Monday, September 28, 2009

Straight from the heart

Narayanan Namboodiri, living in rural Kerala, draws on everyday life with simplicity and sincerity

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last year, painter Narayanan Namboodiri read a book, ‘Athu Jeevitham’ by Malayali author Ben Yamin. It is a story of a young man, Najeeb, who goes from Kerala to a Middle East country and is forced to work as a slave in a farm where goats are being looked after.

When the Arab beats him, Najeeb begs for mercy but the former is unmoved. Once when Najeeb was having his bath, he got a kick in the back from the Arab who told him the water was not to be used for his personal needs.

Narayanan was so moved that he did a few sketches, in abstract style, on the scenes from the book. This was later published in the Sunday supplement of Deshabhimani newspaper which carried a review of the book.

“For me, art is instinctual,” he says. “It is a language that communicates easily to people. I don’t want to speak to people through my mouth, but with my brush and paints.”

Narayanan has been a painter for the past 20 years. And he has used all sorts of medium: sand, charcoal, acrylic, pencil and oil.

Although his favourite medium is oil, he has problems with it. “In the rainy season fungus forms on the canvas,” he says. “One reason is that the quality of the materials is not good. I tried a lot of methods to prevent the fungus, but it did not work.”

Customers used to call up and complain that the paintings they had bought had been ruined. So Narayanan uses acrylic these days but it does not give as much satisfaction as working in oils.

Art lover M. Kamruddin who has been following Narayanan’s work for many years, says his strong point is a photographic realism. “Narayanan is also good at drawing figures and, unfortunately, that skill is declining these days,” he says.

Kamruddin says Narayanan does not belong to any particular school. “He is producing original work,” he says.

Art promoter M. Asif Ali feels that Narayanan’s strong point is his simplicity. “He draws about events from everyday life, and as a result it has a wide appeal,” he says. “I have sold quite a few of his paintings.”

Narayanan says that, apart from nature and drawings on childhood, which has been inspired by his job as a school teacher, sometimes, he embeds a social message in his work.

For example, he has done a painting where a group of people are standing next to each other, in varying skin tones and holding flags of different colours. “What I am trying to say is that people still look at each other through the prism of caste or colour,” he says. “This sense of discrimination exists within every person.”

He has done a painting of Mahatma Gandhi, talking to a young man with his wife Kasturba lurking in the background, while at the side there is an image of Indians and British policemen fighting against each other.

“I always felt that the focus was on Gandhiji when we talk about the freedom movement, even though Kasturba has also played a very important role, both in her husband’s life and in the freedom struggle,” he says.

There is an elegantly simple watercolour of a few cows and a bullock cart: a typical village scene. “The beauty of the village is fading as more and more villages are becoming towns,” he says.

Narayanan, a soft-spoken person, lives in Mundur, 10 kilometres from Thrissur, with his wife, two teenage daughters and widowed mother. It is an idyllic landscape of trees, thick grass and fields. From his small studio on the first floor of a sprawling bungalow you can see wide swathes of greenery.

He gets up at 4 a.m., goes to the nearby temple for prayers and then works for two hours. Then he sets out for the Vannery High School in Perumpadappa, a 90 minute journey by bus to do his job as an art teacher.

“It has been difficult for me to make ends meet,” he says. Narayanan has not been able to sell much of the 2000 paintings he has done in the past 20 years. But recently he had a bit of good news. A Greek collector, Phainie Xydis Karneadou dropped in to his house and bought several paintings. “She liked the realism,” he says.

Indeed, realism is Narayanan’s forte. And he knows that most people prefer it to abstract art. “That is why the most popular painter in Kerala in the past 50 years has been Raja Ravi Varma,” he says. And even though the going is tough he smiles while reclining on an armchair in the verandah on a placid summer morning and says, “Painting is a passion for me and I am enjoying every minute of it.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Songs in praise of God

Christian devotional music composer Peter Cheranelloor has brought out numerous hits in the past two decades. His songs are loved by Malayali Christians all over the world, apart from Hindus and Muslims

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day a man rang up Christian devotional music composer Peter Cheranelloor and said that thanks to a song, ‘Onnu Vilachaal’, he stopped himself from committing suicide.

The man overheard the song which was being played at a neighbour’s house. “I began crying when he told me this,” says Peter. “I realised that I was an instrument of God who saved a soul from being destroyed.”

Peter brought out his first cassette, ‘Ashwasa Vajanagal’ in 1991. It did reasonably well, in terms of sales. But Peter’s biggest and most enduring hit was ‘Israelin Nathan’, which was sung by K.G. Markose and written by Baby John Kalayanthani.

Brought out by Grihalakshmi music company in 1999, it has sold lakhs of copies all over the world. But Peter had signed away his rights for a one-time payment. “I do not feel bad about this, because I did not want to make money out of it,” he says.

Incidentally, Baby wrote the lyrics in ten minutes, in a burst of inspiration. And Peter also took the same amount of time to compose the music. “We are sure we were just instruments of God’s creativity,” he says.

Thereafter, a string of hits came out, including ‘Immanuel’, ‘Daivathe Marunnu kunju’ and ‘Akasham Maarum’.

Today, most of these songs are sung during mass in the Catholic church. “Whenever I hear any of my songs being played in church I just look upwards and thank God,” he says. Apart from composing, Peter performs on stage and in churches and weddings all over Kerala.

So what are the themes of the songs? “People are always sinning to get ahead in this world,” says Baby. “We ask them to focus on God. If you gain the whole world and lose your soul, then it is of no use.”

The songs have been sung by the who’s who of Malayalam singing talent. From Yesudas to S. Janaki, M.G. Sreekumar, Unni Menon, Jayachandran, K.G. Markose, Sreenivasan, Biju Narayanan, Madhu Balakrishnan, Benoy Chacko and Kester.

Over the past decade, Peter has brought out 500 songs, in 40 albums, with several songs being hits. Asked to identify the ingredients of a hit song, Peter says, “You need good music and lyrics, the singer should put in a sterling performance, and the orchestra should be the best.”

Apart from this, there should be a well-planned marketing and publicity campaign. “If any one of these points is lacking, the song will not be a hit,” he says.

Lyricist Peter K. Joseph says that Peter’s music is very different from the traditional church sound. “It is fast-paced, stylish and modern,” he says. “Hence it is very attractive to the younger generation. He is also good at melody.”

One of the most gratifying experiences for the composer is how non-Christians have called him up often and complimented him on his music. “Hindus and Muslims enjoy my songs a lot,” says Peter. “This proves that music is universal.”

The man who produces universal music stumbled into the profession accidentally. When he was in his late teens, Peter wanted to join the Army. His father had been an Army man. But he failed. The reason: he had a punctured eardrum. He tried twice more and the result was the same. Peter felt depressed. So he decided to attend a retreat at the Divine Retreat Centre at Muringoor in 1990.

It was there that he realised that his future did not lie with the Army. “I decided to place my destiny at the hands of God,” he says.

During the course of the retreat Peter felt an inner urge to be a singer. He met the director Fr. George Panackal, and told him he wanted to sing at the centre. Fr. Panackal took him to the lead singer, Antony Fernandes who told him he should go to Potta Ashram because there were no singers there.

Thus Peter started singing at Potta. He did this for two years. “I used to sing songs in praise of Jesus Christ and God,” he says. After a while a desire arose in him to become a composer. The astonishing part was that Peter had no formal training in music.

“I would pray to God and suddenly a tune would spring up in my mind,” he says. Then he would contact lyricists who would provide the words. “If God decides that a person like me who has no talent will be endowed with it, then it will happen,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Going off track

There are several drawbacks to the Kochi Metro Rail project. A look at some of them

By Shevlin Sebastian

“There will be 578 pillars from Aluva to Petta for the 25 km-long Metro Rail project,” says concerned citizen Paul Vithayathil. Each pillar will have a width of 8 feet.

According to the Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC), the workers will need an area of 26 feet to work around each pillar. Unfortunately, the roads of Kochi are not that broad. The maximum width is 45 feet. On MG Road, it is only 30 feet.

A senior Kochi-based DMRC official, T.R. Bakshi (name changed) says, “For safety and to provide space for the hydraulic rotary rig, we will occupy a total of 18 feet, and not 26 feet on either side of the pillar,” he says. “When the work is taken up on MG Road heavy vehicles will use Chittoor Road and the Pullepady level crossing. Light vehicles will continue to use MG Road.”

Vithayathil says it will be difficult for cars to move on MG Road. “The excavated mud will be dumped on the sides and the roads will become even narrower,” says Paul.
“Once work begins, only auto-rickshaws and two-wheelers will be able to ply.”

So, is the Metro Rail Project good for Kochi?

According to the DPR, each ticket will be four to fives times higher than the bus fares. “Who will be able to afford that?” says businessman Soney Mathew. “Surely, it is not the common man. They will continue to avail of cheaper alternatives like buses.”

Bakshi seems to confirm Soney’s assertion when he says that in Delhi it is the middle class which is using the metro. “The same will be the case in Kochi," he says. "The money that has been invested has to be earned back.”

Huge expenses will be incurred for relocating 28 major water lines, and 200 electrical cables, both above and underground.

Bakshi says that on an inspector tour in August, with KESB engineers, from Aluva to Petta, it was observed that nine 66 KVA towers as well as 5 of 110 KVA will have to be modified.

There are thousands of pipes under MG Road and nobody knows which pipe goes where. On DH Road, there are two huge pipes, the size of rooms that leads to the Cochin Refinery. “How will these be relocated?” says lawyer V.P.K. Panicker.

Says Bakshi: “That is the responsibility of the state government.”

The metro pillars will be constructed by the side of the North bridge. “That finishes the little hope we have of widening the bridge,” says Panicker.

Several schools, temples, churches and mosques will have to be removed, apart from the cancellation of the proposed Kalamassery waste disposal plant.

An electricity-starved state has to provide 17 MVA (Mega Volt-Ampere) for running the trains and an additional 300 KW (Kilo Watts) for the stations.

“The state will have to buy thermal and atomic power,” says bookshop owner K.A. Viswanathan Nair. “This cost will have to be borne by the people.”

The financial burden of acquiring 40 acres to set up the project is going to be immense. In 2005 the project estimate was Rs 2239 crore. Today, Bakshi says, the cost is estimated at Rs 4427 crore, provided the work is completed on March 31, 2014. But local analysts say it will eventually reach Rs 10,000 crore.

Around six lakh people are expected to use the metro by 2025. This figure is based on the assumption that there will be suburban development around Kochi. But at this moment growth is taking place in Kakkanad, Vypeen and Fort Kochi. The people in these areas will have no urgent need to use the Metro Rail since they will be self-sufficient in terms of markets and other facilities.

Incidentally, since the inception of the Delhi Metro Rail in 2002, only 21 per cent of the projected travelers have availed of it, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General report of 2007-8.

“This has happened despite the presence of a huge population,” says businessman P.S. Nizar. “The Delhi Metro is still running in the red.”

There is every possibility that the Kochi Metro Rail will also be in the red for many years. And it is obvious that the physical devastation the city has to go through, apart from the financial costs, is too steep a price for the people to pay.

Alternative solutions to the Metro Rail

a) The completion of the road over-bridge at Pullepady and one near the KSRTC bus terminus connecting Mullassery Canal Road and Salim Rajan Road.

b) The proposed flyover at Edapally.

c) A flyover from Palarivattom junction at the National Highway 47 bypass to the High Court junction. This will have a length of 4.5 km

d) The proposed flyover at Vytilla

e) The road from Tripunithara to Vytilla has to be widened.

f) Kochi is flanked by the sea on the west. Three national waterways pass through the Greater Kochi area. By using speed boats, yachts, and ferries more people can be encouraged to use the waterways, reducing the traffic congestion on land.

g) Develop suburban trains: “If you look at the metro map, it runs parallel nearly throughout with the existing railway tracks,” says businessman Soney Mathew. “It is only from Kalamassery to the Ernakulam Town station that there is some distance from the railway tracks. So, a suburban network can be easily developed.”

The estimated cost of these projects is only Rs 400 crore.

“So why spend so much on a metro rail project and cause so much of disruption when cheaper alternatives are available?” says Soney.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, September 18, 2009

The news at your doorstep

Every morning, youngsters all over Kochi race through streets and bylanes delivering newspapers. But it is during the monsoon that they go through a trying time

Photos: A.R. Rajesh delivering the New Indian Express newspaper

Newspaper agent Dhanesh Rao (extreme left) with his team

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5.45 a.m. on a Sunday, A.R. Rajesh, 19, heads out from Palarivattom Junction on a cycle with a batch of newspapers folded neatly in a side box and hanging from a cloth bag from the handle.

His first stop is ‘Canopy – The Canara Bank Officers Apartments’, near the St. Martin De Porres church. As he steps into the entrance of the first block, he sees a red light blinking on a panel near the entrance of the elevator. He presses the button a few times, but the door to the lift does not open.

With a snort of impatience he rushes up the stairs to the second floor where he drops newspapers on the mat in front of a couple of doors. Then it is off to the third floor. Thereafter, he runs down, two steps at a time, and goes out to the next block. In all, 22 newspapers have been delivered.

Rajesh crosses the road and enters North Janatha Road. As he pedals at a fast clip, he leans back, picks up a newspaper and sends it soaring over the black gate of Joby P. George’s bungalow. Then he turns left to Citizen Lane.

Behind the gate of a house, an Alsatian dog barks loudly, and runs from side to side, but Rajesh, unflinchingly, goes about his job. Then he goes into Eroor Vasudev Road, on to Sabarmathy Road, on the other side of the main road, and soon Rajesh has reached the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

At the nearby Regal Apartments, as he places the cycle on the stand, in comes another newspaper agent, Prakashan, riding a Scooty. They exchange greetings, as Rajesh rushes inside the building.

Prakashan takes his time to pull out the copies of the Malayala Manorama, Mathrubhumi, The Hindu, and, after an agonisingly long wait of several seconds, a thick bunch of The New Indian Express newspaper.

Rajesh returns and goes towards South Janatha Road. He throws newspapers with an easy flick of his fingers. Sometimes, it is towards the first floor, but mostly it is in courtyards and porches. The newspaper falls near the wheels of cars, or on chairs placed in the verandah, and once it landed like a bookend between two leather slippers placed in front of a door.

Following Rajesh is like being in a maze. Going in and out of lanes, down narrow paths, into places where the road becomes a dead-end, turning around, heading back, suddenly turning left or right. Eventually, Rajesh reaches Thammanam Road, and delivers the last of his 110 newspapers with speed and gusto.

Rajesh has been doing this job for the past four years. For him the most difficult time is the rainy season. “I have to cover the newspapers with a plastic sheet before I set out,” he says.

Rajesh wears a raincoat, and takes an umbrella along. “When you are putting the newspaper inside the elongated tube, on the gate, if you don’t hold up an umbrella, it will get wet,” he says.

But for those customers who don’t have tubes he throws it on the porch and because of strong winds and slanting rain, the newspaper gets wet.

“Sometimes they will call the agent, Dhanesh Rao, to complain,” he says. If Dhanesh has an extra copy he will deliver it. Otherwise, he will ask them to install a tube.

During the monsoons Rajesh takes an hour and a half while in summer he is finished within an hour. Then he goes home, has his breakfast and heads off for his job as a helper in a godown of a medical shop on Thammanam Road.

Like Rajesh, K.M. Manu, 18, works in a company that fixes tiles on floors. But Manu also likes to deliver newspapers. “It is like an exercise,” he says. “Instead of going running you deliver newspapers. And you can earn some money on the side.”

But not all youngsters and especially their parents have this attitude. “Because families are small these days parents, even those who work as labourers, want their children to study, instead of going out for work,” says Dhanesh.

Another drawback is that there is a habit of sleeping late in most families. They see TV, have a late dinner and go to sleep at midnight. “Hence it is difficult for these boys to get up at 4.30 a.m.,” says Dhanesh. “But I am managing to get a few. They enjoy the job.”

When he says this, Rajesh and Manu, who sit nearby, nod and smile.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Master of the moving image


Seeing a newspaper advertisement of the Film and Television Institute of India in a tea shop was the biggest turning point for director Adoor Gopalakrishnan

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Adoor Gopalakrishnan was eight years old he was selected to play Prince Siddhartha in a play on Lord Buddha written by his Malayalam teacher Gopala Pillai at Adoor.

“All my cousins and relatives came to see me act,” he says. “Everybody liked my performance.” His cousins still remember the dialogue he spoke that day so many decades ago: ‘Worldly pleasures, don’t run with me, you will not be able to catch me.’

From childhood, plays were held regularly in the verandah of his house. His cousins and friends, including himself were the actors. But when he grew up Adoor joined the Gandhigram Rural Institute in Madurai to do post graduate studies in economics, politics and public administration.

It was at the excellent library there that he came across the works of writers John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht, apart from the plays of Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder.

“A desire crystallised within me to become a theatre director,” he says. When he passed out in 1960, Adoor got a job in the National Sample Survey. He travelled the length and breadth of Kerala interviewing people for data collection. “It was interesting material for me as an artist,” he says. “But after one and a half years on the job, I began to feel bored.”

One day, in 1961, while sitting in a teashop near the bus stand at Chengannur, Adoor chanced upon a newspaper advertisement of the Film and Television Institute of India, which asked for applications for various courses including one on screenplay writing and direction. “I decided to try my luck,” he says.

Adoor went to Pune, sat for the examination and secured the first rank. He also received the Institute’s only merit scholarship of Rs 75 per month. Apart from seeing numerous films, Adoor came under the influence of the legendary director Ritwik Ghatak. “He was an excellent teacher,” he says. “He taught us by showing his own films.”

When he graduated, Adoor returned to Thiruvananthapuram and with like-minded friends started a film society in 1965. He also began working on his first film, ‘Swayamvaram’. Unable to find a financier Adoor took a loan from the Film Finance Corporation. Nevertheless, it took seven years to complete the film, and thereafter, no distributor wanted to show it.

When the film was finally released in a few theatres, it stopped playing after one week. “Everybody dismissed it as a flop,” says Adoor.

A few months later, ‘Swayamvaram’ won the National award for best director, actress, cinematography and film. “This was the turning point for me,” he says. When the film was re-released it became a big success. “Within three weeks the investment was recouped and we returned the loan with interest,” says Adoor.

However, with the profits, instead of making another film, Adoor started a studio, Chitralekha, under the aegis of the Chitralekha Film Cooperative. As a result he had no money to make his next film.

Hence, ‘Kodiyettam’ was shot over a long period of time. The negatives were taken to Chennai for processing and left in the lab since he had run out of money. A year later, when he returned, some of the negatives went missing. So, certain parts of the film had to be re-shot once again.

When the film was completed, once again no distributor was interested. They said, “Who will want to see a film with a bald-headed man in the lead?” The hero was Bharath Gopi.

The cooperative had taken 13 prints but it was released in only two theatres: one in Kottayam and the other in Haripad. After the first show, the crowd doubled and, thereafter, it went on multiplying.

“Within three days time all the exhibitors began calling,” says Adoor. Eventually, the film ran for 135 days in Kottayam. “This was the longest run of all my films,” he says.

Adoor’s next turning point came when K. Ravindran Nair of General Pictures offered to produce his next film, ‘Elippathayam’ in 1981. And it was through this film that Adoor made his international breakthrough.

Out of 2700 films shown at the National Film Theatre in Britain, over a year, one film was selected as the ‘most original and imaginative’ at the London Film Festival. This was ‘Elippathayam’ and it won Adoor the British Film Institute award in 1982.

Numerous brilliant films followed: ‘Mukhamukham’, ‘Anantharam’, ‘Mathilukal’, ‘Vidheyan’ and ‘Kathapurushan’. And along with the way, Adoor has won several international and national awards, including the Dada Phalke award in 2005 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2006. And for the 2007 film, ‘Naalu Pennungal’, he has just won the National Award for Best Director for the fifth time.

At his spacious traditional-style home in Thiruvananthapuram, wearing a brown kurta and dhoti, he looks cool and unhurried on a hot summer afternoon. Asked about the allure of his films he says, “My films don’t work immediately, but over a period of time. Sudden approval comes for commercial films and people forget it as quickly. So when there is a setback I don’t get upset. I want the audience to see the films on my terms.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Housing the dead

James Vakkachan has been supplying coffins to the people of Kochi for the past 21 years. But his family has been in the business for the past four generations

By Shevlin Sebastian

A priest who was using a prosthetic died sometime ago. His colleagues did not want to bury him with the artificial leg. But when the prosthetic was removed and the priest was fitted with trousers, it looked odd that he had no leg.

Immediately, James Vakkachan, of Vakkachan Coffin Works, Kochi, bought a pair of stockings and filled it with cotton, stuck it to the knee, and fixed a shoe at the bottom. “Nobody knew the priest did not have a leg,” he says.

On another occasion when a real estate magnate died at PVS Hospital, his body weighed over 100 kgs. James had to make a special coffin with a length of 6’ 5” and a width of 2’ 6”

However, when the coffin was brought to the hospital it could not be taken to the room because of its size. So the dead man had to be placed on a wheelchair, taken down in the elevator, and placed in the casket. All this is part of a day’s work in James’s life.

He has been running his shop at Vadathula for the past 21 years, following his father’s death. His father, Vakkachen, and his ancestors had been in the business for more than a hundred years.

At the shop, near Lourdes hospital, there are coffins made of plywood, teak and rosewood. The prices range from Rs 1500 to Rs 16,000. The average length of a coffin for a man is 6 feet long, with a width of 2 feet. For a woman the length is 5’ 5”, with a width is 1’6”.

“We usually give three inches space at the top and the bottom,” he says. “But there are some clients who want the body to fit exactly into the coffin. Then we have to make a new coffin with the correct measurement.”

James says the unprecedented rise in the price of mango wood – from Rs 35 per cubic feet forty years ago to Rs 300 per cubic feet today – and the high wages has eaten into his profits. He says he needs to sell high and low-priced coffins all the time to stay afloat.

“But I look at this job as a social service, rather than as a business,” he says. “You have to be on call 24 hours a day.” Sometimes, around 10 coffins are sold a month, while there are periods when there is no sale for some weeks. “That’s the way it is,” he says.

The surprising problem for James is that he faces a labour shortage, even though he is paying daily wages of Rs 350. “There is no acceptance of the job in society,” he says. “Carpenters are hesitant to work for me because of this.” So James has shifted the workshop to the terrace, so that clients will not see the workers. “But even then they are unwilling to come,” he says.

James says he is surviving at present because he has workers who have been doing this job for half a century. “But I feel that within the next ten years, I will not get anybody to do this job and will have to close shop,” he says. “This will be the case for others.”

He wants the government to render financial assistance, just like they do when farmers are in distress.

Over the years, James has noticed a disturbing trend: the suddenness of death. “In earlier times people would die of old age or a disease,” he says. “Nowadays, you can die at any moment and at any age. It could be from a heart attack, a kidney problem, a cancer, an accident, stress or murder. See how Muthoot Pappachen’s son Paul died? Could anybody have predicted that?”

Thanks to his profession, James is able to meet influential people: from bishops to ministers to tycoons. With a sense of pride he says that when popular actor Sukumaran’s body was displayed for public view, at Kochi, in 1997, it was in a coffin supplied by him.

Asked whether he feels sad because he is always meeting people who are struck numb by sorrow, because of the death of a close relative, he says, “This is what I have understood about life. If there is a birth there has to be a death. And you cannot escape from it. If you have led a good life, you will go to heaven; otherwise you will be in hell. So be careful how you live your life. One day there will be a reckoning.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Acting like a ‘naadan’ girl

Born and brought up in Delhi, Archana Kavi is the heroine of Lal Jose’s ‘Neelathamara’

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Archana Kavi finished her Class 12 exams she told her parents she wanted to stay in a hostel and experience freedom and independence. Her parents, the Delhi-based senior journalist Jose Kavi and his wife Rosamma decided to send her to the Mar Augustinose College, in Ramapuram to do a Bachelor of Business Administration course. The college had an attached hostel: the Carmel Jyothi.

So, in 2006, Archana moved from Delhi to Ramapuram. And the shift was not easy. “I knew Malayalam very well because my parents insisted we speak the language at home all the time,” she says. “However, I had trouble communicating with my classmates.”

And, unfortunately, there was the erroneous notion among the other students that the girls who were brought up in Delhi or Mumbai were of a loose character. “I was just a normal kid,” she says.

An unfazed Archana concentrated hard on her studies. One day, feeling bored, Archana, who had been the house and culture captain at St. Xavier’s School in Delhi and had been deeply involved in theatre, music and dance, applied for a job at the Indiavision television channel.

She was selected and every weekend, she would go to Kochi and assist in the production of certain programmes. After a year she got a job to anchor a show, ‘Bloody Love’ on Indiavision’s youth channel, ‘YES’.

Director Lal Jose saw her on this programme, and in March, 2009, he called Archana for an audition for the remake of ‘Neelathamara’.

This film has created history because it is the first time in the Malayalam film industry that a movie is being remade. M.T. Vasudevan Nair, who had penned the script for the earlier film, which was released in 1979, has written for this one also.

During the interview, both Lal Jose and MT were impressed by Archana. “I liked her energy,” says Lal Jose. “She was smart and passionate about cinema.”

But the role was a difficult one. Archana would have to play a servant girl, Kunjimallu, set in an ancestral home in a village.

“I was apprehensive because of Archana’s modern way of talking and body language,” says Lal Jose. “She also does not know to read and write Malayalam.”

Archana says she had some idea of the character. “I used to spend my annual holidays at my grandmother’s home in Kannur,” she says. “I have seen my aunts milking the cow, sweeping the courtyard, and cooking in the kitchen, all the tasks which Kunjimallu does. I just lacked practical knowledge.”

The tipping point for Lal Jose came when he saw Archana in make-up and costume. “She looked perfect for the part,” he says.

When Archana was selected her parents went through a bout of introspection.

“We were apprehensive about our daughter taking up acting as a career,” says Jose Kavi. “However, our fears were allayed when family friends who knew Lal Jose told us he was a no-nonsense person on the set.” But for Kavi what was most thrilling was that MT had written the script. “It is a privilege for my daughter to act in his films,” he says.

The film was shot over a 50-day period at Kuttipuram, 50 kms south of Kozhikode.

“Kunjimalu is a person who does not talk much,” says Archana. “If she is happy or sad it is within her. She rarely expresses it.” She is grateful to Lal Jose for describing in precise detail what the character was going through in a particular scene.

Asked on the tips on acting that Lal Jose imparted to her, Archana says, “He told me to react, and not act. In any situation, just behave normally. If you try to act, it will become obvious. When I walk, and if I think I am performing, it will come across as artificial. So you have to forget that there is a camera recording your every move and the presence of numerous people and immerse yourself in the scene.”

And Lal Jose has been happy with the end result. “Archana has an in-born talent,” he says. “She amazed me with her high concentration levels and remarkable memory.”

The director had read out the script only once to Archana and she had memorised all the scenes. “She always knew what the next scene was going to be,” says Lal Jose.

Jose Kavi says his daughter is a determined child. “Once she sets her eyes on something she will work hard to achieve it,” he says.

At Kochi, at a friend’s place, sans make-up, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, Archana looks like any ordinary young girl having the time of her life. However, she is keeping her fingers crossed that when the film releases in October her acting will click with the audience.

“If not I can always try journalism,” she says. “Like films, it is another way of telling stories.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

At home in the sky

The pioneer of aerial photography, Gopal Bodhe, has spent the past 31 years taking photographs of monuments, beaches, forts and lighthouses in India. He has just published a book on the Lakshadweep Islands

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: The Gateway of India

Gopal Bodhe

In 1978 President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy came for a visit to Mumbai and was welcomed at the airport by the Navy Commander-in-Chief. Later, Gopal Bodhe, the senior Navy photographer, was in the helicopter as Reddy was taken to a function.

“When we were flying over the Gateway of India, I suddenly noticed the central dome,” says Gopal. It was the time of analog cameras and he had only one frame left. Nevertheless, he took a photo of the dome.

Little did he realise then that he had discovered his lifelong passion: aerial photography.

Gopal is the pioneer of this type of photography in India. There are a few others, most notably, Dr. Jehangir Sorabjee, who has published a book of aerial photographs on Mumbai, and Uddhav Thackeray, the president of the Shiv Sena.

Gopal has taken photos from the air of numerous beaches, caves, cities, creeks, rivers, forts, lighthouses and places of worship. In Kerala, he has taken striking photos of the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, apart from pictures of churches and lighthouses.

“Kerala is beautiful, but our whole country is spectacular,” he says.

Gopal was in Kochi recently where his latest book, ‘Lakshadweep: A View from the Heavens’ was released by Vice Admiral Sunil Damle, Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Southern Naval Command at a well-attended function at the Naval Base.

“Undoubtedly, Lakshadweep is one of the most beautiful places I have shot,” he says. “It is pristine and unspoilt.”

So what is Gopal’s method to capture these unspoilt areas? Usually, he flies on a Chetak helicopter. He sits at the back, near the door, which is kept open. The average height that is needed to get a good photograph is 500 feet, while the speed of the helicopter should be between 50 and 60 nautical miles per hour.

“Because there is a lot of vibration, I increase the shutter speed,” he says. Initially, the helicopter does one circle above the monument so that Gopal can gauge the right height and the angle at which the helicopter should fly. Then he passes instructions to the pilot.

Then the pilot does two more rounds, while Gopal takes numerous photographs. “Later, I will select the best ones,” he says.

Of course, the ideal climate to take clear photographs is in April and May, before the monsoons begin and then in September and October. “In the winter season visibility is poor,” he says.

In his long career the most difficult place to shoot has been Ladakh, where the temperature hovers below minus five degrees Centigrade. “I was shivering and we had to put on oxygen masks,” says Gopal.

Because of the cold weather the door could not be opened. Nevertheless, he took spellbinding pictures of the Indus river, lakes and mountains, as well as the highest motorable road in the world: Khardungla Pass.

In Kochi, with the help of a Navy personnel he stretches out a 60 feet long photograph of the pass. It is a spectacular picture that reveals the bleakness of the terrain, devoid of any trees or vegetation, and yet the greyish landscape is eerily beautiful.

So what are the benefits of aerial photography? “I am writing the history of India through images,” he says. His book on Mumbai has a collection of snaps taken over 12 years.

“By studying my photographs you can see how the city has changed over the years,” says Gopal. “There are so many new flyovers and buildings. People can refer to my photos after a hundred years and observe the changes.”

He gives other examples: After the 2004 tsunami, some islands had disappeared in the Andamans, but these can be confirmed by studying Gopal’s photographs. Recently, Gopal had read a news item which stated that the beaches of Orissa were sinking because of global warming.

“Again, this can be verified because I have taken numerous pictures of the beaches,” he says. Incidentally, he is the only lensman to have aerially photographed 8500 kms of India’s coastline.

So far, he has published seven books – on Maharashtra, Goa, the Ancient Trade routes of Maharashtra, Mumbai, Lighthouses of India, the Mahalakshmi Temple, Kolhapur and Lakshadweep.

Thanks to his innovative work, Gopal has plenty of admirers. One of them, Dr. Jehangir Sorabjee, says, “Gopal has done a systematic documentation of the country’s coastline and many structures. He has been an inspiration for many of us.”

Adds Mumbai-based journalist Mini Pant: “Bodhe has a wealth of photographs that no one can ever equal. He has to be given credit for having such a deep pride in India’s heritage and history that he has documented for posterity.”

But ever since he retired from the Navy last year Gopal has been finding it difficult to get sponsors. The only exception is the Mumbai-based Patel Engineering for whom he takes aerial photos of the structures they are making. To surmount this drawback, he is planning on getting an unmanned aerial vehicle from Canada, on which he can mount a camera and take photographs.

His next project includes places of worship and creeks and rivers of India. At 62, he is fit and alert. “Health permitting I would like to do this for many more years,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Down, but not out



Having lost the elections as a NCP candidate, K. Muraleedharan is trying to get back to the Congress

By Shevlin Sebastian

On voting day, during the last Lok Sabha elections, K. Muralidheeran, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) candidate visited a polling station in Wayanad constituency. He met an aged woman who introduced herself as the wife of a late senior Congress leader.

She said, “During your first election in 1989, when your wife gave birth to a son, it was my husband who passed the message to you when it was flashed on the police wireless system.”

Muraleedharan was touched by what she said and remembers telling her, “Today, my son is casting his vote for the first time as an adult in Kozhikode,” he says. “How time has passed.” They embraced each other.

Muralidheeran, the son of former Kerala chief minister K. Karunakaran, began his career in the Congress, fell out, joined the party floated by his father, Democratic Indira Congress (Karunkaran), left that and became the president of the NCP.

“The unusual aspect of the recent Lok Sabha campaign was that when the people realised that the NCP was not aligned to any of the major coalitions, the LDF or the UDF, they expressed their admiration,” he says.

However, Muraleedharan finished a poor third, although he was happy that he had garnered 99,633 votes.

“I knew it was an uphill struggle,” he says. “So I was not disappointed that I lost.” He says that the one clear lesson he gained from the defeat is that in Kerala it is difficult to win an election without being part of an alliance.

He also realised that the NCP has poor prospects in the state. Some time ago when Muraleedharan publicly expressed his desire to return to the Congress, he was expelled from the NCP for anti-party activities.

For the past several weeks Muraleedharan has launched a campaign to get himself reinstated. “I have spoken to several Congress leaders and they have expressed their support,” he says.

Muraleedharan says that when he meets the people they urge him to return to the Congress. “They tell me that my father had been a Congress stalwart for so many decades and I should also be part of the party,” he says. “They feel that I can serve them better as a Congressman. I agree with their analysis.”

Following the Onam celebrations Muraleedharan is planning to go to Delhi and meet Defence Minister A.K. Antony and other senior Congress leaders. “There will be some good news soon,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

“Serving the people is more important than winning”



The young and energetic Dr. Sindhu Joy lost out to the veteran Congressman K.V. Thomas, but not without giving a fight

Photo: Sindhu Joy with actor Mammooty

By Shevlin Sebastian

Politician Dr. Sindhu Joy befriended the late Kochi-based music composer M. Iqbal through Orkut and he introduced her to his two sons. However, it was a short-lived friendship, because Iqbal passed away, aged 58, on March 20, 2007. Thereafter, one of Iqbal’s sons, Irshad, used to call up Sindhu from a town in Saudi Arabia where he ran a cafeteria.

Sindhu enjoyed talking to Irshad even as she got busy with her Lok Sabha election campaign, which she launched in February. She was the CPI (M) candidate for the Ernakulam constituency and was pitted against veteran Congress politician K.V. Thomas.

One day while she was campaigning in the Mattancherry segment, she stepped into a house to have a cup of tea. There she met Iqbal’s second son who told him that his brother had died suddenly in Saudi Arabia.

“It was the saddest moment of my campaign,” says Sindhu. “I just could not believe he had died.” Nevertheless, Sindhu, 31, overcame her shock and campaigned tirelessly in every segment of the Christian-dominated constituency.

“But the odds were against me,” she says. “Ernakulam has been traditionally a United Democratic Front stronghold.”

She says that owing to misconceptions in the Christian community about the Left Democratic Front government’s plans regarding educational institutions run by the church, the community turned away from the Leftists.

Still, in early vote counting, Sindhu was leading and there was talk of an upset win. However, in the end, Thomas squeezed through by a margin of 11,790 votes.

Nevertheless, she says, she was not disappointed when she lost. “Winning and losing are part of elections,” she says. “I have joined politics not because I want to become a MLA or a MP, but to serve the people.”

Today, the Lok Sabha loss is far behind her and she is busy with various activities of the party and outside.

As the national vice president of the Students’ Federation of India, she is working closely to implement the educational policies of the UPA government.

“I am also very much interested in gender issues and the poor status of Dalit women.”

As a member of the District Committee of the CPI(M) she interacts with the people to find out their problems. “Since our own party is in power, I am able to provide solutions for some of the issues,” she says.

Sindhu, who has received a doctorate in political science, is also planning to do a two-year research on tribal women empowerment from Kerala University.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The write stuff


The first story that Paul Zacharia wrote was selected for publication in Mathrubhumi weekly. It sparked off a distinguished career in the arts

By Shevlin Sebastian

When writer Paul Zacharia was studying in Class nine in a Malayalam medium school in Urulikkunnam in Kottayam district his elder brother Joseph presented him with a simplified version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

“This was the first book in English that I attempted to read,” he says. Despite struggling through ‘Alice’ and understanding only a part of the story, it gave Zacharia the confidence to move on to other books.

Among the many books that he read in his formative years the one which had the most impact on him was C.V. Raman Pillai’s classic novel, ‘Marthandavarma’.

“It is a very visual book,” he says. “I learnt the ability to imagine a scene, how to show the contrast between light and shade, the nuances between the characters and the atmosphere in which the action takes place.” It was at this time that he won the first prize in essay and short story writing in school. “But I had no inkling I would be a writer,” he says.

Zacharia’s turning point came when he went to Mysore to do his BA in English at St Philomena’s College. There he studied under Dr. Gopalkrishna Adiga, one of the greatest poets of Karnataka. “He was also a superb teacher of poetry, fiction and drama,” says Zacharia.

Thanks to Adiga, Zacharia got passionately interested in poetry and began translating the ‘Preludes’ by T.S. Eliot into Malayalam. One day, accidentally, he wrote a story about his childhood.

“It was a mix of memory and nostalgia,” he says.

Thereafter, he sent the story to the Mathrubhumi weekly. M.T. Vasudevan Nair was the editor there. He read it, liked it, and showed it to the chief editor N.V. Krishnan Warrier, who also enjoyed reading it.

“Soon, I got a letter from Warrier saying that they had accepted my story for publication,” he says. “It was the biggest turning point in my life. I was out of my mind with excitement.”

On Sayaji Rao Road in Mysore there was a shop which sold Malayalam newspapers and magazines. In January 1964, for the Republic Day issue, the weekly published one story from every South Indian language.

“My contribution was chosen for Malayalam and it was a big honour,” says Zacharia. “You cannot enter Malayalam literary fiction in a better way.”

Soon, he began writing regularly. And after every two or three months, his stories would get published in the weekly.

Meanwhile, Zacharia began his post-graduate studies at Central College in Bangalore.
A voracious reader, he was a regular visitor to The Select second-hand bookshop on M.G Road. And whenever he went, Zachariah would notice a man, who sat on a chair, wearing the white headgear – peta – worn by the men of Karnataka.

The man would smile and ask, “So what are you reading, young man?” Then he would look at the books that Zacharia bought. “I did not bother much about him,” says Zachariah.

It was only much later that Zacharia realised that the man was none other than the great physicist and Nobel Laureate, Sir C.V. Raman. “He was a former classmate of the owner, Dr. C.N. Rao and would frequently drop into the shop,” says Zacharia.

After a brief stint as an English teacher in MES College, Zacharia moved to Kanjirapally where he taught English at St. Dominic’s College. In 1968, his first book of short stories, ‘Kunnu’ was published by Current Books, Thrissur. One day he had to go to a press in Changanacherry to do some work for a college magazine.

There he saw a magazine called ‘Kerala Digest’ lying around. He flipped through it and came across an article, which talked about emerging writers. In it there was a list.

“There were the names of M. Mukundan and Sethu, and suddenly I saw my name,” he says. “I was shocked! I realised for the first time that thanks to the regular publication in the Mathrubhumi weekly I had been making a name of my own. It was a great boost to my self-confidence.”

The short stories, novels, essays, travelogues and film scripts came out regularly, even as Zacharia moved to Delhi in 1972, and spent several years in publishing.

Thereafter, he returned to Thiruvananthapuram in 1992, became a part of the founding team of the Asianet television channel, wrote columns for magazines like India Today, and once had a famous spat with Adoor Gopalakrishnan over the way the director filmed his novella ‘Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum’.

But all this is behind him. At his home, a fifth floor apartment in a new building at Thiruvananthapuram, Zacharia, 64, reclines on a chair and speaks with his eyes closed most of the time. There is a large photo of Mahatma Gandhi on a wall, near the dining table, which had been presented to him by his wife. Soon, the stalwart author has guests: translator A.J. Thomas and family have come on a visit.

But that does not deter Zacharia from speaking about his philosophy of life. “I don’t believe in God,” he says. “Man is a biological mechanism. Our bodies will age and come to an end one day. There is nothing beyond death.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, September 04, 2009

Learning the secret of creativity

A creative-writing workshop by author Shinie Antony was an enriching experience for the students of Rajagiri Public School

Photo: author Shinie Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the one-act play, ‘A tradition was born’ the story goes like this: In the American town of Bretton Wood, boys and girls are playing ‘Truth and Dare’ in two separate groups in the local cemetery. One of the boys gets a dare to lie down in a coffin. Subsequently, a girl is asked to stab a body.

By coincidence she approaches the same coffin where the boy is lying. When she takes the knife out to stab the body, the terrified boy stands up. The girl gets a shock and dies. Ever since that time she began haunting the cemetery on that particular night.

This play, scripted by Sidharthan, Clara Johny, Drupa Charles, Nancy Bencil and the students of Class 9 and 10 of the Rajagiri Public School, won the first prize in the creative writing workshop conducted by author Shinie Antony recently.

There were ten teams of 20 students each and they were given fifteen minutes to script a three-minute horror play. Some of the teams depended excessively on making eerie sounds on the mike.

In other plays, students sometimes fell to the stage in mock deaths, while in some, snarling looks and fingers pointed like claws were used to frighten unsuspecting passers-by.

“Overall, it was a lot of fun,” says Shinie. After each presentation she would give a crisp analysis, providing praise and criticism in equal measure.

For Sidharthan it was a thought-provoking experience. “I understood that working together as a team was not as easy as I thought,” he says. “Putting everybody’s ideas together and that too in a limited time and making it a success was difficult.”

Sherin T. Abraham, a Class 10 student, says that it was only when they were on the stage that they could understand their drawbacks.

“Our thinking could have been better and there was a lack of co-ordination between the actors,” she says. “Nevertheless, we also felt free and confident.”

Drupa also experienced a positive reaction. “After doing this play all of us felt sure we could become creative,” she says.

This, according to Shinie, was the aim of the workshop. “I wanted the students to think out of the box and let loose their imagination.”

She says that these workshops are a discovery of a young mind's take on most things. “For example, in a recent workshop, when told to get into the shoes of lesser known fictional characters, a student opted to become Cinderella's glass slipper,” she says.

The Bangalore-based Shinie, dressed in a maroon kurta and blue jeans, spoke softly into the mike, and walked up and down the hall, to get closer to the audience. To get answers from students, she would randomly call out names and invariably there would be a student with that name, who had to stand up and reply.

“All of us have an inner voice,” says Shinie. “When you take this voice a little further you come to creative writing.”

Her tip for good writing is simple: “Each time you invent a character, you have to become them,” she says. “You are the narrator, the main protagonist, as well as every small character, even the person serving the tea.”

For English teacher Parimal Paul, who had invited Shinie, the workshop was a good exposure for the students. “It was the first time that students were interacting with a well-known Indian writer of English,” she says. “It was a boost for students who have a flair for writing.”

Meanwhile, Shinie also went into the basics of journalism and explained the daily production methods of a newspaper. She dealt mostly with page layout, priority of news, reporting and editing. “I also focused on wrong spellings and over-sensationalism which irks a reader,” she says.

However, because of the Internet and too much television, children nowadays read newspapers much less. “TV lowers their attention span,” says Shinie. “They are only able to concentrate for a couple of minutes.”

She says children have to be wooed into making newspaper reading a daily habit. “This is one addiction that no parent will object to,” says Shinie, with a smile. “To enjoy a headline, absorb the impact of the first para, and stay with a news story or a feature till the end is very important.”

Enjoying reading and writing are Shinie’s aim. Will the students follow her lead, only time will tell.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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