Wednesday, April 24, 2019

An ocean of flavours



Claus Meyer, one of the founders of the New Nordic cuisine, gives his impressions about Kerala food, while on a recent visit

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the farm kitchen at the back of CGH Earth’s Marari Beach resort, Corporate Mentor Chef Jose Varkey points at a large green leaf, on a wooden table, and tells Danish culinary entrepreneur Claus Meyer, “This is a mango ginger leaf. We wrap fish in it and grill it. Sometime back we came across some people who began using it for cooking purposes. We never knew this could be done.”

Several chefs of the CGH group, in their starched white-and-black uniforms, listened attentively. The tall Claus, dressed casually in a green T-shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts, and brown sandals, says, “So you have to find a way to tell the story about this leaf. You have to tell it, not only with words but also through the food itself. Maybe, you can add some mango and ginger. Instead of using a lot of spices, you could try to retain the fragrance.”

Claus had come on a ten-day vacation to Kerala with his family and took a small break to interact with the local chefs. The Dane had established his reputation internationally when he founded the New Nordic Cuisine along with several Scandinavian chefs. For long, the Danes would ape Spanish, French and other European cuisines. But Claus said that Danish cuisine should consist of local and seasonal vegetables and follow the agrarian traditions of the country. When many chefs adopted this philosophy, a new cuisine was born.

Later Claus, along with chef Rene Redzepi set up a restaurant in London called Noma (short for ‘Nordisk Mad’, the Danish words for Norwegian food). It received two Michelin stars and was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2010-12, and 2014 by Restaurant Magazine.

In Kerala, he has been spending his time tasting the local cuisine. “I enjoyed the fish, placed between banana leaves, dosas, sambar and mud crab dishes,” says Claus. “The crispy puris were wonderful. There were so many delicious items.”

Asked the difference between Nordic and Kerala cuisine, Claus says, “In Kerala, the food is cooked for a very long time. For the most part, it's difficult to distinguish what has gone into the food because it's typically an ocean of flavour in the curry. In the Nordic cuisine, we only have a few elements that go together.”

As for the Kerala-style thali, with its multiple items, Claus is honest enough to say that it can be a bit bland. “There's nothing that stands out,” he says. “I like to think this is about the wonderful chicken or beef or herb. Having said that I enjoyed the thali. I don’t want to come to another country to judge anything.”

But he did suggest that local chefs could try some innovations. “If a young Indian chef went to the Nordic region, it will be an amazing adventure for him,” says Claus. “He could learn a totally different approach to cooking and take that home and figure out what part of it could make sense here.”

Meanwhile, at the international level, life in the culinary business can be very stressful. A few Michelin chefs, when they came to know they might lose a star, have committed suicide. “The pressure is unbelievable,” says Claus. “But at Noma, this is being borne by Rene. You have a critic from ‘The New York Times’ eating at your restaurant. And if you make one error, then you are finished. However, for a single meal at Noma, there are 150 components, like herbs and leaves, reaching the plate. So, it is not easy.”

Claus’s role has been different. He has been the entrepreneur, ideator, visionary, the man who brings in the money and sets up the team. Apart from being an entrepreneur, he has been a successful cookbook author, TV host, associate professor ( Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen), as well as a social worker.

He started a foundation called Melting Pot, in 2010 and set up a restaurant called Gustu in La Paz, Bolivia, and several culinary schools in the country. As for the selection of the South American country, he says, “We picked Bolivia for a combination of factors: it is very poor; there is a large and unexplored biological diversity; and low criminality. I didn't want my staff to go to a place where they could be kidnapped.”

Finally, when asked the reasons behind his success in so many fields, Claus says, “A simple technique that I have used many times in my life is to ask myself a question: what is the most wonderful thing I can do in the world, with the resources I've been given, and the experiences I have had? This simple thought process has led me to the most amazing collaborations and journeys. Any person anywhere in the world can ask himself this question. And wonderful things will ensue.” 

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

When words unite a state and country



Senior ex-technocrat Dr KPP Nambiar has published a 1500-page Japanese-Malayalam dictionary. It took him 15 years to complete the work

By Shevlin Sebastian

At his ninth-floor apartment in Kochi, Dr KPP Nambiar reminisces, “Early in his career former Ambassador TP Sreenivasan was working in the Indian embassy in Japan. One day when he met a Japanese visitor, he said, “I am Sreenivasan.” Later, a Japanese friend told him, “There is no need to say san (the Japanese use ‘san’ as an honorific). This is used only to address others. You can say you are Sreeniva.”

Nambiar breaks into a smile. He is in a happy mood because on the centre table, there is a just-released book of over 1500 pages. It is a Japanese-Malayalam dictionary. And it is the culmination of a 15-year effort by Nambiar.

The stats are mind-numbing: there are about 6 lakh words in it. The book has 53,000 headwords. Each headword has the equivalent of eight to ten words. Initially, he was writing it by hand and over the years the number of foolscap pages, which comprised the manuscript, reached an astounding 3000.

After it was over, he approached several publishers in Kerala but they rejected it, saying they did not have the necessary Japanese fonts and the possibility of sales was poor. Undeterred Nambiar flew to Tokyo in 2004 and met two professors, Jun Takashima and Makoto Minegishi at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

The duo was producing software for linguistic studies. “They were flabbergasted when they saw the size of my manuscript,” says Nambiar.  

Then Nambiar received a blow. They told him that the Japanese dictionary which he had been using for reference was 60 years old. “It was outdated and the language had changed considerably,” he says. “So they suggested that I should start all over again with a new dictionary. They promised all help.” So Nambiar began once again and after seven-hours workdays, for years, the 81-year-old completed it.

And on March 8, at a function in Thiruvananthapuram, Culture Minister AK Balan handed the first copy to Hideki Asari, the Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission of the Japanese Embassy in New Delhi. “This is a new era in the relationship between Japan and Kerala,” said Asari. The book has been published by the State Institute of Languages Kerala, in association with the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and the Research Institute for Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa.    

Nambiar’s association with Japan began in 1965 when he won a scholarship to do a doctorate in oceanography at Tokyo University. Since the language that would be used would be Japanese, he spent six months learning it at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. Duly proficient, he completed his doctoral studies and returned to India in 1969. Thereafter, Nambiar again went to Japan as Resident Director of the Marine Products Export Development Authority in 1981 and remained till 1985.

These two visits made Nambiar fall in love with everything Japanese. He began writing a series of articles about Japan in Kerala’s leading newspapers and magazines. Nambiar also translated the late Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘Sound of the Mountain’ into Malayalam. When he retired, at age 63, after a distinguished career, which included stints at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, the Kerala Government Fisheries Corporation (as managing director), and the Food and Agricultural Organisation, he felt he should not relax. So, he started work on the dictionary.

Interestingly, he says, there is a possible link between Japanese and Malayalam. “In English, the verb is in the middle while the object is at the end of the sentence,” says Nambiar. “But in Malayalam, the verb is at the end. We also don’t end any sentence with a consonant. This is what happens in Japanese too.”

There are some words that are similar. For example, the Japanese word ‘thumbo’, is similar to the Malayalam word, ‘thumbi’ (dragonfly). In Japanese, the meaning is the same. “There is a theory that the Japanese and the Dravidian languages are interlinked but so far, no concrete proof has been uncovered,” says Nambiar.  

Asked about the charms of the Japanese language, he says, “It is very soft. There are very few abusive terms. The biggest abuse is ‘fool’. At the same time, each word has so many nuances. You can say ‘I’ in a hundred ways. Ladies use certain expressions and gents other phrases. And the language reflects the character of the people, who are inherently peace-loving and kind.” 

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Ssshh… let’s go to Kish!



Kiter Rajesh Nair talks about his experiences on the Iranian island of Kish in the Persian Gulf

Photos: A kite festival; the underground city of Kariz

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Aluva-based kiter Rajesh Nair was invited by the Mica Group of Companies in Iran to participate in a kite festival he felt very excited. But when they told him it would be held on Kish Island, he scratched his head. ‘Where is it?’ he thought. He googled it, and came to know that it was near Iran’s Hormuzgan Province in the Persian Gulf. It is a one-and-a-half hour flight from the capital Tehran to reach the island. But to reach Tehran from Kochi takes 11 hours.

Rajesh called his Dubai-based friend Uttam Kumar, who is also an organiser of kite festivals, and the latter quickly gave some reassuring news: it takes only 40 minutes to reach Kish from Dubai. What also made it easier was the fact that India, along with a few other  countries is in the ‘No Visa’ category.

So last month, Rajesh flew to ‘Kish’ (which means creed, belief or religion and is the name of an ancient city in Persia). On the flight, he noticed several Malayalis. He was told later that they they were working in the hospitality industry as well as on the different oil rigs near the island.

The population of the 80-km long island is 30,000 but the number of annual visitors is 15 lakhs. These include tourists from Denmark, USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. The currency is the Iranian rial. For one rial, you get Rs 42. Surprisingly, you cannot get the currency at the Kochi airport. “But the problem with the rial is that you have to spend it all in Kish,” says Rajesh. “So, it is better to take American dollars.” Incidentally, Kish is a Free Trade Zone.  

One of its biggest attractions are the pristine beaches, with its white sands. The water is crystal clear, so you can see the fishes swimming. However, you cannot wear bikinis on the beaches. “Iranian men and women face restrictions,” says Rajesh. “They cannot even wear shorts. The ladies have to always wear a hijab (a headscarf). But the people are very friendly.”

Some of the other attractions include jet and water skiing, parasailing, paragliding and snorkelling. Then there is the Dolphin Park, which has 22,000 palm trees, in an area of 170 acres. Apart from dolphins, you can see whales and sea lions, Other attractions include a butterfly garden, an artificial rain forest, cactus and orchid gardens. In the Ocean Water Park, you can enjoy 13 rides and go swimming in four pools.   

There is also a thousand-year-old underground city called Kariz which was an ancient underground aqueduct. It’s most arresting feature is the numerous wells, with a diameter of 50 feet and a depth of 300 feet. “All these wells are inter-connected and look very impressive,” says Rajesh. There are numerous shops and restaurants where you can enjoy Iranian food.     

The cuisine is tasty. The Iranians use almonds, walnuts and dates in their food, which includes rice, different types of fish, and meat -- ham, lamb, mutton, and chicken.
What is a surprise to know is that Kish is the third-most popular vacation spot in South-West Asia after Dubai and Sharm-el-Sheikh (Egypt).

Meanwhile, the kite festival was the first of its kind on the island. There was a huge kite, 80 feet long and 30 feet wide. Made by one of the foremost kite-makers in the world, Peter Lynn of New Zealand, it was in the form of a Manta Ray fish.  

The kite, which is owned by kiter Mehmet from Turkey, was tied to some sand bags. But suddenly, a fierce wind began. The kite, which weighed 750 kilos, broke away. As it rose, it got stuck in a tree. “In the end, a branch had to be cut, to bring down the kite,” says Rajesh.  

However, there were drawbacks for the kiters. The beach was long, but not wide enough. “Kiters need wide beaches,” says Rajesh. “But we managed to put up a show and a lot of people came. Many had never seen a kite festival of such a magnitude before. They wanted to hold these large kite and see what it is.”

Rajesh had brought along a theyyam kite as well as box and sport kites. “I also made a special kite which is shaped like a parafoil,” says Rajesh, who as president of the Kite Life Foundation is a technical partner of the festival. Another innovation was bubbles, which form when you blow through a solution. These large bubbles will float for a long distance. “The solution is made with a mix of guar gum, dishwashing solution, glycerine, gel, citric acid and baking soda,” says Rajesh. “Overall, it was a nice experience. I would definitely like to go back to Kish.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Bringing it down one by one



Pavneet Pal Singh, head of production at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, talks about how, he, along with a group of volunteers and packers are dismantling the works of the 94 participating artists  

Photos: Pavneet Pal Singh; the works of Priya Ravish Mehra in crates 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The normally-unflappable Pavneet Pal Singh is gasping. “It’s really hot,” he says, as he walks around the almost deserted grounds of Aspinwall House at Fort Kochi. As the head of production for the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB), he is supervising the deinstalling and packing of all the artworks following the conclusion of the art festival on March 29.

Deinstalling is basically removing it from the walls, or dismantling the installations,” he says. “If there is a big painting, we place it on a layer of foam.” Following that, a team of packers will put it in crates, the same ones in which the artwork was brought to Kochi initially. They had been all numbered and stored in a warehouse.

The team of volunteers is following a schedule that has been drawn up by the KMB. “We have de-installed the works of four or five artists every day for the past two weeks,” says Pavneet. After it is put in crates, it is sent by lorry, train, plane or ship to cities both within and outside the country.

Pavneet, in his bright-red T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, is standing in the hall where the works of the late Priya Ravish Mehra have already been put in crates. “There are 40 works in 13 crates,” he says. “This will go to Delhi. We will also get ready the crates of other artists from Delhi and then send it in one batch.”

However, not all artworks have to be shipped back. The Chinese artist Song Dong’s installation, called ‘The Water Temple’, a glass structure, placed on the grounds, was built on site. Bangladesh artist Marzia Farhana’s work on the devastating Kerala floods in August last year featured refrigerators and television sets that no longer work, as well as books that were damaged by water. “We bought Marzia’s objects as scrap and it will be sold as scrap,” says Pavneet.  

In fact, there is going to be an auction on April 20 where vendors can come and bid for articles which the KMB, as well as the artists, do not need. “This is a two-fold auction,” he says. “One is for construction materials like glass, wood and metal, while the other is for audio-visual equipment.”  

Meanwhile, a couple of photographers of the KMB are going around taking photos of the artworks just before they are packed. The reason for doing this is simple: if there is any damage to the art works during transit, the transporter can be held accountable.

At the moment there are a total of 29 volunteers: 15 are at Aspinwall House and other venues, two at Pepper House while the rest are at the Students’ Biennale.

Interestingly, only one artist among the 94 has personally come to do the packing. She is Lubna Chowdhary from Britain. Her work, ‘Metropolis’ contains one thousand small ceramic sculptures of household items like a telephone, wheelbarrow, table, chair, and clock. “Lubna felt it was easily breakable, so she wanted to do the work herself,” says Pavneet. “In the end, she took three days to pack the entire lot.” However, some, like Shilpa Gupta and Kausik Mukhopadhyay sent their assistants.

A few artists have given specific instructions. The Israeli artist Bracha Ettinger had a lot of small drawings. “So she wanted butter paper between every artwork,” says Pavneet. “Bracha made special boxes for this. She said not to use tape inside, but outside the boxes.”

Interestingly, South African artist William Kentridge’s installation had eight video screens. But they were made locally, of gypsum board and aluminium. However, the two big megaphones on tripods came from South Africa and media players from the Netherlands. “So we will be sending them back,” says Pavneet.

The eye-catching exhibit had been a huge tyre weighing 3.7 tonnes. It was the work of Danish artist EB Itso but the tyre was made by JK Tyres. “This tyre is actually used in the mining industry, where they need big dump trucks,” says Pavneet. “In India, it seems only JK Tyres makes it. So they will be taking it back.”

As Pavneet goes about his work, he feels a sense of closure. “I was there at the beginning when the works were set up, during the festival and now at the end when it is being dismantled. So, I feel the job is getting done.”

He had worked in the previous Biennale, too. And he felt that both Biennales were equally successful. “There were crowds on the weekends, on Mondays when the entry was free, but it dipped a bit during the weekdays,” he says. “But this time, there were a lot of visitors from the art world in Delhi and Mumbai. For them, visiting the festival had become a must-see.”

Early next month, Pavneet, who has an architect’s degree, will return home to Chandigarh. “I will rest for a few days and then decide on my next course of action,” he says. “But the Biennale memories will remain as fresh as ever.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The kindness of strangers


The Thrissur-based artist Rijo AR has just completed a trip through the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, by taking the help of the local people 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by A. Sanesh

It was pitch-dark. The Thrissur-based artist Rijo AR was walking along a highway in Rajasthan in early March with a rucksack on his back. He had put a small battery-powered light at the back of his bag, so that he would not get run over by a vehicle. But the road was deserted. Suddenly, he heard the ‘thud thud’ sound of a motorbike. Instinctively, he put his hand out. The bike stopped. Rijo saw that there were two men on it. But they looked drunk.

Immediately, Rijo said, in broken Hindi, “No problem, please go ahead.”  

But they didn’t. They came forward, pointed at the light and said, “Do you have a bomb? Are you a terrorist” Rijo shook his head and said, “I am an Indian.” He showed his Aadhar card. But the men did not look at it. Suddenly, one of them punched Rijo on the face. “I fell on my back and could not breathe for a few moments,” he says. “They grabbed my bag and shouted ‘We have to check it’.” The road had a divider. Rijo managed to grab his bag back and ran to the other side. He walked rapidly. The duo followed on their bike.

Thankfully, luck smiled in Rijo’s favour. At some distance away, workers wearing L&T (Larsen and Toubro) uniforms were flashing lights. The road was being repaired. Rijo ran and stood beside them. He tried to communicate but in his fearful state, no words in Hindi came out. It didn’t help that they did not know English.

The men on the bike waited some distance away. “They were planning to attack me the moment I moved away,” says Rijo. “But I stayed put.”  

Suddenly a van came up to collect the men. There was an officer who knew English. Rijo told him about what had happened. He shouted “Get in.” Gratefully, Rijo clambered into the vehicle and made a timely escape from the area.

Rijo was on a random journey. After meeting with some friends in Bharuch, Gujarat, he decided he would hitchhike his way back home. But when he reached the highway, he saw two signboards. If he went right, the road would take him to Mumbai, Goa and Gokarna. If Rijo went left it would lead to Rajasthan. “Without any planning, I went left,” he says. Rijo walked for a long time. His mind was blank. But after five kilometres, somebody bought him a bottle of mineral water. Soon, he thumbed a ride.

And his journey had begun. When he neared Mount Abu Road, in the Sirohi district of Rajasthan, a man by the name of Raghav picked him up. He was the principal of a local school. Raghav took Rijo to a temple, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. There is a stone sculpture of Nandi the bull. While there, Rijo took part in rituals, and poured milk on the lingam.

At night, Raghav took Rijo to an ashram. The Malayali was shocked to see it was full of tribal girls in the 15-year age category. “They live in the forest but come for four months to study and enjoy free food and lodging,” says Rijo.  

Food was served in his room. He stepped out to wash his hands. But when he returned he got a shock. “All the girls were sitting around my pair of sneakers,” he says. “They had not seen anything like that. They were staring at it. They were feeling it with their fingers. I don’t know whether to feel sad or excited. Then they looked at my drawing book, which had many illustrations. They had an admiring look on their faces. I thought, ‘I am an ordinary person but they think I am extraordinary’. ”

Later, Rijo travelled to Ajmer, Pushkar, and Jaipur. It was in the Pink City that he put up a sign on the back of his rucksack: ‘All India Trip without money’. Later, he went to Gurugram, Delhi, Chandigarh, Kulu, Manali, the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Chennai, Mahabalipuram, Bangalore, Mangaluru, Kasaragod, Kannur and Kochi, a total of 46 days. Everywhere he went he depended on the kindness of strangers for food, shelter and travel. In most places, he would put up a tent and sleep inside it.   

At Kochi, a couple of days ago, Rijo looks thin and weather-beaten. He is experiencing pain around his neck, arms, legs and has blisters on his feet.

Asked about the lessons he gained from the trip, Rijo says, “The education level is very low. People do not understand a word of English, especially in the rural areas. They only know Hindi, so I had a lot of problems. Many times, the people were rude and constantly inspected my bag, without my permission. I cannot imagine somebody in Kerala inspecting a visitor’s bag.”   

But what came as a stunning revelation to Rijo was the image of Kerala. “When I would say I am a Malayali, they would immediately say, ‘Kerala -- fully educated guys’. They told me that as a people we are very hygienic. We have a big reputation in the nursing and hospitality sectors. Many told me in Ajmer that the local hospital is full of Malayali nurses. They said that we are brainy and artistically inclined.”  

Rijo is now on his way to Kanyakumari where he will bring his trip to an end. The 24-year-old, who has a diploma in hotel management, is yet to decide on the future course of his life. But at this moment, he is trying to assimilate the numerous experiences he went through. “There are all types of people in this world,” he says with a smile. 

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

Thursday, April 11, 2019

All about drivers and helpers



On the 25th anniversary of the Rajagiri Public School, Kochi, TX Peter, the Security Officer, talks about the functioning of the bus system

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 6.30 a.m., TX Peter, the Security Officer at the Rajagiri School, stands near the Jesus Christ statue, inside the Rajagiri Public School campus, as he watches the buses go for their morning student pick-ups. In total, there are 25 buses. But interestingly, only eight buses leave from the campus. “The rest are in parked at CMI [Carmelite of Mary Immaculate] institutions in different places like Thevara, Aluva and Paravur,” says Peter. “This way, we can save up on time in the mornings.”

There are several routes: the buses go towards Tripunithara, Kakkanad, Aluva, Angamaly, Paravur, Kadavanthra, Elamakkara, Thoppumpady, and Mulavukad, among other places.
Since the buses are owned by the Higher Secondary (HS) section, Fr. Rector Bijo Kannattukalathil, of the HS section, retains overall responsibility. He works closely with Peter and the drivers. Fr. Bijo has an app so he can monitor the movements of the buses.

The buses, on the morning run, start returning from 7.45 a.m. onwards. “All are in by 8 a.m., so there is enough time before the 8.15 a.m. start,” says Peter. “It is the rare bus that is late.”
Asked the reasons for being late, Peter says, “It could be a traffic jam or a breakdown. But this is very rare.”

That is because all the buses are maintained properly.  “We do all the maintenance and servicing during the April and May holidays,” says Peter. “The buses are also painted. And we get a fitness certificate from the Motor Vehicles Department.”

And once the academic year begins, if there are any repairs, one, among the drivers, who has the title of Chief Mechanic does the work. The drivers have other responsibilities: they have to wash the buses twice a week. “And they also have to fill petrol, a full tank, twice a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays,” says Peter. “But usually all of them are free to leave the campus by 8.30 a.m.”

Interestingly, the majority are auto-rickshaw drivers who own their vehicles. “So, till the time they have to return at 3 p.m., they are busy taking customers here and there,” says Peter.
The buses leave the campus by 3.25 p.m. and they return to the Kalamassery campus, by 4.30 p.m. Those who drive the Thevara and Aluva buses, which are parked in those areas, also live in that area. “That way, the drivers don’t have to travel very far after their work,” says Peter.
Not surprisingly, the most difficult season is the monsoons. “Traffic slows down because of waterlogged roads, and in places like Vytilla, where the flyover construction is taking place, you can get delayed,” says Peter.

As for the 25 women helpers, apart from assisting in the buses, they keep the classrooms and the campus clean. Peter, on the other hand, has to oversee the security of the campus.
Meanwhile, there are refresher courses for both the drivers and the helpers. “This is usually done before the start of the academic year in June,” says Peter. “A Motor Vehicles Department Inspector does a refresher course. Sometimes, this is done by the local police.”

So what is being taught? “For example, after the children and teachers get in, the driver or the helper has to close the door before the bus can leave the stop,” says Peter, who had been a Sub Inspector of Police for 33 years, before he retired in 2011.    

Finally, when asked about how the school remains one of the top institutions of the state, Peter says, “The CMI fathers maintain strict discipline and follow a deep set of values.”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

He’s a top guy



The Thrissur-born Najath Sharafudeen has just won the Public Charity Award in the Top Model competition in Britain. He talks about his experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the prize giving ceremony for the Top Model competition at the Amba Charing Cross Hotel, London, on March 24, the announcer said, “In the men’s category, it is Najath [Sharafudeen].” The Thrissur-born model stepped up and received a glass plaque with the words, ‘Top Model’ right across it, a sash and a goodies bag, even as whoops and cheers rang across the hall.

He is the first Indian and the second Asian to win this national-level competition. The Top Model is one of the leading competitions in the UK. In the men’s category, Najath won in the Public Charity Award. There were 17 finalists from countries as diverse as Ireland, Spain, Africa and the United Kingdom.

This is a win based on popular votes. Visitors to the web site (topmodel.co.uk) have to click on the model they like, by assessing their appearance and walk, and send money.

If you give one pound it is equivalent to one vote,” says Najath. “If you give 20 pounds I would get 40 votes and for 100 pounds, it is 150 votes.” Voting took place over five months. In the end, Najath received 2,000 votes and earned 1,300 pounds. The money has been given to the ‘Children with Cancer UK’ organisation, which is the leading charity in Britain for childhood cancer.

Incidentally, this is not the first prize that Najath has won. At the British School of Fashion, where the 24-year-old is studying brand designing, there was a ‘Reworked white shirt’ competition. Plain white shirts were given to students and they had to design it in a creative manner. And Najath again walked away with the first prize.

The youngster has a clear aim. “My dream is to create a fashion brand in India based on British designs,” he says.

Asked the difference in cloth design in Britain and India, he says, “The majority of Indians follow a traditional fit and style. On the other hand, Britishers believe wearing clothes is a fashion statement. And they are able to draw attention to themselves.”

In Britain, when the men go to work, they use three types of material, when it comes to white shirts: poplin, herringbone, and Oxford. These are formal shirts and are 100 percent cotton and non-iron. As for the fittings, there are four types: super-fitted, fitted, slim fit and regular fit. But when they go for dinner, the style is different. “Then the men will have V-cut collars, cufflinks, and dress studs, instead of buttons,” says Najath.

As for the women, they wear suits and trousers in the office. For evening wear, it is snake or animal prints in light colours. “The fashion all over the world today is wearing colours like red, rose and fluorescent,” says Najath. “And there is no categorising of the clothes as mini skirts or short dresses. They just call it a dress.”

Because the climate is very cold now, the ladies wear cardigans and trenchcoats while going to a party. “Once there, they will take it off, since most places are centrally heated,” says Najath, who is learning how different Britain is from India.

One big difference is in the education system. “In India, education is still done on paper,” says the Class 12 alumni of the Sir Syed English School at Pavaratty, Thrissur. “Whenever we submit a 40-page project, it is given on paper.”

But in London, it is all online. “So, basically there are no books. Everything is on your laptop,” says Najath. “They will give you a username and password. When you sign in, there will be modules. All subjects can be found here..”

As to whether India is backward when it came to education, Najath says, “Education is good in India, but the system we follow is different from the UK. Yes, in a way, our system needs to step up, but the quality of the teaching is good.”

He also did notice a difference in the attitude of students towards their teachers. “In Britain, you can put your leg on a chair, while chatting with your teacher and having a coffee,” he says. “It is very casual. But in India, when we see a teacher, we are very respectful and our interactions are very formal. When I compare the two styles, the UK system is better as the students are able to develop a sense of independence and self-confidence.”

Meanwhile, he is nearing the end of his 16-month course. “All that remains is the dissertation of my final project,” says Najath, who did his Bachelor of Business Administration degree from SRM College, Chennai and participated in 35 ramp shows in India. “I look forward with hope to the future.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, April 08, 2019

Restoring long-lost faces




The Chennai-based maxillofacial surgeon Dr James Jesudasan talks about his experiences in dealing with Nigerian children affected by Noma, a bacteria that eats up the face 

Photo of James by Aswin Prasath

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was a routine biopsy. The boy was one-and-a-half years old. He had a swelling on his face. It looked like a tumour. At the Nomo Children’s Hospital at Sokoto in Nigeria (750 kms from Lagos), Dr James Jesudasan, a Chennai-based maxillofacial surgeon, stood poised over the boy with a scalpel in his hand. On either side of him were his colleagues Julia Amando of Brazil and David Shaye from the USA.

James paused and, inexplicably, tears began to roll down his face.  

Julia looked at James and said, “What’s wrong with you? Get on with it.”

James shook his head, and said, “I can’t. Will you do it?”   

Julia nodded and did the biopsy within two minutes.

Looking back, James, 36, says, “This boy had a look of fear and anxiety. He was also crying. I suddenly realised that I had a son, who is slightly older, at five years. Maybe, all this caused me to tear up.”

James was in Sokoto at the behest of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the international NGO that works in conflict zones and in countries affected by epidemics. He was there to deal with children who had been afflicted by a disease called Noma.

It is a bacterial infection which occurs because of excessive malnutrition in poverty-stricken countries. It starts off with a blister in the mouth which develops into ulcers. Soon, the tissues degenerates. When this happens, the surrounding tissue gets hardened. As a result, the jaw gets locked and eating becomes very difficult. A huge opening is formed in the area of the nose and mouth.  

So James’s brief was to repair faces, restore dignity, and unlock jaws so that the children could start eating again.   

The method is straightforward. “If a child has half his face missing, then, along with the plastic surgeon, we have to try and reconstruct the face,” says James. “You can use a flap from the shoulder, forehead or the deltoids. We take both skin and muscle.”

After it is done, healing has to take place. This can take anywhere between three to six weeks. “Since we come for three weeks at a time, another team will carry on the work,” says James. “They will consult the notes that we have written and our suggestions.”

It takes years before some semblance of normality can be brought back to the face. But what brings joy is to know that the children can start eating. For a long time, they only had gruel. “Since it is a meat-eating society, the children have told me that one of the first things they will eat is chicken,” says James.

Not surprisingly, they are extremely grateful. On his last visit, in October, they prepared a poster, titled ‘James’ at the top. Then they made circles inside in which they drew stars, heart emojis, and butterflies. Pressing on each drawing was the child's thumb impression in red and their names. “I was moved,” says James.

Even as James was happy, he was appalled at the economic disparity in Nigeria. Thanks to a petrodollar economy, there is an extremely affluent class in the country. “I have travelled to many parts of the world but I have not seen so many huge bungalows and expensive cars like Lamborghinis, Porsches and Bentleys that I saw in Lagos,” says James. “At the same time, there are so many poor people. I doubt whether Nigeria has a middle class. And sadly, not many people know of Noma.”

So, in order to create awareness, on November 19, MSF held an International Noma Day in the federal capital of Abuja. “Hopefully, government funding will start flowing to the affected areas,” says James.  

Meanwhile, when asked whether the reconstruction is 100 percent, James shook his head. “We can get to about 70 percent,” he says. “You will have something which looks like a nose, and a functional mouth. But when you look at them you will realise they are not normal people. We cannot do reconstructive surgery the way it is done for Hollywood stars. That's because we are working in a primitive area of the country and using basic equipment. But now the MSF is training local doctors so that treatment can continue after we leave.”

For James, it has been a transformative experience. “I have learned to value life,” he says. “Earlier, I had taken a lot of things for granted. To see these little children go through so much pain and not complain at all has been an unforgettable experience.” 

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

Friday, April 05, 2019


Human resource development expert Vijay Menon talks about his experiences, during a recent seminar on self-excellence at the Leadership Forum  

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the lunch break during the day-long seminar on ‘Self Excellence’, for the Leadership Forum at Kochi recently, human resource development expert Vijay Menon is bursting with energy. The adrenalin is still flowing, as he elaborates on the subject. “Self-excellence is rare,” he says. “Very few people make a conscious effort to understand themselves. There is a difference between knowing and understanding oneself. Knowing is at a primary level, like your name, address and the skills you have, but understanding is when we are able to unearth the deeper person. And when we do that, it usually leads to excellence.”

This can be achieved through reading, inner reflection and engagement with society.

In his 16-year career, Vijay has mentored a cross-section of professionals from all over Asia: judges, CEOs, leaders of Fortune 100 companies, civil service officers, women corporate leaders, teachers, and students. “What I have discovered is that nearly all of them have a deep desire for self-development on the personal and professional fronts,” says Vijay.  

This can be seen soon after the conclusion of an event. People will come up to Vijay and ask for some book to read. “When I meet them the next time, they will tell me they have read the book,” says Vijay.

For Vijay, one of the books which made an impact on him was the late President APJ Abdul Kalam’s ‘Transcendence: My Spiritual Experiences with Pramukh Swamiji’. “The book says that if you have the right purpose, the possibilities are infinite,” he says.

Vijay also tries to increase the possibilities of his participants. Two years ago, he was talking to a group of Class 12 students at a school in Kochi. They told him that they would be going for an excursion to Mysore. Vijay spoke to them about how money is important and it should be spent carefully. Then he began speaking about tribal colonies in Wayanad, where in summer they go through a harrowing experience because of lack of water.

The talk had an impact. A group of 12 students decided to forego their trip and used the money to build a well in a village at Wayanad. “Today, they have a well which benefits 45 families,” says Vijay. Later, students from seven schools set aside money and 25 wells have been built.

Thanks to his numerous interactions, Vijay has a different perspective on people, who normally do not have a good image, like public sector employees. He has addressed the managing directors of many public banks, as well as trained the chairman and managing directors of all the seven public sector insurance companies in India. “What I found was that, despite all the constraints, like lack of autonomy, some of the things that they have done are absolutely amazing,” he says.

In a corporate set-up, a managing director has important bullets in his armoury. “He can give somebody a promotion, a salary hike, or send him abroad for an overseas placement,” says Vijay. “But a public sector MD cannot motivate his team by saying, ‘I'm going to increase your salary’. It has already been mandated by the government. So, literally speaking, it is his personal charisma that makes people do something out of the way.”  

Vijay, who is also on the training panel of the judicial academies in Kerala, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, also has a high opinion of the judiciary. “One judge told me that he was keenly aware that every judgement that he wrote today will be taught tomorrow in a law school,” says Vijay. “He felt it should be one which has power and depth. So, he hoped to gain something by attending my programme.”

As for tips on public speaking, Vijay says, “Today, unfortunately, public speaking is dominated by PowerPoint presentations and graphics. While this is important in a formal presentation, the greatest traction as a public speaker comes through the power of stories and anecdotes. Every concept comes alive through a story. Every fact gets meaning with an illustration.”

Secondly, delivery should be genuine. “There is a tendency to change your accent, but you end up sounding artificial and unreal,” says Vijay. “It is through the authentic self that the trust of the audience is won.”

Thirdly, he emphasised the importance of unconscious modulation. “You can have the greatest content, but for that to live on in the hearts and minds of people, you have to employ voice modulation. That means, one has to emphasise keywords,” he says. “So, if you say, ‘the late Dr Varghese Kurien was a wonderful institution builder’, the emphasis should be on the word, ‘wonderful’. Now the problem with voice modulation is that when people start doing it consciously, it becomes artificial. However, through constant practice, it can become natural.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, April 01, 2019

When I saw my class teacher or did I?


By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: St. Xavier's School, Kolkata

The other day when I was riding down a road, on a two-wheeler, near my home in Kochi, in the distance, I saw a woman who had bobbed hair. I felt a sudden queasiness in my stomach. ‘Was that Miss Edmonds? (name changed)’ I thought.

Miss Edmonds had been my Class four teacher at St. Xavier’s School in Kolkata. She was a strict disciplinarian. When Miss Edmonds walked, she looked neither to the left nor the right. When she got angry her voice sounded like a clap of lightning. And one day I got to experience her rage first-hand.

It was an English class. Miss Edmonds looked at me and said, “Come here.” My heart started beating fast and my hands began to shake. I got up from the fourth row and began to walk, as if through quicksand, towards her table. I stopped and waited.

You haven’t you done your homework, yet, you have submitted your exercise book,” she said. “Why?”

There was a pin-drop silence in the class.

My mother has a high fever,” I said. “Yesterday, there were a lot of people in the house. I could not do my homework.”

Then why did you submit your book?” said Miss Edmonds.

I did not know what to say. It was my fear of the class teacher that made me do so. Miss Edmonds pulled out the gold ring from the third finger of her right hand and placed it carefully on the table. Then she pushed back the chair, stood up and in the very next instant, she slapped my face.

My head rocked back. My eyes closed and I saw stars under my eyelids. There was a sting on my cheeks and, all of a sudden, tears began to roll down my face. Miss Edmonds flung my notebook towards the door.

Go and stand outside till the end of classes today,” she shouted, as I numbly walked towards the door. I could feel the eyes of all the boys on my back.

Outside, I wiped my face with a handkerchief. It was such a shock. This was the first time in my life that I had been slapped. My mother had always scolded me but never touched me.

In fact, that was the only time Miss Edmonds slapped me. After that, I was always careful. I did my homework on time and did not make a noise in class. But I was always scared of her...

As I came abreast of the woman on that Kochi road I looked sideways and saw that it was somebody else. Of course, it would be, since Miss Edmonds died more than fifteen years ago. Sadly, some fears do not go away. They remain alive and kicking till you die. 

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

Thursday, March 28, 2019

One of the most important Biennales


Glenn D Lowry, the Director of Museum of Modern Art in New York talks about the impact of the Kochi Muziris Biennale on the international art world and the artists making a mark 

Photos: Glenn D Lowry; work of Priya Ravish Mehra 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The afternoon sun is blazing. So, it’s no surprise that even though Glenn D Lowry, the director of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is sitting in the shade of a shore-side restaurant, at Jew Town, he is wearing sunglasses. The reflection of the water can get a bit overwhelming, especially if you are not used to such tropical heat. But he is also smiling because he’s had a good time at the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

Asked how the art festival has evolved, Glenn says, “It is better organised and easier to navigate. There's more information for visitors. The mediators are doing a fantastic job of introducing artists and ideas to a public that might otherwise find it hard to access some of this.”

And the man who has travelled to all the major Biennales in the world several times over has some good news for the locals. “The Kochi Biennale has emerged very quickly as one of the most important biennials in the world,” he says. “If you think about it, it's only in its fourth edition and it has already become one of the key points in a network of major exhibitions like the Venice, Sydney, Sao Paulo and Sharjah Biennales. Anyone interested in understanding contemporary art has to come here.”

Not surprisingly, he is very excited by the Indian talent that he has seen. He opens his notebook, looks up and says, “I will mention a few names but these are just some among so many.”

The names he mentions includes Bapi Das, Shubigi Rao, and Priya Ravish Mehra (1961-2018). “The work by Priya was particularly moving because one of the issues this Biennale deals with is the is the fragility of our planet, and the political, social, and economic ruptures that we are experiencing,” he says. “Priya’s work is all about suture, it's all about repair, it's all about healing damage, taking things that have been broken, ripped and torn and helping to knit them back together. It was extremely poetic and beautiful.”

At the Kochi edition, Glenn was very happy to see large numbers of people wandering around the various exhibits. “These are ordinary people who had brought along their children,” he says. “And that's an incredible achievement. India does not have as many museums of modern and contemporary art as she deserves to have. So the Biennale is playing an important role in providing access to top class art for people from all over India.”

MoMA in New York also provides access to top class art for all types of people. They have an astonishing 30 lakh visitors annually. But, interestingly, there are a few works that people see time and time again. These include Pablo Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d'Avignon’, Vincent Van Gogh's ‘Starry Night’, Jackson Pollock’s ‘One: Number 31’, 1950’ and Henri Matisse's ‘Dance’.

Asked the reasons behind their popularity, Glenn says, “These are great works of art. Great works speak to different people across different times and places. Two, because of the media, they have become famous so people know about them. Third, often the story of the artist is more interesting. Van Gogh cut off a part of his left ear and later committed suicide. All of these things lead to curiosity. Artists are interesting people.”

Asked how they are different from ordinary people, Glenn says, “They are both like us and unlike us. Like us, they live in the real world. They have families, buy groceries, and vote in elections. Yet, at the same time, they have a certain kind of fearlessness. They are willing to talk about issues in ways that many of us, out of politeness or habit are afraid to talk about. And they are often able to talk about them in ways that help the rest of us see things in new and different ways. It’s a gift.”

But is this gift being hampered by the digital revolution where there are all types of tools to make art? “Yes, the digital revolution has allowed artists to use a new set of tools,” says Glenn. “But the works remain original and exciting. There are so many benefits: access to ideas and art has exploded. Now you can be in a village in Africa, a city in India or in the countryside in Canada and have access to the same information through the Internet. What it means is that artists can engage in conversations with each other more rapidly across more geographies than ever before.”  

And keeping tab of all this is Glenn, who has been the director of MoMA for the past 24 years, a very long time to be at the top of one of the best museums in the world. But, he says, the reasons behind his success are simple. “I love what I do,” he says. “I am surrounded by extraordinarily talented curators, educators, conservators and archivists, so when I go to work every day I feel like a student learning from my colleagues and that makes it exciting. I love to look at art. I love to meet artists And so, for me every day is a new day.” 

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

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Here’s to woman power



Kalaripayattu exponent Mereena Aswani, with the help of her husband, has started a kalari exclusively for girls and women at Fort Kochi. She talks about how the art form can transform a woman’s life

Photos: Mereena (right) at the kalari; with her husband Aswani. Pics by Vikas Ramdas

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7.30 a.m., on a recent Saturday, inside the large shed of the Dakshina Bharatha Kalari, at Fort Kochi, Mereena Aswani gazes at the women standing in front of them. All of them are wearing black: T-shirts, track pants or salwar kameez, with a red sash tied around their waists. Soon, they raise their hands upwards, move forward, kick their legs up, turn around, move forward, and kick their legs up again. Later, they sit cross-legged on their floor and Mereena guides them through a series of arm-stretching exercises.

For years, Mereena had been assisting her husband, kalaripayattu exponent Aswani Kumar, but on March 8, Kochi Mayor Soumini Jain inaugurated classes exclusively for women. “It was a desire of my teacher, Sreedharan Gurukal to start a Kalari exclusively for women and I have achieved that dream, with the help of Aswani,” says Mereena.

In fact, the duo got a shed constructed, with a mud-pressed floor, while spears and shields hang on the walls, which have been painted in red. At 1200 sq. feet, it is a spacious area.

Once the local women came to know about the classes, they have stepped forward enthusiastically. There are Gujarati working women, ladies from the Muslim community, professional dancers, who want to strengthen their legs, homemakers and yoga trainers who want to learn a martial art. “The flexibility in yoga is different from the flexibility that you gain from kalaripayattu ,” says Mereena.  

The women range in age from 25 to 50 years. The training is different for newcomers. Mereena looks at them and evaluates their level of fitness. “How flexible are they? Are they willing to work hard?” she says. “I start them off very slowly, with just a few steps. After about eight classes, I will introduce leg techniques.”

One who has been a regular is 38-year-old Thanuja Rauf, an Ayurveda doctor. “I had been learning kalaripayattu under Mereena even before the classes began officially,” she says. “She is a very good teacher. My flexibility has increased. There is a lot of stress relief. And you get a lot of energy. So you are able to be much more active than before. It has also boosted my self-confidence.”

But it is not easy. “Definitely, in the beginning, there will be body aches and pains, but you have to practise continuously,” says Mereena. “There is a saying, ‘no pain, no gain’. The biggest advantage is that you will be able to burn away negative energy.”

Interestingly, Mereena has been burning away this negative energy for decades.
It all began when she was only ten years old. Because of weak legs, she would fall down often. So, the doctor who treated her told her parents that one of the ways to develop strength in the legs was by practising a martial art.

For the family, this was an easy choice. Just two houses away, at Fort Kochi, was the master Sreedharan Gurukal who used to hold kalaripayattu classes. So Mereena was enrolled. Usually, she would come to the courtyard every day at 5 p.m., after school was over, for training along with a few ladies and girls. “I was the youngest in the group,” she says. And over time, as she practised regularly, her legs became stronger and the pains went away.  

But Mereena never stopped. “I was hooked to kalaripayattu,” she says. Asked the advantages of practising the art form, Mereena says, “Your body becomes very flexible. Secondly, in my case, I have developed so much of courage that I feel confident that I can tackle a man bare-handed. Also, through kalaripayattu, I am connecting with our ancient traditions, which are steadily being lost. We are blindly following the West which is not a good thing.”

Kalaripayattu has other benefits, too. Before entering the kalari (ring), the kalaripayattu artist touches the ground with his hand. Thereafter, he or she touches the feet of deities like Ganapati and Bhadrakali, at the different corners of the kalari. Then you have to touch the feet of the guru. “Through these acts, you become humble,” says Mereena.  

Apart from kalaripayattu, Mereena also teaches yoga. Last year, she had gone to Germany to teach yoga. At the kalari, Mereena gives a body massage for those who have body aches and pains.

Through all this Aswani is right next to her. The couple, who tied the knot on April 30, 2005, has two school-going daughters.

And they have a mission: to make Malayali women get fit. “They are unfit because they are giving up their lives to serve the family and don’t look after themselves at all,” says Mereena. “So I ask them to take out one hour a week only for themselves. And when they come to the kalari and exercise for an hour, they experience a lot of stress relief. So, they end up becoming better women, wives and mothers.” 

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