Sunday, March 29, 2009

On the margins and nowhere to go


Photo: (From left) Shanta, and Manju with her two children

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 a.m., near a busy traffic junction at Kochi, a family sits on the sidewalk, as buses and cars speed past. Father Vasu is sipping a cup of tea. His wife, Shanta, is chewing a betel leaf. Their daughter Manju, 20, is playing with her two children, Shiv, 3, and Mani, six months old.

“We have been living on the streets for years,” says Shanta, 58. “A bus ran over my husband’s foot and he cannot walk now. As a result, he lost his job selling medicines.”

The family depends on Manju, who takes the children along, as she asks for alms from drivers and passengers as they wait at the traffic signal.

“I get one or two rupees all the time,” says Manju. She starts begging at 8 a.m. and does so till 4 p.m. “I earn between Rs 100 and Rs 150 a day,” she says. “People feel pity when they see the children.”

The family is originally from Rajahmundhry in Andhra Pradesh. “We are the second generation,” says Shanta. “We have no link with our relatives there.”

None of them have been inside a school. And Shanta laughs when she is asked about whether she will vote in next month’s Lok Sabha elections. “We stay on the road, Sir,” she says. “No political party is interested in us. We don’t have any voter ID cards.”

Does she know anything about politics? “I heave heard of Gowriamma (veteran Kerala politician), Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi,” she says.

What about Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan?

“Once I saw him while he was traveling in a car,” says Shanta. “I have heard of the Congress and the CPI (M). I don’t feel bad that we don’t have voting rights. Survival is more important.”

Survival is also more important for plumber Bhaskar, 40. He is waiting, with other workers, at the bus stand near Kaloor waiting for contractors to hire them on daily wages.

“I have been working in Kochi for the past three years,” he says. “I am from Berhampur in Orissa. There are no jobs there.”

Bhaskar has four children, two boys and two girls, ranging in age from three to fifteen. “I earn between Rs 300 and Rs 350 a day but nowadays, I am idle for two to three days a week, because of the slowdown.”

Does he feel sad that he will be unable to vote next month? “Definitely,” he says. “I would like to vote, but feeding my family is paramount.”

So who would Bhaskar vote for, if he had the chance? “I can’t tell you that,” he says, with a smile. “That is the secret of every voter.”

Has he been approached by the local parties to cast some bogus votes? “No, not yet,” he says. “But I will be ready to do so, because that will enable me to earn some money.”

But Murugamma already has an experience of bogus voting. A worker from southern Tamil Nadu, she is waiting to catch a bus.

“Parties used to give Rs 100, apart from train and bus fares,” she says. Interestingly, she says, their votes are sought after, more for local body and Assembly elections rather than parliamentary ones.

“Representatives of different parties would come to our colony and canvass for votes,” she says. “If we agree, they will arrange for a tempo to pick us up from the station or the bus terminus.”

But Murugamma says that this time she will ask for more. “We are earning Rs 250 a day, so why should we be satisfied with the Rs 100 the parties give all the time.”

Gautam Ghosh, 34, is shocked at the idea of bogus votes. “I am an honest man,” says this worker from Bongaon in West Bengal. He is working in an underground car park of a building that is going to be a supermarket. Back home, there is a widowed mother and younger brother who are dependent on him.

“There are no jobs in West Bengal,” he says. “That is why I have come to Kerala. I live on the site and earn Rs 175 a day.”

Does he feel bad that he will not be able to cast a vote? “Yes, it the only right the common man has,” he says. “And it is also the only time the politicians are at our mercy. But our family is going through financial difficulties, so earning money is more important.”

Gautam, who failed his pre-degree exams, says, “But there is no doubt that we people are fools, for voting for these politicians who don’t care a damn about us.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Books are the centre of attention

The Kochi Reading Group meets every six weeks to discuss a work of fiction or poetry

Photo: (From left): Amita Palat, Joseph Cleetus, Talitha Mathew, Shipra Cleetus, Thomas Chacko and Paul George

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last Friday evening, a group of people gathered at one corner of the DC Bookshop on Chittoor Road. They are members of the Kochi Reading Group which comprises retired management professionals, teachers, journalists, authors, businessmen and lawyers.

For this particular reading, the group has selected the late American author, John Updike’s Pulitzer-winning novel, ‘Rabbit Is Rich’.

Joseph Cleetus, the convener of the group, got the book by downloading it from “I donated $10,” he says. Then the book was distributed to all the members by e-mail.

Some, like Amita Palat, took a printout, which cost Rs 200, and has brought along a spiral-bound version. Others have read it on the computer screen.

Before a member starts reading, photocopies are distributed to the others. The reading comprises short extracts and following it, each reader gives a perspective of the writer’s achievements or drawbacks in that particular passage.

Shipra Cleetus, of Bengali origin, spoke of how she first read John Updike’s juicy tale of wife-swapping, ‘Couples’, while staying in a hostel in Calcutta. “We were excited and put off by Updike at the same time,” she says.

In the next three decades, during which she lived many years in the United States, she stayed away from Updike, till this reading. “But I am glad I have read him,” she says. “Apart from a beautiful style, he is keenly aware of what is happening in American society.”

She reads out a line: ‘America disgraced and barren, mourning her hostages’. She explains: “This is in reference to the Iranian hostage crisis. (In 1979, 52 U.S. diplomats were held captive in the American embassy at Tehran by a group of Iranian students.)

She reads another line: ‘They are descending over Maryland and Delaware, where wild horses run and the Du Ponts are king’. “I have been to Maryland and it is, indeed, a place where wild horses run,” she says. “In Delaware, the Du Ponts have had their chemical industries for years. Updike is a quintessentially American writer.”

Talitha Mathew has brought along hand-written notes of quotes given by Updike in various interviews, which she reads out. She admires Updike, but feels that the main character, an ordinary, middle-rung American, Harry Angstrom, sometimes talks in a philosophical manner.

“It is inconsistent with a character who does not read much, and is not a reflective person,” she says. “I feel that in these sections Updike is injecting his personal views.”

There is an animated discussion of whether this is true. And, as expected, the women are appalled by the way Updike describes, in such minute detail, the anatomy of women and the sex act.

“Is it necessary?” says Amitha. “It is so crude.”

The male members say, “Men think like this. So what’s wrong in writing about it?” Clearly, there is a male-female divide on this.

The others who read extracts include Joseph, Thomas Chacko, and Paul ‘Bobby’ George.

The Kochi reading group was started by Bobby on December 17, 2005 at his now-defunct ‘Just Fiction’ bookstore in Thevara. “The idea was to get together people who were interested in reading,” he says. “It is difficult to talk about a book with everybody. You need like-minded people.”

So what are the benefits for these like-minded people in attending a session? “Earlier, when people would ask me why I liked a particular book, I was unable to formulate my reasons,” says author Thomas Chacko. “But after coming here, I have understood several facets of a book. I also have an idea of what is right or wrong with it.”

Says Joseph: “The discussions are often the most engrossing part of the meeting since unforeseen ideas and issues come up. We are able to appreciate a novelist or poet more intimately.”

Since Joseph has a PDF file of ‘Rabbit is Rich’, he is able to come up with some interesting statistics, which gives an indication of Updike’s obsessions. “Death occurs 21 times, love 156 times, and life 133 times,” he says. “Sex occurs 45 times, while the nether body parts total 155 occurrences.”

When discussions begin to lag a bit, because of the summer heat, cups of coffee are provided by a waiter from the Mr. Bean shop in the book store. Spirits rejuvenated, the members go at Updike with heightened vigour and enthusiasm.

(To know more about the group, go to

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

In the spirit of things

General Elections: 2009


By Shevlin Sebastian

In August, 2008, there was a hartal in Ernakulam. The Castlerock bar, near the South bridge, in Kochi was half-closed. At noon, bartender Roy Mathew stood with a few waiters at the first floor window and watched a political party take out a procession.

“Suddenly, two men detached themselves from the crowd, came to the bar, and demanded two bottles of brandy,” says Roy. “My colleague packed it and asked for the payment.”

One party worker said, “You have the audacity to ask for money. Today is a bandh and you have kept the bar open!” The bartender insisted on the cash. The worker took out his mobile and summoned other party members.

“Soon, there were 15 people inside the bar creating a ruckus,” says Roy. The manager had to be called, and the inevitable happened in the face of such hooliganism: the workers were allowed to take the bottles away without paying for it. “That’s politics for you in Kerala,” says Roy, with a sardonic grin.

It’s 4 p.m. on a Tuesday and there are about ten men present in the bar. You can barely make them out in the semi-darkness. A TV mounted on the wall is blaring Malayalam film songs. Roy looks relaxed, since the evening rush has yet to start.

The majority of the clientele, he says, is in the 35 - 50 year age bracket, and nearly all of them are professionals or businessmen or workers.

“The clients don’t talk much about politics, but when they do, the general consensus is that the LDF will be wiped out in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections,” he says.

Roy remembers a group of office-goers condemning the CPI(M). “They said the party is paying scant attention to its constituents like the RSP and the CPI,” says Roy. “Instead, they are courting the PDP and other hardline outfits.”

This catering to the Muslim vote bank and the haggling over the Ponnani seat between the CPI(M) and CPI will have repercussions, the men said.

Amongst the customers are members of all the major political parties. “The CPI(M) workers know their party is going to fare poorly,” says Roy. “But they are unable to voice their anger at party meetings because they will be immediately hauled up in front of a disciplinary committee. Everybody knows what has happened to Abdulakutty.” (The Kannur MP was expelled from the party for praising the economic policies of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi).

The Congress workers are happy, says Roy, to see the infighting between the constituents of the LDF. On the other hand, the BJP office-bearers keep a low profile.

As for Roy’s views, he says, “The politicians in power are reaping the benefits, while the rest of us suffer in silence. There are so many funds which can be used for the benefit of the people, but that rarely happens.”

He says the politicians help those who belong to their party, enrich themselves and a few friends, and that is it. “I have voted for these people for years together, but, really, what have we got in return? Nothing!”

But that will not deter Roy from voting next month. “I want to exercise my right as an Indian citizen,” he says.

Suddenly, a young man, with bloodshot eyes, comes up to Roy, hugs him, and says, “I like you a lot.” Then he staggers away to the exit.

So what is his advice to voters? “Look at the different politicians and see who can do the most good for the constituency. Don’t vote for the party, but for the most meritorious individual.”

After this optimistic assertion, Roy, trained by his job to be hospitable, says, “Sir, would you like to have a peg?”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Showing some Mercy


Displaying immense talent in her school days, former athlete Mercy Kuttan had to overcome many setbacks, before she could make her mark

By Shevlin Sebastian

“By the time I reached Class 10 at the Thaliparamba Seethi Sahib school at Kannur, I had already come first in the 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m and the long jump at the district level,” says Mercy Kuttan. Soon, she was selected to represent Kerala in the national school championships.

At that time, Mercy was staying 15 kms from the school. “I had to walk 12 kms and then take a bus,” she says. “It was quite tiring.” To allow her to spend more time in training, an accommodative school management allowed her to stay free at the boarding.

At the championships held at Thiruvananthapuram in 1978, Mercy broke the long jump record. “It stayed in my name for 19 years,” she says. This was the first time the school had a national record holder in their rolls.

“I was given a big welcome by the teachers and the students when I returned to school,” she says. “It was a turning point for me because I realised I could be a successful athlete.”

Mercy then joined the sports hostel at Palakkad and came under the tutelage of coach A.K. Kutty. “There were ten students, among whom was M.D. Valsamma, (later an Asian Games gold medalist).

In 1980, Mercy was asked to participate in the selection camp for the Indian team for the Moscow Olympics.

At the camp, she met Murali Kuttan, a 400m runner. Says Murali: “It was love at first sight for me.” After a while Murali expressed his feelings, but Mercy rejected it outright. “At that time I was focused on my career and had no thoughts of romance,” she says. But Murali persisted, and played a few mind games.

He avoided taking meals in the canteen at the same time as Mercy. Murali’s fellow athletes, like Udaya Prabhu, told Mercy her suitor had stopped eating because he was depressed. Slowly, Mercy fell in love and they became a couple.

This development angered the chief coach J.S. Saini. “He said I should concentrate on my career, instead of thinking of marriage,” she says. Mercy was only 18, while Murali was 26, and his career was coming to an end.

By not listening to her coach, Mercy had to pay a high price: she was not selected to represent India at the Olympics, even though she was the best in the long jump in India. “I would have got an automatic selection,” she says. “I was very upset.”

To mollify her, Mercy was allowed to go to Moscow as a member of a government-sponsored youth delegation. “I watched the events as a spectator,” she says. “It was a painful experience.”

But an undeterred Mercy began training hard once again and there were good results straightaway. “I got a bronze in the long jump in the Asian Track and Field championships at Tokyo,” she says. “My confidence grew double-fold.” After the championships, Mercy and Murali tied the knot on August 17, 1981.

In 1981, she began training with Murali at the Tate Steel athletics facilities in Jamshedpur, where they were employed.

At the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi, Mercy was aiming for the gold medal. She did a jump of 6.48m. The stadium erupted in applause. A track official held up the white flag, signifying a clean jump. However, a few moments later, the chief judge, Bhatt, raised the red flag.

“I don’t blame Bhatt,” says Mercy. “He was doing his job. I did cross the line, but it was difficult to see the mark with the naked eye.” Later, the Chinese girl, Liao Wenfen won, with a leap of 6.41m, while Mercy, with 6.26m, took the silver.

In 1983, Mercy took part in the inaugural World Athletics championships at Helsinki, but failed to make a mark.

By the time 1984 rolled in, Mercy realised the Olympic qualifying mark for the long jump was difficult to achieve. So, she and Murali decided to start a family.

Two years after her delivery on April 4, 1985, the thought arose in Mercy that she should try to fulfill her dream of taking part in an Olympic Games. “When I expressed my desire to Murali, he was very supportive,” she says. Both of them felt Mercy stood a better chance if she shifted to the 400m.

“We would take the baby in a pram for the training sessions,” says Mercy. “It was a difficult adjustment, to shift from one event to another so late in one’s career. I had to work very hard.”

But within ten months, she won her first 400m event at the Kanpur nationals, when she defeated a start-studded group of runners, which included Ashwini Nachappa, Shiny Wilson, Vandana Shanbhag and Vandana Rao. She won 400m competitions regularly and was able to achieve her life’s dream: she was selected for the Indian team for the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul.

“It was at Seoul that I realised, with a sense of shock, the gulf in standards between us and world class athletes,” she says. Mercy Kuttan reached the second round of the 400m, before she was eliminated.

“But I am an Olympian,” says Mercy, who won the Arjuna Award in 1989. “Wherever I go, people always refer to me as Olympian Mercy Kuttan. Coming from a small village in Kannur, I consider this as a huge achievement.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Gazing at the mighty sun

Sooryaji Jowell says physical and mental benefits can be gained by looking at the rays of the early morning sun

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1999, Sooryaji Jowell went to the Guru Dattatraya mountain peak in Girnar in Gujarat to meditate. There he met a tall, broad-shouldered black sadhu who was covered in ash. “He stood in front of me and said, ‘Follow me’,” says Sooryaji.

The young spiritual seeker meekly followed the sadhu to his underground cave. “It was full of light inside,” he says. The sadhu told Sooryaji about the state of the world and concluded, “The sun will guide you.” Then he gave a dry fruit to Sooryaji to eat. When he did so, something happened. “A force entered me,” he says.

Thereafter, Sooryaji went to Tapovan in the Himalayas and meditated in a cave for 18 days non-stop. “It was extremely cold,” he says. “Every morning I had to break a sheet of ice at the entrance to go out.”

One day, an intense desire arose in him to see the spiritual masters. Tears rolled down his face as he began an intensive meditation.

“Then I saw two beautiful faces, with long hair,” he says. “There was no doubt that I had seen Jesus Christ and Mahavatar Baba (the founder of Kriya Yoga). It was such a wonderful experience.”

From the Himalayas Sooryaji went to Mumbai and started the Sooryayog Foundation in 2003 and the Kochi branch on LFC Road in 2005. And now there are centres all over India.

“If you eat and drink sunlight through the eyes, which are the windows of your spirit, all your problems will vanish,” he says. “Plants absorb light through photosynthesis. Similarly, man can do the same with the help of Sooryayog.”

To the sceptic, he says there is a scientific basis to what he is saying. He shows two books, ‘Light, Medicine of the future: How we can use it to heal ourselves now’ by Jacob Liberman, and ‘Sunlight and Health in the 21st century’ by Richard Hobday.

“Sunlight is the basic component from which all life originates, develops, heals, and evolves,” says Liberman. “It has been used for healing since the time of ancient Egypt.” Incidentally, the famous Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti, was a sun worshipper.

In a review of Hobday’s book in Amazon, J. Hagg writes: “Sunlight can heal diseases like breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and osteoporosis. Before antibiotics, sunlight was used successfully to speed up the healing of wounds.”

Every day, Sooryaji and a group of people go to the Jawaharlal Nehru International stadium at Kaloor at 6.30 a.m., before the sunrise at 6.45 a.m. A silver coin is placed at the centre of the forehead.

“This will attract the cosmic consciousness,” says Sooryaji. “It will also activate the third eye.” Members are asked to look at the sun for five minutes. “After that, they have to close their eyes, bow down to earth, clap their hands vigorously for several moments and laugh,” he says. “Your depression will vanish when you laugh.”

The foundation members wax eloquent about him. Says Anita Madan: “He knows how to bring an awareness of the self. He is a friend in times of bliss and woe.” Adds Sajini Jacob: “Sooryaji has the answers for everything. I feel a peace when I am with him.”

To all of them Sooryaji says, “Chant the name of HARI OM, acknowledge the short life he has given you. He wants you to HURRY HOME, to your real father, the eternal master.”

Sooryaji admits there are other methods to purify oneself but Sooryayog is the most powerful. “That is why, Sri Ram, Krishna, Hanuman, Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Raman Maharishi and Mahatma Gandhi all looked at the sun.”

This son of Kerala was born in Thulasipara, Idukki, the eldest child of a farmer. From an early age, he had a spiritual bent. “I would have visions of planets and galaxies,” he says. “Sometimes I drew them on paper, but I was afraid to tell anybody because I felt nobody would understand.”

It was only when he finished his B.A. in philosophy from S.N. College in Kollam that he felt this intense inner urge to seek God and set off on his travels.

Today, at 37, he is lean and tall, smiles easily and speaks with deep emotion about Sooryayog. He says that most people are unhappy.

“That is why I am giving them light,” he says. “You have to get rid of the bad karma in your life. Discipline yourselves and purify your mind. Let Universal love flow into you.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It all happens on a Wednesday!

Every week a group of professionals meet to develop their public speaking skills, amidst much bonhomie

Photo: Nirmala Lilly

By Shevlin Sebastian

Industrialist Shyam Sunder Agarwal could not even utter his name, so terrified was he of speaking in public. That was seven years ago. But last week, at the ‘Wednesday club’ meeting at the Bharat Hotel, he spoke loudly and confidently about the impact of recession on his business.

Paul Vithayathil, of Vithayathil Opticals, also had the same problem. “I was afraid to stand up on a stage and face a crowd,” he says. “I gained confidence only after becoming a member of this club.”

The Wednesday Club, as the name suggests, meets on that day every week. “Some of us thought we were lacking in communication skills and felt we should start a club where we can meet and talk,’” says Kurian Abraham, the president.

The founder members searched hard for a name to give to the club. “Then somebody suggested that since we are meeting on Wednesday, why not call it that?” says vice-president T.B. Venugopal.

The meeting was fixed for mid-week because it was felt that people were busy at work at the beginning of the week, while on the weekends, there were numerous social engagements.

For members, there is an initial deposit of Rs 1500 and a monthly fee of Rs 200. Says Kurian: “We have doctors, lawyers, businessmen, journalists, engineers, traders, and one lady member.”

She is Nirmala Lilly who works in the tourism industry. “I was hesitant when I first came, but the members encouraged and supported me,” she says. She studied in a Malayalam medium school and suffered the embarrassment of being laughed at when she mispronounced English words.

“Today I speak in public often and have no problems,” she says.

Last Wednesday, the meeting began, following a presidential address and welcome speech, with a grilling session. One member, C.M. Daniel, stood at the podium and the others asked him numerous questions.

Daniel had to keep his calm and answered the queries as best as he could. Later, he says, “Thanks to these sessions I have learnt to think fast on my feet. When I face difficult business situations, I am able to communicate well and make the right decisions.”

Thereafter, there was a discussion on the dastardly terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team at Lahore. Usually, one of the members has to give a speech for 10 minutes on a particular topic.

“He has to prepare beforehand,” says P. Pushparaj. “Members will evaluate his talk, study the facial expressions and body language and give a feedback.” But last week, instead of a speech, the members decided to have a debate.

The topic was the several yatras taken out by the various political parties across the state. This gave a chance for the members to take potshots at one of the most reviled members of Indian society: corrupt politicians.

“In the rallies, nobody spoke a word about development or the recession,” says Paul. “It seems to me that politics is recession-free. The politicians are making pots of money, while more and more people have been hired as party workers for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.”

Says Daniel: “It was a gimmick.”

Sometimes, when discussions can get depressing, there is a humour session. “We learn how to crack a joke in public, and make everybody smile,” says Kurian.

Indeed, at the end of two hours, there was a palpable bonhomie between the members. “If I am ever in trouble, all my friends are just a phone call away,” says Nirmala. Says Agarwal: “There is a lot of affection between us.”

Kurien says that, thanks to the Wednesday Club, Agarwal has become so positive-minded that on his daily morning walks in Panampilly Nagar he is well known as the man who smiles at everybody.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Gift for music


One song, ‘Lajjavathiye’, dramatically changed the course of music composer and singer, Jassie Gift’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When my grandfather, N.A. Isaac used to listen to songs on the radio he would drum on the table with his fingers,” says Jassie Gift, music composer and singer. “I found it exciting to watch him do this.”

Jassie grew up in Thiruvananthapuram and learnt music from Isaac, who was a trained Carnatic musician. “He would write and compose songs,” he says.

However, when Jassie was in Class 8 at St. Thomas school a few boys from Kuwait joined the institution. “Because of them I started listening to Western music,” he says. “I liked Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, and Bob Marley.”

When Jassie went to college he learnt classical western music on the piano. Thanks to his uncle, Edwin Isaac, he joined a band, ‘Moby Dick’ as a keyboard player and began playing regularly in different hotels like Ashoka and Southpark.

In 1997, there was a New Year Eve programme and the guest singer fell sick. “Since my colleagues had heard me sing under my breath a number of times, they told me to become the vocalist,” he says. And the first song he sang in public was Eric Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’.

And suddenly, he sings the song again, accompanied by finger drumming on a table, at a recording studio in Kochi:

‘It’s late in the evening; she’s wondering what clothes to wear.
She puts on her make-up and brushes her long blonde hair.
And then she asks me, “Do I look all right?”
And I say, “Yes, you look wonderful tonight!”’

“It’s a beautiful song, and I felt thrilled when the audience clapped,” says Jassie. “It was a turning point in my life.”

Later, there was a show at University College. “When I sang, my classmates were stunned because they never knew I was a vocalist,” he says. In the audience was Sabu, who was hosting ‘Tharikida’, a humorous current affairs programme on Surya TV.

“Sabu told me I should bring out a music album,” says Jassie. The singer paid heed to the advice and brought an album, ‘Soona Soona’. The video was soon aired on Surya TV. Meanwhile, the video director, Tanu Balak, was listening to the song, along with Mahesh Raj, the younger brother of noted director Jayaraj.

At that time, Jayaraj was making a Hindi film, ‘Bheebhatsa’, starring Atul Kulkarni and Seema Biswas. “Jayaraj Sir was looking for a composer and Mahesh told him about me,” says Jassie. The director saw the video and gave Jassie the assignment. Later, Jassie composed the music for ‘Safalam’, which was directed by Ashokan, an associate of Jayaraj.

In 2004, when Jayaraj decided to make 4 The People, he asked Jassie to compose the music.

“Jassie has a universal and a deeply appealing voice,” says Jayaraj. “He is the first composer in Kerala to mix reggae and rap. Nowadays, new generation- musicians like Jassie are able to take influences from all over the world and put it into their music.”

Jassie composed the music for four songs – which later became ‘Annakkili’, ‘Lajjavathiye Ninte’, ‘Lokaasamastha’ and ‘Balle Balle’, and made Jayaraj listen to them.

“The greatest quality of Jayaraj Sir is that he is able to judge which song will be a hit,” says Jassie. Lyricist Kaithapram Thirumeni sat down to give the words. “When he wrote the word ‘Lajjavathiye’ I expressed my doubts about whether this would work,” he says. “But Jayaraj Sir and Kaithapram told me not to worry.”

It was then decided that Tamil singer Karthik would sing the song. Jassie went to Chennai to meet him but the latter had to rush off for a concert in Malaysia.

Meanwhile, the time for shooting was drawing near, so, as a cover, Jassie sang the songs. “When the shooting of ‘Lajjavathiye’ took place everybody in the unit liked Jassi’s voice,” says Jayaraj. “It was then that I decided we would retain his voice.”

The rest, of course, is music history.

‘Lajjavathiye’ took the state by storm and became one of the greatest hits of recent times. Jassie’s career exploded in its wake. He began to give four to five stage shows a day and went for numerous concerts in the Middle East. Soon, he sang the same song for Tamil and Telugu films and it became a hit there also.

Jassie is quite clear about the reasons behind its success, “I have a distinctive voice,” he says. “There is a good beat and melody. And what appealed to the youngsters was the mix of English and Malayalam words. This song was the a turning point of my life.”

Today, Jassie has sung several songs for Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films. He has just sung for Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy for the Tamil film, ‘Yaavarum Nilam’, and is also composing music for several films.

Asked to explain his understanding of life, the singer, who is preparing to present a doctoral thesis in Indian philosophy at Kannur University, says, “You cannot do anything without the help of God. Our lives are pre-destined. I could never imagine when I was in school that I would earn my living as a singer and music composer. And, don’t forget, the element of luck that always plays a major role in every life.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Straight from the heart

US based poet Pramila Venkateswaran writes on subjects that affect people’s lives: breast cancer, war, mother-daughter relationships and same sex desires

By Shevlin Sebastian

Poet Pramila Venkateswaran’s sister-in-law, Shyamala, died of breast cancer when she was only 48. Pramila was so upset she began writing a poem about it in 2002, but was never satisfied with it. It was only in 2007 that she finished ‘Cartographer of the Breast’. But the impact was immediate.

“The first time I read the poem in front of a large audience in New York, women came up to me and cried,” she says. “They said, ‘This is our experience. How were you able to put it in a poem? Did you have breast cancer yourself?’”

Pramila was in Kochi to give a reading at the OED Gallery from her two books of poetry, ‘Thirtha’ (2002) and ‘Behind Dark Waters’ (2008).

The US-based poet is amazed that a 5 p.m. start actually meant 6 p.m. “Indian Stretchable Time,” says a visitor, as she nods and smiles.

Her poems are simple, sincere and heart-felt. Here is an extract from ‘Uncle’s Letter to Father, 1980:

Your girl going abroad alone,
I can understand if your boy
wants to head out,
but you are sending her to study in U.S.
as if there’s no schools here.

You could never control
your wife, and now look what’s
happened to your daughter.

The genesis of this poem was the opposition within her family when she wanted to go to the US to do her doctorate in English literature at George Washington University.

“This was in the 1980s,” she says. “There was a conservative streak in the country. It was okay if the men went, but my uncle felt that it was not right for an unmarried woman like me to go.”

Pramila, the daughter of a banker, spent her childhood in Mumbai, Mattancherry, Kolkata and Chennai. “In Chennai, at the Holy Angels’ school I had an influential English teacher Girija Karthikeyan,” she says. “She made us write daily.”

Karthikeyan introduced Pramila to the British poets of the 19th century, like John Keats, William Wordsworth and Percy Blysse Shelley. “I got so energised that I started writing poems,” she says. Incidentally, her doctorate is on the same poets.

But her turning point came when noted poet Saleem Peeradina set up a creative writing programme, ‘The Open Classroom’, at Sophia College, Mumbai. Pramila began writing poems in real earnest.

“Poetry is about paying attention to images,” she says. “It comes easily and often to me. I don’t have any trouble coming up with metaphors, similes, or alliterations.”

Most of her poems have been published in the leading poetry journals in the US, like the Paterson Literary Review, Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Atlanta Review, and Calyx: Journal of Art and Literature by Women. She has also been published in several anthologies and in 1999 Pramila was a finalist for the prestigious Allen Ginsburg Poetry award.

Despite the accolades, she admits that the market for poetry is small. “Big commercial publishers, like HarperCollins and Random House, are not interested in poetry,” she says. “They feel it will not sell in large numbers.”

Suddenly, she taps the small number of copies of ‘Dark Waters’ lying on the table and says, “But at poetry festivals, I am able to sell my books. Sales or no sales, I love poetry too much not to keep writing.”

Pramila keeps writing because, language, she feels, has the ability to transform an ordinary event into the extraordinary. “There is a shift in consciousness when you read a powerful poem,” she says.

In her daily life Pramila is a professor of English and women’s studies at Nassau Community College, New York. And she is frank enough to admit that there is an inherent racism in American life. “There is an invisible glass ceiling in the university I work in,” she says. “You have to work harder than the whites.”

But there are positive aspects. “It was only in the US that I have been able to push my talent to the limits,” she says. “And I have flowered as a woman because there is so much of freedom.”

Meanwhile, Pramila is hard at work on her next book. “It is about my paternal grandmother, Sitala,” she says. “I went to Allapuzha and interviewed several relatives to get a picture of her life. It should be an interesting book.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Any Time Help

Call 1298 and avail of the only private advanced life support ambulance service in the state

By Shevlin Sebastian

Omana J. Prakash, 45, was being treated at Mary Queen’s hospital, Kanjirapally. She had a stroke and epileptic fits. After a few tests, the doctors felt that she should be shifted immediately to the Caritas Hospital in Kottayam. The hospital authorities called 1298 and the organisation, Ambulance Access for All, sent an advance life support ambulance.

However, at Kodungoor, the woman suffered a fit, followed by a bradycardia (slow heart rate).

“Prince Zachariah, the emergency medical technician, immediately gave CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation),” says Nijil Ibrahim, project head, Kerala, for Ambulance Access For All. The woman survived.

However, near Manargad, she had a second attack of bradycardia. Again Prince quickly provided CPR.

“It saved her life,” says Nijil. “The doctors at Caritas Hospital were very appreciative.” Later, Omana’s brother, Ajay Ghosh, wrote a letter of gratitude. “Thanks to Ambulance Access, my sister is alive today,” he says.

1298 is the only private advanced life support ambulance service provider in the state. Apart from five ambulances in Kochi, they have 28 ambulances all over the state, and tie-ups with over 150 ambulance providers.

“There are two kinds of ambulances,” says Joemon Thomas, Zonal Manager. One is the advance life support ambulance where the patient, who is in an emergency situation, is provided medical assistance.

This Rs 18.5 lakh air-conditioned van has an oxygen cylinder, a ventilator, a defibrillator a pulse oxymeter, a suction machine, a rolling stretcher and a foldable wheelchair.

Manning it is a three-member crew which includes the driver, an emergency medical technician and a male nurse.

For routine transfers, it is the smaller Omni, which is a basic life support ambulance. This contains a first aid kit and an oxygen cylinder.

In Kochi, the company charges Rs 1500 for a transfer to premium hospitals like Lakeshore and Ernakulam Medical Centre and Rs 750 for medium range hospitals. “We offer the service free for those who want to be taken to government hospitals,” says Nijil.

So what happens when you call 1298?

“Our call centre is based in Mumbai, since we had initially started our service there,” says Joemon. “Thanks to the Global Positioning System, the address will show up on a map of Kerala. And we try to locate the nearest ambulance within two minutes.”

At the same time, the call centre worker asks about the situation of the patient. A software programme, ProQua, provides solutions for different emergencies.

“Suppose a patient has stopped breathing, then the software will suggest what to do,” says Joemon. “These suggestions are passed on to the caller, so that life-saving actions can be taken before the ambulance arrives.”

Within fifteen minutes, the ambulance will arrive at the house.

However, like calls all over the world, only 20 per cent are emergency cases: heart attacks, burns, accidents, trauma and labour pains. The rest are routine transfers.

“That means, a patient has been discharged from the hospital and is being taken home,” says Nijil. “Or a patient is being moved from a smaller to a bigger hospital.”

Ambulance Access receives a lot of calls but is unable to attend to every one. “Last month, we had to cancel 125 calls,” says Nijil. In February, the company received 600calls statewide. In Kochi, alone, they get more than 100 a month.

The company was set up by five young professionals, who met while studying in the United States -- Shaffi Mather, Ravi Krishnan, Manish Sacheti, Naresh Jain and Shwetha Mangal. During a holiday in Jaipur, one of their friends had an accident and they could not get an ambulance. Subsequently, the friend died.

“We decided to start an ambulance service,” says Ravi Krishnan. “The majority of ambulances in India are for dead body transfer. It is not clean. The service is of poor quality and the staff is not trained in handling emergencies.”

Also, Ravi says, most private services provided free services and hence they folded up when they ran out of money. “We wanted to set up a model from which we could earn money to meet our expenses,” he says.

In order to weather the initial financial obstacles, the group obtained a $1.5 million grant from the New York-based Acumen Fund. Also, advertisements were allowed on the vehicles to generate income.

“This year, TATA AIG has sponsored all the ambulances,” says Joemon. The group is going strong and steadily establishing its reputation.

So the next time you are in a medical emergency, call 1298 and help will be on its way immediately.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, March 09, 2009

Lovely Leh

A Kochi-based family is enthralled by Ladakh, with its breathtaking vistas. But you have to get used to the low levels of oxygen

Photo: Panggong Lake

By Shevlin Sebastian

Reeni Tharakan, 48, and her relatives left at 6 a.m. for Panggong Lake, which is 134 kms from Leh. An hour later they stopped at a hotel but there was nothing to eat. As they traveled further along they began to experience hunger pangs. Suddenly, they saw a nomadic settlement.

The Kochi-based Reeni, in her broken Hindi, told a woman, standing in front of a tent, “Kissiko khane ko milega (Is there anybody to eat?)”. The lady, who knew Hindi and had a sense of humour, pointed at her husband. Reeni’s niece, Neethi, had to quickly step in and ask, in correct Hindi, for food.

“We had a thuppa -- a thick soup, with noodles and spinach,” says Neethi. “It was very tasty and quite filling.” Reeni’s nephew Siddharth opted for yak cheese.

The nomads lived in conical tents. Inside, there were signs of modernity: a stove and an Indane gas cylinder. “The blankets are made of yak wool and spread on the floor,” says Neethi. “That gives off a lot of warmth.”

The main occupation of these nomads is to sell cheese and butter in the market at Leh. “Most of them have weather-beaten faces, with pronounced wrinkles,” says Reeni. But they were tourist-savvy. When photographs were taken, the family expected to be paid. “So we gave Rs 100 for the pleasure of taking snaps,” says Siddharth.

At Panggong lake, the group was taken aback by the color of the water. “It is an unbelievable turquoise blue,” says Neethi. “I was awestruck.” One-fourth of the lake is in India while the rest is in Tibet. But there is no demarcation.

One day a shepherd spotted the periscope of a Chinese submarine from the top of a hill. He immediately informed the Army officers. “This caused a huge alarm and India beefed up its security,” says Reeni. “Apparently, the Chinese were tracking the defence systems in the neighbouring hills.”

There is an unusual aspect to the lake: the complete absence of marine life. “There is too much lime in the water for the fish to survive,” says Siddharth.

On the way back, the group revelled in the beauty of Ladakh. “The scenery is breathtaking,” says Neethi. “The high mountain ranges, the clear streams, the blue skies and the tankas, (the Buddhist prayer flags), flying in the breeze.”

Earlier, when they had arrived in Leh by air, they had been told to take it easy on the first day because of the lower levels of oxygen.

“Even when you are resting you are not supposed to talk loudly or make any sharp movements,” says Reeni. “Initially, we did not suffer from breathlessness. It comes on you very gradually. The first sign is a splitting headache.”

But a carefree Mansi, Neethi’s friend, went window-shopping in the local market and the next day when they went to the Hemis Monastery she ran up the steps. On the way back she vomited and collapsed.

She was rushed to the hospital where, because of these regular occurrences, there is a separate ward for tourists.

“In Leh people carry oxygen in small cans,” says Neethi. “It is like a soft drink. Everywhere you go people ask, ‘Do you want oxygen?’ And everywhere there is a meter where you can check your levels and find out whether you need to inhale the stuff or not.”

At the Hemis Monastery, which is the largest in Ladakh, they were taken aback by the unique construction.

“Just above the windows, where we would normally use beams, they have twigs piled one on top of the other, to a height of eight inches,” says Reeni. The walls are made of mud and so there is a cold effect inside. “When you are in the shade anywhere in Leh you feel chilled to the bone,” she says. “You just want to rush out into the sunlight.”

On another day they went to the Khardungla Pass, which is at an altitude of 18,380 ft. The temperature was minus five degrees. Two hours from Leh (11,430 feet), it has the highest motorable road in the world.

“There is a large military outpost there,” says Siddharth. “It is through the pass that essential supplies are taken to the soldiers based in the Siachen Glacier.”

The Army has a gifts store and has, predictably, called it the highest souvenir store in the world.

The group found it difficult to adjust to even lower levels of oxygen at Khardungla. “You have to concentrate very hard when you walk,” says Neethi. “First you put one leg forward and pause. Then you take the next step. It was at Khardungla that we understood how difficult it must have been for Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay to climb Mount Everest.”

Perhaps the one disappointment for the group was the Leh palace. Built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century, it was abandoned in the 19th century.

“Inside, there was loose mud,” says Neethi. “It looked like cow dung. It is not even painted. There is nothing inside it to be called a palace.”

The royal palace did not bring a smile to their faces but the numerous road signs, put up by the Army’s Border Roads Organisation did: ‘If you are married, divorce speed’; ‘Darling I like you but not so fast’, ‘This is highway, not runway’, and ‘Lower your gear, curve is near.’

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A mania for music


Playing drums at the age of four and getting admission into the RLV College of Music were the turning points in music composer Alex Paul’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Alex Paul’s ancestral home at Pullepady, apart from outsiders, his numerous uncles and aunts played some kind of a music instrument. Rehearsals for ganamelas would take place regularly in a large hall.

One day the person who played the triple drums was absent. “Just for fun, my father, A.M. Paul, placed me in front of the triple drums,” says Alex. “Then he asked me to play.”

Even though he was only four years old, Alex played well. Because of this performance, he was invited to play with the group on stage.

“It turned out to be my arengattam, and one of the biggest moments of my life,” he says. “The audience was thrilled that such a small boy could play so well.”

When he was seven years old a group of boys came to him and said the parish priest of the nearby church had given them the permission to set up a choir.

“We told the priest that you know how to play the harmonium,” said Donald, one of the boys. Alex nodded, although he had never played the instrument before.

“The harmonium was kept in a locked box and the key was always with my uncle, A.M. Jose,” says Alex. “Sometimes, he would put it on top of the almirah.”

Anyway, with the help of Donald, Alex managed to locate the key and opened the case. “I placed the harmonium on a bench and started playing,” he says. “I was like a starving boy who had suddenly been given plenty of food.

But soon, Jose heard the sounds and knew it was coming from his harmonium.

“When my uncle appeared, Donald fled, but I did not notice his presence,” says Alex.

Jose stared at the boy silently. “He realised I had a knack and love for music,” says Alex. After five minutes, he reached out and held Alex’s hand. The boy suddenly got scared and began crying. But Jose said, “Sit down,” and taught him the Sa Re Gama Pa scales.

“This was a turning point,” says Alex. “He started teaching me regularly and I realised that even if I spent my life immersed in music I would not be able to learn everything.”

When Alex joined the pre-degree course at St Albert’s College, he realised he did not enjoy studies. So, he decided to join the RLV College of Music at Tripunithara.

One week before the interview he started learning the Mohana Geetam in Carnatic music on the violin. “This is basic stuff,” he says.

When Alex arrived for the interview he saw that there were 250 aspirants. “Some of them knew kirtans and other complicated stuff,” he says. “I knew that if I only played the geetam I stood no chance. But it was too late to learn anything new.”

Alex entered the interview hall and started playing. “I was struggling and the judges started talking among themselves having decided that I was no good,” he says. “But suddenly, I began playing like a mad man. I played music which had not been heard before.”

The hall became silent. The judges and the students stared at Alex. “After I finished, like in slow motion, I walked out of the room,” he says. “I could feel the teachers staring at me, while a group of boys followed me and said, ‘Where did you learn to play the violin like that? It was great! What is your name?’”

Thereafter, Alex secured admission and got himself immersed in Carnatic music.

In 2003, when he had established his reputation by providing music for TV serials and advertising jingles, film directors Rafi and MeCartin asked Alex to compose the music for ‘Chathikkatha Chanthu’. “The first song I composed was ‘Hossain,’” he says. “They liked it very much.”

Apart from the songs from ‘Chathikkatha Chanthu’, which became superhits, Alex has had numerous successes in films like ‘Classmates’, ‘Chocolate’, ‘Vaasthavam’, ‘Lollipop’ and ‘Hello’. In the past five years he has composed the music for 20 films and 90 per cent of the songs were superhits.

When Alex hears the music in his head he begins to think of the best singer for this particular song. He gives an example: Once he had gone with his family to spend some time at his brother, director Lal’s estate in Thodupuzha.

“I was having a bath in the river and thinking, ‘For the song, Ente Kalbile in Classmates, I need a different voice,’” he says. “As I was wiping my head with the towel, I realised the best person would be Vineeth Srinivasan, who had not yet made a mark.”

At that moment there was a telephone call from Dubai. It was from Lal Jose, the director of ‘Classmates’, who said, “Alex, I think Vineeth should sing ‘Ente Kalbile’.” Alex said, “You are not going to believe this, but I thought about him at this very moment.”

It seemed to be a right choice, because ‘Ente Kalbile’ became a huge hit.

“The main reason for the hits is that I have received the songs from God,” he says. “Man does not have any creative ability. It is God who is using us. We must have a clean mind and be without ego to receive this gift from God.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Stumbling, but smiling

The inmates of the Bethsaida home for the physically disabled acquire degrees and other skills and look forward to be gainfully employed

By Shevlin Sebastian

There is a look of sadness on Annie Gracy’s face as she remembers her friend Sheeba Kurian. “She had blood cancer, but it was diagnosed very late,” she says. Sheeba died in 2004 when she was only 21.

“I could not imagine she could die so quickly,” says Annie. “She was a cheerful and friendly person. This was the first death in our group.”

The group includes T.R. Ramitha, 20, Shyla Joseph, 37, Johnsy John, 19, and Mary Azhaku Rani, 17, all of whom are staying at Bethsaida, a home for physically disabled girls at Thevara, run by the Sisters of the Destitute.

Says Mother Superior Sr. Roslin, “There are 23 inmates and they range in age from five to 35 years.” All of them come from financially strapped families: the fathers are labourers, barbers, fishermen, workers in private firms, and a few are unemployed alcoholics.

“Some families are so poverty-stricken that we have to pay for the bus fares so that the parents can come to meet their children,” says Sr. Roslin.

Annie Gracy, 33, has been living at Bethsaida for the past 17 years. “I got polio when I was two years old,” she says. “I can only move around with the help of calipers.”

She has completed her B.A. and is now looking for a job. She has done part-time computer work and has learnt an unusual skill: making umbrellas. “Till some time ago, I regularly got orders from a particular shop,” she says. She makes the umbrellas in April and May.

As for Ramitha, she had been bed-ridden for years. Then an operation was done and she was able to straighten her legs. There was good news also for Angela also, who had a big lump on her back. “She felt very bad about it,” says Sr. Roslin.

So Bethsaida launched a successful collection drive, and Angela was operated on at Amrita Hospital. “Now the hump has been removed, and a steel rod has been put in her back,” says Sr. Roslin. “She is normal now.”

Krishnammal, 14, who is of Tamil origin, also had a large hump on her back. And for years she suffered from the taunts of classmates and pedestrians when she walked on the streets.

“Now, thanks to an operation by Dr. A. A. John, the senior orthopaedic surgeon at Cochin Hospital, she has been cured,” says Sr. Roslin.

Dr. John, who does these operations free of cost, says he tries to restore the movements of limbs affected by polio, cerebral palsy and congenital birth defects. “Sometimes, one leg is shorter than the other and we try to lengthen it,” he says.

Unfortunately, Dr. John cannot do anything for Johnsy’s birth defect: In place of her left hand, her elbow has a rounded edge.

This B.Com final year student at Sacred Heart, Thevara, says, “When I was a child, classmates would tease me a lot and I would get upset. But in college the students and teachers are kind and sympathetic.”

Like the others, Johnsy has got used to staying at Bethsaida. “In my own house, I feel lonely,” she says. “At Bethsaida, there are others like me and there is a lot of love and understanding between us.”

The home has relaxed rules. Parents can take their children home on weekends for family functions, but have to bring them back before classes start on Monday. During the summer vacation, and at Christmas and Onam, the girls go back home for several weeks. “We want to ensure they maintain contact with their families,” says Sr Roslin.

As the nun talks in the parlor, in walks Sangeeta Antony, 24, with a bright smile on her face. She is on her way to the nearby BSNL office where she has a job in the computer section.

“I did my BA in Economics,” she says. Sangeeta was afflicted by polio when she was a child, but has now been fitted with an artificial leg. Most of the younger girls are studying at the St. Thomas high school in Perumanur.

Many of the inmates epitomise the saying by internationally acclaimed poet and disabled person Robert M. Hensel: “We, the ones who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen, not as a disability, but as a person who is, and will continue to bloom. To be seen, not as a handicap, but as an intact human being.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, March 02, 2009

A feast for the eyes

Mohiniyattam exponent, Pallavi Krishnan, is always trying to push the boundaries of the art. Not many people know she is a Bengali

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1995, Pallavi Krishnan had gone to Delhi to part in a Mohiniyattam performance with her guru Bharati Shivaji and other dancers. Five years later she again went to Delhi, but this time for a solo recital.

Following the conclusion of the programme, she had a visitor in the green room. "Pallavi, I saw you five years ago in a group performance," the man said. "That day I knew you were going to become a good dancer. And today I am here to give you a gift, because what I prophesied has come true."

Pallavi took the gift and thanked the man. "After he left I felt so happy that I cried," she says. "That day I realised I had something within me that people could remember my performance even five years later. So, that gave me a lot of courage and confidence."

She later came to know that her visitor was the great sculptor and Padma Shri awardee, Ram V. Sutar and the gift was a statue of Ganapati.

Her elation is still so intense that she rushes into a room of her well furnished home at Thrissur and brings out the Ganapati. It is in red, with the legs and trunk flying about, as if in gay abandon. She holds it up and says, "Isn't it beautiful?" Her eyes are pools of joy.

It has been a long and eventful journey for Pallavi Krishnan. A Bengali, she grew up in Durgapur, and thanks to an irresistible inner urge, she started dancing when she was a child. At that time there was not much scope in the industrial town.

Nevertheless, because of her father's large collection of 'Rabindra Sangeet' records, and her aunt Mala’s ceaseless encouragement, she would listen to songs and dance on her own.

"There were no classical dances shown on television in those days," she says. She remembers that in her childhood she only saw two dance recitals: one was by Yamini Krishnamurthy (Bharatanatyam) and the other by Birju Maharaj (Kathak).

However, after her graduation in biology from Burdwan University, she decided she would go to the Vishwa-Bharati University at Shantiniketan to learn Kathakali. It was here that she met her guru, Kalamandan Sankaranarayanan.

On weekends, Sankaranarayanan taught her Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. "He told me I had the grace and the talent to be a good Mohiniyattam dancer," she says.

By this time Pallavi’s desire had crystallised: she wanted to be a classical dancer and move to Chennai or Kerala. "I knew I had to get out of West Bengal because there were so few opportunities," she says.

During this period she saw a television serial, 'Noopur' with Hema Malini as the heroine. "I was so inspired," she says. "I imagined that, one day, like Hema Malini's character, I would live in a guru's house, wash his feet, cook his food and dance all the time."

When she told Sankaranarayanan she wanted to move to the South, he promptly invited her to come to Kerala to learn Mohiniyattam. Pallavi accepted.

In 1992, Sankaranarayanan took her to Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur district, and told the authorities, "This girl has come all the way from Bengal to learn Mohiniyattam."

In the test that followed, Pallavi so impressed the then principal, Kalamandalam Sathyabhama, that she was admitted in the third year of the four-year course. (Incidentally, she was the first Bengali to join Kalamandalam).

And her first day at the institution was unforgettable. It was Vijaya Dashami day and there was a dance programme. Pallavi sat in the audience.

She saw a man moving around with a camera. "I thought, 'He is so fair, he must be a North Indian,'" she says. "I was attracted to him at first sight."

The man was K.K. Gopalakrishnan, an art critic who works in the State Bank of India. Soon, they met and fell in love. They tied the knot two years later. And it is a marriage that has brought bliss to both of them.

As Pallavi says, "He wanted someone who loved art and I wanted somebody who could encourage and inspire me in my career."

And Gopalakrishnan gave Pallavi a valuable piece of advice. "He said teaching Mohiniyattam should not be my sole aim," says Pallavi. "I must become a performer. Because, for an artiste, public performances had a limited time span. He said I could do the teaching later.'"

But it was not easy for Pallavi to adjust to life in Kerala. "I did not know the language," she says. "It was a conservative place."

She had come from Shantiniketan which had a liberal ethos and women enjoyed a lot of freedom. But her hunger to learn was so great that she curbed her desires and even learned to write and speak Malayalam.

She speaks a reasonably fluent Malayalam, although there is a singsong tone to it. Very occasionally, a Bengali word slips in amongst the profusion of Malayalam sentences. Roots, after all, cannot be erased permanently.

Today, Pallavi is one of the leading dancers of Mohiniyattam in the country. And she is well known for her creative compositions. "I believe in traditional styles and themes, but at the same time I would like to do some cutting-edge work," she says.

She says the reason she decided to innovate was because she observed that most people preferred to watch Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi because it had colourful costumes and a faster rhythm.

"I decided I had to do something which is easily understood by the mass of people and yet, at the same time, is classical," she says. In the Lasya Academy, which she has set up, Pallavi creates a lot of innovative choreography with her students.

The Delhi-based Mohiniyattam legend, Bharati Shivaji, who attended Pallavi's performance in the capital recently, says, "She has matured as an artiste and her creative instincts are very good."

C.P. Unnikrishnan, a researcher on Kerala's art forms, feels that Pallavi has been able to blend the 'nrtta' and the 'abhinaya' aspects very well.

"She gets inputs from experts in literature and eurhythmics and incorporates them wisely in her productions," he says. "She also has the ability to present themes without distorting the essentials of Mohiniyattam."

Her career has now taken flight and she does numerous performances in India and abroad. Asked to compare Western audiences with Indian ones, she says, "In the West people have to buy tickets to see the event. Hence, they are serious-minded and want to enjoy the programme. Nobody will leave during a recital. If they enjoy the dance they will give a standing ovation."

On the other hand, audiences in India watch the shows free. As a result, the attitude is lackadaisical. "Even when you are dancing well, people will walk out," she says. "It is so insulting."

Pallavi says there should be a rule that people can leave only when an item concludes or during the interval. "People in India don't value dance so much because they are seeing it every day," she says.

But this indifference has not deterred Pallavi. Asked about her future plans, she breaks out into a beatific smile, and says, "I want to dance well and for as long as I can. Only when people shout, 'Hey, you have become an old woman!" will I stop dancing."

Sojourn in Dhaka

Last year, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations along with the Indian High Commission in Dhaka, Bangladesh started a six-week programme, spread over three years, to popularise Indian classical dance forms.

For Mohiniyattom, Pallavi Krishnan was chosen to conduct workshops and give a few performances.

There were 50 students in the beginning and they ranged in age from 15 to 25. "Initially they were skeptical because they had never heard of Mohiniyattom," says Pallavi. "But they changed their mind after attending a couple of classes. Now they are besotted."

Of course, Pallavi readily admits that her fluency in Bengali helped. "I was able to communicate very effectively," she says. She told them stories they had never heard before: from the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha.

When she returned they sent plaintive e-mails asking her to return. Wrote Laxma Sidiqa: "We miss your classes so much." Samiun Zahan said: "Didi, I am practicing very hard, but we miss you so much. Please come soon.'

Pallavi has paid heed to the call. On February 17, she has gone for another six weeks to Dhaka. And like in India, she has already spotted some talented students. "But they need to work hard," she says.

Pallavi has family roots in Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal), so in one way going to Dhaka is like going home.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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