Tuesday, April 29, 2014

An Unique Talent

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Supriya talks about life with the actor Suraj Venjaramoodu

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On April 16, the news was announced that Mollywood actor Suraj Venjaramoodu had won the national award for best actor for his role in the film, 'Perariyathavar'. On that day, Suraj's wife, Supriya, was returning home from a visit to her brother's house in Thiruvananthapuram. When she stepped out of the car she got a jolt. She had never seen such a large crowd of reporters and television cameramen before.

What was most shocking was when they asked me to say a few words about Suraj winning the award,” she says. “That people wanted to know my views was such a surprise. I am a person who has never been in the limelight.”

Not surprisingly, not a single word came out. Instead, Supriya began crying silently. Later, her friends said that she should have said something. But Surpriya has no regrets. “I thanked God for this great gift he gave my husband,” she says.

For Supriya, Suraj is also a gift. And it was Supriya's close friend, Sreelatha, who is a cousin of Suraj, who came up with the proposal. Supriya was agreeable and met Suraj, along with Sreelatha, at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram on December 6, 2002.

At that time, Suraj was a well-known TV artist. And he was dressed flamboyantly in an orange shirt and black jeans. When Supriya saw him she was in a state of shock. It was the first time that she was seeing an actor in the flesh. Supriya's first impression was that Suraj was a down-to-earth person.

Suraj asked me a few questions about what what I was doing,” she says. At that time, Supriya was giving entrance coaching to post-graduate and MBA students at a private academy in Thiruvananthapuram. Evidently, Suraj also liked her. Because he met Supriya's father, and said, “Sir, I would like to marry your daughter.” Supriya's parents said yes, because they liked him as an actor.

However, when the horoscopes were matched, the astrologer suggested a delay. Eventually, the couple got married, two-and-a-half years later, on July 3, 2005, at the Sree Vaikuntam Kalyana Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram. There was no honeymoon. Instead, they went to the 'Rajamanikyam' film set in Pollachi, where Suraj had to do the shooting for just one scene.
And that was where Supriya met Mammooty for the first time. “He asked my name, and blessed me to have a happily married life,” says Supriya. “Mammooty then and now is a simple and humble person.”

Meanwhile, when asked about Suraj's plus points, Supriya says, “Whereever he is, the first thing he does in the morning is to call me. He will always ask about the children [Kashinath, 7, Vasudev, 5, and one-year-old Hriddya]. At night, he will ask about the happenings during the day. Suraj is a caring person.”

But Supriya finds it difficult to adjust to the lack of pre-planning on Suraj's part. “Suddenly, he will say that we will be going on a trip the next day,” she says. “Then I have to rush to get everything ready.”

Recently, the family had gone for a holiday in Dubai. They had the opportunity to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. “It was an awesome experience, to see the whole of Dubai from the top,” says Supriya. “We also travelled on a ship at night. It was beautiful.”

But vacations are the rare periods when the family is together. On an average, because of his hectic acting career, Suraj spends ten days at home every month. In fact, that is one of the reasons why the family moved to Kochi from Thiruvananthapuram three years ago. “It is easier for Suraj to come home from location sets,” says Supriya. “As a result, the children miss him less.”

When Suraj is at home and if a new film of his has just been released, the family goes for a night show at a hall. “Suraj always prefers to see films on the big screen,” says Supriya. And after the show, Supriya does give a critique. “Most of the time, it is positive, but at other times I will say, 'It could have been better',” she says. “Suraj listens carefully to what I have to say. Sometimes, he will say that he can only do what the director tells him to do. There are occasions when he has asked whether he could try something different and directors have said no.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Supriya says, “Marriage is a big change in your life. It is a new life you will be sharing with another person. So you must try to understand your spouse as well as his family. You have to learn to give space to him. If there are flaws in you, it should be corrected. I am not saying that you should change your personality, but it would be better to correct the mistakes.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Chasing a Dream

Jude Anthany Joseph has made a 12-minute film on the life of Malayalam superstar Mammooty. His debut film, 'Ohm Shanti Oshana' is also a box office hit

Photo by Melton Anthony

By Shevlin Sebastian

Two years ago, the actor Nivin Pauly gave a book to his friend, Jude Anthany Joseph. It was the 300-page autobiography of Mollywood superstar Mammooty called 'Chamayangaliillade' (Sans any make-up). When Jude began reading it, he found it so interesting, he could not stop. He read through the night.

The next day, Jude told Nivin that he could make a film.

Nivin said, “That's why I gave you the book.”

Since Jude was an unknown, he decided to make a 12-minute short film. “I felt I could do some scenes from Mammooty's childhood,” says Jude.

To do research, the debutant director went to Mammooty's village in Chempu, in Kottayam district. “I pretended to be a journalist to the locals,” he says. Jude took photos of Mammooty's shuttered house, the school where he studied, and other places of interest.

He also met Mammooty's school teacher, Sahadevan and his wife Nalini, who are still teaching. “Sahadevan Sir told me that Mammooty was always interested in the arts from a young age,” says Jude.

In fact, in a scene from the film, 'Mamookka's Biography', which can be seen on You Tube, the teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. A couple of students listed the professions of policeman and chief minister. But, one boy, to the shock of the teacher and his classmates, said he wanted to be an actor.

The 10-year-old boy, MA Jeyasuriyaa, who played the younger Mammooty was an inspired selection. Jude saw him at a drama club and quickly noted his acting talent. In the film, Jeyasuriyaa looked confident and mischievous.

One day, he saw a postman, who was riding a bicycle, near his school. He asked him whether he was going to deliver letters to his home that day. The man nodded. Then, impishly, the junior Mammooty asked the postman if he could carry his school books, along with the letters, and give them to his mother, while he went out to play.

But there were disappointments, too. To get a role in a play conducted by the school drama club, the senior students asked for 50 paise. Mammooty managed to persuade his father to give him the money. But when Mammooty met the senior students, they told him his closest friend had paid the money and got the role. Mammooty felt crushed.

Nevertheless, it is an inspiring story. “Who could have imagined that this boy from a small village would one day become a megastar of Malayalam cinema,” says Jude.

In April, 2012, Jude showed the film to Mammooty in his trailer during a shoot at Kochi. “He liked many aspects,” says Jude. “I told him I wanted to make a full-length feature film. Immediately, Mammooty asked me to write a screenplay.

Jude is busy with that at present.

Meanwhile, two months ago, Jude released his first feature, 'Ohm Shanti Oshana', which stars Nivin and Nazriya Nazim in the title roles. It is a sweet and endearing love story between youngsters. And it has become a super-duper hit.

But Jude seems to be an unlikely candidate to make an impact at the box office. An electronics engineer, he worked for three years at Infosys, Bangalore. But he had always nurtured a dream to be a film director. “I watched a movie every day on the computer for years together,” he says. “I learnt direction like that.”

So, one day, he gave up his job and chased his dream.

Just like his hero Mammooty. 

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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Movement of People Throughout History

Prof. Chris Gosden of Oxford University says that the world has been globalised for hundreds of years

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

We think of globalisation as a modern phenomenon,” says Prof. Chris Gosden, Chair of European Archaeology at Oxford University. “But in many ways, the world has been globalised for centuries. Things moved more slowly in the past than they do now, but people, ideas and materials have moved constantly. I would say that there are two basic, but contradictory things which have characterised human life.”  

On the one hand, human beings are prone to form groups. They formed communities which had some sort of a boundary and learned to deal with the world in particular ways. “People became the people they are by being members of particular groups,” says Gosden.

In a social unit, individuals usually have five people who are significant and important. “Then there is a larger segment of colleagues and friends, something in the order of 20, and then a much larger group of 100-400 people we know to some degree,” says Gosden. “So, each of us lives in a series of groups, which are meaningful to us in various levels. We also exist in a much larger society of 2,500 people at different times. It could be strangers and occasionally antagonistic sets of relationships. While they may be fleeting and brief, they can be influential.”  

Meanwhile, even as humans have lived in communities, ideas, people and culture have moved between groups. “So these two notions are in tension with each other,” says Gosden. “There is a tendency to divide up and the need to connect at the same time.”

Incidentally, Gosden was giving a lecture at Kochi called ‘Ancient Global Connections and Pattanam’, which was organised by the Kerala Council of Historical Research (KCHR) and the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage.

Gosden, along with colleague Dr. Wendy Morrison, and a team of archaeology students from Oxford University worked on the Pattanam site along with the members of the KCHR, under the leadership of Director Prof. P J Cherian.

In a small way our collaboration has created an international multi-cultural team,” says Gosden. “The teams have got along very well together and have learnt things which go way beyond archaeology. We are hoping that in future, people from various places in Kerala will come to Oxford. We will be happy to give them as warm a welcome as we have received.”  

Reverting to his topic, Gosden says, “The human story is of movement, connections and long-term travel. About 1.8 billion years ago, our ancestors started moving out of Africa, to Europe, India, China and to south-east Asia. These people learned to exist in environments that were strange to them. They encountered new plants and animals. To deal with them, they developed a mentality of adaptation, flexibility and change.”

But because people lived in different environments, differences started to appear, in the way they dressed, behaved or consumed food. According to Dorian Fuller, a professor of archaeobotany, there were different ways in which people processed, cooked and consumed food.

In present-day China, Siberia and Japan, there are ancient pottery traditions that go back 20,000 years. “This pottery may have something to do with boiling and steaming,” says Gosden. “The modern-day manifestation of this is rice cultures.”

However, if one looks at the Middle East, parts of Africa and Europe, there are different traditions like grinding of cereals and roasting of meat. But in the Indian subcontinent the people partook of the western as well as the eastern tradition.

One of the key aspects of India is that the people accepted traditions coming from outside as well as those which originated in the sub-continent,” says Gosden. “India is a place where people and customs would meet, fuse and mix. Kerala is the epitome of a multicultural mix of societies which have lived together in healthy co-existence for centuries.”

However, the surprising aspect of the evidence from Pattanam and other sites is the scale of connections with different parts of the world.

In Pattanam there was a flourishing trade with numerous countries,” says Gosden. “The people exported gems, spices, wine and food to the Roman world. The Romans were profoundly influenced by their Indian connections. But when we read the history of Europe, it would seem that the people got inspiration only from Athens and Rome. But it is now clear that Persian and Indian cultures were important influences. It is obvious from the architectural and artefact evidence, that Pattanam is a site of great importance.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, April 18, 2014

An Exciting Enigma

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

The Norwegian ambassador Arne Roy Walther talks about life with the former journalist Anita Pratap 

Photo: Anita Pratap and Arne Roy Walther at a site of the Kochi Muziris Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning, the then Norwegian ambassador to India, Arne Roy Walther, would get up at his home in New Delhi, make a cup of coffee, and watch the television news. One day, when he was seeing the CNN news channel, he saw Anita Pratap for the first time. “I was impressed by her commentary and realised that she was a special person,” says Arne. “From then on, I watched CNN instead of the BBC to catch a glimpse of Anita.”

A few months later, in 1996, the elite of Indian society, along with foreign ambassadors, had gathered to watch and interact with the Miss World competitors at an event in New Delhi (the beauty pageant was later held in Bangalore). “I spotted 

Anita in the crowd chatting with one of my diplomat colleagues,” says Arne. “She was wearing an elegant sari, and looked far more beautiful than the scantily-clad contestants half her age on the stage.”

Arne sensed his opportunity and hurried across to say hallo to his friend. “He introduced me to Anita and graciously left me alone with her,” says Arne. “I cannot remember what we talked about, but I tried hard to make a good impression.” After a long conversation, Arne invited Anita for a lunch date a couple of days later and the journalist accepted.

At the lunch, the discussion was intense and exhilarating. “I realised that we had the same values and outlook on life, although Anita was born in Kottayam, and had lived all her life in India, while I was born in New York, and had stayed in several countries,” says Arne.

They remained in touch even as Arne and Anita continued with their busy careers. But Arne's hand was forced three years later, when he was transferred back to Oslo. So he proposed to Anita.

He did it the day before she left to make a documentary film in the North-East. Anita smiled, but did not give a reply. But Arne was sure Anita knew about his feelings. “So my proposal could not have come as a surprise to her,” he says.

A week later, Anita returned and said, “Yes.”

Little did they realise that there would be a few marriage ceremonies. The first wedding took place on Guy Fawke’s Day on November 5, 1999, at the Norwegian Embassy in Madrid. Thereafter, the couple went for a honeymoon in Southern Spain. “We enjoyed the beautiful mountains, the scenic coast and the Islamic heritage of the Moors in Seville,” says Arne.

The second event took place at New Delhi in February, 2000. It was a civil marriage on the lawns of the house of the then Union Law Minister, Ram Jethmalani. Signing the papers, Jethmalani looked at Arne, and jokingly said, “Now, just try getting out of this marriage!”

The third marriage was hosted by senior professional Sunand Sharma and his wife Livleen on the rooftop of their home in Delhi home on a full-moon night. “It was the brightest moon in 133 years,” says Arne. “There were two elephants and 128 dancing gypsies greeting the 400 guests.”

The high point for Arne was when Anita tied a thread around his wrist, while Livleen forcefully pressed the palm of his hand to the flame of a candle. “It hurt a lot,” says Arne. “But I endured the pain like a true Viking and proved to one and all how prepared I was to marry Anita.” Ever since, Anita always ties a new thread on Arne when the old one frays away. “As part of the ritual, I still hold the palm of my hand above the flame of a candle, albeit now at a more comfortable distance,” he says, with a smile.

When asked the difference between Norwegian and Indian women, Arne says, “Norwegian women are usually blonde with blue eyes and spend time skiing, while Indian women have black hair and dark eyes and enjoy eating spicy food. However, both are excitingly enigmatic.”

Today Arne is posted to Tokyo, where he is Norway's ambassador. Whenever Anita is in Tokyo, every morning, after a cup of coffee, the couple go for a morning walk in a nearby park. “We talk about what is going on in the world, and tease each other at every opportunity,” says Arne. “Japan is an open, safe and secure society. The culture is fascinating and the food is good. But I always enjoy Anita’s 'meen mappas' and 'payasam'.”

And Arne is also enjoying watching a constantly-evolving Anita. “She is getting younger in spirit, while maturing in thought and outlook,” says Arne. “We both love to travel and meet people.”

Meanwhile, after 15 years of marriage, Arne has some valuable tips to pass on. “Always talk and do things together,” he says. “Give each other space. Benefit from differences in character. Be serious, but also enjoy life. And do not forget the many less fortunate in society and do something for them. We are all one big family in a global home.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Artist in Society

The Baroda-based artist, Gulammuhammed Sheikh, a Padma Bhushan awardee, talks about the life of the artist as well as his own work

Photos: 'Returning Home', oil on canvas; the artist

By Shevlin Sebastian

What should an artist do if there is grave injustice in society? Should he become an activist and go out and fight on behalf of the people? Or should he stay aloof? These questions have tormented artists for centuries.

The Baroda-based artist Gulammuhammed Sheikh, a Padma Bhushan Awardee tackled this vexing subject during a question-and-answer session at a talk organised by the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

“My job is to paint,” he says. “It is not to agitate. I should find ways of working through my medium to reach out to people. Art is the only way I can reach out. It is a perennial debate of whether the artist should join hands with activism.”

Sheikh recounted the debate among intellectuals in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil war. There was a young British poet, Christopher Cauldwell, who was considered to be one of the finest. “The poet was so moved by what was happening in Spain that one day he left for the war front,” says Sheikh. “Unfortunately, he was killed [on February 12, 1937] because he did not know how to fight.”

Within the intellectual community there was a debate. Did the poet make the right decision? By getting himself killed, it was a huge waste of potential. What should an artist do in such a situation? “Some felt that it was right to join the war,” says Sheikh. “But there were others who felt that following one's vocation is the right way.”

Sheikh believes in the latter concept. “Your aim should be to remain true to your profession and push yourself to the maximum,” he says. “However, art does not prevent people from killing others. Art is made so that people can reflect about the actions they are doing. Why are they killing human beings? Why do they hate the 'other'? In the end you will become a better person. It is a long drawn-out business. It is not that as soon as you do a painting, the riots will stop.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the link between the artist and religion, Sheikh says, “The world has multiple faiths. I am interested to know how Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jains perceive the world. However, I want to explore every religion without being judgemental. I would like to see how a Jain monk lives. How does he move about without wearing any footwear?

The members of the Digambara sect do not wear any clothes. Isn't that fascinating? What drives me is a sense of wonder.”

And Sheikh has also been wonderstruck that Kochi has made a mark internationally. “It is wonderful that Kochi has hosted an international Biennale,” he says. “And it was amazing that it was not Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, but a place in the south. What I saw at the Biennale was extremely enriching. I am very glad to be here.”

Sheikh had come to Kochi to visit sites where he can put up a work for the upcoming Biennale in December, 2014. And he also gave a talk to an audience, which comprised artists and art lovers, regarding his work, which was titled, 'Walking The World'. “This is because I have wanderlust,” he says. “And whereever it is possible, I go walking.”

In 1969, Sheikh returned, after a three-year sojourn in England, and made a painting called 'Returning Home'. “I brought in an image from my childhood in Kathiawad, where I grew up,” he says. “I also borrowed an image of the prophet Mohammed from a Persian painting. The boundary wall in the painting was similar to the one in the area where I lived as a child, along with a mill and a mosque. And right in front I have put a photo of my mother. This was an attempt to re-create my home.”

However, today, Sheikh is best known for his monumental mural, 'Tree of Life', commissioned by the New Vidhan Bhavan of the Madhya Pradesh legislature at Bhopal at a cost of Rs 20 lakh.

In the work, which is about three storeys high, there is a door and images of legislators among the branches of a large tree. “They are discussing issues like the Narmada Dam agitation and the Bhopal gas leak,” he says. “By the tree trunk, I have placed a chair. This is to indicate the chair of the government. Around the chair there are many characters hovering about. During the time of King Vikramaditya, he had 32 dolls which would come to life the moment he sat on the throne. They would ask the king whether he deserved to sit on the chair. So I thought this was the right kind of symbol to use in a political space like this.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Frame by Frame

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sajitha talks about life with the film director VK Prakash

Photo by M. Jithindra

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sukumaran Nair and Arvindakshan were colleagues in the same department at the Kozhikode Corporation. While Sukumaran worked in the health section, Arvindakshan was a training officer. One day when the friends were having a chat, they realised that their children had reached a marriageable age. Arvindakshan suggested his son, VK Prakash, as a possible bridegroom to Sukumaran's daughter Sajitha.

And that was how Prakash came to meet Sajitha in June, 1986.

The Bangalore-based Prakash was in advertising then, while Sajitha was doing her first year B.Sc (physics) from Providence Women's College in Kozhikode. “Prakash spoke about his career,” says Sajitha. “He asked me whether I would be able to cope with the pressure. I said I could. Then I told him about my studies.”

But it was a different era. Children just obeyed their parents. So Sajitha said yes. The wedding took place on August 22, 1986, at the Sumangali Kalyana Mandapam at Kozhikode.

In the initial years it took Sajitha some time to adjust to life with a creative person. “In my home, my dad would come back home after work always at the same time,” says Sajitha. “But with Prakash it was different. He would stay for a few days and go away for several weeks.”

Asked about her husband's plus points, Sajitha says, “He is not demanding at all. I can do whatever I like in my spare time. I have an inner freedom.”

Other pluses: “Prakash is a family man,” says Sajitha. “Whenever there is a break in shooting, he will come home.” This happened recently, when Prakash was in Mumbai, shooting the Marathi remake of the Malayalam film, 'Shutter', and returned to Bangalore for just one day to see his wife.

Or sometimes, when the gap is too long, and Prakash is unable to come, Sajitha goes to the sets. And she is surprised by how different he is. “At home, Prakash is relaxed and lazes around,” says Sajitha. “But on the sets he is energised, focused and passionate. He is another person. Somebody who is concentrated on his work.”

But the director has his shortcomings. “Prakash is short-tempered and gets angry over the most trivial of things,” says Sajitha. “He does not like any disturbance when he is working. He needs space and silence.”

Not surprisingly, Prakash is over-sensitive. If he hears a negative comment about his work, he feels upset for days together. “I tell him that you cannot please everybody all the time,” says Sajitha. “We have to learn to live with criticism.”

Unlike most directors, Prakash came to Mollywood after ten years in advertising. But Sajitha was not apprehensive, because Prakash never closed his advertising company 'Trendz'. So there was a steady income. Sajitha had been sure Prakash would go into films one day. He had studied at the School of Arts in Trissur. Most of the outings during the early days of their marriage were to the theatre. “He had been passionate about films for a long time,” she says.

Interestingly, Sajitha sees Prakash's film in the theatre and never at home, nor does she look at the rushes. “When I watch Prakash's film, I always think of the enormous amount of work that went into it, which the audience is unaware of,” she says. Her favourite films include 'Punaradhivasam', 'Beautiful' and 'Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla'.

When Prakash is writing a story, he will bounce ideas off Sajitha. She listens to the storyline, like an ordinary viewer, and will tell him whether she likes it or not. But she does not give any creative suggestions.

Expectedly, when one of his films is a hit, Prakash is in a happy frame of mind. To celebrate, sometimes, he will take Sajitha and their daughter, Kavya, 21, for a short vacation. Some of the places they have visited have included the Jim Corbett Park at Uttarakhand, and cities like Jaipur and Singapore.

In their spare time, they watch a lot of movies. In fact, their last film was 'Queen', which starred Kangana Ranaut. “Prakash liked it a lot,” says Sajitha.
He said that it was a new-generation style of film-making. The approach was fresh. Prakash felt that it was a good sign for Bollywood that the audience had accepted a woman in the lead role.”

Finally, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Sajitha says, “You have to understand the merits and demerits of your spouse. And learn to accept the negative aspects. Nobody is perfect. Healthy criticism is good. But you have to be careful that it does not become nagging. When a spouse has a passion, you should give him or her the space to concentrate on that.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, April 07, 2014

Not Throwing Anything Away

Cristelle Hart Singh and her husband, Ravinder Singh, run 'Amay', a shop which deals in recycled clothes, bags, and knick-knacks

Photo by Melton Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, when Cristelle Hart Singh was pregnant with her first child, she did not suffer from food cravings. Instead, this British-Swiss woman had a desire to do carpentry. And so was born the idea of making a large chess board. “Neither Ravinder, my husband, or I play chess, but I insisted on buying a saw and plywood,” says Cristelle.

The couple, along with a friend, made large knights, rooks, pawns, bishops, queens and kings. Then, in their shop, they made a chess board, with black and white tiles, at one side on the floor. “Unfortunately, not many people took the time to play chess on a big board,” says Cristelle. So the board remains a charming attraction, while the pieces have been stored elsewhere.

Four years ago, on the island of Mattancherry, near Kochi, Cristelle and her Punjabi-origin spouse Ravinder converted a godown, with a sloping tiled roof, into a shop called 'Amay'. It is a Sanskrit word which means fair. “We want to be fair in our practices,” says Cristelle. “We try as much as possible to source our products from NGOs, like the Bangalore-based Belaku Trust, or woman's groups which are ethical. So, if somebody says that their products are recycled, it should be recycled, or if it is natural, it must be so.”

In fact, the charm about 'Amay' is the way the couple have used ordinary items as props. A wooden shelf rests on two pairs of old tyres. Bags are draped over a ladder as well as an old door. Plastic crates, flower pots, and water canisters have been used to hold up rods on which hang shawls and t-shirts.

On a low table, there are unusual glass trays. “This is made by a person called Joy, who melts beer and Caesar brandy bottles and makes trays,” says Ravinder. “The idea is to encourage reusing things, instead of throwing it away.”

Then there are note pads and greeting cards made from elephant dung. The dung is collected, cleaned, cooked, salted, then it is pulped and dried. “Then sheets are made from it,” says Ravinder.

They also sell recycled salwar kameez suits and cloth bags. These are made from leftover cloth at tailors shops. These could be a part of a dress material, furniture cloth or ends of curtains.

The couple make their own T-shirts under the brand name of in:ch. IN stands for India while CH is for Confoederatio Helvetica, the official name of Switzerland. One T-shirt has the legend, 'Coconut Republic', a nice reference to Kerala.

Not surprisingly, in tourist-magnet Mattancherry, 90 per cent of their customers are foreigners. “Most are looking for gifts to take back home,” says Cristelle. “So, our products sell well, especially during the November to March tourist season.”

The Britain-based Fiona told Cristelle, “We love your shop. There is so much of space to walk around. Don't change anything.”

A sale of part of the products is used for the upkeep of 'Dil Se', a boys home in Manasery, which is run by Cristelle. There are six boys, ranging in age from 5 to 18. “They are from destitute families,” says Cristelle. “Some are orphans.”

Meanwhile, despite living for so many years in Kochi, Cristelle is still trying to get used to the Malayali mind-set. “The Malayali has a child-like curiosity,” she says. “It can be fun, but sometimes they ask too many personal questions.”

But there are positives. “A stranger on the train, after just ten minutes of talking, will share his food and invite me to come home and meet his family,” says Cristelle. “You will not get this kind of hospitality and friendliness in Europe. It's wonderful.” 

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

Taking Art to The Street

Chicago photographer William Jerard showcases his work on a street in Fort Kochi and many people stop by to see it

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In May, 2012, William Jerard was assigned by his group, Global Vision International, to be a volunteer at the Sree Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SDPY) Central school at Kalathra, near Kochi. “I felt very nervous,” he says. “I did not know how the children would react. I also did not know if I had enough inside me to teach them.”

William's room was at the end of a long corridor. There were several classrooms at one side. And as he walked past, on the first day, the students greeted him and touched his hands. “It was beautiful,” he says. In the end, Williams spent three months and took numerous photos of the children.

They include a group shot of young girls, in brown uniforms, standing in the courtyard and praying during the morning assembly. What catches the eye is a particular girl in the front row, her eyes closed, her hands clasped together. “You can tell that she is connected to something spiritual,” he says. Then there is a photo of a number of students standing next to their teacher, just outside the science laboratory. Another shows a group of boys and girls playing on a patch of ground in front of the school, the dust rising up in the air.

In February, the Chicago-based William is in Fort Kochi. He has hung photos of the school children, placed in wooden frames, alongside a wall on Bastian Street. The location has been carefully selected. “Look up,” he says, and points at a tree, with several overhanging branches. “The tree is almost cradling the exhibition. It is so beautiful and natural. My home town, Chicago, is lovely, but it is a manicured beauty. It is one tree here, a gap, and another tree there. In India, growth is organic. And things are left alone, to be what they are supposed to be.”

William also has another aim. “I want all kinds of people to access art,” says the artist, who is casually dressed in a white sleeveless T-shirt and shorts. “The art community should come out on the streets. We should not keep the work locked away in galleries and museums.”

And, statistically, it may be the right thing to do. “On an average, about 250 people have viewed the street exhibition in Fort Kochi every day,” he says. “In Chicago where I held an exhibition in a gallery, there were 90 visitors during an entire month.”

William uses a Canon D3000 camera. Self-taught, he has no idea of technique, and relies solely on his intuition. “You have to engage with the subjects so that they become relaxed and reveal their true selves,” says this peripatetic traveller, who has taken photos in China, Cuba, France and Mexico, apart from Chicago.

They include a Buddhist monk praying, a couple walking in the darkness towards the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, a homeless man lying beside a busy road, an empty wharf, and a group of smiling people inside a restaurant in China having bowls of soup.

William's work is aimed at fulfilling his definition of art. “I am approaching art through the perspective of Leo Tolstoy, one of Russia's great writers,” he says. “Tolstoy believed that it is through art that one man can feel another. And that is what I want to portray through my photos. As human beings we should be able to feel each other.” 

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

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Middle-class Mores

Lillete Dubey's Primetime Theatre Company brings alive Mahesh Dattani's extraordinary play, 'Dance Like a Man'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the introduction of Mahesh Dattani's play, 'Dance Like a Man', at the JT Pac, Kochi, the announcer says, “This is the 501st show. It is the longest-running play in English in any genre in India. An original Indian play in English it is written by an Indian about Indians.”
Interestingly, there was applause following this statement. Because, for decades, English theatre in India has always borrowed plays from the West. So, it was good to see that desi plays are having a resonance, not only in India, but all over the world.

'Dance Like a Man' has been performed in Portland, USA, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in Auckland, New Zealand, among numerous other places,” says the announcer. “There have been two-week runs at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, Off-Off Broadway, and London's West End.”

So, it was with eagerness that the audience looked forward to see the actors of Lillette Dubey's Primetime Theatre Company enact the story.

Jairaj and Ratna Parekh, ageing Bharatnatyam dancers, are anxious that their daughter Lata make a powerful impact at a concert in New Delhi which would be attended by many luminaries including the President of India. But their immediate worry is that the mridangam artist, Srinivasan, has broken his arm and cannot perform. Husband and wife are discussing alternatives and the dialogue is typical of the gossipy nature of Indians.

Jairaj: “We could ask Seshadri.”

Ratna: “Are you mad? He is busy rehearsing with Chandrakala. When he is not rehearsing, he is sleeping with her.”

Jairaj: “It is just gossip.”

Ratna: “I have seen it with my own eyes. In a hotel at Moscow. 3 o'clock in the morning I saw him sneaking down the corridor and into her room.”

Jairaj: “What were you doing in the hotel corridor at three o'clock in the morning?”

Ratna: “I was checking to see in whose room you were sneaking in.”

As the audience laughs, Jairaj says, “I was downstairs in the bar drinking vodka.”
In a sub-plot, Vishwas, a son of a businessman, who is courting Lata, has come to see Jairaj and Ratna at their large bungalow in Bangalore in order to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage. But when he arrives, only Lata is at home. The dialogue quickly highlights the materialistic mind-set of the middle classes.

Lata: “I am the sole heir to this property. It is right in the centre of town. A Sindhi builder offered my father Rs 2 crore. He wants to build a shopping complex. But my father does not want to sell.”

Says Vishwas: “Did you tell them [parents] that my father owns a mithai shop on Commercial Street?”

Lata: “Yes, also that he owns half the buildings on that road.”

The story within the story is of Jairaj's late father, Amritlal Parekh, who made a fortune by buying and selling houses. He cannot tolerate the fact that his son wants to be a dancer. 
Amritlal tells Ratna, “A woman in a man's world is considered progressive. But a man in a woman's world is considered pathetic. Help me to make him an adult.” In the end, the domineering and contemptuous Amritlal destroys Jairaj's self-worth and confidence.

This flashback into the past is done so well. Actor Vijay Crishna just moves to one side of the stage, puts on a cream waistcoat, a Gandhi cap and spectacles, and immediately transforms from Jairaj to Amritlal. The facial expression and the change in tone are remarkable. This also happens when Joy Sengupta, who plays Vishwas, becomes a younger Jairaj while Suchitra Pillai who is Lata takes on the garb of a younger Ratna, with a distinct South Indian accent.

One of the most remarkable scenes occurs when Lata's performance is a huge success and a certain Dr. Gowda calls up to congratulate Lata. But she is sleeping, so Ratna picks up the phone. The way she cloyingly talks to the well-connected doctor and her rage that erupts subtly when Ratna comes to know that her arch-rival Chandrakala is on the selection panel for an upcoming cultural tour to Canada.

Chandrakala?” says Ratna. “She was such a good dancer (a tiny pause) twenty years ago.” With this sentence, playwright Dattani confirms the intense jealousies and hatreds that mar the relationship of rival artistes.

Meanwhile, newspaper critics also take a hit when the family reads the write-ups on Lata's performance. Says Lata, looking at one newspaper, “See this: 'Lata's rendition of Jaidev's 'Geet Govinda' was tenderly intense and intensely tender. Her cheerful expressions and heaving bosom convey all that was humanly possible.”

A mocking Lata says, “Arrey my bosom was heaving because I was breathless from the previous varanam [the centre-piece in a Bharatnatyam dance].”

The other topics which were explored included the contentious husband-wife relationship, the pain of being a parent and losing a child, sexual abuse by relatives, social ostracism and the class divide.

Throughout, the actors were brilliant – Vijay, Joy, Suchitra and Lillete herself. And who can forget Lillete's biggest asset: her unique voice. It was husky and sweet, serene and cold, kind and cruel, sarcastic and cajoling, moving and merciless. Long after the play was over, Lillete's voice continued to echo in the head. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

On The Road

Spouses of candidates talk about their experiences during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign 

Photos: Usha Ramachandran; Damodaran Nambiar and PK Sreemathi with their grandson

By Shevlin Sebastian

He is spotlessly clean”

Says Usha, the wife of Union Minister Mullappally Ramachandran, who is standing as a UDF candidate from the Vadakara constituency

It is a familiar problem for Mullappally Ramchandran, Union Minister and UDF candidate for the Vadakara constituency. He needs money to finance his election campaign. “Ramachandran does not have an illegal income,” says his wife Usha. “He has been spotless throughout. Fortunately I have been working for many years.”

Usha had recently retired as Chief Manager (Law) of the Syndicate Bank, while working in Delhi. “For this year's campaign, I had to delve into my retirement benefits, to finance part of the campaign,” she says. However, like most wives, Usha does not go on the road, to meet voters. “I am not a political person,” she says. “But I try to ensure that things are comfortable when Ramachandran returns home.”

But the politician returns home late, usually after midnight even though the campaign concludes at 10 p.m. every day. “After that he will go and meet people in their houses, if there has been a death or a wedding,” says Usha. “They are happy when he comes visiting.”

Meanwhile, at home, visitors are also waiting to meet Ramachandran. “He is tired, but meets every single person before he has his bath and dinner,” says Usha. Astonishingly, Usha has her dinner along with him.

So how does she manage to stay awake? “I watch a lot of TV,” she says. “There is so much of political coverage going on.”

During the day, Usha goes to meet friends and relatives to canvas for votes. Once she met a Malayali family who lives in Dubai. “They told me that they had specifically returned to Kerala, so that they could vote for Ramachandran,” says Usha. “I felt very happy when I heard that.”

Asked about her husband's chances, Usha says, “People are aware of what he has done. He is a politician who is clean and continues to remain so. What more can he do? Keep your promises and do whatever you can in your constituency. The rest is for the people to decide.” 

A lot of women support her”

Damodaran Nambiar talks about his spouse Sreemathi Teacher, the LDF candidate for Kannur

When Sreemathi Teacher embarked on a career in politics, it was I who offered her support and encouragement,” says her husband, Damodaran Nambiar, a retired schoolteacher. “So, in her first campaign as a LDF candidate for the MP election at Kannur, I continue to help her although in a low-key manner.”

So there are no speeches or campaigning alongside the candidate. Instead, Damodaran talks to friends, colleagues, relatives, party workers, and local people. And the party workers, apart from his wife, are giving a feedback. “One complaint is the bad roads in the constituency,” says Damodaran. “Then there are the difficulties of getting the entire government pension. People are also having economic difficulties. Then there are problems of drinking water.”

Even though PK Sreemathi Teacher is pitched against the formidable K. Sudhakaran (UDF), Damodaran is optimistic that his wife will win. “A lot of women have praised her for the good work that she had done as Health Minister,” he says. “They also say she was a good MLA. All this will help Sreemathi Teacher. She is highlighting the lack of development in the constituency.”

As to whether he feels any tension about the result, Damodaran says, “No, I don't feel any nervousness at all. It is not about winning or losing, but taking part. However, the one benefit for Sreemathi Teacher is that she has been able to understand, at first-hand, all the problems that the people are facing in the constituency.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)