Friday, June 27, 2014

The Malayali Mindset

Swedish singer-flautist Jessica Hugoson talks about the status of women and other subjects after a year's stay at Kochi

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Swedish singer-flautist Jessica Hugoson was taking singing classes at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. And every day she saw an advertisement on the notice board: the Amadeus Academy of Music and Fine Arts, in Kochi were looking for teachers. Earlier, a couple of Swiss musicians had worked there. “I had always wanted to come to India,” says Jessica. “But I needed to do a bit of planning, since I have two children, Julius, 8, and Otto, 4.”

Eventually, she took the plunge and arrived in July, 2013, along with her partner, the Cuban violinist, Santiago Jimenez and the children. And now, a year later, they are coming to the end of their stint.

Asked about her experiences with the students, Jessica says, “They are polite and well-behaved. However, since the emphasis is only on learning lessons, there is not much scope for creativity. Sometimes, students should be allowed to do something which is not in the textbooks. Plus, they are too obedient and respectful of the teachers.”

Nevertheless, Jessica enjoyed her time at the Academy. “The teaching was nice, but our lives revolved around a routine of working five days a week,” she says.

As a professional singer-flautist, this was a constraint for Jessica. She would preferred to take a few days off, so that she could concentrate on her music.

Away from the academy, life was also pleasant. “We live in a good place,” says Jessica, at her fourth-floor apartment at the Riviera Suites, Kochi. “I like the climate and the people are friendly. When you ask for directions, they go out of the way to help. I also like the food a lot, but found it complicated to make. So, we eat Kerala food at restaurants. At home, I make Swedish food, like meatballs or pancakes, although my children like pasta all the time.”

Meanwhile, there were a few negative moments. Jessica finds it difficult to tackle the overflowing traffic. “It is not easy to walk on the streets with the children,” she says. “The infrastructure needs to develop. People suffer by sitting in buses for a long time because of traffic jams. To get small things done, like getting a computer repaired, is hard, since I don't speak Malayalam. These are challenges, but I have made adjustments.”

These adjustments have included sartorial ones. “I wear clothes that keeps me covered, as is the style in Kerala,” she says. “If I wanted, I could have dressed provocatively, but felt it would be inappropriate.”

Jessica wants an improvement in the status of women in Kerala. “Women don't have the same rights as the men,” she says. “They are passive and docile. In many instances, the man speaks on behalf of the woman. The women might want to marry somebody else, or do something different, but they don't get a chance. They are influenced a lot by the family. I don't want to criticise the Indian system, but I would not accept the fact that somebody else chooses your husband.”

But the system of arranged marriages survives all over the world. Interestingly, in Sweden, arranged marriages continue to thrive, especially in the upper classes. “Among Swedish royalty there are several arranged marriages, and this exists among European royalty, too,” says Jessica. “But there is one difference. In India, you marry a family, while in Sweden we marry an individual. However, in both systems, if you get the right person, it enriches your life.”

Jessica has an enriching relationship with Santiago, whom she met more than ten years ago, in Stockholm. “I like his free spirit,” she says. “He is not strict about anything. We don't rehearse much, but when we play together it sounds good. So, we have a chemistry.”

This is clear from the interaction. It is a vibrant relationship, with the verbal thrust and parry of most couples. And since he does not know English well, Jessica translates for him. During the course of the interview with Jessica, which Santiago is listening in, he suddenly feels restless. He gets up and moves around the room, in a semi-circle, playing an imaginary tabla, with both hands. She gives a quizzical smile, even as they lock eyes all the time.

Finally, Jessica confirms that she will return, along with Santiago and the children, if she gets other opportunities. “All said and done, we love Kerala,” she says. 

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

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