Saturday, August 30, 2014

Myriad Paths to the Same Universal Energy

By Shevlin Sebastian

When I worked for a newspaper group at Kolkata, several years ago, I came across a senior artist called Samir Biswas. He was well-known for doing pencil sketches of Kolkata which he would print up as cards. It had a steady sale.

Samirda, who died in his early fifties, a few years ago, was a soft-spoken and gentle person. He and I would have regular talks on art, literature, philosophy, politics, human relationships, and the meaning of life.

It was during one of our conversations that he told me about the philosophy of one of West Bengal's greatest spiritual figures, Sree Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Throughout his life, Sree Ramakrishna propounded the belief that there is an Universal Energy, and the path to it is through myriad ways. So, you could approach the Divine through Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, among many other religions.

This concept was deeply satisfying. And I accepted it. I made trips to Dakshineswar and prayed at the Kali temple, where Sree Ramakrishna had been a priest. This was easy for me, because, at heart, I am a liberal. I believe and respect all religions.

Though a Christian, I listen to the Gayatri Mantra, Hinduism's holiest hymn, several times every day because that is the recorded song on the calling bell of my home. In times of crisis, I pray to Allah, Guru Nanak, Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ and Lord Krishna.

Once when my TV suddenly stopped functioning, I prayed to Lord Krishna, and after a while it started working again. My theory is simple: you get special blessings if you pray to Gods of religions other than the one you are born in. This may be true: at the St. Michael’s church in Mahim, Mumbai, the St. Antony’s church at Kochi, and the Khwaja Moinunddin Chisti shrine at Ajmer, there are numerous people from other faiths.  

But times are changing. Ever since the Babri Masjid demolition on December 6, 1992, there has been an entrenched religious fundamentalism in India. Soon after that cataclysmic event, a close friend, who was a liberal, railed against Christians and Muslims. That wound, unfortunately, has not healed. Today, when strangers introduce each other, you can see the labeling in the eyes: ‘Oh he is a Hindu, Muslim, Christian’.

Apart from people, cities are changing. A writer recently told me of how Mumbai is different now. “In the 1980s, Mumbai was a beautiful, laid-back, accepting, and liberating sort of place,” he says. “There was a sense of freedom in the air, but all that changed after December 6.”

Nowadays, it is a tense place. “There is communalism in the hearts of the people,” he says. “A lot of the conversation that we used to have earlier you cannot have any more because you have to be aware of the religious community that the person belongs to. When there is censorship of conversation in society, it is the beginning of the end.”

Indeed, for liberals, it is a fraught time. We lack the ferocious will power that right-wingers have. We want to recover the old India that loved all communities, but don’t seem to have the numbers.

Sadly, for us, time is running out. 

('Middle' in The Indian Express, South India)  

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Drop of Water

This morning, I saw a drop of water hovering on the edge of the tap in the wash-basin without falling off.
Was it trying to impress the drops behind it, by balancing itself on the edge?
Or was it scared and unwilling to take the plunge, like most of us?
And who knows if it fell, and went down the pipe, it could have met the love of its life.
Or maybe it might have met a motivational drop who could have said, 'Why are you staying in this house? This journalist fellow has no money. Move on. Expand your horizons. Be a drop in the Niagara Falls." 
However, for the human, it was a wondrous sight on a cloudy day.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Love Duet

 COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Deepthi talks about life with the singer Vidhu Prathap 

Photo by Kaviyoor Santhosh

By Shevlin Sebastian

One August morning, in 2008, Deepthi and Vidhu Prathap bought a map and entered the Singapore zoo. “When we walked in, we saw that all the people were walking in the opposite direction,” says Deepthi. “We wondered why. But we continued to walk ahead. After a while, we reached another gate, but that turned out to be the entrance. It was then that we realised that we had entered the park through the exit, which explained why all the people were going past us.”

Deepthi laughs as she recounts this. “You can't blame us, because this was the first time we were together in a foreign country,” she says. The couple had gone to Singapore for their honeymoon, following their marriage, on August 20, 2008, at Thiruvananthapuram. It was a day she will not forget easily, not only since it was their wedding day, but because there was an All-India bandh.

People kept calling from the early morning to ask whether the wedding had been postponed,” says Deepthi. “But we did not do so. And by the grace of God, all the guests were able to come.”

But there were tense moments for Deepthi. The beautician backed off at the last moment, because of the bandh. “That was upsetting, even though I had assured her I would send a car along with a police escort,” she says. “In the end, I had to do my own make-up.”

Deepthi met Vidhu for the first time at the former's dance teacher Girija's school. “Vidhu had come to see Girija's brother,” she says. “I was introduced to Vidhu as the person who sang the 'Meesa Madhavan' song. Since he had just passed out of Mar Ivanios College, which is where I did my graduation, we had a few mutual friends.”

In 2003, some of the seniors were planning a music video. They asked Deepthi to do a dance sequence, while Vidhu did the singing. “That was when Vidhu and I worked together,” she says. “But there were no sparks between the two of us.”

However, following a marriage between Vidhu and Deepthi's cousins, a few relatives felt that they could be a good combination. So, they told Vidhu's father.

When Vidhu heard that his father was planning to send a proposal to Deepthi's parents, he told his family that since he knew Deepthi, he would ask her whether it was okay.

I said it would be fine, as long as our horoscopes are okay,” says Deepthi. “Both our families observed the horoscopes very strictly.”

In the end, it all worked out fine.

Asked about her husband's plus points, Deepthi says, “When he goes for concerts he meets all types of people. Though most treat him well, there have been some bitter experiences. But Vidhu always remains cool, no matter what the provocation.”

He is also a family person. “Whereever he goes, for his shows, he prefers that either his father or I go along with him,” says Deepthi. “And even if the programmes finish late, he likes to come back home, because he enjoys home food.”

Not many people know that Vidhu is a die-hard foodie. “He loves all kinds of food,” says Deepthi. “Vidhu told me that if he had not been a singer he would have been a chef. In his spare time, he is always watching food shows on TV.”

When Vidhu had gone to Australia for an eight-city tour, at one place, he saw that they were selling crocodile meat. “Immediately, he stood in the queue to buy it,” says Deepthi. “I told him that he had to perform in shows. What will happen if he fell sick?”

Deepthi got an answer to that question in April. A day before he left for a programme in Dubai, Vidhu was playing cricket with a few boys near his house at Thiruvananthapuram. Suddenly, the ball hit Vidhu's eye. He felt that something was hindering his eyesight. So, he was taken to the hospital. After tests, the doctors put a large patch over his eye and told him to take rest for two days.

Meanwhile, the family advised Vidhu to cancel the programme. But Vidhu was determined to go. And his logic was simple. “Vidhu said the brochure was ready and all the tickets had been sold,” says Deepthi. “It would not be right to cancel the programme and cause a loss to the organisers.”

Nevertheless, Vidhu has his drawbacks. “If I tell him about a wedding in the family it would seem he is listening, but, later, when the particular family members talk about it, he will have no recollection,” says Deepthi. “Then they will think I have not informed Vidhu.”

Sometimes, his tolerance can be a drawback. “I feel there should be times when Vidhu should make a stand,” says Deepthi. “But his reasoning is that he does not want to cause distress. But I tell him that if you are being ill-treated, there is no point in being nice.”

Asked for tips for a good marriage, Deepthi says, “You will enjoy your marriage if you have an understanding with your spouse. You should be transparent and have love for each other. If there is love, all the problems can be solved.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Psyche of the Malayali

The pros and cons of the Keralite, both inside and outside the state

By Shevlin Sebastian

When SS Agarwal, a businessman, came to Kochi from Salem in 1985 to establish a flour mill, he was apprehensive. Every day when he would open the newspaper, he would see that one company or the other was on strike. At that time, there were eight flour mills in and around Kochi. “Out of that, four were always closed because of a perennial labour problem,” he says.

When he enquired, he discovered that the unions, instead of asking for Rs 10, would ask for Rs 100. The management, instead of giving Rs 10, would only want to give Rs 1. “There was no scope for compromise,” he says.

But Agarwal opted for a compromise. He met the union leaders and came to a mutually agreed amount to be paid to the labourers. Then the charade began. Meeting after meeting took place every night outside the factory where the leaders harangued the management.

This was to show that the leaders were with the labourers,” says Agarwal. For the tenth meeting Agarwal was invited. Then the union leaders shouted at him, in front of the audience, and pretended to punch him. Finally, a settlement was reached.

By this method, I did not lose a single day to a strike,” he says. “Today, however, things have changed because a lot of the labour come from outside the state. The problem with Malayalis is that, most of the time, they are not flexible.”

Agarwal was speaking at the discussion, ‘The Malayali psyche’ at the Wednesday Club, which is a Kochi-based forum to develop public speaking and leadership skills.

The noted writer and intellectual KL Mohana Varma, who had been an administrative and accounts chief of the Integrated Fisheries Project of the government of India, in 1976, had several interactions with unions at Kochi. 

“The union people were good workers, but they wanted promotions without qualifications,” he says. “I refused, so they threatened me with physical violence.”

But these workers could be adaptable. Once when a Telugu film crew arrived, they wanted to take some shots of people jumping into the water and doing swimming. They offered to pay Rs 50 per day. Varma asked the union leaders whether they were interested.

In the end, all these people became film actors, and started jumping into the water,” he says. “That is a Malayali for you. He can adapt to anything.”

The retired senior technocrat Dr KPP Nambiar says that the Malayali does not know how to deal with equals. “Either you are below me or above me,” says Nambiar. “When he is abroad, like in the Middle East, and has to clean the toilet, he cannot treat everybody as if they are under him. But when this same Malayali comes home, and sees a Tamilian doing the same work, he will tend to look down on him.”

Businessman CM Daniel, who has spent more than four decades abroad, agrees. “In Kerala, the Malayalis want to put down the other person,” he says. “They fight over small issues. It happens all the time on the road whether the driver is right or wrong.”

One reason is because the DNA of the Malayali has a high concentration of sarcasm, says senior lawyer George Tharakan. “A Malayali will never accept, appreciate or admire another Malayali instinctively,” he says.

Researcher Pradeep Koshy highlighted the Malayali’s reluctance to do blue-collar jobs. “They feel it is beneath their dignity,” he says. “So we encourage people from other states to come here and do the physical labour which we are supposed to do.”

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Senior professional TB Venugopal says, “Malayalis are good workers, provided you know how to make them work. Things are changing. The IT Parks at Kochi and Thiruvanthapuram have been a success. In the service sector we are very good, because the people are educated. We should not ignore our plus points.”

Johny Abraham, a leading member of the travel industry, says, “We are so successful in tourism, we must be doing something right. You go anywhere in the world, and you will notice that the Malayalis are doing well.”

Others agreed on the Malayali’s dynamism outside. “They are street-smart, adventurous and enterprising,” says senior professional Patrick Xavier. “They are a great support when you are in distress.”

Brigadier NV Nair (Retd.), who spent many years in different parts of India, says that the Malayalis outside are industrious, sincere, ambitious, and hard-working. “We are an educated and cultured people and know how to behave with others,” he says. “As a result, Malayalis have been successful outside.”

Interestingly, the majority of personnel help, secretarial or household, to most of the top political leaders in Delhi are Malayalis. “Even the private secretary of the late Phoolan Devi [former MP and dacoit], was a Malayali,” says Varma. “The cooks in Sonia Gandhi’s house are Malayalis. Who can outshine us?” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

As the community dwindles, burials are few at Jewish cemetery

Photos: The Jewish flag; Josephhai Abraham

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 2.30 p.m. on a hot Monday, an ambulance entered the gates of the Jewish cemetery on the Kathrakadavu-Pullepady road at Kochi. Inside was a coffin which carried the body of Sippora Soniya, a spinster, who passed away at the age of 38. “She had been unwell for a long time,” says her younger brother, Mordokkayi Shafeer.

Her death is ringing the death knell for the community. Now there are only 29 Jews left, which includes a group of elderly people.

In the past five years, there have been 10 deaths,” says Josephhai Abraham, of the Association of Kerala Jews, which consists of only six families. “As the community dwindles, the number of burials are becoming less.”

For a burial to take place, the Jews should have a quorum of ten male members, with a minimum age of 13, to conduct a Kaddish (hymns praising God). Soniya was lucky. A Jew from Vancouver and two from Israel had been in town to visit their in-laws. So they made up the ten for her quorum.

While prayers were also being read from the Torah, relatives placed bits of mud on the eyes and the lips of Soniya. “This is the mud from Jerusalem,” says Josephhai. “It is an act of symbolism to say that she has seen Jerusalem.”

The one-acre cemetery was given to the Jews, in 1946, by the British, through R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, the Diwan of the Kingdom of Kochi, for a token sum of Re 1. It is used by the Jews who belong to the Kaduvumbagam and Thekkumbagam synagogues of Ernakulam.

While there are graves, with nicely designed tombstones, there are also many unmarked ones, with thick grass and plants growing around them. “According to Jewish religious law, once a burial is made, the grave cannot be disturbed,” says Josephhai. “The section, near the road, as well as the west side, is full. So, the space is getting less.” 

(Page 1, Kerala edition, New Indian Express) 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Long-Running Love Story

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Sangeetha talks about life with the director Saji Surendran 

Photo by Kaviyoor Santhosh

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It was a fight for the window seat in a school bus that first made Sangeetha aware of Saji Surendran. They were students in the Lourdes Mount Higher Secondary school at Vattappara, Thiruvananthapuram. “The seniors felt that they had a right to a window seat,” says Sangeetha. At that time, Sangeetha was in Class 5, while Saji was in Class 7.

Thereafter, Saji kept staring at Sangeetha. At school, her class was at some distance away from his. But he would always come there during the lunch break so that he could see Sangeetha.

On the last day after the annual exams, the school van was taking the students home. When Sangeetha stepped off at Nedumangad, the van had to go forward, take a reverse, and then go back. “I was waiting in front of my house to say goodbye to my friends,” says Sangeetha. “Everybody said bye and looked away, except for Saji, who turned his head and kept on staring at me. That was when a spark of affection sprang in my heart.”

Meanwhile, Saji's mother Vijaylakshmi was looking for a house, nearer to her office, the Hindustan Latex Limited, in Peroorkada. Incidentally, Saji's father worked in Dubai. And, amazingly, they got a place bang opposite Sangeetha's house. “I took this as a sign from God,” she says.

Soon Sangeetha got friendly with Saji's sister Asha. “After a while, Asha told me in a humorous way that Saji had feelings for me,” says Sangeetha. “Then one day she gave me a note and said it was from Saji. When I opened it, it was written, 'I Love You.' I got scared and excited at the same time.”

After a few days, Asha said, “What is your reply?” So, Sangeetha wrote a similar note and gave it to Asha.

As for Saji he had no doubts about his feelings. Once when his mother was standing outside, he said, “Do you want to see your future daughter-in-law?”

The mother said, “Where?”

Saji said, “Look straight ahead.”

And when she did so, she saw Sangeetha standing in front of her house.
Later, when they grew up, and were studying at Mahatma Gandhi College, things finally came out in the open. When Saji heard that Sangeetha had received a marriage proposal, through a telephone call that she had made to him, he met her mother, Vijayakumari, and said, “I came to tell you something serious. I want to marry your daughter, but I need some time.”

For Vijayakumari, there was a caste issue. While Sangeetha is a Nair, Saji is an Ezhava. Anyway, after many hurdles, both families agreed to the marriage. It took place on March 16, 2005, at an auditorium in Thiruvananthapuram. It had been 15 years since Saji and Surendran had first met.

On their wedding day, the entire batch of students, teachers, and the principal from their school were present. “I will never forget the sight of seeing so many of our school mates,” says Sangeetha.

In fact, a few days before the wedding Saji and Sangeetha had gone to the school to invite all the teachers. “The welcome that we got was unforgettable,” says Sangeetha. “All of them knew about our affair. There was a cake in the staff room which had been bought for some reason. But they made me cut it and share it with Saji.”

Interestingly, when the horoscopes were matched, the astrologer said that they had been husband and life in their previous life. “That is why we had such an attraction to each other from a young age,” says Sangeetha.

So, it is not surprising that after nine years of marriage, the attraction remains strong “Saji is a caring person,” she says. “If he is going anywhere, he will call me every two hours. My father often teases me about this. Saji is always buying me gifts like sarees, salwar kameezes, necklaces, rings and bangles. And even though we have tiffs, and ninety per cent of the time I am the cause, it is Saji who always makes up with me.”

However, there are persistent quibbles, like food. “I am a vegetarian, while Saji is non-veg,” says Sangeetha. “But I have learned to cook all non-vegetarian dishes. But when we go out we have fights on where to eat. I will be looking for a vegetarian restaurant, while Saji will be searching for non-veg.”

On the professional front, despite Saji's passion for Sangeetha, films are his first love. “Yes, I am wife no. 2,” she says. “Films are our bread and butter. So I don't have a problem that he spends so much time on his work.”

Saji’s filmography includes ‘Happy Husbands’, ‘Four Friends’, ‘Husbands in Goa’, and ‘Angry Babies in Love’.  

For Sangeetha, ‘Happy Husbands’ is her favourite film. “I liked the comedy in it,” she says. “And I was so happy that it ran for 175 days. But Saji reacts coolly to success. He knows that at the box office, success and failure are very close to each other.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Sangeetha says, “You should be open and honest with each other. All spouses have important likes. For a husband it may be his job or profession. I may have some important likes. So, if both spouses give equal importance for everything, there will not be any problem.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

The Obsession with Chastity

Priya Thuvassery's striking documentary, 'The Sacred Glass Bowl', focuses on the unspoken necessity for girls in India to remain a virgin till their marriage

Photo by Manu R Mavelil 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 2010, when Priya Thuvassery was working as a junior assistant producer in a private television channel at New Delhi, she came across a news item. It was about virginity tests which were conducted by the Madhya Pradesh government before a mass marriage.

A thought came to my mind,” she says. “What was going through the minds of the women who underwent this procedure?” Thereafter, she sent a proposal to the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, a semi-governmental organisation, about making a documentary on the obsession with virginity in India. This was accepted and Priya received a grant. After a four month-shoot, Priya has made a thought-provoking 26-minute film called 'The Sacred Glass Bowl'.

The documentary begins, with a poem, set against the backdrop of a girl moving on a swing in animation style:

'When I was a little girl
my mother took me aside
and spoke in a tone I had never heard her before.
She told me about My Sacred Glass Bowl
the fragile thing entrusted to me as a woman.

'She made it clear that girls from ‘good families’
would never allow a single crack to fall
on that treasured, valuable object
before the right time comes.'

Set in Jaipur and Delhi, the film explores the concept of virginity in different communities. So, there is an interview with the Jaipur-based Mimi, a middle-aged lady, wearing earrings, bangles, a nose ring as well as a necklace. She belongs to the Sansi tribe where girls are valued more than boys and receive dowry. However, on the morning after the first night, the womenfolk will closely inspect the bride's white petticoat to see whether there are blood marks.

When that happens it is a big moment for the girl's family. “However, if she is not a virgin, it is a big blow,” says Priya. “The girl's parents will have to pay a large compensation to the boy.”

Next in focus is a Muslim woman in New Delhi, Ruhksana Talat, who worries about the tension that she undergoes because she is a mother of three girls. “Virginity is a necessity in our society, but my daughters want to live freely,” she says.

Meanwhile, a gynaecologist, Dr. Neeti Ratti, confirmed that a lot of hymenoplasty operations are taking place. “Mothers come with daughters and say, 'She made a mistake. Please repair it',” says Dr. Neethi. “In India, girls want to ensure that they are virgins on their wedding night.”

Priya, of Kozhikode origin, does add a Malayali touch. She uses a song from the Mollywood classic film, 'Chemmeen' (1965), called 'Pennale'. “The lyrics, directly or indirectly say the same thing: the necessity to be a virgin,” says Priya. There is also a reading by noted writer Sara Joseph from her short story, 'The Masculine of Virgin'.

The film has been shown on Input TV in Helsinki, the Stuttgart film festival, Open Frames film festival, Jaipur International Film Festival, and, most recently, in July, at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival at Thiruvananthapuram.

Priya plans to make more documentaries. “Funding is difficult to get,” says Priya. “But I love the medium. It enables me to tell the truth, without having to think about commercial considerations.”

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

The Joy Of Being Sengupta

Joy Sengupta is one of the leading actors in English language theatre today

By Shevlin Sebastian

When job-seeker Prabhakar Telang enters Mr. Padabidri’s house in Bangalore, his body is shaking. Holding a briefcase in his hand, he asks the servant whether the master is at home. But, to his shock, he is told that Padabidri, who runs an IT company, had gone abroad.

I was told to come at this time,” says Prabhakar in a moaning voice. Wearing square spectacles, with a white shirt tucked into brown trousers, Prabhakar looks like a country bumpkin.

Which he is: he has come to Bangalore from Mundgod, which is a town on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border.

This is a scene from Girish Karnad’s English language play, ‘Boiled Beans on Toast’, which was staged recently at the JT Pac, Kochi. And Prabhakar was played with such naturalness and skill by Joy Sengupta that he drew away the audience’s breath.  

Sengupta is one of the leading talents in English language theatre in India today. Over the years he has acted in numerous plays, and worked with directors like Habib Tanvir, Barry John, the late Safdar Hashmi and Lillete Dubey.

In fact, it was Dubey who gave his career-defining role of Mahatma Gandhi in Pratap Sharma’s play, ‘Sammy’. “It is a play that traces the journey of an ordinary man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, to becoming the Mahatma,” says Sengupta. “Nobody expected that Lillete would offer the role to me.”

It seemed to be an inspired choice. The play toured successfully all over Europe, USA, Australia and New Zealand, apart from several cities in India. Eventually, it won Sengupta the 2006 Mahendra Excellence Award for Best Actor.

The play affected a lot of people,” says Sengupta. “In Delhi, a senior Gandhian came backstage and touched my feet. He told me he had re-experienced Gandhi again.” When Sengupta performed in New Zealand, the then High Commissioner invited him to unveil a statue of Gandhi at Wellington. “In London, a group of Bangladeshis told me their perspective of Gandhi and India had changed after watching the play,” says Sengupta.  

However, even as his theatre career soared, Sengupta only did sporadic work in Bollywood. Some of the films he has acted in included Govind Nihalini’s ‘Hazaar Churasi Ki Maa’, ‘Deham’, ‘Good Bad Boy’, ‘Shakal Pe Mat Ja’, and ‘Hate Story’.

In Bollywood you have to be sharp, astute, have a good sense of networking, get to people at the right time and pursue, pursue, pursue roles,” says the Mumbai-based Sengupta. “That is a full-time job. However, I have failed in that. But I am happy with the kind of work that I am getting.”

That includes a mix of theatre, niche television, art house cinema, in Hindi, Bengali and English, apart from voice-overs in advertising jingles on radio and TV.

To a large extent, Sengupta is guided by his artistic credo. “The aim of art is to raise consciousness among the people, and transform society,” he says.

Sengupta does his bit for society by taking acting classes for students.

And he provides simple tips to the youngsters. “Be as honest as possible when you are doing a role,” he says. “You have to say believable dialogues. It should not be by rote but always spoken from the character’s viewpoint. Only then will the acting be natural and believable.” 

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

Noted writer remembers August 15, 1947

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the morning of August 15, 1947, KL Mohana Varma, who was 11 years old at that time, stood on the grounds of the Cherthala government high school, along with other students, and watched the headmaster raise the Indian flag. “At that time, the people were apprehensive about what would happen after the British left,” says Varma, noted writer and intellectual.

The previous night, a few senior students, of Leftist leaning, had entered the headmaster’s room and wanted to tie the Communist flag, with the hammer and sickle, onto the national flag. But they were unable to do so, as they suddenly panicked and ran away.

There were many Communist sympathisers among the teachers also, because the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising had taken place a few months ago,” says Varma. (In October, 1946, there was a Communist revolt against the Travancore Prime Minister Sir C P Ramaswami Iyer, in which more than a thousand people died. Incidentally, Vayalar is just four kms away from Cherthala).

Meanwhile, it was an era when news was hard to come by. “At that time, we had not known that Jawaharlal Nehru had given his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech,” says Varma. “There was no radio, or electricity or fast-moving transport, like buses. And we read the news about our Independence, only three days later, from the ‘Malayala Rajyam’ newspaper which came from Kollam. Whatever we say now, at that time, 80 per cent of the people did not know that Independence had come to India.”

Among Varma’s age group, they yearned for the presence of nationalist Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. “He was our hero,” he says. “All the youngsters were with Bose. We did not think about politics. We only thought of Bose and his Indian National Army (INA). We heard that the INA had gone to Burma and that was exciting. And we felt that Bose would return on Independence Day and raise the flag.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

“China's aims are Wealth and Power”

Says Dr. Tong Lam, Associate Professor of History, at the University of Toronto, during a talk at Kochi

Photos: Dr. Tong Lam; a village at the centre of Guangzhou

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Dr. Tong Lam was asked about the attitude of the Chinese people, towards India, he knew that he had to give a politically correct answer to an Indian audience. So he said, “Even though there are a lot of shared experiences between India and China, the people do not think of India at all. As for the Chinese media, they are focused on America and their warships. They don't see India as a major force. And among the elite, there are no good feelings, because of the [1962] war between India and China.”

Dr. Tong Lam is Associate Professor of History, in the department of Historical Studies, at the University of Toronto. He had been invited to give a talk by the Kochi Muziris Foundation in its popular 'Let's Talk' series.

In his first visit to India, Lam was taken aback by the interest Indians showed for China. “That has been a revelation for me,” he said. “India is obsessed about China's infrastructure and how they need to catch up.”

China, of course, has gone far ahead. It is the second largest economy in the world. Asked the reasons why, Lam said, “The government has always said that China has been the victim of Western imperialism. They keep saying, 'We are behind. We are backward. We need to forge ahead at all costs.' So the leaders have always talked about the need to have wealth and power, so they can catch up with the industrialised West. It is this desire that is driving China now.”

To become powerful, China went in for massive development: good roads, high-speed railways, apartment blocks, and factories. They also became the manufacturer of the world. “But, initially, investors were scared to come to China because it is a Communist country,” says Lam. “So, the government asked the powerful overseas Chinese to help. And they poured in millions of dollars. Later, foreign investors flocked in.”

And in order to move to the next stage of development, China needs a lot more resources like coal and energy. So it has gone to Africa. “But the western media has described it as Chinese colonialism,” says Lam. “However, the government, as well as nationalists, say that they are helping Africans to develop economically.”

Lam says that the western media is biased. “Not many people know that Canada has more mining operations in Africa than China, but they never receive any media attention,” he said.

And when Canadians work in Africa they receive a 'hardship' package. Which means their wages are much higher than what they would have received at home. They are also allowed to take their families to Africa. Every year they are provided first-class airfare to take vacations during Christmas and Easter.

On the other hand, Chinese managers in Africa often have a difficult time,” said Lam. “They don't get paid until their contract is over. So, if they are sent for five years, they will get their salary only at the end. They are not allowed to bring their families. And if they have to send their son to a university, they will have to take a loan from the company and pay an interest on it too.” 

Thereafter, Lam showed a series of photo slides of a large village. In the first photo, the village is shown surrounded on all sides by huge, multi-storeyed buildings. It is a shot taken at night and the glass towers are radiating light while the village looks dark. The city is Guangzhou, one of China’s highly developed metropolises.  

Usually, the state would buy up the land and develop it on their own,” says Lam. “But, in this particular case, for some reason it has remained like this. The city has expanded to the point that the village has ended up near the central business district, which is the most expensive real estate in the city. Recently, the government tried to force the people out, but they failed. So, the village continues to be owned by the villagers.”

They have turned the farmland into apartment buildings so that they can rent it out to migrant workers who come from all over China to work in factories and other industries. However, under government pressure, very few people are living in the buildings. “The villagers are now fighting to extract more compensation from the state,” says Lam.

Incidentally, during the Communist era, before the economy was opened up, in 1978, all the agricultural land was owned by the people. And the villagers, to invoke their shared Communist past, have hung up red flags.

But the government is unmoved. In fact, it has cordoned off the area with a large wall. On it there are posters which exhort the Chinese people to share the national dream of getting wealth and power, the twin propaganda campaigns of the Chinese government.

And the way China is developing, there is no doubt that these slogans have resonated with the people. If predictions are accurate, in less than two years, China will have the largest economy in the world, pushing the USA to second place. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Mutual Love of Art

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Meena Vari talks about life with the artist Vivek Vilasini

Photos: Vivek and Meena Vilasini; 'The Last Supper at Gaza' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Meena Vari saw Vivek Vilasini for the first time, a smile appeared on her face. Vivek was carrying a bag of tissue paper, so that he could mop his face because of the summer heat. This was at the office of the Attakallari Centre for Movement Arts in Kochi, where Meena worked as an administrator.

Thereafter, because of the public ban on smoking, the Tripunithara-based Vivek would often drop into the office, and have a smoke. The director, Jayachandran Palazhy, had gone to London for a few months. As a result, Vivek and Meena started chatting. Soon, they became friends. Then they realised that they liked each other and had a mutual interest in art.

Meanwhile, time was running out for both. Meena had turned 30, while Vivek was 35. Meena's Delhi-based parents had pressured her to get married earlier, but she had resisted. She wanted to marry somebody she liked. But when she suggested Vivek's name her parents were initially opposed. “While I am a Christian, Vivek is a Hindu,” she says. Eventually, both families came around.

The marriage took place on February 11, 2000, at a register's office in Edapally, Kochi. “We did not have any money to have a reception,” says Meena. Since Meena had to go to Bangalore and Chennai for official work, Vivek tagged along. “So, that was our honeymoon,” says Meena. “But later, we were able to travel all over the world.”

In fact, the couple has just returned from a fortnight’s trip to Britain. Meena had won a fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme for one year, and had gone to London to do research.

While there, for a while, they lived in a caravan in Walberswick, near the River Blyth, in Suffolk. “We went with friends, who had been going there for 15 years,” says Meena. In the caravan, there were two bedrooms and a drawing room, but the toilet facilities are outside. In their spare time, they saw off-beat films and plays. “Both of us had a nice time,” she says.

Asked about the plus points of Vivek's character, Meena says that it is his curiosity which is the highlight. “He is interested in everything – butterflies, clouds, cars, dogs and birds,” says Meena. “I keep learning all the time from him. And since I am working in a college, it becomes very useful for me.”

Meena is the Dean of Contemporary Art and Curatorial Practice at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. And it was at this college that Vivek made his most famous piece of art: 'The Last Supper of Gaza'.

13 first-year girls wore burqas and face veils, and stood behind a long narrow table with a white tablecloth. On the table there were steel plates which had loaves of bread and red pomegranates. The background was painted in charcoal black.

On the day it was displayed in Madrid, on February 10, 2009, Israel attacked Gaza. Associated Press photographer Paul White took a picture, showing two Spanish women intently studying Vivek’s photograph, and sent it through the wires of the international agency. More than 100 newspapers worldwide published the photo. Eventually, it was put up for auction at Christie’s, London. A Palestinian, from Dubai, bought it for Rs 20 lakh.

Yes, that was one of the happiest days of my life,” says Meena. “Vivek had always been regarded in high esteem by his colleagues and friends. But to get worldwide recognition was a big event.”

As a result, many people ask for feedback on the works that they have made. “Vivek is genuine and honest in his opinions,” says Meena. “Sometimes, I am taken aback by his frankness. But he tells me, 'That is the truth'. The good thing is that I have never seen anybody get irritated by his feedback.”

But Meena gets irritated sometimes. That is because Vivek has a tendency to leave his clothes all over the place in the bedroom. And she has to pick it up and clean the place, after she returns from college. “Nevertheless, I am blindly in love with him,” she says. “We do not have children, so we fill each other to cover the gap.”

As an artist, he also has his quirks. One day, Vivek told Meena that they would be going to the Ettumanoor temple. “I got excited,” she says. “But when we reached the entrance, he stopped and stared at the murals. He had actually come to see that. We returned without going inside. Both of us don't go to temples or churches, but we believe in an Universal Energy.”

Finally, when asked for tips about marriage, Meena says, “You cannot change the other person. He is what he is. So you must try to understand him. If the interests are the same, it helps to make a successful marriage. If I was not into art, I would not have been able to understand and appreciate Vivek.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Capturing Life in an Abstract Way

CR Manmadhan’s exhibition, a mix of acrylic and digital paintings, touches on a wide variety of subjects

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In CR Manmadhan's painting, 'Nostalgia', you can see a closed eye at the top right-hand corner, against a white sky. A tear rolls down. On the ground, there are houses, with sloping roofs, and across one side of the painting are beautiful flowers. A crow stands on a red patch in front.

This scene is based on the famous memoir by Kamala Das called ‘Neermathalam Poothakalaam’,” says Manmadhan. “The Neermathalam [or the four petal flower] is rare. I was not even sure how it looked like, and had to do research on the Internet.”

When the artist Kaladharan asked Manmadhan to make a contribution to an exhibition on Kamala Das, sometime ago, he came up with this idea. Now this acrylic on canvas is on display at Manmadhan’s solo exhibition, ‘Perception’, being held at Kochi.

Across 20 acrylic and digital paintings, Manmadhan deals with a variety of subjects. They include depression, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the antics of Lord Krishna, the aftermath of the tsunami, the different stages of life, the rape of the 22-year-old photo journalist at the Shakti Mills at Mumbai, as well as the 2014 football World Cup.

In the World Cup painting, set in green, players are physically attacking each other. One player's foot is nearly touching the head of the opponent. In the background you can see a menacing bear and snarling dogs. At the bottom, there is a hand of the referee, trying desperately to control the action. “When I was watching the World Cup, I felt there was too much of physical aggression and very little of football,” says Manmadhan. “It was like animals fighting.”   

His most charming work is the Life series of four paintings, set next to each other. In the first, called Life 1, painted in pink, violet and mauve, there is a suggestion of innocence and tenderness. In the second, which indicates youth, it is more lively, with mauve and yellow and has a nude woman’s body in the background. In the third, middle age is depicted in red, orange and green. Finally, old age is represented by grey and black colours. 
The passage of life is in my thoughts,” says Manmadhan, a former News Editor of Mathrubhumi newspaper.

In another work, there are faces of two men and a woman set against a brownish-red background. But the woman’s eyes are striking because it is looking towards one side and away from the viewer. “The eyes are shifty, because there is no longer any honesty in relationships,” says Manmadhan. “I wanted to show the present-day complications between man and woman.”

A work called ‘Hope’ depicts a post-tsunami scene. When you look closely, you cannot notice anything. But when you step back, one can see the collapsed buildings, and although the sky is a mix of black and grey, there is a thin layer of light which is spreading in a horizontal manner. The sky is slowly getting clearer. “There is hope in the painting,” says Manmadhan.

All the paintings have been done in the abstract style. And it is a method that Manmadhan has deliberately chosen. “The power of realism is going down, because of the advancements in photography,” says Manmadhan. “No matter how realistic your painting is, a photograph will look better. That is why I have concentrated on abstract art. What is important is not what we see, but what we perceive.”

This is Manmadhan’s fourth solo show. Ever since his retirement in 2006, his painting career has been going full steam. In November, 2012, one of his paintings was selected for the prestigious Reader’s Digest.

Asked whether he loves journalism or painting more, Manmadhan says, “Art! Because I experience inner freedom. I can do what I want. I was interested in painting from my childhood. But I could not make it a full-time profession, because it would have been difficult to make ends meet. Very few artists can survive on painting only.”

Manmadhan has an interesting take on great works on art. “There is not much of a difference between great painters and ordinary ones,” he says. “One is well known, so his works sell. A lot of it has to do with marketing and hype.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)