Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Having the Right Pitch

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Priya Devadas talks about her life with singer P. Unnikrishnan

Photo by P. Ravikumar  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Family friend Nalini Damodar told the parents of Priya Devadas whether they would be keen for a marriage with singer P. Unnikrishnan. “My father had a lifelong interest in Carnatic music and so he said yes,” says Priya. In fact, sometime earlier, Priya had accompanied her father to a Carnatic music concert at their hometown of Kozhikode . “Unni was singing,” she says. “I was impressed by his talent.”

Meanwhile, Nalini confirmed that the horoscopes matched. Unnikrishnan's family was keen to have a girl who knew about the arts. The meeting took place between Unnikrishnan and Priya at the latter’s house in July, 1994, and they chatted for a while.

Unni was worried, because I was born and brought up in Kerala, while he grew up in Chennai,” says Priya. “He was working as a marketing executive at Parry's Confectionary, and was doing his music on the side. He told me he was confused about whether he should become a full-time singer. I listened to him silently because I did not know what to say about his predicament.”

But Priya liked Unni. “He came across as a humble and soft-spoken person,” she says. “There was a look of peace on his face.”

Unni also liked Priya. To indicate that, Unni's mother, Harini, instructed him to present a small purse, which had a pair of earrings inside it. He promptly did so.

The marriage took place at the Suryakanthi Kalyana Mandappan at Kozhikode on November 9, 1994.

Thereafter, for their honeymoon, the couple went from Chennai by train, to Madurai , to pray at the Meenakshi Temple. From there they took a bus towards Thekkady. On the bus, the hit Tamil film, ‘Kadalan’, was being shown.

Unnikrishnan’s song, by composer A.R. Rahman, called ‘Ennavale Adi Ennavale’, was being shown. “We laughed because nobody recognised Unni on the bus,” says Priya. (Incidentally, Unnikrishnan won the national award for the best male playback singer for this song). At Thekkady, they stayed at the exclusive Lake Palace hotel and later moved to Kodakanal, before returning to Chennai.

Barely two weeks later, one evening, Unnikrishnan came back from office and presented Priya with a bouquet of flowers and a garland. “He told me he had resigned his job,” says Priya. “Unni said he was not able to concentrate on his music. He looked so happy when he made his decision.”

Unni has had a stellar career singing in films, doing devotional songs and Carnatic music.

Like most artists, Unni lives in a world of his own,” says Priya. “After a concert, it takes time for him to calm down. So we end talking late into the night or watch a movie.

Priya is an unusual wife in the sense that she has always accompanied Unnikrishnan to his recordings. She remembers sitting in Rahman's studios several times. “The recording sessions would last the whole night,” says Priya. “I used to love the process and never got tired. Music is enthralling to listen.”

Priya was also enthralled when she gave birth to her children, Vasudev Krishna, who is now 15 and her daughter, Uthra, 9. “Unni is a gentle father,” says Priya. “He is like a friend to them. On the other hand, I am the disciplinarian.”

The boyish-looking Unnikrishnan is a child at heart. He still has the toy cars that he had collected as a child. “Unni is very possessive about them,” says Priya. “Many children ask him whether they can take them, but he will say, 'I collected these cars when I was three years old.' To pacify them, he will buy other toys.”

On most days, when he is at home, Unnikrishnan gets up at 5.30 a.m., and, instead of a cup of tea, has a bowl of fruits: papaya, apple and bananas. “This is good for health,” says Priya. Thereafter, he will go to his studio, 'Mahamaya Audio Visuals', which is on another floor of their apartment building in Chennai to do some practice. He will return at 9 a.m., and have his breakfast. 

Then he may have a recording or set out for a Carnatic music class with his veteran teacher S R Janaki Raman. “There is no end to learning Carnatic music,” says Priya. Unnikrishnan returns for lunch. In the afternoon, people will drop in. This will include event organisers, CD producers, students and fans.

And all the time, Priya, who is an accomplished dancer, will be there looking after her husband's needs. “Sometimes, I tease him that in our next life I will be a singer and he should accompany me all over the place,” says Priya, with a laugh. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Wonder that is India

Thomas Chacko, who completed a 26,500 km journey all over the country, in a Nano car, recounts his experiences in the book, 'Atop The World'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In Nagaland, author and motor car enthusiast Thomas Chacko visited the Kohima War Cemetery. It contains the graves of 1200 Indian soldiers who had fought against Japan and died during World War 11. This was during the decisive 'Battle of Kohima', which was later known as the ' Battle of the Tennis Court'.

Apparently, the concluding part had been fought on the tennis court of the District Commissioner's bungalow. “It was there that the Japanese advance through Burma was stopped,” says Chacko. “Some of the soldiers were as young as 16-year-old Ghulam Muhammed. I was drawn to the poignant words on a monument: 'When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today.'”

This incident was recounted in the book, 'Atop The World', written by Thomas, after the conclusion of his 26,500 km journey in a Nano car to all the state capitals, as well as the Union Territories, and the far corners of India. The journey, which began on May 3, concluded on July 20, 2012.

In January, last year, Chacko, a former Company Secretary and interim chief executive of Harrisons Malayalam Pvt. Ltd., had written a letter to Ratan Tata, the then Chairman of Tata Sons, outlining his plans. Within a month, he got the go-ahead to do an all-expenses paid trip by Tatas.

Asked why he chose the Nano, Chacko says, “Why not? In spite of it being the lightest car, and having the smallest engine in current production in the world, the Nano can take on every kind of road that India has to offer, especially with its clearance of 180 mm.”

On the journey, the 63-year-old adventurer was accompanied, at different times, by his wife, Geetha, daughter Miriam, son Rahul, brother Abraham [executive director of Federal Bank], sister Rebecca, and brother-in-law Bejoy.

And in his fluent style, Chacko recounts the various stages of the journey: the couple of minor accidents, types of meals he had, press meets, the different types of roads he traversed on, the traffic jams, the rude as well as the co-operative drivers, hot, cool, and cold weather, lunches and dinners with friends, and strangers, and the eminent.

General JJ Singh, the former Chief of the Army Staff of India, and the governor of Arunachal Pradesh provided a sumptuous feast. Chacko wrote about tennis matches and Formula One races he saw on TV, late at night, revisited the St. Paul 's Cathedral, in Kolkata, where he got married, as well as his traversing the highest motorable pass in the world: the Khardung La, at 18,380 feet. Asked about his biggest achievement, Chacko says, “Taking a tiny car to Khardung-la.”

The one place which impressed him the most was the Kailsasa temple at Ellora. “Nothing I had read had prepared me for just how marvellous a creation the Kailasa Temple is,” says Chacko. 

Within the structure are halls, balconies, a free standing pavilion, a pair of elephants and ornate columns. “All this had been created from one single rock,” he says. “One can imagine the effort it took to chip and cut with hammer and chisel and to clear away a quarter of a billion tonnes of rock.”

Another place which surprised Chacko was Mahatma Gandhi's house at Porbandar, Gujarat. “It is a 22-room mansion with a large marble floored inner courtyard,” says Chacko. “I then realised that Gandhiji's father had been the equivalent of a prime minister to the ruler of Porbander and therefore a well-to-do man.” Thankfully, the place was well-maintained, and open to the public free of charge.

Every night, Chacko would key in his impressions of the day on his laptop and send it to his Bangalore-based son, Rahul, who would upload it on the blog: www. manoetnano.com. The book, which took four months to write, is an enlarged version of the blog.

What was most amusing to read were the various road signs all over India, giving all sorts of tips to travellers (see box). This has been placed at the end of every chapter. But Chacko was not entirely amused. “The signs on many Indian highways are more for promoting the achievements of the NHAI (National Highway Authority of India) or the PWD (Public Works Department) than for helping travellers,” he says.

Asked to identify the unique nature of India , he says, “Only one other country can compare with India , in terms of terrain, and that is the USA ,” says Chacko, who has been to many countries. “We have beaches, mountains, hills, forests, deserts, swamps and canyons. You don't have to go out of India to see and experience a certain kind of terrain. No country has as many languages or communities. India is unique.”

Road signs for travellers

If you want to stay married, divorce speed.

Drive slow, see scenery; drive fast, see cemetery 

Reach home in peace, not in pieces

There is one way to drink and drive – hazardously

Without helmet, it can be hell met

Alert today, alive tomorrow

This is a highway, not a runway

Driving with care makes accidents rare

Overtakers, beware of undertakers

Mountains are a pleasure only if you drive with leisure

Some of the places Chacko visited:

Mumbai/Indore/Bhopal/Khajuraho/Allahabad/Varanasi/Patna/Ranchi/Kolkata/Malda/Darjeeling/Gangtok/Kalimpong/Phuentsholing/Thimpu/Bongaigaon/Shillong/Cherapunjee/Guwahati/Tezpur/Itanagar/Sessa/Tawang/Dimapur/Kohima/Imphal/Silchar/Aizawl/Agartala/Guwahati/Siliguri/Konark/Bhubaneshwar/Rajahmundry/Hyderabad/Bangalore/Chennai/Pondicherry/Rameshwaram/Thiruvananthapurm/Kottayam/Thekkady/Munnar/Kochi/Kannur/Gokarna/Panaji/Ahmedabad/Diu/Somnath/Dwarka/Mount Abu/Udaipur/Jodhpur/Bikaner/Amritsar/Jammu/Srinagar/Zoji La/Kargil/Leh/South Pullu/Khardung La/Sarchu/Keylong/Manali/Shimla/Chandigarh/Dehra Dun/Haridwar/Lucknow/Kanpur/Agra/New Delhi/Jaipur/Chittorgarh/Indore/Nagpur/Raipur/Amravati/Ellora/Aurangabad/Pune. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Inner World of Teenagers

Dr. Thomas O’Hare and Dr. Margaret V. Sherrer, both Fulbright Scholars, on a four-month stay in Kochi, discuss the plus and minus points of being an adolescent today

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night Dr. Margaret V. Sherrer was working as an emergency clinician at the South Shore Centre at Rhode Island, USA, when a 14-year-old girl, Rachel Smith (name changed), came in. She was mentally disturbed, and was threatening to kill herself. 

“I knew there was a lot of chaos going on in her home,” says Margaret. “Her step-father was emotionally abusive. I struggled over the case. If I hospitalised Rachel, I would be passing the message that she was the problem, but that was not true. Finally, I realised that the best way to proceed was to increase the level of support to the family.”

Margaret, a Fulbright Scholar, as well as an Associate Professor of Human Services at Lyndon State College in Vermont, is spending four months in Kochi, along with her husband Dr. Thomas O’Hare, another Fulbright Scholar, and Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. Thomas is doing research on mental health at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Kochi.

Like Rachel, many teenagers in America are going through a difficult time. They suffer from depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety and social phobias. “They see violence, alcohol, and drug addiction in their own homes,” says Thomas. “They grow up in poor neighbourhoods where there is a lot of crime, apart from sexual and physical abuse.” 

What is aggravating the situation are the high rates of divorce in American society. “The family plays a major role in the emotional health of a child,” says Margaret. “So, when things break down between husband and wife, it affects the child immediately.”

But all is not gloomy. There are parents who work together for the sake of the children. “And they are able to provide consistent care,” says Margaret. “This takes out the stress that is going on in some households. You have two people constantly fighting with each other, and there is a lot of chaos. It becomes calmer once a divorce takes place and parents start living apart.”

Unfortunately, there are some fathers who live in another city and cannot be physically present in their children’s lives. This can have a long-term impact, especially for a son. “When you study the behavioural problems in male adolescents and young adults one of the key factors is the absence of a father,” says Thomas.

Thomas and Margaret were giving a talk to the teachers of the Rajagiri Public School at Kalamassery on emotional and behavioural disorders in children and adolescents.  

But both the academics have been impressed by the youngsters they have encountered in Kochi. “They are very polite,” says Thomas. “And that is pleasing to see.” The Kochi teenagers seemed happy and curious. “One criticism about the United States is that the people are very ethno-centric [belief in the superiority of one's own ethnic group],says Margaret. “But the children in Kochi have been curious about us. They ask questions about where we come from and want to know more about the United States.”

What amazed Thomas and Margaret was how skilled the youth were in speaking multiple languages. “That is not prevalent in the United States ,” says Thomas. “Apart from that, with American youth, there is less formality and respect of authority figures. However, in the educational context, too much obedience to authority may not be a good thing, just as too little is. So, it is important to teach students to challenge their teachers, while being respectful at the same time.”

Meanwhile, whether East or West, one of the pressing issues about teenagers are their easy access to pornography on the Internet. “It is normal to be curious about sex during adolescence,” says Margaret. “So youngsters check out pornography to understand what is going on. However, pornography is a huge area, with lots of sub-cultures, like child and violent pornography. It demeans women and creates an unrealistic view of sex. That can be damaging to youngsters.”

But Margaret says that good parenting, supportive teachers, and allowing teenagers to ask questions about sex, balances out the long-term negative effects of pornography.

Asked the definition of a good parent, Thomas says, “He or she is someone who can be honest, loving and compassionate. They take the time and energy to be attentive, and understand the child's feelings. Good parents help children solve their problems. Yet, at the same time, when it is necessary, they assert their parental authority.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Popping the pill

Reporter's Diary

By Shevlin Sebastian

One evening, a man was standing at a medicine shop at Fort Kochi to buy some tablets. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman came up, accompanied by her ten-year-old son, and asked for an I-Pill. The chemist gave it to her. Coolly, she took out the tablet, asked the chemist for a glass of water, popped the pill into her mouth, threw the packet in the shop's dust-bin, paid the money, and walked away.

This led to feverish speculation between the man and the chemist. “Either she is married and does not want to have a child, while her husband wants another one,” said the man. “So this was the best way to hoodwink him.” However, the seasoned chemist said, “Her husband may be in the Gulf and she was feeling lonely yesterday. So, maybe, she slipped. As the line on the tablet says, 'Worried after last night?'. Perhaps, she wanted to get rid of some worries.”

The duo laughed, even though the mystery of why the woman took the birth-control tablet at the shop was not solved.

Happy and gay

One evening, two men were standing at the Thevara bus stop at Kochi. Suddenly, one man, Kutty (name changed) turned to the other man, Murali, and said, “I am looking for a companion. Would you like to be one?”

Murali did not respond. Kutty asked again, “Would you like to join me?” Again Murali ignored him. When Kutty asked for a third time, Murali got angry and said, “You dog, don't you have any shame? Why are you harassing me like this?” But Kutty was unfazed. “I am gay,” he said. “I only asked for your companionship. You could have either said yes or no.

There was no need to get angry and abuse me.” A crowd gathered, but Kutty remained nonchalant, and, once again, proclaimed his sexuality. The people were so shocked by his frank admission that nobody said anything. When the next bus came, Kutty calmly got on it, and left.

The time of shame and fear for gays seems to be over.

Sex queen as an everyday woman

After a day’s media frenzy, in which numerous television channels recorded her every move on the sets of her latest Malayalam film, ‘Neelakurinji Poothu’ at Kochi , former soft-porn star Shakeela is in a relaxed mood in her hotel room that evening. She is wearing a nightgown and speaks fluent English even though she says, “I failed my Class ten exams and did not study further.”

She is hospitable and kind, and when an aide brings a fruit juice in a tetra-pack, for the visitor, she says, “Oh that is very bitter. Get another brand.”

When asked why there is still so much of interest in her, she laughs and says, “People are curious to know whether I am a sex symbol in real life also.”

Shakeela became a household name among adult Malayalis when her soft porn film, ‘Kinnarathumbikal’, released in 2000, became a hit. She shakes her head and says, “How did this film do well? The music was bad: some remixes of Michael Jackson’s songs, and there were only two scenes where I reveal my cleavage and my legs. Actresses nowadays reveal ten times more.”

But producer Jaffer Kanjirapally, who is sitting next to her, is not complaining. “I made 19 films with Shakeela and made a lot of money,” he says. “I am trying my luck again with her.”

Shakeela talks easily about the many incidents in her eventful life, including her encounters with another sex queen, the late Silk Smitha. “When I saw Silk Smitha on the sets at the AVM Studios in Chennai for the first time, she was leaning back on a chair, her eyes closed, with two air coolers on either side,” says Shakeela. “I thought to myself, ‘An actor’s life seems to be a royal one.’” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala State edition)

‘She has no airs’

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Shyam Radhakrishnan talks about life with actor Kaniha

By Shevlin Sebastian

In March, 2006, Shyam Radhakrishnan attended a party in Chennai. Most of the guests were from the film industry. Suddenly actress Suhasini Mani Ratnam stepped forward and led Shyam to a girl standing at one side and introduced him to her. She was none other than the actress Kaniha.

We hit it off straightaway,” says Shyam. “We had a nice conversation, and it was love at first sight for me.”

In that first meeting Shyam was much taken up by Kaniha’s simplicity and humility. “She had no airs that she is a star,” he says.

Thereafter, the New York-based IT businessman flew back to the United States, but remained in touch through phone and e-mail. A few months later, he returned and they went out on several dates.

One day, very casually, Shyam said, “Maybe we should think of getting married.”

Kaniha was half-expecting the proposal. “But I could see on her face what she was thinking: ‘How do I break this news to my mum? How do I say yes, when my career is going so well?’”

Shyam smiles, and says, “But I think she understood that I would not be opposed to her acting after our wedding. Many heroines went through this problem after marriage. But that would not be an issue with us because I have a deep understanding of the industry.”

Put simply, Shyam’s family has been in the Tamil film world for the past seventy years. His grandmother, Sundaram Jayalakshmi, was one of the first heroines and had acted opposite the great actor MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in 1942. Shyam’s granduncle was veena exponent S. Balachandran who won the Padma Bhushan award in 1982. His sister, Jaishree, was a top heroine in the mid 1980s, apart from his cousin Sukanya.

Eventually, Kaniha said yes, and the marriage took place on June 16, 2008, in Chennai. For their honeymoon, they went to Goa. “It was a fantastic few days at the Leela Kempinski,” says Shyam. “We are both outdoors people and love the water and beaches.”

As Shyam got to know Kaniha better, his admiration grew. “Nothing has changed with this girl,” he says. “Humility is first nature for her. She is a good actress, wife, mom, and a qualified engineer. Kaniha can sing, dance, and is such a good cook. In fact, she can make every single South Indian and Italian dish. One day, I told her I like Italian food and she mastered it within a week.”     
Shyam also admires the way Kaniha has handled her career. “She has an uncanny ability to pick good projects,” he says. “Kaniha is not somebody who says, ‘I am going to take all the movies I get’. Some people jump in and do 20 movies a year. But Kaniha only does one or two a year.”

And when she is on the set, she is dedication personified. “Whatever movie she is acted in, whether it is with Mohanlal or Mammooty, she has done really well, like in ‘Pazhassi Raja’,” says Shyam. “They were shooting for three years, but she was patient and did not act in another film. She is very committed to her work.”

When she is not working, the couple gets up at about 7.30 a.m. at their bungalow on East Coast Road in Chennai. “Actually, our son, Rishi, who is two years old, wakes us up,” says Shyam. Breakfast includes egg whites, and wheat bread. Thereafter, Shyam goes out and comes back by 1.30 p.m. for lunch. “Sometimes, I crave for Madrasi food,” says Shyam.

On other days, they go out. Favourite places to eat include ‘Ente Keralam’, the ‘Dakshin’ at the Park Sheraton hotel, and ‘Kipling CafĂ©’. In the evenings they work out together, at home, on the treadmill, to keep fit. At night they go visiting friends. And while Kaniha and Rishi go to sleep by 11 p.m., Shyam stays up till 3 a.m. doing business online because it is daytime in New York.

Shyam is, indeed, a night bird. Once they went to Las Vegas, where Kaniha had a performance, organised by the Malayali Association. So Shyam invited his bachelor friends and they hit the casino at the Bellagio Hotel and were missing for several hours. 

When he finally returned, Kaniha went ballistic, especially because she was also pregnant. Shyam apologised, but made Kaniha smile when he shouted, “Baby I won,” and showed the $3000 he won at the gaming tables.

A marriage should be more like a friendship rather than a husband and wife kind of relationship,” he says. “Spend as much time with each other as possible. Be honest and candid. If you are not frank with your spouse, why did you marry?” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

A true hero of our times

Bose Krishnamachari, the president of the Kochi Muziris Foundation, talks about the tremendous impact of the three-month long exhibition, which concluded on March 17

By Shevlin Sebastian

Three months ago, Bose Krishnamachari, the president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), had gone to a jewellery shop in Angamaly to buy a gift for a cousin's wedding. He had been a regular, over the years, at the shop. 

At that time, controversy was raging in the media about whether there has been financial skullduggery by the Biennale organisers. And the impact could be seen in the store's employees, who were no longer welcoming. “They looked at me as if I was some sort of a thief,” says Bose. “I felt disappointed but I was not worried. I knew I had done nothing wrong.”

Today, on the eve of the conclusion of the first-ever Biennale in India, Bose and his team – Riyas Komu (KBF Secretary), Boney Thomas (Trustee), and a host of others – have been vindicated. 

“There has been a tremendous acceptance of the Biennale by the people,” says Bose. “I was enriched by the unexpected compliments, excitement, and sharing by ordinary people, as well as the celebrities. Now there is a new word that the people have learnt to say, apart from 'Biennale', and that is called 'installation'.”

The artistic sensibility has been heightened. “The people have started noticing a wire lying on the road, or a piece of grass,” says Bose. “There is a pride, right from the auto-rickshaw driver to the elite, that Kochi is now a Biennale city.”

Indeed, the show has received positive notices all over the world. What has been most remarkable for Westerners is the fact that two artists, Bose and Riyas, had a vision and against the most difficult of odds, established the show. 

“Chris Dercon [Director of the Tate Modern Art Gallery, London], in a public talk, said that in a place like the UAE [United Arab Emirates], the government has been trying to develop their art and culture by spending millions of dollars and here we are, by spending a few crores, we have put up a world-class show,” says Bose.

Perhaps the most stunning statement was by noted cultural impresario, Rajeev Sethi, who has set up so many Festivals of India abroad. “The Biennale has been the nation's biggest cultural event since Independence,” he said.

In all this excitement, of meeting celebrities every day and being in the public eye, Bose has missed out on his family life. “I have been away from home [in Mumbai] for more than two years now,” he says. “My children, Aaryan, 9, and Kannaki, 6, and my wife Radhika yearn for my presence. I feel sad about it but the Biennale has been such a big responsibility.”

Following the conclusion of the Biennale, on March 17, Bose will begin work on the selection of the next curator for the 2014 edition. 

This small and unassuming Malayali, with a charming smile, has made a giant impact in the world of art. 

A true hero of our times! 

(The New Indian Express, state edition)

Monday, March 18, 2013

Ahoy, Captain ahead!

Radhika Menon has created history by becoming the first woman to become a captain in the Indian Merchant Navy 

Photo by Ch. Kodandaramaiah

By Shevlin Sebastian

On October 27, last year, Captain Radhika Menon, of the 21,827 tonne oil tanker, 'Suvarna Swarajya', was going through a spot of tension at Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu. It was raining heavily and there were winds of 60 kms per hour. The ship was buffeted from side to side. “The big ship was behaving like a small toy,” says Radhika. It was a time when it was difficult to keep one's balance. A few of the crew members became sea-sick. All the items inside the cabins were thrown about, and fell to the floor.

The vessel dragged its anchor twice. “It had to be re-anchored,” says Radhika. For two days they remained in this uncomfortable situation. On October 29, the Meteorological Department declared that the depression near the coast of Sri Lanka  had developed into a cyclone called Nilam and was approaching land between Nellore  and Nagapattinam. Radhika decided to move away. Eventually, she went near Krishnapatnam, 496 kms away. By doing this I was able to avoid the direct impact of the cyclone,” she says. Later, they returned to Nagapattinam, collected a shipment of naptha, and sailed to Thirukkadaiyur  Port in Tamil Nadu.

Not many people know that Radhika has made history. She is the first woman captain of the Indian Merchant Navy. Appointed a few months ago, she was not surprised. “I knew I would become captain one day,” she says, with a smile.

Asked about her responsibilities, Radhika says, “I have to plan the navigation routes and manoueuvre the ship in and out of the harbour. I have to tackle all types of emergencies, like a sudden, unexpected storm.” She also has to do all the paperwork and monitor all departments and ensure that safety rules and regulations are complied with. Radhika also oversees the training of the staff on board and conducts emergency drills. “In short, I am overall in  charge of the ship,” she says.

Interestingly, apart from Radhika, and one cadet, it is an all-male crew of 38. “They know me well, and have no problems of taking orders from me,” she says. “Do remember I have been with the Shipping Corporation of India [SCI] for 22 years.” She did a one-and-a-half year radio course at the All India Marine College in Kochi before she became a radio officer in SCI, the first woman to do so in India .

But it has not been a smooth journey. “As compared to a male officer, I am scrutinised much more,” she says. “I try to avoid making mistakes. If I do make one, it will be talked about, and never forgotten. My attitude is simple: if a hurdle has been placed in front of you, then you have to clear it.”

But there are many enjoyable aspects of the job. “I love the harbour approaches, especially those at Vishakapatnam, where there are some nice hills. In my hometown of Kochi , there are the Chinese nets, apart from the island of Mattancherry , with its old houses and beaches. It is so nice when you look at it from the sea.”

Radhika also loves the weather. “There are beautiful sunrises and sunsets. The best sight is star-filled nights. It is like looking at the night sky inside a planetarium. I enjoy the unpolluted atmosphere.”

But she watches the sea carefully. “It has so many different moods,” says Radhika. “It can be unforgiving if you make a mistake. Carelessness and complacency has led to disasters. The sea must always be treated with respect.”

Meanwhile, when asked about balancing a career with home, Radhika says, “When my son, Bhavesh, was younger [he is 17 now], I would do short stints,” she says. “The passenger ship I worked on operated between Kochi and the Lakshadweep Islands .” But now Radhika works for one year and then takes a full year off. Her husband, Praveen Venugopal, works for a mobile firm in Kochi .

Her advice to young girls who are planning to join the Merchant Navy is clear. “She should not expect any special consideration just because she is a girl,” says Radhika. “She should know her work thoroughly, so that she can command the respect of others.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

The body beautiful

British-born Katie Holland talks about her life as a belly dancer in India

By Shevlin Sebastian
About a minute into Katie Holland’s belly dancing performance at a hall in Kochi, the usher at the door opened his mouth and, involuntarily, his tongue slid out. Soon, he seemed to be panting. The drooling epidemic spread among the youngsters in the audience. As for the middle-aged men, sitting next to their strict-looking wives, their faces were blank, while their eyes enlarged in forbidden pleasure.

And all because the white-skinned Katie was wearing a sequined black bra, and a tight black skirt, with long slits. She was swirling around the stage, now moving fast, now moving slow, displaying smooth, slim legs, while the muscles of her stomach moved about, as if it had a life of their own. 

Sometimes, she was dancing to Arabic music, at other moments to pacy Bollywood numbers and then to the music of BBC award-winning percussionist and composer Abhishek Basu and his band. But it was not a mindless movement.

The charm of belly dancing is not only about how you use your body but the way you interpret the music,” says Katie. “So, if it is a violin, the movement is more with the upper body and arms. With the accordion, it is with the hips. If it is a tabla, there are sharper twists of the hips, chest, and shoulders. As for a band or orchestra, it is a big sound, so you make big movements.”
Katie was born in Leicester, United Kingdom. At the age of three, she was taken to dance classes by her parents. But when she was 15, she saw a woman doing belly dancing on TV. “I realised that this was what I wanted to do,” says Katie. So, she went to Egypt and Morocco and began training. Apart from the thrill and joy of doing the dance she realised that there are health benefits. 

“Belly dancing is good for the body, before and after pregnancy,” she says. “It helps solve back pain, menstrual problems, and depression. A lot of women like the music, costumes, jewellery, and make-up. It makes them feel good about themselves.”

Now 18 years have gone past, and Kathie has performed in Europe and Asia but for the past seven years she has settled in India, based first in Goa and now in Delhi. “It is easier to make ends meet in India, than in England,” she says.

Katie has performed at the Goa Film Festival, for many event companies all over India, and for product launches like Gitanjili Jewellery, Hero Honda, Moet Chandon and Vodafone. “I have also danced at private parties of celebrities like Vijay Mallya, Shaan, Madhuri Dixit, and Salman Khan.” But she is frank enough to admit that her entry to Bollywood has been stymied by her reluctance to go the casting couch way.

There are a lot of girls from Eastern Europe who are giving a bad reputation to the rest of us,” says Katie. “I am white so they think I am easy to get. I have this problem all over India.” If somebody calls Katie for a show, she has to make it clear that she is a dancer, and nothing more. “The first year I was shocked,” she says. “The organisers would tell me the other girls are doing it, so why not me?  I have lost work because I have said no.”

And Katie is also trying to get used to the vastness of the country. One day, she was told that there was a dance programme at a place 15 hours from Delhi. So, she dressed casually in a cotton T-shirt, slacks, and sandals. “I was sleeping in the car when I suddenly woke up wondering why I was feeling so cold,” she says. “I asked the driver about the location. And he replied that I was in Shimla, in the Himalayas.”

She had to hurriedly borrow the coat and hat from the agent. “I was there for two days, and was crying because of the cold,” she says. “I learnt my lesson. Nowadays, before I go anywhere, I always check where the place is and what the climate will be like.”

Asked what she likes about India the most, Katie says, succinctly, Indian dance. I have been learning Bharatanatyam for the past five years. It is spiritual and the movements are so precise.”  (

Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Hot, sexy and versatile

Former soft-porn star Shakeela has moved to direction. It is for a Malayalam film called ‘Neelakurinji Poothu’

By Shevlin Sebastian

Shakeela got a chance to play a role in the soft-porn film, 'Playgirls', in 1994 in which reigning sex queen Silk Smitha was the heroine. In one scene Shakeela had to only wear a towel and do a love-making scene. Then Smitha would enter the room, catch Shakeela in the act, and give her a slap. Before the scene could be shot, an anxious Shakeela kept asking Smitha about the slap. Smitha repeatedly said, “Don't worry, I will only pretend that I am slapping you.”

However, when the shooting took place, Smitha gave an actual slap. A shocked Shakeela burst into tears and ran away from the set at AVM studios in Chennai. For three days she stayed away. Then the producer went to her home and told the youngster that Smitha wanted to say sorry. When Shakeela reached the set, Smitha gave a box of chocolates, and hugged her.

Smitha told me that since I was new to acting, I probably would not know how to cry,” says Shakeela. “And since I was skimpily dressed, I would feel uncomfortable in front of the crew. So, in order to finish the shoot in one take, she slapped me. But till today, my heart is not convinced by her answer. I have been puzzled by her behaviour.” Could she have been jealous at the rise of a new competitor? “I don’t know,” says Shakeela.
Incidentally, Smitha committed suicide on September 23, 1996.

It is 2013. Shakeela, who has lost more than 20 kgs, is relaxing in her hotel room at Kochi, after a day's shooting for her latest Malayalam film, ‘Neelakurinji Poothu’, in which she is acting as well as being the director. The story is about a single mother bringing up a girl. The producer is Jaffer Kanjirapally, who has done 19 films with her. “I made a lot of money, thanks to Shakeela,” he says. “Now I am trying my luck again.”

As for Shakeela she wanted to do something different. “To try new things like direction will help me to grow as an actor,” she says. But it has been an up and down career.

For a time, from the nineties to 2000, Shakeela's soft-porn Malayalam films were a rage in Kerala. Her film, ‘Kinnarathumbikal’, became a huge hit. She shakes her head and says, “How did this film do well? It had one of the worst background music I have heard: some scratchy remixes of Michael Jackson songs. I was wearing a blouse and a lungi. There were only two hot scenes. In one I am having a bath in a stream and, in another I make love to an older man.”

Nevertheless, the public were enamoured. Later, the films were dubbed into many other Indian languages and could also be seen in places like Nepal and Bangladesh. But once the Censor Board clamped down on the films, Shakeela's career came to a sudden halt.

I had been working for two years without a gap,” she says. “And when I got a break, I was so happy. For a month I was eating and relaxing. Then it became very boring. I learned cooking and passed the time by playing games on Play Station. For two years, I did not get any roles.”

Her break came when she got a comic role in Telugu director Theja's 'Jeyam' in 2002. Thereafter, she did similar roles in Tamil and Kannada films. However, the old request to wear revealing clothes kept cropping up. “Immediately I will say, 'Is this a Malayalam film?', and shut them up,” says Shakeela, with a smile.

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Golden Era of Black and White films

A musical programme highlighted the glory of songs in Bollywood from 1945 to 1968. It was an unforgettable experience for all 

Photos: Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in 'Naya Daur'; singer Priyanka Barve and anchor Rahul Solapurkar 

 By Shevlin Sebastian

The anchor Rahul Solapurkar sits at one side of the stage while a girl, Priyanka Barve, clad in a white saree, starts singing ‘Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh’ (from the 1960 film, ‘Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai’). And thus begins an enchanting evening, at the JT Pac, by the Pune-based Niche Entertainment. The programe is called 'Black and White', and is a reliving of Bollywood through songs of the golden years of 1945 to 1968.

Rahul points at the screen and says that it looks white and empty now. “But once images flash on it, they create a magic in the minds of the viewers,” he says. “This white screen can take us to ‘Mughal-e-Azam’ or to ‘Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi’ or show a world ‘Bees Saal Baad’.”

Which is true. The moment scenes from the old classic films like ‘Naya Daur’ are shown we are immediately drawn in by the chemistry between Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala. And what is remarkable is how the singers on stage emulate perfectly the hand and body movements of the stars on screen and dress in the same manner, giving it a two-dimensional effect.

In between, Rahul provides interesting tidbits and fills in about the history of Bollywood. “The first-ever Hindi film was the silent movie, ‘Raja Harishchandra’, made in 1913, while the first talkies film, ‘Alam Ara’, was by Ardeshir Irani in 1931,” he says. “In those days, the tickets were selling in black for Rs 50, even though the monthly salary of people was Rs 50.” It was also a time when there was a craze for musicals, and, astonishingly, the 1932 film, ‘Indrasabha’ had 69 songs in it.

And it is not long before, Rahul begins talking about the King of Tragedy, Dilip Kumar. “Owing to the horrors of Partition, it was difficult for Muslim actors to get a chance in Bollywood,” he says. “So when a man from Peshawar wanted to try his luck in Mumbai, he changed his name from Yusuf Khan to Dilip Kumar, and the rest is history.”

The songs are rendered with great skill by the singers, Hrishikesh Ranade, Jitendra Abhyankar, Priyanka Barve, Swapnaja Lele, and include hits like 'Suhana safar' (Mukesh), 'Ye raatein ye mausam' (Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle), and 'Ude jab jab zulfein teri' (Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhonsle from the film, 'Naya Daur).

In ‘Naya Daur’, Madhubala initially played the heroine. But suddenly differences arose with the director B.R. Chopra. “The director published an advertisement in the newspaper where he put the names of all those who were acting in the film,” says Rahul. “When it came to Madhubala, her name was crossed out.”

In retaliation, Madhubala's father, Ataullah Khan published a similar advertisement, with all the films in which Madhubala acted in. When it came to ‘Naya Daur’, he crossed it out. Eventually, Vyjayanthimala got the role and the film became a huge hit. “How and why it became a hit, nobody can explain,” says Rahul. “There is no sure-fire formula for a hit. But Vyjayanthimala never looked back after that.”

And who can explain how actors become superstars. “There was one star who was born to love,” says Rahul. “First it was self-love and then it was to love the world. He was evergreen, the first chocolate hero, the one and only Dev plus Anand.”

The singers immediately move into the perennial hit, 'Hum hai raahi pyar ke' by Kishore Kumar in the film, ‘Nau Do Gyarah’.

Soon, there are songs starring Johnny Walker, Guru Dutt, Shammi and Raj Kapoor, with that memorable song, ‘Pyar Hua Iqrar Hua’, from ‘Shree 420’, shot in the rain and capturing the sizzling pairing of Raj Kapoor and Nargis.

Later, Rahul tells amusing stories of the eccentric but great singer Kishore Kumar. "Whenever he would go for a recording, he would always ask his assistant, 'Bapu coffee piya?' and only when Bapu said yes, would he start recording,” says Rahul. “It was a code language to know if the producers had paid the advance or not.”

One day, just before a recording, he asked Bapu the question three times, but got no reply. So Kumar pulled off his headphones and told the orchestra that he could not sing due to a sore throat and left. On the way home, he complained to his assistant about how producers are always tight-fisted about giving money to singers when Bapu nervously told him that it was their own production he was recording for.

As the audience laughs, one could not help but admire the magnetism of Rahul on stage. His dialogue delivery, his sure grasp of history, his facial expressions, the interactions with the singers, the occasional dance steps he took, he was the fulcrum on which the show turned, and made it such a memorable experience for all.  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

South India magnified

Akash Kapur's book on India takes an in-depth view of the lives of a few people

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a Friday writer Akash Kapur was travelling in a car out of Bangalore towards his home in Pondicherry accompanied by a driver. Once they reached the open country, the driver pressed the accelerator.

But around 15 kms from Akash's home in Pondicherry, the car hit two boys riding on a moped. “The boys were lifted onto our hood and then dropped to the road,” writes Akash, in his book, ‘India Becoming' (A Journey Through a Changing Landscape). “They were carrying lunch in a tiffin box. The tiffin box flew open; the cover was stuck behind one of our wipers. The windshield was covered in yellow sambhar and rice. It looked like vomit.”

Before a mob could gather, Akash and the driver decided to go to the local police station and report the accident. Akash looked back and saw that one of the boys was on the ground. “He was lying in a pool of blood,” he says. “His right arm was twitching.”

The story continues and details the experience in the police station. How a mob gathers outside. The fear of the policemen inside. Akash's own fears of getting lynched.

'India Becoming' is a lucidly written book about such incidents and about the impact of modernisation on the lives of a few people in South India. So, Akash has written about a farmer called R. Sathyanarayanan (Sathy), who used to be a big zamindar, and had lost a lot of land in the village of Molasur. Sathy talks about his declining importance in the village, where the Dalits are coming up.

Then there is Hari, a closet gay, who works in the IT industry, as well as marketing professional Veena. She grew up in Jaipur, had a empty traditional marriage, walked out and began living with a boyfriend called Arvind.

The interesting thing about the book is that Akash spends a lot of time with the people he befriends. So even after six years, he is still interacting with them and moving the story forward.
But it was not an easy process. “You are going in depth into people’s lives,” he says. “The first few times you are not getting anything because you are building trust. You are seeing whether you are comfortable with each other and they should also understand what the process is all about. You want them to open up and many people had dropped out because they did not find the process comfortable.”  

On a brief visit to Kochi, Akash explains the reason behind the book. “I moved backed to Pondicherry in 2003 after ten years abroad,” he says. “I got a sense that my home and the world there had changed. My book was a way to engage in that process. My goal was not to capture the whole of India. People had tried to do that and it has not worked out well.”

One reason for his focus on South India was because it has been neglected in contemporary fiction and non-fiction, as well as international journalism. “When reporters are posted in India, they are usually based in Mumbai or Delhi and venture out to North India, and rarely to the South,” he says. “I also did not want to write a broad policy analysis with statistics. I thought that if I took a life, which is one of the most complicated things, really, it would capture the complexity and nuance of a complicated country like India in a much better way.”

Despite his disinclination to write about policy, Akash does have an intellectual bent. He has a bachelor’s degree in social anthropology from Harvard University and a D Phil (as a Rhodes Scholar) at Nuffield College, Oxford University. 

One of his teachers was the Noble Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, who contributed a blurb on the book cover. Akash has also written for internationally reputed magazines like 'The Atlantic Monthly, 'The Economist', 'Granta', 'The New York Times', and 'New Yorker'.

And the author has been happy at the positive reviews, both nationally and internationally, which the book has received. Asked about his future plans, Akash says, “I am thinking about a book of fiction as well as one on non-fiction.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)