Monday, April 30, 2012

Touching harmony through sound

Photo credit: Manu R. Mavelil

The Kochi-based Jacob George makes music loudspeakers that have a growing international reputation

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a hot weekday afternoon, architect Jacob George steps into a round-shaped building, just next to his house in Kakkanad, a suburb of Kochi. Inside, the floor is covered by a soft brown carpet. On shelves placed against the walls, there are numerous CDs, ranging from Bach and Beethoven to Barbara Streisand, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Eagles, and Yanni Live!

Near one wall are two gleaming silver-coloured ‘Maarga’ loudspeakers, around 3’3” in height. In between are the 'Gaanam' amplifiers. At a visitor’s request, Jacob slides in a familiar disc: ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles.

Soon, the music wafts gently through the speakers. But as the song picks up the tempo, the sound pulsates through: the lead, electric and acoustic guitars, as well as the drums. You are gripped by the clarity and purity of it. Soon, the music reaches a stunning crescendo, with a guitar interplay between band members Don Felder and Joe Walsh, which goes on for more than two minutes. A smiling Jacob says, “It took me a long time to get this kind of sound.”

The major difference between 'Maarga' and the other speakers is that it has one driver, the round diaphragm that we see from outside, unlike the three drivers – the tweeter, the mid range, and the woofer – that are there in other speakers. “In conventional speakers, the sound gets split into the three drivers,” says Jacob. “As a result, the efficiency drops. The tonality and the coherence are also affected. However, when you listen to a single driver, there is no splitting. The sound comes directly from the amplifier and the music is intense. There is a magical, emotional connect.”

Jacob, who grew up in Singapore, had studied and worked in the USA for many years. While there he was looking for good speakers, but most of them were high-end and unaffordable. So Jacob did some research on the Net and made the first speakers by himself. “It was then that I discovered that the single driver produced the best sound,” he says. “One day, I thought, 'Why can't I work on this further?'”

By this time, Jacob had returned to Kochi, where his retired parents lived. “On weekends and late at night, I worked on improving the quality of the sound,” says the pony-tailed Jacob, a partner in the architectural firm, Design Combine. However, the initial speakers did not do well because the deep bass sound could not be reproduced. “It was only in 2009 that I was able to solve the problem by putting in a bass module,” he says. Initially, the company, which is called Rethm (Sanskrit for harmony), imported drivers from the UK. But now it is custom-designed by the Mumbai-based Hermit Audio.

So far, Rethm has a line of three loudspeakers: Trishna, Maarga and Saadhana, which sell at Rs 1.5 lakh, Rs. 2.4 lakh, and Rs.  4.25 lakh respectively. “In the world of high-end speakers, these prices are low,” says Jacob. “Good speakers can cost anywhere from Rs 10 lakh to Rs. 1.5 crore. Ordinary people like teachers and lawyers buy my products.” At the moment, Jacob has been selling his speakers in the USA, Monaco, Norway, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia, and South Africa.

“We are steadily developing an international reputation,” he says. This is confirmed by the reviews which have appeared in Western music print and e-magazines. In, reviewer Frederick Beudot says, “I cannot remember the last time a review announcement generated so many emails, questions and audition requests as the Trishna has. If this is any indication of the growing awareness Jacob George’s unconventional yet resolutely ground-breaking speakers have garnered, the future looks promising.”  

Wrote Jason Victor Serinus in Stereophile magazine: “The biggest surprise was the pleasing sound of the Maarga speakers.”

At this moment, volumes are low because they are hand-made. It is only now that Jacob is entering the Indian market through dealers in Kochi, Bangalore, and Mumbai. And his reasoning is simple: Indians have a ‘foreign is better’ attitude.

“So I wanted to prove myself outside, so that people could read western reviews and realise how good the product is,” says Jacob. And, in the coming months, Jacob is hoping that his speakers will send the cash registers ringing, in India and abroad, and bring Rethm (harmony) all around.

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Is this what we think it is?

Photos: A painting called 'Trash'; artist Eberhard Havekost

Eberhard Havekost is one of Germany’s leading painters. His work reveals that there are different perceptions of reality

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of the oil paintings which immediately strike the viewer at the 'Eberhard Havekost in India' exhibition is one of trash. There are a couple of blue sacks, open cardboard boxes, a discarded sofa, a refrigerator, as well as an air-conditioner, picture frames, a rolled-up carpet, and paper cartons, all lying about haphazardly and drawn in a realistic style. “Rubbish in the public space is a big problem in India,” says curator Mathias Wagner. “But this image is from Berlin, so there is litter in public areas in Germany also.”

Eberhard is one of the leading painters in Germany now. He takes photos of various objects, be it buildings, TV images, advertising hoardings and rubbish. Thereafter, he either does a painting or makes a photographic print. Says artist Bose Krishnamachari, “Eberhard takes materials from day-to-day life and transforms it into wonderful art objects.”  

Eberhard's theory is that there are myriad versions of reality. “Each human being has its own interpretation,” he says. “Reality is constructed through the images in our head.”

So, there is a remarkable series of a single house as shown through a glass window pane which is banging in the wind. In one painting, the window looks elongated, in another, it is squashed, while in a third, the building itself changes shape.

In another series called 'Mobile, 1,2,3,4', it shows the same window of a moving suburban train in Dresden. So the image changes from sunlight, to pitch black, and a silver shade. “As the train keeps moving, the colour that is reflected in the windows also changes,” says curator Mathias. “Just like our perception of reality keeps changing all the time.”

The exhibition has been organised by the Dresden State Art Collections, in collaboration with the Kochi Biennale Foundation, with the support of the Department of Cultural Affairs, Kerala. This is to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Germany and India.

In another thought-provoking work, there are soldiers standing on an Army tank. It is a hazy image which is reproduced in another work, placed next to it, except for one difference: a round orb of light has been placed in the middle of the painting. “This indicates that a photograph has been taken,” says Mathias. “Eberhard is focusing on the reality created by the media. The painting is a reproduction of a TV image. The television screen is a solid object which you can touch, but the image is ephemeral.” Says Eberhard: “Like many people, I have a skepticism regarding the authenticity of images.”

Apart from paintings, there are 113 offset prints. Eberhard made them based on photographs he had taken. These include the front part of a rusted Mercedes Benz lorry, a man wearing a Superman suit, the fender of a car with its white paint peeled off, and a broken-down gramaphone record player. “I like viewers to make their own interpretations,” says Eberhard.

Interestingly, Eberhard, who came to Kochi last year, is impressed by the place. “It is a town that accepts the jungle surrounding it,” he says. But is the rapid urbanisation which is taking place a sign of progress? “Yes, just carry on,” says the artist. “But it would be nice if there were less rubbish and litter.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Exploring India on a Nano

Thomas Chacko, the former company secretary of Harrisons Malayalam Ltd., is embarking on a 25,000 km road trip, sponsored by the Tatas

By Shevlin Sebastian

Last year, Thomas Chacko was editing a book written by Suresh Joseph, the former General Manager of DP World, Kochi, who had travelled to 28 state capitals and 17 zonal railway headquarters in a Maruti Swift. “That was when I got the idea of doing something similar,” he says. “In fact, I wanted to do it in half the time.” It remained in Thomas's mind for several months, till January 21, this year, when he wrote a letter to Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata Sons.

Part of the letter read as follows: 'I propose to drive in a Tata Nano to not only all of India's state capitals and union territories, but to its farthest reaches as well – Kanyakumari in the south; Dwarka in the west; Kargil in the north; to the furthest motorable place in the East; and Nagpur, the geographical centre of India.'

A motoring enthusiast, Chacko has driven in eight countries: Canada, Malaysia, Oman, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Britain, United Arab Emirates, and the United States of America. He is also a Formula One aficionado, and has watched races in Sepang in Malaysia, Singapore, and Monaco.

Amazingly, in less than a month, after writing the letter, the Tatas gave Chacko the go-ahead to embark on a fully-sponsored trip. Asked why he chose the Nano, Chacko says, “Why not? It is a car that has put India on the world motoring map. Despite being the lightest car, and having the smallest engine in current production worldwide, the Nano can take on every kind of road, especially with its clearance of 180 mm.”

The other day Chacko received training from the Tata Motors team at Kochi. “The Nano has made optimum use of space so it was necessary for me to know where everything is,” he says. For instance, the jack is placed below the front passenger seat, while the battery is under the driver's seat.

At 63, Chacko is a senior citizen, but that has not deterred him at all. “I feel fit and fine,” he says. “Age is just a number in the head.” All this is a far cry from his former career as a company secretary and interim chief executive of Harrisons Malayalam Private Limited. Apart from that, he is a stellar author.

He has published a novel called, 'Without a City Wall'. “It is a first-person story of a young Englishman, James Badby,” he says. “It describes incidents in England, Malta, Flanders, Florence, Venice, Maldives, Malabar, Cochin, and the fabled capital of the Vijayanagar Empire during the 16th century.”

Chacko has also co-authored and published a 200-page coffee-table book, 'Forest Gold - The story of South Indian Tea.' This was done on behalf of the United Planters' Association of South India. Apart from this, Chacko has his own publishing company, Panthera (, for which he has ghost-written and edited books.

Meanwhile, the Kochi-based Chacko will embark on his trip from Mumbai on May 3. Regarding travelling through the insurgency-ridden states of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, he says, “I have been in touch with the local people, who have advised me on the routes to avoid. In the north-east, I will be getting help from the Army.”

Chacko hopes to finish his trip by the third week of July. “The total distance covered will be 25,000 km,” he says. “I plan to drive the entire way, but will have company at different stages – my wife Geetha [teacher, Choice School], daughter Miriam, son Rahul, brother Abraham [executive director,  Federal Bank], sister Rebecca, and brother-in-law Bejoy.”

You can follow Chacko on www.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An endless laugh riot

Photo: (From left: Poppat (Sagar Karande), Kashmira Shah, and Ajay (Yogesh Pagare)

In a brilliant comedy, ‘Tera Ghar Ke Saamne’, Bollywood actress Kashmira Shah impresses, along with other stage talents, at the JT Pac auditorium

By Shevlin Sebastian

The play opens with a man, Kutty (Vinod Gaikar), lying on the floor, while both his legs are placed on a low glass-topped table. Another man, Poppat (Sagar Karande), is sleeping on a sofa covered by a sheet, while a third, Ajay (Yogesh Pagare), is at one side, next to the wall, dozing off on a chair with an open mouth. There are a few empty Kingfisher beer bottles placed on the floor.

When the bell rings, Kutty shakes his legs assuming it is music that he is hearing. Finally, Poppat asks him to go and look at the door. A sleepy Kutty heads for the bathroom before Poppat shouts at him that the door is on the other side.

Kutty says, “Saw it!”

“Who is there?’ asks Poppat.

“A door,” says Kutty.

And thus begins an utterly crazy play called ‘Tere Ghar Ke Saamne’.

Bollywood actress Kashmira Shah is the heroine and plays Kashmira, who plans a kidnapping of herself, because she is crazy for publicity. And there is confusion galore, because she is supposed to be kidnapped by crime boss, Yedanna, for a fee of Rs. 2 lakh.
Instead, these three youngsters do the job.

In between house owner P.K. Tully (Rajesh Puri) drops in, and creates all sorts of tensions for the group because Poppat is living illegally with the others.

The play moves ahead, swiftly and with poise, with numerous one-liners sprinkled throughout, evoking constant laughs and guffaws from the mostly North-Indian audience at the JT Pac auditorium at Kochi.

Example: Poppat asks Ajay to administer Chloromint to Kashmira to knock her unconscious. And Ajay yells, “You idiot, it is chloroform and not chloromint.”

When they shout too much at each other, everybody says, “Ssssh” loudly, and poor Poppat is reminded of his childhood when his mother used to say the same thing when he was taken to the toilet. Poppat struggles to control himself on stage, bending his legs and contorting his face. A hilarious moment indeed!

Kashmira, of course, looks sexy with a tight red top and torn black leggings, as well as leather boots. In a few scenes, she wears white bunny ears. Sometimes, she is laughing, then she is crying. Later, she jumps on the sofa, slaps the kidnappers, plays coy, and rolls on the floor, throwing a tantrum: a typical Bollywood diva.

All the cast members impressed with their acting. Rajesh Puri is a veteran, with over 5000 stage performances, while Vinod plays the South Indian Kutty with aplomb, with the right tonal inflections, and so does the gang leader, Yogesh. But the show-stealer was Sagar (Poppat) whose brilliant comic timing and facial expressions brought the house down repeatedly. It was a rib-tickling show throughout.

 No wonder the audience had smiles on their faces as they left the hall.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Lena is a gorgeous woman'

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Says Abhilash Kumar, the scriptwriter of ‘22 Female Kottayam’, about his actress-wife

By Shevlin Sebastian

Abhilash Kumar was in Class 7 at the Seventh Day Adventist school at Thrissur, when he saw Lena for the first time. “She was sitting in Class 6, wearing a white shirt, grey skirt and blue tie,” he says. “Taller and fairer than her classmates, she was gorgeous even at that age.”

But it took Abhilash a year to speak to her. “I asked her whether she had stamps,” he says. “Because I had a collection and wanted to exchange some with her. Lena told me she did not collect stamps, but a friendship began. We would exchange sweets on our birthday and cards during the festival season. We took part in cultural events. While Lena did drama, I would do mimicry skits.”

At the end of Class 8, Abhilash expressed his love to Lena. “There were several boys who were crazy about her,” he says. “But I managed to catch her attention. Soon, we started talking to each other on the phone.”

Lena's mother, Teena, would get upset. She repeatedly told Abhilash not to call up her daughter. In Class 10, during the annual day function, Abhilash drew Lena aside and placed a gold ring on her finger. The next day, Teena called up Abhilash and asked him to take back the ring. Which he did.

After his plus two Abhilash went to Bangalore and got a job and did a correspondence course for B.Com. Lena did her graduation from Prajyoti Niketan College in Pudukad. At that time, she acted in Lal Jose's 'Randam Bhavam'. Thereafter, she took a break and did her masters in clinical psychology from a college in Mumbai. Abhilash and Lena remained in touch. And finally on January 16, 2004, they got married.

In 2006, Lena became a household name when she played the role of Jancy in the television serial, 'Omanathinkalpakshi.' So far, she has acted in 30 films. Abhilash, on the other hand, joined the film industry as an associate director in 'Salt 'n Pepper' in 2010. He has shot to public attention as the scriptwriter of Aashique Abu's latest hit, '22 Female Kottayam'.

So, after eight years of marriage, what is that Abhilash likes about Lena? “Since she is a Piscean, she is very imaginative,” he says. “She takes care of our flat in Bangalore so well. She has an artistic nature, and makes and collects masks. One of our walls is full of masks.” In fact, the mask Abhilash likes the most is one of the Joker from the Batman film. “It looks very alive,” he says. “Lena made it when [Australian actor] Heath Ledger, who played the Joker, passed away in 2008.”

Abhilash also admires his wife’s spirituality. “Lena believes that everything in the Universe is linked to each other,” he says. “She likes the teachings of Osho, Lord Buddha, Swami Vivekananda and Sai Baba. It has a calming effect on her.”

But, sometimes, Lena does lose her calm. “It is mostly because of my indecisiveness,” he says. “I am a 'confusion kid'. I am a person who bothers about the opinions of others, but Lena has been able to get me out of that mind-set. She told me it is important to do what I want.”

In their marriage Abhilash and Lena also do what they want. “We place a higher emphasis on freedom than love,” he says. “If there is no independence there is no passion. So, ours is not a typical marriage.” And this is more so, because they have decided not to have any children. “I don’t think I will be a responsible parent,” says Abhilash, at a flat in Kochi, which he is sharing with the crew members of '22 Female Kottayam'. “I really don’t want to bring a child into this world when society is going to collapse one day.”

Asked what advice he would give a youngster who is about to get tie the knot, Abhilash says, “Marriage is not natural. It is a creation of society to tie down individuals and not allow them to live the lives they want to. You are bound to get bored with a wife and vice-versa. That has been the experience of every spouse. You have to work hard to make the marriage a success.”

Abhilash pauses, smiles, and says, “Here is a tip: Men and women always see the world in different ways. If we understand that, a lot of stress and tension can be avoided.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Providing cures for baldness

Photo credit: A. Raja Chidambaram

The Chennai-based trichologist Dr. Talat Salim provides herbal cures for hair loss for men and women

By Shevlin Sebastian

Shriram Ramesh (name changed) was only 17 when he began to lose his hair rapidly. It affected his confidence and self-esteem so much that he refused to go to college.

“I did not want to appear in front of the female students and my peers, who will make fun of my baldness,” he told the London-trained and Chennai based trichologist Dr. Talat Salim. Instead, he opted to do business. “He is a brilliant student,” says Talat. “I said hair loss and studies have no connection. But he was adamant.”

A few months later Shriram was healed, but he decided to carry on with his business career. There are two types of hair loss for men: temporary and permanent. “Temporary hair loss can happen because of serious illnesses like typhoid or diabetes,” says Talat. “The hair can be restored through proper treatment.” 

Permanent hair loss happens because of genetic factors by which hair follicles become sensitive to testosterone. This hormone shrinks the follicles and thus, in turn, shortens the life span and prevents new hair from growing. “When this happens, the scalp start showing,” says Talat.

 Modern lifestyles have an impact: long hours at work, overwhelming stress, erratic sleeping patterns, and lack of nutritious food. For women hair loss happens because of a malfunctioning thyroid, anaemia, polycystic ovaries, menstrual problems and hormonal changes.

Hair loss for men and women can be countered through a protein-rich diet which includes sprouts, soya milk, dates, and figs. “Also, have two to three servings of green gram a week,” says Talat. “Or take flax seeds, make a powder of it, and sprinkle it on vegetable or fruit salads.”

 If the hair loss is severe, Talat recommends herbal tablets that contain 'saw palmetto' (an American berry). This is also available in lotions and can be applied directly on the scalp. “There are well-known Western drugs like Finasteride and Minoxidil, but they have side-effects,” says Talat. “I use local applications like Meso therapy. In this we apply a cocktail of vitamins and amino acids to the inner layer of the skin, near the hair roots. This gives very good results, especially for female baldness.” Finally, there is hair transplant and weaving.

But, most importantly, the patient needs to have a positive attitude. “Treatment does 50 per cent of the work,” says Talat. “A patient should feel confident that they will get cured. That makes a difference.”

Contact details:

 Sehat The Scalp and Hair Clinic, Chennai
Phones: +91 - 44 - 65416502
             +91 – 9940535786

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Friday, April 20, 2012

A mutually beneficial collaboration

COLUMN: Passing by

Mike Mayer, an associate professor, talks about the benefits of a partnership between companies and colleges in Canada. He suggests that Indian companies and educational institutions should do the same

By Shevlin Sebastian

In every cell phone, computer chip, hearing aid, washing machine and electrical appliance there are tiny wires. “These are about the thickness of a third of a hair,” says Mike Mayer, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. “That means, three of these wires can fit into one hair. It is that tiny. Special machines are used to micro-weld these wires to tiny metallised surfaces.”

Not many people know that these wires are made from gold ingots, which have 99 per cent purity. “Gold is best for applications in the computer industry,” says Mike, who was staying in the Killians Hotel at Fort Kochi. “It does not oxidise at all, so the surface remains clean all the time. Machines that use gold wires work for many more hours without stopping.”

Ever since computer chips were invented more than fifty years ago, gold wires have been used. But what caused a re-think recently was the rising prices of gold. From $300, the price has reached $1800 an ounce. Not surprisingly many companies developed methods to avoid using gold. One way was copper wires.

M.K. Electron of South Korea, one of the leading wire-bonding firms in the world, made several types of wires made of copper. But company officials did not know which wire would be the best to use in microchips. Ordinarily, to find this out would take weeks.

So, they approached Prof. Mayer and the University of Waterloo to find a quick method. In this contract, the company paid the university a significant sum of money. This was used to fund the scholarships of students. “There is a mutual benefit,” says Mike.

The company gets research results that will be difficult to get in their own facility. It is also cheaper than employing a scientist and giving a salary and other benefits. “The drawback is that it takes much more time,” says Mayer.

To execute the contract with M.K. Electron, Mayer selected a team of master and doctorate students to do the research. After two years, they developed a special software, and a correcting machine to quickly spot the differences between the wires.

“Five minutes is the time that is now required,” says Mayer. “Within a day, you can rank dozens of wires. Company officials are happy with this new method.”

Meanwhile, in order to protect the research findings, students are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. “If they go against it, we could sue them,” says Mayer. “Companies are also careful about the information they share with us. They will let us know only what we need to know.”

Mayer, who had come to India to give a workshop on physics and technology at the Centre of Materials for Electronic Technology, Pune, says that Indian companies and educational institutions should have the same kind of collaboration. “The students are intelligent and hard-working,” says Mayer. “The tie-up will benefit industry, as well as academia.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

An enduring Dutch presence

Cultural anthropologist Dr. Bauke Van Der Pol highlights the Dutch occupation at Fort Kochi in Kerala. He has also written a definitive history of the Dutch East India Company

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 7 a.m., on a summer day, Dutch cultural anthropologist Dr. Bauke Van Der Pol steps out of the Brunton Boatyard hotel in Fort Kochi, armed with a 17th century map, and accompanied by a group of visitors. After a few minutes, he says, “According to the map, this is the entrance to the fort,” says Bauke. Of course, today, there is nothing to distinguish it. There is an auto-rickshaw stand at one side, a bus stop on the other side, and wayside shops selling cold drinks and trinkets.

Again, after walking for a while, he points at an elevated section of ground, and says, “This was where a bastion was located,” he says. A bastion is a fortification projecting outward of a fort. There were seven of them at Fort Kochi. They were connected by a rampart, which is a wall between two bastions.

"A rampart had a width and height of 15 feet," says Bauke. "So, the soldiers, in their blue tunics, could walk on it, and observe the people, both inside and outside the fort.”

The Dutch defeated the Portuguese in 1663 and took over the fort. And more than three hundred years later, many buildings remain the same, including the house of Ivan D’Costa, a former assistant collector in the excise department.

At the outer verandah of his home, there is a cement seat. “It was here that the people would sit in the evenings and have gossip sessions,” says Bauke. Inside, the rooms have red stone floors, high ceilings, wooden beams, and thick walls. D’Costa owns another seven-room house nearby. Amazingly, Bauke saw a Dutch sale deed of 1760 for the house.

Meanwhile, the David Hall, which was restored by the CGH Earth group, as an art centre, was also a Dutch house. It was in this home that Governor Hendrik Van Rheede did research on the medicinal properties of the local flora and fauna, and published a 12-volume book called ‘Hortus Malabaricus’ (Garden of Malabar) in 1678. More than 700 plants had been identified.

Outside, Bauke points at a street sign: Burgher Street. “A burgher is somebody who has been set free from his landlord, and has voting rights,” he says. “The people who lived on this street did not work for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie [or VOC, also known as the Dutch East India Company]. They were free men. They made a living on their own and got married to women with Portuguese blood.”

Another road sign evokes mirth. “Princess Street had been initially called Prince Street in honour of Dutch Princes Maurits and Wilhelm,” says Bauke. “But when the British took over, in 1795, they would pronounce Prince Street quickly, so over a period of time, it became Princess Street.”

Bauke halts at another sign: Petercelli Street. “Many people in Fort Kochi ask me who Mr. Petercelli is,” says Bauke, with a smile. “I have to tell them that it is not a person. Petercelli is the Dutch word for parsley, an herb. So, this might have been an area where a vegetable market would have functioned.”

Suddenly Bauke stops in front of a bakery, which sells a Dutch bread called bruder. It is chocolate brown in colour and has a sprinkling of raisins. “This is the only shop that makes it,” says Bauke. “And it tastes exactly like the bread in Holland.” But the price is steep, at Rs 100 a loaf.

Bauke came to Kerala in the 1970s and fell in love with the people, culture, and history. Thereafter, he has made more than 50 visits. To study the Dutch impact in India, Bauke did a three-year research at the National Archives in The Hague, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Cambridge University, the British Library in London, and the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, as well as the Asian Society library in Kolkata.

He also visited many places in India where the Dutch had a presence, including Tuticorin, Masulipatnam, Patna, and Surat. The research and travels were made possible by a grant from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science.

The end result is a book that Bauke authored on the Dutch East India Company called, 'The VOC in India'. “The book has sold well in Holland, because the history of the Dutch in India is fascinating,” he says.

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Feeling free like a bird

Kochiite Ramesh Kartha has run 30 marathons in several countries. He talks about the joys and pleasures of running

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning at 6 a.m., Ramesh Kartha sets out from his apartment in Kakkanad for a run. He is wearing a white singlet and blue shorts and is bare foot. In earlier times, he would encounter growling dogs, slithering snakes, and the snide remarks of people. “They would shout, ‘Are you mad? Don’t you have anything else to do?’” he says. Ramesh ignored all this and continued on his run.

“I usually go to the NPOL (Naval Physical and Oceanographic Laboratory), at Thrikkakara, make a loop there, come back on to the Seaport-Airport Road and turn right towards the new Info Park road,” he says. “I go through Info Park. It is an open area, although it is hilly at certain places and then I return home.” Ramesh carries a GPS watch to monitor his speed and the distance travelled: a minimum of 14 kms.

One reason behind Ramesh’s training is because he is a marathon runner. So far, he has raced in 30 marathons, of which several were in the United States of America, where he has participated in the prestigious Boston Marathon, the Walt Disney race in Florida and the Wineglass event in New York. He has also competed in Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok, and in India: Mumbai, Pondicherry, and Mysore.

“I started running because the doctor told me to start doing exercise, as there is a history of diabetes in the family,” he says. “Later, I decided to have a goal: running marathons.”

His first race, in 2006, was in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. Organised by the US military, it is called the People's Marathon. About 25,000 people take part. “They have the best support system,” says Ramesh, an IT professional. “Every two miles there are water and energy drink stands.”

At the 34 km mark [full distance = 42 kms], Ramesh hit a physiological limit. “The glycogen levels go down,” he says. “Your body shuts down. I had become oblivious to the environment. I was finding it difficult to raise my legs. They felt like lead. But there were a lot of people cheering the beginners.” Finally, Ramesh crossed the finish line in a time of 3 hours 47 minutes. “This is a good time for somebody who has no athletic background,” he says.

But perhaps the most amazing aspect of Ramesh's running is that he does it barefoot. And his reasoning is simple. “When you wear sneakers, there is a heavy amount of cushioning on your heels,” he says. “So when you run, because the heels are heavier, you tend to land on it all the time. This impacts the knees and the hips. But when you run without shoes, you tend to land on the balls of the feet, and only then is the weight transferred to the heels. So there is less jarring of the body.”

He also has a pair of shoes that is cloth-like, flat, and fits like a glove. “I wear this as a protection against splinters or broken glass lying on the road,” he says. Interestingly, when Ramesh shows his soles, the only difference is callused skin in some areas. “You don't get feet like elephants,” he says, with a smile. “Instead, you feel strength on your soles.”

But it has not been smooth sailing. A few times, he has been laid low by injuries: inflammation of the arch of the heel, Achilles tendinitis, shin splints, and runner's knee, which is a pain under the kneecap.

“With the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) treatment, for the majority of cases, you can get well within two days,” he says. Ramesh is now busy getting reading for his next marathon in Washington in October. “There is no greater joy for me than when I am running on the road,” he says. “I feel free as a bird.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

‘Biju has remained close to his roots’

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Says Samyuktha Varma about her husband, the popular actor Biju Menon

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1999, Samyuktha Varma was in Mysore for the shoot of the film, 'Chandranudikkunna Dikkil'. She was a newcomer, along with Kavya Madhavan. “We sat some distance away from the seniors,” says Samyuktha. They included Biju Menon, Dileep, and Manju Warrier. Suddenly, somebody brought along a Malayalam film magazine to the set. Many made a grab for it. Ultimately, Dileep said, “Let Biju read it aloud and we can hear it.”

By coincidence there was an article on Samyuktha, where the writer described her debut in the film, 'Veendum Chila Veettukaryangal'. “There were words like 'upcoming actress' and 'bright promise,'” says Samyuktha. “I still remember that reading by Biju vividly and I have preserved the article till now.”

She says that they grew close, although there were no dramatic scenes of courtship. “Biju is a reserved person, a man of few words,” says Samyuktha. “In the end it was a love-cum arranged marriage.” Both the families are from Thrissur and knew each other.

Biju and Samyuktha tied the knot on November 21, 2002. So, after ten years of marriage, what does she like about Biju? “His biggest plus point is that he has remained close to his middle-class roots,” says Samyuktha. “So he loves to attend ganamelas, have tea at wayside shops, or attend the Thrissur Pooram. But now it is becoming increasingly difficult because we have become well-known.”

Whenever Biju is at home, and if he has the time, he visits old friends. “These days, it is mostly their parents that he sees,” says Samyuktha. “Most of the children are working elsewhere and the elders are all alone.”

Perhaps, the only negative trait is that, like the actor Jayaram, Biju finds it difficult to say no. “It has hampered his career,” says Samyuktha. “Biju has done certain roles which he did not want to do. But I feel that he has now learnt, to a certain extent, to say no.”

What Samyuktha is excited about these days is the evolution of Biju as an actor. “In the earlier years he was not his natural self,” she says. “There was an innate shyness. But, in 'Ordinary' [released on March 17], where he plays a bus driver, he is so natural. I remember the scene where he applied the brakes, to bring the vehicle to a halt. Then he raises his arms to relieve the tension on his back. It was wonderful.”

But is it wonderful for two artistes to marry each other? “Many people told me that I would have a lot of problems by marrying an actor,” says Samyuktha. “But looking back, because I am an actress, I can understand all the problems that Biju is facing on the set. For example, when he is doing an emotional scene, I will not call him up. I know that he will have neck and back pains. You might also get a severe headache. I have experienced it myself.”

Meanwhile, as a celebrity couple, they have many pleasant experiences. But Samyuktha goes tongue-in-cheek as she describes the reactions of people. “In Kochi when people see us, they will pretend not to stare,” she says. “It seems that they feel it is beneath their dignity. So, they will look away. But there are some who will come up and speak confidently. There are others who will see us and then whisper to others, 'There is Biju Menon and his wife Samyuktha. Don't look!' And we are able to hear that also!”

But there are negative aspects to celebrity-hood. “This happens when we go to the temple,” she says. “People stare at us when we are praying. That is the time when we wish we had some privacy. Or they might come up and talk to us.”

Another place is the hospital. “People are curious to know why we have come to the hospital,” she says. “When I gave birth to my son, Dhaksh Dharmik [in 2006], there was a big crowd present. It was a complicated pregnancy. My child had to be taken to another room to be given an injection. As my sister was taking him, many people surrounded her and took photos on their mobile phones. The baby had just been born and my husband had not even seen him. That upset me a lot. But overall, there are far more positive than negative experiences.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

‘Malayali women are shy’

COLUMN: Passing Through

Lithuanian journalist Justas Patkausas found it difficult to interact with the local women. And he was also taken aback by the jungle of advertisements in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, at 2 a.m., Lithuanian journalist Justas Patkauskas was finding the heat unbearable at his hotel room in Fort Kochi. So he decided to go for a swim. But as he stepped into the water, a couple of policemen, who were strolling on the beach, asked him to leave. As Justas was walking away, with a towel placed around his shoulders, one of the cops shouted, “You bring shame to Europe and your country.”

A disappointed Justas says, “ Fort Kochi is such a beautiful island. It is sad that the beaches cannot be used at night, like we are allowed to, in Europe .”

In the policemen’s defence, they were implementing a rule which bans swimming on public beaches after 9 p.m. “I can understand that there are high tides and it can be dangerous,” says Justas.

Nevertheless, Justas loves Fort Kochi . “Before coming here, I had been warned that people will grab you by the arm and force you inside shops,” he says. “But it has never happened to me. In fact, I am told that such things happen only in North India. Here, the atmosphere is chilled-out. The people are friendly and kind. No one seems to be in a rush. But it becomes different when you go to the mainland.”

The Lithuanian finds the presence of so many billboards in Kochi as “freakishly horrible. The city is a jungle of advertisements. It is disappointing to see a state with so much of culture and heritage following some of the worst aspects of Western culture -- aggressive consumerism and relentless advertising.”

Apart from ugly billboards, Justas is also taken aback by the shyness of the women. “I spoke to this 21-year-old medical student, Smita Raju (name changed), at the Indian Coffee House,” he says. “Smita was shy and reserved. I found most women in Kerala were like her.”

Smita lives in a hostel and has to be back every day by 6 p.m. “I found it unbelievable,” says Justas. “It is like living in a convent.” By the age of 21, Justas had studied in Spain, Ireland, Finland, and other places in Europe and had the best time of his life, going for parties and meeting all types of boys and girls. “But Malayalis have a much more private life,” he says. “It is more family-oriented, which is good, but at the same time it would be nice if people are more open.”

Meanwhile, Justas is enjoying the tropical climate. “I love the sunlight hitting my skin,” he says. “In Lithuania [which is near Poland], it is very cold. It rains often, so it is always cloudy. You wake up every morning and see grey skies, a constant drizzle, and no leaves on the trees. It makes you feel gloomy. As a result most Lithuanians are reserved and speak little.”

This increased a lot during the occupation of the country by the Soviet Union (1944-90). “There was no freedom of speech,” says Justas. “The presence of the secret police for many years affected social life. People were afraid to trust each another. It takes time for society to regain faith in public institutions.”

In Fort Kochi , Justas has been writing articles for magazines and newspapers in Lithuania . “The last one was about the auto-rickshaw drivers,” he says. “I am also interested in the Communists.”

And then Justas drops a bombshell. In Lithuania, Communism has been banned. “When you spend so many decades under the influence of a foreign ideology, you try to distance yourself from it,” he says. “So, nobody is allowed to use Communist symbols like the hammer and sickle.”

Just as Communism is discredited, the print media, like in every other nation in Europe and America, is going through a crisis. “The future is bleak,” he says. “The people are reading less and spend most of their time watching TV.” Despite this, Justas is committed to life as a journalist. “I like writing a lot,” he says. “Seeing my name in print gives me a big kick.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

“I want to be in the shadow of my husband”

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Says Chitra about her life with noted film director Shaji Kailas

By Shevlin Sebastian

Chitra met Shaji Kailas in 1994 when the director, accompanied by scriptwriter Ranjith, came to her house in Thiruvananthapuram to discuss her role in the film, ‘Rudraksham’. “Shaji asked me whether I was satisfied with the script,” says Chitra. “At that time, I was so happy just to work with a good director.”

During the course of the protracted shoot, in many places in Kerala, they grew close. But there were no overt declarations of love. “However, one day, Shaji told me a story of a girl he was interested in and wondered whether she had the same feelings,” said Chitra. “At the end of the anecdote he asked me if I was the girl, would I have been interested in marrying him?”

Chitra had a suspicion that the girl in the story was indeed herself and so she said yes.

Soon, the friendship blossomed, but the affair remained a secret. “We always kept away from each other in public,” she says. But fate caused an unusual meeting to take place.

In January, 1996, Chitra was going to Chennai, accompanied by an uncle, to attend the rehearsals for a mega show in Dubai. At the last minute, her uncle could not get the ticket, so Chitra had to travel alone. In a different seat, on the same flight, Shaji was also going to Chennai for some work. “But it was a hopping flight,” says Chitra. “When the plane landed at Bangalore, and some of the passengers got off, Shaji came and sat next to me.”

The couple had an intense conversation. “It was a time when there were no mobile phones, so we had a lot to tell each other,” says Chitra. Suddenly, Shaji took off a ring he was wearing and placed it on one of Chitra’s fingers. She did the same.

“And that was our engagement,” she says.

Since they were of different religions -- Shaji is a Hindu, while Chitra (Annie) was a Christian -- marriage was never going to be easy. “My father is a conservative person,” she says. “And he would have been against such a wedding.” Sadly, Chitra’s mother died when she was in Class 8, and it was her dad who brought her up.

Anyway, in 1996 itself Shaji committed to Chitra and they got married, through a registration ceremony, held at friend Suresh Gopi’s house on June 1, 1996.

“I felt very alone on that day, because I was leaving my family,” says Chitra. “But Shaji offered me unstinted support and love.”

Thankfully, for Chitra, although her father was upset at the news, he reconciled with his daughter very soon. And three months into her marriage, at her own initiative, Chitra converted to Hinduism. “I felt it would be easier for the children if they followed one religion,” she says.

Today, Chitra says she is very happy in her marriage. So, what are Shaji’s plus points?

“He is a loving, and understanding person,” she says. “I have never felt any lack in our marriage. When he comes home, after a shoot, he becomes a family person and cares for everyone including my mother-in-law, sons, Jagan, 14, Sharon, 10, and Rooshin, 8. He is also very supportive.”

When Chitra, along with her sister-in-law, Shanti, wanted to start a catering business, ‘The Big Oven’, it was Shaji who whole-heartedly supported the venture. “He has been our backbone,” says Chitra. “We started small and have come up. Shaji always says that if you struggle only then will you understand the value of money.”

Shaji has many positive qualities, but there is one negative trait: a short temper. “But he cools down immediately,” says Chitra. “There will be fights between husband and wife, but he never keeps any resentment inside him. Shaji is a perfectionist, and he can get upset if things are not done properly or if I did not do something which he had told me to do.”

But the marriage has been successful for reasons that will break a feminist’s heart. “I like a dominating husband,” she says. “If family life has to be successful, the best way is to obey the man.”

Asked whether there are advantages of being a celebrity’s wife, Chitra says, “When we go to functions, people treat us with respect. But, for me, the happiest role I like to play is to be in the shadow of my husband. I want to be known only as Mrs. Shaji Kailas.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, April 09, 2012

Nothing ‘Ordinary’ about this debut

Director P.S. Sugeeth’s debut Malayalam film, ‘Ordinary’ is a hit

(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)
On the morning of the release of my debut film, ‘Ordinary’, I felt an unbearable tension within me. My mind had gone blank. What was going to be the fate of my film at the box office? But I told my wife, “I don’t think I have made a bad movie.”
At 10.20 a.m., I received a call from the film’s writer, Nishad K. Koya, during the interval of the morning show at the Cinemax theatre at Kochi. He said, “There has been a superb reaction among the audience. The film is going to do well.” Thereafter, there were congratulatory calls and messages on my mobile from friends, acquaintances, and industry colleagues. Very soon, the first review appeared on the Internet: ‘Good movie’.
At noon, I stepped into the Saritha theatre. My legs were trembling. The film began and what was most amazing was how much I enjoyed watching my own work. There were laughs and claps and whistles. I felt an enormous happiness within me.
During the interval, I stepped out to have a cigarette. A group of youngsters approached me and said, “Are you the director?” I was surprised that they had recognized me, and looked puzzled. One of them said, “We could guess by seeing the tension on your face. Don’t worry, it is a good movie.”
The film, ‘Ordinary’ is about an ordinary KSRTC [Kerala State Road Transport Corporation] bus which travels from Pathanamthitta to the remote mountainous village of Gavi once every day.

The story detailed the relationship that the bus driver, played by Biju Menon, and conductor (Kunchacko Boban) have with the passengers, as well as the people in the village. The first half has several humourous episodes, but it turns serious after the interval, with a murder taking place.
To me, the most amazing character was the bus. It was a 20-year-old vehicle, and heading for the scrap heap. We painted it in KSRTC colours. I was always tense about whether the bus would break down or not. But it performed perfectly, even when it got stuck once, between two trees. But the moment I announced, ‘Pack up’, at the end of the 63-day shoot, the bus died on us. It did not start again. It seemed to me that it did this last job with all its heart and soul. 
'Ordinary' is a superhit, and a dream debut for me. I have realised that for a film to do well, you need a solid script. It took me four and a half years to get it ready. There is a stronger chance for success when the story is clear in your mind, before the shooting begins.
I have to thank my mentor [senior director] Kamal Sir for the 11 years I spent under him. He taught me sincerity, passion, dedication, and a positive attitude which is needed to surmount obstacles, as well as deal with artistes. There is no use of shouting and screaming, if you want to get the best work out of them. An actor might give a bad shot, but it is important not to criticize him immediately. Instead, you could ask if it is okay to do a re-take. As for my future plans, I am about to start work on a new script. I will be flying off to Dubai, where I have an apartment, to work in peace. 
(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Mallu rockers hit Mollywood

In a new trend, Kerala-based rock bands are being used successfully in Malayalam films

Photo: Members of the Avial rock band

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the 2011 hit Malayalam film, 'Salt n’ Pepper' was winding to a close, the audience got a jolt. Suddenly, music exploded from the speakers and the members of the rock band, ‘Avial’ – Tony John (Vocals), Rex Vijayan (Guitars and Synthesisers), Binny Issac (Bass) and Mithun Puthanveetil (Drums) – stepped forward through a haze of artificial smoke and flashing strobe lights. Then Tony John – in a red T-shirt, green lungi, and with a gleaming bald pate – launched into 'Aanakallan'.

It was a Kerala folklore song, and had a pulsing, rhythmic beat. “We had modified the lyrics,” says Tony. “The music is a blend of traditional folk music and progressive rock.” Says Rex: “The song was used as the original soundtrack.”  

It was, of course, the first time in Malayalam cinema that a rock band was picturised for a film. Not surprisingly, 'Aanakallan' received a lot of hits on You Tube. Asked to explain its success, Tony says, “Since this was a new concept in a Malayalam film, the people liked it. Also, the directors and the audience are getting younger. So there is more appreciation for this type of music.”
Another reason could be the predictable nature of film music. “There is not much of innovation,” says Tony. “Production standards are weak. For example, a saxophone is best played during a romantic moment, but, in Malayalam films, it is used in several scenes.”

An additional cause was the impact of the Hindi film, ‘Rockstar’, which starred Farhan Akhtar, and described the ups and downs of a Mumbai-based grunge rock band, ‘Magik’. “The songs became a big hit among Malayalis also,” says Rex. “This might have made Mollywood to sit up and take notice.”  
But the 'Aanakallan' song happened by accident. The director of 'Salt n’ Pepper', Aashiq Abu, heard about ‘Avial’ through some mutual friends. So he befriended the band members, listened to a few songs, liked what he heard, and commissioned a song.

What came as a surprise to the group was how quickly they became popular. “That is the power of Malayalam cinema,” says Tony. “We have been playing as a band since 2003 and had a small, but devoted group of fans. But 'Salt n’ Pepper' changed all that and introduced us to a wider public.”
And now, ‘Avial’ has also composed three new songs – ‘Ayyo’, ‘Arambath’, ‘Thithithara’ – for 'Second Show', the debut film of Dulquer Salman, the son of superstar Mammooty. “We have also got a good response from 'Second Show',” says Rex. The film is probably going to be a sleeper hit of 2012. But Rex says that the band earns their money by doing live shows all over the country. “Unfortunately, playing for films is not lucrative at all,” he says.
Meanwhile, Rex has done some solo work. When his friend Sameer Thahir was directing his debut film, ‘Chappa Kurishu’, he asked Rex to do the original soundtrack. And his song, ‘Theyya Theyya’ became an instant hit, thanks to the uploading of the film sequence on You Tube. Thereafter, he did the background score for ‘Second Show’ also.
The Kochi-based rock band Motherjane have also ventured into film music. Director Amal Neerad approached them to do the original sound track for his film, 'Anwar'. “I liked their music,” he says. And so Motherjane composed a rock song called 'Jihad'.

Says drummer John Thomas, “The brief from Amal was about how terrorism was affecting the lives of ordinary Muslims. He felt it was unjust to spoil a community's name by projecting the acts of a few thousands onto millions of innocent people.”

The band believes that rock songs in Malayalam films is the start of a new movement. “The audience is receptive to all kinds of music,” says John. “Earlier, there were clear guidelines for music in films, but that is no longer been followed. In Tamil, Hindi, and Hollywood films, it has become a regular occurrence for bands to play in films. But the trend has only just begun in Mollywood. We have received other offers, but nothing has been finalized yet.”

So it looks like Mallu rockers are here to stay in Mollywood!

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Saturday, April 07, 2012

A heart in two places

Gim Killian, who is of Malayali origin, grew up in Cologne, Germany. She talks about the impact on both cultures on her attitudes and behaviour

Photo: Oliver Prang and Gim Killian

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2002, one of Germany 's leading singers, Ben, was looking for a female crooner. More than 5000 girls took part in auditions all over Germany. Through elimination roads, this was reduced to 100, to 20, to 10 and finally, there were three. “One was me, an exotic person with black eyes and hair,” says Gim Killian. “Then there was a Russian blonde, who looked like an angel, with curly blonde hair. The third contestant was a German, with brown hair.”

And in the end, in a live television programme, watched by millions, it was the exotic Gim who was selected to sing with Ben. And, not surprisingly, the pop-soul song, 'Angel' went on to become a hit. “It became No 2 in Germany, No. 1 in Austria and No 9 in Switzerland ,” says Gim.

However, surprisingly, Gim's career did not take off. “Because of easy downloads, the music industry was going through a bad time,” she says. “The opportunities for singers became that much more difficult.” Gim released a solo album, but it did not do well. But rather than sulk and mope around, like many artistes, Gim switched over to managing singers, models, and actors. And that is what she continues to do now.

At the Killians Hotel in Fort Kochi, which is run by her father, Joseph Killian, she comes across as slim and lithe, with a husky voice, and an easy smile. “I grew up in Cologne,” she says. “My father went there as a young man, became a businessman, and settled there.”

And Gim, like most children who have lived abroad, is trying to come to terms with both cultures. “In Kerala, I am the German, while in Germany I am the Indian girl,” she says, with a wry smile. On this visit, Gim is accompanied by her German boyfriend of five years, Oliver Prang, and his parents.

“There are a lot of situations where I see the stark difference between Indians and Germans,” says Gim. “We drink tea in the mornings, while for the Germans, it is always coffee.”

The Germans always have a daily schedule planned out, even if they are on holiday. “When my parents tell them that in the evening we will be going to my grandmother’s place, they will ask, ‘At what time?’” says Gim. “Then they will enquire about whether the old lady has been told about the visit. My dad then says, 'We will call her on the way.' In Germany, you have to set up appointments, before-hand, even between family members. So, my future in-laws looked amazed.”

Gim is also amazed at the changing status of women in Kerala. “They are getting stronger. Many of them are smart, well-educated, and run businesses on their own,” she says. “That is a good sign.”

Despite the changes, Gim does not believe she will be able to have a good marriage with a Malayali. “I am too free and independent,” she says. “There is a precise role for a woman in a Malayali marriage. I don’t think I can fulfill that. Ultimately, there is too much of Germany within me, to be comfortable here.”

And yet Gim has strong Indian values. She has come to Kochi because she misses her parents very much. “I would be really happy if they move back to Cologne,” she says. Interestingly, when she began a steady relationship with Oliver, she was instrumental in getting him closer to his parents. “That again is my Malayali heritage,” she says. “And I also wanted to get close to his father and mother. Oliver's parents are happy because of this. This is their first trip outside Europe.”

Meanwhile, Oliver, who works in the IT industry, says that he was attracted to Gim because of her unusual looks and open-minded nature. “Gim's family is also warm and close,” he says. “I enjoyed that aspect. And I have been interested in India for a long time.”

At present, the couple is building a farmhouse together. “One day, in the future, we will marry and have kids,” says Gim, as Oliver nods and smiles.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

A whole lot of questions

Giri ‘Pickbrain’ Balasubramaniam is one of India's leading quizmasters. He talks about the qualities needed to be one, and the preparations that participants need to do

By Shevlin Sebastian

At a recent regional round of the Tata Crucible Campus Quiz at the Gateway Hotel, Kochi, several colleges are taking part. They include the Government Engineering College, Thrissur, Rajagiri Centre for Business Studies, Kochi, DC School of Management and Technology, Vagamon, and the Mar Athansius College of Engineering, Kothamangalam.

And during the programme, there is one voice that dominates. It is a deep baritone, full of confidence and verve, and it belongs to none other than quiz master Giri ‘Pickbrain’ Balasubramaniam. The nickname came from a pseudonym he used for a newspaper column.

“There are some tricky questions,” he tells the Kochi audience. “And the teams from Kerala are missing them.” Sometimes, he is encouraging: “Kerala is a good quizzing state.” And sometimes he is dramatic: “The final has ended like a T20 cricket match.”

Giri has been a full-time quizmaster for the past ten years. He has conducted more than 1500 shows for schools, colleges, and corporates in India, USA, UK, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Oman.

“Quizzing is becoming a big sport in India now,” he says. “There are individuals who earn prize money of Rs 10–12 lakh a year.” Incidentally, the annual turnover, including quizzes on television, is to the tune of Rs. 200 crore.

Asked for the reasons why quizzing is popular, Giri says, “Indians like information, whether it is gossip or of the constructive type. That makes them fans of any game that is mind-based.”

Giri gives an example. “Sudoku is not an Indian sport,” he says. “Yet, the most popular place for the game is in India. Anything to do with the mind works well in our country.”

You also need to have a good mind to become a quizmaster. “A lot of people think that if you are good at public speaking, you can be a good quizmaster,” he says. “But that is not true. You need to have an extensive knowledge of several subjects. A team could give an answer which is not there on your card, but is still correct. You should be able to spot it.”

Apart from that, the presentation style, the framing of questions, and the manner you get the teams to work out the answer is important. “A quizmaster is a facilitator,” says the Bangalore-based Giri. “It is not a forum for him to display his intellect. A quizmaster's role is to ask questions that participants can answer, otherwise, what is the fun? Finally, it is important to have a sense of humour. Today's youngsters like witty and snappy remarks.”

Giri has a high regard for the young quizzing talent in Kerala. “At the national school level, Kerala schools often win competitions,” he says. “Isn’t it amazing that during the Tata quiz in Kochi, there were schoolchildren in the audience who managed to answer a couple of questions?”

The top ten cities for quizzing include Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi, Pune, Bangalore, and Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. “It is a small city, but has a high concentration of educated people,” says Giri. “So the kids are smart.”

In order to encourage smartness among kids in rural areas, Giri conducts one of the world’s biggest IT quizzes – 14 lakh students – in association with the Karnataka government. “It helps the children to stay back in school,” says Giri. “They get excited about knowledge, and develop the belief that they are not too bad as compared to the students of the urban elite.”

Meanwhile, queried about tips on how students can get smarter at quizzing, Giri says, “Keep reading newspapers and magazines. But it should be to gain knowledge, and not necessarily to win competitions or score marks in examinations. The good news is that information is so easily accessible, as compared to ten years ago. During our college days we would win quizzes only if we sat in libraries for hours. Today, knowledge can be accessed by anybody with the click of the mouse.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

“Rimi is a spontaneous person”

COLUMN: Spouse’s Turn

Says her husband Royce Kizhakoodan about noted playback singer Rimi Tomy

By Shevlin Sebastian

When businessman Royce Kizhakoodan met singer Rimy Tomy, at her home in Palai, he got a shock. She was less plump than when he had seen her on TV during the ‘Silver Storm Safari’ programme where Rimi was an anchor. “She was also fairer and prettier,” says Royce. It was an arranged marriage and they tied the knot on April 27, 2008.

Nearly four years later, at his ‘Good Earth’ apartment in Kochi, Royce is all alone. Rimi has gone off for a singing programme in Dubai. “Earlier, I would travel with her, but I stopped because it was affecting my business,” says Royce, who deals in glass and construction materials. He is also a car rallyist and came third in the 1600cc category at the national championships in 2008.

Asked to name her positive qualities, Royce says, “Rimi is a very good cook. She reads recipes and makes all types of wonderful dishes. She is also child-like and has a lot of positive energy. And perhaps her greatest quality is her spontaneity.”

Royce remembered the conversation with Rimi in Dubai in January just before the Ujjala Asianet Film Awards 2012 function. “Rimi told me she wanted to have an interaction with her idol [superstar] Shah Rukh Khan, on stage, but it was not there in the programme,” he says. Royce suggested that she talk to the organisers, but Rimi replied that it was too late to suggest changes.

In the event, when she was about to take the mike from Shah Rukh Khan to start the next segment, she suddenly says, in passable Hindi, “I love you Shah Rukh. I want to sing two lines for you. I have seen ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ more than 10 times.”

Shah Rukh Khan listened attentively. “You must be wondering how such a fat person is working in the film industry,” says Rimi. “But I am not an actress. I am just a small singer.” Then she sang the first lines of ‘Tum Paas Aaye’ from ‘Kuck Kuch Hota Hai’.

Shah Rukh moved with her in a waltz-type dance, and then in a smooth movement, he picked her up and held Rimi in his arms, as she continued to sing. In the audience, actors Mammootty, Mohanlal, Dileep, Asin, and Vidya Balan, among others, were grinning. As for Kavya Madhavan she has opened her mouth in surprise and wonder.

Shah Rukh put Rimi back to the floor, kissed the back of her hand, and says, “You are the lightest and the most beautiful person to sing the song.” An excited Rimi turned to the audience and shouted in Malayalam, “Royce, I am leaving!”

Says a smiling Royce: “That’s Rimi for you: spontaneous and determined at the same time. If she decides to do anything, she will do it.”

Meanwhile, regarding her drawbacks, Royce says that Rimi has to learn to be diplomatic. “That is one reason why on her programmes she has numerous fans, but there are also some people who don’t like her,” he says. Not surprisingly, Rimi is sensitive to criticism. “She gets upset if people talk ill of her,” says Royce. “But I tell Rimi that there are plus and minus points about being well known. And you have to accept both.”

Royce is also coming to terms with being married to a person in the public spotlight. “Earlier, I could go to a wayside shop and have a glass of lime juice,” he says. “Now if I do that, people will point at me and whisper to each other, ‘Isn’t that Rimi Tomy’s husband?’”

A month ago, Royce was travelling on a sleeper berth from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi. When he got up from a nap, he saw a nun, along with a family sitting opposite him. They were staring at him. “I realized that they had recognized me,” he says. Finally, the nun plucked up the courage to ask whether he is Rimi Tomy’s husband. When Royce nodded, the nun said, “All of us could never imagine that you would be travelling in a sleeper coach. You should be in an air-conditioned coach.”

Royce now says, “To travel in a sleeper or an air-conditioned coach is my choice. Where does it say that if you become well known, you cannot travel by ordinary bus or train?”

Despite all the travails, the couple does have a good time. “Since Rimi is crazy about films, we watch a lot of movies at the Gold Souk or the Oberon Mall,” says Royce. “We also spent a wonderful week at the Botswana National Park. It is a memory that will remain with me forever.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)