Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Yama, God of Death, is busy

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every day, at 6 a.m., when I sit and read the newspapers, there is one moment when time stands still. This is the period when I look at a page, full of obituary notices, in a vernacular newspaper. When I stare at the faces, looking unblinkingly back at me, I feel uneasy and nervous.

All kinds of people – young, middle-aged, and old – are dying every day. At times, when I look at the age, I get a shock. If I had the same destiny, I would be dead within two, five or ten years. I feel hopeful when a 90-year-old has passed away. That means there could be a long life ahead of me.

There are also moments when I feel bereft. This happens when I see the faces of children. Why, I ask God. As always, He keeps an enigmatic silence. Sometimes, I wonder: Does He exist? The truly shocking moment arrives when I see a photo of a stunning young woman. What a loss for mankind that they can no longer enjoy the sight of this beauty? Now, she is either a few grams of ash, or six feet under the ground. Either prospect is heart-breaking.

This daily morning ritual is a reminder to me that time is running out. Sometimes, a panic arises in me. There are so many things to do. Can I do them, before destiny forces me to hit the exit button?

Who knows? You need a lot of luck, pluck, and good health to get the life you want. However, luck cannot hold your hand forever. It has to cater to so many people – more than seven billion and increasing daily. So, luck leaves you. Then darkness and despair appears on the horizon. You pine for good fortune to return. Sometimes it does, but most of the time it does not.

When I have a chat with my parents, I get confirmation that luck is sleeping a lot these days. Every now and then, they will inform me of a death of a member of their generation. 

“Thomas was a nice person, but a man of few words,” my dad told me one evening. My mom said, “Where did he stay?” And both of them racked their brains to recall the address.

A recent death of my father's friend was poignant. The wife had gone to America to spend time with her son and his family. Her 80-year-old husband did not go, because he was not keeping good health. On the day, she returned, to Chennai, she was so glad to see him, from a distance, sitting patiently, on an armchair, in a ground-floor verandah. But when she came close, she got a shock. The eyes were lifeless. Her husband had died, moments before, of a massive heart attack.

Another day, my mother tells me that I should take her to meet her friend, Shanti. She is a childless widow, who lives in an old people’s home. “Shanti is feeling depressed, because two of her closest friends at the home have died,” my mother says. 

I am middle-aged now and can only watch, apprehensively, as Yama, The God of Death, whistles past me, busy in his work. 

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South Indian editions) 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Amazing Stories

Thanks to Fr. CM Paul for this review of my book

God, God’s and Goddesses” is the third e-book published this year by popular author of children’s books, Shevlin Sebastian, a columnist and journalist who worked in Kolkata, Mumbai and Kochi for more than 30 years. In the present tome, Shevlin makes a bold venture to handle an off beat topic – spirituality beyond rituals and religious affiliation. 
Professing to be a liberal and libertarian to a point, Shevlin dabbles in all sorts of faith experiences of believers and nonbelievers alike, of both mainstream and esoteric religions.
Neither does Shevlin hesitate to say that he is a born Christian.
In this 142-page book Shevlin also propounds his own version of religious boon theory: “You get special blessings if you pray to Gods of religions other than the one you are born in.”
While reminiscing about the origins of his popular column in the south Indian daily, ‘The New Indian Express’, called ‘Spiritual Matters’, Shevlin reveals his attempt to show readers Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa’s thought that “the paths are different, but the aim of all people is to get in touch with the Universal Energy.”
For the current work, Shevlin scripts candid conversations with Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, and atheists on a wide variety of views and recounting interesting spiritual anecdotes from their lives.
Among celebrities sharing their belief systems, they include Kolkata’s singing sensation Usha Uthup and Oscar Award winner Resul Pookutty, writers like UR Anantha Murthy and Jaisree Mishra, Mollywood filmstars such as Jagadish and the late Thilakan, Bhama and Lakshmi Gopalaswamy, religious leaders, senior police offers, tourists, best-selling authors, municipal officials, beauty queens, High Court Judges, teachers, dancers, college students, and business magnates.
Apart from that, there are first-person accounts of a visit to Sabarimala, the Maramon Convention of the Mar Thoma church, one of the oldest annual meetings, a write-up on the experiences of grave diggers of three faiths. There is also a profile of a painter who has done a 18ft high mural of Lord Shiva.
Scripted in brief chapters and brisk narration, the book is unputdownably inspiring!
(Published in Mattersindia.com)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Two Becomes One

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Chintoo talks about life with the musician Rex Vijayan 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo of Chintoo by Manu R Mavelil 

One morning, in 1999, Thankachi Miss told the students of the Sree Narayana Women’s College in Kollam that if they wanted to do well in the Western music (group and solo) competitions of the University Youth Festival they needed a guide. So the students, led by Chintoo Remesh, looked around. Somebody suggested the name of Rex Vijayan, but said, “He is a serious person, has a bit of ego and, most probably, will say no.”

Nevertheless, Chintoo, along with her friends, met Rex at his home at Kollam. And, to their surprise, he agreed easily. 

When he came to the rehearsals, he did not talk much. “We were singing two Spice Girls songs called, 'Viva Forever', and ‘2 become 1’,” says Chintoo. “Rex arranged the music.” 

After the practice sessions were concluded, since there were no funds, Chintoo painted a card, with an eye on the cover, and wrote, 'You are a Special Person'. When everybody was present, she gave him the card. 

Meanwhile, at the youth festival, they did not win anything in the western group section, but, in the solo category, Chintoo got the second prize for singing 'Save The Best For Last' by Vanessa Williams. 

Around this time, two girls developed a crush on Rex. So they told Chintoo whether she could convey to Rex that they wanted a friendship with him. But when Chintoo called up Rex and told him, he said, “These are silly matters. I prefer not to talk about it.” 

Chintoo felt embarrassed. Nevertheless, they remained in touch, and had numerous conversations on the phone. Soon, Chintoo realised that they had a similar wavelength. 

A few months later, in 2000, Rex decided to shift to Kochi. “He asked me whether I wanted to say anything,” says Chintoo. “I asked whether it is about the friendship. Rex said, ‘Yes’. So, we started talking and realised that we were in love.” 

In Kochi, Rex joined the Motherjane band and got busy. For many months there was no contact. Chintoo sent letters and cards. She was puzzled by the silence. Then she began to feel depressed. Suddenly, Rex called from Kochi and gave her a contact number. And Chintoo got excited once again. But after a while, there was another long silence. Through friends she came to know that Rex had gone to Munich to join an amateur German hip-hop band, ‘Intensive Erfrischung’ (Intensive Refreshment). But, thankfully, for Chintoo, Rex returned after six months. 

By this time Chintoo had joined the Fatima Matha College at Kollam to do her MA. Once again, the youth festival came up. And once again Chintoo was participating in the Western solo song segment. 

While she was standing at the venue, in Kollam, in the distance she saw the judges arriving. But when they came close, Chintoo got the shock of her life. One of the judges was Rex. He had long hair and looked different. “He just smiled at me and walked past,” says Chintoo. “I was dazed. Was this actually Rex? He had not told me he would be coming.” 

And when Chintoo went on stage, she felt so nervous that she forgot the lyrics. “I made a mess of it,” says Chintoo. “Later, Rex told me that he did not want to acknowledge me since he was a judge.” 

In 2003, Rex founded the Avial Band and was working with the Daksha Sheth dance-drama company. One day, there was a rehearsal at the University Students Centre at Thiruvananthapuram, in which Rex was providing the music. Chintoo was also in the city because she was learning Russian. 

They met at the students centre. Rex proposed. And Chintoo accepted. However, her parents were opposed to the marriage, because Chintoo is a Hindu while Rex is a Christian. And it took five long years, before Chintoo’s parents finally gave their consent. The registered marriage took place at Kollam on March 14, 2008. 

Asked to list her husband’s plus points, Chintoo says, “He is a down-to-earth person and has a good sense of humour. Rex has a sharp mind. When he meets anybody he can quickly gauge their true intentions. And he has a keen music sense.” 

Regarding his negatives, Chintoo says, “For Rex, it is music, music, and music. But honestly, I have no problems with that, because I just love it that music is his passion. But when I talk to him about things like running the house, he does not pay any attention. Since I am a practical person, it is okay.” 

A conscientious Chintoo ensures that she switches off all the fans and lights when it is not being used. “Rex teases me by saying that this is because both my parents had been employees of the KSEB (Kerala State Electricity Board),” she says, with a smile. 

Today, Rex is producing an album for Motherjane and has just scored the music for ‘Picket 43’, a Malayalam film, which stars Prithviraj and Javed Jaffrey. Chintoo, on the other hand, is working as a web designer in a software firm at Thiruvananthapuram. 

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Chintoo says, “The most important thing is that spouses should love other. For that to happen there should be a magnetic attraction between them. You should also respect each other as individuals and be willing to make compromises.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Stars

Mollywood child actors, like Esther Anil, Deni Emmanuel Jacklin and Baby Nayanthara, are thriving. They talk about how they got their breaks, their success stories and the reactions of friends and relatives

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Esthel Anil; Deni Emmanuel Jacklin and Sanoop. 

Photo of Sanoop by Suresh Nampoothiri 

It was a tense scene in 'Drishyam'. Police constable Sahadevan hits Georgekutty (Mohanlal). And Georgekutty's daughter, Anu (Esther Anil), was supposed to shake in fear. After the first take, the director, Jeethu Joseph, told Esther she should shiver some more. That was when Mohanlal suggested that he would fall to the floor after being hit.

You observe me and react accordingly,” Mohanlal told Esther. And when Esther saw Mohanlal falling to the floor, she really got scared. Esther's performance was widely praised, and 'Drishyam' became a blockbuster hit. And recently, Esther finished shooting for the Tamil version, 'Papanasham', with Kamal Hasan, and with Venkatesh for the Telugu adaptation, 'Drushyam'.

Like most child artistes, Esther came into films through sheer accident. When a TV channel crew came to Wayanad (254 kms from Kochi) to do a segment on her mother Molly for a cooking programme, cameraman Biju Pazavila saw the bubbly Esther and was impressed. He suggested to her parents that a portfolio of her photos be taken.

The album did the rounds. Soon Esther got her first role in 'Nallavan'. And now, 21 films later, she is well known all over Kerala.

Asked how life has changed for her, Esther says, “My classmates [in the De Paul Public school] have asked for my autograph. Even my friends want to pose for photographs with me. When I go to the railway station, a crowd forms just to see me.”

A crowd of teachers and students of the Leo XIII Higher Secondary School in Allapuzha rushed to see the 3D film, 'Little Superman'. The reason: Class 8 student Deni Emmanuel Jacklin was playing the hero Villi.

Like Esther, Deni also got the role by chance. One day, a friend told Deni's mother, the actress Rani Larius, that there was an advertisement in the newspaper: the director Vinayan was looking for a boy-hero. So she sent an application. Soon, she got a call from Vinayan asking her to bring Deni to Kochi. There, the youngster danced and acted in front of the director. He was one among a few thousand aspirants. After a photo shoot, Deni was selected to play 'Superman'. “Deni showed self-confidence and poise,” says Vinayan. “I was impressed.”

The shoot lasted for 40 days, but Deni received a lot of support from the school. “My friends took down notes and send it to me,” says Deni. “And when I could not sit for some exams, I was allowed to do it at a different date.”

In recent times, several child actors have done well in Mollywood. Sanoop Santhosh was the Best Child Artist at the 2014 Kerala State Film Awards, for his role in 'Philips and the Monkey Pen'. The brothers Benson, Shebin and Nebish, performed competently in the recent hit, 'Iyobinte Pushthakam', while Baby Nayanthara has acted in several films, even though she is only a Class 7 student.

Asked the difference between the child actors of today and earlier, Vinayan says, “They have self-confidence, a positive attitude, and are exposed to a lot of children's films on TV, like the Harry Potter series. Deni had already seen the Superman films, so he knew what we wanted. So I am not surprised many directors are using children in their films.” 

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

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Political Allegory

Veteran artist Gulammohammed Sheikh uses the metaphor of acrobats in his sculptures and painting to reflect about colonialism

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

The British artist Hew Locke is standing at Vasco Da Gama Square, at Fort Kochi, along with his wife, the Indian-origin artist, Indra Khanna. Both are dressed casually in Bermuda shorts and sandals. They are staring at inanimate acrobat figures balancing themselves on a tightrope. One acrobat has a woman balancing her head on his, while he is holding a tiger cub under his arm.

It is attractive,” says Hew. “The people will enjoy this.”

The square is an open area, hemmed in by several rain trees, where children are playing, vendors are selling peanuts, and couples walk hand in hand. Suddenly, Indra says, “Oh my God, one of them looks like [US President Barack] Obama, and the other is definitely [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Indra gives the happy smile of one who has solved a puzzle.

At a hotel in Fort Kochi, Gulammohammed Sheikh smiles and says, “Yes, the figures do resemble current political figures,” he says. “But I don't want to name anybody. The viewer should make that effort. However, the original painting, which inspired this work, 'Balancing Act', was also a political allegory.”

Sheikh saw this 18th century painting, of the Jaipur school, at the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery. While observing it, he noticed a Farsi inscription in the painting. So, he took the help of his daughter, Samira, an Associate Professor of History, at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA, who got it read by an expert.

Samira told me that this painting coincides with the takeover of the Jaipur state by the British,” says Sheikh. “It is a court scene. A Rajput king and his prime minister are standing on a balcony. The ruler is looking downcast. The diwan has his finger raised. So, perhaps, he is saying, 'This is what is happening to you'. On both sides there are several noblemen. Two men are pulling away a young princess. All this is shown in the top half. At the lower half, there is a ground, where acrobats are performing on a tightrope.”

It is a critical moment. The acrobats are performing, but nobody is looking at them. “In fact, the acrobats are doing impossible acts which, in a way, depicts the crisis,” says Sheikh. “One acrobat, with the hoofs of a bull, is balancing on the wire-rope, while another holds a stick, at the end of which children are dangling.”

Since he has not trained as a sculptor, Sheikh, 77, took the help of four young sculptors from the Faculty of Fine Arts, MS University, Baroda to make the 5’ high sculptures. The materials used included fibreglass, acrylic paint and varnish. “It took eight months from conception to completion,” says Sheikh.

This work is a comment on colonialism. And Sheikh continues this rumination in a triptych, called ‘Gandhi and Gama’, which is on display at the Darbar Hall. In this work, Vasco Da Gama, who represents Portuguese colonialism in the 15th century, faces a young Mahatma Gandhi, who is contemplating the collapse of the British Raj in the 20th century, across a mappa mundi (a medieval hand-drawn map of the world).

Incidentally, Sheikh is a 2014 Padma Bhushan winner for his contribution to the arts. But he bemoans the lack of support for art in India. “There is plenty of money in the country, but very little is put aside for contemporary art,” says Sheikh. “It may be because of a lack of an art education. People know about music and literature, but have no idea about art. The late Bhupen Khakhar had a retrospective at one of the best museums in the world, the Reina Sofia in Madrid. But very few newspapers reported this great achievement.”

But Sheikh brightens up and says he is an unabashed fan of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. “The uniqueness of this Bienalle is the sites,” says Sheikh. “That is what is attracting the foreigners and locals alike. [Founder-artists] Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu have revived old warehouses and storage places and made them into beautiful places for art and creativity. What more do artistes want? We love it.” 

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

Come To Where The Action Is

Skywalking, bungee jumping, a touch of history, non-stop excitement at the casinos and endless shopping opportunities – Macau has it all

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: A young woman in front of the chapel of Our Lady of Penha. Photo by Sudipta Saha. Skywalking on the 61st floor of the Macau Tower; Shrekfast

When the Indian group steps out on the walkway, for the Skywalk, butterflies are dancing in the stomach. The location is the 61st floor of the Macau Tower. A stiff breeze is blowing and all around you can see the island of Macau – buildings, bridges and boats now reduced to matchbox size.

The width of the walkway is 5.8 feet. And as you saunter on it, you have this 288 feet drop on one side. But a Chinese helper, a youngster by the name of David, suggests a run followed by a leap into space. There are anxious cries of “No, No” from the women. The helper laughs and says, “Try it.” And it is indeed exhilarating, to say the least. To leap off the walkway, the legs going skywards, and then to be held back by the safety harness.

Right next to this is the bungee jump, the world's highest commercial leap, at 788 feet. And when you look down from the edge, have no doubt that your stomach will churn in fear and excitement. An 18-year-old Chinese girl, slim and fragile-looking, takes the jump with an insouciant smile. Here are some statistics: you reach a speed of 180 km/hour. However, the jump lasts only six seconds. But the adrenalin flow does not come cheap, at Rs 23,000 a jump.

All this excitement is taking place on an island, which is only 33 sq. kms in size and has a population of 5 lakh. Of course, Macau is world-famous for its casinos, with their 24 hour non-stop action on the tables: slot machines, baccarat, blackjack, roulette and poker, among many other games. Last year's annual gambling revenues were a mind-boggling $45 billion. Not surprisingly, education is free till Class 10, but their new university is only the size of a high school in India.

It is a place where the hotels, like the Venetian Macau, the Conrad, the Holiday Inn, and the Four Seasons will take your breath away by their sheer size and polish. And there is the Sheraton Macao Hotel, which is the largest, with 3896 rooms. 

Near the lobby, there is a natural forest, with palm trees, reaching up to the second-floor, a free-flowing stream with pebbles, flower pots and green grass. Many guests stop to stare at the sight.

The Managing Director of the Sheraton Macao Josef Dolp has a smile on his face when he says, “Most of our visitors are from China, Hongkong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and India. There are 500 million people in the new middle class in India, China and Indonesia. We expect tourist arrivals to carry on increasing for the next several years.”

Old Charm

Much as the new Macau is dazzling, there is a charm to the old city. The streets are narrow and paved with coloured tiles. At the Senado Square, there is a striking wave-like pattern on the mosaic stones. You get clothes and knick-knacks at an affordable rate (1 Hongkong dollar = Rs 8].

And in the food shops, they have one unusual custom. Men will stand with trays, the straps around their necks, outside the shops. All visitors are allowed to have a taste of the Portuguese egg tarts, almond cookies, pork chop buns or egg rolls. In case you like it you can enter the shop and buy them.

At Macau, there is also a lot of history. Step into the Lou Kau Mansion, located at 7 Travessa de Sé, and immediately you are transported into the past. The house was built in 1889 and belonged to Lou Kau, who was a prominent businessman of his time. The two-storied house has gray brick walls, stained glass windows and wooden furniture. Thanks to the high ceilings, it is cool inside. This is natural air-conditioning, at its best.  

Another historical place is the Chapel of our Lady of Penha. It was built in 1622 by the crew and passengers of a Portuguese ship which had escaped capture by the Dutch.

However, on a sunny November morning, there is a different scene outside the chapel. On the steps, at the entrance, sits Petty Tam, 25, in a white wedding gown, the helm lifted to her knees, to show off her legs. Photographers buzz around taking snaps.

Standing next to her is AO Allan, 28, in a blue suit. Allan met Petty three years and fell in love. Now he is working in Sydney as an engineer. And they are planning to get married, but this will take place only in March, 2015. “We are taking things slowly,” says Allan. “This is a photo shoot for our album.”

Other places of interest include the Formula 3 Grand Prix Museum, Wine Museum (where you get to sample three types of wine at the end of the visit), the A-Ma temple, the Ruins of St Paul's, and the bronze Kun Iam Statue, of the Buddhists, which reaches a height of 60 feet, and has a dome-shaped lotus base, with sixteen petals.

In Macau, the past and present are intertwined in a nice way. 



This is held at the Urumqi Ballroom of the Sands Cotai Central. Inside, against the walls, there are turrets of castles, and giant water colour paintings of scenes from animation films like 'Shrek', 'Kung Fu Panda', 'How To Train Your Dragon', and 'Madagascar'.
During the breakfast, you can eat 'Kung Fu Panda' red bean buns, Shrek-shaped pancakes and waffles, and Princess Fiona cupcakes and muffins. Later, giant-size models from these films dance on a stage. And after that, you get a chance to take photographs with Hiccup and Toothless from 'How to Train Your Dragon', the penguins and King Julien from 'Madagascar', Shrek, Puss in Boots and Fiona from 'Shrek' and Po from 'Kung Fu Panda'.

Indian food 

There is a touch of Bollywood glamour at the Aruna Indian Curry and Cafe House. On the walls, there are photos of numerous celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan posing with the owner Aruna, who has lived in Macau for over three decades. 
Any Bollywood celebrity who arrives at Macau, comes to my restaurant, because they crave Indian food after a couple of days,” says Aruna. The food is typical: dal, chicken tikka, paneer and mutton dishes, along with nan and chappati, topped up by a dessert of gulab jamuns and ice-cream. 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Thiruvananthapuram and a slightly different version in Indulge, Kochi)  

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Cultural Immersion

Andie De Arment, the Cultural Affairs Officer, of the US Consulate General at Chennai, talks about her experiences in different countries

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

Andie De Arment sweeps into the Aspinwall Hall at Fort Kochi. And one of the first exhibits she sees, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, is the 'Powers of Ten' video installation by the late American artists Charles and Ray Eames. After seeing a few other works, the Cultural Affairs Officer of the US Consulate General at Chennai is all smiles.

I appreciate the international aspect of it,” she says. “You have artistes from the US, Europe, Japan, Holland, Australia and so many other countries. They are all here, offering something to the festival. And I am so glad I could be a part of it.”

On her recent visit to Kochi, Andie had a busy schedule. She went to the Sacred Heart College, and spoke with the students. She gave two students, called cultural exchange grantees, certificates for completing courses in Pittsburgh and New York respectively. Then Andie attended a conference called  'Energy security challenges in India’, which was organised by the US Consulate General at Chennai, in partnership with the Centre for Public Policy Research. Later, Andie spoke with 15-year-olds at Choice School about the options of studying in the US.

There are one lakh Indian students in the US,” says Andie. “And we want to increase that number. We want to ensure that students have the information they need, about visas, courses and how to apply to universities.”

Having just arrived in India three months ago, following a two-year-stint in Karachi, Andie is coming to terms with the country. “India has such a rich cultural heritage,” she says. “The US, at 238 years, is a young country. When I first arrived in Chennai I felt that there is thousands of years of history in the place. I feel the history every day. The temples are literally on the street, and you can see people practising ancient rituals. One of my favourite visits was to the Meenakshi temple at Madurai.”

And she loves the contrast in different cities. “In Bangalore, there is a lot of hustle and bustle,” she says. “Chennai is a little laid-back, while Kerala is green and completely different.”

Andie pricks the curiosity of people, because she is married to a Pakistani writer, Khaver Siddiqi, and has two children, Eva, 9, and Grant, 2. “This makes for interesting situations,” says Andie.

Recently, she was on a panel at a Bangalore literary festival. The discussion was titled, 'The Outsider Inside – India Through Foreign Eyes'. The moderator, Sunil Sethi, said, “An American diplomat, married to a Pakistani, living in India: all the complexities and contradictions of that.”

Andie met a trade group in Chennai that was going to Islamabad to help increase business between Pakistan and India. One member went on a tirade about Pakistan. Then somebody elbowed him and said, “Her husband is from Pakistan.” Andie says, “The man was very embarrassed, but I appreciated these opportunities for candid conversations.”

But Andie’s marriage is no longer uncommon in the US. “There are so many inter-racial, inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages,” she says. “And it is increasing every year. When I look at my family I feel that we are a typical American family, with our multi-culturalism.”

In fact, she says, her children are becoming global citizens. “They have a perspective which is so unique,” she says. “To them Chennai is home now, and they have embraced it, whether it is the food, traditions, or festivals like Pongal or Diwali. They love the life here in India.”

And they were in Karachi, too. “Karachi is a flourishing city,” says Andie. “It is a huge metropolis. Of course, there are security concerns, but I moved around a lot, including Balochistan and Sindh. The people were very welcoming, even though, at most of the places, I was the first American they were seeing.”

She was also one of the rare Americans in Havana, where she had been posted for two years. “The Cubans are warm, expressive and optimistic,” says Andie. “Most of the action takes place on the streets. People hang around and play football. The music tradition is unlike anywhere in the world.”

And there is also a connection to the US. “It is not just the geographical proximity,” says Andie. “About two million Cubans live in the US, while there are only 11 million in Cuba. Everyone in Cuba has relatives in the US. And things are gradually changing. But it will accelerate now that President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have agreed to resume diplomatic ties.”

Asked whether diplomacy works in a world, which is ridden with strife, Andie says, “Diplomacy takes a lot of work. You have to take into account the personalities of leaders, language, culture and people. It is a lot more tougher than resorting to guns and violence. Despite that, diplomacy always needs to be the first option. I believe that American influence is strong all over the world. And we need to be active in events like the Kochi Biennale, so that people get a better idea about us, and our culture.” 

(A shorter version appeared in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Big Happy Life

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Jaimie Maya talks about life with the disc jockey cum actor Sekhar Menon

By Shevlin Sebastian

One afternoon, in 2012, Jaimie Maya and her husband, the actor and disc jockey Sekhar Menon, went to the Penta Menaka building at Kochi to buy a mobile phone. This was just after 'Da Thadiya' was released, in which Sekhar plays an obese youth. “Things went crazy quite quickly,” says Maya. “People were taking videos of us buying a phone. They wanted to take photos with Sekhar, hug him and shake his hands. There were many camera flashes. But they were all friendly. Sekhar was worried because I was seven months pregnant.”

Today, the couple are proud parents of Kaamaakhya. “Sekhar was busy when Kaamaakhya was born and felt that he was not able to bond with her,” says Maya. “But, at seven months, Kaamaakhya looked at his face, held his chin and said, 'Accha'. This was the first word she uttered. That blew Sekhar away. At ten months, she was already scolding Sekhar on the phone. She would say, 'Where are you?' and walk up and down the living room, with the phone placed next to her ears.”

Sekhar is not at home often, because he is busy with his DJing as well as his film career. At present, he is acting in 'Kandhari', directed by Ajmal, and '100 Days of Love', which has Dulquer Salman and Nithya Menon in the lead. It is the debut film of director Kamal's son, Jenuse Mohammed.

Maya met Sekhar for the first time, when, as part of a group of girls, they asked the DJ to provide some music for a fashion show which was part of the cultural fest at St. Teresa's College. “At that time, he was wearing his signature clothing: jeans, a check shirt and a beret,” says Maya. “However, I did not feel an instant attraction.”

Thereafter, because they had mutual acquaintances, they continued to meet each other at coffee shops and malls. “We were friends for a long time,” she says. “But, at some point, we began to feel attracted to each other.”

When asked whether his size was a hindrance, Maya smiles, at her apartment in Kochi, and says, “I am a big-size myself, so that was not an issue at all. I find Sekhar handsome and sexy.”

And he has other qualities that she admires. “Sekhar is a self-made man,” says Maya. “He is always positive minded. He says, 'If not this, what is the next opportunity?'”

Sekhar is also close to his parents. “Day-to-day they know what is going on in his life,” says Maya. “That usually does not happen with a young man who is into music. But what I like most about him is that he is God-fearing. No matter where he is, he makes it a point to go and pray at the Ernakulathappan Shiva temple on every Saturday. This was a big wow for me. I believe that at the end of the day you need to place yourself in God's hands.”

But there was one searing moment which tested their faith in God. On November 20, 2006, Shankar, who was Sekhar's elder brother, by two years, died in a motorbike accident at Bangalore. “In a way it was a turning point for me,” says Maya. “I realised that life is too short and if you love somebody you should not wait for everything to fall into place. Sometimes, we think, we may be too young to get married and should wait for two or three years.”

But Maya and Sekhar did not wait, for too long. They had a registered marriage on January 16, 2008. “We had a small get-together at Sekhar's home,” says Maya. “The most memorable moment for me occurred when, after lunch, like a true husband, Sekhar dropped me off at work.” At that time, Maya was working as an operations manager in a private banking firm.

And although they did not have a honeymoon, Maya would accompany Sekhar whenever he had his gigs as a DJ. So far, he has done over 500 events. “Sekhar plays the best music that I have ever heard, and I am not saying this just because he is my husband,” says Maya. “He is superbly talented, confident and relaxed. He is always smiling and dancing and his adrenalin is flowing.”

But Maya's own adrenalin-flowing moment occurred when she went, along with Sekhar and the family, for the first-day, first-show screening of Sekhar's debut film, 'Da Thadiya', at Saritha theatre, on December 21, 2012.

He acted vulnerable in the film,” says Maya. “That surprised me. He does not show this aspect in real life. Throughout the show, people were coming up and congratulating him, because they had recognised Sekhar. And when he came out of the theatre, they all wanted to hug him.”

The film was a hit, but there were good signs much earlier. “The first day he went for the shoot was the day we came to know that I was pregnant,” says Maya. “The director, Aashique Abu, said that it was a good omen.”

And the good omens continue for Sekhar and Maya Menon. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Okay, here's Kay Kay!

After stirring performances in ‘Haider’ and the upcoming 'Saat Uchakkey', where he stars with Manoj Bajpayee, and 'Baby', Kay Kay Menon has confirmed to a wider audience that he is one of the top talents in Bollywood

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the second week of November, last year, Kay Kay Menon was shooting for a Navneet Bahal film called 'Sann 75', which is set during the Emergency (1975). For several days, the shoot took place at night, in a jungle, two hours from Lucknow.

Inside the forest, there was a huge banyan tree. “It was the size of two trees put together,” saysKay Kay. “I realised that this tree, which was hundreds of years old, must have seen people, of all kinds, from different ages. And it had spread its arms so wide, while we were doing the shoot within its confines. It was a magical moment for me.”

Kay Kay is going through some magical moments in recent times. Recently, he completed the shoot of a heist film called 'Saat Uchakkey', where he is pitted against Manoj Bajpayee. “It is great fun when you work with a brilliant actor like Manoj,” says Kay Kay. “There is so much of creative input and the level at which both of you operate is so high.” And word is out that he has done well in Neeraj Pandey's 'Baby', in which he stars with Akshay Kumar andRana Daggubati. The film will be released on January 23.

Kay Kay also impressed in last year's surprise hit, 'Haider', where he plays Tabu’s brother-in-law, Khurram, who lusts after her.

Asked whether he felt nervous about doing a film on the explosive subject of Kashmir, KayKay says, “Not at all. The fact that the film was set in Kashmir was not an issue. For me, my only criteria is whether a role is interesting or not.”

Kay Kay has been acclaimed for his interesting roles in 'Paach', 'Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, 'Black Friday', and 'Sarkar', among many other films. “I believe that, unlike the many blockbusters of today, these films will stand the test of time,” he says.

One reason for his impact is his ability to immerse himself in the role. And his method is simple, as well as difficult. “When you are acting, don’t play the role, but the person,” he says. “The roles are finite: you can be a policeman, lawyer or a crook. Instead, you must understand the character of the cop or the crook. And then play him.”

Another tip is linked to pride. “Try and surrender your ego when you are acting,” says Kay Kay. “Without doing that, you cannot take on a character.”

Kay Kay seems an unlikely person to make a mark in Bollywood. A middle-class Malayali, he grew up in Ambarnath and Pune, but remained in touch with his home state of Kerala in his childhood. During summer vacations, he would go to Kozhikode where his grandfather, Raghava Menon, a former Major, lived in a large house.

I used to play cricket with my cousins,” he says. “The branch of a coconut tree was used as a bat. When I look back, those were happy times.”

After doing his MBA from the University of Pune, Kay Kay embarked, without hesitation, on a career in the arts. “When I was very young, one day, I realised that acting was my calling,” he says. “So I had no doubts. I was lucky that my parents did not raise any objections, even though I am an only child.”

And unlike most actors, Kay Kay does not look on his earlier years as a struggle. “People become anxious because they are unsure about their talent,” he says. “But I was always sure that I had a gift. I believe opportunity comes to everybody. It depends on how ready you are to accept it.”

Meanwhile, when asked about how Bollywood has changed over the years, KayKay smiles, and says, “Creatively, Bollywood always threatens to change. But they just come out with the same melodrama and songs, but in different forms. But the success of a film like ‘Haider’ gives hope to film-makers who want to try different things.” 

Kay Kay has tried different things throughout his career. No surprises that, today, he is regarded as one of the top talents of Bollywood. 

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

Monday, January 12, 2015

Moving from Place to Place

Veteran artist Sudhir Patwardhan's work, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, is a rumination on migration, language, nature, and the links between the past, present and future

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

Isn't the view fantastic?” says the Baroda-based artist Rekha Rodwittiya.

Yes it is,” says artist Sudhir Patwardhan, as they both stare at the sea.

They are standing on a first-floor verandah of the Aspinwall House, a prime venue of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Rekha then goes inside and observes, with rapt attention, Sudhir's triptych, 'Building a Home: Exploring the World'.

It's wonderful,” she says.

Indeed, the 15' x 5 1/2' acrylic on canvas is a wonderful rumination on nature, language, the links between the past, present and future as well as migration. Right at the top of the left panel, there is an excerpt from a poem on migration called 'Time to Fly' by British poet Ruth Padel:

'You go because the cold is coming,
Spring is coming, soldiers are coming. 
Plague, Flood, an Ice Age,
A new religion, a new Idea.
You go because you have the kingdom of heaven in your heart
And the Kingdom of hell has taken over someone else's heart.'

Beneath it there is an image of an African woman as well as an old man trudging up a hill. In the background, there is a river which is snaking across the landscape, beside a town which has gone up in flames. And at the far distance, there is a modern warship on a sea.

The migration of the human species to all parts of the world began from Africa,” says Sudhir. “The old man resembles someone who had to leave his village suddenly because of violence, like in Syria or Iraq. This is symbolised by the burning fires as well as the warship in the Gulf.”

Migration is a perennial theme in the history of man. “Many of us have migrated from our ancestral villages,” says Sudhir. “In my case, my family moved from the Sangli district in Maharashtra to Mumbai. Later, my son moved to the USA.”

In the middle panel, Sudhir has recreated the iconic Tower of Babel painting by Pieter Bruegel (1525-69). And leaning on it is the incomplete Tatlin Tower, which had been commissioned in 1919 to be put up in Petrogad, Russia by architect Vladimir Tatlin. And in a deft touch both these structures have been placed on the island of Fort Kochi. “These structures represent Man's aspirations for an unified world, without class differences,” says Sudhir. Language is like a home. The people who share a language belong to one home.”

And at the right side, a double helix, of the DNA, made famous by scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, extends to the third panel. “What is the language of science?” says Sudhir. “Is it a universal language? Can extraterrestrial beings understand it also?”

In the third panel, astronauts, holding a golden disc, are floating in space, right next to planet earth. At a distance, buildings can be seen on another planet. Interestingly, Sudhir has borrowed this image from artist Jyoti Basu.

A gold disc was sent on the Voyager 1 and 11 spacecrafts,” says Sudhir. “It is intended to communicate the story of our world to extraterrestrials. Today, the earth is our home, but in another hundred years there may be humans who may have never been to earth. Their parents might have settled on another planet and children would have been born there. Like the Indian diaspora today. There are third and fourth-generation Indians living in the US who have no idea of their mother country.” 

Apart from this, on another wall, there is a set of framed lithographs, called 'Encounters in Time'. These are images of people, with different types of headgear and masks. Sudhir had been inspired by a Vermeer painting called 'Maid Pouring Milk', as well as an anonymous Deccani miniature of a gentleman with a beard and a cap. There are a couple of faces with no eyes. “I wanted to indicate that this is a spiritual person,” he says. “And it is about looking inward, rather than outwards. Overall, it is an imaginative take of encountering people from the past as well as the future.” 

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