Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A heightened sense of sensibility

Sudarshan Shetty, one of India's leading artists in installation art, talks about the likely impact of the Kochi Biennale, while on a brief visit to the city

Photo: Sudarshan Shetty showing an exhibit in Milan

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening at Fort Kochi, recently, Sudarshan Shetty, one of India’s premier artists in installation art, was spending time with painters Bose Krishnamachari and Jyoti Basu. As they were talking about how Kochi could become a match for the world-famous Venice Biennale, a large, international ship sailed past.

“It was such a picturesque scene,” says Shetty. “It seemed like a preamble to a Biennale. There was this movement of  people from abroad. Definitely, the Biennale will establish Kochi on the world stage.”

Shetty had come to Kochi to check out the various locations for the Biennale. So, he did go to the Muziris site in Kondungaloor, and all over Kochi. “The trip was fantastic, in terms of understanding the cosmopolitan nature of the city,” he says. “There is such a lot of history, what with all the cultures coming in – Christianity in the first century AD, the Arabian traders from the Middle East, followed by the Portuguese, Dutch, and the British.”

When he went to Jew Town, he felt he was being transported back to another world. “I had the same feeling when I went to Malayatoor, the place where St. Thomas arrived on his visit to Kerala in AD 52, and to the first Muslim mosque in India: the Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kodungaloor.”

Kochi is the most appropriate place for the Biennale. “If you look at the history, it was a place where liberalism was celebrated,” says Shetty. “Everybody was welcomed with open arms. The rulers allowed outsiders to do trade and there were cultural exchanges.”

Asked whether a major city like Mumbai or Delhi would have been appropriate, Shetty says, “In big cities, old buildings have been demolished, in the name of development. As a result, a lot of the history has been erased. But in Kochi, history is an ongoing reality.”

Shetty has been mulling over the type of installation art that he could make, which would be ideal for the setting. “I have been doing a lot of research,” he says. And in the course of it, Shetty has discovered something new.

“In Mangalore, I have been looking at old houses,” says the Mumbai-based Shetty, who belongs to the land-owning Bunt community in Karnataka. “Apparently, a lot of them were designed by Kerala craftsmen. That was very interesting for me. I will be taking ideas from our traditional architecture, and applying it to my own art. I am also going to look at local materials in Kochi.”

During his visit Shetty had a look at the refurbished Durbar Hall art gallery. “It is of an international class,” says Shetty, who has exhibited in London, New York, Milan, Oslo, Davos, Denmark, Japan and the Netherlands. “It has been remade beautifully, and the essential character of the building has been retained. I will give my right hand to exhibit there one day.”

The artist is aware of the controversies regarding the setting up of the Biennale, but says that he knows the people behind the project, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyaz Komu, for more than twenty years. “They are able people and have achieved a lot in their own fields,” says Shetty. “They have a lot of international exposure and the expertise to set up a biennale. Both of them belong to Kerala and that is an added advantage.”

What is also an advantage is the impact it will have on the people. “These initiatives will change the sensibility of the people,” says Shetty.  “Kochi will become an art centre. In Baroda, just because an art school exists, there is a completely different way of viewing art among the ordinary people. In many middle-class homes I have seen paintings by well-known artists. A similar change will take place in Kochi once the international art exhibition comes up.”

In the Kochi Biennale, artists of international class will be showcasing their art every two years. “This will improve the standard of the local artists when they are exposed to international art,” says Shetty. “The fact that I could see a lot of world class art when I was young made a big difference to my artistic sensibility. I could understand how things were made and the processes behind it. The same will happen to the artists in Kochi.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In tune with each other

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Dr. V. Krishnan Mohan talks about life with singer Sujatha

Photo: Sujatha, with daughter Shwetha and husband Dr. V. Krishnan Mohan 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dr. V. Krishna Mohan remembers clearly the first time that he saw Sujatha. It was the year 1971. A wedding was taking place at Guruvayur. Yesudas was scheduled to give a performance. He had invited his friend Mohan to attend it. As Mohan sat on the stage, he saw a seven-year-old girl, wearing a white frock, make her way from the audience towards the platform. Mohan was 19-and-a-half years old at that time.

Soon, Sujatha stood beside Yesudas and sang ‘Mazhavil Kaavadi’ from ‘Nellu’. Thereafter, she sang Lata Mangeshkar's ‘Aaja Re Pardesi’ from the Hindi film, 'Madumati'. “I was struck by her voice,” says Mohan. “She sounded like a professional.” Thereafter, when Sujatha came and sat next to him, after the performance, he leaned sideways, and said, “You have an amazing voice.” Sujatha smiled shyly.

The next day, at the Guruvayur temple, they met accidentally. Sujatha immediately told her mother, “This was the uncle I was sitting next to, on the stage, yesterday.”

Thereafter, the combination of Baby Sujatha and Yesudas created a storm in Kerala. “I saw her in different concerts,” says Mohan. “Soon, through Yesudas, she came to my house in Palakkad. My parents are avid music lovers.”

In 1979, Mohan, an accomplished singer himself, was practising as a doctor at Palakkad. Soon, he began looking out for a life partner. When Chembai Vaidyanatha Bagavathar, the doyen of Carnatic music, whose disciple was Mohan's mother, and Yesudas heard about it, they suggested the name of Sujatha. “Both of them felt that it would be better for Sujatha if she got married into a household which is passionate about music,” says Mohan. “My mother was also very keen. I thought about the pros and cons and finally agreed.”

The marriage took place on May 9, 1981. And Mohan keenly remembers the couple's first overseas trip to America in 1982. At the inaugural concert in New York, Sujatha tripped over certain wires on the stage and dislocated her kneecap. She had to be rushed to the hospital. Thereafter, for the 21-city tour, Sujatha sang from a wheelchair. “Many people thought she was handicapped,” says Mohan.

This incident highlights Sujatha's dedication to music. “She is willing to give her life for a song,” says Mohan. “During a recording session, Sujatha frequently forgets about food and other activities.”

When they go abroad for a concert, Sujatha is not keen to do sightseeing, especially on the day of the performance. “She wants to preserve her voice,” says Mohan. “Sujatha will also not speak much, in order not to strain her throat. So, we maintain 'mauna vratham' (silence). There are many singers who will say, 'Let us go out and enjoy ourselves.' But Sujatha is not like that. This is the attitude of Yesudas and she has been influenced by that.”

And unlike many singers, she does not say 'yes' to each and every concert she is asked to perform. “Sujatha will check everything about the organisers, equipment, stage, audience, and the food,” says Mohan. “If the sponsor is strong and sincere, and will protect her performance, then only will she say yes.”

Sujatha has other qualities that Mohan admires. “She is a good interior decorator,” says Mohan. “By nature, she is methodical and a good mother.”

In fact, Sujatha withdrew from the music scene when she was pregnant with her daughter, Swetha. “She was absent for five years, from 1981-85,” says Mohan. “Many people thought she had retired. We felt she would not be able to make a comeback.”

But Sujatha had a resurgence in her career through Priyadarshan’s film, 'Chitram' in 1988, and composer A.R. Rahman’s Tamil version of 'Roja' in 1991, in which she sang 'Pudhu Vellai Mazhai. It became a big hit and Sujatha has not looked back ever since.

As an artist, she is over-sensitive. “If Sujatha sings a single note wrongly, she gets very upset,” says Mohan. “She will tell me, 'I did not sing well', although nobody else would have noticed the mistake.”

As a result, Mohan is careful in the way he deals with his wife. “I cannot talk roughly with her, the way some husbands do, with their spouses,” he says. “I have to be careful about what I say. I developed a non-interfering attitude. You cannot question her all the time. It was tough initially, but I have learnt to get along with Sujatha. 

Mohan pauses and says, “All this is possible only when there is love. Without love, no marriage can last.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Out of her brother's shadow

Belinda, the younger sister of Remo Fernandes, sings Spanish, Portuguese, Cuban, Italian, and French songs, with verve and panache

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the curtain goes up for the start of the music concert by Belinda Fernandes and the Tropicanos, the audience is in for a surprise.

Belinda is wearing a purple skirt, with a transparent gold scarf and ghungroos on her feet. And when she begins a Kathak dance, at the JT Performing Arts Centre, Kochi, the music accompaniment is not a tabla and the harmonium, but a fado sung by one of Portugal ’s greatest singers, the late Amalia Rodrigues. There is a nice drum beat, and Belinda twirls around, thumping her feet on the stage, and smiling occasionally.

I was exposed to the fado at home and have a passion for Kathak,” says Belinda. “So I thought, ‘Why not fuse the two?’ It is a dream come true, because nobody had done this earlier.”

The actual performance begins with a Brazilian song. Belinda sings in Spanish, holding an acoustic guitar. In another Brazilian song, ‘Voyeur’ which is about a small bird, despite the title, Belinda plays the flute. And at the end, there is a long duet between Mukesh Ghatwal on keyboards and bass and Munna Chari on timbales and percussion, which reminds one of the legendary jugalbandis between Allah Rakha on the tabla and Ravi Shankar on the sitar.

Belinda has a low-key charisma, made attractive by her evident shyness and introvert nature. When Aaradhana Khanna, the compere, gives a thumbs-up from the second row, Belinda gives a radiant, but relieved smile.

The songs continue: Cuban, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French songs. She also sings a song about Goa: of how a most beautiful land is becoming a concrete jungle. Not surprisingly, she also bemoaned the widespread corruption -- an allusion to the land mafia-politician nexus.
After the interval, Belinda switches over to a satiny brown top and leggings and wears a bright pink feather hat. She moves easily into the Kizomba, an African-style song from Angola. The group also sings a composition, ‘Chilling out’, which they played for the soon-to-be released film, ‘Love Wrinkle-Free’. And all along, the audience clapped along, unable to resist the sheer magic of the beat.

“It is my first performance in Kochi,” says Belinda. The singer clarifies that they don't do copies of songs. Instead, they are fresh impressions. For 'Voyeur', the band introduced sitar sounds and an alaap.

Incidentally, Belinda is following in the footsteps of her illustrious brother, Remo, who is Goa 's most famous musician. “He has been my idol all along,” says Belinda of her brother, who is eight years older. “I admire his creativity and originality. Remo has formed his own style: a fusion of Indian and Western music.” Sometimes, the Tropicanos performs before Remo in concerts all over the country.

Affected by shyness and stage fright for many years, Belinda turned to academics and secured a doctorate in comparative French literature from the Sorbonne in Paris. Thereafter, she became a professor at Goa University and was also the director of the Alliance Francaise. But her mother’s death in 2005 forced her to go out for parties, with husband Carmelio Machado, to get over the pain.

In Goa, sometimes, bands invite members of the audience to come up and sing. Belinda began to be called up. Suppressing her fear, she sang songs here and there. And that was how she began thinking of a singing career.

In 2006, she set up the band, with her husband as manager, and it has now performed all over the country, in Hongkong and at the ‘Festival of India’ in Macao in 2010. Belinda has also started writing her own songs and has brought out a CD called ‘Belinda - Festa Tropicana’. Here are a couple of lines from the song, 'Unopened Doors': ‘Tiptoeing through your heart/ Should I stay or walk away?’ 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Crossing over to a new beginning

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

One of India's premier guitarists, Baiju Dharmajan, is about to release his first solo album, ‘The Crossover’

Photos: Baiju Dharmajan; the cover of the album

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few months ago, Baiju Dharmajan had gone to Munnar to spend a few days. He was accompanied by two members of the music group, 'Kaav': Syam N Pai and Shabeer P Ali. One day, at dawn, Baiju got up and looked out. It was cold, misty, and cloudy. “There was a strange mood,” says Baiju. He picked up the guitar and began to play a few chords. Thankfully, Syam, who had awakened, captured it on a handycam. Syam suggested that that it could be put on the album that Baiju was working on. The latter agreed. “When I returned to Kochi, I developed it into a full-fledged song, called 'Landscape,'” he says.

Thereafter, he worked on another five songs. This comprises the album, 'The Crossover' which is expected to come out at the end of May. “'The Crossover' is the merging of Eastern and Western music,” he says. “Most of the lead guitar sounds have a Carnatic base.”

Among the other compositions there is one called 'Cyber Reptile'. “The new-generation kids are so obsessed with the Internet, Facebook and You Tube, apart from mobile phones,” he says. “They are crawling in cyberspace, like hungry reptiles.”

Another work, 'Philia', is an emotional one. “I wanted to show my love for my daughters,” he says. At present, his elder daughter, Ahana, is in Class 12, while the second child, Neha, is in Class seven. The nearly seven-minute song begins softly and then explodes into some intense lead guitar riffs, backed by drumbeats as background music. There is, as Baiju says, a bit of a Carnatic influence, with the plaintive sound that the guitar makes at times. It is attractive listening.

Since these are instrumental songs, people, who have heard it, have reacted in different ways. “If there were lyrics, there would have been a similar reaction,” says Baiju, with a smile.

What has been unusual is that Baiju played the instruments on his own – the lead and bass guitar  –  and programmed the drums, in his studio, 'Mystic Island', Kochi, and mixed it himself.

But now he has invited a few fellow musicians to play the songs with him. They include Alex Puthumana on the bass, Jayaraj on the drums, and Lancy on vocals and the keyboard. Baiju, of course, will play the lead guitar. In early June, the group will embark on a seven-city tour – Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati  – to launch the album. “We are busy doing rehearsals,” he says.

Baiju is releasing the music digitally through international web sites like Amazon and CD Baby. Also, through his recording company, Cochym (old name for Cochin), the CD will be available all over Europe.

The Mumbai-based Heena Kriplani, Entertainment Relations at Gibson Guitar, one of the top guitar brands in the world, has heard the some unmixed tracks from 'The Crossover'. “I love the bits I have heard,” she says. “There is some wonderful instrumentation. It seems to me that Baiju has really come into his own on this solo album.”

It is clear that Baiju has a God-given talent. “But he has backed it up with sheer hard work,” says Heena. “The things that he can do with a guitar are quite remarkable.”

When Baiju quit the well-known Motherjane band on November 24, 2010, people wondered what his future direction was going to be like. But he has been busy, appearing on the Dewarists show on Star World, a collaboration of musicians of different genres.

Baiju played with noted US-based percussionist and composer Karshkale, and Harigovind, a master of the Edakka drum. He was also a producer of 'Kaav's album, ‘Rhapsody of Rain’, and did a tour with the jazz fusion band called Blue Fire. “We played in Mumbai, Pune, and Goa,” he says.

When asked whether he has any regrets about leaving Motherjane, Baiju says, “Not at all. I have been composing new songs, changed my style of play, and worked with different groups. I have associated with all types of musicians. It has been fun and a good time creatively.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fear and paranoia

Many people are afflicted with mental diseases like schizophrenia. They are unable to distinguish between fact and delusion. May 24 is World Schizophrenia Day

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning, Ramesh Menon (name changed), a schizophrenia patient, set out to do a cartoon. But there was nothing funny in it. He drew an agonised man, with open mouth and shut eyes. Inside the head, where the brain is located, there are several questions marks. Just outside, above the temple, there is another series of question marks, ending in a large one near the forehead.

“I view everything suspiciously,” says Ramesh, describing the cartoon. “I told my mother about the disturbances caused by such thoughts. I get peculiar ideas often. At the same time, I believe I am blessed. I have a divine nature within me. But no one believes me.”

In another cartoon, Ramesh drew a coiled wire entering the ears of a person. All over the chest Ramesh has drawn ragged mountain-like peaks. The face, with a straggly beard, with a long nose and fleshy lips seems to be a self-portrait. Two drops of perspiration can be be seen at one side of the forehead.

“This drawing is about my experience," he says, "Something is piercing my ears. It is causing an unbearable sound and pain. I feel an intense burning inside the body and have to drink a lot of water to cool down.”

Dr. Dr. M. Chandrasekharan Nair, Director, Head of Psychiatry, Nair’s Hospital, Kochi, encouraged Ramesh to do drawings to capture what he was going through during a full-blown psychotic breakdown because of schizophrenia. The end result was several cartoons, which showed Ramesh's deep sense of paranoia and distrust of people.

“When he is sick, Ramesh is not in touch with reality,” says Dr. Nair. “But during other times, he talks sense. He is on a daily course of medicines.”

In the past, patients would suffer a visible impact when they took drugs. “They would have a catatonic look, shivering hands, and walk slowly but stiffly, almost like a statue, says Dr. Nair. “But that is no longer the case, thanks to new-generation drugs.” One of the most popular is Clozapine. “It is a wonderful medicine,” says Dr. Nair. “There are no visible side-effects and has a good impact in controlling the disease.”

Ramesh is now 35 years old and for the past several years he has managed to avoid having a breakdown by taking tablets regularly. He works as an accountant in a company and does cartoons in his spare time.

Apart from drugs, counselling helps to discover the factors that is causing stress in the patient. “In Ramesh’s case, he was under the delusion that everybody was teasing him,” says Dr. Nair. “But the family actually treated him well. I tried to tell him that.”

May 24, is World Schizophrenia Day. It is defined as a mental disorder which results in a breakdown of thought processes, emotions, reasoning, and an inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In India, around 25 million people suffer from the disease. In Kerala, there is also a significant number of victims.

“Schizophrenia occurs because of hereditary and genetic factors, the influence of the environment, and diseases like meningitis, which affect the brain,” says Dr. Nair. Some signs include the sudden withdrawal from the public. Or a person becomes incoherently garrulous. There is a lack of logic in his talk. Some believe that they are possessed of a divine or demonic spirit. There is also a paranoia that people are attempting to harm them.

“I know of a 17-year-old girl who has not gone to school for the past two years,” says Dr. Nair. “She told me that her parents have been attempting to poison her.”

Sadly, to watch a son or daughter fall prey to a mental disease is one of the most agonising experiences for a parent. “Because of the stigma of a mental illness, parents cannot confide in anybody,” says Dr. Nair. “Hence, they have to face an unbearable situation on their own.”

Interestingly, all normal people have schizophrenia-like experiences often. “When you have a dream at night, you go through incidents which seem to appear very real. You are being beaten, or chasing somebody, or flying in the sky. But the only difference is that, unlike the schizophrenic, you can awaken and realize that it is a dream, while the schizophrenic patient is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Here now, gone the next moment

A traditional item, ‘Cheppum Panthum’, which was performed in the durbars of kings, enabled Mayan Vaidar Sha to win the 'Close-Up' title in the Grand Indian festival of Magic in Bengaluru. He speaks about his career as a magician

By Shevlin Sebastian

Magician Mayan Vaidar Sha puts a mat on the floor and carefully puts four golden cups on it. Then he takes a small blue ball and places it under a cup. He places a wand over it and lifts another cup and takes the same blue ball out of it. He carries on doing this, taking out the ball from different cups. At one stage, the blue becomes an orange ball. Then astonishingly, it turns into a small sparrow. After another swish of the wand, the ball now becomes a tiny turtle.

The members of the Wednesday Club, which promotes communication and leadership skills, look on amazed. Mayan has still not finished. He puts a ball in his mouth and swallows it. At the climax, he produces a bunch of red seeds, from under the cup, seemingly out of nowhere.

This particular segment is called ‘Cheppum Panthum’. “It is ancient trick and used to be performed in the durbars of kings,” says Mayan. Very few people know how to do this item. In fact, it was prominent magician Prof. Vazhakkunnam Neelakandan Namboodiri who saved it from dying out. “I learnt it from Namboodiri's disciple Nanu Mash, but it took me four years,” he says. “This is all about conjuring.”

Mayan made some innovations. He added one more cup and came up with the idea of producing a turtle and red seeds. “In the original concept, the aim was to bring out red scarves,” he says.

Club member Nirmala Lilly is impressed. “Mayan's hand movements are so fast that we cannot see what he is actually doing,” she says. “The magic wand is a distraction for the audience. It seems like he is putting dust in the eyes and we cannot see anything.”

Undoubtedly, this item, ‘Cheppum Panthum’, is special. And when Mayan took part in the Great Indian Festival of Magic, conducted by the Magic Academy in Bengaluru, a few days ago, he secured the first prize in the Senior Close-Up competition. There were 17 magicians from all over India who took part. 

“The competition had some big names,” says Academy Founder-President K.S. Ramesh. One of the judges was Pilou, one of France 's well-known professionals and a world champion in magic. Says Ramesh: “The fact that Pilou chose Mayan means that he is very good. Mayan's forte is his traditional items.”

Mayan has been a magician for over 30 years and has performed all over Kerala. “My most popular item is mind-reading,” says Mayan. “I will call a member from the audience and ask him to think about something. And then I will tell him what he was thinking.” Mayan also does items on Aids awareness, the dangers of plastic consumption and industrial safety. “I convey all the messages through magic,” he says.

Mayan says that in most stage programmes, there are mechanical and conjuring styles. “For mechanical, you don't need much skill,” he says. “You open a box and there is nothing in it. Then you close and open it and there is something there.” In conjuring, you bring up something out of thin air. “You take a rope and make it look like you are cutting it up into two, three, or four pieces,” he says. “Then you join it up and make it a single rope. Later, you make it into a circle.”

Unfortunately, because of the lack of a magic culture in the state, Mayan is not a full-time professional. Instead, he works as an assistant engineer in the Cochin Shipyard. “I have to spend a lot of money on buying props, but thankfully, it is break-even for me,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

“Siddique has never scolded me”

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Sajitha talks about her 28-year marriage to the noted film director

Photo: By Manu R. Mavelil 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sajitha was five years old. It was her first day at the Darool Uloom higher secondary school at Pullepady, Kochi. Her first cousin was entrusted to take her. He placed her on the rod of his Hercules cycle, put the satchel on the back, and set out. “That is my first memory of my husband Siddique,” says Sajitha. At that time her grandmother told her son -- Siddique’s father -- Ismail Haji and daughter, Athika, that the two children should get married when they are older. “This custom of first cousins getting married is prevalent in the Muslim community,” says Sajitha.  

Sometime later, Siddique, who is nine years older than Sajitha, got a job as a clerk in the Darool Uloom school. “We would see each other often,” she says.

Eventually, they got married on May 6, 1984, at the Darool Uloom auditorium. “The school has played a big role in our lives,” she says. And ever since then it has been a roller-coaster ride for Sajitha. Within four months, Siddique resigned from his job and went off to work as an assistant director for director Fazil. “I was sixteen at that time and had no idea how risky this was,” she says. “It was only much later that I realised that my husband had given up a good job, for the uncertain life in the film industry. It would take years for him to get a steady income.”

But what immediately upset her was the fact Siddique went out of touch. “There were no phone calls or letters,” she says. After three months, when Siddique suddenly returned, Sajitha told him that she was pregnant. “There was no way I could pass the news to him earlier,” she says.

When Sajitha was taken to the City Hospital for the delivery, instead of staying and offering support, Siddique ran off with his friends to watch a film.

“Cinema is his passion,” she says. “But Siddique has a good heart. If somebody gets annoyed with him, he will still talk with that person. He keeps no resentment in his heart. Siddique has never scolded me or the children. Even if I get angry with him, he never loses his cool.”

But in the early years of their marriage, there were moments when Sajitha struggled to remain cool. “I will be talking to him and he will just smile at me and not say anything,” she says. “Most of the time he is in a different world. That is the case with all creative people. Initially, I would get irritated, but now I have got used to it. But that does not mean I remain silent. I keep talking to him and he still has a smile. Nothing has changed.”  

The couple has three daughters, Sumayia, Sara, and Sukoon.  Sumayia, 26, is married to Bengaluru-based professional Nabeel Mehran, and has a 10-month old daughter. Sara, 24, is doing a fashion design course at St. Teresa’s College, Kochi. But it was the third child, Sukoon, 22, that caused heartbreak for the parents.

“Sukoon with born with cerebral palsy,” says Sajitha. “It has been painful for us that our daughter is not well. Since she is unable to walk, we have not been able to take her to school. She has been taught at home.”

In fact, Sajitha is a 24-hour mother and nurse for Sukoon. “As a result, we don’t go out much,” she says. “But on rare occasions, our whole family goes out to see a film.”

Sajitha had been tense when Siddique was making the Hindi film, ‘Bodyguard’, in which Salman Khan was the hero. “I was worried about how it would do at the box office,” she says. “I prayed hard to God. But I never imagined it would be such a big hit. I was very happy for my husband.”

Meanwhile, asked about what advice she will give youngsters who are about to tie the knot, Sajitha says, “You have to learn to adjust to each other. Nobody is perfect. People have flaws. But you must forgive each other. And the most important thing is that the husband and wife should have a mutual trust.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

50 films old and going strong

By Kunchacko Boban

(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)

In the mid 2000s, I had a series of flops. One reason why this happened was because the audience sensed that I was getting fed up of doing these cliched ‘chocolate hero’ roles. So, I took a two-year break from acting and dabbled in business and real estate.

During this time, I did not miss acting. Instead, I pondered over what was missing in my acting. I realised that I did not go for risk-taking roles. The problem was that I did not like to change my hair style or alter my moustache. So I looked the same in almost all the films before I took the break. In my second innings, from 2009 onwards, I made it a point to look different.

In ‘Elsamma Enna Aankutty’, I played a village milkman. Until that time, no director or producer had the courage to give me such a role. They could not imagine me moving around in a M80 moped supplying milk. I cut my hair very short, toned down my make-up, and wore lungis. Overall, it was a big changeover.

The director of the film, Lal Jose, a close friend, convinced me to do the change. During the sabbatical I would keep going to his house and have discussions about acting and films. He said, “You should be in touch with the common man and know their pulse and emotions.” Incidentally, ‘Elsamma Enna Aankutty’, a common man’s story, became one of the biggest hits of 2010. Thereafter, I have had a series of successes: ‘Traffic’, ‘Seniors’, ‘Sevenes’, ‘Three Kings’, ‘Doctor Love’ and ‘Ordinary’, which is the first superhit of 2012.

Of course, the key is to select the right script. When I hear or read a script, I do it from the perspective of an ordinary person. All my other faculties are shut off: I am not an actor, and do not belong to the film industry. I am just a man on the street who wants to spend Rs 50 to watch a good film. If I get excited by the script, that is 50 per cent. Then I will study my character. How big or important is the role? Then I will look at who is the director, producer, technical crew and the banner. This is my formula for acting in a hit film.

But then what is a hit? A film may run for 100 days and will be called a hit by the audience, as well as the media. But it may not be so for the producer, if the budget is high and the costs have not been recovered.

In today's scenario, films are being classified as multiplex, theatre or Facebook hits. For example, a recent film, which I do not want to name, is a good one, but it is only a Facebook success. All the reviews and comments are positive, but the film has not done well, in terms of box-office collections or theatre audience reaction. The producer may not have recovered his money. So, all these definitions are relative.

I have just completed my 50th film in 15 years. What I would like to see is good scripts. But life has become faster. People don't have the time. So writers are also penning Twenty-20 cricket-style scripts. They miss out on the simple things in life. 

(Kunchacko Boban is one of the leading actors in Mollywood)

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Discovering a new type of spider

Scientist Dr. M.J. Mathew, while doing research in the Western Australian Museum, in Perth, discovered a new genus of spiders

By Shevlin Sebastian

When research scientist Dr. M. J Mathew got selected for the Endeavour Awards from the Australian government, he experienced a moment of joy. Mathew was given a grant of $26,000 to do research on spiders for six months. So, he went to the Western Australian Museum in Perth to work under his post-doctoral supervisor Dr. Volker Framenau.

And, quite surprisingly, they made a discovery of eight spiders in a new genus [category]. Says Dr Mark S. Harvey, senior curator of the museum: “Spiders are amongst those types of animals that are not studied often and we are still trying to untangle their evolutionary relationships and classifications. The fact that this genus was only discovered recently is due to the diligent work by Doctors Framenau and Mathew.”

Another reason why nobody in Australia discovered this was because these spiders had been classified wrongly under another genus – Araneus. Since these spiders were commonly found in Australia, Framenau and Mathew decided to call them plebs, from the Roman word, plebians, which means the common people. It is the right of the scientists who discover a new type to give a name for the spider, but it has to be Latinised. “That is the international protocol,” says Mathew. 

In fact, Mathew named one of the spiders as Plebs Salesi, in honour of the late Fr. Francis Sales, CMI, the founder of Sacred Heart College, Thevara. “The college is my alma mater,” he says. “I did my research studies there.”

Meanwhile, the most distinguishing feature of these spiders is an inverted U-shaped white mark on the abdomen. “It looks like the alphabet ‘Ra’ in Malayalam,” says Mathew. “It’s reproductive structures are also different from other species.”

Another intriguing aspect is that these spiders can be found in places like India, China, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, and Papua Guinea. “The hypothesis is that all these countries were part of a single tectonic plate, based on the presence of the spiders,” says Mathew. “This happened millions of years ago. Then the plates separated, and India, China, and the other countries drifted away from Australia.”

Interestingly, in India, the spiders are located in a temperate climate, which is similar to Australia ’s. “So, the plebs can be found in Ooty, Darjeeling and Kanthalloor, near Munnarall high-altitude areas,” says Mathew.

Mathew and Framenau have sent their study to the internationally reputed Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society in London. “The paper has already been accepted for publication, after three independent referees, who studied the report, gave the go-ahead,” says Mathew. This means that, following publication, their discovery will be accepted worldwide. This is a big achievement for a researcher from Kerala.

Mathew’s future plans include research on spiders that are found on the forest floor in the Western Ghats.

Apart from scaling new heights, the stint in Australia has been a learning experience for Mathew. “The professionalism in Australia has to be admired,” he says. “Unlike in Kerala, employees will never chit-chat during working hours. They are focused on their job. It is only at lunch-time that they talk to each other.”

They also do not compromise on research. “In Kerala, recently, there was a Ph. D scam where you could buy doctoral theses,” says Mathew. “Such a scenario is impossible in a merit-based society like Australia. Instead, you have to work hard before submitting your thesis and earn a doctorate.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Making the strings sing

Sitar maestro Pandit Prateek Chaudhuri, of the senia gharana, kept an audience spellbound at the JT Pac, Kochi. Pandit Mithilesh Jha accompanied him on the tabla

By Shevlin Sebastian

Before he begins his sitar recital at the JT Pac, Kochi, Pandit Prateek Chaudhuri makes a statement. “We must promote our own culture,” he says. “We are now surrounded by a vicious cycle of Western music. It is a sad state of affairs, especially in north India. The JT Pac is one of the few organisations in India doing wonderful service to promote our culture. Kochi will always remember its contribution.”

Thereafter, Prateek begins the concert with the raga Jhinjhoti. “It is a romantic raga,” he says. In the senia gharana, which was named after Mia Tansen (1506-89), the doyen of Hindustani classical music, they use the Dhrupad style, the purest form of music. As he starts strumming the sitar, Prateek says, “You can enjoy the alaap with your eyes closed.” As some members of the audience do so, tabla player Pandit Mithilesh Jha occasionally nods his head in appreciation.

Thereafter, the duo moves into the Raga Bihag. Following that, Prateekji plays the 8 ½ beats cycle, which is difficult to perform. After a while, both the sitar and the tabla are in conversation and it is fascinating to watch.

“It is a dialogue that I had with Mithilesh,” says Prateek, after the concert. “Sometimes, he plays his part and I play mine. At other times, I ask a question and he replies. We wanted to display our creativity. There were no rehearsals earlier. Mithilesh did not know what ragas I was going to play. He had to respond spontaneously to what I was doing.”

In this friendly contest, it was interesting to see Prateek’s facial expressions. Sometimes, he had a frown, on other occasions, he grimaced, and many times he gave encouraging smiles to Mithilesh. There were moments when his body shook with the effort. “Each artiste has his own individual style,” he says. Playing at electrifying speed seems to be Prateek’s forte.

The musician is the son of Pandit Debu Chaudhuri, a Padma Bhushan, and learnt the sitar from his father, as well as the latter’s guru, Ustad Mushtaq Ali Khan Saheb. “I gave my first concert at four years of age,” says the 40-year-old. Prateek is the ninth generation of musicians belonging to the senia gharana, which began with Ustad Maseet Sen, a relative of Mia Tansen.

The peculiarity of this gharana is that it uses 17 frets on the sitar, unlike the 19 – 21 frets which are there in other gharanas. Interestingly, despite the impact of the British rule, no note had been changed in the senia gharana for 200 years.

But Prateek has adapted himself to change. In order to attract the young, he has started two groups: Sitar Ecstasy, and Sitars of India.

“I have used the fusion route, playing alongside drums, keyboards, the piano and western percussion instruments,” he says. Apart from this Prateek, who has a doctorate in music, is also an associate professor in the same subject at Delhi University. So, he is in the unique position of being a top-class academician, as well as an artiste.

At the JT Pac concert, the recital reaches a climax. For a full five minutes, Prateek is in full flow, playing the strings at high speed, while Mithilesh ably keeps up with him, forming a mesmerising wall of sound. Not surprisingly, the audience gives them a heart-felt applause at the conclusion.

Says Prateek: “People are afraid to listen to classical music because they are not exposed to it. But our music is like a drug. Once you taste it you don't want to give up on it.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

‘Sibi is a good person at heart’

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Bala speaks about her life with noted director Sibi Malayil

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1988, Bala was working in the Anna Nagar branch of the South Indian bank at Chennai. Since film producers were customers, they would sometimes invite the bank staff to see preview shows. “That was how I was able to see 'Thaniyavarthanam',” says Bala. “I was much impressed and developed an admiration for the director, Sibi Malayil.”

A few months later, Bala came to Kerala for a vacation. While there, she saw Sibi's next film, ‘August 1’, at Saritha theatre in Kochi, along with her sister, Beena. As the credits began to roll, Beena told Bala that they had received a marriage proposal from Sibi's family.

Soon, Bala returned to Chennai. Thereafter, many proposals came and she said no. “I wanted to marry Sibi,” she says. “My father was not agreeable, because of the negative image of the film industry. My mother asked why I was so insistent. I said I had no reason, but just wanted this alliance to come though.”

At 4 p.m., on December 26, 1988, Sibi and Bala met for the first time. The director collected Bala from her Chennai office and they went for a cup of coffee at a nearby cafeteria. “Sibi told me that because he was in the cinema world I would hear all sorts of gossip,” says Bala. As Sibi spoke Bala never felt that she was talking to a stranger. “It seemed to me as if I had known him for a long time,” she says. Later, they travelled on a public bus towards Bala’s hostel. At the gate, Sibi said, “So what have you decided?”

Bala said that she would give the answer later. The next day she did not call. Her close friend and hostel-mate Geeta asked Bala why she was delaying. Geeta said, “You should not lose him just because you did not call.” On December 28, Bala called up from the bank, but Sibi was unavailable. He called Bala in the evening and said, “Why did you call?” Bala replied, “You must be knowing the reason.”

Sibi and Bala got married on March 27, 1989 at St. Mary’s Basilica, Kochi. So, after 23 years of marriage, what is the character analysis of her husband? “Sibi is a good person at heart,” says Bala. “He rarely gets angry and will never bring the problems on the set back home. He is a good father and a husband. We always had a nice time, even though films are Sibi’s passion and livelihood.”

Of course, like any person, Sibi has negative points. “He cannot say no to anybody,” says Bala. “Somebody will come and ask for money, promising to pay back within a week, and Sibi would never get it back. He would also never enquire about the loan. I would ask him why he was doing this. As a director he would not get the full amount from the producers and Sibi would keep mum regarding the arrears.”

One reason could be because Sibi has an artistic inclination. “That is why he is not a good businessman,” says Bala. “Sometimes, he will be in his own world. When I talk to him, he may not hear me. Instead, he will just stare at me. In the early years, I would get angry. Then I realised that it is his nature.”  

One of Bala’s unforgettable moments took place in March, 1990. She did a pregnancy test at KHM Hospital in Chennai. In the evening, the couple went to collect the test report. “Sibi asked me not to open the envelope,” says Bala. “We got into the car and drove on till he stopped under a huge tree in Anna Nagar.” Sibi opened the envelope and the report had one word, which sent their hearts soaring:  ‘Positive’.

When they went home and Bala opened the bedroom door she got the biggest surprise of her life. “The walls were covered with baby posters,” she says. “It was an unforgettable moment for me. We had prayed very hard for a Christmas baby. And my son, Joe, was born on December, 27, 1990.” Later, they would have a daughter, Zeba.

While Joe is doing a bachelor’s course in photography from the University of Middlesex, England, Zeba is doing her architecture degree from the Hindustan University of Technology and Sciences at Chennai.  

Meanwhile, when Bala is asked whether she would have been happier marrying a bank officer, a look of horror comes on her face. “It would be so boring,” she says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Going like a Bullet!

From Kochi, via Kolkata and Patna, Duke Ninan went solo all the way to Jiri in Nepal on his 'Classic Sandstorm' 500 cc bike

Photos: Duke Ninan on his Bullet; a view of Mount Everest

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a highway in Andhra Pradesh, Duke Ninan screeched to a stop on his bike. A boy was lying on the ground. Blood was pouring out from one side of the head. He lay still and unmoving. A few stones were placed alongside his body, so that he would not be run over. “The boy had been hit by a speeding car,” says Duke. “Nobody bothered to take him to the hospital. Soon, he breathed his last.”

On his Rs 1.6 lakh 'Classic Sandstorm' 500c Bullet, Duke was travelling from Kochi to Kolkata, Patna and onwards to Nepal. In Sindhulee district, Duke came across a bridge held up by cables. “It was only three feet in width, and was swaying from side to side,” he says. Duke felt nervous. But he bit his lip and drove his Bullet through. “There were tense moments when I felt that I would slip off and fall into the river,” he says.

Initially, Duke had planned a trip to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Malaysia. “I had secured all the visas,” he says. But at the Bangladesh border, immigration officials told him that there was a war going on between the Kachin rebels and Myanmar government troops. “It would be risky for me to try to cross the country,” says Duke. So he turned around and from Kolkata he decided to go to the base camp of Mt. Everest.

However, when he reached Kathmandu, travel guides told him that the motorable route ended at the town of Jiri, 214 kms away. From there, there is a 15-day trek to reach the base camp. “At Jiri, I trekked for about three hours, to get an idea of the terrain,” he says. Duke returned, via Varanasi, Jabalpur, Nagpur, Hyderabad, and Bangalore. Total distance covered: 8037 kms in 18 days. Last year, Duke had gone on a similar trip, from Kanyakumari to Shimla: 11,233 kms in 32 days.

For his journey, Duke wore a pullover and trousers. “I had a sweater, because it is porous,” says Dean. “This helps the perspiration to go out. And it is a good protection in cold weather. I also had glucose to counter dehydration.” Duke also wore army boots to protect the ankles, whenever he kick-started the Bullet.

And throughout his journey he took videos where he talked into the camera about his experiences. So, at one abandoned petrol bunk, in Berhampore, Odisha, he ate puris, as he prepared to sleep on the floor. “I am taking a power nap,” he tells the camera.

In Chandipur, Odisha, he points at the sea and says, “This is my first sight of the Bay of Bengal .” At Bastar, Chhattisgarh, he says, “Collector Alex Menon was abducted by the Maoists from here.” At Jiri, he points at the distance, and says, “Look at the beauty.” It is a range of snow-filled Himalayan peaks, of which the tallest is Mount Everest.

At Adilabad, he has a puncture. “Last year, at the same place, some nuts came loose on my bike,” he says. “Just a coincidence, perhaps.” Duke had more coincidences: in Pollachi, Berhampore and Kolkata, he saw a raven flying in the sky. “There seems to be some kind of message for me,” he says.

The police gave him a message which elevated him. When he was travelling through Odisha, whenever any police officer saw the national flag pinned between the handles, they would salute it. “Many constables of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police [in the Himalayas ] as well as the Armed Protection Forces of Nepal greeted me,” he says. “They commended me for my courage and initiative.”

Duke, 56, a former vice-principal in schools in Ludhiana and Tiruvalla, worked for 13 years in Dubai, before returning to Kochi. His family, which includes his wife and two sons, remains abroad. “I felt an emptiness in my life, so I thought I would come back and try something adventurous,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Back from the brink

T.P. Madhavan, who has acted in 500 Malayalam films, is back in the industry after a life-threatening illness

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 5 p.m. on January 9, P.F. Roshin Joseph, the manager of Lotus Club, got a call on his mobile. It was Dr. Abraham Cherian who told him that he had heard that his friend, the actor T.P. Madhavan was unwell. Since Madhavan stayed close to the club and was a member, Roshin was asked to check on the veteran.

When Roshin, accompanied by assistant manger, Bince Sebastian, arrived at the building, he saw that Madhavan was sitting on a chair near the entrance. “He did not seem okay to me,” says Roshin.
Says Madhavan: “I felt very tired. I remember going downstairs [from the fourth-floor flat]. Thereafter, my mind is blank.”

The duo took Madhavan’s car keys and drove him to the nearby Lakshmi Hospital . After some tests, Madhavan was taken out to do a CT scan and eventually that night, he was admitted into the Medical Trust Hospital.

Dr. Sudish Karunakaran, senior consultant neurosurgeon, at Medical Trust Hospital inspected Madhavan and observed that there was bleeding on the surface of the brain. Because of this, the pressure within the skull was enormous. It was a life-threatening situation,” he says.

At that time Madhavan was in a delirious stage. Immediately, Dr. Karunakaran did a  keyhole surgery and drained out the blood in the cranium. “In other words, we arrested the bleeding,” he says.

The actor remembers an incident during his stay. “I got up from the bed and went down the stairs, [from the fourth floor], all the way to the entrance, where I saw a big, broad-shouldered man guarding the entrance,” he says. “Frightened, I returned to the room.”

But Dr. Karunakaran is not sure such an incident took place. “A male nurse was with him throughout,” he says.

Madhavan felt that he was going to die. “I told myself: ‘I am happy with the way my life has turned out,” he says. “I thanked God for keeping my death in abeyance till my 75th year.”

But Madhavan, who has acted in 500 Malayalam films, survived. He spent three weeks in the hospital, and later had a stay in Specialists Hospital for an urinary problem. “He has made a complete recovery,” says Dr. Karunakaran.

At his apartment, Madhavan says, “When I look out of my window I can see the Ernakulathappan temple. God has saved my life. I always say thanks to Him.”

On a sunny day, Madhavan steps out to have lunch at the Lotus Club. On the street, he is immediately greeted by a pedestrian. An auto-rickshaw driver gives a smile of recognition. “Because I am still active in films, people know me,” he says. At the club, not surprisingly, waiters, and other members greet him.

“I feel fit and fine,” says Madhavan, over a thali meal. In fact, he has already returned to acting. He played small roles in a Shaji Kailas film, ‘Simhasanan’ and Renjith’s film, ‘Spirit’. In the latter film, thanks to Mohanlal, Madhavan played a role of a man sitting on a bar stool in Cochin Club and sipping whiskey. Mohanlal comes in and the bartender, played by Tiny Tom, tells the superstar, pointing at Madhavan, “Sir, look at Menon Sir. He comes in the morning, has two pegs and goes home in the afternoon. He comes in the evening and has two more pegs. He does not say anything bad to anybody.”

But for Madhavan, what really moved him was when producer Antony Perumbavoor paid him far more that what is usually given for this role. “It enabled me to recover from the hospital expenses,” says the veteran actor.  

As for Madhavan’s future plans, he wants to continue acting. “In cinema, a career does not end unless you want it to end,” he says. “Remember, at age 81, Premji played a role in Shaji Karun’s 'Piravi' and won a best actor national award.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

‘Bala is very caring’

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Singer Amrutha Suresh talks about her life with the actor

By Shevlin Sebastian  

The first time singer Amrutha Suresh saw Bala she was taken aback. He was wearing a torn lungi and a checked shirt and had dark smudges on his face. Bala was playing a deaf orphan in the film ‘Venalmaraam’. The shoot was taking place at Palakkad. Amrutha's younger sister, Abhirami, had a small role.

At that time, Amrutha had hit the public spotlight with her performance during the Idea Star Singer contest. The local people surrounded her. Bala asked why this was so. Senior actor Mala Aravindan told Bala about Amrutha’s new celebrity status and also that she  was the playback singer for the film. And it was then that Bala realised that when he was coming to the set, he had been hearing Amrutha's 'Ayalathe Kuyile', and liked it a lot.

Later, Bala became a celebrity judge on the Star Singer show. After the taping, Amrutha and Bala started speaking on the phone. “He was already friends with Abhirami,” says Amrutha. Soon, they began a friendship.

But Amrutha remembers the precise moment that she fell in love. On her 18th birthday --August 2, 2008 -- there was nobody at their home in Edapally, Kochi. Abhirami was acting in the Kuttichathan TV serial in Thiruvananthapuram. “My parents had gone with her for the shoot,” says Amrutha. “I was feeling all alone.” 

And then, suddenly, without any advance notice, Bala landed up, with a chocolate cake, with the words, ‘Happy Birthday Ammu’, along with a gift. “That really touched my heart,” she says. “He was so busy, yet he took the time out to not only buy a cake, but also come in person to greet me.”

But both were hesitant to confess their feelings for each other. “I was scared to tell him because he was eight years older,” says Amrutha. “And he had the same thought that I was much younger than him.”

Eventually, Amrutha spoke to her parents about the friendship and Bala did the same with his mother. The families spoke to one another. Things were moving along smoothly. But Amrutha and her family needed the permission of one very important person in their lives: Mata Amritanandamayi. “For us, Amma is everything,” she says. And when Mata Amritanandamayi expressed her approval, the marriage took place on August 27, 2010, at a ceremony in Chennai. Incidentally, Bala is a Tamilian and a devotee of Lord Shiva.

So after one and a half years of marriage, what does she like the most about Bala? “He is a caring person,” says Amrutha. “If I ask for anything the next moment it is in my hands. Sometimes, he treats me like a child, because of the age gap. But he is a good-hearted person, who goes out of his way to help people.”

And unlike most husbands, he has been supportive of Amrutha’s singing profession. “My career is moving forward, without any hindrance,” says Amrutha. “In fact, I will be singing in Bala’s next film.”

Of course, like any person, Bala has weaknesses. “In the initial months of our marriage he would lose his temper,” says Amrutha. “But this was because we were two different people who were trying to adjust to each other.”

Asked whether Bala is different at work, Amrutha says, “Yes, when he is on the set, he is a serious person. He is dedicated to acting. But the moment he comes back home, he is relaxed. Despite playing a villain on set, at home, he is a soft person. He tells me everything that has happened on the set.”

And when the couple steps out in public, they have interesting experiences. “When we are together, very few girls approach us,” says Amrutha. But the moment Bala is alone, women will appear and some will go to the extent of pinching him. 

“I remember Bala telling me, one day, ‘Ammu, one girl pinched me so hard,’” she says. “I do feel jealous, but I know this is happening because of his profession. So I always try to be with him when he goes for public events.” Amrutha has her own share of admirers, but that was before she got married. “I received a lot of marriage proposals on the phone and even, formally, through families,” she says. “But by then I was deeply in love with Bala.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, May 07, 2012

The enigma that is India

Photos: The room of a temple worker; Painter Ken Johnson

Australian painter Ken Johnson captures myriad images of the sprawling country. His work ranges from the spiritual to the sardonic

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, Ken Johnson, one of Australia’s leading painters, was in a Bhajan Kutir (House of Worship) at the Thar desert in Rajasthan. Suddenly, a man arrived. He was destitute, and looked worn-down and hopeless. He said, “I have nothing in my life. If I keep moving, I will die.” The temple authorities told him to wait. They went inside and held a discussion. Later, one of them came out and said, “If you look after the temple premises, you can stay.” And the man started living there.

“This could happen only in India,” says Ken. “Despite having more than a billion people the country is willing to accommodate more. There is a heart beating strongly in India. In any other country, the beggar would have been turned away.”

Ken drew the room in which the destitute man lived. Painted in a light brown pastel shade, it shows a wooden bed placed next to a wall. Above it is a dark brown shirt hanging on a nail. Next to it is a clock, with a black dial, showing the time: 1.50 p.m. So the man is clearly past the high noon of his life. Apart from that, there is a photo of a goddess and of a man, who has a moustache turned up at the corners. It conveys, deftly, a sense of somebody who has very few possessions: living a bare life.   

Ken first came to India in 1973 and instantly fell in love with the country. “As an artist, I have been impacted by the vibrant colours,” he says. “I never run out of ideas here.”

He has traveled to more than a hundred countries and encountered a bewildering mixture of peoples and cultures. “But Indians are very different,” he says. “In other nations, the people are so aggressive, while Indians are soft and kind…. most of the time. There is such a mind-boggling variety: from naked sadhus at the Kumbh Mela, to warrior-like Rajputs, and soft-spoken Malayalis.”

When Ken was assigned to do a cover of Bhagwad Gita, he began reading the Holy Book. “I found the Lord Krishna section the most interesting,” he says. “Krishna is an enigmatic figure, who prophesies and evaluates, and has interesting conversations, especially with Arjuna, about the way we should and should not live.”

Ken has done several works on Krishna with Arjuna, with Radha, and surrounded by gopikas. There is one of Krishna and Radha embracing each other, while he plays a flute. Done in a striking blue, Krishna has expressive black eyes and sensuous red lips. “I like the fact that Krishna is a bit of a rascal,” says Ken. “When the gopikas are taking their bath, he runs away with their clothes. This shows his cheekiness and the human side of God.”

Ken also has a bit of cheekiness. In his canvas, ‘Hot and Cold’, he shows cones and sticks next to a wall, with the word ‘Ice cream’ written boldly in Hindi. Above it is an electricity meter with black wires running out of it. “In the West you will not see wires hanging out like this,” he says. “But in India, it is all over the place. If you touch it, you could die. And yet this is a common sight. I saw this in Jodhpur.”

Nevertheless, Ken has been fascinated by the graffiti that he sees on the walls. “There are posters, drawings, political statements, doodles, and stick figures,” he says, “It is a society writing to itself.”

Ken, who is based in New South Wales, has also been doing some autobiographical work. In a painting titled ‘Transitions’, he drew his daughter Radha, when she was born ten years ago. “I also put her mother [a Bengali] and her grandmother in the middle. On the left is a Buddhist head which resembles spirituality. On the right, I paneled it off for the future, because I did not know what Radha was going to be. Thereafter, I waited. But now I have drawn a dancer. Radha has a talent for music and dancing.” In essence, ‘Transitions’ took a decade to complete.

All this and more can be seen at his exhibition, ‘Wider Circle’ at the David Hall in Fort Kochi. Asked why Fort Kochi, and not Delhi or Mumbai, Ken says, “Why not? It is a beautiful place and I have met some wonderful people with keen artistic sensibilities.”  

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)