Monday, December 10, 2018

When The Locals Said, ‘Thank You’

The local community at Jew Town felicitates the Jews who had come from all over the world for the 450th anniversary of the Mattancherry Paradesi Synagogue

Photos: Some of the Jews pictured at the felicitation meeting. Sitting on a wheelchair is the 80 plus Ellis Roby, who lives in Israel. Photo by Albin Mathew. Travel guides put up a banner which says, 'Welcome to Kochi. We love Israel' in Hebrew. One of them waves an Israeli flag. Photo by SS

By Shevlin Sebastian

As the all-woman chenda team set out from the Mattancherry Paradesi Synagogue people looked out from the nearby shops, houses and terraces. Behind the drummers were a motley group of Jews in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Some wore T-shirts, and shorts, while others were in jeans, while several had caps. Ellis Roby, in his mid-eighties, from Israel was seated in a wheelchair.  

At the end of the road, three tour guides raised a banner. On it was a Star of David. Beneath it was written two lines in Hebrew. The first line said: ‘Welcome to Kochi’ followed by ‘We love Israel’. And under it was the symbol of the holy Hanukkah candle holder. As one guide waved the Israeli flag, the other said, “We want to show our appreciation of the Jews.”

So did the the Kerala Handicraft Dealers and Manufacturers Welfare Association, the Kashmiri Handicrafts Association and the local community. The Jews had come to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Mattancherry Paradesi Synagogue. And the locals decided to honour the Jews.   

Saus Junaid Sulaiman, the secretary of the Kerala Handicrafts Association: “We are grateful to the Jews because thanks to the presence of the synagogue we are on the world map. And for decades we have been having a steady business as a lot of Jews come from all over the world to pray at the synagogue.”

Leading hotelier Jose Dominic said, “Many of the Jews left in their teens and now they are all senior citizens. The relevance of this celebration is that there will probably not be another celebration like this.”  

At the public meeting, in the Ginger House Restaurant, the Los-Angeles based David Hallegua said, “When I get ready to leave this world I know where my soul is going to be. It is going to be by the fishing nets in Fort Kochi, where I grew up as a little boy, spending time with my grandparents, waking up in the morning, hearing a ship’s siren, and hearing the waves hit the banks and the sound of seagulls flying.”  

Essie Sassoon, who lives in Israel, said, “The Jews have been driven out from every other country, but India accepted us. We were allowed to live peacefully and practise our religion. This was very important for us. The authorities would call us and ask when was the date of our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur festivals so that they could avoid holding public examinations on those days. Where can you find such a caring relationship anywhere in the world?”

And then up stepped the American Steve Hertzman, who brought the house down, when he said, “Sometimes I feel like a colonial plunderer because I managed to pluck one of the most valuable gems in Jew Town: my wife Linda.”  

As for Nima Regev, who studied in St. Mary’s convent school, Fort Kochi, St. Teresa’s and Maharaja’s College, her fondest memory was of the ulsavams (festivals). “We would hear the sound of the chendas and rush out of the house,” she said. “Whenever I come here, it is as though I have never left.”

There were felicitations from KV Thomas, MP, George Fernandes, MLA, KJ Soman, former Mayor of the Kochi Corporation and other dignitaries.

The function concluded with the singing of the Israeli national anthem followed by a powerful rendition by the Jews of the Indian national them. At its conclusion, many Jews raised their hands to the sky.      

As Essie said, “You can take a Jew out of India but you cannot take India out of a Jew.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Down The Home Stretch

At Pepper House and Aspinwall House, artists work closely with volunteers and the Kochi Biennale Foundation team to get things ready for the opening on December 12 

Photos: Brazilian artist Vivian Caccuri; Bangladesh artist Marzia Farhana. Pics by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a humid afternoon, Brazilian artist Vivian Caccuri sits at a table in the cafe of the Pepper House, Fort Kochi. She is staring at her laptop, while beside it is a square keyboard. A featured artist of the Kochi Biennale, Vivian is giving finishing touches to her sound installation.

And it is a most unusual one. She has recorded a composition based on the sound of mosquitoes in Kochi. But no surprises to hear the whine of the Kochi mosquitoes is louder than their Brazilian counterparts.

A visitor says, “Malayalis, as well as Indians, are a loud people. So, that could be the reason why the local mosquitoes are louder.”

Vivian laughs and says, “Brazilians can be loud, too, but not in a pleasant way.” But there is a serious aspect to the ‘Mosquito Shrine’ installation. She is researching as to why people get annoyed when they hear the whine of mosquitoes in their ears. Vivian is trying to find answers in the history of America, Africa and Asia and also in the history of medicine. “The relationship between mosquitoes and people have evolved over the centuries,” she says.  

In her first visit to the city, Vivian has noticed a lot of similarities between the people of Brazil as well as Kerala. “In both places, the family plays a very important role,” she says. “The warmth of the people is also similar. Another commonality is the love for sweets.”

The visitor says, “Yes, we like sweets, but people are not sweet all the time.”

Vivian laughs again and says, “Absolutely true.”    

The Peacock as Metaphor

In a dimly-lit hall, at Aspinwall House, sitting on a chair and clearly taking a breather is Aasma M. Suresh. She is the daughter of the Hyderabad-based artist BV Suresh. Aaasma, who has just completed her masters in visual art from Ambedkar University, New Delhi, is helping her father for the first time.

There are kinetic, video and audio installations,” she says. “My dad has focused on the subjects of vigilance, mob violence and censorship. He works mostly with commonly-found objects, but for this show, he is using only cane and bamboo.”

Suresh has made a paper mache peacock. “It is a national bird but Dad has made it white to show that the different colours no longer exist in the country,” says Aasma. “In other words, diversity is being attacked. The body looks like a rough cut, like a bird who has undergone a post-mortem.”

Outside the hall, Suresh is standing under a tree.“There is a rising threat to artistic freedom in our country,” he says, as he recalls the harassment of writers like Perumal Murugan, artists like S. Chandramohan and the late M.F. Hussain as well as the killing of activists like Narendra Dhabolkar, NN Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh. “Recently, I  made a film about this, but the organisers of a festival in Mumbai decided not to show it, to avoid any trouble,” says Suresh. “So now, artists are practising self-censorship.”

An artist from Dhaka

Another country where artists are increasingly facing threats and are even murdered is Bangladesh. "It's a different and difficult time not only in Bangladesh but all over the world," says the Dhaka-based artist Marzia Farhana.

But Marzia’s mood brightens when she talks about Kochi. “This is a highly energetic and cooperative place,” she says. “The people are engaged with art deeply. They show a lot of love when they work with artists and their works. I am so happy to see that.”  

Interestingly, her work is about the Kerala floods. Marzana is doing a multimedia installation, taking discarded materials from flood-affected areas. One of them is a blue refrigerator, which is hanging upside down from the ceiling. “I am taking a stand on the ecological catastrophe facing the planet,” says Marzia.

High-energy volunteers

Meanwhile, despite moments of self-censorship and rising religious fundamentalism, a group of young volunteers are milling around and having a laugh, even as they make animated conversation. Ritu Lohia has completed a course in architecture and a masters in interior design. The Hyderabad-based youngster says, “This is my first Biennale. I find it very exciting. I hope to meet interesting people.”

Somebody says, “Would you like to fall in love with an artist and get married?”

Rithu thinks about it for a moment and says, “I wouldn’t mind.”

Her Kozhikode-based friend, Hiba Ameena giggles and says, “I never expected such an answer from you.”

Why not?” says a smiling Ritu. “Artists are interesting people.”

Hiba nods. She runs a travel agency with her mother although she is a trained engineer. But she also has an interest in art. “I wanted to become a volunteer in the previous edition but I was not able to do so,” she says. “But I did visit the Biennale. This year I got selected. I am keen to work with artists and connect with all types of people.”  

One volunteer who stands out is Pavneet Singh, with his red turban. He looks vaguely familiar. “Weren’t you there in the last Biennale?” asks a visitor.

Yes, I was a volunteer then and I am back again,” says Pavneet, a qualified architect, who is from Chandigarh.

Asked what he did in the intervening period, Pavneet says, “I spent nearly nine months working for the Serendipity Art Festival in Goa, till February this year. Now I am in Kochi.”

Asked about whether he desired a regular job, and a steady salary, Pavneet says, “We don’t belong to the generation that wants to work full time. My parents are fine with it, but they told me I must feed myself, which I am doing. So no issues.” Another volunteer Anil Xavier, who is standing next to him, nods in agreement.

When the Gods have a meeting

But the London-based Naga artist Temsuyanger Longkumer has issues but it is with God. “When you look at history, there has always been a dark side to religion,” he says. “I am setting up a structure called ‘God’s Summit’. This is where the Gods of different religions are supposed to be holding a meeting and discussing what has been happening on earth.”

He has taken clips from one hundred films and documentaries. “I selected the films by looking at the topics that they are dealing with and also the words that have been said,” says Temsuyanger. Some of the films used including the recent box office hit, ‘Vendetta’. “After viewing the 90 minute programme, I want people to come to their own conclusions,” he says.
Indeed, from December 12, 2018 till March 29, 2019, around six lakh visitors will come to their own conclusions after seeing numerous artworks from all over the world.

India’s greatest art festival beckons.

Welcome to all!

Fast Files 

Cabral Yard: The Hub

The Pavilion at Cabral Yard will be a place where all types of dialogue will take place. Apart from a physical venue for programmes, it will be a space where ordinary people can participate. They can publicly display their work or any online content: from music, to film, literature to viral videos. Participants can speak or perform on open microphones, as well as write and draw on a chalkboard. The Kudumbashree volunteers will be running a community cafe.

Added attraction: Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn will be holding a six-hour daily workshop for 30 days inside Yard.

No of artists 

95. A majority of them are from the global South. According to the curator Anita Dube, the aim is to rectify an age-old imbalance in the art world that is heavily tilted towards the West.

Continent Break-up

Africa - 11
Asia - 57
Australia - 2
Europe - 15
North America - 8
South America - 1

No of women artistes
62. The Indian women artists include Anju Dodiya, Shambhavi Singh, Madhavi Parekh, Nilima Sheikh and Annu Palakunnathu Mathew

Some Themes

Gender Equality
Queer, black and feminist art

Art for Kerala

The Kochi Biennale will conduct a live auction of art works by 40 national and international artists on January 18, 2019. It will be held under through ARK (Art Rises For Kerala) in collaboration with SaffronArt. All proceeds will go to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund  

No of visitors expected

Over six lakh


Aspinwall House
Cabral Yard
David Hall
Durbar Hall
Kashi Art Cafe
Kashi Town House
Pepper House
TKM Warehouse
Map Project Space

Students Biennale

Out of 1500 applications from India and South Asia, 200 student-artists have been shortlisted to participate in the Students Biennale. They come from 80 public and private schools. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Oh, It's Yummy!

The just-opened ‘The Secret Sauce’, a hip cafe at Thevara has become a hotspot for youngsters and families alike 

Photo: Tarun Eldo Mathew   

By Shevlin Sebastian

Singer Don Thomas picks up a guitar that is placed against the wall of ‘The Secret Sauce’ cafe at Thevara, Kochi. With a gleaming bald pate, and wearing red shoes, he soon launches into a song:

We don't talk anymore, we don't talk anymore
We don't talk anymore like we used to do
We don't love anymore
What was all of it for?
Oh, we don't talk anymore, like we used to do”

The group of youngsters are half-listening to this cover version of a Charlie Puth song, sitting on benches, as they converse with each other and have chicken burgers, omelette wraps and club sandwiches.

The Secret Sauce’, which began on November 2, is a new place to hang around, especially for youngsters in the Thevara area. Located next to the Food Mart, students from the ‘Sacred Heart College’ (SHC), as well as the ‘Brilliant’ tutorial centre in the next building and employees from nearby offices drop in. “Young couples who are dating also find this a nice place to hang around,” says Tarun Eldo Mathew, who is one of the partners and doing his third year in BA English at SHC.  “Families also come, especially on the weekends.”

And good food can be had. Because the chef is Nithin K Bahuleyan, who had been associated with a five-star hotel group for the past 18 years and is now a partner in the Sauce. All the items are tasty and delicious.

One of their popular items is the aptly-named ‘Juicy Lucy’. Priced at Rs 160, this is a burger which has cheese, meat as well as potato wedges. Another is the chicken tikka, which has spicy masala in a soft wheat wrap. Then there is the secret club vegetable sandwich which is a triple decker with fresh grilled vegetables, English cheddar and French fries. And one must not forget the Bombay Masala. “This is a street-style vegetable and cheese sandwich,” says Tarun.

However, by mid-December, the cafe will be adding steaks and pastas. “Those who come during the lunch break want a quick meal before they go back to their offices or colleges,” says Tarun. “So we are adding dishes that need less preparation time.”   

One regular is Samuel James, a BA student. “What I like about ‘The Secret Sauce’ is the ambience,” he says. “It is very clean and fresh. There is a guitar there. So, if you are a musician, you can come in and have a jamming session. The vibes are positive. A lot of young people come in and we can talk over the food, which is amazing, too. Everything is made very fresh.”

Samuel’s favourite is the chicken calzone. “It’s got chicken, mushroom and cheese and I love the flavours,” he says. “Very sumptuous. And this is the only place in Thevara where you get Continental food. Otherwise, you will have to go to Panampilly Nagar.”

Meanwhile, on asked the meaning behind the name, ‘The Secret Sauce’, Tarun says, “Every chef has a secret ingredient, a secret style. And we feel that Nithin and his team are adding a secret sauce here and there in the dishes.”

As for how Tarun, as a college student got the idea to start the cafe, he says, “I am a foodie. So I always wanted to do something related to food.” But in order to minimise the financial pressure, there are six partners. “Most are family friends,” says Tarun.

But Tarun has other ambitions, too. He wants to be an actor. “I would like to go to a drama school,” he says. In fact, he has already appeared in an ad film for a condiment company. And if he wants, he can take the help of Mollywood star Asif Ali who stays on the 10th floor of his apartment building. “I hadn’t thought about that,” says Tarun, with a laugh.   

(The New Indian Express, Koch and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Crusader Of Languages

In his 25th year as a translator, the Kochi-based Santosh Alex talks about his career  

By Shevlin Sebastian

It had been a long and tiring day for Santosh Alex. Nevertheless, by 7 p.m., at his home at Thevara, Kochi, this Assistant Chief Technical Officer at the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology is at his desk. Next to him are his two older children, Jason, 13, and Jessica, 11, who are doing their homework.

And so is Santosh, in a way. He is translating Benyamin’s short story, ‘Shatru’ into Hindi. The story is an insightful look into mob psychology.

In between his assignment, Santosh has dinner, and later, the children, his wife Jai and their one-month-old baby Jerome go to sleep. But Santosh carries on working, past midnight before he calls it a day.

Santosh is now in his 25th year as a translator. “I have translated directly from English and Malayalam to Hindi, and Hindi to Malayalam,” says Santosh. “For Tamil and Telugu, I do live translations. That means I sit with the author and we work together.”

Some of the authors he has translated include MT Vasudevan Nair, ONV Kurup, K Satchidanandan, Paul Zachariah, NS Madhavan, T Padmanabhan, Punathil Kunjabdulla, Sethu, Madhavi Kutty, Balachandran Chulikkadu, TP Rajeevan, Anwar Ali, Gracy, Rosemary and Sarah Joseph. In total, he has translated the works of more than 150 authors.

Asked about the behaviour of writers, Santosh says, “There are authors who do not open up to strangers and are very guarded. There are a few who live cut off from people, while others are generous and kind and like to have conversations.”

One such person was Jayanta Mahapatra, the legendary Indo-Anglian poet. Santosh met him at his home in Cuttack a few years ago. He had travelled from Vishakapatnam, where he was staying at that time, to give a book of poems written by Jayanata that Santosh had translated into Hindi.

As soon as Santosh entered the house, he saw that Jayanta was having his breakfast.  

The poet said, “I am very sorry. I am on pills, which I need to take on time, and have my breakfast soon after. So, without your permission, I am having my breakfast.”

Santosh was taken aback. “I felt that there was no need for Jayanta Sir to apologise, because I was just a beginner,” he says. Nevertheless, Jayanta provided breakfast for Santosh and they started chatting about poems and his magazine ‘Chandrabhaga’. He was helped by the poet Rabindra K Swain who was the assistant editor.  

After a while, Rabindra came visiting. Soon, Jayanta and Rabindra asked Santosh to recite the poems. As Santosh did so, he noticed that the duo were whispering in Oriya to each other. After a while, Rabindra said, “Your Hindi recitation does not give any indication that the poem had been translated. It seemed as if it is an original poem. Thank you, it is very nicely done.”

Santosh felt elevated. “I will never forget the kindness and hospitality of Jayanta Sir, who is 90 now,” says Santosh, who has also published his own poems and taken part in international literary festivals in Istanbul and other places.

Meanwhile, when asked how he got interested in doing translations, especially in Hindi, a language not many Malayalis are skilful in, Santosh says, “I was born and brought up in Visakhapatnam and studied in the Kendra Vidyalaya, where I learnt Hindi, English and Sanskrit. My Hindi teacher Malathi Devi engendered in me a love for the language. I was a topper in Hindi during my school days.”

So, it was of no surprise that Santosh ended up doing his MA in Hindi. And somewhere along the way, he got interested in doing translations.

As for the rewards of doing translations, Santosh says, “In my own small way, I am contributing to enriching Indian literature. I am building a bridge between different cultures, especially during a time when there is so much of division in society.” In fact, his work had received appreciation earlier. Santosh has won the prestigious ‘Dwivagessh Puraskaar’ National Award for Translation from the Bhartiya Anuvad Parishad in 2008.

But, of course, there are negatives. There is hardly any money that is paid to translators. “80 percent of the publishers say that they do not sell enough copies,” says Santosh. “This is not true, because I know of books that have gone into the second or third reprints. Most publishers exploit the author as well as the translator. And translators get far less respect than the writer.”

He gives an example. When Benyamin became the winner at the JCB Prize for Literature recently for his work, ‘Jasmine Days’, he received a prize money of Rs 25 lakh, while the translator Shahnaz Habib got Rs 5 lakh. “It should be fifty-fifty,” says Santosh. “Because without the high-quality translation, Benyamin would not have won the award. Nevertheless, I am happy that Shahnaz got a good amount.”

But whether there is any amount or not, Santosh himself is committed to serving Indian literature. He is, in fact, a crusader… of languages. 

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

Monday, November 26, 2018

Showcasing Another Skill

Kottayam Nazeer, one of Kerala’s leading mimicry artists, makes a sparkling debut as a painter in a show curated by the veteran Asif Ali Komusons

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian  

As you walk around Kottayam Nazeer’s recent exhibition, ‘Dreams of Colours’, at the Durbar Hall Gallery at Kochi, one painting above all catches the eye. It is a black-and-white image of an elderly man, with oversize black spectacles, piercing eyes, a lined forehead and wavy white hair, apart from a walrus moustache.

But a closer look gives a shock: the moustache is actually two white polar bears, the nose is the back of a frog, the eyes are two fishes, the eyebrows are two falcons, while the frame of the spectacles is actually two entwined king cobras. There are also giraffes, dinosaurs, and an owl. And the wrinkles on the forehead are actually several snakes lying next to each other.

The qualities of all these animals are inside every human being,” says Nazeer, one of Kerala’s top mimicry artists, who was holding his first-ever painting exhibition, which was curated by the veteran Asif Ali Komusons. “And we are the only animals who can live anywhere.”

The polar bear, he says, cannot live in a place where it is hot and humid. “But a man can survive in a hot or a cold place,” he says. “We also eat meat, snakes, dogs, frogs, hens and even elephant meat. We are flexible.”

Since Nazeer is also an actor, he has also given a bow to the two superstars of Mollywood. Standing next to a painting of a lion in repose, he says, “Mammootty is the lion for me: calm and determined.”

Another image, of a tiger, also has numerous animals in it, including a fish, birds, an elephant, dog, goat, cat, rabbit, rat, a kangaroo with its baby, as well as an image of scientist Albert Einstein and writer Rabindranath Tagore.

I wanted to show that Mohanlal can play any role,” says Nazeer. “To me, he is a complete actor.” Incidentally, Lal’s blog is called ‘The Complete Actor’.

In total, there are 54 works on display. It is a mix of acrylic, oil and watercolours. Nazeer’s strongest gift is his ability to draw piercing eyes, that hold your attention wherever you stand in the gallery. And he has an explanation for it. “I have focused on the eyes because I feel that people express all their emotions through the eyes,” he says. “No matter how you draw the face or the body, if there is no life in the eyes, then the painting will not come to life.”

When an ordinary person looks into an eye, he sees a black and white colour. But in the iris, there are different types of colours. “It is only when you look at an HD [High Definition] photo and zoom in, you can see a bit of brown and blue. For older people they have a bit of green, too,” says Nazeer. “I did online tutorials on how to draw the eyes and that’s why it has become so effective.”

Meanwhile, when asked the pleasure of painting, Nazeer says, “A creative profession like mimicry or acting has a lot of stress because you are performing in front of the audience or on the screen,” he says. “So when I paint, the stress just melts away. I feel I am doing something meaningful and not wasting my time.”  

Interestingly, Nazeer, the son of a dentist, had shown an interest in painting from his childhood. He would spend time with professional sign people at the town of Karukachal where he grew up. “I learnt how to draw figures using enamel paint,” he says. Later, for three years, he learnt watercolour drawing at the AP arts school in the town.

He has also done oil paintings in his childhood, apart from cartooning and clay modelling. “I received a lot of prizes at that time,” says Naseer. “Then I became interested in mimicry and that became my career.”

However, Nazeer did not stop painting altogether. Whenever he was on a film set and there was some spare time, he would draw images on a piece of paper, using a pen.

And when he would go for international tours, there would be a three-to-four day gap between events.  So, he started painting.

And today, he has made an acclaimed debut as a painter.

A new career beckons. 

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

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Colourful Tapestry

Historian and author Manu S Pillai details the history of the Deccan from the 14th to the 18th centuries

Photos: The cover of the book; Manu S Pillai; Artist Abul Hasan's painting of Jahangir sending an arrow towards Malik Ambar

By Shevlin Sebastian

On May 19, 1520, Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire (1509–1529) and Sultan Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur went to battle. They both coveted the same prize: the highly fertile Raichur district which is in modern-day Karnataka. The district had numerous iron and diamond deposits and lay between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers.

However, it was an unequal battle. While Ismail had 18,000 cavalry, 1.2 lakh infantry and 150 elephants, Krishnadevaraya only had 27,000 horsemen. But nevertheless, through clever tactical moves, Krishnadevaraya had an easy victory. Astonishingly, after the loss, Ismail sent an emissary to Krishnadevaraya asking for the city of Raichur, together with all the artillery, horses, and elephants that the sultan had lost in the battle. Krishnadevaraya told the emissary “I will do so if Ismail Adil Shah comes and kisses my feet.”

In his reply, Ismail said that as a sovereign ruler he could not enter the territory of another prince. So, Krishnadevaraya offered to go to the border town of Mudgal, to meet the Sultan but before he got a reply, he went there. Not surprisingly, Ismail  stayed away. So Krishnadevaraya went all the way to Bijapur City but again the Sultan left before the Vijayanagara ruler arrived, to avoid the embarrassment of facing the king. Later, Krishnadevaraya had a good laugh about it.

This anecdote has been recounted in the book, ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji’, published by Juggernaut, and written by young Malayali historian Manu S Pillai. The book has been well received and is into its third reprint. It details the history of the Deccan Sultans, from the 14th to the 18th centuries. They include the rulers of Vijayanagar, Bahamanis, Adil Shahis, Qutb Shahis and Nizam Shahis, not to forget the contribution of Shivaji. He writes about their rise, their long reign and the inevitable fall.  

Asked the reasons for their decline, Manu says, “There were internal dissensions. It was a diverse society: there were thousands of Africans, many immigrants from Persia, Ottoman artillery men and artists from Iran. The Persians were called foreigners or Westerners, and most of whom were Shias. Then there were the Dakhnis who were mostly Sunni, and of Indian origin. Finally, there were the Marathas and various Hindu groups. If it was a wise Sultan he would have had the skill to carry the various groups together. But some of the Sultans took sides. However, in the final reckoning, it was their inability to stay together that did them in. When the Mughals invaded the Deccan, if the Southern Sultans had united, they could have withstood the attacks.”

Asked whether any lessons could be learnt for the rulers of today, Manu says, “History is not black and white. While religion was a factor, it was not what motivated the leaders. To think so is a mistake. The politics in those times was guided by the same things which guide politics today: power, greed and money. Religion was a smokescreen to legitimise personal ambitions. Of course, there were numerous leaders who were bigots, but, interestingly, there were also kings who did the opposite.”  

And Manu gives an example of the Bahmani Sultan Firuz Shah. He defeated the Vijayanagar king in 1406. But, as part of an agreement, he took a princess from the kingdom. “But Firuz also made an interesting demand,” says Manu. “He asked for 2000 artists, dancers, musicians and writers from Vijayanagar because he wanted to develop a South Indian element in his own court. So his court had not only Hindustani culture, but Persian, and Tamil segments and all combined in a deliberate manner. So, it was no longer black and white but a rich and colourful tapestry.”

But for Manu, perhaps the most memorable leader was Malik Ambar. He was an Ethiopian slave who began life in Harar Province in Ethiopia. At age 10, he was enslaved and after spending a few years in Yemen and Iraq, he was sold to Chengiz Khan, the Peshwa of the Sultan of Nizam Shahi in Ahmadnagar, who was himself an Ethiopian. For twenty years, Malik served the Peshwa, gaining invaluable experience,  and after the latter’s death, in 1594, he managed to put up an army of his own.

He was the only man standing against the ambitions of the Mughals, from the end of Akbar’s reign to Jahangir,” says Manu. In fact, so enraged was Jahangir that in his ‘Memoirs’, he called Malik ‘that black wretch’, ‘Ambar of dark fate’, and that ‘crafty, ill-starred one’. Interestingly, the talented court artist Abul Hasan did a painting where Jahangir is standing atop a globe and shooting an arrow through the severed head of Malik that was impaled on a tall pike. “What he could not achieve in real life, it was achieved through art,” says Manu with a laugh. “However, Malik remains one of the great figures of Deccan history.”


Allaudin Khilji: The True Picture

The way Allauddin Khilji (1267-1316) was portrayed in the Bollywood hit film ‘Padmaavat’ was nothing short of sensational. “In ‘Padmaavat’, Alauddin is shown as a savage,” says historian Manu S Pillai. “That is not true. He was part of a long-standing court culture in Delhi. He did not eat like a barbarian. There was tremendous exaggeration in the film, to show him as uncivilised. If anything, he was a very clever man.”

There is a famous story that when he conquered the Yadava Kingdom at Devanagiri in 1296, he did not have enough forces. When the Devanagiri army arrived, Allaudin sent off some horsemen into the distance and asked them to rake up a lot of dust to create an impression that he had a large army.

To paint all Muslim kings as violent people, we must remember that violence is not a one-sided affair,” says Manu. “We have read stories of Mughals who killed their brothers or sons killing fathers to become kings, but such cases also existed among Hindu kings.”
There was an instance in Vijayanagar where a son killed his father, and a brother killed his brother. Also, in Vijayanagar a Queen reached out to a Sultan in Bijapur to come to her help because her brothers were scheming against her and her child. “In those times, violence and power were two sides of the same coin,” says Manu.  

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

The German-born Prem Manasvi P lives in a 200-year-old house surrounded by a forest that he has nurtured for over two decades

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Prem Manasvi P opens his eyes in his bedroom of a 200-year-old house in the village of Cherpu (80 kms from Kochi), on a recent morning, he hears familiar sounds: the twitter of birds, the occasional crowing of a rooster, followed by the mooing of a cow. A little later, the 77-year-old steps out and heads towards his 2000 sq. ft. pond. 

Entering a traditional structure with a tiled roof, he has to take several steps downwards before he reaches the pond’s edge. Then he uses a sieve to clear the leaves and algae off the surface. “I collect more than one hundred litres,” he says. “I do this twice, in the morning and the late afternoon during the monsoon season.” Then Prem sets out on his swim, comprising freestyle and backstroke movements. Because the pond has a depth of 21 feet, there are more than two million litres of water.

As a result, there is plenty of groundwater and the six wells on his three acres are full throughout the year. “The pond, which I consider to be the crown jewel of the property, has helped in the recharge of groundwater. This is of important public significance, more so at a time when climate change and construction activities have made this area drought-prone during the summer months.”

Meanwhile, an hour later, Prem has finished his swim. A bath and breakfast follow. Then Prem goes for a stroll. It is an amazing place: there are numerous trees, shrubs, plants and flowers. “This is the result of 23 years of work,” he says, as he points at a banyan tree. “I must thank my friend Shelly P, who lives nearby and did all the work of planting and nurturing this forest. In fact, you will be surprised to know that when I bought the property it was mostly bare, with just a few jackfruit and coconut trees, and banana plants.”

In total, there are 32 different types of trees, like the Red Beed, Blackboard, and the Indian Berry, apart from 45 different species of plants and flowers. 

So how did the Kassel-born German (original name: Heinz J Paul) land up in Kerala? Answer: Osho. Prem was a devotee. And it was at the Osho International Meditation Resort at Pune in 1991 that he met Shelly who worked as a photographer while Prem was a Coordinator in the Press Office. “Shelly invited me to accompany him on a visit to his native place, Cherpu, where his parents lived,” says Prem. 

When Prem arrived at Cherpu he quickly fell in love with the place. “I was fascinated by the sight of elephants, the greenery, paddy fields, and bullock carts,” he says. “On later visits, I was drawn to the rich cultural heritage of the state, especially the Kathakali, Koodiyattom and Tolpava (puppetry) art forms.” 

And thus, one day, a desire arose in Prem to own a traditional house. With the help of Shelly, he inspected more than one hundred spots before he zoomed in on the house where he is living in now. Prem acquired it on May 2, 1995. 

But he has not had an easy time maintaining the house. “We are finding it difficult to find carpenters and masons who know how to work in such an old house, without damaging it,” he says. “It is important that renovation should be done properly.” 

The house is a traditional naluketu -- there are four halls, in the north, south, east and west that face a courtyard which is open to the sky. Inside, there are rooms which had been used as a granary, a kitchen with a fireplace, sleeping quarters, puja room, a room to store large vessels, a ‘pampu kavu’, which is a space dedicated for snake worship, while another room was used by women who were going through their menstrual periods and had to remain isolated. 

Prem has a look of pride when he shows the visitor around his house. So, it is not surprising that he is worried about the direction Kerala is going. 

“Too many traditional houses are being torn down,” he says. “As a result, you are losing an important part of your cultural identity. In its place, concrete monstrosities are coming up. In the West, the preservation of heritage is a pillar of development. New structures are harmoniously integrated with old ones. I am hoping that the devastation caused by the recent floods will make the politicians, administrators, leaders of civil society and ordinary people have a re-think of what is happening in the name of development. That is the only way Kerala can regain its title of ‘God’s Own Country’.”

Saturday, November 17, 2018

So Cool And Sweet

Entrepreneur Shafeek K talks about how he set up a Kulfi Shop at the Lulu Mall, Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Shafeek K was in a nostalgic mood. Soon, an image popped into his mind.
It was the lunch break at the NSS High School at Ottapalam. As he stepped out of the class to go to the ground, he could hear the tinkle of a bell. With other schoolboys, he ran to the gate. It was a man pushing a cart. He was selling kulfis. “It cost Rs 1 at that time,” says Shafeek. “Four of us shared one kulfi stick.” He began to have it regularly.

For Shafeek a lifelong love for kulfi was engendered. This was deepened when his Delhi-based uncle KU Kutty would come for his annual visit. “Whenever he came home, he would bring Bengali sweets like sandesh, rosagollas and malpuas,” he says.

So Shafeek developed a sweet tooth. As an entrepreneur, he was thinking of starting a business when suddenly he got the idea of starting a kulfi shop in Kochi. But he did not know anything about how to make kulfis and whether the business could be a viable one. “But I knew that there are not many kulfi shops in Kochi,” he says.   

So Shafeek went to the best kulfi shop in Delhi called Krishna Di Kulfi. “They have been running it for 60 years,” he says “It is a small area but there is always a huge crowd.”

The owners allowed Shafeek into the kitchen so that he could have an idea of how it is made. Then, through a friend, Shafeek met a dessert chef in Delhi called Raju Bhagel, who was willing to relocate to Kochi. Later, Shafeek flew to Mumbai and wandered around the kulfi shops on Chowpatty Beach and spoke to many people. He gained more insight into the business. 

Thereafter, he returned to Kochi, mulled over his experiences and decided to take the plunge. Shafeek decided to set up his shop at the Lulu Mall, to ensure that he has brand visibility. “Let’s face it, the mall is a very popular place,” he says.

The ‘Kulfi Shop’ had a soft launch three months ago. The 320 sq.ft. outlet is just near the Kochi Metro skywalk. “It is an apt location, as many people use the Metro these days,” says Shafeek. “They see our sign and tend to stop.”

There are more than 50 items on offer. These include the Malai, Pista, Mango, Meetha Pan, Sitafal and Coffee Walnut. The prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 150. The most expensive is the traditional kulfi kept in a mud dish called the matka. Fruits like mango and guava are also added. Other kulfis have rose petals and gulab jamun. Green chilly is also popular. As the name implies it is a mix of chillies and cream. “But the most popular is the four-in-one kulfi,” says Shafeek. “This has mango, guava, sapota and strawberry and costs Rs 120. But we keep changing the combinations.”

Expectedly, the crowd is the most during the weekends and on festive occasions. Surprisingly, there are a lot more Malayalis than North Indians or outsiders. “That is because Malayalis have become curious to try it,” says Shafeek. “I am happy to say that many are returning customers.”

As he talks, he points at a middle-aged Arab with his wife, wearing a black hijab, and a small boy. “They have been repeat customers for a while now,” he says. Another customer is electronics engineer Amit Das (name changed) from Aluva. He told Shafeek that when he asked a friend where to get the best kulfi in India the latter mentioned the Mumbai Kulfi shop. So Amit went to Mumbai and had it. Then he came to the Kulfi Shop and tasted their products. He told Shafeek, “I have to say yours is much better. I like it a lot.”    

The good news is that the kulfis are not outsourced. Instead, Shafeek has set up a six-member team overseen by chef Raju at a location in Edapally to make the kulfis. The milk is boiled for eight hours, and to the residual cream is added sugar, fruits, and almonds. Then it is put in a freezer at minus 12 degrees Centigrade for several hours. When it is brought to the shop, Shafeek tastes most of them. “I am trying to ensure that the quality is maintained at all times,” he says.  

Thus far, the shop is doing well. “Whenever I look at the kulfis, I feel a sense of happiness,” says Shafeek. “Maybe, it is a reminder of the enjoyment I had in my childhood having them.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Slices Of Reel Life

Sanu Varghese, the Kottayam-born cinematographer of the Bollywood hit, ‘Badhaai Ho’, talks about his experiences  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The day before the Hindi film ‘Badhaai Ho’ was released (October 18), the film’s cinematographer Sanu Varghese told friends, “I have no doubt that the film will be a hit. Just not sure how big it will be.”

It is big all right. At the time of writing, it has earned Rs 115 crore at the box office and is now one among the top grossers of 2018.   

The story is simple. A middle-aged couple, played by Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta, get intimate. As a result, Neena gets pregnant. The only problem is that they have two sons, one aged 25 (Ayushmann Khurrana), while the other is 15 years old (Shardul Rana). 

The reaction is predictable: everybody from Neena’s mother-in-law (Surekha Sikri in a transfixing performance), who stays with them at their modest apartment in Delhi, the sons, relatives and the society at large are shocked and ashamed. Thereafter, it is a mix of comedy and sadness but it makes for riveting watching.

The cinematography is unobtrusive. Most times, you forget you are watching a film. But Sanu says that there is also an active storytelling by the camera.

There is one scene where the family is back together, after their mother gives birth,  and the children are cracking a joke with their grandmother,” he says. “The camera stays on the children and then it slowly moves away and focuses on the father and the mother who are in the kitchen. I am leading the audience along. This is deliberate story-telling.”

Asked the reasons why ‘Badhaai Ho’ did well, Sanu says, “It is like a Malayalam script. The best example would be Mohanlal trying to set up a biscuit factory in ‘Mithunam’ (1993). It is a film where you make everybody laugh in the first half and then cry in the second half.”  

Sanu’s journey to Bollywood was not in a straight line. He had been interested in photography even as he did his Bachelors at the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter, he did a MA in communication at the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication at the University of Hyderabad. Following that, in search of a job, the Kottayam-born Sanu left for Mumbai in 1996. Then, without any technical training, he got work as a cameraman in documentaries and advertising films and later joined TV18.

But he showed a natural talent from the beginning. One who is a fan is ‘Badhaai Ho’ director Amit Sharma, who says, “Sanu is a cinematographer who has a story-telling ability. He has always been an asset on the set, whether it be advertising or feature films, because I have done both with him. He has a clear vision and has his own point of view. His scenes are very realistic. Shooting realistic scenes is much more difficult than taking glamour shots.”  

The start

Sanu got his first break in ‘Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon’ (2003), which was produced by Ramgopal Varma, of ‘Satya’ fame, and starred Rajpal Yadav and Antara Mali. “It received praise from critics but did not do so well at the box office,” he says. Some of the other films he worked in include ‘Karthik Calling Karthik’, ‘David’, ‘Wazir’, the Malayalam films, ‘Elektra’ and ‘Take Off’, and Kamal Haasan's Tamil film, ‘Marmayogi’, which was shelved in pre-production.

But in 2011, he shot for Kamal’s ‘Vishwaroopam’. The shoot took one-and-a-half years to complete, but it was a turning point for Sanu. “When you work with a legend like Kamal Sir, you learn something new every day,” says Sanu. “He comes from a choreography background, so he looks at scenes through that angle. Till then I tended to shoot static frames. But Kamal Sir is the one who opened my mind to the possibility of everything moving. How the total energy of a scene can be changed, with the camera as well as the actors moving. This was something new for me.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether the competition in Bollywood is severe, Sanu says, “I don’t look at what the other guys are doing. I am only thinking about what I can do when I am shooting for a particular film. It is an inner exploration. That’s how I will be able to do work which I can call my own. I also want to tell stories without showing off.”

Interestingly, he says, to be a good cinematographer, you need to understand music, drama, the craft of acting, cinema on a larger level, how light and water behave, as well as the climate.

At present, he is working on a Telugu film called ‘Jersey’ starring Nani, a new- generation star. And, unusually, he does not take any film that is offered to him. “I earn my living by making advertising films so I can choose scripts which I like,” says Sanu, who is married to Sandeepa, a commercial filmmaker and they have a daughter called Miyako. 

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