Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A view from the tip of Africa

Mansoor Jaffer and his wife Kay are amazed by the diversity of cultures in Kerala. They also talk about life in a post-racist South Africa

Photo: Mansoor Jaffer (centre) with Shevlin Sebastian (extreme right) and Mark Antony, a 'New Indian Express' colleague of Shevlin's

By Shevlin Sebastian

More than a hundred years ago, Jaffer Murtaza left his home in a village, Borli Panchatan, in Maharashtra to seek his fortune in South Africa. He arrived at Cape Town with a group of other Indians. They started working in small shops in Cape Town. Later, a lot of Indians owned corner shops in South Africa. In fact, there was a cruel joke which said that the reason why Indians don’t play football is that when they are awarded a corner, during a game, they will immediately set up a shop.

Today, his grandson, Mansoor Jaffer, a journalist, has come to India for the first time, along with his wife, Kay, a former professor of English at the University of the Western Cape. “I came to see my roots and meet a few relatives in my ancestral village,” says Mansoor. But before that, the couple is touring India and have come to Kochi.

“I heard about the beauty of Kerala from my sister Zubeida, who is a writer, and had attended the Kovalam Literary Festival a couple of years ago,” says Mansoor. And, of course, Mansoor and Kay have been moving around, going to Munnar and the border districts. “It was only when we came here that we heard about the Mullaperiyar Dam issue,” says Kay. “In Cape Town, we do get news about India on cable TV. And we are aware of Anna Hazare and the Lokpal Bill.”

The duo finds Kerala a fascinating place. “From outside India, you cannot imagine the mixing of communities that exists,” says Kay. “You feel it must be a Hindu country, since 82 per cent of the population belongs to that community. But in Kerala, the mix of Muslim, Christian and Hindus is wonderful to see. I have seen mosques, temples and churches next to each other, apart from a Jain temple, and not to forget the Jewish synagogue at Fort Kochi. It has been incredible to witness the melting pot of cultures and religions.”

Unfortunately, South Africa was never a melting pot. Till recently, it was a racist society, where whites, blacks, Asians and coloured lived in separate areas.

“When we grew up, my wife and I could not vote, or swim at the local beaches, or study in many schools in Cape Town,” says Mansoor. “Imagine if you were living in Fort Kochi and you are forcibly moved out and asked to stay in another place. Other people, usually whites, moved into your house. Twenty years later when you get freedom and you come to Fort Kochi and see other people living there, you will get angry and resentful. But you also have to understand that in the broader interests of society, you need to forget it. As [former President] Nelson Mandela said the conflict which has been going on between blacks and whites for three centuries, needs to be broken. We have to learn to heal and forgive.”

And, amazingly, the African National Congress (ANC), the party which rules South Africa now, always felt that whites belong to the country. “The freedom charter, which was formulated in 1955, by the ANC and its allies, makes it very clear that South Africa belongs to all those who live in it,” says Kay. “It was a non-racial document. And, for us, it was a struggle for democracy, and equality for all peoples.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mind and Matter

Artist Vipin K. Nair focuses on thoughts that exists in one’s mind and the miracle of nature

Photo: Vipin K. Nair standing next to 'Freedom from roots'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, when Vipin K. Nair was eight years old, the class finished early. Whenever that happened his mother told him he should wait under the huge tree by the side of the road near the Shree Dharma Paripalana Yogam school at Palluruthy where he studied.

But while he was waiting, he suddenly felt sleepy. So, he went and lay down on the thick grass near the tree. Unfortunately, he could not be seen from the road. Soon, his parents and neighbours began to search frantically for him. At 6 p.m., Vipin got up and came to the road. It was getting dark; he began crying. But a neighbour who had gone to the school to do a check saw him and finally brought him home.

It was this memory that was a trigger for Vipin’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Freedom from roots’. Done in grey and black, it shows a huge overhanging tree with thick roots and foliage. At the bottom lies a boy, who is in a deep sleep, his right leg stretched out. In the undergrowth, a few mushrooms can be seen. There are roots that look like snakes.

If you step back, you can detect a face: cold eyes, a long nose, and a baleful grin. On the left is a woman, sitting with an upraised right leg and her long hair is flowing out onto the foliage. On the opposite side is another woman, her bare buttocks facing the viewer, with a side view of a protruding breast.

“The reason why I have shown the women is because they are motherly and offer protection and shade to those around them, including their husbands and children,” says Vipin. “That is the same function of the huge tree, which offers a home to so many small insects, apart from man.”

Nature has been the theme of many paintings. In one acrylic on canvas there are red-winged beetles moving around on green leaves and plants. Vipin has also drawn a volcano, before it has erupted, and has put in several embedded images. So there is a mountaintop that looks like two eyes staring back at you. The vent of the volcano gives the impression of it being a large eye or the entrance to a cave.

“Yes, I like to put several clues in a drawing,” says Vipin. “It is not just a volcano. There are people in it, and different moods have been expressed.”

So, in that sense, his paintings, a total of 16, even though they are abstract, can still be decoded with ease. He has also done a few paintings, which is a physical expression of thoughts. So there are lines which go left and right, up and down, some blood-red in colour, indicating the chaotic mind of modern man.

“I did this series on nature and the mind, because both are remarkable,” he says. “I would call them miracles of life. Nature keeps changing all the time, while the human mind, if its power is properly harnessed, can achieve anything.”

This is Vipin’s fourth solo exhibition. A graphic designer by day, he works late into the night on his paintings. “I am self-taught, but painting has been my passion for many years,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas is coming!

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Parimal Paul, the English teacher at Rajagiri Public School, Kochi, sees a Christmas star hanging in front of a house, she feels a pang of sadness. She is reminded of her late father, Advocate Joseph Katticaran, who passed away five years ago. "When I was a child, I would always help my father to hang up the stars," she says. "For a daughter, a father is always a hero and I dearly miss him."

Parimal's most memorable Christmas was when instead of making her mother make the food at home, her father brought food from Hotel International. “There were duck, rabbit, and chicken,” she says. “It was a wonderful spread.”

She also remembers going to midnight mass at the St. Mary’s Basilica with her family. “A family that celebrates festivals together is a happy family,” she says. After returning home, they would have chicken and vattayappan.

For Parimal, Christmas means Jesus Christ’s birth, cakes, Santa Claus, carols, and cookies. “Christmas always evokes a sense of nostalgia in me,” she says. “Frequently, I remember events from my childhood.”

For this year’s Christmas, Parimal is having a low-key celebration. “My daughter, Rosita, is having her Class 12 examinations and she is studying very hard,” she says. Nevertheless, she will be making a cake, chocolate, instead of the usual plum, because that is what she enjoys making. Parimal is also planning to do a fish bake. “After 25 days of fasting we will all be yearning for some non-vegetarian food,” she says, “My brothers and sisters will be coming with their families.”

For Mary George, her most memorable Christmas was when she went to Bangalore last year and spent the season with her uncle, Deepak, and his family. “I met my cousin, Ian, for the first time,” she says. “He was only five months old and was so cute.”

Her uncle took her to the big shopping malls like Central and Mantri. “There was such a large crowd,” she says.

On Christmas Day, there were gifts placed under the tree. “I got a board game, Word Scrabble, and I still play it,” she says.

Asked whether Santa Claus had brought the gifts down the chimney and placed it during the night of December 24, Mary laughs and says, “Uncle, could you point out to me where is the chimney? I am 10 years old, not two. It is a fairy tale.”

On what the word Christmas evokes in her, Mary says, “Christmas tree, gifts, singing, and cards.”

On December 25, she plans to meet up with friends and cousins and play badminton and party games. “But the bad news for me is that as soon as school re-opens, I have examinations,” she says. “So I will have to find some time to do my studies.”

For Mary’s brother, Robert, 8, Christmas means holidays. “I don’t have to go to school,” he says. “Isn’t that wonderful? I also think about the baby Jesus.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A mix of the sublime and the furious

'The MeiDhwani' programme by the Attakallari Centre for Movement Arts mesmerises an audience in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Artistic Director Jayachandran Palazhy of the Bangalore-based Attakallari Centre for Movement Arts steps on the stage at the Fine Arts Hall in Kochi on a Saturday evening. It is the start of ‘MeiDhwani (Echoes of the Body), a contemporary dance production.

Jayachandran is wearing a white tunic and loose white cotton trousers. He sits on the top of a gleaming steel pot, head resting on his hands, looking worried. He stands up and twirls around. Then he stretches out on the ground, his hands reaching out for something, a look of suffering on his face.

Soon, three female dancers – Diya Naidu, Hemabharathy Palani, and Keya Ann D'Souza – wearing white skirts, slit to the waist, with their hair tied up in a top knot join Jayachandran. They also swirl around, pirouetting, like in a ballet, and making powerful leaps and turns. They pick up the steel pots and dance around with it. Then they lie down and balance it between their legs. They get up and sit on top and do leg movements.

"The pots represent feminine energy,” says Jayachandran. And later when male dancers light lamps and place them on top of cylindrical metal stands, Jayachandran says, “Fire acts as a metaphor for male energy, and the destructive power within oneself.”

Indeed, when the male dancers – Ajeesh K B, Denny Paul, Lalit Khatana, Parth Bharadwaj, and Sumesh V M – appear on the scene, they swivel around with great speed, they jump up and dive to the floor. They go around the girls and in between them. They run from one side of the stage to the other, and, sometimes, they hop on their toes. All this is accompanied by the strange, hypnotic, electro-acoustic music of Israeli musicians, Patrick Sebag and Yotam Agam. “It has a Middle East flavour, but also has Indian melodies embedded in it,” says Jayachandran.

The most enthralling section is when Jayachandran does a duet with Hemabharathi, when they flirt and smile and hug each other. At one moment, he lifts her up and she returns the compliment, with the sexual chemistry clearly evident. It is a soothing segment in a programme that looks at the bleak side of life.

“I was concerned about the recent worldwide economic turbulence, as well as the unrest in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere,” says Jayachandran. “In India we are going through a rapid, unplanned development and urbanisation. In cities like Bangalore or Mumbai or Delhi, in the time you blink your eyes, a new shopping mall comes up. If you map these changes, through dance, you can get the pulse of contemporary society.”

And, undoubtedly, the dance is mesmerizing and gripping, the sheer skill on display, a feast for the eyes and a balm for troubled souls. The movements are so sharp and energetic that, within minutes, beads of perspiration can be seen on the foreheads of the dancers, while hurried breathing emanates through clenched teeth.

But there are times when the tempo is so languid that there is time to observe a tattoo -- a star, as well as a creeper -- on the left ankle of Diya. In short, it was a mix of the sublime and the furious

And it is clear that a lot of hard work has gone into the production. “It takes about six months to get a dance ready,” says Jayachandran. “There is a lot of creative exchange and training between the dancers and myself. Then I have to work with the music composers, costume and light designers, to add to the visual impact.”

Yes, the one-hour programme had a powerful visual and emotional impact. To know more, check out Segments can also be seen on You Tube.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A lonely but devoted companion

Column: Spouse's Turn

Life has not been easy for Mariamma Chandy, because she is married to a 24/7 career politician, Oommen Chandy, who is now the chief minister of Kerala

Photo credit: Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

In January, 1977, Mariamma met Oommen Chandy for the first time at an aunt's home. “He was wearing a white shirt and dhoti, the typical politician's garb,” she says. “What I liked most was that he was a tall man. I also liked his protruding nose.”

Through relatives and friends, Mariamma had heard a lot of positive things about Chandy. “Most importantly, he was not hot-tempered, unlike my father and my brothers,” she says.

But still Mariamma was nervous, simply because Chandy is a politician. “I had the impression that all politicians are bad and corrupt,” she says. “I prayed to God to let the marriage take place only if the person is good. Otherwise, don't make it happen.”

In the end, Mariamma got married to Chandy on May 30, 1977. And like her father and uncles, Chandy turned out to be an upright person. “He does not drink or smoke or have any vices,” she says.

Later, Mariamma observed that Chandy had many other good qualities. “He is an honest and loving person,” she says. “He has never lost his temper in our marriage. No matter what happens, he never loses his cool. He has never shouted or raised his voice at me. This quality is a gift from God.”

So, what are his negative points? “He can never say no,” she says. “In certain situations, he should do so, but he does not.”

And of course, his biggest drawback is that he is hardly ever at home, thanks to an intense 24x7 political career. “Oommen never did his duty as a father,” says Mariamma. “He never held the children in his arms when they were babies. He hardly spoke or scolded them. He never offered advice on what to do in life. He would never say, 'Don't do this, it is not right.' He was always keen to make them happy. But I feel a father should be a bit strict and impose a discipline, coated with love. Eventually, I had to bring them up on my own.” Incidentally, the Chandys have three children: Mariakutty, Achamma, and Chandykunju.

Nevertheless, there must be benefits for the family in being married to a powerful man? “We can get things done quickly,” says Mariamma “Being the wife of Oommen Chandy, I receive a lot of affection from the common man. That is because he is so beloved of the people. When we travel anywhere we always get VIP treatment.”

But what is extraordinary is the financial difficulties that the family has gone through. “My husband is not corrupt,” says Mariamma. “Whatever money he gets he gives it to me, and I had to use it, as well as my salary as a Canara Bank employee to run the household. Sometimes, I was not able to meet the day-to-day expenses. I know people will not believe what I am saying. We have taken car, house, and education loans. We are still paying back some of them. After my retirement as an officer, in 2009, I am dependent on my pension, and the interest from provident and gratuity funds.”

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of her marriage to Chandy has been the many years that Mariamma has lived alone. “I yearned for his presence and to talk to him, but he is never at home,” she says. “I was looking for emotional support, but I was alone all the time. I know this has happened because of his love for the people. But, despite all the difficulties, I love him from the bottom of my heart.”

Asked whether this public figure has a different face at home, Mariamma smiles, and says, “Oommen is the same inside or outside. There is no change at all.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, December 19, 2011

An Indo-French collaboration

Jude Mathew fell in love and married Frenchwoman Sofie Debieve. The couple run a social service organisation in Fort Kochi and dwell upon life in France and Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

In February, 1997, Jude Mathew met Sofie Debieve while working as an interpreter for the Alliance Francaise (AF) at Thiruvananthapuram. Sofie had come on the invitation of the AF Director, Jean Leturcq, to hold an exhibition of dried flowers. “It seemed as if Sofie was the person I was waiting for,” says Jude.

When Jude invited Sofie for a tea at a roadside shack, she got very excited. “It was my first direct experience of Indians and India,” she says. But no sparks flew between the couple. Soon, Sofie returned to France.

But, six months later, on the invitation of the AF, Jude went to France and eventually to La Rochelle, 500 kms from Paris, where Sofie stayed. They met and this time they fell in love. Jude stayed a couple of months before returning to Fort Kochi, his hometown. After a few months, Sofie came down and spent time with Jude. This went on, till they got married on July 9, 1999, at La Rochelle.

For the first seven years, the couple lived at La Rochelle, where Jude was the manager of a car park. And he was astonished to see French society at close quarters. “The family, which has been the unit of society for thousands of years, no longer exists,” he says. “There is a lack of relations between father, mother, brothers and sisters. People have become individualistic. The cultural festivals have become less. Things have changed because of modern life and the advances of technology.”

The spiritual emptiness is also troubling. “The churches are empty,” he says. “Religion has lost its importance. To fill their spiritual void, the French go to a psychiatrist. Or take sleeping and anti-depression pills like Prozac. For any emotional problem, they try to solve it by popping a pill. They might forget to take food, but they will not miss taking their medicines.”

And Jude is worried by the rising consumerism in Kerala and Indian society. “Once they start earning money, people want their own space, house, and car,” he says. “I can see that the people have no idea of the end result. You become alone and isolated, by following the consumerist way of the West.

Meanwhile, for Sofie, her immersion in Kerala culture has brought a lot of happiness. “Here, people live through the heart,” she says. “They are simple and caring. On the other hand, the French are very intellectual and tend to over-analyse. There is a lot of mental agitation and too much of thinking, thinking, thinking. There is very little emphasis on feelings. I learnt how to love only after I got married to Jude.”

For the past five years, they live six months of the year in Fort Kochi, and the other half in La Rochelle. Their son, Surya, 12, does his studies through the National Centre for Distance Education at a school in La Rochelle.

At Fort Kochi Jude runs a counselling centre, at their home, where he helps troubled people through advice, yoga, and meditation. Sofie runs a tailoring workshop where she gives training to poor women. They make bed sheets, pillow covers, purses, bags, and other accessories which they sell to foreigners. They also have a unit for the physically challenged where they make paper bags and envelopes, which are sent to France.

“We lead fulfilling lives,” says Sofie.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Statements about life

Children living in conflict zones and a woman with two faces are some of the themes that have been explored in the annual show at the Bindhi Art Gallery

Photos: 'The sound of firing' by N. Balamurali Krishnan and O. Sundar's 'Two Faces of Women'

By Shevlin Sebastian

When N. Balamurali Krishna would go to film festivals, he enjoyed seeing the movies of Palestinian and Iranian directors. “Frequently, I would be touched by the plight of children in these societies,” he says. “They are the victims of random violence, wars, and terrorism.”

And it is these images that have inspired him to do an acrylic on canvas, called 'Sound of firing', which catches the eye at the annual exhibition at the Bindhi Art Gallery, Kochi. It shows a young girl, wearing what seems to be a paavada and blouse, lying on a ledge, with her head resting on her right arm and in restful sleep.

Just behind her is a cement grille, which has numerous butterflies, designed in such a way that you can look through them to the outside. At certain sections, there are yellowish splotches, the result of gunfire. So while she is sleeping, there is darkness outside and conflicts are going on. “This is part of a series called 'Portrait of grilled eyes',” he says. To the viewer, there is an arresting aspect, because of the clear, simple strokes, and the sense of darkness that it conveys.

O. Sundar’s acrylic on canvas, ‘Two Faces of Women’, will have a resonance with men. ‘Only two faces,’ some men might think. ‘A woman has so many facets: straight-faced liars, great actresses, so vain about their looks, vicious, spiteful, jealous, perfectly capable of cool sexual betrayals, and endlessly secretive. And not to forget their sublime qualities: of kindness, love, great motherly instincts, sensitive, beautiful, funny, and a rock in times of crisis. No wonder women drive men to distraction, and even to madness.’

Done in a monochrome black and white, with a dab of blue, it gives a three dimensional effect. “I wanted to show the positive and negative sides of women,” says Sundar. “They are more complicated than men and have a lot of hidden aspects.”

Bindhi Rajagopal, in whose gallery the show is being held, has done an image of a nest, but it hangs by a single thread on an iron rod on the terrace of the building. It clearly indicates the fragility of the nest. At the distance, the congested city can be seen.

Right at the side, near the bottom of the nest, there is a tiny sparrow, its legs entwined around another cement rod, with a piece of straw in its mouth, still in the process of giving the finishing touches. It is a telling image of the state of Kochi, where rampant construction is destroying all traces of Nature. “Even birds are adjusting to the changes and building nests in unusual places,” says Bindhi.

Meanwhile, the Chennai-based Razia Tony’s portrait, 'Varsha', shows a woman with a bare back, looking towards the viewer. At the background, there are forests, while at the bottom of the painting are fresh, white flowers. An acrylic on canvas, it is an evocation of the rainy season. “Varsha represents nature,” says Razia. “I want to show the changing seasons.” Despite being painted in a smudged style, in blues and greens, the eyes of the woman hold you in an unblinking gaze.

Other paintings include those by veterans like C.N. Karunakaran, Rajan M. Krishnan, and Kaladharan, established artistes like Hochimin, Rathidevi, R. Venu, and Satyapal, and youngsters like Nimmy Melvin.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Non-stop insights about India

Renowned journalist, Mark Tully, in his book, 'Non Stop India', talks about the changes, or lack of it, in India, and why having a superpower ambition is the wrong one for the country

Photo: Mark Tully with TV personality Karan Thapar at the release of 'Non-stop India' in New Delhi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Famed BBC reporter Mark Tully laughs when asked whether he enjoys the post-BBC period more, or his 30-year career as a journalist. Tully retired from the BBC in June, 1994. “When I left the BBC, I told myself the one thing I was really looking forward to, was that, on an evening, I can open a bottle of beer and know that nobody is going to ring me up and order me to do something,” says Tully, while on a brief visit to Kochi. “They might ask me, but I could always say, 'Get lost.'”

He admits that his post-retirement career has been fulfilling: giving talks, hosting the 'Something Understood' programme on BBC Radio 4, which has one million listeners, as well as writing books. His latest, 'Non-Stop India', is an update on what is happening in the country.

“In the government, nothing has changed in the past fifty years,” he says. “If you look at the attitude of the government servant, the word, 'servant' does not come into it. He does not have an attitude of, 'How may I help you, Sir?' Instead, it is a barked, 'What do you want?' There is a lot of arrogance. Treating people like muck. Deliberately making things complicated, to encourage corruption.”

In fact, in the rural areas, the bureaucrat is a more hated figure than the politician. “The poor know that they can boot out the politician every five years,” says Tully. “But the bureaucrat will sit on his seat for 30 years, whether he performs or not.”

And contrary to what we all think, the economic growth has not spread all over the country. “At the way things are going, I am not sure there are enough jobs for everybody,” says Tully. “When people talk about the 'demographic advantage' -- of having such a young population -- I have a fear that this advantage could become a disaster, and lead to violence.”

So this ambition of India wanting to become the next superpower, along with China, is it an illusion?

“Imagine what Mahatma Gandhi would have said if any Indian expressed a desire to become a citizen of a superpower,” says Tully. “He would have been appalled by that. India should aspire to be a country where everyone can enjoy a decent standard of living, education, and health. It should be a nation which should live by its ancient principles. Instead, India is borrowing all its ideas from the West.”

But the West, unfortunately, is in creative and economic decline. “You are right,” says Tully. “People in Europe and America need to remember that civilisations rise and fall. They will be overtaken by other nations.”

But what upsets Tully is the rampant materialism in Europe. “People believe that only material things bring happiness, but that is not true,” he says. “In Britain, there is now a widespread belief that religion is dangerous and bad. Something hugely important is lost when a nation adopts such an attitude.”

So, the veteran broadcaster feels happy when he comes to Kerala. “It has a deeply multi-religious culture, which is wonderful to see,” he says. “In North India, it is much less so. India is also full of talented Malayalis, but, unfortunately, none of them stay in Kerala. I am told trade unionism is still hampering the state's economic growth.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Making the guitar sing

Ace guitarist Baiju Dharmarajan is on a creative high, after his departure from Motherjane. His collaboration with international percussionist and composer Karshkale will be shown on Star World on Sunday, December 11

By Shevlin Sebastian .

Guitarist Baiju Dharmarajan is excited. At 8 p.m. on Sunday, December 11, on Star World his performance on the Dewarists show will be telecast. This show, sponsored by Dewars scotch whisky company, based in Scotland, is a collaboration of musicians of different genres. So Baiju has played with noted US-based percussionist and composer Karshkale, and Harigovind, a master of the edakka drum at Angadipuram, Malappuram district.

“Karshkale played electronic music, Harigovind hit the drums in his traditional style, while I played rock music,” says Baiju. The song is called ‘Sacred Science’.

Not many people may have heard of Baiju, but in the music world, he has a stellar reputation. On December 1, when the young rock band, ‘Evergreen’, staged a performance at the Children’s Park, opposite the Gold Souk, Kochi, highlighting the dangers of the Mullaperiyar Dam, it was the forty-something Baiju who stole the show.

Dressed casually in a blue T-shirt and jeans, he let rip chords that made the guitar weep, sing, laugh and cry out aloud. Sometimes, his face contorted with the effort. Sometimes, his body shook. And always, the tendons on his arms stood out, as his fingers ran up and down the frets. There was no doubting his extraordinary skill. The piercing sounds pierced the soul. There was a pin-drop silence in the motley crowd of youngsters, middle-aged parents, children, and idle bystanders. In the end, the ‘Evergreen’ kids got a master class in guitar-playing.

Baiju, of course, made his name as the lead guitarist of Motherjane, one of the top bands from Kerala, which had a nation-wide impact. Their original album, ‘Maktub’ became a hit and established the band’s reputation.

“We travelled all over India, doing shows in IIT and engineering colleges,” says Baiju. “There are thousands of professional colleges in the country. It is like a sub-continent.” And the band raked in the moolah. In two-and-a-half years, the five-member team earned Rs 42 lakh. “If you are a top class musician, you can survive easily,” says Baiju, with an easy smile.

But all good things have to come to an end. Differences about the creative direction of the band forced Baiju to opt out of Motherjane in November, 2010. “I have a lot of ambitions,” he says. “I want to move to the next level.”

He has now set up a new band, with a drummer called Sojan, vocalist, Richard Wilson, and bass guitarist Vivian verghese. He is now looking for a keyboard player. In this one year, Baiju has composed 12 songs. “I am in the recording stage,” he says. “Then there will be practice sessions, followed by live shows. It is time-consuming. If you start any business, it takes time to get it moving. It is the same with a band.” Along with this, Baiju is also helping new and upcoming bands like ‘Kaav’ to produce an album. He is like a guru to them.

At a restaurant in Kochi, Baiju looks happy, accompanied by Kaav band members Shyam n pai, and Arun s kumar. “I have no regrets about leaving Motherjane,” says Baiju. “In fact, I have become free. I am able to understand my strengths only after I left. I am a lot more creative now.”

Baiju is the son of Dharmajan, a government servant, who played the Hawaiian guitar as a hobby. Baiju learnt the guitar when he was 13. But his initial musical influences were all Indian. “Thanks to my father, I grew up listening to the ghazals of Mehdi Hasan. shamsad Begum, and Anup Jalota. I also listened to Tamil and Malayalam film music. My all-time favourite is Yesudas.”

And it would be the legendary singer, while giving an interview to the BBC, who would provide a tip that Baiju took to heart. “Music is like a lamp,” Yesudas said. “If you clean the lamp every day and put oil in it, it will glow. But if for a couple of days you do not do anything, immediately, dust will gather and the lamp will lose its glow. That is the same with music. Constant practice is the key to excellence.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Friday, December 09, 2011

The dark side of society

At the Domain-0 art exhibition, senior artistes portray the after-effects of war, as well as the impact of development on nature

Photo: C.B. Bahuleyan in front of 'Camoulflage'. Credit: Mithun Vinod.

By Shevlin Sebastian

When artist C.B. Bahuleyan switches on the TV and watches international channels like the BBC, he sees several images of conflicts around the world. It triggered off many memories for him. In 1990, he was in Kuwait when Iraq overran the country. And he saw the effects of that war at close quarters. All these insights has been poured into his acrylic on canvas, ‘Camouflage’.

It is painted in a forbidding grey. At the front, there are the remnants of a crashed Apache helicopter. If you peer closely, you can also see a rusted tank. Bombed-out buildings are there in the background, but, at one side, there is an unusual image: the dome of a nuclear reactor. “Yes, this is the Fukushima nuclear reactor in Japan,” he says. Meanwhile, weeds and grass can be seen growing through the wreckage and making a so-called camouflage.

“There is so much of destruction in our lives,” he says. “And the painting is timely, what with the possible danger to the Mullaperiyar Dam.”

K. Narayanankutty is also looking at life in a bleak manner. His painting of a mangrove forest shows it being devastated, with the roots exposed, and there is a middle area that looks like a desert, with the mud cracked in several places. At the distance are the multi-storeyed buildings that one sees in all the cities of the world.

The most unusual aspect is a longish white object in the middle. One is not clear what it is, till Narayanankutty gives a tip: look at the image from the side of the painting. And suddenly it becomes clear: it is a human skull. Narayanankutty is candid enough to say that he had borrowed the idea from German artist Holbein. The painting is titled, ‘Notes from the Underground’. “It is a stance against rampant development,” he says. “If you look at our history, man is always exploiting and destroying nature.”

Santhoshlal P. M. has done an unusual oil painting. It shows a blue enclosure, with high walls placed on top of what seems to be a paddy field. From the blue sky above, which has numerous clouds, there are white strings that link it to the enclosure. So, what is it symbolic of? It is very difficult to figure out, till Santoshlal says, “It is the number zero -- India ’s contribution to the world and it rests on a field of Roman numerals,” he says. “This is my imaginative look at this great achievement by Indian mathematicians.”

Meanwhile, T.P. Premjee's series is called 'Animal Farm', in a direct allusion to George Orwell's classic book. In one oil painting, there are numerous brown pigs, done in a realistic style, which fill up the canvas. “The pigs resemble people,” he says. “There are too many of us, which causes tension, and fights.” Another work has what seems to be enlarged beans. “It could be fruits or a bomb, or even a large penis.” Finally, there are paintings by K. Sudheesh.

For the visitors, Bahuleyan's 'Camouflage' is the one which catches the eye. “I like the mood in it,” says Winston David, a photographer. Art lover Geeta Mathew says, “Bahuleyan explores many ideas, although destruction seems to be the dominant theme.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

A whirlwind called Shashi

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sunanda talks about what it means to be married to Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, best-selling author, and a star on the lecture circuit

Photo: Courtesy, People Magazine

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was in August, 2008, that Sunanda Pushkar met Shashi Tharoor for the first time. There was a function at the Guruvar Awards in Delhi. “Shashi is a patron,” says Sunanda. “I was introduced through a mutual friend, Sanjay Bahal.”

And what struck Sunanda was how relaxed he looked. “Shashi was wearing a multi-coloured kurta,” she says. Thereafter, they remained in touch mostly through SMSs and e-mails. “He is big on e-mails and I am not,” she says. “I would give short replies, and he would laugh and say, 'Why can't you give a long reply'. And I would say, 'I don't have the time.'”

Meanwhile, a month later, they were in New York at the same time. And Sunanda took Shashi to the Cafe Spice restaurant, which serves dosas and thalis. “New York is Shashi’s city because of his 34-year stint in the United Nations,” she says. “So he would go to ‘high-funda’ restaurants, having meals with Presidents, Prime Ministers, ministers, ambassadors, and diplomats.”

They bonded over lunch. It was a time when Shashi was thinking about taking the plunge into politics. “I told him all intelligent people should join politics,” she says. “I was the only one who was encouraging him. Because everybody else was telling him that he was mad, to join Indian politics.”

They went their different ways. Sunanda was busy with her real estate work in Dubai, while Shashi was travelling incessantly. And it would be exactly two years after they met that they tied the knot: on August 22, 2010.

So what is it about Shashi that she likes the most? “His intelligence,” she says immediately. “He gives brilliant speeches, and is never at a loss for words. Afterwards, he takes questions from the audience and answers them easily. I have seen presidents and prime ministers speak. I have attended so many seminars and conferences. But I have never met a man who is so confident and at ease on the stage.”

Secondly, she likes his kind heart. “Shashi was in the UN peacekeeping mission and he would tell me about the genocide that he has witnessed in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo,” says Sunanda. “I have seen a lot of horrors myself, since I am from Kashmir, and I could see that it had really affected him.”

She feels that his one major drawback is his impatience. “But I think impatience can be good,” says Sunanda. “As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, ‘We have been voted to power by the youth, who are impatient for change’. Impatience is good, but maybe, at times, it is not so good.”

What has been a revelation for Sunanda is the intense traveling that she has to do.
“We are unable to have a normal, regular life,” she says. “We are always moving about, within and outside India. He is speaking for India in foreign countries so often. He is talking on the lecture circuit. Then when Parliament is functioning, he is busy with that, and don’t forget his work for the Thiruvananthapuram constituency.”

Astonishingly, in the past one-and-a-half years, they have had only one dinner alone, at a five-star hotel in Chennai. “But even then, there were people, like N. Ravi, the owner of ‘The Hindu’ group, who came up to have a chat,” says Sunanda. “My friends ask me how do I manage, but I knew that, by marrying Shashi, I would not be having a normal life. We are always invited to dinner or we invite people ourselves.”

But Sunanda also keeps herself busy, with her work on behalf of the Chandran Tharoor Foundation, named in honour of Shashi’s father. She is setting up numerous public toilets in Thiruvananthapuram.

Asked whether Shashi, the public figure, behaves differently at home, Sunanda laughs and says, “He is exactly the same, inside or out. I tell him that he will fall into problems if he is so open. You have to be very careful about what you say. You are in politics. But he will never listen. He is too much like himself outside, which is why he gets into trouble so often.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A rose that keeps blooming

The former and present faculty of St. Teresa's College will be celebrating Sr. Mary Rose's 90th birthday on December 2. The nun was head of the English department for many years

By Shevlin Sebastian

A couple of days ago, Seema Mohan came to see Sr. Mary Rose, the former head of the English department at St. Teresa's College. Sr. Mary Rose remembered her former student, because of one unforgettable incident, which happened 25 years ago.

As a student Seema was a good singer, and was about to go for a programme. Since she had a stomach pain, she took several Crocin tablets. Unfortunately, she suffered from a perforated intestine and had to be rushed to the hospital. “We talked about this and all the happy memories of those days,” says Sr. Mary Rose, who turns 90 on December 2.

On another occasion, she met another former student, Joanne Mathew (name changed). And the nun remembered how in college, Joanne was so bad in English that she could not write a single word properly. But Joanne persisted, with encouragement from Sr. Mary Rose. “Eventually she got a doctorate in English,” says the nun. “It was a proud moment for me.”

So what is the best part of teaching? “It is the heart-to-heart relationship between a student and a teacher which lasts for a lifetime.”

But there are times when Sr. Mary Rose feels bad. A few years ago, she read in the newspaper about a suicide by one of her students. “She stayed in the hostel when I was the warden,” says the nun. “I felt sad that she could not withstand the trials and tribulations of life. It seemed as if my own child had died.”

Sr. Mary Rose has a ramrod back and a sharp mind and can recall names and dates easily. And she remembers the day when she wanted to become a nun. She was in Class eight at the St. Joseph's Girls Higher Secondary School at Alleppey. It was during the Catechism class that Mother Linda casually said, “Jesus Christ has a special love for virgins.” Sr. Mary Rose felt something hit her heart. “I thought to myself, 'Why can't I have that special love?'” she says. “That was the day I developed my vocation to be a nun.”

But it would take years, including opposition from her family, before she became a Carmelite nun. She began her teaching career with stints at St. Joseph's, Alleppey, the Assumption College in Changanacherry, the Holy Cross College in Trichy, before she joined the English department of St. Teresa's College in 1955. She retired as Head of the Department (HOD) in 1982, and continued for another ten years in an unofficial capacity, because her successor had fallen ill. “I taught till I was 70,” she says.

And she has a circle of admirers. “Sr. Mary Rose was a strict disciplinarian,” says Betty Kuriyan, a former HOD. “To create fellowship among the teachers, she would hold monthly gatherings.” Adds Annie Jacob, another HOD, who retired in 2008: “We would be sure that Sr. Mary Rose would not take sides and would be impartial always.”

On December 2, the former and present faculty will be celebrating the ‘Navadi’ (Ninth decade) of Sr. Mary Rose at a function at St. Teresa’s. “There will be a Mass, the cutting of the cake, several felicitations, followed by lunch,” says Betty. “We want to show our appreciation to her.”

(Some names have been changed)

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Nailing the accused

Notables like Justice V.K. Krishna Iyer, poet Chemmanam Chacko, forensic surgeon, Dr. Sherly Vasu, and Special Prosecutor, A Sureshan, speak about the Soumya murder case

Photo: Govindachamy being led outside the Thrissur fast track court by policemen after receiving the death sentence

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the monthly meeting of writers and artists, 'Poomukham', organised by the Heart Light Association, at Kochi, Justice V.K. Krishna Iyer, 97, clad in spotless white and accompanied by a doctor, says, “The death sentence should not be allowed, except in the rarest of rare cases. Our leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru rejected it. Half the countries in the world have abolished the death penalty. Life has been given by God and man has no right to take it.”

Justice Iyer was referring to the death sentence imposed by the Thrissur fast-track court on Govindachamy, the convicted killer of Soumya, a young girl who was travelling at night, on the Ernakulam-Shoranur passenger train, on February 1, and was raped and died a few days later.

However, poet Chemmanam Chacko says, “Govindachamy took a life in the most gruesome manner. How do we deal with such a man? Unless there is a strict punishment, people will not behave properly.”

Listening to the speakers is Dr. Sherly Vasu, the senior-most forensic surgeon in the state, who had done the post-mortem on Soumya. Having a daughter of a similar age and travelling regularly on the same route that Soumya travelled, Dr. Vasu could empathise with what happened to the young girl. “The court case is fought on what is written in the post-mortem report,” she says. “So, it is important to do the job in such a way that there is no controversy about it.”

However, controversy did hit the post-mortem team when one of the doctors, A.K. Unmesh, of the Department of Forensic Medicine, Government Medical College, stated in the court, on October 10, that he had done the post-mortem himself.

“In fact, six people, including Dr. Unmesh, took part, and their signatures are there on the report,” says Dr. Vasu. “So I am surprised by his statement. I have no idea why he kept quiet all these months.” The post-mortem had been done on February 7, and Dr. Vasu testified in court about it from July 12-15. Meanwhile, Dr. Unmesh has been suspended from service, and faces an investigation.

Special Prosecutor A. Sureshan says that there are 123 digital photographs of the post-mortem. “It will be difficult for Dr. Unmesh to prove that he did the post-mortem by himself,” he says. “It seems to me that he had wanted to save the accused. If these photographs would not have been there, Dr. Vasu would have been in trouble.”

Sureshan, on dwelling on the case, says that there were 154 witnesses. They included a tribal from Wayanad, an auto-rickshaw driver, commuters, as well as the local people. “It was a brutal assault,” he says. “By the buttons that were seen on the floor of the train, it was clear that Soumya had put up a struggle. Her skull was broken by banging her head against the door. There was massive internal bleeding and her lungs were full of blood. Her teeth had been broken and she inadvertently swallowed it. It was discovered later in her stomach.”

Soumya lay on the tracks, late at night, her clothes ripped off, and the local people discovered her because they heard the large gasping sounds of the young girl trying to breathe.

"In the end it was a great news for me that Govindachamy was convicted, eight-and-a-half months after the murder,” says Sureshan. “Some people called me up and said, 'For a long time we felt that there were no courts or justice in this country. But now our faith is re-affirmed.' This judgement will have a healing effect on society.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)