Monday, August 28, 2006

To hell and back… most of the time

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

The Kripa Foundation has been trying to save those on chemical dependency and the AIDS afflicted for the past twenty-five years. Thankfully, the good news outweighs the bad

Shevlin Sebastian

His body is still and his face is turned sideways on the pillow. It is the eyes that are the most arresting feature: it has a far-away look; a touch of serenity mixed with fear. Rajan Athavankar is receiving treatment at the AIDS centre of Kripa Foundation at Papdy, Vasai. “Athavankar is at a terminal stage,” says Dr Hitendra Desai. “His body has become a vegetable. I am sorry to say the virus has reached the brain.”
Is he aware of us, I ask.
Desai leans forward and asks, “Do you know where you are? Do you recognise me? Shake your head if you can understand!”
But the head is immobile and the eyes continue to stare unblinkingly into the distance. “I don’t think he is aware at all.”
Suddenly, we hear the sound of weeping. A woman, dressed in a yellow polyester saree, and wearing a red bindi, has come silently into the room. It is Athavankar’s wife, Meera.
She looks at me, and assuming I am a consultant physician, asks, “Will my husband live?”
I don’t know what to reply. I look to Desai for help and he tells her I have come on some other work.
Athavankar, 56, used to work as a clerk in an office and contracted Aids through having multiple partners. But he does not look the adventurous type at all. “Promiscuity has definitely gone up in the lower classes,” says Purvi Shah, project director, Kripa Foundation. “They don’t have many modes of entertainment, hence, they tend to indulge in risky behaviour. Most of them don’t like to use condoms.”
Meera, 51, thankfully, is HIV negative. “She is not aware of his past,” says Desai. “In fact, she has a lot of faith in him.” The couple have three children, two boys and a girl, with the eldest, a son, being 30 years old. Being of the lower middle class, the free treatment at Kripa has come as a boon.

Sustained dedication
The Kripa Foundation celebrated its silver jubilee on August 15. It was started by yoga expert Fr Joe Pereira in a small room in the Mt. Carmel church compound in Bandra. Today, there are 46 facilities in 12 locations in India and is the largest NGO in the ministry of social justice and empowerment.
Initially, the focus was on chemical dependency but, three years ago, AIDS centres have also been opened. In Vasai, there are two wings. One is for the Aids afflicted and the other is for chemical dependency. There are two dormitories and single rooms for those who are willing to pay a daily rent. At the back, there are spacious canteens for patients and the staff alike. And right behind, in the large courtyard, are a group of ducks quacking away, untroubled by the tragedies of human life unfolding a few yards away.

Here is a story of a troubled human life. “There was a 22-year old Aids patient, Rahul Gupa, who was in a bad condition,” says Bosco D’Souza, Western region programme director of Kripa. “The doctors were pumping blood into him while he was bleeding from the rectum. His mother, Geeta, was present and Rahul was abusing her. He was angry at the declining state of his health. When Geeta tried to feed him an egg, Rahul spat it back. “When I walked into the ward and saw this, I told him, ‘What you are doing is wrong,’” says D’Souza. “I know you are in severe pain but you are not in a hospital or a jail, you are in God’s home.’”
The next day when Bosco went to see Rahul, he was reciting shlokas from the Bhagwad Gita. Then he asked his mother to put a tikka on his forehead. And he was continuously praying. “I told Rahul I was going for lunch to a Chinese restaurant,” says Bosco. “And he told me, ‘Tata,’ and then said, ‘Bata, Kata, Lata’, he was rhyming with the words and was smiling. I went out and within five minutes, I got a call on the mobile from the resident doctor who told me Rahul had died. By the grace of God, he had died smiling.”

Death comes suddenly and without warning for those who have Aids. But the good news is that out of 817 patients treated at Kripa, only 30 patients have died. “The antiretroviral drugs are making a big difference,” says Dr Joseph Chettiar of the HIV unit. “We are increasing the lifespan by 10 to 15 years although there is no cure yet for the disease.” Joseph is worried that, despite increased awareness, India, with 5.8 million people, has the highest number of Aids victims in the world.
In Vasai, all the counsellors are former drug addicts or alcoholics or Aids afflicted. One of them is Rajan Welingkar, 43, a former drug addict, who is HIV positive. “There is a relation between addiction and HIV,” he says. “Once you are high, you have little control of your mind and you tend to have multiple partners and refuse to use condoms.” He says that because the counsellors have gone to hell and back, “we serve as an inspiration to all those who are trying to overcome Aids and addiction. They feel that if we can survive with dignity, they can.”

When life goes askew
On another day, I go across to the Bandra unit of Kripa and meet Peter Rajappa, 20. He is a tall, slim man with yellowing teeth and a wisp of a moustache. He has been a drug addict from the age of 13. His father was an alcoholic and there were constant fights in the house. Feeling disturbed, he took to drugs. “I felt an anger towards my father, that was why I wanted to rebel,” he says. He studied till Class 7 before opting out. For the next seven years he went from bad to worse. He begged on the streets, he stole and he also became a pickpocket. Curious, I ask him the modus operandi of the pickpocket.
He tells me to stand up. Then he stands behind me, and tells me to lift up my right hand, as if to hold the bar in a suburban train. “Now,” he says, “pretend the station is approaching and the driver has applied the brakes.” As I do so, I instinctively move forward and, in that instant, with his fore and middle fingers, he nimbly flicks the wallet from my back pocket. “That’s how I stole money and fuelled my drug habit,” he says. He would get caught and be hit by angry passengers but that was all part of the risk. He tried a few jobs but could not hold on to them. “The addict cannot think of anything else except when he is going to get the next dose,” he says. “By the time I was 20, I was tired of taking drugs. I felt hopeless. I hated myself. I used to think, ‘What am I doing?’ My friends, who were addicts, had gone to jail. Some had died because of an overdose while others had committed suicide. I told my mother I was fed up of my life. I wanted to die. I was becoming mad. I feared that I would end up in jail or a mental institution.”
In the end, his mother came across the Kripa Foundation and he was enrolled in May and has been free of drugs for the first time in several years. But the road ahead is rocky. “A lot of the patients relapse,” says counsellor Steven Monteiro. “But Royappa is doing well. I am optimistic. But, essentially, you are a drug addict for life. You have to live one day at a time.”
(Names of patients have been changed)

Interview/ Fr Joe Pereria, Director, Kripa Foundation

‘A condom is not quite safe’

Where do you get your funding from?

The major portion of the funding comes from benefactors in Europe and America, even from NRIs. I go to North America in the fall and Europe in the summer and I teach B.K.S. Iyengar’s brand of yoga. My teaching fees are very high.
How have things changed over the years?
The change has occurred in the different types of addiction. Earlier, it was heroin, now, it is alcohol and prescription drugs like amphetamines. Street children and those in the slums drink cough syrups or whiteners. It is not as strong as major drugs but you get a high and it is cheaper.
What are the treatments that are being offered these days?
Our treatment is a combination of the West and the East. The West brought in the 12 step programme of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. But I have included the teaching of B.K.S. Iyengar’s on yoga. Which is loving the body back to light. We need to do a lot of asanas and breathing lessons. One should silence the noise in the head and get in touch with the here and the now.
What is the Aids situation in India?
There is a lot of awareness of the disease in certain pockets of India. But the illiterate and the migrant population are the worst affected. Condoms are not working. The ABC formula has to be followed. A stands for abstinence. If you are single, you should abstain from sex. B means to be faithful. If you are involved, be faithful to one. If you are unmarried, be faithful to your partner. In other words, don’t mess around sexually. People are going for parties and are sleeping around. One girl gets the virus and she spreads it around. C: Use a condom. The truth is that the condom is not quite safe. It tears sometimes and that can be dangerous.
What is the recovery rate?
All around the world, it is 2 per cent. In Kripa, it is 68 per cent in the first year. By the time it goes to the fifth year, it goes down to 18%.

In the name of the Lord

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

The head priest of the Siddhivinayak temple loves his job of doing pujas and offering counsel to troubled devotees

Shevlin Sebastian

“The biggest distress for people these days is their children’s studies,” says Gajanand Narayan Modak, 47, the head priest of the Siddhivinayak Temple. “Nowadays, if you get 60 per cent, that is not enough. You need at least 90 per cent to get into the best colleges.”

The other problems that devotees confide in him: Rising unemployment; steep rents; illnesses and the stress and strains of marriage. “Lots of women are working nowadays and men are yet to adapt to this situation,” he says. “A husband should realise that at the end of a long working day, a wife is as tired as him.”

Modak offers consolation and advice to all these stressed-out devotees. He is a broad-shouldered man, who wears a dhoti, with a part of it wrapped around his left shoulder. On his right shoulder is a yellow and red towel. And, of course, there is the rudraksha necklace. However, there is one touch of modernity: a mobile phone in his hand. We are sitting in an air-conditioned conference room on the third floor of the temple. As he talks, Modak frequently closes his eyes, used as he is, to people listening attentively to him.

So what exactly are the duties of a head priest? “He has to oversee the devotional activities of the temple,” says H.B. Jagtap, 54, the CEO of the Shree Siddivinayak Temple Trust. “He has to conduct the pujas and arrange the schedule of the 32 priests under him.”

There are two shifts for the priests. One begins at 6 am and ends at 2 pm. The other begins at 2 pm and ends at 10 pm. On auspicious days and on Tuesdays, the puja begins at 4 am and, usually, Modak goes to the temple the previous night at 11 pm and sleeps there before getting up at 3 am. Incidentally, all the priests are Brahmins.

Daily life
On normal days, after his morning shift is over, he has a nap in his one-bedroom apartment at Dadar, which he shares with his wife Aarati and daughters, Manasi, 16, and Vinaya, 12. In the evenings, he reads from the holy books. Sometimes, he gets calls from devotees asking him for advice. At 8 pm, he does a puja, accompanied by his family. And by 11 pm, it is lights off.

So does he get tired of this daily grind? “Not at all,” he says. “You only feel tired when you don’t enjoy the work. Here I am, so close to Ganeshji I feel exalted all the time.” He says that because of this, he hardly feels the pressure of being the head priest. “All the other priests are like brothers to me. We have a very good teamwork.”

He pauses and then launches into one of his favourite shlokas:
Uddharet atmanatmanam natmanamavasadayet
Atmaiva hyatmano bandhuh atmaiva ripuratmanah

("One should improve oneself and not destroy oneself ; one's self is one's well-wisher
and one's self is one's enemy")

The one way he has been able to recharge his batteries is by travelling. A government employee, when he gets his annual one month leave, (he also has 15 days casual leave), he goes to jyotirlingas (Shiva temples). So far, he has travelled to 12 temples, from Kedar and Badrinath in the north to Rameswaram in the south. “I have been interested in spiritual matters from the time I was a child,” he says.

Spiritual background
Indeed, there is a spiritual streak in the family. Modak’s grandfather, Purushottam, used to sing kirtans in temples and houses in the village of Nerur, in Sindhudurg district. His father, a farmer, was also a priest. “When he came to Mumbai many years ago, he used to do pujas in homes,” says Modak.

The priest has four brothers and a sister. All the brothers are professionals while his sister is a housewife. “I am the youngest and, one day, my father asked me whether I would like to become a priest,” he says. “I pondered over it and decided to fulfil his wishes.”

So, at the age of 14, Modak was sent to the Shankar Veda Pathshala in Goa and studied the Vedas for eight years. One of his classmates was Shripad Joshi, who is now a pujari in a temple in Goa. “Modak was well behaved all the time, and a helpful person,” he says, by phone from Goa. “He was also very active in all the activities in the school.” When Modak finished his studies, his first job was with the Siddhivinayak temple and he has been there ever since.

Asked about his most memorable experience in his 26 years of service, he breaks into a smile and says, “When I became head priest after 21 years of service. 21 is a very auspicious number. I did service to Ganeshji and he rewarded me with a promotion.”

Today, the Siddhivinayak temple is one of the most popular in Maharashtra and every year, several lakhs of people come to offer prayers, including many celebrities (see box). “If a celebrity comes during my shift, I do the puja, otherwise not,” he says. “I tend to keep my distance from them.”

Asked why people are so troubled these days, he says, “They are too full of themselves, there is too much of ego. People are unhappy no matter what they have. If they have a two-bedroom flat, they yearn for a four-bedroom flat and it goes on and on.” He says most people do not have an inner strength and, hence, when they encounter difficulties, they collapse easily. “You should try to get in touch with your inner self,” says the priest. “As food is necessary for the body, similarly, prayer is important for the mind. Just set aside 15 minutes a day for prayer. After all, if you want to experience the strength of Ganeshji, you have to come close.”

Saturday, August 26, 2006

'Better an overreaction than be blown up'

Permission has to be obtained from Hindustan Times for reproducing this article

Shevlin Sebastian

When tired passengers of the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam stepped out on to the tarmac of Sahar airport on Thursday night, they looked like deer caught in the headlines of a powerful jeep, as hordes of televisions crews with flashing lights descended on them. They blinked, they tried to run, they pleaded, but in the end, they had to succumb to the gnawing hunger for news for the electronic and print media.
Broad-shouldered Jagpal Gusain, 26, a chief officer in the Merchant Navy, says, “Most of the men who were arrested could not understand English, at least that is what I felt. Hence, when they were told to fasten their seat belts, they did not do so. They were moving around here and there and that was creating tension.”
When asked whether there was an inherent racism, he shook his head.
“In fact, there was an Indian air-hostess, so there was no question of racism,” he says.
Most of the men, he says, did not know they were the problem. Half of them were sleeping. It was only when the plane landed at Schipol airport that the men realised they are under suspicion. “I think the air-hostesses alerted the air marshals,” says Gusain. “Later, they told us to be calm.”
Brian D’Souza, who is a sailor, says that when the men were taken off, they were all in handcuffs. “After that, everybody was told to step out of the plane, row by row,” he says. As to whether he felt there was an element of racism, D’Souza says, “I cannot make a call on that.”
To get a foreigner’s viewpoint, there was the red-faced Stuart Nicol from Ireland, perspiring heavily in Mumbai’s humidity. “I don’t think the men behaved badly at all,” he says. “We were initially told it was a mechanical problem. I saw the air marshals walking around and when I looked out of the window I realised that a jet was accompanying us. Then I realised it might not be a mechanical problem.” Nicol says one of them was sitting beside him. “I did not see anything wrong in his behaviour,” he says.
Most passengers felt there was nothing wrong with the men who were arrested. Adding his voice is the articulate and elderly Nitin Dalal. “They were not behaving suspiciously, but then, I am not a security officer,” he says.
Asked whether there was an over-reaction on the part of the Dutch, he says, “I am not qualified to say that.” His wife Kiran says, “I am glad it is an overreaction because I would not want to be blown up.”
The problem, says Nitin, was that the men were not listening to the crew. “During the take-off stage, they had not put on their seat belts, they were changing seats, they were exchanging mobile phones: these things made the crew a little suspicious,” he says. “They were dressed cleanly but in ethnic clothing. Hence, suspicion must have fallen on them. I am happy they took the security measures they felt they had to take.”
Would he be put off travelling abroad now? “Definitely, this will put me off international flights but in the end, I have no choice,” he says, and adds, tongue in cheek, “The alternative is to go by boat.” And then there is Umesh Prasad Behera, retired deputy commandant of the Central Industrial Security Force: “It was much delayed action on the part of the marshals. Also, the inquiry of those arrested should been quicker. Nobody bothered about the comfort of the other passengers.”

Monday, August 21, 2006

‘There was dignity in dancing’

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A former bar girl dancer rues her present occupation of waitress

Shevlin Sebastian

The ground floor apartment of former bar girl dancer, Mala Lichaye, 22, is at the very end of the Sindhi Camp at Chembur. The building in which stays is so close to another, that when you look up, the sky is just a sliver. Inside, there is a small living room, (with several pillowcases drying on a clothesline on one side), a dining area, a kitchen and a bathroom. But what catches the eye is a shoe rack, which is crowded with all sorts of shining women’s footwear: platform, wedge and stiletto heels.
Lichaye is brushing her teeth at 4.30 pm, while her friends are busy in the kitchen. She is an irritated mood: the water has run out. One of her friends produces a cup of tea within minutes for the visitor. Without make-up and their garish clothes, all of them look ordinary and, sad to say, a little run down, although they are all in their twenties.

“I am now working as a waitress in the Trimurti bar at Ghatkopar,” says Lichaye, using a towel as a dupatta. Works starts at 7 pm and goes on till 1.30 am.
“Earlier, we used to dance and earn our money,” she says. “There was a dignity of labour. Now, we have to pour drinks and stand very near the patrons. Some of them talk rudely. Some pinch us, and say, ‘Look what has happened to you. You were a glamourous bar girl and now you are just a waiter.’ I feel bad when I hear comments like this.”

She earns about Rs 200 a day, a far cry from the Rs 600 to Rs 800 as a dance bar girl.
All the other girls who live in the area are going through the same financial problems. “They are also working as waitresses,” she says. “The ban has really hurt us.”

When asked what she would say if she were to meet Home Minister R.R. Patil, she says, “I would say that what you did was not right. It is a terrible thing, to take away somebody’s livelihood and you have no right to do that. Why don’t you come to our homes and see how difficult is our lives. Like any human being, we also want to lead a decent life and give our younger brothers and sisters a good education.”

Sitting next to her is Shyam Sundar, a member of the Bharatiya Bar Girl’s Union: “I have heard the Russian girls are doing dances in bars but there is no ban against them. Patil says the dance bars are against Marathi culture. How can a dance form be against Marathi culture?”

Wah Wagh!

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times
The third generation Wagh sculptors are still going strong

Shevlin Sebastian

“One person from Sakori placed an order for a statue of Shirdi Sai Baba,” says sculptor Vinay Wagh, 45. “It took about four months to make. This was a statue on which I worked single-handedly.” A few months later, when the client called, Wagh told him the statue was ready. But the client insisted it was not ready.

“How can you say that?” Wagh remembers saying. “I have been working on it myself. I know it is ready.” He urged Wagh to inspect the two fingers of the right hand, which was placed below the knees. “Without disconnecting the phone, I went and looked underneath the hand and saw that the separation of the fingers was not up to the mark,” says the sculptor. “What should I think? My only conclusion: God is there. Otherwise, how do you explain it? Nobody else was working on the statue.”

When the client arrived, Wagh asked him how he was able to spot the error from so far away. “He said, ‘When you told me the statue was ready, I felt a pain in my finger,’” says Wagh. “‘That is why I felt some work still remained.’”

This is one of the most profound experiences of Wagh in over 30 years of work as a sculptor. In the window of his studio on Chowpatty, there are plaster of paris replicas of Mother Teresa, Madhavrao Scindia, Swami Chinmayananda, Bhagat Singh, Shivaji, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi.

Inside, the floor has a thin layer of white dust while the velvet green sofas have seen better days. Amidst all this sits Wagh, the third generation of the family, which have making sculptures for the past 94 years. His grandfather, Vinayakrao, was officially appointed to make a sculpture of Lord Hardinge, the first Viceroy of India, while his father, Brahmesh, was appointed as sculptor to the President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad.

As for Vinay Wagh, he says one of the most memorable statues he has made was of Karan Singh’s grandfather, Maharaja Gulab Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, riding a horse.
“To make the horse in clay took me eight months,” says Wagh. “I went to the racecourse to study horses. I made sketches. I took photographs. I met the trainers. I tried to figure out what type of posture the horse should have: should it be the walk, the canter, the gallop or the trot.”

In the end, he selected the trot. When the statue was being made, he invited trainers to come and see it, so that they could offer advise on the correct position of the horse and the posture of the rider. “Where should the Maharaja sit? What should be the position of the feet? Where would he hold the reins?” says Wagh. “What should the dress be like? Singh was of medium height, so I needed a model of that height to resemble him.”

Father of the nation
Among the many statues he has done, he has made several of Mahatma Gandhi. One such statue, a bust, can be found in the lobby of the Mani Bhavan Gandhi Sangrahalaya. It is the familiar one of a bespectacled Gandhi, with the bald head, the sticking out ears, the wrinkled forehead and a hint of a smile on his face. It seems very real and even though the eye cavities are empty, you almost sense that he is looking at you. That is how good the sculpture is.

“Wagh has got the face of Gandhi perfectly,” says Meghshyam Ajgaonkar, 59, executive secretary of the bhavan. “Wagh was given the commission because his family has been in the business for a very long time.” The statue was put up in 1999 and cost Rs 75,000.
Ajgaonkar says lots of visitors appreciate the bust and take photographs next to it.

One of them is Nicholas Guichard, 26, a dentist from Toulouse, France, who is here with a group of friends. “This bust is an accurate representation,” says this handsome Frenchman, with red cheeks. “You feel a sense of serenity when you look at it.”

The lifelike Shastri

On another side of Wagh’s studio, there is a 11 foot tall statue of Lal Bahadur Shastri, which has been commissioned by the government of Karnataka. Being built at a cost of Rs 22 lakh, it will be set up just outside the Vidhana Soudha, next year. In June, son Anil Shastri, 56, a member of the Congress Working Committee, inspected it. “It was as close to Shastri when he was alive,” says Anil, by phone from Delhi. “Some of the other statues of my father that Wagh has built for various NGO’s and government trusts have been par excellence. My mother is an admirer of his work and I will recommend him to anybody.”

Talking to Wagh, it is clear that there is a lot of hard work behind the scene before a statue becomes one. So what is the procedure behind the making of a statue? There are numerous processes, like lost wax moulding, and Wagh says, this is the same process that greats like Leonardo Da Vinci and Auguste Rodin used. The final process is when the mould is baked in a furnace for eight days, at the sculptor’s factory in Matunga. “The mould is then put into a pit,” he says. “Then we pour liquid bronze on it. If it is a big statue, we have to weld it. We have to match it with the master copy, which has been made of plaster of paris.” Next up is the oxidisation process, which is done in one tone: from coffee brown to jet black.

The cost depends on the size, but it ranges from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 15 lakh or more. His customers range from municipal corporations to state governments, industrialists and several trusts. Interestingly, the most orders that Wagh gets is for B.R. Ambedkar. “The demand is there because of government backing,” he says. So far, he has made more than 1000 statues and busts of the late leader.

Asked about the qualities need to be a good sculptor, Wagh says, “You need to have talent and a lot of concentration. You have to do a deep study of the human anatomy, and understand facial expressions, and use your imagination.”

A sculptor, he says, has to be physically fit, because he has to work for 12 hours in a standing position. “It is heavy work,” he says. “It is not like a painter who delicately daubs paint on a canvas.” Each statue weighs about 800 kgs and the sculptor has to use his hands to help the staff and the labour. Wagh plays volleyaball, swimming and does weight training. “I keep my mind refreshed by doing yoga,” he says. “I am very passionate about sculpting. It is a nasha.”

This nasha has lasted for three generations and if all goes well, Wagh’s son, Chaitanya, who is 10, will follow his footsteps one day, provided, of course, that God endows him with talent.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Magical, mystical and mesmerising

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Photographer Prabir Purkayastha captures Ladakh in its varied hues

Shevlin Sebastian

“In September 2001, I was in the village of Basgo, one of the four ancient capitals of Ladakh,” says photographer Prabir Purkayastha, 54. “The main monastery in Basgo is about 600 years old. I was helping a dear friend – His Highness Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal of Ladakh – photograph the sad decay and ravages of time in this exquisite house of god.”

It was 4 pm and Purkayastha was exhausted and desperate. He had been taking pictures since 11 am and did not have the time to eat or drink. “I wanted to go back home,” he says. “Just when I thought it was time to leave, my friend asked me to go to a smaller monastery and photograph it, too.”

In this old and desolate monastery, there was a 16 ft tall bronze statue of Maitreya. The body was in the hall while the shoulders and head extended upwards into a glass-fronted attic. “The caretaker took me to the roof, as it was too dark in the prayer hall to see anything,” he says.

The panes were grimy and Purkayastha cleaned them by using his bandana and some water.

“As I looked upon the radiant face, glowing like burnished gold, in the rays of the setting sun, I saw tears–molten and shining–streaming down the cheeks!” says Purkayastha, as he rapidly took photographs. “Tears, just like yours and mine.”

Purkayastha was stunned into silence and disbelief. He showed this amazing phenomenon to His Highness who insisted they leave the monastery immediately. Next morning, on the flight back to Delhi, he was introduced to His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa. When he was told about the phenomenon, the Karmapa was speechless, too. He had never seen nor heard of such a thing.

A few weeks later, a curious Purkayasta went back to Basgo. This time, when he looked in through the roof, he got a shock: “I saw golden rays of sunbeams streaming from Maitreya's eyes - glowing like a million suns all blazing together,” he says. “The tears had dried up but His eyes were alight with wonderment. I always show this picture, with the light shining in Maitreya’s eyes, in all my exhibitions.”

This has been one of the most astounding experiences of Purkayastha, in his decade-long love affair with Ladakh, trying to photograph this mysterious land in all its varied moods.

In Mumbai, Purkayastha’s exhibition, called ‘Zendo’ is on show at the Bodhi art gallery. There are 42 pictures on display, of which 28 are in black and white. These are images of desolation and a stark beauty. When you look at them, you feel like going into the photograph and escape from the madding crowd, the pollution, the daily struggle and the fears of terrorism that is life in Mumbai these days. This is a glimpse of a strange and unreal world, where Nature lords it over man; where you sense the insignificance of man in the scheme of things.
What helps to quiet down the hysterical voice in your head and your ragged nerves is the haunting music: it is a rare jugalbandi between the Tibetan, Nawang Khechog, and the Red Indian, Carlos Nakai, both of whom are among the best bamboo flutists in the world. The vocals are by Senegalese star, Baaba Maal, who is singing, according to Purkayastha, one of the finest azaan's ever recorded: Duniya salaam. These are pictures of mountains, lakes, valleys and of deserts, shot with deep affection and respect. Even though the environment dominates in most photographs, the striking images are of people: an old man, sitting on his haunches, his face ravaged by age, wearing a weather-beaten cloak, a couple of sticks in his hands, in a rock strewn desolate landscape and yet, in his eyes, there is such an acceptance of life that you are transfixed on the spot. Then, there is an image, in light and shade, of the late Bakula Rinpoche, the head lama of Ladakh and India's Ambassador to Mongolia. It is a face of tremendous character and serenity and Purkayastha has caught it perfectly.
“This Zendo (a Japanese word for an ancient meditation hall suffused with energy) exhibition is the result of a fascinating journey,” says Purkayastha. “I wanted to show the latent and haunting beauty of Ladakh and I have compared this mystical land to the sacred zendo.”

The obvious question to ask: Why Ladakh? What has made him go back so many times over so many years? Purkayastha is eloquent about his love: “When you trek across a lake that dried up a million years ago, at 14,000 feet, with barely enough oxygen, to keep you alive, you stop thinking of this mundane world. You are no longer who you are. This freedom from the superficial self is more than a breath of fresh air. You are one with the astounding beauty all around you. It’s magic! And that’s why I travel back to Ladakh. Time after time.”

Talking to visitors at the gallery, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Fashutana Patel, 20, feels the photographs look more like paintings. Collegian Nergish Sunavala, who admires Purkayastha’s technique, feels some digital manipulation has taken place.

Purkayastha explains why the photographs look the way they do. “I was desperate to photograph Ladakh only as my mind’s eye viewed it,” he says.

After many experiments, with films and processing techniques, he said the best effect came when he used Kodak Technical Pan film. He says he only uses ambient light, and that, too, at a select time of day or year.

“My portraits have a dark, moody appearance where the highlights and shadow details glow like polished pearls,” he says. “During winter, depending on the quantity and brightness of the snow, the natural light and by pushing the film speed I am now able to create images that look like charcoal paintings. No digital wizardry. No darkroom manipulation. Just pure photography! What more could a photographer ask for!”

Purkayastha has had a successful career in advertising for over two decades, when in 2004, much to the dismay of his family, friends and colleagues, he quit to pursue photography full time. In 2005, he published a coffee table book on Ladakh, which coincided with a presentation at the Rubin Museum of Arts in New York. In 2006, Ladakh won the silver at the Regional SAAPI awards in Jakarta and was selected in July, 2006 as the ‘Book of the month’ by UK’s Outdoor Photography magazine. His Ladakh portfolio also won the international Spotlight Award in B&W Photography magazine, a leading American journal.
So where does he go from here? “I have begun shooting some specific subjects in Ladakh,” he says. This is quite different from my Zendo work. For this I am experimenting with some new film from Germany. Hopefully this body of work will be
exhibited next year. The future has never seemed more thrilling!”

Monday, August 07, 2006

Getting hold of a new medium

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A dentist is the producer of a hit Marathi film

Shevlin Sebastian

The last thing on Dr Uday Tamankar’s mind as he talks in his dental clinic at Lokhandwala is teeth. Instead, he is talking films. It is easy to understand his enthusiasm: His first Marathi film, as a producer, Kya Dyacha Bola, directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni, has celebrated its silver jubilee. In fact, it is in its 28th week at Pune. In Mumbai, it ran for 13 weeks. “If a Marathi film runs for four weeks in Mumbai, it is considered a hit,” says Tamankar. So not only has the first-time producer recovered his investment, but he has made a profit.
Tamankar has been a dentist for the past 23 years and has built a successful practice. He wanted to make movies ever since he was a teenager but his parents insisted he become a doctor. So he became a dentist but then “one day I realised 15 years had gone past,” he says. So, he decided to fulfill his dream of producing a Marathi film. It needed an investment of Rs 40 lakh and he decided he would invest his savings, instead of taking a loan. “I know of many Marathi film producers who took loans and made movies and it flopped and they fell into a deeper hole,” he says.
Tamankar could also have fallen into a deeper hole if you hear about his experiences in the early days. “The first day of shooting was scheduled for July 28, 2005 in Film City, Goregaon,” he says. “Now, you know that what happened on July 26. The shooting was postponed by two days. Luckily, our crew was staying in Goregaon East, so they could come easily for the shoot.”
But on the first day, there were 80 people present and they had no work to do because there was no electricity. They tried desperately to get a generator but all the generators were in use all over the city because of the power breakdown owing to the floods. “So the people were waiting and I had to provide them with lunch and dinner and pay their salaries,” he says. “And I was thinking to myself, ‘from the first day, I am getting sunk in spending money and no work being done’. But luckily, at a construction site nearby, there was a generator. They were not using it because their workers had not been able to report for work. So, in the end, I lost about ten hours.”
But the unit was so co-operative, they worked the whole night, to make up for the lost time, and finished shooting only at 4 a.m. “It was then I realised there are so many good people in the film industry,” says Tamankar. “They understood the importance of money even though I remember reading in glossy magazines how stars have wasted the money of producers with their extravagant demands.”
So, was he surprised that his film turned out to be a hit? “For a movie to be a hit, you only need two things: a good director and a good story,” says Tamankar. But it took him some time to find a quality story. He read stories for six months and rejected all of them. Then a cousin, based in America, called him up and asked him to see the Hollywood film, My Cousin Vinny. (Plot summary from “Bill and Stan are mistaken for murderers while on vacation, and Bill's family sends his cousin Vinny to defend them for his first case as a lawyer. Vinny, a brash New Yorker took six tries to pass his bar exam.”)
Tamankar saw and liked the film and felt that it could be adapted to Marathi but with one difference: Instead of the lawyer going from a town to a rural set-up, in Kya Dyacha Bola, the hero-lawyer would go from a village in Maharashtra to Mumbai. “Essentially, it is a comedy of two youths implicated in a murder case and how the village lawyer, who is pitted against a sophisticated prosecutor, wins the case,” he says.
So where does he go from here? Tamankar breaks into a wide smile and says, “I have tasted blood. I am going to produce another movie.” He has been looking at scripts but has not found one that he likes. “Anyway, I have time till the monsoons end, because there can be no shooting now,” he says.
Asked what tips he will give his fellow producers, who have not had a hit in years, his advice is succinct: “The story is the hero of the movie. Pay attention to it and you will be successful.”

‘Papa is just before me’

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained form Hindustan Times

A family discovers the death of an elder member on television

Shevlin Sebastian

“One of our friends saw a clipping on Zee TV at 9 p.m.,” says Dinar Talpade, at his home in Dahisar. “My father looked perfect but she was not sure. She called my home and asked for my dad. My wife, Anjali, said that he had not returned and we were all waiting anxiously. Then she asked, what was the clothes he was wearing that day. Anjali described them to her and the lady started crying and said, ‘Please put on the Zee news immediately.’”
Anjali put on the Zee News and the camera was focused on the face of her father-in-law, who was lying on the Matunga platform. “At the same time, I got through to her and she was shouting, ‘Papa is just before me, Papa is just before me,’” says Dinar.

As he speaks, his face is streaming with tears, the cheeks are red and he is shaking his head from side to side. “I am unable to talk,” he says. “This is such a sudden tragedy. Just a few days ago, he was sitting on this chair and playing with my daughter Aditi and now…”

For several moments he is silent. Anjali, wearing a white salwar kameez, comes and sits on the opposite chair. Dinar, who works in the hotel industry, takes a deep breath and continues the narration: At the same time that Anjali sees her father-in-law on television, the police arrived at their door to inform them about the death. “My father had his senior citizen’s card and his monthly railway pass,” says Dinar. “Because of that, he was identified quickly. I did not have to search for him. Immediately, from my workplace in Juhu, I went to KEM Hospital. And then after all the formalities, we claimed the body, without too much problems.”

Girish Talpade, 66, worked as a custodian with Mega Safe Deposit Vault at Nariman Point. “He was a happy-go-lucky person,” says Dinar, whose mother died four years ago. “On the 9th of July, we celebrated Aditi’s tenth birthday. On Tuesday evening, he was supposed to see the video of the birthday celebrations; he had been unable to see it earlier.”

What do they feel about what has happened? Anjali, who is calmer, says matter-of-factly, “One man loses his life and the repercussions are felt by many people. They have targeted the bread-winners of every family. The families will be suffering so much. Why should they pay? What have they done wrong?”

There are no answers to these questions. Anjali is not finished: “This is not the first time this has happened. And it will happen again. I don’t know how many times it will happen.”
Dinar says, “Ultimately, it is the common man who suffers all the time.”

Double Exposure

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Photojournalists are at the forefront when it comes to covering war, earthquakes, disasters and bomb blasts. But they usually pay an emotional price for this exclusive access

Shevlin Sebastian

Even though Arko Datta, 37, of Reuters covered the recent bomb blasts at Mumbai, what remains etched in his memory is this image from the 2002 Gujarat riots: At Gulmarg society, where more than 40 people were burnt to death, as he was led into the building he almost stepped on something and pulled back. “When I looked closely, I realised it was the hand of a baby,” he says. “It had tiny fingers and had been chopped and burnt.” Despite covering so many deaths in wars and disasters all over the world, this was a completely new experience for him: “Out here, right in the heart of Ahmedabad, in a residential complex, people who were living next to each other had become enemies.”

There were more horrors ahead: He was led towards a room, and when the door was opened, he saw a pile of bodies of women and children, all burnt to death. The people told him what had happened: “They had locked themselves in,” he says. “The rioters stood outside. Instead of breaking down the door, they played a little game. They poured water under the door and then slipped in live, electric wires. They tried to electrocute the victims before killing and burning them.” Later, when he enquired about Ehsan Jaffry, the former MP, who lived in the building, he was led back to the road towards some ash on the ground, near a skull and said, “This is Jaffry saab.”

For Manoj Patil, chief photographer of the Hindustan Times, the most vivid image was the bodies lying on top of each other in the first class bogie at Mahim station. “I had reached there within ten minutes of the blast,” he says. “There were dead people lying on the tracks, a couple of bodies were jammed in the wheels of the bogie and there were a few on the platform.” He was in a dilemma: how to shoot while people were helping those who were injured.

Aijaz Rahi, 33, of the Associated Press has a different image that remains vividly in his mind. He was standing outside the morgue of the Bhabha hospital on that Tuesday night. “There were people coming in with hope on their faces,” he says. “They really did not want their relatives to be found inside the morgue.” They had to wait in a queue to go inside. When some of them came out without identifying anybody, there was a sort of insecurity while at the same time, there was a sense of satisfaction, that maybe, their relative might have survived. “And then I saw people coming out after identifying a family member and breaking down,” he says. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

On a sunny afternoon, I meet Arko Datta at the Barista outlet at Phoenix Mills. He has just been back after covering two months of cricket in the Caribbean, and looks weather-beaten, with a mop of hair and a straggly beard, which is a mix of black and grey. Famous in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, for winning the World Press Photo 2004, for a picture of a grieving woman at Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu after the tsunami, and of Qutubuddin Ansari, who was the face of the Gujarat riots, he is not as well known in India.

Photojournalists, like their counterparts in Indian television, are regarded as foot soldiers. Yet, they play a vital role when natural disasters, earthquakes, riots and bomb blasts take place. They are nearly the first to arrive and it is their documentation of the event that shapes the sensibilities of people worldwide.

The emotional cost

So, do they get affected by all what they see? Sebastian D’Souza, 54, of the Agence France Presse, says he has no such problems. “I pray for the victims. And because I am so tired after a long day of shooting, I have a peaceful sleep.” D’Souza, in his 17th year with AFP, seems to have gained a measure of tranquillity, thanks to all those years of experience. But, for the younger photojournalists, it has been hard. “I know I will never forget these gory images, but life has to go on,” says Patil.

Datta, who has covered the Kargil war, says, “After I returned from Kargil, if someone closed the door hard or there was a loud sound, I would jump from the bed and hit the ground. The Kargil experience kept reappearing in my dreams for almost a month. I won’t say I was disturbed, but the images kept coming back.”

Datta takes a sip of his coffee, and as I watch a pretty blonde play with her daughter at a nearby table, he comes up with an eloquent explanation: “In the early part of your career, the camera acts like a wall and the victims are on the other side. But, over time, the wall tends to disappear completely and you become emotionally vulnerable because you tend to relate more.”

Because of this empathy, Rahi, who is a Kashmiri, and has covered more than a hundred bomb blasts during his seven-year stint in Srinagar, has occasionally suffered from trauma. “I could not go to sleep,” he says. “In my dreams, I would see all those horrible images.”

As to whether the trauma has affected his relationship with his family, Rahi agrees readily. “If you have witnessed a gory incident, you are not going to go home happy or cheerful,” he says. “You might shout at your wife, you might not want to eat dinner, you might not want to talk. For example, if my wife asks me something, I might react in an aggressive manner.”

Rahi, however, does not give the impression that he can blow a fuse. He is wearing a green Wrangler T-shirt and loose cargo jeans and sandals and looks at peace in the quiet, air-conditioned office of the Associated Press at Churchgate.

As for Datta, he says he gets his emotional sustenance from his wife, Jyothi, 34, and that helps him tide over the difficult times. “My wife gives me unstinted support and strength, even though it’s hard for her: In the last ten months, I have been home for only 20 days.”

So what do the wives feel about the situation? When I phone Jyothi, she says, “Being a journalist myself, at one level, I can understand the importance of his work. But, on the other hand, as a wife, companion and friend, it has been very difficult.”

Rahi’s wife, Iram, 26 admits her husband would get upset after he returned from covering the bomb blasts. “Once in a while, he would tell me about some of the images he saw,” she says. “To tackle this sort of situation, what a wife needs to show is understanding.”

Don’t get carried away

Despite their sufferings, most of them have a deep appreciation of life. Datta tells me that one evening, after returning home after covering the recent blasts, he just hugged his wife and said, with deep feeling, “We are alive!” All of them have seen life, in its extreme manifestations, sans illusions or blinkers, in so many different environments. And because of intense careers they have the experience of veterans. So what is their advice to those who are starting out?
“Don’t blindly rush in only thinking about your pictures,” says Datta. “Don’t be swayed by your ambition.” Rahi feels young photographers should be taught how to protect their lives, how to cover the incident and how to help people out.

A few years ago, his office sent him to do a week’s training in England by a group of former British Army officers. “They gave us the basic knowledge of first aid, arms and ammunition, booby traps and how to work in a hostile environment,” he says. “It was helpful and all news organisations in India should send their photographers for similar training.”

D’Souza says he has noticed a disturbing trend these days: the public readily beat up photographers and TV cameramen when they arrive at the scene of a tragedy. But he has an explanation for this. “As soon as these young photojournalists arrive at the site, they whip out their cameras and start shooting,” he says. “That is why the public gets angry.”

The method, he says, is to go in and mingle with the crowd. “You should enquire about what has happened,” he says. “You should also try to help. It is only after that, you should start clicking.”

James Nachtwey, one of the world’s leading photographers, when it comes to covering wars and disasters in the past twenty years, says the same thing. “When I approach people, I do it with respect and with deference,” he says, in an interview with American web site, “I do it slowly and gently and I think about the way I move, the way I speak and the way I use the camera. I let them know I respect them and what they are going through. I could not take my pictures without their acceptance and participation.”

Last words

So what’s the future going to be like? Will there be any more blasts in the city and the country? The wise D’Souza says, “In India, the politician has brought religion into politics and divided the people. The poison has seeped deep into society. What is happening today is revenge and nothing else.” The Muslims, he says, have a lot of resentments, built up over the years and it is not necessarily because of the Gujarat riots. “The Pakistanis may be giving a helping hand, but the community feels very alienated today. The grudge has gone too deep. I am afraid it will never end.”

Mind over magic

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Deepak Rao stuns audiences with his key bending and mind-reading skills
Shevlin Sebastian
Deepak Rao, 48, places the fork on the marble floor of his office at Mahim. He gets down on his haunches and stares hard at it. Then he stretches out his hands and placing it a few centimetres above the fork, he seems to be pushing the air. Incredibly, after a few seconds, the fork moves to one side, in a neat arc. As soon as the movement is over, Rao falls back, as if he is physically pushed and lets out a deep breath. A few minutes later, he composes himself, picks up the fork and holds it sideways, with a stretched arm. He moves it up and down in slow motion as he peers intently at the instrument.
Suddenly, in the middle of one such movement, the fork gets crumpled from the neck downwards. He shakes his head, blinks and takes deep breaths. He hands me the fork and it is bent. I am standing too close: there is no visible subterfuge. So, is Deepak Rao India’s answer to Uri Geller, the world famous psychic? Or is what he does “impossible”, as most people say when I describe what he has done.
“What I am doing is achieved through training,” he says. “There are no powers involved. It might look miraculous or supernatural, but I am just being extremely sharp, alert and observant. I just present shows, I charge a fee and I entertain people. That is all.”
Geller, 60, in an e-mail from his Blackberry, says, “I can’t comment [on Rao] because I have not seen the shows. Besides, I have moved away from spoon bending.”
Impressive skills
Meanwhile, Rao continues to impress. He calls his assistant Neha into the room. Then he asks photographer Santosh Harhare and me, to jot down our favourite single digit number next to each other on the back of a visiting card. As we do this, both of them stand facing the wall. When we finish writing the number, he asks us to place it face down on the table. He turns, sits down on a chair and says, “I need two minds to do this. I want you both to look into my eyes and honestly tell me the number through your mind.”
Both of us do so. He closes his eyes and wrinkles of concentration appear on his forehead. For a few seconds, there is a silence, punctuated now and then by the irregular hum of the air-conditioner. Finally, he says, “Neha, receive my thoughts.” She is still standing, with a pencil poised over another visiting card. “Write the first digit now, (Neha notes it down) and here is the second digit,” he says.
She writes the number and places the card on the table. It is right: 79. When I prod him to explain how it is done, he is unwilling.
In my two and a half hour conversation, it is this hesitation to explain his skills that made me feel that something is not right. In the end, he is honest enough to say, “It is a trade secret and I don’t want to reveal it.”
Busy as a bee
This former advertising professional is having a highly successful career of doing one-hour entertainment programmes, apart from mind opening training sessions, for corporate clients like Hewlett Packard, ICICI Bank, Aditya Birla Group, Nicholas Piramal, Standard Chartered, Hindustan Lever, Jet Airways, etc. He shows me several circled dates, on a table calendar, which are bookings for shows, for the month of August. He does around 80 to 100 shows a year, most of them in India but, sometimes, he travels to Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe and America.
So what exactly happens during these shows?
At one of his shows at a hotel in the city, for a corporate company, he is able to effortlessly hold the audience in his grip by bending a borrowed key, figuring out the name of a personality written on a folded slip of paper, and a ‘premonitions’ segment, which is stunning in its accuracy. The show is punctuated by clapping and sighs and cries of “Wow!” In other shows, he says, he also does telepathy, telekinesis, levitation and use of intuition.
The objective view
So what do others think of him? Narayan Gad, CEO of Panacea Biotec, who had invited Rao to do a show for the firm, says, “Rao is India’s equivalent of Uri Geller,” he says. “In India, I have not met anyone else who can do extra-sensory perception.”
Gad says there is nothing fraudulent in the bending of a key. “It is called focusing on the transfer of energy, like Sai Baba does,” he says. “Or, in other words, making the inanimate respond to a mental command.”
Says Joyita Bandopadhyay, who had seen an earlier show: “I am sure he has extra sensory perception. In other words, he has a genuine skill.”
But, there are the predictable stone throwers. Sanal Edamaruku, President, Indian Rationalist Association, says Rao’s claim that he can bend keys or forks with mental power is nothing more than a hoax. “Our people are gullible and sleight of hand tricks are not seen by them,” he says. “I challenge Rao to show his feat in fraud-proof conditions. He should allow our experts to verify the keys or fork beforehand.”
But Rao is not taking the charges lying down. “Any rationalist who makes comments on me, without seeing my shows, is hasty in his comments, brashly outspoken and absolutely irrational," he says. “My audiences are an intelligent breed and not village bumpkins or fools to be gullible.
“If I do bend objects, it is by using my mind.... not mind power. It is my ability and my technique.... I do not like to use the word 'Power'. In fact, I am more of a rationalist and those who know me will endorse the same.”
Rao goes on to say nobody has accused him of cheating people or extracting money. He says he is a recognised corporate trainer and entertainer with over 100 blue chip corporate clients, who “book me repeatedly, all across the globe.”
This global entertainer has an intense personality and yet there lurks within him a sense of humour. At the show I attended, he spoke about the problem of communications when he goes abroad. In Singapore, he called three women up on to the stage, and asked them to write a single digit number on a white card. “The first woman wrote her mobile number, and when the second woman saw that, she wrote her telephone number and…” he pauses, gives a naughty grin, and finishes with a flourish, “the third woman gave me her room number.”