kochi

Around a couple of years ago, André had come to Kochi to take photos during the monsoon. And it turned out to be a surprise for him. “I had expected it to rain for days together,” he says. “But, usually, it rained an hour, followed by a gap of several hours, before it rained again. The locals told me that the weather had changed.”

Interestingly, André focused not only on the street but inside homes too. One day, he knocked on a door. A middle-aged woman opened it. Through his translator, Andre asked whether he could come in. She agreed. As soon as he entered André noticed a grey-haired man lying bare-bodied on a wooden bed. He got up. But André asked him to lie down. And he took a shot where the woman is sitting on a chair behind the man. It perfectly captures the narrow room and the damp walls, and the lack of space is shown by two sarees and a blouse hanging from a clothesline going right across the room.

In Kochi, when it is not raining, it can get oppressively humid. And in another photo, André has shown a young, bare-bodied boy lying on a bed, in deep sleep, near an open window, with a table fan placed right on the edge of the bed, so that he can get the best breeze. There are also shots of waterlogged rooms, a Superman poster juxtaposed next to a black umbrella, which is hanging on a nail on the wall; a young woman leaning despondently against a wet wall, and a wooded area, which has small pools of water. The leaves on the trees are a shimmering green thanks to the rain, while the ground is covered with twigs and branches, all fallen because of fierce winds during a storm.

The coldest North

When André arrived in Arkhangelsk (northern Russia) in March, 2013, the cold knocked him out. “It was minus 20 degrees,” he says. “The winter lasts five months. It is very difficult to move outside. So, the people spend a lot of time indoors. So I took shots of interiors. But I also needed pictures from the outside to show what winter is like in a small Russian city.”

Not surprisingly, there is a shot, taken at dawn or twilight, of a man standing on a wooden bridge and right under it and all over the landscape are thick snow and ice. At a distance, a street light emits a bit of light. There are shots of bare trees with no leaves on them, and small patches of water next to areas of snow outside buildings. 

There is a photo of a bored-looking elderly couple, the woman lying down, her husband sitting next to her, on a worn-out sofa with a large carpet as a backdrop. In another photo, a middle-aged woman wearing a green apron with black leggings sits on a chair in a room and is relishing the sunlight that is streaming in through the window and lighting up her face.

Hot Khartoum

Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, in complete contrast to Arkhangelsk, is one of the hottest places on the planet with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Centigrade. There is a shot of a man, in a white gown, wearing a black fez cap, who is walking beside a wall, which is half lit up because of the strong sunlight. There are shadows of two chimneys on it. And there are several interior shots which show that the houses, some with high ceilings, look cool, in contrast to the heat outside.

In Khartoum initially, it was difficult to get access to houses and other private spaces,” says André. “But once the people accepted you, they were warm and friendly.”
What is most amazing about all the photographs in the exhibition is that they have been taken with an analog camera: a Mamiya 711. “You have ten images on a film roll,” he says. “Working in analog needs more imagination than digital. Somehow, the photo is of a different quality. It seems to have more life.”

Finally, when asked about climate change, André says, “I am sure it is taking place. It has always been taking place for millions of years. But now, it is clear that we are the cause of it and it is speeding up. There could be a big disaster ahead.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)