Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Surfeit of Talent

AR Raihanah, the sister of Oscar winner, AR Rahman, talks about her illustrious sibling, and about her own career as singer and composer

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: AR Reihanah. Photo by Melton Antony; AR Rahman (extreme right) with his nephew GV Prakash Kumar at the latter's wedding reception at Chennai  

In July, 2006, music maestro AR Rahman and his troupe were performing at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, USA. There was a galaxy of singers including Hariharan, Sukwinder Singh, Sadhna Sangram and Rahman's sister AR Raihanah.

Raihanah sang 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' from 'Dil Se'. After the show was over, unknown to Raihanah, the actor Nandita Das was following her in another vehicle. When Raihanah reached the hotel, Nandita went up to her and said, “You blew me away. Your voice was excellent.”

Says a smiling Raihanah, “That was a precious moment for me. There were so many other top singers on stage. Later, I got many compliments for my singing from all over America.”

Raihanah had come to Kochi to take part in the Gurupournami function organised by the Music Directors Union of the Film Employees Federation of Kerala.

And she was in a nostalgic mood, as she recalled her childhood as the daughter of composer RK Shekhar. “There was always music in the house,”she says. “My father could play the harmonium and piano. He was also the first one to get the electronic synthesizer to India from Singapore.”

Raihanah was only three years old when Shekhar taught her the legato and staccato. The legato is a sustained note, while the staccacto is a short note.

I would say, 'Appa is it a tomato?',” says Raihanah. “And he would have a good laugh.”

Another day, the children – Raihanah, AR Rahman, Fathima and Ishrath – were feeling frustrated at their home, in T. Nagar, Chennai. There was a power cut, and they could not sing. “So Rahman took the guitar, switched on a battery-operated tape recorder, and we all sang 'Jingle Bells',” says Raihanah. “That was a fond memory for me.”

The double Oscar winner, Rahman, looms over their family. Asked to analyse his talent, Raihanah says, “He has been blessed with a God-given talent. There are many music directors who are geniuses. But nobody knows them outside Tamil Nadu. This mass appeal is a divine gift.”

And Raihanah got an inkling of this appeal when she went to see the first show of 'Roja' at the Sathyam Theatre in Chennai. “I was surprised to see that the audience had started clapping when Rahman's name appeared in the credits,” says Raihanah. “This was his first film. But because the songs were released earlier, he had already become popular.”

And Raihanah is also treated differently because she is Rahman's sister. “When somebody introduces me to a great singer, they will politely say, 'Hi',” says Raihanah. “But when they are told I am Rahman's sister, they will say, 'Oh hiiiiiiiiii!!!'. Then their eyes will widen and they will say, 'Oh you are Rahman's sister'. One reason could be because they might have got a singing career because of my brother. Or they may have seen the reach of Rahman.”

But Raihanah is an accomplished artist in her own right. She has sung several songs in Tamil, many of which have become hits. One song, 'Malai Malai', from the film, 'Chocolate', became controverisial because of the double meaning in the lyrics. “I sang it like a college student,” she says.

At present, she has composed five songs for the movie, 'Puriyadha Anandham Pudhidhaga Aarambam'. This film, which will be released in June, stars the singer Krish and is brought out by Ibrahim Rowthar films. She has also composed the music for several other films.

Her son, GV Prakash Kumar, 27, is also an established composer. So far, he has made about 40 songs. “Prakash, like my father, is very fast at composing music,” says Raihanah. “My father was working with 12 music directors at the same time. And, like him, Prakash likes to do melodies. Which is why he is very popular in Kerala.”

Incidentally, Raihanah is selective when it comes to composing. Once a producer went to see her. He took out three CDs from one pocket and three from another and told Reihana that she should copy the music. “I refused,” says Raihanah. “I came to composing out of my passion. So I want to do creative work. Otherwise, I am not interested.”

Asked to give tips to budding composers, Raihanah says, “Please don't copy from others. Let the music come from your soul. Wherever possible use live instruments. Since the music is made by human beings, it is much better than electronic music. Also, live music touches people more. Just because people are moving towards western trends, you don't have to do the same. Keep your mind open for all kinds of music. In the end, we should not lose our identity as Indian musicians.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Close Bond

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Jayasree talks about life with the BJP State President V. Muraleedharan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Jayasree by Mithun Vinod 

At the NSS College in Pandalam, KS Jayasree listened raptly to V. Muraleedharan, a senior leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), as he spoke to a group of students. “It is education that will help you become a better person,” said Muraleedharan. “And you will be able to contribute lifelong to society. Activism should not be an escape from your responsibility as a student.”

As a member of the ABVP herself, Jayasree would see Muraleedharan in various forums. Soon, they were introduced to each other. Much later, senior ABVP leaders approached Jayasree and said that Muraleedharan wanted to marry her. “By this time I had known Muraleedharan for 10 years, but never for a moment did I look upon him as a life partner,” says Jayasree. “I had no plans to get married. I was keen to be involved in social activities only.”

When Jayasree told her parents, they told her to think hard before making a decision. “My parents knew that I would not accept anything less than a relationship between equals,” says Jayasree. So, she thought hard and finally said yes.

The marriage took place on September 12, 1998, at the Guruvayur Temple. It was the first time she was entering the Sri Krishna temple. “I got the feeling that I had reached there through God’s design,” says Jayasree.

And today, the couple are going as strong as ever. Asked to list her husband's plus points, Jayasree says, “Muraleedharan is always cool under pressure. In 16 years of marriage, he has never lost his temper with me. If I criticise him, he will think calmly about it and, sometimes, he will agree to what I have said. He is a positive-minded person, who is dedicated to his work as state president of the BJP. And because of party work, he is constantly travelling. Sometimes, I see him after a gap of 10 or 12 days.”

But unlike most women, Jayashree has adopted an understanding attitude towards these absences. “I feel that every person has a desire to live life in a particular way,” she says. “This is the way Muraleedharan wants to lead his life. He is happiest when he does this work. So I don't ponder about the little time that he spends with me.”

Meanwhile, Jayasree, who has a doctorate in Sanskrit, has kept herself busy. She is a lecturer of Sanskrit at the Sree Narayana Guru College at Chelannur. Jayasree has also set up a forum called Streechetana. “We look after the needs of women, children and the community,” she says.

Dealing with people all the time has one side effect: a loss of privacy. “When we are at home, Muraleedharan gets calls all the time,” says Jayasree. “As a politician, it is not possible to differentiate between the private and public space.”

And when they go out for dinner, people will approach him often. “Some will say that they saw him somewhere,” says Jayasree. “Others will say they are distant relatives. One or two will say, 'I liked your comment on TV.' A third person will say, 'I have taken part in a protest which you had organised'.”

All this can be a heady experience for Jayasree, but there are drawbacks, too. “Because he is so busy, Muraleedharan can become forgetful regarding family matters,” she says. “But whenever I point this out to him he immediately accepts his error.”
Another drawback is that they cannot plan anything in advance. Inevitably, at the last moment, there will be changes in the schedule.

Recently, the couple were going, from Kozhikode, to the Mookambika Temple at Kollur, Karnataka. On the way, Muraleedharan was informed, by phone, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was on his way to Nagercoil, was having a stopover at Thiruvananthapuram.

Then there was a discussion on the phone on how long Modi would be there. Finally, Muraleedharan was informed that Modi was not coming out of the aircraft. Hence, he would not be seeing anybody. “So, we were able to carry on with our journey,” says Jayasree. “But the entire discussion took an hour. And all along, I was expecting a U-turn at any time. Nothing is certain when your husband is a politician.”

Interestingly, the couple have no children. And this is a conscious decision that they took soon after their marriage. “We want to be the parents of society,” says Jayasree. “Some of us have a destiny to look after those who have difficulties. So, parenthood would be difficult to do at the same time. But we do feel a pressure from society.” Nevertheless, they have remained firm in their resolve.

Lastly, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Jayasree says, “Everybody has plus and minus points. We should accept the minus points. If you become friends with your husband, there is a good chance that the marriage will be a success. A sense of equality and mutual respect also helps.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

From The Stage To The Screen

In 'Cineplay', Subodh Maskara and Nandita Das have come up with an unique concept: making films out of plays

By Shevlin Sebastian

Actress Nandita Das was skeptical about the idea suggested by her husband Subodh Maskara. What Subodh wanted to do was to make a film out of a play.
I felt that the magic of theatre is in its live performance,” says Nandita. “You feed off the energy of the audience. And that interaction is crucial.”

But Subodh felt that he had a winnable idea. “Theatre does not travel to every part of India, because it is not viable to do that,” says Subodh. “There is a large population in the non-metro cities. We could reach out to these people with a film.”

The first film that was shot was the play, ‘Between The Lines’, in which Subodh and Nandita are the protagonists. The play was shot in five days at a studio in Mumbai. There were close-ups, long-range shots, and multiple takes, just like in a film. The end result was shown at the National Centre for the Performing Arts at Mumbai on February 16, 2014. And one of the first fans was Nandita herself, who hugged her husband after the show, and said, “It's wonderful.”

Indeed it is. When you watch a film version of the play, the intensity comes across with twice the force. “You can see the expressions so clearly,” says Subodh. “A camera captures so much more than the eye. In a live production, no matter what happens, you are watching from a distance. You get a broad idea, but you are unable to catch the nuances.”

The analogy is with cricket. “It is different when you watch the game live at a stadium and see it on TV,” says Subodh. “On TV, you get close-ups, you can see the expressions, and it is so much more intimate.”
An encouraged Subodh has made seven CinePlays so far. They include plays like Mahesh Dattani's 'Dance Like a Man', Mohan Rakesh's 'Aadhe Adhure', and Vikram Kapadia's 'Bombay Talkies'. “These plays have stood the test of time,” says Subodh. “They are strong in their content and relevant even today.” Another nine plays are in post-production.

One indirect benefit is that, through CinePlay, plays are being archived, for posterity. “When my son grows up, he will get a chance to see all of them,” says Nandita. “This is a revolutionary idea. I wished it had happened years ago. Then we could have seen the work of [great directors like] Ebrahim Alkazi, Habib Tanvir, Shambhu Mitra and Vijay Tendulkar.”

Meanwhile, Subodh has been taking the CinePlays all over India. “We have exhibited in clubs, theatres, colleges and cultural centres,” he says. “Right now, there are 50 distributors who are regularly screening our films.” It is a 90-minute show which happens on the weekend or once a month. The ticket prices range from Rs 100 to Rs 300.

Recently, Subodh screened 'Between The Lines' at the Ranchi Club. “All the 400 members came to see it,” he says. “And they paid rapt attention throughout. At the end, there was a standing ovation.”

An elated Subodh has also shown it in Washington and New York. “We got a fantastic response from an all-American audience,” he says. “I have realised that even though the context is Indian, the emotions expressed are universal.”

Subodh's future plans include making CinePlay a brand that leads the genre. “I also want to make CinePlays from different regional as well as international languages,” he says. “So, I will be making films of Malayalam, Kannada as well as American, Asian and European plays.” 

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

Monday, May 25, 2015

From Spain, with love

The Spanish clinical psychologist, Olga Martin, has set up 'Street Heroes of India', which helps homeless children to cope with the trauma of sexual, emotional and physical abuse

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesn Sundaram 

When Olga Martin was 12 years old, she went to see a film about street children in Valencia, Spain, with her parents. And during the course of the film, she saw a few scenes set in India. “The sight of the children in India moved me deeply,” she says. “From that moment on it was like a call. I felt that I had to do something.”

When Olga grew up, she became a trained clinical psychologist. By then, she had begun supporting a NGO called 'Mumbai Smiles'. Then, in 2008, she came to Mumbai and spent some time in the slums. It was then that she had an epiphany.

There were many care-givers who were offering food, shelter and education,” says Olga. “But nothing was being done to heal the trauma that the street children had gone though. Many were victims of sex trafficking and child labour, and had suffered from all kinds of brutalities.”

When Olga returned to Barcelona, she prepared a project which focused on the psychosocial aspect or emotional rehabilitation of children. “My research revealed that 90 per cent of abused children tend to repeat the same behaviour,” says Olga. “I felt that the chain had to be broken. But, to set up this project, I needed the help of an institution.”

So Olga got in touch with Fr. Angel Asurmendi of Don Bosco, Barcelona, who told her that she should contact their Indian branch. In September, 2010, Olga met Fr. Kuriakose Pallikunnel, the director of the Kochi-based Don Bosco Youth Counselling Service, who agreed to support her.

Today, the unit that Olga has set up, with her partner, Marita Solá, is called 'The Street Heroes of India'. “This consists of a group of professionals, based in Spain and India, who provide psychosocial training to caregivers and counselling to children,” says Olga. This scheme is now functioning at 17 centres of Don Bosco in Kerala and Karnataka.

Many of the children have escaped from places like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. Mostly, they go to the railway station. If they do not fall into the hands of criminals, they take a train and go anywhere. “When I do art therapy work, the children always draw a train,” says Olga. “Because it is the train that has helped them to overcome their situation.”

Olga narrates the case of Shanti. One day, when she was five years old, Shanti was waiting in the railway station at Chennai with her mother. Suddenly, a woman, carrying a baby, came up and told Shanti's mother, “I am tired. My baby needs food. Can you buy something for me?”

When the mother went to buy something, leaving Shanti with the woman, a train arrived. The woman took Shanti and went inside a bogie. They travelled to Bangalore. For the next 11 years, the woman forced Shanti to have sexual relations with all types of men. And it was only at age 16 that Shanti managed to get up the courage to escape to Kochi. At the station the police spotted her. They took her to Don Bosco at Palluruthy, a suburb of Kochi.

Thereafter, Olga stepped in to help. “Healing can be done through counselling, music, drama, art and dance therapy,” she says. “I encouraged Shanti to talk about her life. And now, after two years, she feels much better.” In fact, in a letter to Olga, Shanti wrote, 'This is the first time in my life that I have shared my sufferings with someone. Please don’t talk about this to anybody. I need you.'

There are many cases like Shanti. In fact, a recent UNICEF report provided the alarming figure that 39 per cent of the girls and 40 per cent of boys in Kerala have been sexually abused. “This is usually done by family members, like fathers, uncles, and other relatives,” says Olga. 

A worried Olga says that there is an urgent need for sex education in schools. “Children should be taught to identify between a good and a bad touch,” she says. 

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

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Mystery Of The Kidnapped Girl

Hi Friends, my e-book journey continues. Here is the fourth one, and third for children for the age group of 9-12. A relatively fast-paced work. For those who are on Kindle and have children please pass on, so that they can have a read.

Here is the link:

The story is set in Kolkata. 

One day Susan, her brother Ben, and their neighbour Rony were going to school. Suddenly, a white Maruti van came up, two men jumped out, and before anybody knew what was happening, Susan had been kidnapped. Why did this happen? Who were the kidnappers? What did they want? Find out as Ben and Rony, along with Rony's dog, Kabu, go on a roller-coaster journey in search of Susan

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Making Make-Believe Images

The Kerala-born Jishnu P. Dev has worked as a Visual Effects Supervisor in a string of Bollywood films, including ‘Queen’ and 'Aap Tak Chappan 2
By Shevlin Sebastian
Photos: Vishnu P. Dev. Rajkumar Rao and Kangana Ranaut pose in front of a green screen in the first shot. In the second, the India Gate image has been inserted

Vikas Bahl, the director of the Hindi film, ‘Queen’, was in a tizzy. He needed to take shots of actors Kangana Ranaut and Rajkumar Rao at India Gate, New Delhi. But at that time there were daily protests at the war memorial over the Nirbhaya rape case. “So even though Vikas would have loved to take shots at the original location, he had to give up,” says Jishnu P. Dev, Visual Effects Supervisor.
So both the actors were made to pose in front of a green screen. “The advantage of standing in front of a green or blue screen is that it does not appear on the screen,” says Jishnu. “Later, I inserted shots of India Gate behind Kangana and Rajkumar on the computer. I also put moving cars in the scene. But those were taken in Mumbai.”
Jishnu gives another example from the same film. “There was a scene, which was eventually not used, of Kangana standing atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris,” he says. “But since shooting at that height was not possible, we again made Kangana stand in front of a green screen and inserted an image of the Eiffel Tower behind her.” Incidentally, the number of such altered images may range anywhere between 150 to 300 shots per film.
Jishnu has worked in 15 films now. They include ‘Aap Tak Chappan 2’, ‘Titoo MBA’, ‘The Attacks of 26/11’ and the Marathi film, ‘Poshter Boyz’. He has worked with directors like Ramgopal Varma, Vikas Bahl, the acclaimed Marathi director, Paresh Mokashi and Madhur Bhandarkar for his upcoming film, ‘Calendar Girls’.
And for Jishnu every director is different. “Each has their unique vision, ideas and ways of working,” says Jishnu. “The experienced directors know what they want and they tell me that in a precise way. Some directors take a lot of time doing research. Others work instinctively. And this is what makes my work so exciting.”
Visual effects are of paramount importance, especially when you are setting scenes in an earlier era. “The film, ‘Bombay Velvet’, is set in the Mumbai of the 1960s,” says Jishnu. “It is difficult to recreate all those scenes. So, a lot of visual effects have been used. This was also the case with ‘Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!’, which was set in the Kolkata of the 1940s.”
Meanwhile, when asked about his experiences in Bollywood, Jishnu says, “I am working in the entertainment industry, but there is no entertainment for me. It is hard work, almost 24 hours a day. Sometimes, I am unable to watch the film I had been a part of, even though I was invited for the premiere. That’s because I am already busy working on the next film. Right now, I am establishing my career in Bollywood, so I don’t want to take it easy at all.”
In fact, last year, Jishnu set up a company called Corridor Studios Pvt. Ltd., in partnership with his friend, Siddhesh Ware. The last film the company worked for is ‘Massan’, an Indo-French collaboration, which has been showcased at the ongoing Cannes Film Festival. “I am very excited about it,” says Jishnu.
Indeed, it has been an exciting and amazing journey so far. And it is one that Jishnu could never imagine could happen to him. He was born at Kudakkachira, near Pala, in Kottayam district. After his Plus Two, from Our Lady Of Loud Higher Secondary School at Uzhavoor, Jishnu joined the three-year BA animation course at the Media Village in Changanacherry. Thereafter, he worked for the US-based MCN (Malayalam Community Network) TV for one year at Kochi.
Later, he went to Mumbai to specialise in special effects. He studied for a year at the FX School. That was when he got his first break. He was selected to work for Ram Gopal Varma’s Telugu film, ‘Dongala Mutha’, which stars Ravi Teja. “My work was in pre as well as post-production,” says Jishnu. The movie, incidentally, did well at the box office.
After that, through word of mouth, Jishnu has been getting projects regularly. In fact, his first Bollywood film was also another Ram Gopal Varma movie called, ‘Not A Love Story.’ “I believe I am doing a good job,” he says. “It is a big thing for me that I am getting Bollywood movies.”
But his heart beats for Kerala, too. On a recent visit, to see his parents, after a one-and-a-half year gap, Jishnu says, “I would love to work in Mollywood. There are a lot of good visual effects taking place in Malayalam films. Many of my friends are working in the industry. My aim is to work to the best of my talent in both industries.”
(The New India Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Nice Job

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Athira Raj talks about life with the singer and composer Job Kurian

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by A. Sanesh 

At a studio in Thiruvananthapuram, in August, 2006, rehearsals were taking place, under the guidance of music director, Alphons, for a reality show on a private television channel. After Job Kurian and Athira Raj finished singing, both looked at each other, and said, almost at the same time “You sang well.” Athira had sung 'Beri Piya' from the Hindi film, 'Devdas', while Job had sung 'Teri Deewani' from a Kailash Kher album.

Everybody loved Job's version,” says Athira. During the break, an effervescent Athira went around talking with the other participants. But the one who remained aloof was Job.

I thought he had a bit of an ego,” says Athira. “But when I spoke to Job, later, he told me that he had a sore throat and could not speak. Soon, we had long conversations and liked each other.” At that time, Athira was 17, while Job was 24.

Eventually, Athira was eliminated through audience voting. She returned home to Kannur. But they remained in touch, as Job went on to become the first runner-up. Slowly, they became close.

One day, Job called Athira up and said, “I am not an easy person to live with. But, nevertheless, I would like to marry you.”

Athira reminded Job that they belonged to different communities. While Athira is a Hindu, Job is a Christian. “Despite this, Job told me to think over the proposal,” says Athira.

She thought hard and wanted to say yes. But when she told her parents, they were opposed to the idea. “They felt that I was too young and might change my mind later on,” says Athira. “Plus, they were not keen on an inter-caste marriage.”

So life went on. While Athira finished her Bachelor of Business Management degree from CMS College, Coimbatore, Job was studying piano with a tutor at Thrissur. But, every three months or so, they would meet, either at Shoranur or Thrissur. Later, Athira completed her Masters in Human Resource Management at the Rajagiri Centre for Business Studies, at Kochi.

Thereafter, she again told her parents that she wanted to marry Job. And this time they agreed. “They realised that my love for Job was genuine and long-lasting,” says Athira.

The marriage took place, on November 10, 2012, at the St. Joseph's church at Thiruvananthapuram. At the reception that followed, at the Sree Moolam Club, an impromptu music concert, with eminent musicians, like Stephen Devassey, Rex Vijayan and others took place. “We sang a duet --  'Vaikkathashtami', written by Sreekumaran Thampi,” says Athira. “It was a memorable moment.” One week later, they had a reception at Kannur, also.

Soon, after this, the couple left for Chennai. Job was singing the title song of the Malayalam film, 'I love me', by music director Deepak Dev. “We had a good time in Chennai,” says Athira, who now stays with Job at Thiruvananthapuram.

Asked about his plus points, Athira says, “Job is very genuine. If there is a show or he has to do a composition, his commitment is hundred per cent. Even if he has to perform for a college show, he will give his best at all times. He always works hard. Unlike many musicians, he avoids drinking and smoking and remains focused on his music.”

Athira also likes his selflessness. “Job is keen to help others and maintain good relationships with his relatives and family members,” she says. “He is a lovable person. Whenever he goes to Thrissur, he goes and meets his teachers.”

And Athira does not have a problem that, for Job, the music comes before her and the family. “Because I am a singer myself, I understand his dreams and desires,” says Athira. “This is probably why we get along so well with each other.”

However, like most creative people, Job has a short temper. “There is no way to predict when he will lose his temper,” says Athira, with a smile. “It might be about the smallest of things. But he cools down very quickly. But all artistes are like that. They are very emotional and sensitive and have mood fluctuations.”

Another drawback is Job’s tense nature. “This becomes extreme just before he steps on stage before a show,” says Athira. “Sometimes I am scared about whether he will be able to perform at all. But, once on stage, his personality changes completely. He has a commanding presence and sings in a powerful voice. By the grace of God, all his shows have done well.”

The couple's happiest moment occurred when their son, Cyril, was born on April 25, 2014, at the Fatima Hospital in Kannur. “I will always remember the joy on Job’s face when he held Cyril in his arms for the first time,” says Athira. “Job is extremely close to his son. If he does not see Cyril for two days, he will start missing him very much. He wants to come back home quickly.”

As for tips for a successful marriage, Athira says, “If a spouse has a weakness, instead of trying to change it, we should accept it. Both husband and wife should learn to adjust. Think positively all the time. If the husband is down, the wife should lift his spirits up with her optimistic attitude.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

"All Great Music Is Melancholy"

Says music critic, Shaji Chennai, who has just published his first book in Malayalam called 'Paattalla Sangeetham' (Music is not a song)

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Shaji Chennai by K. Rajesh Kumar; Salil Chowdhury 

The late Mollywood film director Ramu Kariat was much taken up by the music in the classic Hindi film, 'Madhumati'. When he enquired about the music director he was told that it was a Bengali called Salil Chowdhury.

When Ramu heard that Salil was in Chennai doing re-recording work for a Hindi film, he went there and met Salil. He requested Salil to compose the music for his film, 'Chemmeen' (1965). Salil had no idea about Malayalam films, but agreed to work for Ramu.

And today, the songs that Salil did for 'Chemmeen' have become immortal. They include 'Maanasa Maine Varu' and 'Kadalinakkare'. “But the music is based on the folk music traditions of Bengal, Assam and Nepal,” says music critic Shaji Chennai. “Very few people know that. In fact, people outside Kerala say that 'Kadalinakkara' is a fisherman's folk song of Kerala.”

And it is hugely popular. “If you ask any Tamilian which is the one Malayali song they like the most, they will mention this song,” says Shaji. “They may not have seen the film, but they love the song. That is the genius of Salil Chowdhury.”

Like Salil, Shaji is also immersed in the world of popular music. He is a trilingual writer (English, Tamil and Malayalam) of popular music in newspapers and magazines in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. So far, he has published five books on music in Tamil. And recently, the Chennai-based writer had come to Kochi for the release, by eminent director KG George, of his first book in Malayalam, called 'Paattalla Sangeetham' (Music is Not a Song) (Green Books).

Most of us believe that music means songs,” says Shaji. “But a song, especially the vocals, is a tiny part. Music is a language by itself. That is why we still enjoy the works of Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart which were composed centuries ago.”

Music, worldwide, is more about instrumentals than vocals. “All the Western classical compositions are instrumentals,” says Shaji. “In Hindustani and Carnatic music, also, the lyrics consists of a few lines. These are repeated again and again.”

Even in a film song, there are so many instrumental portions: the percussion, chords, backing arrangements and lead instrumentals. “But most people don't pay attention to this,” says Shaji. “Instead, they only listen to the lyrics. In a way, many are uninformed when it comes to music.”

Incidentally, Shaji's book is divided into two sections. In the first one, on Indian musicians, he has written about PB Srinivas, Madan Mohan, T M Sounderarajan, Manna Dey, MS Viswanathan, Dakshinamoorthi, Hariharan, Johnson, Mehdi Hasan, Kannur Rajan, and the unsung Philip Francis. “Philip was a ghazal singer and an accomplished tabla ustad of Kerala,” he says. “Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 43, in 2008, in a bike accident.”

According to Shaji, the late Kannur Rajan is one of the greatest Malayalam composers he has come across. “Unfortunately, he is not even regarded in the top five,” says Shaji. “But Rajan had the ability to explore the intricacies of Hindustani music. Since most of his songs were featured in films which had a brief run in the theatres, very few people have heard the songs. 
There are so many factors which have to come into play for a song to become popular.”

Asked to identify a common character trait among all composers, Shaji says, “Most of them are sad. There is a Persian saying that says that all great music is melancholy. The fastest dance song that you hear, from a good composer, at the core, there will be a feeling of melancholia. That's because all musicians are on an unknown quest to know the meaning of art and life.”

In the second section of the book, Shaji has concentrated on English music stars like Michael Jackson, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Hungarian pianist and composer Rezső Seress, and Boney M. “I wrote about the impact of Boney M's music on Malayalis as well as Indians,” says Shaji. “I also pointed out that the group which came to India were not the ones who sang the original songs.”

Asked about the current trends in music, Shaji says, “Because of the invasion of computer music, it has become kid's play. Anybody can make a song. Owing to the ease of composition, there is not much of creativity. That is why there are no legendary composers these days.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Full of Love and Hope

Bhumika Shrestha, Nepal’s first transgender politician, talks about her experiences

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Bhumika by Melton Antony; Bhumika with director Nicola Desouza

In the two-minute film, 'I AM: The Transcender', a slim person stands next to a light in a darkened room and says, “I am Bhumika Shrestha. I am a transgender. I am going to be a transgender in my next life. This is not my only identity. I am a Nepali, a Hindu, a sister, a daughter, a politician, an actress, and a human rights activist.”

Bhumika looks attractive, with her doe-shaped eyes, high cheekbones and coiffed hair, an easy smile and with a beaded necklace around her neck. On a recent to Kochi, with the film's director Nicola Desouza, the Kathmandu-based Bhumika says, “When I was seven years old, I began to think and feel like a woman. I put lipstick, used make-up and wore my mom’s sarees. But my family always supported me. They never questioned my behaviour. They felt that since I was a child I was behaving like this. But once I grew up, I would become all right.”

But Bhumika did not. At the Vidya Mandir Higher Secondary School, the students as well as the teachers mocked her. Once the teacher said, “You look like a girl with your long hair. You have to change.” Like most transgenders, she went home and cried. In Class 10, Bhumika was thrown out of school.

There were many times when she felt suicidal. Once, she bought a bottle of sleeping pills. But Bhumika could not go through with it. “I loved life too much,” she says. “But I know of many transgenders who killed themselves.”

Bhumika's life changed, in 2003, when she joined the Blue Diamond Society, which caters to sexual minorities. “I saw many people like me,” she says. “I felt that I belonged. And I finally accepted my sexuality.”

Thereafter, Bhumika did something unusual. She joined the Nepali Congress Party in 2008 and became the first transgender in the country to do so. She wanted to stand for elections and got the go-ahead from the party leaders. Unfortunately, because of a technical glitch she could not contest. In the election form, there were only two genders: male and female. So, she could not identify herself. Nevertheless, she has been fighting for the rights of transgenders. And Bhumika won a significant victory recently.

In January, Nepal became one of the few countries in the world to add a third gender in their passports. Apart from male and female, there is now a category called transgender. (Incidentally, there are three lakh transgenders in Nepal).

But for a long time, Bhumika experienced stress when she travelled abroad. In her passport, she is identified as Kailash Shrestha. Once when she was going to the USA, she had to transit at Doha, the capital of Qatar.

They looked at my photo and stared at me. Then they directed me to the female line,” she says. “I told them that earlier I was a male, now I am a woman. Since it is a Muslim country, they could not understand the meaning of the term, transgender. So, they took me to a separate room and physically checked me. It was only then they understood who I am.” 

Meanwhile, last year, director Nicola saw a film called, 'The Other Nature', by the Kathmandu-based Nani Sahra Walker. It was about the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities in Nepal. “There was one shot of Bhumika, wearing a white bridal dress, and dancing at an annual gay event,” says Nicola. “She was dancing wildly. I have never seen anybody dance like this.”

So Nicola contacted Nani. Then she went to Nepal in August, 2014, to see Bhumika. “We spent time with each other,” says Nicola. “She told me about herself and her life. Even though Bhumika has been threatened and harassed and gone through so much, she is full of hope and love. She has no hatred or anger against society.”

So Nicola decided to make a short film on Bhumika. So far, it has been shown at the Script International Film Festival, Kochi, 'Gender Reel' in New York, the Transgender Film Festival in San Francisco, and the British Film Institute Festival on the LGBT community called 'Flare' in London.

Meanwhile, following the massive earthquake, on April 26, at Kathmandu, the Mumbai-based Nicola was stranded in the town of Kirtipur, just 5 kms away. But later, she met up with Bhumika. 

She is okay,” says Nicola, by e-mail. “In fact, I am living with Bhumika and her family in a tent at Kathmandu for the past several days. Unfortunately, Bhumika lost two of her close friends. She is very upset about that. Both of us had gone for the cremation.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi)   

Monday, May 11, 2015

Pushing his Creative Limits

Vinu Daniel is one of the most promising green architects in Kerala today. His Umbrella Pavilion at the recently-concluded Kochi Muziris Biennale received plaudits

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of Vinu Daniel by Ratheesh Sundaram; beer bottles form an arch

Some years ago, Vinu Daniel met the singer KJ Yesudas in Chennai. When Yesudas came to know that Vinu was an architect, he asked the latter whether he could build an eco-friendly low-cost home for a poor family on the banks of the Periyar River, near Aluva (28 kms from Kochi). Vinu agreed.

But two months into the construction, Vinu ran out of the money that Yesudas had given him, through the latter's Divya Karunya Trust. He was reluctant to ask for more. And there was an an arch in the drawing room that had to be covered with glass. “Glass is expensive,” says Daniel.

It was then that he came up with an innovative idea. He told his workers to go and collect empty beer bottles, at Rs 2 per bottle, from the local bars. Finally, 700 bottles were used to cover the gap. “This was the first time I used waste materials for construction,” he says.

Vinu hit the limelight a few months ago, when he made a pavilion at the Aspinwall House, the main venue of the second edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Made in the shape of an umbrella, the walls and the sloping roof were made with a mix of chicken meshes, concrete, and jute sacks.

Lightning struck for Vinu, when one of Britain’s greatest artists, the India-born Anish Kapoor, stood in front of the pavilion, and said, “This is a unique structure and has a wonderful scale.” Then he hugged Vinu and his team members one by one.

Indeed, Vinu is one of the unique young talents working in Kerala today. His recent work, the St. George Malankara Orthodox Syrian church, at Mattancherry, is also striking. It is made entirely of mud and has large arches, and curved staircases. But it is the design above the altar that stuns because of its simplicity. Vinu made a gap in the brick wall, in such a way that when sunlight streams in, it looks like a cross. “I was inspired by Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s Church of The Light in the city of Ibaraki, Osaka,” says Vinu.

Vinu’s life changed when he met the greatest green architect of Kerala, Laurie Baker (1917-2007) in December, 2004. Baker told Vinu, “When I see a plot, and if there is a coconut tree in it, my only desire is how do I save the tree and make a building on the plot. It takes 10 years for a coconut tree to reach its proper height. Why harm a tree which has never harmed you? Nature should be respected at all costs. Every piece of land has a story. And we should retain that story.”

An inspired Vinu completed his architectural course at the College of Engineering, Trivandrum, and spent a year at the Auroville Earth Institute at Puducherry. “I learnt how to make buildings with mud,” says Vinu.    

And people noticed his work soon immediately. His high point took place when he was featured in the ‘Architecture in India’ book, a prestigious tome brought out by architect Rahul Mehrotra, who is today Professor of Urban Design and Planning at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

At the book launch function, in 2008, Rahul showed slides of Vinu’s ‘Valsala Cottage’ in Mavelikara, and said, “This kid is doing amazing creative work. You will rarely find art, function, sustainability and integrity all together in one design. But it is all there in this cottage.” 

An elated Vinu, who was in the audience, realised that he was on the right path. “My aim, ever since, has been to keep pushing my creative limits,” he says. 

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

Saturday, May 09, 2015

A Love Of Indian Cuisine

The Toronto-based David Rocco was in Kochi recently to shoot episodes for his hit cookery show, 'La Dolce Vita'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of David Rocco by Ratheesh Sundaram; Curried Pasta

As David Rocco stepped out of the Brunton Boatyard hotel at Fort Kochi, a bus screeched to a halt in front of him.

Where do you want to go?” said the conductor.

To the barber shop,” said David.

The conductor nodded. David got on. And it stopped in front of a barber shop.

This can only happen in India,” says David. “A public transport bus makes an unscheduled stop, just for one person. And that is also the beauty of the country. It is so unpredictable.”

David is at the East Indies restaurant of the Eighth Basti​on hotel, at Fort Kochi, as he recounts this. The Toronto-based chef, of Italian origin, had come to Kochi recently to shoot episodes for his popular cooking show called 'David Rocco's Dolce Vita' (The Sweet Life) which has been telecast in 150 countries. “The reason why it has become well-liked is because we take the viewer on a journey,” says David. “It is about travel, people, and locations.”

And experimentation, too. David shot a scene with fishermen standing next to the Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi. But he made them all eat spaghetti with their hands. “It was so much fun,” says David. “They showed me their system of fishing, while I showed them my method of eating spaghetti.”

Like most foreigners, David is enamoured of Indian cuisine. “Every region is like a different country,” he says. David was in a small village called Mundota in Rajasthan. “They did not speak English, and I did not know the local language,” says David. “But through sign language, I learnt how to make ghee.”

Then the men took David to a nearby hill. There, using a knife and a bottle of water, they sliced up a small goat. “It was done with the utmost cleanliness, respect and efficiency that I have ever seen,” says David. “Sometime later, we ate the meat along with chappatis and it was delicious.”

David also enjoyed the cuisine at Fort Kochi. “There are Portuguese, Anglo-Indian, Gujarati, Tamil and Malayali influences,” he says. “Thus, there is an opportunity for fusion to take place. Chef Shiju Thomas, at the East Indies restaurant, has invented the curried pasta, which consists of coconut, turmeric, zucchini, lemon grass, basil and curry powder.”

What David enjoyed the most was to see the creative energy of Shiju as well as chef Dominic Joseph. “They don't want to please their patrons by giving safe dishes,” says David. “They are willing to try new variations. For example, the herb-crusted pork chop, soaked in green sauce, has sauteed spinach and plantain chips, dusted with bacon and shrimps. Mostly, the dishes have lots of spices and flavours. It is usually rounded off with creamy coconut milk which gives the food a subtleness.”

As he talks, David slices up beef sliders. Apart from the meat, there are eggplant chips, chillie sauce, and tomato salsa. “This is what makes cooking so exciting,” says David. “There is no right or wrong. Everyone makes dishes based on their preferences and passions. As a result, the dishes are so different and unique.”

But there is a similarity between the cuisines of India and Italy. “In Italian cuisine, like in India, we use garlic, onions, legumes and chicken,” says David. “We are both family-oriented societies. And food has the ability to bring families together. However, in the USA, food is treated like a necessity. It is not a multi-course meal, like in India and Italy.”

When asked to give tips for aspiring chefs, David says, “Youngsters are getting into cooking, because they want to be stars on TV. I tell them that if that is their desire, they should take acting lessons instead. The most important thing is that you should love cooking. If you don't like it, you are in trouble. But if you do, you don't have to work for a single day in your life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvanthapuram)