Monday, February 18, 2019

Loving Art With All Her Heart



Kiran Nadar, one of India’s leading art collectors, talks about her experiences while on a recent visit to the Kochi Muziris Biennale

Photos: Kiran Nadar; FN Souza's 'Birth' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, several years ago, art collector Kiran Nadar went to see the artist Rameshwar Broota at his studio in New Delhi. He received her warmly. Thereafter, he showed a work. It was a triptych of male nudes. She loved the work and agreed quickly to buy it. Thereafter, Kiran took some images on her mobile.

At home, she showed the photos to her husband, Shiv Nadar, the billionaire chairperson at HCL Technologies. He was horrified and told Kiran, “How can you buy it? Our daughter is only five years old. My mother lives with us for six months of the year. What will she think?”

Kiran replied, “I had told Rameshwar that I would buy it. But now if we are not, we have to show the courtesy to go back and say, ‘Sorry, we are unable to take it forward’.”

Shiv agreed. One evening, the couple went to Rameshwar’s gallery. But when Shiv saw the painting, he said, “You are right, Kiran. We have to get it.”

And today, the painting hangs in the study of Shiv’s house.

This was the story that Kiran immediately remembered when asked about her experiences as one of India’s leading art collectors, as she sipped a glass of watermelon juice at the Taj Malabar. She had recently come to see the fourth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, curated by the Delhi artist Anita Dube.

And Kiran enjoyed what she saw. “I liked the way Anita placed an emphasis on women artists,” she says. “Her approach is very humane. The earlier curators, like Bose [Krishnamachari] and Riyas [Komu], Jitish [Kallat] and Sudarshan [Shetty] all brought a different and unique sensibility.”

The artwork that impressed her the most at this year’s edition was South African artist William Kentridge’s eight-video installation called ‘More Sweetly Play The Dance’, as well as the four-wall installation by Gond artists Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai.

As to whether awareness of art has increased among the common people, Kiran says, “To some extent, it has increased among the public in Kochi, Mumbai and Kolkata. But in Delhi, it is still very low.”

However, that did not prevent her from putting up a state-of-the-art institution called the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, at Noida, which completed nine years last month. Sponsored by the Shiv Nadar Foundation, it is spread over an area of 40,000 sq feet, and houses more than 400 artworks. But the Foundation has about 5500 artworks stored in an air-conditioned facility. Incidentally, the most expensive artwork that Kiran bought, at a Christie’s auction, in 2015, was for FN Souza’s ‘Birth’. It was priced at Rs 30 crore.

Kiran selects works based on her intuition and emotional reactions. “Also, over the years, I have developed an eye for a good work,” she says. “Having said that, I am also open to somebody who wants to convince me about a particular work.”

Works are got through an auction, art galleries, or bought directly from the artist. “Some dealers show me the earlier works of an artist who has made a mark,” she says. “I might buy such a painting.”

As someone who interacts with artists, she has a good sense of their personalities. “Artists are complex people, because they have so many sides to them,” says Kiran. “But all of them are magnetic and charismatic, innately gifted, and have some sort of idiosyncrasy. Take MF Husain, for instance. On one level he was very generous and gracious. On another, he could be very calculating. On the third level, he would forget easily. He would leave a painting with you and completely forget about it. Yet he would express a thought that a particular painting was given away way too cheap.”

Asked to list her favourite artworks, Kiran says, “There is a painting by Raja Ravi Varma called Shakuntala. It is of Shakuntala writing a letter to a beloved in a forest, surrounded by two friends. It is very soothing to watch as there is a tenderness in the scene.”

Another favourite is an untitled painting by Manjit Bawa. “It’s about our world -- there is Kuberan, Hanuman, Krishnan, and the cows. The work has all the things that he was important for. He had done some black and white sketches for a national magazine. I had seen that and asked him to adapt it. I keep this at my home, but I do lend it to to the museum for Manjit Bawa shows.” 

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

We care for you


With the help of tribal communities in Karnataka, Tarsh Thekaekara and his wife Shubhra Nayar have collaborated with tribal artisans to make elephants of the shrub lantana. Later, these elephants will be auctioned in the UK and USA to generate funds for elephant conservation 

Photos: (From left): From left: Tarsh Thekaekara, his wife Shubhra Nayar, Subhash Gautam and Tariq Thekaekara; the elephants at Fort Kochi  


By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, just outside elephant conservationist Tarsh Thekaekara and his wife Shubhra Nayar’s house in Gudalur, Tamil Nadu, a wild elephant stopped and reached out with its truck. An elephant made of lantana shrubs had been placed outside. But the wild elephant did not know that this was also an elephant.

It did not smell or sound like one,” says Tarsh. “Also, it does not normally see very well. So, it could not conclude it was an elephant.”

But on South Beach, at Fort Kochi, a few days ago, bibliophile Joe Cleetus, on his morning walk, had no problems in concluding it was a series of elephants although it would only be later that he would come to know they were made of lantana. He rushed back home to get his camera. Well-known RJ Anjali Uthup Kurian wrote in a Facebook post, again on a morning walk, “I nearly jumped out of my skin as I had no contacts or glasses on. But the energy they had…”

These lantana elephants are indeed eye-catching. And each is a replica of an actual elephant. “It varies from 3 feet, all calves are about three feet and the largest male is about 10-and-a-half feet tall,” says Tarsh.

These will be on display at Fort Kochi for a month. Thereafter, it will be taken to Bangalore, Delhi, the UK and USA. The aim is to auction them and get funds for the Asian Elephant Fund. The project is being implemented by the Real Elephant Collective, a Kochi-based social enterprise, established by Shubhra and Tarsh’s brother Tariq Thekaekara.

They are in partnership with the UK-based NGO Elephant Family, which had funded the making of the first elephants. In total, there will be 100 elephants, out of which 60 have already been made. The other collaborators include the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, The Asian Nature Conservation Foundation, World Wildlife Fund-India and The Shola Trust, the last of which is run by Tarsh, Shubhra and Subhash Gautam.

Interestingly, there was a specific reason to use lantana. It is a South American shrub that was introduced by the British to India in 1809 as an ornamental garden shrub. It is very hardy and has bright orange flowers. The problem is that it has toxins in its leaves and so it cannot be eaten by animals. It puts out some chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants.

In Mudumalai and other neighbouring forests, about 14,000 hectares have been taken over by the lantana. “So, that’s as good as 30 per cent which is lost to the animals,” says Shubhra. “And it costs Rs 50,000 to clear one hectare. So the costs are prohibitive. The only way out is to create an industry out of lantana, like making paper, furniture, plywood and elephants, as we do.”

It was Shubhra who came up with the idea of making elephants out of lantana. A graduate of the National Institute of Design, she designed the prototype. This is now being used by 70 families belonging to the tribes of Soliga, Betta Kurumba and Panya.

The method is simple. A steel frame, in the shape of an elephant, is made -- the curved back, the long trunk and the thick legs. Then they cut the bushes. Thereafter, the sticks are boiled and shaved down. One layer of sticks is tied to the frame. Then a second layer is hammered in. “It's a very slow process,” says Tarsh. “Six people take one-and-a-half months to make one elephant. Varnish has been imported from the UK to provide an effective waterproofing.”

As this work goes on, Tarsh spends his time doing a study of the elephants, the character, and their interaction with human beings, as well as their historical contributions.
Alexander The Great ’s unstoppable army, which was conquering the whole world was stopped by 80 war elephants that belonged to King Porus’ army. This happened during the ‘Battle of the Hydaspes’ (320 BC) which took place on the river Jhelum,” says Tarsh. “Elephants helped the British to win the Second World War. They were used extensively to build roads by the Allied forces against Japan.”

Interestingly, elephants have a matriarchal society. Older males move in and out of different herds. They are polygamous. Temperaments vary from animal to animal. The senior ones are stable and peaceful. On the other hand, the younger ones are feisty and charge at people.

A wild elephant will rarely sleep in the open. “They prefer to sleep in an undisturbed location,” says Tarsh. “This is usually at 2 a.m., deep inside the forest and they lie down for four hours.” But in Gudalur, the elephants do not regard people as a threat. So they sleep anywhere.

Interestingly, elephants recognise each other by smell. They have the Jacob’s organ, which can process chemical signals. “If an elephant puts out dung or urine, another elephant can put it in its mouth and tell which individual it is,” says Tarsh. “So they are aware of the movements of each other in a herd.”

The good news is that there is a healthy population of 8000 in the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve. “We have dedicated our lives to ensure that they continue to thrive,” says Tarsh. 

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

In search of a dying girl



At the Kochi Muziris Biennale, documentary photographer Chandan Gomes focuses on a scrapbook of drawings which he came across at a hospice as well as people suffering from mental illness

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Kochi Muziris Biennale, documentary photographer Chandan Gomes, a featured artist, points at the drawings of mountains and hills of a 10-year-old girl, Aini Hasina Bano. Right next to them, Chandan has put up photographs of actual mountains and hills which look the same.

And the story behind them is poignant. At the hospice within a hospital at Jaipur, Chandan saw Aini’s scrapbook on a shelf near a TV set. But when he inquired, he was told Aini had left. The hospital then told Chandan they would be unable to provide the address in order to protect the privacy of the patient.

I was not disappointed because I was confident I could figure it out by talking to the nurses and attendants,” says Chandan, who had befriended a few because he had been spending several days in the hospital.

That was because Chandan had been commissioned to take photos of the patients, nurses, doctors, attenders and administrative personnel. The hospital was completing four decades and they were bringing out a coffee-table book.

But soon, Aini became an obsession. Whenever he found time, Chandan began travelling to the mountains and took shots similar to the ones that Aini had drawn. “The idea was simple,” he says. “Someday I would give Aini the book, with my photographs pasted next to her drawings, and maybe even sponsor a small trip to the mountains, which she had not seen in real life..”

But the search for Aini proved difficult. A young nurse gave four leads, three of which turned out to be false.

But the fourth led to a village called Baran in Rajasthan. Chandan, who is based in Delhi, went by bus. In the town, he managed to trace the girl’s uncle, Shaukat. “He told me the painful news that Aini had passed away,” says Chandan.

But now Chandan wanted closure by meeting the father, Anwar. But Shaukat only parted with the information about his brother’s whereabouts after he was paid some money.

Anwar was working in Narela, which is on the outskirts of Delhi. Chandan set out in September, 2013 to meet him and managed to locate him in a shanty. It had a crumbling roof and bare walls.

The first meeting was a disaster. “I was judging him by thinking, ‘how could he have let his daughter die?’,” says Chandan. “I did not understand that poor people have no choice. They cannot afford health care. They don’t have an education so they don’t even know their rights. They are at the mercy of the system. We had a tense conversation.”

At the second meeting, a week later, Chandan shared his meal: mutton curry and rotis. That eased the discomfort between the two.

Feeling that Chandan had accepted him, Anwar gave his daughter’s dolls, photographs and crayons to the photographer. “Aini suffered from a rare blood disorder,” says Chandan. “It was an expensive treatment. Even a lot of middle-class people would have struggled.”

But Anwar was going through a visible agony as he recounted his helplessness of not being able to save his daughter. “His pain became so unbearable that he began drinking heavily, to numb himself,” says Chandan. “His wife took their small son, and left because she was also angry with Anwar for not preventing Aini’s death.”

Chandan shook his head and says, “This experience taught me that there is so much more suffering in this world than what you are going through. Like, I would fret if there was no electricity in the house for five hours. I felt very small in front of Anwar. Too many lives are lost in this casual and brutal manner in India.”

Another series, placed next to Aini, begins with a haiku by the 17th-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa: ‘In this world; we walk on the roof of hell; gazing at flowers.’

The photos are of people who are going through a mental illness. “What is going on in the mind is never visible,” says Chandan. There is an image of a woman with her mouth open who is suffering from dementia. Another is of a baby who is just two days old. “Babies don’t have a language to express themselves, so I wanted to show the expressions,” says Chandan, who is the first Indian to have a solo show, after a decade, in July, 2018, at the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles Photo Festival in France.  

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

A Gem in the making




Executive Director Peter Lugg speaks about the new GEMS Modern Academy at Smart City, Kochi, one of the few schools in Kerala which offer the International Baccalaureate curriculum

Pics: Peter Lugg; a view of the school 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, Peter Lugg, the Executive Director of the GEMS Modern Academy at Smart City, Kochi got a call. It was from IT professional Anish George (name changed) who was calling from Mangalore.

Anish’s two children, Mark, 7, and David, 5, had been studying at Gems. But when the parents relocated, for better salary and other benefits, they had to put the boys in a new school. But it was clear to Anish and his wife Geetha that their children were unhappy. They were not enjoying school. So Anish called Peter and wondered what to do.

Look, your children should be the focus of your life,” said Peter. Anish understood immediately and amazingly, unlike most Indian parents, they returned to Kochi so that the children could study in a school they liked.  

Happiness is a huge factor in a child’s life,” says Peter, who is of British-origin. “Because if a child is happy, he or she learns easily.”

One reason why the children love Gems is that the teaching is very different. Suppose, one day, the students are studying about volcanoes. In Gems, there will be different lines of enquiry, across several subjects. In geography, they will look at the different types of volcanoes. In history, they will study volcanic eruptions over the decades. In physics, they will look at the force of a volcanic eruption, and how its force and energy can be harnessed.

We will get them to answer social questions: How many people are displaced during a volcanic eruption, and where do they go?” says Peter. “Why do they settle near volcanoes in the first place? Is the soil rich? How long have the people been living there?” There will be an art class where paintings on volcanoes will be done. In English class, students will write poems on volcanoes.

What we want to impress upon our students is that each discipline is inter-related,” says Peter.

Interestingly, the boys are taught differently from the girls. “We know the boys prefer kinesthetic learning (learning through physical activity),” says Peter. “If a boy is 13 years old, his normal concentration level is 13 minutes. And so after 13 minutes of just teacher talk, they will tune off and start thinking about other things. So the teacher immediately changes the focus. He or she might take them outside and ask them to bounce a ball. It's called a breakout and then the students are brought back in, and the concentration levels become high once again.”

As for the girls, they are happy learning visually and orally, but they also have lapses in concentration. “So the teachers will do something different,” says Peter.

The Gems Modern Academy, set in an 8.3-acre campus, offers an International Baccalaureate syllabus as well as the IGCSE and ICSE curriculum. Thus far, there are classes from pre-KG to Class 6. Each class will have a maximum of 25 students.    

From June onwards, Class seven will be added. And following that, every year, a new class will be added, till Class 12.

The facilities include dance and art studios, a medical facility, libraries, IT suites, science labs, and two swimming pools. “One will be 25 metres long and the other is a children’s pool,” says Peter. “There will be a multipurpose sports hall that will be ready soon, as well as a two-level dining hall.”  

The school is part of the Gems Education Group which runs 70 schools in 12 countries. Asked why Gems has come to Kochi, Peter says, “Our chairman Sunny Varkey is from Kerala. He realised that Kochi, along with Smart City, is an attractive proposition for an international school. Kerala has many CBSE  and ICSC schools, so there is space for a school that is international in flavour.”

A unique concept is the easy access of parents to the school. “They are welcome to come in anytime they want and can sit in on any class,” says Peter. “It's their child. This is their school. They have given their ‘gems’ to us. So, they have every right to see what is happening in the classroom. Why should I block them? Parents are our partners. They can watch their children roller skating. And if they want, they can bring their own pair, and skate with the children.”

Parents, indeed, are satisfied. Says entrepreneur Amit Sarkar, father of six-year-old son Vedaant, “The curriculum is a class apart. They teach in an unique way and avoid the . blackboard. My son is learning words through the phonetic way. I am very happy with the school.”

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The Indian link

Executive Director Peter Lugg of the GEMS Modern Academy, who is of British origin, has an Indian connection. His mother is half-Scottish and half-Indian. When she told Peter, who was living in London, to spend one year in India, Peter enrolled at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. “The moment I landed in India I felt at home,” he says. “Soon I fell in love with the place.”

That got cemented when Peter married an Indian woman. Some of the places he has worked in include as an English lecturer in Delhi University, Woodstock school in Mussoorie, and the American school at Kodaikanal. Thereafter, Peter spent many years in West Asia: the Cambridge International School in Dubai as well as the Gems Cambridge High School in Abu Dhabi. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode) 

Friday, February 08, 2019

God is within you. Get in touch


Entrepreneur Rishabh Kothari talks about how ‘Heartfulness Meditation’ changed his life

Photos: Rishabh Kothari and Daaji

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Kerala Literature Festival at Kozhikode, held recently, entrepreneur Rishabh Kothari says, “So we are going to discuss an interesting subject, ‘Leadership and Self Management’. Rishabh was the moderator for an interaction with World Public Speaking champion Manoj Vasudevan and Joshua Pollock, co-author of the best-selling ‘The Heartfulness Way’.  

Like Joshua, the Kolkata-based entrepreneur Rishabh is a proponent of ‘The Heartfulness Way’. Asked what it is, Rishabh says, “You sit in a comfortable position, either on a chair or on the floor and say to yourself, ‘There is a divine light in my heart’. You are not supposed to imagine or look for a light. Instead, you should try to feel the divine presence.”

But initially, the mind will always wander off. “When that happens, just bring it back gently to the heart. Our thoughts get their power from our attention. So, ignore them.”

And this simple practice, which Rishabh has been doing for one hour every morning, for 30 years, has changed his life. “It has changed the way I do business,” he says. “What happens is that when people meditate they become more focused. Your decision-making is clearer. There is a sense of purpose. The way you interact with your employees changes. I feel calmer and steadier, and at peace with myself.”

He says meditation has become an imperative in society. “If there is inner strife, it will reflect in outer problems,” says Rishabh. “When I look at my friends, colleagues or acquaintances, and I see the way they are reacting to their problems, I feel that I am very fortunate to have a process or a system which helps me to be centred and calm. In life, what will happen will happen, there is no choice. But what you can control is our reaction to it.”

To make sure that people are better equipped to deal with stress, Rishabh travels to different cities and holds meditation classes. He is one of 10,000 trainers globally. It is a volunteer service. And participants don’t need to pay also.

So far, the reactions have been varied. “Some people said they enjoyed it, others had tears in their eyes, and many felt as if they had just taken a dip into an ocean,” says Rishabh. “They felt so fresh.”

He remembers a 17-year-old boy Anand (name changed) who was not sure about which career path to take. “Anand wanted to do something but his father was saying something else,” says Rishabh. “His friends were advising something else.”

But after the 30-minute meditation session, Anand said, “I feel so confident. All my doubts have been cleared. I know now what to do.”

Like Anand, Rishabh was also confused about his life. Till one day, in 1988, when he was 15, his father took him to meet Parthasarathi Rajagopalachari or Chariji (1927-2014), who was the global head of the Heartfulness Way. It has its origin in the Spiritual Practice of Sahaj Marg offered by the Shri Ram Chandra Mission (srcm.org).  

At that age, I was convinced that spirituality and meditation were for losers and social dropouts, people who have nothing better to do,” says Rishabh. “But I read up about Chariji. He had joined the TTK Group as a sales person, but when he retired, he was the executive director. I realised that he had a very successful corporate career, so what was he doing with something like this?”

The first thing Rishabh found most remarkable was that Chariji was wearing a T-shirt and trousers. “I knew of Christian priests wearing white cassocks and Hindu holy men wearing saffron robes,” he says. “It was a culture shock for me.”

Again, when Rishabh bent to touch the feet of Chariji, the latter just shook the hand and said, “Hi, sit down.”

The subjects that Chariji spoke about was wide-ranging. “Chariji was talking about astronomy and planets,” says Rishabh. “I had just been reading ‘A Brief History of time’ by [British physicist] Stephen Hawking. That book was fascinating. And here was this man who was equally at ease talking about the Gita as well as astronomy. For the next hour-and-a-half, I remained fascinated. Every preconceived notion that I had was gone.”

Rishabh pauses and says, “It was a turning point in my life.” And Rishabh continues to propage Heartfulness Meditation with ceaseless vigour and energy.

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Daaji -- the global guide

Entrepreneur Rishabh Kothari follows Kamlesh Patel, or Daaji as he is affectionately known, who is the present Global Guide of Heartfulness. “Daaji is an original voice in an ancient tradition,” says Rishabh. “His teachings arise from his personal experience on the path of Heartfulness, while reflecting his spirit of enquiry and respect for the world’s great spiritual traditions and scientific advancements.”  

Born in Gujarat, Daaji showed an early interest in spirituality. In 1976, he met his Guide, Shri Ram Chandra, the founder and first President of the Shri Ram Chandra Mission at Ahmedabad.

Daaji moved to the US in 1980 but continued the Raja Yoga system of Sahaj Marg, with great devotion. Daaji became a follower of Parthasarathi Rajagopalachari (Chariji), the second President. Following Chariji’s passing on December 20, 2014, Daaji became the President of the Mission. 

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

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

The Assassination of Indira Gandhi



By Shevlin Sebastian

At 9.10 a.m. on October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi stepped on the narrow path connecting her home, at 1 Safdarjang Enclave to her office at 1 Akbar Road. Just behind her holding a black umbrella was Constable Narayan Singh. And just behind him was Indira’s personal assistant RK Dhawan.

The Prime Minister, dressed in a saffron saree with a black border, was hurrying as she was late for an interview by Hollywood actor Peter Ustinov for a documentary on her for Irish television. She had also planned meetings with James Callaghan, the former prime minister of Britain as well as an official dinner for British Princess Anne, the only daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.

Indira turned to Dhawan and asked him a question just as she approached the wicker gate that connected the two houses.   

On the right was her personal guard of ten years Sub Inspector Beant Singh. He had a .38 revolver. Interestingly, he was not in uniform. The one who was in uniform was Satwant Singh, who was standing on the opposite side and had a Sten machine gun.

Beant pulled out his revolver. Indra looked shocked and said, “What are you doing?” In reply, Beant fired three rounds at the Prime Minister’s abdomen. Satwant looked shocked. Beant shouted, “Fire.”

For a moment, Sawant was frozen. Then he shook his head and shot 30 bullets at Indira.

Indira collapsed on the ground and a line of crimson blood began to flow on the ground. It all happened in the span of a few moments. One bullet just missed Dhawan as he instinctively ducked.

Both the shooters threw their weapons on the floor. Then Beant said, "I have done what I had to do. You do what you want to do."

In the next few minutes, Indo Tibetan Border Force officers Tarsem Singh Jamwal and Ram Saran manhandled Beant and then shot him dead. Satwant was arrested.       

In the meantime, Indira’s daughter-in-law Sonia rushed out saying, “Mummy, mummy.” Indira was put into a white Ambassador car. And she was rushed to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences hospital four kilometres away. In the car, apart from the driver and Indira, whose head was cradled in Sonia’s lap, there was Dhawan, and political secretary ML Fotedar in the front seat.

By this time, Indira had lost a lot of blood. So, the doctors used 80 bottles of blood but it was an uphill battle. Finally, at 2.23 p.m., they declared her dead. But the nation came to know, with absolute certainty, only when the news was read out on Doordarshan hours later.

It would seem Indira had an inkling of what was going to happen. A day earlier, during an election rally at Bhubaneshwar, she had said, “I am here today, I may not be here tomorrow. Nobody knows how many attempts have been made to shoot me, lathis have been used to beat me. In Bhubaneswar itself, a brickbat hit me. They have attacked me in every possible manner. I do not care whether I live or die. I proud that I have spent the whole of my life in the service of my people. I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.”

When she returned to Delhi on the night of October 30, she could not sleep. Later Sonia said that Indira Gandhi was awake till 4 a.m. That was when she got up to look for her medicines which she took for her asthma.

Meanwhile, on October 31, Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi was campaigning in Contai, West Bengal. When he heard the news of his mother being shot, he was driven to Kolaghat (81 kms away) and boarded a helicopter, which was arranged by Cabinet Minister ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury. He reached Kolkata at noon.

At 1 p.m. he was whisked off to Delhi in an Indian Airlines plane. Although by this time, he knew that his mother had passed away.

The background

Of course, there was a history behind the dastardly act. And it could be summarised with one name: Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.

Bhindranwale was the leader of the Damdami Taksal, a Sikh orthodox religious group. He was opposed to the Nirankaris, who believed in a formless God – Nirankar, which can be reached with the help of a guru. Sikhism, on the other hand, focused on the Guru Granth Sahib, the religion's Holy Book, which is considered to be a living guru. Jarnail ordered an armed group to go to a Nirankari function at Amritsar on April 13, 1978, saying that they should be cut to pieces. In the riots between these two groups, 13 Sikhs and three Nirankaris were killed.

Many pundits said that this was the start of militancy in Punjab. During this time, the Congress Party supported Bhindranwale because they wanted to weaken their chief rival, the Akali Dal.

In 1982, Bhindranwale launched a campaign for an autonomous state for Sikhs, to be called Khalistan. In June, 1983, to evade arrest, he took refuge along with his military cadres at the Akal Takht Shrine, the highest spiritual and temporal seat of the Sikhs in Amritsar and directed militant activities from there.  

Things were going out of control. So, in June 1984, in order to bring normalcy to Punjab, Indira gave the go-ahead to the Army to launch Operation Bluestar, to flush out Bhindranwale and his armed outfit

But the army was taken aback when the militants used rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The Army had no option but to use heavy artillery as well as tanks to counter the attacks from the heavily fortified Akal Takht. After a 24-hour fight, the army wrested control. In the process, Bhindranwale was killed, among many others, and several buildings were damaged.

The Sikh public reacted with anger, They felt it was an assault on their religion. Many Sikh Army soldiers deserted their units. Sikhs also resigned from government jobs and returned national awards. And the anger reached its culmination when, a few months later, Indira was assassinated…

(The Martyrs' Supplement, The New Indian Express, South India)

Monday, February 04, 2019

A heart-breaking end to a tumultuous life


To take part in the 2008 parliamentary elections, former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto returned to the country, from a self-imposed exile in 2007. While campaigning in Rawalpindi she died in a bomb blast

By Shevlin Sebastian

On December 27, 2007, there was a festive spirit on the streets of Rawalpindi. People were waving placards. There were cheers and shouts of ‘Benazir Bhutto Zindabad’ The former Prime Minister was wearing a satiny blue salwar kameez, a white shawl around her head, and two thick flower garlands around her neck.

After a self-imposed exile of eight years, in Dubai and London, while court cases of corruption against her remained pending Benazir had returned to Pakistan to take part in the 2008 national elections.

Benazir was standing and waving to supporters through the sunroof of her bulletproof white Toyota Land Cruiser. John Moore, a Getty Images photographer who was standing nearby said that there were two gunshots and Benazir fell back inside. Very soon after that, there was a bomb blast.

Benazir’s close confidant Sherry Rahman, who was inside the vehicle, says, “I remember the vehicle shaking and the glass splintering.”

An unconscious Benazir was rushed to the Rawalpindi General Hospital. The time: 5.35 p.m. A team of doctors tried to save her. But her injuries were far too grave. And she passed away.
Expectedly, there was a violent reaction.

Supporters destroyed the hospital’s glass doors, vehicles were burnt, stones were thrown on the streets, the police were attacked, traffic was blocked, and billboards of military dictator General Pervez Musharraf was torched.  Soon, the Pakistan Rangers announced shoot-on-sight orders.

At least 47 people died in the riots. Overall, 176 banks, 34 petrol pumps and hundreds of cars and shops were destroyed.

There was a debate about how she died. Her Pakistan People’s Party said she was shot by an unidentified gunman before he detonated the explosives he was wearing. But the Interior Ministry, in a statement, said, ‘Bhutto was killed when she tried to duck back into the vehicle, and the shock waves from the blast knocked her head into a lever attached to the sunroof, fracturing her skull.’ An anonymous Toyota official said Benazir could not have hit the lever based on its location in the car.

Farooq Naik, a senior official of the PPP said the Ministry’s statement was ‘baseless’ and ‘a pack of lies’. Meanwhile, a doctor at the hospital said that Benazir’s medical records were taken away immediately and they were warned not to talk about the killing.

Later, a nine-month investigation by the UN Commission of Inquiry, appointed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the request of the Pakistani Government, said, “A range of government officials failed profoundly in their efforts first to protect Ms Bhutto and second to investigate with vigour all those responsible for her murder, not only in the execution of the attack but also in its conception, planning and financing.”

Heraldo Munoz, Chile’s Ambassador to the UN and chairman of the commission said, “Responsibility for Ms Bhutto’s security on the day of her assassination rested with the federal government, the government of Punjab and the Rawalpindi district police. None of these entities took necessary measures to respond to the extraordinary, fresh and urgent security risks that they knew she faced.”

The Commission was also unhappy with the investigation in the immediate aftermath of the killing. “The collection of 23 pieces of evidence was inadequate in a case that should have resulted in thousands,” said Munoz. “Hosing down of the crime scene just two hours after the blast goes beyond mere incompetence. It is up to the relevant authorities to determine whether this amounts to criminal responsibility.”

Till now, nobody has been charged with the dastardly killing.

Background  

Benazir Bhutto had been Prime Minister of Pakistan twice, from 1988 to 1990, and from 1993 to 1996. She is now regarded as the first woman to lead a democratically elected government in a Muslim majority nation. She was the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who became Prime Minister in 1973. However, General Zia ul Haq ousted him in a 1977 military coup and subsequently, Zulfikar was hanged.

Benazir, who had studied at Harvard and Oxford Universities, along with her mother Nusrat, took control of her father’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and launched the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. She was jailed by Zia and then exiled to London in 1984. She returned in 1986. On August 17, 1988, Zia Ul Haq died in a plane crash. Thereafter, in the 1988 elections, Benazir led the PPP to victory.

As Prime Minister, her attempts at reform were stymied by conservative President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the powerful military. Her administration was accused of corruption and nepotism and dismissed by Khan in 1990. Thereafter, Nawaz Sharif came to power. When that government was also dismissed in 1993, when Khan dissolved the National Assembly, Benazir led the PPP to victory in the 1993 elections.  

During her second term, she advanced privatisation and women’s rights. But there were several controversies: the assassination of her brother Murtaza, and a bribery scandal involving her and her husband Asif Ali Zardari. As a result, President Farooq Leghari dismissed her government in 1996. The PPP lost the 1997 elections and in 1998 Benazir went into self-exile in Dubai. 

(Martyrs' Supplement, The New Indian Express, South India editions)

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Rasputin’s meteoric rise and macabre death



Grigori Rasputin, a monk, was a spiritual advisor to Czar Nicholas 11 and his wife Alexandra. The elite found his presence a menace. Soon, he was murdered

Photos: Rasputin; the monk surrounded by his admirers 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the night of December 16, 1916, Grigori Rasputin, a monk who was very close to Czar Nicholas 11 and his wife Alexandra, was invited to the Moika Palace at St. Petersburg, which belonged to Prince Felix Yusupov. Felix was regarded as one of the richest men in Russia and was married to Irina, the only niece of Czar Nicholas 11.  

When Rasputin entered the palace he heard a gramophone recording of the American song, ‘Yankee Doodle’.

What’s this?” said Rasputin. “Is someone giving a party?”

Felix said, “My wife is entertaining a few of her friends.”
Owing to the bitter cold, Felix said, “Let’s have a cup of tea.”

Then he invited Rasputin to come to the basement. It had a fireplace. In front of it was a round table, with three wooden chairs. Rasputin sat on one of the chairs. There, according to Felix’s autobiography, ‘Lost Splendor’, (1928), he gave Rasputin cakes to eat, which had been laced with cyanide. Rasputin ate a couple. But, to Felix’s surprise, Rasputin remained normal. After a while, Rasputin asked for Madeira wine, which had also been poisoned. Again, Rasputin drank it and showed no signs of distress.

Felix’s co-conspirators were waiting upstairs. They included the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and the right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich.

Felix excused himself and went upstairs. He borrowed a revolver from Dmitri. Then he went down and shot Rasputin in the chest. Rasputin fell to the floor.

Thinking that he had died, the trio went over to Rasputin's apartment, with one of them wearing Rasputin's hat and coat, to show that Rasputin had returned home.

But when Felix returned to the basement, suddenly, Rasputin jumped up and attacked him. Felix was shocked but managed to flee upstairs.

In his book, Felix wrote, “This devil who was dying of poison, who had a bullet in his heart, must have been raised from the dead by the powers of evil. There was something appalling and monstrous in his diabolical refusal to die.”

Rasputin followed Felix up the stairs and managed to make his way out into the snow-banked courtyard. He staggered from side to side. But it was then that Purishkevich came out and shot him dead. The group then wrapped Rasputin’s body in a sheet of cloth, went to the Petrovsky Bridge and dropped the body into the Malaya Nevka River.

The next day an investigation was launched. When a couple of labourers noticed blood on the railing of the Petrovsky Bridge, they informed the police.

Rasputin’s body was found 200 metres downstream. Following a post-mortem by Dr Dmitry Kosorotov, a senior autopsy surgeon, he mentioned that there were three gunshot wounds to the forehead.

Eventually, Rasputin was buried on January 2. The funeral was attended by the royal family and a few others. Rasputin's wife, children and his mistress were not invited, although his daughters met the Royal family later that day.

However, when the Tsar abdicated the throne in March, 1917, Rasputin’s body was exhumed and burned by a group of soldiers so that his burial site did not become a rallying point for supporters of the old regime.

The Background

The reason for the murder was because there was a lot of resentment against Rasputin because of his undue influence with the Czar as well as Alexandra.

He seemed an unlikely person to reach the inner circle. Rasputin was born in 1869 in the village of Pokrovskoye, 433 kms from Moscow. When he grew up, he worked on his father’s farm. Later, he married a local woman Praskovya Dubrovina and had three children Maria, Dmitri and Varvara.

Rasputin’s life changed in 1892 when he spent a few months at a monastery.
The monks observed that he had a religious fervour as well as a personal charisma. Soon, he met some Russian Orthodox clergymen as well as members of the Imperial Family.

Later, through the family members, he met the Czar. And the latter was impressed.
The Czar wrote a letter to one of his ministers in 1906 in which he said, “A few days ago I received a peasant from the Tobolsk district, Grigori Rasputin, who brought me an icon of St. Simon Verkhoturie. He made a remarkably strong impression both on Her Majesty and on myself so that instead of five minutes our conversation went on for more than an hour.”

Soon, Rasputin became their spiritual advisor. But he had the most impact on Alexandra who was deeply anxious because her only son Alexei suffered from haemophilia.

He would regularly pray over Alexei. Author Douglas Smith, in his book, ‘Rasputin: Faith, Power and the Twilight of the Romanovs,’ (2016), wrote, “Rasputin’s assurances calmed the anxious, fretful mother and filled her with unshakeable confidence, and she, in turn, transferred this confidence to her ailing son, literally willing him back to health.”

One reason for Alexei’s improved health could be that Rasputin ensured that there were no doctors around him. And that turned out to be the right decision. Among the many medicines they used was aspirin which tended to thin the blood. As a result, Alexei improved rapidly. And Rasputin’s position became even more entrenched.

Soon, Rasputin was making recommendations for ministerial appointments and that angered the elite. His behaviour away from the court was nothing short of scandalous. He was often drunk and widely promiscuous, sleeping with prostitutes as well as society women. The press wrote about his affairs and it scandalised the public. There were rumours also that Rasputin was sleeping with Alexandra, too. It all became a bit too much. And finally, Felix and his fellow conspirators decided to finish him off.

When the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, Felix and his wife emigrated to France and lived a life of attending dance balls and the ballet. But he seemed to have no regrets about the killing of Rasputin. In 1967, just before he died, at the age of 80, a French TV interviewer asked him, “When you think about Rasputin, what sentiments come to your mind?”

Disgust,” said Felix coolly.

-----------------
Rasputin in modern life

For modern audiences, they became aware of Rasputin thanks to the 1978 disco superhit song by the pop group, Boney M.

Here are the lyrics:

There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks, he was such a lovely dear.

He could preach the Bible like a preacher
Full of ecstasy and fire
But he also was the kind of teacher
Women would desire.

Ra Ra Rasputin
Lover of the Russian queen
There was a cat that really was gone
Ra Ra Rasputin
Russia's greatest love machine
It was a shame how he carried on.

But when his drinking and lusting and his hunger
for power became known to more and more people
the demands to do something about this outrageous
man became louder and louder.

"This man's just got to go!" declared his enemies
But the ladies begged, "Don't you try to do it, please."
No doubt this Rasputin had lots of hidden charms
Though he was a brute they just fell into his arms.

Then one night some men of higher standing
Set a trap, they're not to blame
"Come to visit us," they kept demanding
And he really came.

Ra Ra Rasputin
Lover of the Russian queen
They put some poison into his wine
Ra Ra Rasputin
Russia's greatest love machine
He drank it all and he said, "I feel fine."

Ra Ra Rasputin
Lover of the Russian queen
They didn't quit, they wanted his head
Ra Ra Rasputin,
Russia's greatest love machine
And so they shot him till he was dead
Oh, those Russians... 

(The Martyrs' Supplement, The New Indian Express, South India)

Friday, February 01, 2019

When the music died

John Lennon, a co-founder of the Beatles pop group and one of the world’s most famous musicians, was shot dead by Mark David Chapman

By Shevlin Sebastian

It had been a long day for musician John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono. They had spent many hours at a record studio at New York where John was working on a song by Yoko called ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, in which he played the lead guitar.

It was almost 11 p.m. when they returned to the Dakota building where they lived. A young man Mark David Chapman was standing silently in the archway. John nodded as he seemed to recognise Mark. A few hours earlier, John had signed the jacket leaf of his record, ‘Double Fantasy’, for Mark.   

When the couple had walked a few steps ahead, Mark pulled out a .38 special revolver and aimed shot five times at John’s back. The singer staggered and fell into the reception area where he said, “I am shot, I am shot.”

The doorman at the Dakota Jose Perdomo as well as the concierge Jay Hastings immediately informed the police.

Mark threw the revolver to the ground and stood calmly at one side. He had also taken off his coat to show that he had no concealed weapon. Perdomo shouted at Chapman, “Do you know what you've done?". Mark said calmly, "Yes, I just shot John Lennon.”

When the police arrived they saw that Mark was holding a paperback of JD Salinger’s
classic novel, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’. Mark was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of the police car. Another pair of policemen, officers Herb Frauenberger and Tony Palma saw John lying face down on the floor. Blood was gushing out of his mouth. Instead of waiting for an ambulance, with the help of first responders, they placed John in the back seat of the police car and took him to the St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Centre.  

By this time, John had no pulse. Several doctors and nurses tried to revive him but to no avail. Finally, in an act of desperation, surgeon David Halleran cut open Lennon's chest and did a manual heart massage but he soon gave up because there was far too much damage done by the bullets.

Finally, at 11 p.m., on December 8, 1980, John Lennon, who was only 40, was declared brought dead on arrival.

When the news spread, there was a sense of shock and outrage. As Jay Cocks wrote in Time Magazine: ‘The outpouring of grief, wonder and shared devastation that followed John's death had the same breadth and intensity as the reaction to the killing of a world figure: some bold and popular politician, like John F Kennedy or a spiritual leader like Martin Luther King Jr.’

John was the co-founder of the Beatles, one of the most successful pop groups of all time. He and fellow founder Paul McCartney had a successful songwriting partnership, which was one of the reasons why so many of their songs, like ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Penny Lane’, and ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ became superhits. The other members included George Harrison and Ringo Starr. However, the group disbanded in 1970 and both John and Paul went on to have highly successful solo careers.

In 2002, Lennon was in the Top Ten of the 100 Greatest Britons in a BBC poll and in Rolling Stone magazine’s greatest singers of all time, he came in at No 5. In 1987, he was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Background

So who is Mark David Chapman? And why did he want to kill John?

Mark belonged to a middle-class family in Fort Worth, Texas. His father was a staff sergeant in the US Air Force while his mother was a nurse. As a boy, he watched his father being violent with his mother and that frightened him. When David was 14, he began taking drugs and missed classes at the Columbia High School in Georgia.

When a friend presented him with the book, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, he was profoundly affected by it. He modelled himself on the teenage hero, Holden Caulfield. But at the age of 16, he became a born-again Christian.

A few years later, he joined the Covenant College, a liberal arts college in Georgia. But he did not do well. He had an affair which broke up. David felt suicidal. Soon, he dropped out of college. Then he went to Hawaii. One day, he attached a hose to his car’s exhaust pipe and led it inside the car. He wanted to kill himself by carbon monoxide asphyxiation. But the hose melted. Mark was then admitted to Castle Memorial Hospital because he was suffering from depression. When he was released, he got a job in the same hospital. At this time, his parents divorced and his mother joined him.

In 1978, Mark decided to go on a trip around the world. Soon, he fell in love with a Japanese American Gloria Abe and married her on June 2, 1979. They remain married to this day.  

Meanwhile, Mark was a Beatles fan who idolised John. But he became angry when he read that John had said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. Some members of a  prayer group, of which Mark was a member, joked, paraphrasing John’s famous song, ‘Imagine’, by saying, “Imagine if John Lennon was dead.” And that was when Mark decided he would kill John.

Following his trial, Mark was sentenced from 20 years to life. Thus far, he has spent 38 years behind bars. His parole has been rejected 10 times since 2000. The latest was in August, this year. His next hearing will be in 2020. And in the past few years Mark has repeatedly said that he regretting killing John especially when he gets letters from the musician’s fans who ask him the reasons behind his dastardly act. 

(The Martyrs' Supplement, The New Indian Express, South India)