Wednesday, January 16, 2019

When People Tried To End Their Lives

In Kochi and Melbourne, recent research by Dr. Fr Saju M D and Dr Lynette Joubert, on survivors of suicide have shown that the leading cause is a relationship breakdown

Photos: Illustration by Tapas Ranjan; Dr. Fr Saju M D and Dr Lynette Joubert

By Shevlin Sebastian    

When Asha Nair (name changed) told her mother that she was in love with a classmate, who belonged to a lower caste, her mother spoke harshly to her. “Forget about him,” her mother said. “We will never allow it.”

Asha felt a mixture of intense anger and hopelessness. It would seem as if the earth had opened up and she was sinking. She started taking quick intakes of breath. Asha could not think clearly. She ran to the kitchen, opened the kerosene can and poured the liquid on her body. Then she lit a matchstick and touched it against her clothes.

The result: 90 per cent of burns. At the hospital, Asha lingered between life and death. At that time, Dr Fr. Saju M D, Asst. Director and Administrator, Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Kochi along with a few students were interviewing suicide survivors. They spoke to Asha. “She felt a regret about her rash action,” says Fr. Saju. “Asha wanted to show her anger towards her family, so she took this extreme step.” Tragically, luck was not in her favour. She died five days later.

Between 2016 and 2018, there were 12,490 suicides in Kerala. Fr. Saju says most of the victims were young and the major cause was a romantic relationship. “Either the parents did not accept the relationship or the affair broke down,” he says. “Young people lack an emotional resilience to overcome difficult moments.”

Most of these people are introverts and reluctant to share an intimate problem with their family members or even to their friends. “They don’t want to bring shame to the family by talking about it to others,” says Fr. Saju.  

So they resort to suicide. “It is usually a sudden decision,” says the priest. But interestingly, many women survive because they are unable to complete the act. On the other hand, males are more purposeful and kill themselves. In the group’s survey of 46 victims, in three hospitals in Kochi, 61.4 per cent of the suicide survivors were single women. They ranged in age from the late teens to age 25. And around 78 per cent had a history of depression and anxiety.

Incidentally, Fr. Saju was working closely with Dr Lynette Joubert, Professor of Social Work in the Department of Social Work at the University of Melbourne. She, along with Fr. Saju were resource persons at DYUTI 19 (Development Yearnings for an United and Transformed India) conducted by the School of Social Work, Rajagiri College of Social Sciences last week.

In fact, Saju got the idea of the survey when Lynette told him that she, along with a team had done a study of 120 suicide survivors in an emergency department of a hospital in Melbourne over a six-week period.  

The breakdown of relationships is the biggest cause for suicide,” says Lynette. The other reasons are poor physical health, drug abuse and financial stresses, like losing a job.”

All this can result in a deep depression. “We also noticed that most of them did not have any friends,” says Lynette. “This social isolation prompts a person to kill him or herself.”  

Asked the different ways people harm themselves, Lynette says, “In Australia, it is usually through tablet overdose. Some have shot themselves. Others have hanged or jumped off bridges. There are cases where people have cut the veins on their wrists. A few told me they felt a mental relief when they did it. But they did not intend to kill themselves.”

So, to avoid such a scenario, it is very important to have a social network, a group of close friends with whom you can confide in. “If you have such a network, you can find a way to solve your problems,” says Lynette.   
In Kerala, she says, you can get help too. “There are psychologists, counsellors and health clinics, just go and tell someone, ‘I need to talk this through’,” she says. “There's no shame in it. All of us can feel depressed at some point or the other.”

Interestingly, suicide is a worldwide problem. Last year, more than 8 lakh people killed themselves. But in Australia, astonishingly, the highest number of suicides is in the 80 plus group.

The victims live completely isolated lives,” says Lynette, “All of them do not stay in old age homes especially if they are healthy. There are many farmers who find it difficult to manage the finances especially if there is a drought. It forces many of them to take the extreme step. So we have to find a way to tackle this problem.” 

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

Monday, January 14, 2019

Of Egg Yolk And Pigments

Mauritian artist Arvin Ombika specialises in egg tempera paintings. It was the rage in the Early Renaissance period (14th to 16th century) of Europe

Photos: Arvin Ombika; Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ten-year-old Manisha Nair (name changed) looked at the egg in Mauritian artist Arvin Ombika’s hand and said, “Yuck, how will I break it?”

Arvin smiled and said, “I will help you.”

So, he gently broke open the egg inside a container. Manisha could see the yolk floating about.

The yolk is inside a sac,” says Arvin. “Now, I will give you a needle. And you should prick it.”

Manisha nodded, even as she pursed her lips and said, “It’s so smelly.” Her mother whispered to Arvin, “She does not like eggs at all.” Nevertheless, Manisha did it, the yolk leaked out and Arvin quickly mixed it with paint pigments. Then he added distilled water, to get rid of any dust particles. The result is called egg tempera. All the women participants carefully followed what Arvin was doing at the workshop which was held at the Kerala History Museum, at Kochi, recently.  

Egg tempera paintings were seen in the first century when the Egyptians would draw portraits on the Mummy. “The rest of the tomb was decorated in encaustic paint, which is composed of beeswax, resin and pigment,” says Arvin. “But the popularity of egg tempera reached its peak during the early Renaissance period (14 to 16th century).”

Some of the most famous works were Italian artist Sandro Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’, Giotto Di Bondone’s ‘Madonna in Maesta’ and 'The Doni Tondo' by Michelangelo.   

Arvin himself works in egg tempera. At Kochi, he had brought along two works, 30 by 20 cms. It is of two men looking at each other. One is Arvin’s self-portrait, thick black beard, curly shoulder-length hair and hairy chest, while the other is a sideways view of his bespectacled friend Santanu Dutta, a Rabindra Sangeet musician from Kolkata, with both sporting golden halos.

They had met when Arvin was studying at Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan, while Santanu worked as an associate professor at the nearby Labpur College. “We are in a quest to know our identity,” says Arvin. “That’s what I wanted to convey through the work.”  

Asked the advantages of using egg tempera, Arvin says, “If it is used properly, there is a shine on the painting, a sort of satin finish. Which means that you do not need to use varnish.” Earlier, insects and cockroaches would attack the paintings. But now when cloves are put in the yolk, the smell lessens and the insects stay away.  

The drawback of egg tempera is that since the yolk dries quickly, you have to work very fast. Also, for large paintings, you need a lot of eggs. “So, it was not practically feasible,” says Arvin. But when oil was discovered in the 15th century, many artists opted for it. “It does not dry quickly, so you can take your time over the work you are doing,” he says.   

Arvin is a fifth-generation Indian in Mauritius. In the 18th century, one of his forefathers went as an indentured labourer from Arrah, Bihar. “Today, out of a population of 12 lakh, 70 per cent are of Indian origin,” he says. The rest comprise the French (Mauritius was a colonial outpost from 1715-1810), some Britishers, again because of colonialism (1810-1968), a few Chinese, who came as labourers, and Africans, who also came from Madagascar and Mozambique as slaves.

When he was in Class seven Arvin had to take compulsory art classes at the Adolphe De Plevitz State Secondary School, and fell in love with the subject. Later, he did his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute (MGI), which is affiliated to the University of Mauritius. It was there that he came across the egg tempera process. Thereafter, he secured an Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship to do his Masters at Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, from 2015-2017.

Today, Arvin is a full-time artist. He has put up his works -- egg tempera, oil and acrylic  -- at exhibitions in Mauritius, Italy and Canada. But he does admit that being an artist in Mauritius is not easy. “For most artists, they need to have a job so that they can finance their art,” says Arvin. “But that is the case in many parts of the world.”

Arvin’s future plans include a doctorate in painting, hopefully, at a foreign university. “I am applying for scholarships, but I have no doubt that art is going to be my life,” says the 33-year-old. 

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

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Some Life-Long Lessons

Navy Commander Abhilash Tomy recalls his experiences following a near-fatal accident while participating in the Golden Global Race last year

Photos: Abhilash Tomy; with his wife, Urmimala, who is of Bengali origin

By Shevlin Sebastian

I am walking, standing and sitting on my own,” says Abhilash Tomy, by phone from Mumbai. “But I cannot run as yet. And I cannot go on a boat now.” The celebrated sailor had a near-fatal accident on September 21, last year, while taking part, as one of 17 sailors in the Golden Global Race. Owing to a severe storm in the South Indian Ocean, his boat, ‘Thuriya’ was dismasted, and he suffered a severe back injury. For 71 hours, he lay on his back, unable to move, before he was rescued. Today, Abhilash is making slow but steadfast progress.

The commander of the Indian Navy, who is the first Indian to circumnavigate the globe solo and non-stop in a sailboat in 2013, spent several weeks in Goa doing physiotherapy, following a surgery on his back in Delhi. “I have several fractures and I lost close to 20 kgs,” says Abhilash.

Asked the reasons for this drastic loss of weight, Abhilash says, “I did not eat anything for seven days. Usually, after an accident, the body tends to lose weight. When I was taken to the Amsterdam Isle [in the Indian Ocean], my food pipe was very raw. I found it difficult to swallow. It could have been because of acidity. Even drinking water was a problem. So I was put on a glucose drip.”  

The entire experience was an eye-opener. “I realised that now that I am married, I am responsible for other people,” he says. “I need to be more careful before I undertake such adventures. I could have returned paralysed forcing my wife Urmimala to look after me for the rest of her life. I also have an eight-year-old son Vedaant. I am the only earning member. The last time I went around the world I was a bachelor.”

The accident provided some revelations for Abhilash. “When you face a crisis, the human mind is so conditioned that it always takes your present circumstances and projects it into the future,” he says. “When everybody feels they are down in the dumps, the mind makes them believe their life is going to be like this forever. The opposite also happens. If somebody gives you Rs 50 lakh your mind will start thinking that every day somebody will give you a similar amount.”

It is important to understand the conditioning of the brain. “You cannot change it,” says Abhilash. “The brain is an organ which helps you survive physically in this world. The mind also makes its judgement, so that you can survive. But there is a third entity which is the divine force. It is through this power that you can break the shackles. If you identify yourself too closely with the mind or the brain then you will not be able to change.”

Meanwhile, as Abhilash recuperates, he follows the race that he was part of. Thus far, only five sailors are still participating. The majority had their boats damaged. So they retired. At this moment, the leader is Frenchman Jean-Luc Van Den Heede. In second place is Mark Slats of Holland, who is 1500 km behind. The race is expected to finish in end January.

When asked to describe the character of water, Abhilash says, “Water is like a human being. At the surface, it has various moods: angry, defiant, ruffled and peaceful. But in the depths of the ocean, it is always the same: calm, quiet and tranquil. At our core, where the divine rests, it is also like this.”

Finally, when asked about the plastic menace in the oceans, Abhilash says that he saw tonnes of plastic and it was much more than five years ago. In a particular section of the South Atlantic Ocean, in his earlier trip, Abhilash did not see anything even when he crossed it three times. But this time he could see huge pieces. Since all the oceans are linked, he did not know where it is coming from. “But it is worrying,” he says. “My advice to people: stop throwing plastic into the rivers and ponds. It usually ends up in the ocean.” 

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

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Telling Stories From Nature

The Gond art installation by Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai focuses on a folklore. It is one of the highlights of the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale

Photos: Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai.Pic by Albin Mathew.  Artist J. Swaminathan (extreme right) with Jangarh Singh Shyam and Jangarh's wife Nansukia Bai during their younger days 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

As one stepped into a ground floor hall at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, one cannot but stop and gaze with the mouth open. Because all the four walls and the two pillars were covered with figures. It included men and women, plants, trees, flora, a well, a pond, snakes, birds, cows and goats. These are etchings, which bulge out from the marine plywood base. And quite simply, top-class Gond art. 

The veteran artists Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai are telling a story, across the walls. It is called ‘Dus Motin Kanya and Jai Devata’  -- a story of five brothers and their sister. 

A smiling Subhash starts narrating the tale. “In a village, there was a family. One day, the parents, when they were about to die, told their five sons and daughters-in-law that they should look after their daughter and not send her out for work because she is very delicate and a precious gem of the family,” he says. 

Following the death of the parents, after a few months, the sons had to leave the village for the city to do work. So they told their wives to look after their sister properly. 

For a few weeks, the wives looked after Dus Motin. But after a while, they began torturing her. One day they pushed her into a well. There were a few frogs, fishes and crabs that prevented Dus Motin from slipping under the surface of the water. A bird saw the girl and saved her. It took her to a tree where it had small chicks inside a nest. 

The mother bird flew out to get fish and seeds for the small ones,” says Subhash. “For the girl, it was trying to get some fruits.” 

Some days later, the brothers, on their way home, took shelter under the same tree where their sister was staying. When the baby birds cried, the girl sang a soothing song which stated their mother would soon be back with food. 

As she sang, she began to miss her brothers,” says Durga Bai. “And a tear rolled down her face and fell on the heart of the eldest brother lying below. He looked around and wondered about the origin of the waterdrop came since the weather was not cloudy and there was no chance of any rain.” 

Another brother said, “Just taste it. If it is salty, it must be a tear.” So, the eldest brother did so, and it turned out to be salty. 

Then the brothers looked up and spotted their sister. “They thought the bird had kidnapped the sister,” says Subhash. “So they wanted to kill the bird. But then Dus Motin said that it was the bird who had actually saved her. Then the brothers understood what had happened and apologised to the bird.” 

And the tale continued. And for every event which the couple described, it was represented on the wall. They had done the acrylic paintings on marine plywood, cut it out and pasted the various items on the walls. 

We worked for three months in Bhopal,” says Subhash. “And the drawings were done in three and four-feet sizes. There were more than one hundred pieces, which was transported by lorry to Kochi.”

The artistic couple belongs to the Dindori district in Madhya Pradesh, which is 350 km from the capital, Bhopal. “We have been painting for the past thirty years,” says Subhash. “It is a full-time profession. We earn by selling our works in India and abroad. We also do illustrations for books and take part in art fairs.” 

In fact, one of their works is on display at Mumbai Airport. “Many people see that and get in touch to buy our works,” says Durga Bai. 

So who are the Gonds? They are Adivasis, of Dravidian origin, who are mainly found in Madhya Pradesh, as well as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The word Gond comes from Kond, which means green mountains. They speak a language similar to Telugu, but some Gonds also speak Hindi. 

The Gonds have a belief that if they see a good image, it will bring them luck. That’s why they decorate the walls of their houses with traditional tattoos and motifs. They believe that all natural things, whether it be a rock, tree, pond, or mountain has a spirit within them, and hence, they are sacred. So the Gonds paint the images with a respectful attitude. 

About thirty years ago, the Gonds, led by the artistic Pardhan Gonds, began to use modern techniques like acrylic paintings, ink drawings and silkscreen prints. “Our guru is [the late] Jangarh Singh Shyam, who was the first to use paper and canvas,” says Subhash, who was his brother-in-law (see box). 

Meanwhile, Subhash and Durga Bai have set up a school in their village to teach art to the next generation. “We want our artistic tradition to carry on,” says Subhash.

The first to make a mark

The noted artist J. Swaminathan, the then director of Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan,  discovered the 17-year-old Jangarh Singh Shyam in 1981 when he was painting on huts in Patangarh, Madhya Pradesh. Thereafter, Jangarh followed Swaminathan to Bhopal where he started working in the graphics art department of Bharat Bhavan. Jangarh became the first Gond artist to work on canvas and had his work displayed, to acclaim, in France and Japan. Thanks to Jangarh, Gond art made its mark internationally. 

Jangarh was later commissioned to paint the interiors of the Legislative Assembly of Madhya Pradesh, the Vidhan Bhavan, and the dome of the Bharat Bhavan. 

Sadly, Jangarh committed suicide at the Mithila Museum in Niigata, Japan, on July 3, 2001, at the age of 39. He had gone there to do contractual work. There has been no proper explanation as to why he took the extreme step. Some said he was depressed. Others said he was being exploited by the museum authorities to produce work at a faster pace. 

In 2010, Jangarh’s ‘Landscape with Spider’, which he painted in 1988, was sold at a Sotheby auction in New York for Rs 14.5 lakh, the highest for any Gond artist. 

Today, his wife, Nankusia Bai and children Mayank and Japani have followed in Jangarh’s footsteps and have become acclaimed Gond artists. 

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

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Is a strike a good thing? Visitors to Kochi weigh in

By Shevlin Sebastian

(From left): Mia Gysin, Angela Gollard, Krissy Schuh and Barbara Jodie

At Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, director Amitav Kaul, who is adapting Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ to the big screen, pauses and stares at a photograph at the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

When a visitor tells him that last year Kerala had 97 hartals, Amitav shakes his head and says, “That’s not much. In Srinagar, where I live, we have a strike every week. Unfortunately, when a bandh happens in Kashmir, somebody dies. In Kerala, things are milder. But everywhere in India, bandhs happen because somebody wants something. And they are not getting it. So, they have to do a protest to get it.”

Amitav, who is shooting in Kolkata at present, adds, “There are so many bandhs in Bengal, too. The problem is that most of the time, a hartal is called for political reasons and hence it may not be such a good thing. The freedom to protest is being abused.”  

The Mumbai-born New York resident Javed Syed says, “I am not against the idea of a general strike. I just saw an incredible film at the Biennale on the mill workers in Mumbai by artist Sudhir Patwardhan. Many workers get exploited, even though the world survives on their work. If they don’t protest, then they will continue to be treated badly.”  

However, when told about the numerous strikes last year in Kerala, Javed says, “It clearly shows the ruling class is not listening to the people.”

Javed clarified that in America, there is rarely a general strike. “Workers in particular categories like cab or train drivers may go on strike,” he says. “But life is never brought to a standstill.”

And that is the case in Europe, too. Krissy Schuh of Germany says, “The people working in the railways may go on a strike for better salaries. So the trains will stop running.”

The modus operandi is simple: a political party will mobilise people. They will hold placards and walk from one end of the city to the other, shouting slogans. Then at a designated spot, there will be speeches. “But all this is mostly over within half a day,” says Krissy.

As for the situation in Switzerland, Mia Gysin says, “The last general strike took place decades ago. Nowadays, it is always in particular categories.” Adds her friend, Barbara Jodie, “In Switzerland, the government or the people will suggest a law. Then the people can vote on it, Later, there is the possibility of a referendum. So, the need to strike is less.”

Finally, Angela Gollard, who is Swiss, but has a French boyfriend says, with a smile, “However, there is nobody to match the French. They are always going on strike although it is restricted to particular regions.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

The Unknown Slave Trade From Kochi

South African artist Sue Williamson’s installations at the Kochi Muziris Biennale focus on the slave trade from Kochi and other parts of India to Cape Town, as well as the slave trade from Africa to the United States

Photos: Sue Williamson. Pic by Albin Mathew; the linen banians

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the side of Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, the linen banians, pinned on a clothesline, are flying in the breeze. It would seem like an everyday garment in India but a closer look reveals something different. On the front, the following words are inscribed in red and black ink: Name: Jacob. Place of birth: Malabar. Age: 12. Seller: Antony. Buyer: Aram. Price: Rds 20. Sold at: Cape Town, 16.5.1687. (Rds is Rijksdollars: the Dutch currency of that period).
This is an installation by South African artist Sue Williamson, called ‘One Hundred and Nineteen Deeds of Sale’. This number represents every day of the duration of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, from December 12, 2018, to March 29, 2019.

Sue was trying to highlight the slave trade which took place between Kochi and Cape Town. The ships of the Dutch East India Company would pick up coffee, china, spices, and chintz from South and South-East Asia and take it back to the Netherlands. On the way, they would stop at Cape Town and stay at the company-owned fort, the Castle of Good Hope. “But because there was a shortage of labour, to work in the vegetable gardens, they would buy slaves from Kochi and other parts of India and take them to Cape Town,” says Sue.

The trade began in 1658. “The slaves were mostly men in their prime,” says Sue. “But women and children were also taken along.” In fact, South African historian Nigel Worden, in a research paper titled ‘Indian Ocean Slaves in Cape Town, 1695–1807’, wrote, “In 1731, one of the few years for which we have a complete demographic profile of Cape Town, the slaves formed 42.2 percent of the population. Out of this, around 26 percent came from India.”

Nigel details one clear example. A 10-year-old girl named China was sold by her mother because of poverty to a Dutch East India Company employee at the trading post at Nagapattinam (Tamil Nadu). She ended up as ‘Rosa’ working at the Groot Constantia wine estate outside Cape Town.

This migration was a lesser-known event in world history, because it was not on a very large scale,” says Sue. “Maybe, a few thousands over 150 years. The British outlawed it in 1834.”
Incidentally, Sue got the information by studying the records at the Cape Town Deeds Office. “It has been very well preserved,” she says. “In fact, South Africa has the best slave records in the world. I also read a book on the slave trade by historian Anna Boeseken as well as Nigel’s study.”

Sue’s other installation, ‘Messages from the Atlantic Passage. at Aspinwall House drew gasps of breath. In a hall, with a very high ceiling, five fishing nets, filled with muddy glass bottles, are hanging and water is flowing through them and falling into rectangular sections on the floor that resemble the Atlantic ocean. In fact, each of the 2000 bottles is inscribed with the name of a slave.

Sue wanted to highlight the 12 ½ million West Africans who were sent by ship to America over 300 years to work, as slaves, in the cotton plantations in America as well as the sugarcane fields in the Caribbean.

I wanted to say that it was inhumane,” she says. “Like a fisherman casting his net, only, in this case, they were catching people, and not fishes. The bottles are a metaphor for the people. It was a time when people were treated like cheap commodities. And these people were jammed in the hold of the ships. If you see sketches, you will see people lying side by side, like tiny little fishes.”

Sue has spent her artistic career in recovering histories. “I am interested in the effects of colonialism on people,” says the 77-year-old. But she displays her work through videos and installations and has participated in the Havana, Sydney, Istanbul, Dakar, Johannesburg and Venice Biennales. But the Kochi Biennale has a charm of its own. “It may be for the first time that women artists are dominant,” she says. “I love the vibrancy and the energy of the Biennale. The people are very friendly and proud of their city.”

South Africa today: the need to remember and reconcile

South African artist Sue Williamson says, “There is a feeling among young black South Africans that when they try to bring up the subject of apartheid, the whites say, ‘It is over now. Get over it. We don’t want to talk about it any more’. There has never been a proper apology by the whites. So, there is resentment. The whites have to recognise that there was a system of apartheid even though they may not have directly participated in the repression. But they went to white schools, belonged to white clubs and stayed in white neighbourhoods. They had lived in a bubble.”

The situation in South Africa at present is not transforming enough. “Education is still not equal,” says Sue. “If you don’t have enough money you cannot send your children to the best schools. Unfortunately, the public schools are not that great.
Young people are graduating with insufficient education and hence they cannot compete in the economy and remain unemployed. This has caused resentment and bitterness and has led to a lot of violence.” 

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

Saturday, December 29, 2018

From Malaysia, With A Sense Of Relief

Pooja Stanslas speaks about why she has settled in Kochi after leaving her home country a few years ago

By Shevlin Sebastian  

At 7.30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Pooja Stanslas, wearing a red T-shirt and grey leggings, walked up the first-floor steps of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation outlet at Kalamassery. Around one hundred men looked at her, some with their mouths open, a few with widened eyes, and others with smirks. Not surprisingly, she was the only woman present. Despite her heart beating fast, Pooja coolly bought a bottle of vodka and wine. “I never felt so stared at in my life,” she says.

Pooja is a second-generation Malaysian who has relocated to Kochi a few months ago.   
It is not easy to be a single woman in Kochi,” she says. “The city is socially conservative. The men are not used to seeing women speak confidently or dressed in a particular way. It remains a patriarchal society. The Malayali women are pushed hard by society to play a muted role. My women friends tell me, ‘Pooja don’t raise your voice. Always remain understated. Otherwise, you will not be able to get your work done’.”

Nevertheless, she says, the people, for the most part, have been very helpful. Once when she stepped out of a gym at Kalamassery, it was raining heavily. Three members, who were standing nearby, went out in the rain and got Pooja an auto-rickshaw. “Once they come to know that I am a foreigner, they were very accommodating,” says Pooja.  

She came to Kochi because she wanted a break from her life in Malaysia. She says that as an Indian-origin Malaysian, she remains a second-class citizen.

In the 1970s, the Malaysian government came up with the term, ‘Bumiputra’. “It literally means sons of the soil,” says Pooja. “They comprise the Malays as well as the aboriginals. Because I am not a Bumiputra I am heavily discriminated against, in terms of access to education, jobs and business. Basically, you have to fend for yourself. I am still considered a ‘pendatang’ (a Malay word meaning immigrant) despite the fact that my grandparents were naturalised Malaysian citizens and my parents and I were born in Malaysia and speak Malay like a native. Heck, I even have a first class BA Hons. in Malay studies!”

When Pooja was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, there were only five public universities and a complete absence of private universities. And for the minorities, there was a quota system. The Indians got 10 per cent, the Chinese formed 20 per cent, the Malays 60 per cent while the remaining 10 per cent belonged to the minorities like the Sri Lankans and the Eurasians. “The Indians, no matter how well they did in the entrance exams, could only get admitted in the university based on the quota,” she says.  

In public sector jobs, there was a similar discrimination. “No matter how good you are, the top person will always be a Malay,” she says. “He or she may not have a good education or qualification, but because they belong to the right race and religion -- Islam -- they get the jobs.”

In the original Constitution, Islam was made the official religion. “When we were growing up, there was no talk of Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims,” says Pooja. “That was because a liberal form of Islam was practised. We would go to each other’s house. But later a stricter form of Islam began to be practised. The Malays began to look at themselves as Muslims first and Malaysians second. And they would say, ‘Look you are Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. We are different from you’.”

Then the Sharia law which governs personal behaviour and family matters of Muslims was introduced. “So you have a parallel judiciary,” says Pooja. “One which governs the Muslims and another which governs non-Muslims. It means that if you marry a Muslim you will have to convert and change your name. In the end, you will lose your identity. But when a Hindu marries a Christian, there is no compulsion to change.”

And there are other benefits for the Malays. When they buy a flat or property from a developer, they get an automatic seven per cent discount. “And in every building, there has to be a small mosque,” says Pooja.

People were not happy. Large numbers of Indians and Chinese, of the educated middle class, migrated to Australia and Britain. And Pooja, who is an online journalist and an academic copy editor, also followed suit. “I was fed up of the whole situation and decided to leave,” she says. “I did not see any hope or future in Malaysia.” She went to Colombo and spent three years there before moving to Kochi.

At Kochi, thanks to her grandparents having safely preserved their certificate attesting that they were Indians, Pooja has secured a Person of Indian Origin Card. She has now settled in Kalamassery where she has just bought a villa. And she is learning to adjust to the lower professionalism, as compared to Kuala Lumpur. “People like electricians and plumbers take a far longer time to repair things than back home,” she says. “And then, the work is not done perfectly.”  

And she could not escape some bad experiences. Pooja paid a man, posing as a friend, Rs 2.35 lakh for doing interior decoration at her home. “Unfortunately, he has done sub-standard work, will not produce the receipts or return the money,” she says. “So I have filed a case in the Consumer Redressal Cell.”

Asked about the future, she says, “For now I am in Kochi and liking it. I feel as if I have returned to my roots. But who knows what will happen as I move forward? Life is so unpredictable.”

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Life Steeped In Art

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the President of the International Biennial Association, talks about current trends in art as well as the Kochi Muziris Biennale

Photos: Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi; With Bose Krishnamachari, one of the founders of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi sits beneath a tree at the Cabral Yard, Fort Kochi. A sliver of sunlight falls on her face but she does not move away. “I like the sun,” says the Director of the Sharjah Biennale Foundation. But she does look a bit harried. In 20 minutes, she has to hold a conference of the International Biennial Association (IBA), of which she is the president. She is grabbing lunch and talking to four journalists as well as a Biennale volunteer, while a photographer takes some pics.

Interestingly, Sheikha Hoor had a particular reason to hold the IBA meeting at Fort Kochi. “I thought it was important for people who had not come to the Kochi Biennale to come and have a look,” she says.

The Sheikha is a fan. And she has attended all four editions. “From the very beginning, the founders [Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu] had a good idea and focus and they started with good intentions,” she says. “The quality of the installations has been increasing through every edition.”

Asked about the international trends in art now, Sheikha Hoor, who is the daughter of Dr Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, says, “Nowadays, it is becoming more and more important for a Biennale to be about the city and the people. In Venice and other major biennales, initially, it was all about tourism. But now that idea has changed.”

As a newly-appointed curator of the second edition of the Lahore Biennale in 2020, Sheikha Hoor is on the lookout for new talent. “At the Kochi Biennale, you see a lot of artists from India and from countries like Bangladesh,” she says. “This is a chance for us to discover new and interesting work. And it is a platform of opportunity for the artists, too.”

And the opportunity is there because the art world is no longer Western-oriented. “Now, a lot of major museums and art festivals in the West are looking to Asia, Africa and Latin America,” she says. “There is a major shift in focus.”

As for the Sharjah Biennale, Sheikha Hoor has a multicultural vision. “It is not only about the Arab world, it is also about South Asia and Africa,” she says. “There are so many cultural influences. It is really important to have a wider viewpoint. And we want to support artists from all over. Arts and culture are one of the few ways where we can overcome boundaries like class, status, race and gender. We can bring people together.”  

As to whether ordinary people are really interested in art, Sheikha Hoor says, “What we are doing in Sharjah, for example, is not for the people of today but those of tomorrow. It is an investment for future generations. The Sharjah Biennale started in 1993. I took over in 2002. And I see the changes.”

More and more people are now interested in art. “There are so many young people who come to see the Biennale and our other exhibitions,” she says. “When we started out there was a staff of five. Now there are 222 people working the year around. That’s how big it has got.”  

Regarding the ongoing Kochi Biennale, Sheikha Hoor says, “It is very nice. There are many interesting works. The artists I liked the most were BV Suresh and Madhavi Parekh. I liked the way the way Madhavi told her stories, as well as her technique. I might invite her for Lahore.”  

Lastly, there was good news for Bose. To be a part of the IBA, you have to hold at least three editions. “Since Kochi is now in its fourth edition we have appointed Bose as one of our Board members,” says Sheikha Hoor.

A happy Bose says, “It is a recognition of the work we have done since the  inception.”


An achiever

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi did a degree from the Slade School of Fine Art, London (2002), a Diploma in Painting from the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2005) and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London (2008).

Sheikha Hoor is also on the Board of Directors for MoMA PS1, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Darat Al Funun, Amman and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. She is also the Chair of the Advisory Board for the College of Art and Design, University of Sharjah and member of the Advisory Board for Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi.

She speaks nine languages: English, Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, French, Polish, Russian and German.

Sheikha Hoor is currently a member of the Prince Claus Award Committee and on the jury for the Bonnefanten Award for Contemporary Art (2018). 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dealing With Your Taboos

Luxembourg artist Sophie Medawar’s installation, ‘The Confessional’, a collateral of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, helps people to share their innermost secrets

Photos: Sophie Medawar; 'The Confessional' Installation. Pics by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

When artist Sophie Medawar opened her eyes on a November morning in 2013, at the Grand Duchess Charlotte Maternity Hospital, at Luxembourg, she felt empty. Where for a few weeks she would feel the kick of her baby, now there was nothing. The night before, doctors did an operation to remove the foetus because the four-month-old baby’s heart had stopped beating. Sophie looked out of the window. The weather matched her mood: it was cloudy and cold.

On the next bed, a woman had just given birth. “All her relatives and friends were coming to congratulate her,” says Sophie. “Lying next to her, I felt so low and depressed.”  

One of the nurses came in and said, abruptly, “You know, I am against abortions.”

Sophie thought, ‘Can you just read my medical file and you will know it was not an abortion, but a miscarriage’.

At a restaurant at Fort Kochi on a sunny afternoon, recently, Sophie says, “You cannot condemn somebody even if they have an abortion because you don’t know what is going on in their life? Sometimes, you are forced to do one.”

When Sophie recovered, she wanted to talk about what she went through. “But whenever I raised the subject, I noticed that people felt very uncomfortable,” she says. “A few women told me that it was not something I was supposed to talk about in public. I felt sad. Even my mother was unwilling to discuss it. So, I started thinking about all the things you have to keep inside you because of the pressures from your family, religion and society. Our social mores impose this silence. That’s how the idea of taboos came up.”

And so Sophie decided to make an installation, like a Christian confessional. “While the original confessional is in a square shape, I have made mine in a triangle, to highlight the concept of the Trinity” she says. “Like a person can be a woman, wife and mother at the same time. Or in Christianity, the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The installation, at a height of 7.5 feet, at one side, has been made by her carpenter collaborator TG Antony, of Kumblangi, based on drawings given by Sophie. He has made something that looks like the Zari windows you have in Fort Kochi and the Moucharabieh that you see in the Middle East. (The moucharabieh is a natural ventilation device, a sort of trellis, that is used in Arab countries).

When guests come, the women can look at the visitors through the moucharabieh, but the guest may not be able to see them). “This is the same with taboos,” says Sophie. “You never know who is hiding a secret -- the one behind the trellis or the visitor.”

Because of intricate designs on one side, it was not an easy installation to make. “It took a whole year,” says Sophie. “The wood had to be dried, so they used a special oven. The craftsmen took five months to hand-carve all the panels. I was flying back and forth from Luxembourg to oversee the work.”

Now, this is what a visitor has to do. You have to step into the cubicle. There are strips of paper with an image of a mouth. You write the taboo, fold the paper, and slide it through a slit, which is also made in the form of a mouth, into a bin.

At the end of three months, Sophie will collect all the papers and working with embroidery craftsmen will get it transferred onto a giant open saree that will represent all the taboos.

Sophie had done a similar exhibition in Europe. So when asked about the taboos that people jotted down, she says, “There was plenty about miscarriages. One person wrote that he was in love with his brother’s wife. A woman wrote that she did not love her husband. Somebody wrote the dreaded word: ‘Incest’. But thankfully, there was nothing about wanting to kill somebody or commit suicide.”    

As for whether there is a possibility that healing might take place while doing this, Sophie says, “I am not sure about that. But what will happen is that you will feel a little less alone. And when these are put on a saree and somebody reads it, it might help that person when he or she reads it.”

Sophie wants to take this idea to different parts of the world. “I want to work with different craftsmen and different materials,” she says.

Sophie, who is originally from Lebanon, first came to Kerala, with her family, in August, 2016, and fell in love with the place. “Like Lebanon, which I visit several times a year, Kerala is a place where there are strong family bonds and people of different religions live peacefully together,” she says. “So I will carry on coming to Kerala.”

A group show

Sophie Medawar’s installation is part of a group show, titled ‘Of Memories And Might’, curated by Tanya Abraham. Five other artists are participating: Catherine Stoll-Simon, Indu Antony, Parvathi Nayar, Lakshmi Madhavan and Shubha Taparia. This is a collateral of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and the works, at the Kashi Art Gallery, on Napier Street, will be on display till March 29. 

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The House That Lives On And On


Aspinwall House, in Fort Kochi, is more than one hundred years old. Thanks to it being the prime location of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the building has sprung back into the limelight

Photos: Aspinwall House; John H Aspinwall  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The year was 1925. The time: 8.30 a.m. on a Monday morning. A stream of employees entered the Aspinwall House front gate at Fort Kochi. They were the local people, of Portuguese and Goan origin, with names like Pereira and Alphonse. There were Nairs, too. They settled down behind desks in the main office building. Soon, they opened large red ledgers.

Meanwhile, at one side, near the backwaters, a boat arrived. It was filled with products from England: cycles, pumps and engines. It had been brought by a ship which was berthed in an outer channel. After it was unloaded, workers began to fill the empty vessel with material from the large godown at one side. These included coconut oil, coffee, timber, spices, tea, rubber, coir, mat and mattings. All these were being exported to England and other countries.

The Aspinwall company had a coir factory at Allapuzha,” says city historian VN Venugopal. “Pepper was brought from the high ranges. They had their own rubber plantations at Pullangode in Malabar.”

The company, which has been running for more than 150 years, was set up by a Britisher called John H Aspinwall in 1867.

At Aspinwall House, the general managers lived with their families in two bungalows facing the sea. After work finished at 4.30 p.m. the managers would go home and have tea and snacks. Thereafter, they went to the Cochin Club, which was less than a kilometre away. “The men would play squash, tennis or billiards,” says Venugopal. “Those who were not sports-inclined had a few drinks and played cards. Later, they would go home for dinner.”

On Sundays, the men would play cricket at the Parade Ground. Sometimes, teams would arrive from plantations in Munnar and Wayanad and there would be competitive matches.
It was a comfortable life,” says Venugopal. “A nice bungalow, good food and a comfortable salary. There were a dozen servants to look after you.”

Meanwhile, Aspinwall took several years adding buildings to the House. “He wanted the buildings to last,” says Venugopal. “Lime and mortar were used. Cement had not been discovered then. It was modern looking. There were high ceilings, large windows and wooden furniture. They had a lot of labour in those days to maintain the house.”

On the left of the House, Aspinwall had leased a bit of land to a German shipbuilder by the name of George Brunton. “This later became the Brunton Boatyard period hotel, owned by the CGH Earth Group,” says Venugopal.

On the right, at the present location of the Coast Guard District headquarters, there was the Volkart Brothers and other traders like Harrison and Crossfield and Pierce Leslie. “There was not much competition,” says Venugopal. “Life moved at a leisurely pace.”

Despite that, Aspinwall never relaxed. He was a man with a vision. Aspinwall recommended that Kochi should have a deepwater port. Initially, there was no response. After his death, in 1887, the Cochin Chamber of Commerce took up the request. But nothing happened for decades, although there were several discussions.

However, in 1920, when Lord Willingdon was the governor of Madras, the Cochin Chamber gave another representation,” says Venugopal. “This time, Lord Willingdon spoke to the Admiralty in London, and an engineer Robert Bristow came on April 13, 1920, to do a survey.

Says historian Sreedhara Menon: “It took some time for the British authorities to realise the commercial and strategic potential of Kochi as a port and take the necessary steps for its development as if to compensate for the earlier neglect.”

But it took 21 years before the port could start functioning because it took a lot of effort to make an approach channel from the deep sea to the inner harbour. The port began operations on May 26, 1928. And Aspinwall's wish finally came true.

But something he never imagined is also taking place now. The House has been leased to the Kochi Biennale Foundation which is holding an international art festival for the past few years.

And the building has made an impact. “When I saw Aspinwall House for the first time, my initial reaction was, ‘My God, this is an incredible space’,” says Biennale Founder Bose Krishnamachari. “Visitors have told me that the House exudes a charm and is a character in its own right. What is great for me is that you can explore it like a historical architectural place. There is always an exchange between the buildings and the sea as well as the land. Lastly, Aspinwall House looks and feels new, even though it is more than 100 years old.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)