Saturday, February 28, 2009

Vignettes from a life


Afflicted by a lifelong disease and winning short story competitions changed the course of Malayali writer A.S. Priya’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

“At the age of four I was afflicted by oesophageal varices,” says author, A.S. Priya, a Kerala Sahitya Akademi award winner. “That means you vomit blood.”

When this happened, for the first time, the family was thrown into turmoil. Priya’s parents were schoolteachers in Eramalloor, Cherthala.

“My mother had to take leave for several months,” says Priya. She was admitted into the Samaritan Hospital in Pazhaganad and a major surgery was done.

“Varices results in the mal-functioning of the liver,” she says. “There seems to be no cure.”

And no end to the embarrassment she felt when teachers and students used to visit her at home. “I just hated to be sick in front of them,” she says.

She found the contrast too much. “Here I was, unable to get up from the bed, while my classmates were wearing such colourful clothes and looked so animated, joking and laughing among themselves,” she says. “I thought, ‘They are enjoying life, while I am not.’ I asked God why I was in this situation?”

However, the one positive aspect of the disease was that since Priya was unable to go out she became a reader. “It helped develop my imagination,” she says.

She stayed in a room which had a large window. And she would stare at nature for hours together. “I watched the birds flying to and fro, the mangoes ripening, and the squirrels jumping about from branch to branch,” she says. “This sharpened my observation skills.”

One day her mother was reading aloud from an article from the Illustrated Weekly of India. It was about the blind writer Ved Mehta. “This had an inspiring effect on me,” she says. “I was in Class six then. I felt that my problems seemed far less compared to Ved Mehta.”

In 1986, Priya joined the BA course at Maharaja’s College. One day, during the arts festival, on a whim, she decided to take part in the short story competition.

“I won the third prize,” she says. “It was a turning point for me because it gave a big boost to my confidence. I knew the judges who selected my story did not know me. So, what I had written must have been good.”

She continued writing. In another short story competition in Grihalakshmi magazine in 1989, she won the second prize, and received it from Jnanpith Award winner, M.T. Vasudevan Nair at a function in Kozhikode. “This was another big moment for me, to get the prize from a legend,” she says.

This award-winning story, ‘Jeevathatinde Ilakal’, was about an old woman who was not informed about the death of her son. But she has an intuition her son has passed away, even as she goes around inquiring about him.

Like all good fiction, this has a real-life basis. Priya had gone to a clinic in Mumbai for treatment for her disease and was staying at a relative, Indu Mama’s house.

“One morning Indu Mama narrated a few jokes to make me laugh and left,” says Priya. But that day he had a motorbike accident and died. “I felt terrible when I heard the news,” she says. “What made it worse was that because I was so weak I could not attend the cremation.”

Indu Mama’s mother, who was close to her son, lived in Ernakulam and was informed about the tragedy much later.

Priya poured all her sadness and disappointment into the story. “Looking back, my trip to Mumbai turned out to be very significant,” she says.

Meanwhile, it was while doing her BA that she met Unni Nair, who is now a lawyer. Love bloomed and it eventually resulted in marriage.

“If I did not have a love marriage, who would have married a sick person like me?” she says. “Unni has been a big support in my life.” After 13 years of marriage, they now have a three-year-old son, Tanmoy.

Since she was hospitalised often she could not attend classes regularly. As a result, her academic performance suffered and Priya got a third class. She took private classes from Madhukar Rao, a retired professor of Maharaja’s College, so that she could sit for the exams again and get a better result. One of her classmates was the well-known writer Jaishree Misra.

Priya did not know Jaishree was a writer till she read an article about her in a magazine. Later, she eagerly read Jaishree’s novel, ‘Ancient Promises’. She was much taken up by the story, which seemed to be autobiographical in parts, and asked Jaishree whether she could translate it into Malayalam. Jaishree agreed.

This maiden attempt was accepted by DC Books for publication. “A lot of people appreciated my work,” she says. “And I felt happy that a third class BA student could do a good job.” She finally met the London-based author at Thiruvananthapuram.

“Jaishree expressed her happiness over the translation and asked me to work on other books of hers,” says Priya. “It was such a happy and fruitful coincidence that we were classmates.”

Asked to explain the many setbacks in her life, Priya falls silent in the administrative office of the mathematics department at Cochin University of Science and Technology. Then she says, “Those whom the Gods love more, are given a much more intense and agonising life.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A keen response to life

C.R. Manmadhan’s maiden exhibition catches the eye with striking paintings, photographs and digital art

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 'Suryanelli', an acrylic painting by C.R. Manmadhan, there is a young girl on her knees, staring into the future with fearful eyes. To one side, there is a large vulture, on the ground, gazing at her malevolently.

Up in the sky, there are vultures flying about, waiting to see whether they can also have a go at the prey. On the right of the girl is a column of butterflies.

"When I read about the Suryanelli sex scandal it affected me deeply," says Manmadhan. (In that incident, an adolescent girl fell in love, was kidnapped, and raped repeatedly by 42 men, which included politicians, lawyers and businessmen.)

"When she falls in love, she offers herself to the man," he says. "That is why she is on her knees. Her mind is full of romantic dreams, hence the butterflies, but the reality is that many men, represented by the vultures, are ready to exploit her."

Manmadhan is an adept social commentator. In his 'Memories of Kindergarten', he shows a girl with tears rolling down her face. Just next to her is a skull and below that is a shouting parent.

"Children today are scared of people in authority, be it teachers or principals," he says. "I have represented it with a skull." A mirror placed in the picture is an invitation for the viewer to look in and at themselves.

In 'Hide and Seek', done in a striking green, there is a face of a man, with shifty eyes, and a long beard. Just above him, representing his mind, in surreal style, there is a woman, with her back to the viewer.

"I did this after the fake godman Santosh Madhavan’s case came to light," he says. "It seems that these days clerics are less focused on God and more on money and sex. The episode remained in my mind and, months later, the subconscious produced this image."

Apart from paintings, there are numerous photographs of landscapes and people. A picture of the tea gardens of Munnar, taken from a height, shows a meandering road going through a sea of green leaves. There is a twilight shot of Fort Kochi, called 'Cool Blue' with a sliver of the moon visible high up in the sky. The soothing blue seeps across the photograph.

This tranquil colour is also evident in a photograph on the returning fishing boats in Rameshwaram, called 'Getting Home'. There is a striking photo of an aged nomadic woman in a colourful costume, and a man blowing a horn outside the temple at Hampi.

"The key to a good photograph is to take it spontaneously," he says. "I want to catch life as it happens."

Manmadhan retired as the News Editor of the Mathroobhumi newspaper a couple of years ago and turned his attention to painting. "I already had a knack from childhood," he says. He remembers with gratefulness his drawing teacher, Gopalakrishnan, at Nooranad village, in Mavelikara, who constantly encouraged him.

“Sir would give me special classes,” he says. “During the vacation he would ask me to buy several drawing books. Then Sir would do several half complete sketches and ask me to finish them. In this way, I learnt symmetry, perspective and balance.”

His journalism gave him little time to devote to art. But now, he is focused on his artistic career. And like most late bloomers, he has taken the help of the Internet.

"If I have any doubts I can always get the answer from the Net," he says. "It is a great boon. On You Tube there are lessons on how to do a painting. I can see the works of great painters and get encouraged. Picasso's Cubism period has been the inspiration behind my painting, 'Happy Home'."

Apart from paintings and photographs, Manmadhan also does digital art, which is also on display. "I usually do the creative changes to the photograph, using the Photoshop software," he says.

Asked about his philosophy of life, he says, "I want peace in the world. I want people of different views to live together amiably. My paintings are like that. I don't stick to a particular subject or style. I like to be free."

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

‘Slum Dog, what’s that?’

By Shevlin Sebastian

The sun has set, but the football game is carrying on in earnest at the ground opposite the Udaya Colony, near the South railway station. Amidst shouts and jostling, boys, ranging in age from five to fifteen, chase the ball up and down the field. If Slum Dog Millionaire director Danny Boyle looked at them he would have said, “These are Kochi’s slum dogs.” But are they dogs or children having a whale of a time?

Here is Anandu, all of seven, wearing a multi-coloured T-shirt, with dusty hair. “No, I have not heard of Slum Dog,” he says, still panting from the exertions of playing. “What is it?”

He brightens up when he is asked about Idea Star Singer. “Oh yes, I like the show,” he says. “I want to take part because I can sing.”

Vishnu Ganesh, 13, has also not heard of the movie making waves around the world and in middle-class India. But he nods vigorously when asked about Munch Star Singer Junior and other reality shows on television.

Several children gather around and they say, “Ask me, ask me.” So the questions continue, but Slum Dog continues to draw a blank.

Till the older boys arrive. Sreejith Chandran, who is 17, says, “I have heard of Slum Dog. It is a British film. It is like Kaun Banega Crorepati. I read about it in the newspaper.”

Would he like to take part in a quiz show, like in the movie? “Definitely,” he says. “But who will give me the chance? And I don’t have the knowledge to answer the questions.”

Curly-haired Sabu Babu, 18, has also heard of Slum Dog. “A friend told me the story,” he says. “I found it astonishing that a boy from the slum could win so much of money. I pray to God that, some day, a boy from Udaya Colony will win such a contest.”

Would he like to be a millionaire one day? “Yes, I want to be rich,” he says. “It seems the only way to achieve that is to be a businessman.”

Two middle-aged women from the colony come up, overhear the conversations, and pass sarcastic comments under their breaths for the boys to hear. A few of them laugh loudly.

Curiosity compels Manisha Mukesh, 11, and Meenakshi Rajesh, 13 to join the group. The boys shout in unison, “Don’t ask them any questions!!”

But the girls are willing to talk. They have not heard of Slum Dog, but get excited about Idea Star Singer. “It is a nice programme, and I would like to sing,” says Manisha.

There are contrasting yells of “She can’t sing,” and “She can sing!”

On one side of the field, two people are playing chess, watched by a few men, sitting on the grass. Suddenly, a young man, from the group, wearing a blue INDIA cricket jersey comes up and asks aggressively, “Where are you from? Why have you come? Why are you asking questions?”

Back home, I ask my eight-year-old daughter whether she has heard of Slum Dog. She can barely tear her eyes away from ‘A Suppandi Tale’ in Tinkle Digest and says, tersely, "It's a film."

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Myriad shades of mysticism

Long ago, a Tibetan monk dropped his cloak to enjoy sex – and spirituality, too.
In ‘The Angry Monk’, French director Luc Schaedler profiles the life and career of the little-known Gendun Choephel, one of the foremost writers and thinkers of Tibet in the 20th century

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Poster of the film

One day, in 1917, when a teenage Gendun Choephel was in the room of an elder monk at the Drisha monastery in Rebkong, he dropped a cup. Fearing that the monk would scold him, he stepped out, located a cat, put it in the room and locked it. The senior monk had no option but to put the blame on the cat for the mishap. This was Gendun’s precocious intelligence at work.

Not many people know that Gendun had been the foremost thinker and writer in Tibet in the 20th century. What set this monk apart was that he was also a libertine. He drank, smoked marijuana, and slept with women.

All this and more was revealed in the movie, ‘The Angry Monk’, directed by Frenchman Luc Schaedler, which was shown in Kochi recently by Design & People and Friends of Tibet, in association with Open Eyed Dreams.

“It is essentially a road movie where the director retraces the footsteps of the monk taken during the course of his life,” says Sethu Dass, president of Friends of Tibet.

At 17, Gendun joined the Drepung Monastery’s Gomang College in Lhasa. But, within a matter of months he fell out of favour with his teacher Geshe Sherab Gyatso.

Says writer Topden Tsering: “Gendun attacked the monastic texts and also argued with his teacher. An exasperated Gyatso began calling him, ‘Madman’.

Soon, Gendun left the monastery and earned his living by painting portraits, for which he had a knack. His life changed in 1934, when he met Rahul Sankrityanan, 40, an Indian scholar and freedom fighter.

They travelled together to salvage rare Sanskrit scriptures from the monasteries situated in southern Tibet. All this is shown in the film in a documentary style, but the images are striking and beautiful.

Following this trip, Gendun accompanied Rahul back to India in 1937, and would spend the next 12 years in India, in places like Varanasi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Kalimpong, imbibing the culture and traditions of an ancient country. He also made a brief visit to Ceylon.

And, perhaps, in a first-of-its kind experience for a Tibetan monk, Gendun also explored his sexuality.

It was in Kolkata that he grasped all the opportunities that the city offered, thanks to its thriving red-light district: Sonagachi.

Golok Jigme, an 85-year-old monk, who had been Gendun’s travelling companion, says, in the film, “Gendun was proud of his ability to sleep with four or five prostitutes in an evening and to get roaring drunk in the process.”

Writer Tsering says, “In his voracious consumption of liquor and the seeking of sexual pleasures, there was something spiritual.”

One result was a book called, ‘Tibetan Arts of Love -- Sex, Orgasm and Spiritual Healing’.

In the introduction, Gendun wrote: “As for me — I have little shame I love women. Every man has a woman. Every woman has a man. Both desire sexual union. If natural passions are banned, unnatural passions will grow in secrecy. No religion or morality can suppress the natural passions of mankind.”

In a review in reader T. Short says, “This book has unflinching details, is well-written and thorough. Somehow, it is more accessible than the Kama Sutra.”

Gendun went on to write numerous books, which included a travelogue, a guidebook, an English translation of a Tibetan tome on the history of Buddhism and Tibetan translations of Indian classics like the Bhagwad Gita and the Ramayana. He also wrote numerous articles and essays for the Kalimpong-based ‘Tibetan Mirror’.

In 1983, Sethu, of Friends of Tibet, went to Kalimpong to see the office. “Through broken windows and scattered furniture I could see the ruins of a small room which was once a gathering place for activists and individuals,” he says.

It was in Kalimpong that Gendun became the member of the Tibetan Revolutionary Party. This act would have a fatal repercussion on the monk, because when he returned to Tibet some months later he was accused of being a Communist and plotting to overthrow the Tibetan Government.

He was sent to jail and remained there for three years. Released in 1949, he was a physically and emotionally broken man. He died in 1951, just days after the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet and annexed the country.

The audience in Kochi, though small, watched the film with intensity. “I never knew such a monk existed,” says social worker Jiss Victor. “Gendun was enjoying life, but at the same time he was chronicling his experiences. Since I hardly know anything about Tibet, it was an informative film.”

Says architect Kunjan Garg: “I liked Gendun a lot - especially his drinking, womanising, wandering and irreverent ways. He tells us that life is not to be observed from somewhere high above, but to be experienced in its fullest, most material, even filthiest forms.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Rhythm and blues


Meeting a priest when he was a child and knocking on composer Naushad’s door in Mumbai changed the course of musician Jerry Amaldev’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

On Good Friday, the Tata Oil Mills Catholic Employees Association would conduct the ‘Way Of The Cross’ by foot from Chittoor to Fort Kochi. The participants would enter 14 churches (the equivalent of the stations of the Cross), to pray and sing hymns.

In 1947, Jerry Amaldev’s uncle, M.S. John, who worked for Tata, took the eight-year-old as the main singer. “At midnight I was singing in the St. Francis Assisi Cathedral,” says Jerry. “My boyish voice rang clear in the empty church.” The parish priest, Fr. Michael Panakal was musically inclined (many years later he would be the founder-director of Cochin Arts and Communications).

As Jerry finished singing a solo, Fr. Panakal told John, “This boy sings well, but he is losing a beat somewhere. Can you bring him tomorrow to my office?”

The next day Jerry met the priest who corrected the mistake. Later, after getting permission from his family, Fr. Panakal began training the boy. “It was a turning point for me,” says Jerry. “I had come into the hands of a good mentor.”

Later, again through Fr. Panakal, Jerry became the lead singer of the Bosco Kala Samithi orchestra. Once, at a function at Maharaja’s College, Jerry belted out several popular Hindi songs. “Soon, there was a thunderous applause,” he says. It was the day when many students had received medals for sports events and, in appreciation, several pinned them on Jerry’s shirt. “I got 52 medals that evening,” he says, with a smile.

When Jerry was fifteen years old he decided to become a priest. “My uncle, Fr. Joseph Moonjapilly, made a big impression on me,” he says. “He was a vivacious personality and walked so briskly his cassock used to fly behind him.”

Jerry joined the Society of the Divine Word in 1955 at Indore and came under the tutelage of German priests. For the next ten years, Jerry learnt the tabla, the piano, the organ, as well as north Indian classical vocal music: khayals, dhrupads, thumris and tappas.

Soon, he realised that priesthood was not his cup of tea. “And so I bade goodbye to my superiors who were gracious enough to understand my point of view,” he says. Thereafter, Jerry left for Mumbai.

One morning, he went to Carter Road and knocked on Hindi film composer Naushad’s door. “Naushad himself opened the door,” says Jerry. “I told him I was one of his greatest fans and had been singing his songs from childhood.”

Jerry began singing the songs one after the other. “He asked me whether I was a South Indian and I said yes,” says Jerry. “He was amazed that I sang so flawlessly.”

Naushad took a liking to Jerry, but when the young man said he wanted to sing for the movies, he laughed and said, “As long as Mohammed Rafi is around there is no chance.”

It would take a year before Jerry became Naushad’s assistant at a salary of Rs 100 per month in 1965. And he received some valuable tips from the master composer. “The life of the song is in the lyrics,” said Naushad. “When you know the words, you can give the melody. When you have the melody you can provide the instrumentation.”

After five years with Naushad, Jerry got a scholarship to study music at Cornell University in New York. After getting his master’s degree, Jerry spent several years teaching music before he decided to return to Kochi in 1980. Thereafter, through his brother-in-law, M.X. Joseph, he met the film producer Navodaya Appachan.

“He introduced me to Fasil, who asked me to compose the music for ‘Manjil Virinja Pookkal’,” says Jerry. After recording the songs, Jerry went to Mumbai to try his luck in Bollywood. “I stayed there for six months,” he says. “Many directors told me to hang around. But by then ‘Manjil’ had become a huge hit. So, lots of people were calling me from Kerala to give me work.”

Jerry understood the impact of ‘Manjil’ when he travelled by bus from Mumbai. “From Mangalore to Ernakulam, the songs of ‘Manjil’ were heard at all the major stops,” he says. Today, of course, these songs have become embedded in the consciousness of Malayalis.

Jerry went on to compose the music for 75 films. But his standing in the industry became shaky when he said in an interview to a Chennai newspaper that was an element of effeminacy in soft, romantic songs, as opposed to the heroic style in earlier films. “Someone, not well versed in English, told Yesudas that I said he had a girl’s voice,” says Jerry.

Thereafter, Jerry had a recording session with Yesudas, but he did not turn up. “When I called him, Yesudas replied that he would not come. ‘You said I have a feminine voice,’ he said. I replied, ‘Are you joking? Who can say you have a feminine voice? Even if you think I said that I beg your pardon one million times.’”

But Yesudas did not turn up.

Later, they made up, but a black shadow fell over Jerry’s career. Slowly, he got fewer and fewer assignments till it stopped altogether in 1995. Today, Jerry is the head of the music department of Choice school as well as the director of the popular choral group, ‘Rock of ages.’ A stoic Jerry says, “Life is like a river, and one has to learn to flow along.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Art for art’s sake

The Bangalore-based Shirley Mathew is an upcoming artist who excels in abstract and still-life paintings

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Corcoran School of Design, Washington, a few years ago, Shirley Mathew was given an assignment. Along with other students, she had to draw a plump, middle-aged nude Russian model. “I was just not inspired by her face,” she says.

On the other hand, the other artists found her very compelling. Shirley walked around feeling artistically blocked. She thought, ‘I need to do something!’

By the end of half an hour, she had to produce a large work on paper. Then Shirley got excited and did the drawing in the exact manner she had reacted to the model.

When the instructor, William Christenberry, looked at it, he said, “Oh my God!” The reason for the shock: Shirley had drawn the figure only from the neck downwards. “It turned out to be a very powerful drawing,” she says.

Her good performance there also led her to have an opportunity to train at the Escola Llotja in Barcelona, where Pablo Picasso studied in his early years.

“I received training from world class artists like Carmen Miguel and Tom Carr,” she says. “My palette changed completely because of the Mediterranean influence, and I began experimenting with colours.” Later, she also did a short stint at the Garhi Studios of the Lalit Kala Akademi.

Shirley, a Malayali, brought up in Delhi, lives in Bangalore and has established a reputation for abstracts. In her ninth year as a professional painter, she has produced more than 250 paintings and has been involved in several solo and group exhibitions.

Barcelona artist Carmen Miguel says, “Shirley’s work is very impressive. I love her colors, and the brush strokes look very fresh and vibrant. It is probably blessed by the light she enjoys in her surroundings. There is a Cezanne touch to it.”

Lina Vincent, an art critic based in Bangalore, who has been following the painter’s work for several years, says, “Shirley has mastered an individual language of abstraction, with each canvas being an intensified, but simplified version of her experiences. As an artist she is constantly evolving.”

Right now, Shirley is doing paintings on nature as well as on structures like walls and arches. “After all, I grew up in a city,” she says.

She says that she was much inspired when she went to the Dali museum in Figueres, near Barcelona.

“It was mind-blowing,” she says. “He had these optical illusions which were very interesting. You saw an abstract painting from far away. And when you looked through a keyhole, there was (American President) Abraham Lincoln’s face embedded in the canvas.”

She loves abstracts, but readily admits that art lovers prefer realism. “Most people are non-reflective,” she says. “They don’t want to go into the deeper sensibility of what the artist is trying to say. They want to buy paintings which are pleasant and charming.”

Her studio is part of a 100-year-old English home. “So the ambience is very beautiful,” she says. There is a courtyard with fruit trees. It is here that she holds frequent solo shows, where she puts up the whole range of her work: from abstracts to still life. Her aim is to introduce art to those who do not visit galleries.

And she discovered an unusual form of behaviour on the part of visitors. “The husbands always went for abstracts,” she says. “The wives preferred still-life paintings.” Shirley says it is the rare woman who likes abstracts. “It could be that women are practical and down-to-earth people,” she says.

But is she, as an artist, grounded like most women? “I am forced to be,” says Shirley. “Unlike a male artist who can go into the studio and forget about the outside world I have to deal with maids and cooks and look after the house. It is only in the evening that I can concentrate on my painting.”

Shirley was in Kochi recently to spend time with her widowed mother Annie George. Married to a planter, Shirley has a 19-year-old son who is a 3D animator. Apart from painting, during the day Shirley works as a HR manager in a private firm. So, like any woman, she has to play several roles.

“I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a worker, but in the end the question arises, ‘Who am I?’” she says. “You have to go into your inner self to find out. And what I have discovered is that I am, first and foremost, an artist.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

‘Young musicians need media coverage’

Says tabla maestro Zakir Hussain as he talked about the recent Grammy win and the necessity to remain a student, rather than a master

By Shevlin Sebastian

When tabla maestro Zakir Hussain left the Gokulam Convention Centre, Kochi, after his concert and walked towards the hotel, he created a mini frenzy. As photographers took snaps, and television crews followed him, people came up, touched him, and murmured words of congratulation. Guests who were leaving in their swank cars waved and smiled.

Holding a Farrukh Dhondy novel in his hands, Zakir walked so fast that Shyamala Surendran of Dharini, the organisation which held the musical event, in trying to keep up, lost her sandal. She stopped; so did he. Then Zakir followed Shyamala back to locate the missing sandal. Thankfully she found it quickly.

At the press conference, accompanied by sarangi exponent Dilshad Khan, Zakir spoke confidently, but with a slight American accent. And like most people for whom their job is their passion, he looked far younger than the 57 that he actually is. He also has a sense of humour – “I was hoping there would be a Hussain in the White House and now there is one.”

Here are excerpts from the interview:

You have led a blessed life. Are they any unfulfilled dreams?
My unfulfilled dream is to be able to play the best I can. My father always told me: just be a good student. Don’t try to be a master. If you walk like a guru or a master, you miss what is going on below your nose. It’s not the goal that you get to. It’s how you excel yourself in the journey.

Another great master said to me when I once told him, “Maestro, you really played the best.” And he replied, “Son, I have not played good enough to quit.” That is a very profound statement. If you think you have played the best you have you might as well quit.

How did you feel on winning the Grammy (for Best Contemporary World Music Album)?
To be honest I would have been happier if we had won three years ago when Ashish Khan and I were nominated for the ‘Golden Strings of the Sarod.’ That was a purely classical album. It would have been an apt recognition of the music of India.

How has been the media coverage?
There has always been good coverage for me. It is like the Ravi Shankar syndrome. When you asked people twenty years ago, “Do you know anything about Indian music?” they would say, “Yeah, Ravi Shankar. I heard the sitar.”

But who played with Ravi Shankar? Ustad Allah Rakha! But nobody knew that. Do you know another great sitar player apart from Ravi Shankar? Nobody knew.

So when Ravi Shankar played a concert, 3000 people turn up. When the equally great sitarist Vilayat Khan played, 400 people comprised the audience. Why? Because the media latched on to Ravi Shankar. And it did not bring forth the fact that Vilayat was also one of the greatest.

So what should be done?
Don’t forget the others. Don’t turn the Ravi Shankar syndrome into a Zakir Husain syndrome. Try to help others make a mark. That is how the music will make a mark. You made me, you made Ravi Shankar, you made Bala Murali ji. You made us. So now make the younger ones into the great masters.

You can talk about Tollywood, Kollywood, Bollywood, Firewood, or any other wood, but, please, once in a blue moon, do highlight a young maestro, like Dilshad. It just inspires them to do better and better. If nobody takes notice, the music dies.

How does the younger musician benefit from playing with a senior artiste?
When I was playing with older musicians like Ravi Shankar I learnt how to present my craft on the stage. In my second concert with Ravi Shankar, as we were tuning our instruments, he said, “Zakir, who are you playing for?” I replied, “I am playing for you, Sir.” Then he said, “Why are you sitting and facing the audience? See what I want to do and interact with me.”

That was a valuable lesson. When I watched the artiste I was able to tie into the music a lot more. So, similarly, when Dilshad plays with me he is learning a lot more about what he should do with his music.

Zakir pauses, leans towards Dilshad and whispers, in mock-seriousness, “Say yes.”

A smiling Dilshad readily says, “YES!”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sounding a new beat

Musician J Mathew held a drum clinic in the city. It was the first of its kind in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Drums are for boys,” says the ten-year-old.

“Who says so?” says his younger sister. “Girls can also play.”

“Let’s go and ask mummy,” says the boy.

This conversation took place during the tea break at the first drum clinic held in Kerala by drummer J. Mathew at The Mercy hotel, Kochi. In the audience were several youngsters, musicians, parents, and middle-aged professionals.

“The aim of the clinic is to explain technical concepts and to show the evolution of the instrument from the 18th century onwards,” says Mathew. “It will be beneficial for students and music lovers.”

In the first half, Mathew spoke about several methods, which included the single and double stroke roll, paradiddles, the flam, and how to play the snare drum, tom toms, hi hat and the double bass.

This session was interesting for aficionados, but the technical terms did go over the head of the uninitiated.

But the audience reaction was positive. S. Sabu, a marketing professional, who has just started learning the drums a month ago, says, “Mathew made it look very easy, but it is very hard to do.”

Nidhi Suresh, 14, a budding musician, says, “I found it informative and entertaining.” Nidhi’s friend, Anamika Haridas, 13, also liked the performance. “Mathew was able to express his ideas very clearly,” she says.

As for Adarsh Sebastian Monippally, 12, who has been playing the drums for a while, he says, simply, “Mathew is extraordinary.”

This extraordinary musician is a slight, boyish-looking person, who, because he plays with so much of energy and focus, gasps for breath after each segment.

“A drummer’s job is to provide a structure for the group,” says Mathew. “Those who play the guitar, the keyboard and the vocals provide the decorative work, above the structure.”

In the second half, Mathew showed the range of his musical knowledge. As the knowledgeable Master of Ceremonies P. Krishnakumar gave a brief snippet about the music, and played it on the computer, Mathew provided the drum accompaniment.

It started with the Soukous from the Congo, then moved to the Bembe from the Cameroon, on to the waltz, the blues, the cajun, jazz, bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz, country music, funk, reggae, jazz fusion, and rock.

“This is not my type of music, but I enjoyed it all the same,” says Mathew Philip, the CEO of the Kerala Travel Mart Society. “His performance was coming from within.”

Yes, indeed, it was a sincere and passionate effort. Frequently, Mathew closed his eyes and was still able to hit the cymbals and drums without missing a beat. “After all I am doing this for a long time,” he says, with a smile.

Mathew became interested in drums when, at the age of ten, he saw a senior student at the Seventh Day Adventist school play the drums. “I was fascinated,” he says. “Because I realised that all the four limbs -- right foot, left foot, right hand and left hand -- are used. When playing your whole body and mind are involved.”

Today, Mathew has his own institute, Jam Percussive Nexus, in Kaloor where he teaches music. He has also set up a drum-recording studio, Mat’s Project Studio, on NH 47.

A full-time musician, he admits it is not easy. “If the aim is to make a lot of money very fast then it is difficult,” he says. “But I am happy because I am satisfied with what I get.”

Mathew is also an author, having written a book on ‘Innovative Drumming Concepts’.

For the last song on the programme -- saxophonist John Coltrane’s classic version of ‘My Favourite Things’ from the film, ‘Sound of Music’ -- Mathew was accompanied by Saji Abraham on the bass guitar and Sammy Karen on the keyboards. It was a rousing finish to an intense two-hour programme, surely the first of many for this talented musician.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Oh Calcutta!

The Calcutta Fraternity Club consists of Keralites who went to Calcutta when they were young and spent several decades there. Post-retirement they have settled down in Kerala and established a club

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The author doing an interview

Xavier Sebastian speaking at the gathering

“In 1958 the employment situation in Kochi was very bad,” says Manjooran Cherian Paulose, 72. Born in Cherai, in the Vypeen islands, Paulose studied at the Sacred Heart College at Kochi. “I was planning to go to either Mumbai or Calcutta (now Kolkata),” he says.

But at that time, an acquaintance, Shenoy, had come for a vacation from CalcuKolkata. “He told me that in Calcutta I could get a job within a fortnight,” says Paulose. The young man arrived in the city on February 1, 1959.

And immediately, Paulose was struck by the grandeur and neatness of the city. “To walk through Chowringhee, which is so congested now, was such a pleasure,” he says. However, his Malayali friends warned him that if he saw a large crowd he should run away.

On the third day he went to the crowded Lyons Range. “Soon, I heard a loud noise,” he says. “I thought there was some trouble and ran away.”

After a while he noticed that nobody else was fleeing with him. So he turned back. When he came near he saw that the people were raising their hands and shouting. “I asked a man, ‘Is there something wrong?’” says Paulose. “He smiled and told me, ‘This is the Kolkata stock exchange.’”

Paulose eventually lived in the City of Joy for 42 years, working for more than three decades in one company: Andrew Yule & Co. Ltd. The father of a boy who works in Zurich and a girl who lives in Philadelphia, he stays in Kochi.

N.P. Joseph, 87, was in the British Indian Army when he was demobilised in 1947. “I had two job offers,” he says. “One was in Mumbai and the other was in Calcutta.” His Bengali friend, Mahendra Das, with whom he had worked with in the Army, sent a telegram, ‘Job arranged. Start immediately’.

Since Joseph’s Army boss, Colonel Bishop was in Calcutta, he decided to go there. Das told him the job opportunities and educational facilities were much better. Joseph ended up doing his M.A. in Calcutta. After doing several small jobs he secured employment with the Eastern Railways and worked there for several decades. He returned in 1990 and stays at Thiruvankulam.

Joseph Sebastian, 82, left for Calcutta in 1947 and stayed there till 1999, the longest among all the Malayalis who left for Kerala during the early decades after India’s Independence.

Paulose, Joseph and Sebastian are members of the Calcutta Fraternity Club which met recently for a sumptuous lunch and bonhomie at the Raja Ravi Varma Club. Greying husbands and wives mingled around, with smiles on their faces, while a few narrated their experiences in the City of Joy. Among them was Xavier Sebastian who spoke about K.J. Cleetus, one of the leading lights of Malayali society in Calcutta a few decades ago.

“When somebody asked Cleetus what is the secret of a successful marriage he said, ‘Always marry a woman older than you’,” says Sebastian. “Incidentally, Cleetus used to always call his older wife, ‘Ammachi.’”

Listening, with a chuckle, was Cleetus’s son Joseph, who is married to a Bengali, Kumkum, and owns a management firm in Fort Kochi. He also runs a weekly Kochi Reading Group (www., a group of keen literature lovers.

And who can forget the sight of ‘Meesha’ Mathew, the driving force of the club, with his handle-bar moustache and jovial nature, singing songs with gusto, but always with a glass of whisky in his hand.

So what is the benefit of this annual meet? Divakaran Mullapally, 73, says he was meeting some people after 25 years. “A few members have been managing directors, general managers and held other senior positions,” he says. “But here they are all just ex-Calcuttans and designations do not matter.”

So do they miss the city they called home for so long? “I miss the people,” says George Mathew. Feeling nostalgic, he went on a visit a couple of years ago to meet up with old friends.

“Kolkata welcomed us with open arms,” says Joseph Sebastian. “When I left it was with tears in my eyes and a bleeding heart.”

The distinctive feature about Calcutta is that there is no distinction between rich and poor, says Xavier Sebastian. “In Delhi your neighbour will ask, ‘What type of car you have?’ or ‘What type of TV?’” he says. “But in Calcutta, whether you are poor, rich or from the middle-class, you can co-exist peacefully. It may be one of the cheapest metros in India.”

So much praise for Calcutta but what about Kerala where they have come to spend their sunset years? “The people are narrow-minded and non-co-operative,” says Paulose. “The leaders in all spheres are undisciplined and lack vision. However, the younger generation is aware of this and hence I am hoping there will be a change for the better in future.”

Joseph Sebastian bemoans the lack of camaraderie between people. “People are only running after money,” he says. “I find that seclusion is the most suitable for a peaceful life.”

Xavier Sebastian, 79, the managing director of the Indo-American Hospital at Vaikom, has been taken aback by the lack of respect that Malayalis show to seniors at the office. “Maybe it has something to do with the influence of Communism,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Forbidden love


By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of years ago, Prem, 34, and Santhi, 32, went for a holiday to Idukki from Kochi. It was the Christmas season and rooms were difficult to get. At 9.30 p.m., they were stopped by the police outside a hotel. “I told them Prem and I were husband and wife,” says Shanti. “But they refused to believe me.”

The two of them were taken to the police station and under intense questioning by the Sub Inspector Santhi finally admitted they were lovers. “I told the SI the police had not caught us in a compromising position or without clothes or in a raid,” she says. “And neither was Prem drunk. I said, ‘You picked us up as we were looking for a room. How can we be found guilty in a court of law?’”

The SI agreed and released them. Thereafter, the couple enjoyed a blissful holiday. “It was so cold we enjoyed the warmth of each other’s bodies,” says Prem.

Prem is married and has two children. He met Santhi when she traveled regularly in a bus in which he was the driver. Their eyes met several times, love bloomed and they went on their first date to Marine Drive.

“We expressed our feelings for each other,” says Santhi. “I told him I was a sex worker and he looked shocked. But he loved me so deeply that he overcame the feelings of jealousy that he felt.”

Prem says, “I wanted to marry Santhi, to prevent her from working, but she did not agree.”

Shanti says that when Prem proposed she dilly-dallied a bit. “He is a good man and I craved genuine male affection,” she says. “And marrying him would have enabled me to get out of my profession.”

But after much reflection she felt it would create far more complications in an already difficult life. Shanti is a mother of three girls, the eldest is 14, while the twins are 12 years old. Her aged parents also live with her.

She realised that if she accepted Prem’s proposal it would destroy two families. “As it is, my husband had abandoned me ten years ago,” she says. “It would have been selfish on my part if I also walked away from my family. Since I know the pain of a break-up, I did not want Prem’s family to go through that.”

Prem has accepted that there will be no marriage, but the couple meets often, and in an unusual manner. An auto-rickshaw driver now, Prem collects Santhi from her house and they go for long drives. Then they end up in a lodge.

“I give him Rs 200 or Rs 300, depending on what is in my purse,” she says. “I am earning well and I love him.”

Prem says, “I know this is a forbidden love. But Santhi is pretty and sweet and the sex is great.”

Shanti giggles when he says that.

(Names have been changed)

Love across the social divide

Neethi is 21. Her parents live in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Two years ago she came to Kochi to do her B.A. degree in St. Teresa’s College. She stayed with her grandmother. Every now and then she would take an autorickshaw to go to college.

More times than not, it was the same driver, Mani, 32. “Initially I did not find him attractive at all,” she says. “But we gradually started talking. I felt lonely because I had no friends.”

A year went past. The conversations continued, but it remained a platonic relationship. “Before I knew it I had fallen in love,” she says. “I know I am being foolish. Mani has no education, and no money. If I marry him it will be a disaster.”

The affair would have remained under wraps except that her affluent parents wanted to marry her off. Neethi had no option but to spill the beans about her affair. “My parents were horrified,” she says. “My mother beat me up a few times.”

At this moment, the stalemate continues. She is unyielding and her parents are frustrated and angry.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Tips and pats on the back

Days after his mixed doubles triumph at the Australian Open, Mahesh Bhupathi landed up at the Regional Sports Centre and interacted with young players and parents

Photo: The author with Mahesh Bhupathi at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

“You go first,” said Nivedita Marya John, 15.

“No, you go,” said Nikita Rose John, 14, pushing her friend.

A few ‘you go firsts’ later they rushed to stand on either side of 11-time Grand Slam tennis champion Mahesh Bhupathi, so that a photograph is taken.

Later Nivedita said, “Oh yes, we were very nervous and excited. But he is a very friendly person.”

Bhupathi was in town last week to spend time with kids who are training at the Mahesh Bhupathi Team Tennis Academy at the Regional Sports Centre. Over 100 boys and girls of varying ages were trading shots with each other under the supervision of head coach Man Singh Thapa and director Shankar Krishnaswamy.

Bhupathi walked around, carefully watching the youngsters and identifying the errors in technique. “When he saw that all my shots were going into the net he told me my swing was too short,” said Nivedita. “He said I needed to have a longer stroke.”

Shankar said that Bhupathi noticed several minor flaws, like improper footwork, the wrong positioning of the elbows and the lack of balance when playing a shot. “But he felt the players were hitting the ball well and that was a good sign,” he said.

An hour later it was time for autographs and all sort of things were proffered to Bhupathi to sign: a tennis ball, books, pieces of paper and a racket cover. He also autographed different parts of the racket: the shaft, hand-grip, butt cap and the beam.

But even this veteran of thousands of autographs was taken aback when a boy proffered a white paper. Bhupathi held it to the sunlight and says, “A Reliance Fresh bill.” He broke into a broad smile, flipped it over and signed with a flourish.

Later, a meeting was organised with the parents and the star to clear any doubts. Parent Dr. Sasikala Venugopal said: “We are very proud of your achievements. We are proud to have you in Kochi. We know our children are in the best hands.”

Bhupathi smiled and remained silent. When another parent says that tennis is a costly game, he said, “I know, I have been playing the game for 30 years.”

Bhupathi talked about the concept of mini tennis. “This is an idea that has been around in Europe and America for the past 15 years,” he said. “The balls are softer, as compared to regular ones, so that it does not bounce very high. As a result, the children can play longer rallies, and the risk of injuries is less.”

Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Andy Roddick played mini tennis before graduating to the junior circuit.

A parent asked whether a ball-feeding machine can be set up. Bhupathi said, “We have ball-feeding people and they are better because they can spot out errors of technique.”

When another parent asked about the right diet, Bhupathi exclaimed, “When I came into the hall I saw vadas on the table. The emphasis should be on fruits and vegetables. There is too much of white rice in the diet. You have to cut down on sweets, aerated drinks and have fried food only once a month.”

When the hall let out a collective groan, Bhupathi smiled and said, “Just remember, if you eat two samosas more than your opponent he will win. It is as simple as that.”

Trophies were distributed by Bhupathi for outstanding achievements in the past one year and the one who received the loudest applause was Rynold Timothy, who is ranked No. 1 in the state.

Following the conclusion of the meeting Bhupathi went straight to the airport, to take a flight to Chennai. Thereafter, he was going to Bangalore and Delhi for business meetings, before he headed to the United Arab Emirates for the Dubai Open.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Oh Maria!

The Mexican-born American author writes spell-binding novels which has an emotional resonance. She was in Kerala recently

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Maria Escandon was seven years old her grandmother said, “You say many lies and that is not good. But I can tell you what you can do. A lie and a story are the same thing. The only difference is that everybody enjoys listening to a story while when you tell a lie you can get a thrashing.”

Maria followed her grandmother’s advice and began writing stories. She grew up in Mexico City but in 1983, as a young woman of 23, Maria moved to the United States with her husband to better her career prospects and settled in Los Angeles.

She decided to become a writer but initially found it difficult to write a novel in a new language.

“Every now and then I had to call my friends and say, ‘How do you say this in English?’” she says. “And I had to check the dictionary often. The good thing is that I learnt a lot of new English words. As a result, my vocabulary improved and my first novel, ‘Esperanza’s Box of Saints’ was much easier to write.”

‘Esperanza’, published by Simon and Schuster in 1999, was her breakthrough novel. It reached the No. 1 spot in the Los Angeles Times Bestsellers’ list and has been translated into 21 languages, including Malayalam.

A review in Library Journal states: ‘The novel, which sends Esperanza north across Mexico to Los Angeles, takes the reader along on a delightful journey into the soul of a humble woman filled with love for her daughter and faith in her saints’.

Was Maria surprised the book did so well? “All of us have the experience of maternal love,” she says. “It is so strong it can move mountains. The novel did well because I wrote about universal emotions.”

Marias next book, ‘Gonzalez & Daughter Trucking Co.’ was something she wrote for her father Julio. “In Mexico, when I was growing up, the boys got all the opportunities and the girls none at all,” she says. “Over the years I tried hard to show my father that I could do the same things as a man. And I could be as successful.”

To Maria’s great disappointment when ‘Esperanza’ came out Julio did not read it. “I decided that my next book would be on a subject he would want to read about,” she says. “Since my father owned a truck, I wrote about the trucker’s life and the relationship between a father and a daughter.”

Maria finished the novel on December 21, 2003. Then she took the manuscript and flew to Mexico city to show it to her dad. However, tragically, on December 24, he died of a heart attack at the age of 71. “So he was unable to read the manuscript,” she says. “But I have dedicated the book to him.”

To earn a living, Maria has also been a writing instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Asked about the qualities needed to become a good writer, she says, “There is a mixing pot in Mexico which is used to make sauce, and grind the chillies. It has three legs. If one leg is missing the pot will fall down.”

Similarly, to be a writer you need three legs: discipline, motivation and talent. “I know of many talented people who could have been fabulous writers but they lacked the motivation or the discipline,” she says. “Or maybe they were not confident they could do it. Or there are people who sit and write every day but sadly whatever they write is not interesting. You need all three things, and, don’t forget, a sprinkling of luck.”

Maria was in Kochi recently to inaugurate the DC International Book Fair. She finds Kerala a magical place. “I love the colours of the clothes, the signs on the streets, the pungent smells and the friendly people,” she says. “The best way to approach the state is through the senses.”

Which is how she writes. A Maria Escandon book is a soaring emotional experience. You feel as if you have seen an edge-of-the-seat movie after reading her novels.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Those turbulent years


Stints in a government company and as collector of Allapuzha were valuable lessons for V.J. Kurian. It enabled him to overcome the formidable odds in setting up the Cochin international airport

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1987, IAS officer V.J. Kurian was appointed as the managing director of the loss-making government concern, Oushadhi -- the Pharmaceutical Corporation of Kerala. The firm produced Ayurvedic medicine and had a workforce of 300. In his first week Kurian noticed that the workers used lignite to heat oil and medicinal plants.

However, during the noon break the workers would put out the fire, go for lunch, return after an hour, and restart it.

“I immediately realised it was such a waste of energy,” he says. Following discussions with the workers, Kurian set up a shift system, which prevented the fire from being put out. “Immediately, the productivity increased by 30 per cent,” he says. “Good management is all about common sense.”

Within a year the company started making a profit and has continued to do well ever since.

His next appointment was as the collector of Allapuzha. Near the Collector’s residence there was a large piece of land, on which lived several illegal occupants.

“I wondered whether we could construct a park for children in this area,” he says. He managed to get the encroachers rehabilitated on another plot and, with private partnership set up the Vijay Beach Park.

“These two stints were turning points in my life,” he says. “When you learn to deal with labour, managers and people, you become practical. And you are able to get off the high horse of being an IAS officer.”

In 1991, Kurian became the collector of Ernakulam. In December that year the chief secretary Padmakumar told him to go to Delhi, on his behalf, to attend a meeting called by the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

During the meeting, presided over by the late Minister Madhav Rao Scindia, it became evident that the sum of Rs 80 crore that was needed to increase the length of the runway of the Navy airport was an unviable proposition.

Scindia said, “Who is representing the government of Kerala?” Kurian identified himself. The minister said, “Let the collector find some land for building a new airport.”

After a few hiccups, Kurian identified the location at Nedumbassery and the airport authority gave its approval. Padmakumar then told Kurian to find a way to raise funds to build the airport.

One day in 1992, Kurian was passing through Allapuzha. “I saw the Vijay Park and suddenly thought to myself, ‘We should use the same concept of public-private partnership on a large scale to build the airport,’” he says.

That was when he got the idea of getting the Non-Resident Keralites to participate. “There are 20 lakh NRKs in various countries,” he says. “If only 4 lakh of them gave Rs 5000 each, that would amount to Rs 200 crore.”

He suggested the idea to then Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, who, though skeptical, said, “Go ahead, you are a young man!”

The Chief Minister’s support was a big boost for Kurian. However, even though he was appointed as a special officer for the airport by the state government, he faced obstacles everywhere. Instead of collecting Rs 200 crore from the NRKs, he only got Rs 5 crore. “My career was at stake,” he says. “At that time, except for the press, who supported me nearly 100 per cent of the time, the landowners, other stakeholders, politicians and the bureaucrats were all against me.”

He gives an example: When the idea emerged to float a co-operative society, Kurian wanted to call it the Cochin International Airport Society (CIAS). But the then Secretary, Transport, insisted it be called Kochi International Airport Society (KIAS).

Later, he told Kurian, “Do you know why I was keen on naming it KIAS? Because the project is doomed to fail. It will be a testimony to your foolishness and stupidity. If you expand KIAS, it is Kurian, IAS.”

The animosity hurt the young officer. At that time he had no money or staff and needed to acquire 1300 acres by shifting 835 families. He was about to throw in the towel, when C.V. Jacob, the managing director of Synthite Industries Ltd., said, “The easiest thing for you to do now is to run away.” Says Kurian: “That had a great impact on me.”

Thereafter, on March 30, 1994, a public limited company, Cochin International Airport Limited, was set up, with Kurian as the managing director and Karunakaran as the chairman.

The next pivotal moment for Kurian came when he was summoned to the Chief Minister’s house at Thiruvananthapuram one day, because the work at the airport was moving at a snail’s pace. “The chief minister shouted at me, ‘You are hopeless! You cannot do anything right.’”

He continued to yell. Kurian was about to walk away when the then Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president, Vayalar Ravi, who was also present, gave a reassuring tap to the shoulder of the bureaucrat and said, “All these setbacks are temporary, Kurian. There will come a time when everybody will praise you to the sky!”

A pacified Kurian stayed on to complete the project in 1999, a mere six years from start to finish, and Ravi’s prophecy came true.

Asked to analyse the psyche of Malayalis, Kurian, who is the chairman of the Spices Board, says, “The attitude of the people is always negative. This is more so when you want to start anything new. That is why it is so difficult to set up projects in Kerala.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Lighting up the city

The Jos Electricals shop on MG Road has completed 60 years. Despite an annual turnover of Rs 50 crore the shop is bracing itself for recession and tough competition

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last year RR Kabel Ltd. held a meeting of dealers at Silvassa in Gujarat. More than 150 businessmen came from all over India, including M.J. Antony, managing partner of Jos Electricals.

“I had bought electric wires and cables worth Rs 3 crore from them,” says Antony. To show their appreciation, the company wanted to present an I-10 Hyundai car to Antony, but because the tax was very steep, he was given a cash gift of Rs 3 lakh.

Apart from this, he was presented with a ‘Standing Up’ award. Kabel director Tribhuvan Kabra said, “Whenever I visited the Jos Electricals shop at Kochi, over the past thirty years, I have never seen Antony sitting down. He is always on his feet dealing with customers. And look at him now: He is still standing!”

The shop, on M.G. Road, near Shenoy’s theatre, has become an institution by itself. Antony’s father, M.G. Joseph, had been a lineman for the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) for four years.

However, sensing a burgeoning market in electrical items he resigned and started a small outlet in Mattancherry in 1947. Thereafter, in 1961, he opened a shop at Ravipuram and, later, moved to the present location.

Last year, this single shop had a turnover of Rs 50 crore. However, the company also had bad debts amounting to Rs 7.5 crore.

Antony admits it was his mistake that he supplied goods to individual buyers and private contractors on credit. Many of them never repaid the dues, despite several reminders.

But, thanks to the suggestion of his son, Vijo, 23, who did his MBA from Dayanand Sagar Business School in Bangalore, Antony now insists on post-dated cheques. As a result, he is recouping his losses.

“When my father was alive, he had two rules for doing business,” says Antony. “Number one: never give credit to individuals. Number two: never take loans to expand the business.”

Antony disobeyed the first rule and has paid the price for it. But he has obeyed the second command, and hence there is only one shop in his name. The other shops, in the same name, and located in different parts of the city have been set up by his four brothers.

On any given day around 500 customers come to the shop. And the items that are bought include cables, switches, wires, bulbs, tube-lights, CFL lights, switchgears, nuts, bolts and fans.

Because of the intense competition profit margins have come down. “Now it is only 2 or 3 per cent for an item,” says Antony. “There was a time several years ago when our business was a monopoly, and on non-standardised goods the profit margin was between 100 and 250 per cent.”

And things have got worse. In the past few months the price of international copper has fallen by 35 per cent. Antony has a large stock which he purchased before the prices fell.

“Now I have to sell them at a loss,” he says. “Once when I stated a higher price to a buyer, in order to make a profit, he told me that in his home town of Kothamangalam the prices were lower. So he expressed his surprise that the rates were so high in Kochi.”

Antony has learnt to deal calmly with all types of customers. “Recently, when a client got angry because of the time taken to get an item, I told him it was stocked on the third floor and hence the delay,” he says. “The man replied, ‘I will go to a shop where the goods are stocked on the ground floor’, and walked out.

Says Vijo: “There are so many electrical shops in the city now. These days it is good to be a customer and bad to be a seller.”

Meanwhile, this seller had further bad luck. At the company’s large open-air godown on Rajaji Road there was a spate of robberies. “The thieves regularly scaled the 15-foot high walls and stole copper cables,” says Antony. “We lost goods worth lakhs of rupees.”

After the police busted the gang, new security measures -- two security guards, a prowling Doberman, powerful sodium vapour and metal halide lights -- have been put in place.

Now, despite the deepening recession Jos Electricals is staying afloat by being the sole supplier to the KSEB. Says Antony: “Because of my father, I have an emotional connection to the Board.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

An Indian fan of American writer John Updike

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the morning of January 28, when I went to the gate of my house at Kochi to collect the milk and the newspapers, my eyes accidentally fell on a news item, ‘John Updike dead,’ and my heart stopped beating. Suddenly I could no longer inhale the cool fresh air or feel the slight chill or hear the chirping of the birds.

A friend had died even though I have never met him. How could Updike pass away like this, in the midst of so much of productivity?

At last count, he had published 61 books, which included novels, short stories, essays, art criticism, poetry, a memoir and a play. And more books were on the way. He had been an enduring presence on the world literary stage. And in my life too.

I began reading Updike when I was in college in Kolkata and never stopped. The great attraction about Updike, apart from his wonderfully descriptive language and philosophical musings, was his frank writings about sex.

Growing up before the sexual revolution hit India it was a secret thrill to read about wife swapping and rampant sex in novels like ‘Couples’. And there was admiration at his productivity.

The British writer Martin Amis wrote: ‘Updike has four studies in his house so we can imagine him writing a poem in one of his studies before breakfast, then in the next study writing a hundred pages of a novel, then in the afternoon he writes a long and brilliant essay for the ‘New Yorker’, and then in the fourth study he blurts out a couple of poems.’

And, amazingly, what he wrote was usually brilliant. Again, here is the late John Cheever, a master writer himself, paying tribute: “Updike is peerless as a writer of his generation; and his gift of communicating — to millions of strangers — his most exalted and desperate emotions was, in his case, fortified by immense and uncommon intelligence, and erudition.”

At the American Centre library in Kolkata, where I was a regular visitor there would always be a row of Updike books. And I knew by rote the first line of the author profile that appeared on the inside back flap in all his books: ‘John Updike was born in 1932 in Shillington, Pennsylvania’.

As soon as a new title came out I would turn to the left-hand page after the copyright notice and count the number of books he had written so far. All the titles were published in a chronological order and the list was so long!

He was one of the ‘rarest of rare’ persons on this planet: a full-time writer who earned his living by his creative work. However, I am sure he would have been disappointed that in all these years of reading him, I put the cash down for only one book: ‘Rabbit is rich.’ The rest I read as a library member.

For a person like me, who has writing dreams, but lacks the imaginative gift, watching Updike’s career produced a peculiar mix of thrill and envy.

I would read up often about him, stare at his photographs – in his later years he became a pleasant, avuncular sort of guy with a mop of silver hair and a long-toothed smile – and listen to video interviews where, apart from being intelligent and erudite, he smiled so sincerely that his eyes crinkled up. I enjoyed looking at his long, artistic fingers with a gold ring on his left hand.

What I also liked about him was his graciousness towards other writers. He described Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ as ‘a Tiger Woodsian debut’ and was a fan of R.K. Narayan.

But in the midst of all this hero-worship, there was a shiver of envy that he had been blessed with such a powerful writing gift. God gives this boon to a few, although many are called. Updike, clearly, was one of the chosen ones.

If there is one enduring regret I have about this double Pulitzer and National Book Award winner, apart from his unexpected death at 76 from lung cancer, it is echoed by writer Thomas McGuane: “I had a spell of indignation as I thought of the non-entities who won the Nobel Prize, while Updike was eligible through being alive. Now he’s disqualified! Terrible.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Monday, February 02, 2009


An appreciation of the movies of Mohanlal and Mammooty leads young people to become members of their fan clubs. The result: they end up promoting the films and doing social service


Mohanlal with a beneficiery of a free wheelchair

Mammmooty fans await the arrival of the star at Thiruvananthapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Nisam Vallakkavadu was getting married in 2003 in Thiruvananthapuram, he told his in-laws that the date would be fixed according to actor Mammooty’s availability. However, he knew the likely date could be September 21, because Mammooty would be in the state capital that day to inaugurate the Soorya festival.

Nevertheless, to make sure, he went to see Mammooty in Pallakad where he was shooting for a Tamil film, ‘Vishwa Tulasi’. “On my wedding card I had introduced myself as Convenor, All Kerala Mammooty Fans Welfare Association,” he says. Initially Mammooty was reluctant.

“Then the marriage will not take place,” said Nisam.

Mammooty said, “If I come what will you give me?”

Nisam smiled and said, “Your favourite ‘puttu’ and mutton curry.”

The superstar kept his word and arrived at Nissam’s house on September 21 at 8 p.m. “He was there for an hour,” says Nisam. “He ate the ‘puttu’ and mutton curry with relish. He met my wife, Sharmila, parents, grandmother and all the relatives. It was the most thrilling moment of my wedding.”

Nisam, 35, has been a Mammooty fan from childhood. “I was enthralled by his personality,” he says. “His voice is unforgettable. He has a muscular body and dresses so well. Cinema, to me, is only Mammooty.”

When he was a teenager he would hang around with other fans at the theatres where the star’s films were being shown. They would see the noon show on the first day and would wait to see whether there was a crowd for the matinee show.

Soon, they became proactive. “We put up banners which read, ‘Welcome to those who are coming to see this film -- the admirers of Mammooty,’” says Nisam, now state general secretary.

Inevitably, the idea arose to start an association. “We only had one desire: to promote the superstar,” says K.J. Kunjumon, Ernakulam district president. “We went to all the 14 districts and set up units.” Advertisements were placed in film magazines to publicise the association.

In 1997, the inaugural meeting was held at Hotel Pankaj at Thiruvananthapuram. There were 100 people present. At the meeting Mammooty said, “You should do social service instead of just putting up posters and banners.”

So, on the star’s birthday on September 7, fans distributed food to the poor. Now, the association holds free eye camps and heart surgeries for the poor. Around 700 people have received eye treatment (cost: Rs 12,000 each) while 38 people underwent surgery (Cost: over Rs 1 lakh per patient). Evidently, Mammooty footed the bills.

Today, there are more than 20,000 members all over the state and the membership fee is Rs 100 per annum. So what are the insights these long-time fans can tell about their hero?

Last year Kunjumon went to see the shooting of ‘Pazhassi Raja’ in Madikeri, Karnataka. “Shooting was from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m.,” he says. It was terribly cold, but Mammooty walked around bare-bodied, because he was playing the Raja. He was impervious to the cold. “We had brought woolen clothes to wear but were reluctant to use it in front of Mammooty,” he says. “However, unlike the star, we were shivering.”

What was a revelation for Kunjumon was the personality changes in Mammooty. “When the make-up for the Raja’s role was put, he became the character,” he says. “The transformation was stunning. There are two Mammootys: there is the character in the film and the human being.”

Nisam says that Mammooty the human being has been frequently portrayed in the media as being snooty and egoistic. “That is not true at all,” he says. “He is a very relaxed person. Definitely, he does get angry when a mistake is made but it lasts a very short time. I admire his knowledge about so many aspects of life, especially his observations on the 26/11 Mumbai carnage. He is a well-read person, despite his busy schedule.”

This well-read person is a colossus in the Malayalam film industry along with another M: Mohanlal.

V.K. Vyshag, 20, is the Ernakulam district secretary of the All Kerala Mohanlal Fans and Cultural Welfare Association. The Mohanlal film he liked the most was ‘Thanmatra’ (2005).

“I was struck by the naturalness of Mohanlal’s acting,” he says. “In the first half he plays a family man with great skill and in the second half he changes completely, becoming a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease,” he says. Vyshag, who has seen more than a hundred films of the actor, joined the association in 2006.

There are 1.5 lakh members all over Kerala. These include lawyers, accountants, IT professionals, teachers, masons and students. “My job is to coordinate with all the 100 units in Ernakulam district,” he says.

When a Mohanlal film is about to be released, a meeting will be held. At least two members from each unit will be present.

“We will inform them about the ticket price, the design on the flex posters and the cost of making them,” he says. Most of the film’s publicity is organised by the association. Posters are put up by fans all over the state. “We also try to create a welcome atmosphere inside the cinema halls,” he says.

So what happens if Mammooty fans make a noise during a screening? “Our members are posted inside to keep an eye on patrons who shout or pass sarcastic remarks,” says Vyshag. “If somebody behaves improperly we immediately inform the security guards who tell them to keep quiet. Most of the time they obey.”

Not many people are aware that the Mohanlal Association was inaugurated by Mammooty in 1998. “Initially, Mohanlal had not been interested in this concept,” says S.L. Vimal Kumar, 34, state general secretary. “When Mammooty heard about the welfare activities he told Mohanlal about it and volunteered to launch it.”

The association regularly conducts free eye and blood donation camps. “We have arranged marriages for poor people,” says Vimal. The association also provided free surgery to repair the cleft lips of 100 people. Each surgery cost Rs 50,000. “Wheelchairs for poor disabled people were distributed by Mohanlal recently,” he says.

Meanwhile, like the Mammooty fans, Vyshag is awestruck by Mohanlal’s talent. “The most surprising thing is how little Mohanlal prepares before a shot is taken,” he says. “He will talk to us right before a scene is shot. But when he faces the camera he changes dramatically and becomes the character he is portraying. It is a magical change.”

For Vimal, who interacts often with Mohanlal, the human being is entrancing. “He is a sweet and down-to-earth person,” he says. “I have never seen him lose his temper.”

Adds Vyshag: “I don’t think I have met a nicer man. He treats everybody gracefully. Even if we make a mistake he does not scold us. Instead, he tries to see the positive aspect.”

Doing their bit

M. Riyas became a Dileep fan after seeing hits like ‘Manathe Kottaram’ and ‘Punjabi House’. A group would always see the first show every time a new film was released.

“Then we came up the idea of starting an association,” he says. “So we established one in 2002, without getting the permission from the star.”

More than a year later they met Dileep when he came to Thiruvananthapuram for some work and told him about the association.

“He said he was fine with the idea but told us we should work in such a way that it creates no problems for anybody, especially other fan associations,” says Riyas, 26, the state committee chairman.

By this time there were several small Dileep fan clubs all over the state. Soon, all of them were called to Kochi and an all-Kerala network was established. “Today, there are 35,000 members,” says Riyas. “Most of them are in the 20-25-year age group.”

Like other fan clubs, the All Kerala Dileep Fans and Welfare Association does a lot of social service. “When a film crosses 25 days, we provide rice to poor people,” says Riyas. “In every district we have provided wheelchairs for disabled people and regularly donate food to orphanages.”

Clubs should be independent, says Gopi

Suresh Gopi has a fan club but it is much more low-key than the other clubs. "I am not in contact with them," he says. "They watch my films and give their opinions." As to whether they are doing social service, like the other clubs, Gopi says, "I don't investigate these things."

Gopi says there is nothing wrong in people setting up fan clubs, but he insists the association should be given a lot of freedom.

"The star should not get involved," he says. When asked about the negative aspects of fan clubs, he says, cryptically, "No comments."

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

The sound of music


A poverty-stricken childhood and an aborted suicide bid had its impact on the career of music composer Mohan Sitara

Photo: Singer Hariharan (left) with Mohan Sitara

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mohan Sitara was in his early twenties he was working as an assistant for a well-known music director. Since he was a gifted musician he showed his skills on the harmonium, the violin, the drums and the bongo. “I knew I was good at what I was doing,” says Sitara.

However, the music director, suffering from insecurity, suddenly told Sitara to leave. “He gave no explanation,” says Sitara. “I knew I had not done any wrong.” Sitara went to his room and started crying. He never worked again with the composer.

During this period, he had gone for a performance in Thrissur and met a glamourous-looking singer, Chitra (name changed). She belonged to an affluent family and was drawn to Sitara because of his talent.

But the composer belonged to a poor family in Thrissur. Nevertheless, they fell deeply in love. However, months later, when the news leaked out, the inevitable happened: the family took Chitra away, and he never saw her again.

What followed were three years of devastation for Sitara. “I became like a mad man,” he says. “I would wander from place to place, in a torn shirt and trousers. I grew my hair and beard and started drinking heavily. Soon I ran out of money.”

One rainy night, after a long drinking session Sitara decided to kill himself. He put poison into a glass of whisky.

At 2 a.m., as he was about to put the glass to his lips, there was a knock on the door of his room at Thiruvananthapuram. He was surprised to have a visitor at that hour. Quickly he slid the glass under the bed, and opened the door.

“It was my elder brother Krishnan who had come all the way from Thrissur,” he says.
He told Sitara the engagement of their younger sister, Ramani, had been fixed and the family needed some money.

“I felt alarmed,” says Sitara. “Here I was trying to kill myself and the family was dependent on me to rescue them.” When his brother left, Mohan threw the whisky into the washbasin.

“I understood that, through Krishnan’s knock, God was saying he wanted me to stay alive,” he says. “It was a life-changing moment for me.” Soon, he borrowed the money for the engagement as well as the marriage of Ramani, and ensured that it went through smoothly.

At this moment, Lady Luck smiled on him. T.K. Rajeev Kumar, who was associated with the Navodaya production company, called him. They were looking for a composer for the film, ‘Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare’. Sitara said, “I don’t know how to put the music to a song. I am only good at orchestration.”

But an undaunted Rajeev provided an empty room along with a harmonium to Sitara and said, “Let’s see what you can come up with.” Sitara spent hours in the room, and through trial and error, he came up with a tune, which later became the superhit, ‘Rari Rariram Raro’.

Later, he reached a creative turning point with the song, ‘Unni Va Va Vo’ from the film, ‘Saandhwanam’. “The director, Siby Malayil, wanted me to compose a nostalgic song about a child’s past,” says Sitara.

To get the inspiration, Sitara went into his own past. “Because of extreme poverty, for months on end we had nothing to eat except kappa (tapioca) and black tea,” he says. When he went to school he did not carry any food. “When the other children opened their tiffin boxes the aroma would reach my nose and tears would roll down my face,” he says.

Sitara would rush to the well in the school compound and keep drinking water to satiate his hunger. “I remember that at night I would lie on my mother’s lap, on an empty stomach, and she would sing lullabies to me,” he says. “I used those emotions to compose the song, which became a big hit.”

Through all these years he suffered from an intense loneliness and one day, in 1986, he decided to get married. “But I felt that unlike my previous experience I would marry a girl from a poor family,” he says.

On the day he went to visit the girl’s family at Vadakancherry in Thrissur, it was raining heavily and water was seeping down the walls of the house. “When I saw that I decided I would marry the girl,” he says.

It was a pivotal moment for him. “Because from the time I got married to Baby, my luck turned for the better and the assignments began coming regularly and it has never stopped,” he says, with a smile. Sitara has had hits in many films which include ‘Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum’, ‘Nammal’, ‘Kootu’, ‘Swapnakoodu’, ‘Kazcha’ and ‘Thanmathra’.

Asked to explain his philosophy of life, he says, “I believe deeply in God. I sit at the harmonium and ask God to give me the tune. Then I wait and He plays the music through me. That’s how the songs are composed.”

For those who might be skeptical about this, this is what director Shekhar Kapoor says of composer A.R. Rahman: “He does not believe that music resides in him. Instead, Rahman says, he sources it from a field of consciousness that exists eternally.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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