Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Charm Of Being Short

Theatre artiste Cyrus Dastur's Shamiana Short Film Club is gaining in popularity all over the world

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

In 2009, Cyrus Dastur, the Mumbai-based founder of the Shamiana Short Film Club, had gone to Kolkata. He was showcasing a few short films at the Nandan theatre. After the show was over, a group of college students came up and had a chat with Cyrus.

Two years later, one of the girls, Shivani Parekh (name changed), called Cyrus and told her that when she had attended the screening, she had been studying science. But, inspired by the films she saw, Shivani began to study film-making.

It was a life-changing moment for Shivani,” says Cyrus. “That was when I realised that Shamiana was having an impact on people.”

Cyrus, a long-time theatre actor, started the club on June 7, 2008. His logic was simple. “For feature films, there are cinema halls, TV channels, and film festivals where you can see them,” says Cyrus. “But for short films there is practically no outlet, except for a few film societies, which are few and far between. So I decided to set up a platform where short film-makers can showcase their works, in front of a discerning audience.”

When Cyrus set out, he also had a stroke of luck. There was a simultaneous growth of the social media. So when people saw the films and liked it, they mentioned it on Facebook. “And that helped in spreading the name of the club,” he says.

Asked the meaning of the word, 'Shamiana', Cyrus says, “When I was a child, my parents would take me to the Shamiana coffee shop at the Taj Mahal Palace,” he says. “That is how the name got stuck in my mind. Shamiana also means a tent. In the 18th century, people would go from village to village, set up a shamiana, and show films.”

Today, there are clubs in places like Kochi, Baroda, Pune, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chandigarh, as well as Hongkong, Singapore and Melbourne. “In fact, we have a worldwide following of four million,” says Cyrus.

Interestingly, there are no membership fees. Instead, the club depends on sponsors. Apart from halls, the films are shown at restaurants and cafes. “These venues are given free to the club because they get more business thanks to increased footfalls,” says Cyrus.

A wide variety of films from all over the world, including Oscar-nominated ones, are shown. One of the recent films, which made an impact, was 'Baghdad Messi', made by the Belgium-based director Sahim Omar Kalifa.

It is about a ten-year-old boy, Hamoudi, who has lost a leg. A fan of the footballer, Lionel Messi, Hamoudi has a passion to play football with a local club in Baghdad. “The 19-minute film shows how violence has not curbed the Iraqi children’s passion for the game,” says Cyrus.

Asked about the benefits of showing a film at the club, Cyrus says, “A film-maker is able to physically meet with members of the audience, and get a feedback. This helps him or her to become a better film-maker.” 

Recently, Cyrus held a short film festival, at the JT Pac, Kochi, which had entries from all over India. “The films are so much better now, in terms of production, camera technique, and the understanding of the medium,” he says. “And that is good news. We need a lot of meaningful art and story-telling in these intolerant times.” 

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Looking Bright and Gleaming

The 900-year-old Paravur Synagogue, near Kochi, has been restored to its original best

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Samson Pallivathukal and his wife, Miriam Artzi; the inside of the synagogue. Pics by Ratheesh Sundaram 

On a sunny August morning, a smile breaks out on the face of Samson Pallivathukal, 68, as he approaches the gleaming-white Paravur synagogue, with his wife Miriam Artzi. “Look, how nice it looks,” says Samson, who left Paravur for Israel in 1973, but is back for a visit. “There was a time when everything was broken and weeds grew all over the place.”

Yes, but all that changed when, in 2009, the Kerala government's archaeology department took possession of the synagogue, which is 32 kms from Kochi, and placed it as part of the Muziris Heritage Project. The restoration work was entrusted to conservation architect Benny Kuriakose and his team.

And today, everything is spick and span. From the entrance, Samson leads the way through tiled pathways and doors to the prayer hall at the back. Samson looks at the receptacle or the Ark, placed against a wall, and says, “The Torah, which used to be placed inside the ark, as well as the ark, have been taken to Israel in 1995,” says Samson.

Today, the ark is an exhibit at the Jerusalem Museum. To recreate it, Benny sent an e-mail to the museum authorities. They sent four high-resolution photos. “Based on that, a colleague of mine, Clerine Patteri, worked painstakingly for three months to recreate the ark,” says Benny. Apart from that, the floors, steps, ceilings, roof and the Bema, which is the platform from where the Torah is read,  have been restored to their original best.

What is unusual about the 900-year-old Paravur synagogue is that there is a separate set of steps which leads to the first floor. This was where the women prayed, while the men remained in the ground floor.

On the Sabbath, one prayer was conducted on the ground floor,” says Samson's wife, Artzi. “The other one was said on the balcony so that the women can hear it.” The priest took a flight of steps, at one corner of the hall.  

Another unusual feature is the large open courtyard in front of the synagogue. “This is an unique feature of Kerala synagogues,” says Samson. “There were also numerous lamps and chandeliers, which cost lakhs of rupees.”

Unfortunately, all the chandeliers and lamps have gone missing. “The building had been abandoned,” says Benny. “The doors and windows were broken. A thief came one night and took away all the chandeliers. But we have plans to restore all of them.”

Till that happens, when you look upwards, all you can see are the metal hooks on the wooden ceiling which were used to hold the chandeliers. But all around, on the walls, there are plaques which detail the history of the Jews in Kerala, as well as touchscreens which tell the story of the synagogue. So far, Rs 2 crore has been spent for the conservation works.

Meanwhile, what holds pride of place, near the entrance, is a replica of the copper plate, listing privileges, which was given by the King of Cochin, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, to the Jewish leader Joseph Rabban in 1000 AD. “Yes, the King welcomed us,” says Artzi, with a wide smile. “Many Jews were escaping persecution in places like Persia. And Kerala was one of the few places on earth which welcomed the Jews.”

Overall, there is an innate charm to the synagogue. Tourist Aleesha Matara feels peaceful and serene. “This is a beautiful space, and represents the rich inter-religious nature of Kerala's society,” says Aleesha. Adds Innat, an Indian-origin Jew, who lives in Israel: “To see the synagogue where my father and grandfather prayed is very exciting.”

Today, there are only two Jews living in North Paravur. All the rest have left. There are no prayers being conducted in the synagogue, because, according to Jewish custom, you need a minimum of ten Jews to conduct the service. “Once upon a time, there were more than a thousand Jews in Paravur,” says Samson, with a sad smile. 

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Native Touch

At the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth at Pune, the images of Mother Mary and Jesus Christ have been made to look Indian

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: The large mural behind the altar; Fr. Alex Gnanapragasam, the treasurer of the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth; Mother Mary in a Maharastrian saree 

Near the entrance of the post-graduate block of the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, a Christian Institute for Philosophy and Religions, at Pune, a surprise awaits the visitor. There is a statue of Mother Mary holding the Baby Jesus, but with a difference. She is draped in a sky-blue Indian saree, with a gold border.

This is a Maharastrian saree,” says Fr. Alex Gnanapragasam, the treasurer of the Vidyapeeth, which is run by the Society of Jesus. There is another innovation: Mary is standing on an open lotus. “The lotus is India’s national flower,” says Fr. Alex. “We wanted to combine the elements of Christianity and Hinduism, so that God can be better understood through one’s culture.”

Another statue, in the chapel, is of Mary wearing a Bengali-style pastel saree.

However, inside the chapel, what catches the eye is the large mural behind the altar. “Jesus is shown in the traditional Lasya dance of creation,” says Fr. (Prof) Dr. Noel Sheth, a Sanskrit scholar as well an Indologist, who is well-versed in several Indian religions. “The right hand is shown in the vyakhana mudra, the sign of teaching. And the left hand is in the dana mudra – the gesture of giving grace. The two ears of wheat at the bottom of the pipal (sacred fig) tree represent the Bread of Life and the Word of God.”

The other elements include green vegetation which indicates the earth; above it are waves of water. The light blue currents refer to the invisible air. The red flames represent the fire,” says Fr. Alex. “The circular yellow patch above the tip of the leaf points to ether, which cannot be seen or touched or felt.”

Jesus is shown leaning against a pipal leaf. The pipal tree has always been known as a place where one goes to meditate. “In fact, Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a pipal tree,” says Fr. Sheth. “This tree is sacred for Hindus as well as Buddhists.”
Interestingly, the person who made the mural is a Kolkata-based Hindu by the name of Subrata Ganguly who runs a firm called Church Art. “Art has no religion,” he says. “I have been involved with the work inside churches for the past 25 years.”

For the Vidyapeeth mural, it was his mother Gita Ganguly who drew the initial designs. “She is well versed in all religions,” says Ganguly.

The mural, which is 8 feet in height and 16 feet in width, is made of coloured ceramic chips. It was originally made in the firm's workshop in Kolkata and then transported in smaller parts by train to Pune. Thereafter, it was reassembled and mounted.

I have done similar work in other places,” says Ganguly. “At a seminary, at Barapani, near Shillong, Meghalaya, there is a mural of Jesus standing under a pine tree surrounded by people in Khasi and Garo headgear. Jesus is also portrayed as a Bhil tribal. We did this after an extensive research on the Bhils.”

In a church, at Ambapara, Rajasthan, there are scenes from the Bible on stained glass on the windows in the style of Indian art. “At the St. Xavier's College guesthouse chapel in Kolkata, Jesus is portrayed in a sitting position reminiscent of the Lord Buddha,” says Ganguly.

For the past several years, an Indianisation of the church is taking place. “The Catholic Church, during the Second Vatican Council in 1962, stated that more importance should be given to inculturation,” says Fr. Alex. “In other words, in Africa, there should be an African-looking Jesus, in America, an American-looking Jesus and an Indian-looking Jesus in India.”

In fact, the the original name of the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth was the Pontifical Athenaeum. “We changed it in 1972,” says Fr. Alex.

 Meanwhile, the reaction to the Pune images has been positive. “Everybody, whether it be lay people, priests or nuns have expressed their appreciation,” says Fr. Alex. “There is a desire among some of the faithful to Indianise the religion. But this is taking place more in rural areas, than in the well-established older churches in the cities.”

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"95 per cent of Indians suffer from sexual problems"

Says India's leading sexologist, Prakash Kothari

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

Rohinton Farzad, 46, and his wife Donya, 42, were in anguish. For 22 years, their marriage had not been consummated. Because of this, Rohinton was suffering from anxiety and depression, while Donya felt frustrated that she could not have children. The upper middle-class Parsi couple consulted many doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists. Finally, they were referred to the Mumbai-based sexologist Dr. Prakash Kothari.

Kothari was not surprised. “Two out of ten people do not know how to perform in bed,” he says. “That shows how poor sex education is in the country.”

After talking at length with the couple, he showed them a miniature plastic model of a couple making love. To his surprise, Kothari realised that Rohinton was straddling the hips of his wife. So Kothari showed him the right way. That night, the couple took a room in a five-star hotel, and followed Kothari's advice. It turned out to be good news.

Then Donya told Kothari that she wanted children. So Kothari explained to her about the monthly menstrual cycle, and suggested that the couple should try during the second and third weeks. “Amazingly, at such a late age, Donya became pregnant,” says Kothari. “She gave birth to twin boys!”

And every Diwali, for the past few years, the family goes to Kothari's house, with a box of sweets, and greets him. “I feel so happy when I see their joy,” says Kothari.

Kothari is one of the leading sexologists in India. And after four decades, he says that things are changing. “In the beginning, I did not see any female patients,” says Kothari. “Even when I opened the world's first outpatient department for sex at KEM Hospital, very few women would come. But today the pattern has changed.”

A young woman will call up and say, “Doctor, all my friends are enjoying sex, but I am not. Am I abnormal?” Or a lady will say, “Doc, you had better treat my husband. He is not performing well. Otherwise, I will walk out of the marriage.”

The most common problem for men is erectile dysfunction. “A man should realise failures are common, but that does not mean it is the end,” says Kothari. "As a result, they move from effective sexual performance, to varying degrees of impotence, because of one failure.”

To these traumatised people, Kothari gives the example of cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. “He scores a century in the first innings, then gets bowled out for zero in the second innings,” he says. “Does that mean Sachin cannot score a century in the next innings? He can. So I always emphasise the fact that failures are common but that does not mean an end to the sex life.”

Indeed, for some, there is no end, whatsoever. Kothari's oldest patient is a 90-year-old man. “He wanted to improve his performance,” says a smiling Kothari. “Since he had a testosterone deficiency, I gave him an injection.” Incidentally, this deficiency can be overcome by a diet which is rich in black gram and fenugreek seeds.

Kothari says, “Sex has no expiry date. It is disuse which leads to atrophy, and not the use.”

Interestingly, women, especially menopausal ones, also have problems. “Most women tell themselves that they have a reproductive, rather than a sexual desire,” says Kothari. “She will tell herself, 'I want a child, so I am indulging in sex'. But after menopause, this defense is no longer available. She cannot ask for sex, but wants it very much. So she gets worried, but feels shy to articulate her feelings.”

Sometimes, sex can be painful for a woman. However, there could be a physical reason: a deficiency of estrogen. So, Kothari recommends a diet, which is rich in soya bean, tofu, green vegetables and pulses.

Meanwhile, when asked for tips for an improved performance, Kothari says, “The four-letter word is TALK,” he says. “Communication is very important. You should find out the likes and dislikes of your partner. You must devote time for foreplay. There are plenty of erogenous zones in the body. The skin is the largest sensual organ. So touch is very important. If you kiss somebody, it is touch. If you shake hands, it is touch. If you console somebody, it is touch. And touch releases a hormone called oxytocin. This is a love hormone. It creates a sense of togetherness.”

Unfortunately, togetherness is declining. Rising incomes, the mobile and the Internet has led to a rise in pre and extra-marital affairs. “A flower in someone else's garden looks more attractive, especially when you ignore your own,” says Kothari. “But I would advise people to cultivate their own garden. The four pillars of a good marriage are honesty, affection, trust and love. An affair damages the marriage, when it comes to light.”

Incidentally, Kothari had come to Kochi to inaugurate a conference on sexology. He is frank enough to say that he has a lot of Malayali patients, from Kerala, as well as the Middle East. But after seeing more than 60,000 patients in a 45-year career, he admits that around 95 per cent of the people suffer from sexual problems. “But it can all be worked out and solutions can be found,” says Kothari. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Providing Solace for Society's Wounded

The Welfare Association Trust, near Aluva, looks after physically and mentally-challenged children and adults, as well as the poor and elderly 

Photos: Physical Educator Vijaya Suresh helps a mentally-challenged youngster, Antony, to throw a ball; a young girl. Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram  

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a sunny morning, Physical Educator Vijaya Suresh helps a mentally-challenged youngster, Antony, to throw a basketball. After a few tries, Antony is able to put the ball through the hoop. Just behind them, at West Veliyathunad, near Aluva, there is a large open-air auditorium, with an asbestos roof, where children are sitting around small tables. Some are drawing, with crayons, while others are playing a game with plastic cups. A small girl is writing numbers from one to 10.

One who looks physically imposing is the 34-year-old Reshma. “She weighs 110 kgs,” says VA Mohammed Iqbal, the Vice Chairman of the Welfare Association Trust (WAT). Inside a physical therapy room, 11-year-old Jishnu is walking slowly holding on to two parallel bars. “He suffers from muscular weakness,” says Iqbal. “We do a lot of need-based therapy.”

Next to him, in a wheelchair, is a paralysed youth, Rahul Rajan, 19. His mother, Salila, who is pushing the wheelchair, is employed as a nurse. “Since I work here, it makes it easier to look after my son,” says Salila, who has two healthy college-going sons. “It was complications during my pregnancy that resulted in Rahul being mentally and physically challenged.”

In another room, a group of students are making soaps, paper packets, napkins and phenol. These are packed and put on sale in the office. The staff also buy it.

In the women’s dormitory, there are abandoned wives, as well as old women whose children no longer want to look after them. The 80-year old Subaida Kanjiramattam says that she has a daughter in Munnar, but she never comes to meet her.

There was a girl, Naseema, who roamed around the streets and ate from the garbage in Erattupetta. Somebody brought her to the home. Her teeth were in decay, and her hair was dirty. “Now she is okay,” says Iqbal. “Her relatives come to see her now and then. If there are family functions, they come and take her.”

A few years ago, there was also a mentally challenged woman who had come from Karnataka. She got down from the bus at Aluva and hurt herself. The locals took her to the hospital. “After treatment, the doctors referred her to us,” says Iqbal. “She stayed at the home for a long while, before she died."

The WAT has been running a special school, an old age home for men and women, as well as a welfare village, nearby. “There is an area of 78 cents where we have built 14 houses,” says President Habeebullah. “Poor people are allowed to stay there, but the ownership remains with the Association.”

In another area, of one and a half acres, the WAT is giving three cents to each family but they will have to build their own houses. “Around 35 families will benefit,” says Habeebullah. “The preference is for those who are widows, or if the bread winner is paralysed, or if there are more girls in the family.”

To provide help, the WAT encourages people to send in applications. Thereafter, committee members form a group and go and meet each family. “We want to ensure that each case is genuine,” says Habeebullah.

Sometimes, they come across people who are in a precarious situation. Once, Iqbal went inside a house, near a canal, where during the monsoon season the water would gush into the house. “Inside, a man was lying paralysed on the bed, while his wife was blind,” he says. “They had a 14-year-old daughter and had no source of income. So we arranged to provide a monthly stipend so that they could meet their basic expenses.”

In another case, they saw that a mentally challenged boy was tied to the bed in chains. “When we enquired, the parents, who are labourers, said that they both needed to work, to make ends meet,” says Iqbal. “They did not have the money to get somebody to look after the child. Hence, they were forced to tie the boy up.”

Incidentally, it was a former Deputy Inspector General of Police, PK Mohammed Hassan who donated his family house as well as his property of two acres to the WAT. “Today, the house has become an old people's home,” says Habeebullah. “And Hassan's son, Dr. Mansoor is the chairman of the association.”

The Association depends on donations from people in Kerala and from Malayalis in the Middle East. “There is also the zakat and zadaqah tax,” says executive committee member Asif Komu. “All Muslims have to set aside 2 ½ per cent of their salary for charity.”

Asked the philosophical reason why these tragedies occur, Iqbal shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Sometimes, a mother suffers an illness during pregnancy, or there is a genetic disorder. We don't know how it happens. Even science cannot explain it. As to why the particular person or family has to go through this suffering, it is a mystery. Only God can give an answer. What we can do is to provide solace and comfort.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Man Of Many Talents

On a recent visit to Kochi, Prasoon Joshi talks about straddling advertising and Bollywood, his encounters with Sachin Tendulkar, and his tips for youngsters

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram: Prasoon Joshi at the Le Meridien, Kochi; in conversation with Sachin Tendulkar at the event at Kochi; with the writer 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Top advertising honcho and Bollywood writer Prasoon Joshi is tired, but elated, a few minutes after being an interlocutor during a public interaction with cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar at the Le Meridien, Kochi. This was during the silver jubilee meeting of the International Advertising Association, Indian chapter.

Whenever I meet Sachin, I always learn something,” says Prasoon. “One reason is because he has his feet firmly on the ground. And he truthfully answers the questions. Unlike many stars he never ducks difficult queries. He has the courage to be himself.”

Prasoon also had the courage to be himself. When he was growing up in Almora, Uttarkhand, he had an interest in writing poems and short stories. However, being from a middle-class family, once he finished his studies (M Sc. And MBA), he searched for a salaried job. “I knew that poetry would not fill my stomach,” he says. “But I always believed that we should do things that we are good at. Since I enjoyed writing, and realised that in advertising people would pay me money for ideas, I joined the industry.”

While he was working in advertising, Prasoon met film people who asked him whether he could write lyrics or scripts. “All this happened by accident and then I embraced it,” he says.

And this embrace has made him a success in both. Prasoon is Chairman, Asia Pacific, of the McCann World Group, as well as CEO and Chief Creative Officer of the India office. And he has made several memorable ads including the ‘Thanda Matlab' Coca Cola campaign. “That line is still alive in the minds of people,” says Prasoon.

In his lyric-writing career, he has penned the songs for films like 'Fanaa', 'Rang De Basanti', 'Taare Zameen Par', and the iconic 'Baag Milkha Baag', for which he wrote the story, screenplay and dialogues. Prasoon has won National Awards for his lyric writing as well as a Padma Shri for Field Art in 2015. And in 2014, Prasoon became the first Asian to be the Chairman of the Cannes Titanium Jury.

As a result, he is a keen judge of national and international advertising talent. “We don't have any dearth of talent, but advertising is a Western concept,” says Prasoon. “We did not have a culture of branding. We are strong in spirituality. We have invested in the mind, and in trying to understand the meaning of life. Buddha was not built up as a brand. We believe in the organic development of things. We did not believe something has to be masterminded or controlled. It is a Western phenomenon.”

Nevertheless, being at the helm of the advertising industry has given Prasoon a keen insight about the trends these days. “We live in a distracted world,” says Prasoon. “People are spoilt for choices. They can go out and eat, or go to YouTube and watch something or see TV. Meanwhile, everybody wants their attention. So, it has become a huge challenge for advertising to hold the attention of the consumer.”

It is also a challenge for Prasoon to straddle both the advertising and film writing worlds. But he says that they are similar. “Both have ideas at the core,” he says. “Ads are short stories, too. However, the time you get in advertising is far less than what you get in a film. You have to be on air in two months. And it is also short-lived.”

On the other hand, for the script of 'Baag', Prasoon took two years to write it. “I had to do a lot of research,” he says. “Plus, I had limited time every day to write.”

When asked about his insights into Bollywood, Prasoon says that many superstars have a difficult time to stay connected to reality. “When they see themselves in the mirror they know that they have two eyes, a nose, lips and a mouth,” he says. “But when they step out in public, people come flocking towards them. So they think, 'There must be something unusual about me. Am I God? Maybe I am God?'.”

Prasoon has seen many people, like that. “If you disagree with them, they will say, 'What I am saying is right'. If you say, 'Why is it right?” they will reply, 'Because I am saying it'. People forget their roots. They forget they are mortals. They believe that they are the centre of the universe. When that happens, their relationship with people gets damaged. And they end up becoming a caricature of themselves.”

Prasoon’s conversation is peppered with insights like this. And his tips to youngsters who are setting out are also unique. “Be authentic,” he says. “Be what you are. You are unparalleled. You cannot model yourself on anybody. You have to find your true self, but to discover that you will have to go through a state of confusion. Confusion is the first step to clarity. Don’t be scared of it.”

And here's another tip: “It is very important to hone your talent. Because when the opportunity comes, there is no time to practise. You have to do your riyaz earlier. In one of Iqbal’s poems, he talks about a falcon which catches a prey, takes it up, and then drops it. Why does the falcon do that? That is a way of practising. So, when it becomes hungry, it does not make a mistake. Similarly, you have to be ready when the chance arrives.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, September 14, 2015

Everything Yummy About It

Nandini Das' idea of providing homemade food, through yummykitchens, has struck a chord among busy professionals in Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

One day, a man called Nandini Das, and said, “Maam, I am calling from the Kochi International Airport. My name is George Brody. I live in the US. My wife came across your website, [] and we are impressed. We need breakfast and lunch for the one-and-a-half months we will be in Kochi.”

And that is how Nandini began providing meals to Brody, a chairman of an IT company. Her USP is simple: she provides home-made food made by ordinary housewives who have a passion for cooking.

So, if you want Punjabi food, it will be made by a Punjabi homemaker. The same is the case for Malayali, Gujarati, Jain and other types of cuisine.
Among her collaborators is Geetha Shenoy, a retired Assistant General Manager of a nationalised bank. “I love cooking,” she says. “And it keeps me engaged.”

Nandini has told her eight-member team that the only way people will come back is if quality is maintained. “Thus far, we have 90 per cent repeat customers,” she says.

Her initial target was the IT crowd. She felt that since both husband and wife are working, they would like to eat home-made food. “But now most of the calls are from elderly couples, whose children are living abroad,” says Nandini.

Another group is the floating population of North Indians who have come to Kochi on transferable jobs. “After a while, they crave north Indian food,” says Nandini. “They like dal thadka, vegetables, paneer, and chicken tikka.”

One fan is online writer Sindhu Deepak. “The charm of the dishes is that it feels like food prepared in our own kitchen,” she says. “There is less oil and flavouring.”

Nandini also has an irresistible one-liner which makes it difficult for customers, especially working women, to say no. “I always tell them that having my food is cheaper than paying a maid,” she says. Indeed, the prices range from Rs 50 to a maximum of Rs 145.

So far, she has a menu of 120 dishes. One of the popular items is a Konkani sweet dish called the Jambul. “It is made of semolina,” says Nandini. “This is cooked in a mixture of milk, water and sugar. Following that, it is ghee-fried. Then it is coated in sugar syrup, with sprinklings of cardamom.”

And thanks to the multi-cultural nature of our society, the Malayalis are eating Punjabi and Gujarati dishes, and sometimes, the North Indians have the Malayali menu. “Within a family, the parents will have a South Indian thali, while the children will have the Punjabi menu,” says Nandini.

To have breakfast or lunch, Nandini prefers if the orders are given the night before. “We take the same amount of time, as any housewife,” she says. Once the food is ready it is delivered to the home through a special delivery team.

At Sindhu's home, in the suburb of Vennala, she has ordered food for her guests. And it arrives promptly at 12.45 p.m., in plastic containers, by two young men, who are wearing white T-shirts and red caps.

The food consists of rotis, baigan ka bartha, Dahi Wala chicken, chana and boondi raita. The dessert is a mouth-watering kulfi. The food is simple, but the taste is delicious. “Nandini told me that the home-makers are not making these dishes to make money,” says Sindhu. “They have a joy in cooking.”

And it is a joyful period for Nandini as her business picks up steam. A home-maker, she felt a vacuum when her daughter Krishna got married. Her son Achuth Govind is in Class 12, while her husband is busy in his IT business.

One day, while reading an article about a Bangalore-based entrepreneur, who started a business in homemade food, by collecting extra food from housewives, it struck Nandini that she could tweak the idea and provide a menu-based home-cooked food in Kochi.

And what has helped is the catchy name for the venture. “The name Yummykitchens was given by my son,” she says, with pride in her voice. “My future plans include expanding the business to other parts of India.”

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

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Alone and Together

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 
Sasikala talks about life with the politician N. Venugopal

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram
By Shevlin Sebastian
In the early 1980s, every now and then, Sasikala would see N. Venugopal, the Congress politician and current chairman of the Greater Cochin Development Authority. He would drop in to her house at Palluruthy to meet her father, Vishwanathan Menon, a leader of the party.
After a while, Venugopal's family sent a marriage proposal. “My father liked Venugopal a lot, so he had no objections,” says Sasikala. “But I had a negative view. I felt that he was a bit harsh. He rarely smiled or laughed.”
Sasikala told her father that she did not know whether Venugopal's silent behaviour was suitable for somebody like her. “I am an outgoing person, who laughs and smiles a lot,” says Sasikala. “My father said that just because he does not smile, does not mean that he is not a good person. He told me Venugopal did not have any bad habits.”
So Sasikala said yes. The marriage took place on September 10, 1983, at Mattancherry Town Hall. But for Sasikala, the unforgettable experience took place after the event. When they went to his home at Panayapally, near Fort Kochi, Venugopal told his wife that, next morning, he would be going for a 16-day camp for politicians. Since his parents had died early, there was only Venugopal's brother and his wife for company.
I felt very lonely,” she says. “In fact, I cried many times during those two weeks.”
Incidentally, before he left, Venugopal promised Sasikala that when he returned, he would take her to Kashmir. “That trip is still to take place,” says a smiling Sasikala at her home in Kochi.
Nevertheless, Sasikala is a fan of her husband. “He is a loving and caring husband,” says Sasikala. “He has given me a lot of freedom. Whenever I asked for something Venugopal has said yes. He knows I can be absent-minded. There have been many occasions when I have cut or burnt my fingers, while working in the kitchen. So when I am doing the cooking, from 11.30 a.m. onwards, sometimes, he will call and say, 'Be careful about the gas'.”
One reason for Sasikala's absent-mindedness is because she is a writer. She has written the lyrics for 60 songs, including the recent Jayasurya starrer, 'Jilebi'. “After our marriage Venugopal told me that he did not have a problem in me having a writing career,” says Sasikala. “But he would not accompany me to the studios. I was okay with that.”
As for his negative points, the primary one is of absence. “Because he is a politician, he is hardly ever at home,” says Sasikala. “If I call him, on the mobile, he will say he will call me later, but will forget to do so.”
For Sasikala it has been a learning experience, to be the wife of a politician. In the early years, when her husband would be attacked in the print media and the television channels, she would get extremely upset. “I would get a migraine headache, and take pills to calm down,” says Sasikala. “My husband said, ‘This is politics, a game. Don't take pills and damage your health’. Now I don't get angry at all.”
For Sasikala, her enduring happiness has been that Venugopal has allowed her parents to live with her. “Most husbands would have said no,” she says. “Not once has he complained about this arrangement.” Her father died a few years ago, but her mother, who is 80 now, continues to live with her.
The couple have two children, Vignesh and Lakshmi. While Vignesh, who has a MBA, runs the popular DYU Art Cafe in Bangalore, Lakshmi, who has a doctorate in economics, lives in the same city, and is the manager of several music bands.

As father, Venugopal has been soft. “He would always say yes to whatever they wanted,” says Sasikala. “However, in the earlier years, the children missed the presence of Venugopal a lot. It was I who took them for films and outings.”
But Venugopal has been making amends. Last year, the family went to Malaysia and Hongkong for a holiday.
When they were in Kuala Lumpur, Venugopal would get calls all the time. “So the children and I begged him to take the important ones and avoid the rest so that we could enjoy our holiday,” says Sasikala. “He has a habit of taking every phone call, whether it is at midnight or the early morning.”

It was while they attended a laser show at Kuala Lumpur that Venugopal got the idea to replicate it in Kochi. “It is now a popular show at the Rajendra Maidan,” says Sasikala.
Asked whether her husband has changed over the years, Sasikala says, “Earlier, if I spoke ten words, he would say one in return. But now he talks a lot more, and tells me about what is happening in his career.”
Of course, for Sasikala and the family, the biggest disappointment took place when Venugopal was slated to be Mayor of Kochi in November, 2010, but, at the last moment, the post was denied to him. “We were all very upset,” says Sasikala. “But my husband told me later that in politics, anything can happen.”
Finally, regarding tips for a successful marriage, Sasikala says, “Give freedom to your husband. Don't nag him. Don't be suspicious. We must trust our spouse. Secondly, it is important to adjust to all types of situations And, lastly, learn to make good food all the time. Husbands love that.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Trying to heal body and soul

Dance Therapist Andrea Rios talks about her experiences in Kochi and Bangalore

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the August 15 Independence Day celebrations at the St. Joseph's College, at Bangalore, dance therapist Andrea Rios, from Spain, was having an enjoyable time with a group of girls. She took photos, played games, watched a cultural programme and laughed a lot. “Thereafter, we had lunch together,” she says. Suddenly, in the midst of all the fun, Preethi (name changed), an eighteen-year-old girl came up to Andrea, and whispered, “Please take me with you to your country.”

Andrea was shaken and upset. “Preethi saw how free I was,” says Andrea. “She felt that she could enjoy the same kind of freedom in Spain. In India, society has boxed Preethi in. She is unable to express her personality.”

This is more so, because Preethi is a victim of sexual abuse. Through the NGO, Street Heroes of India (SOI), Andrea had come to Bangalore to impart dance therapy to these troubled girls, who ranged in age from 13 to 19.

Says Olga Martin, the founder of SOI: “Sexual violence often occurs in secrecy, which increases the victim’s sense of helplessness. The attacks on children's bodies can leave them with physical scars, but, more often, with psychological ones. They feel a sense of fear, shame, and self-blame. It can create a separation of the mind and body.”

But in dance therapy, girls are encouraged to get in touch with their bodies by making spontaneous movements. “It is not necessary for the patient to imitate the trainer,” says Andrea. “They can do whatever they want, as long as they can express themselves.”

When girls are hesitant, Andrea uses dance styles like contemporary or the Brazilian zouk. “Zouk is a dance which you do with a partner,” she says. “There is a contact with the body, mind and spirit of the other person. In contemporary, you can connect with the essence within yourself. The objective is to unite the person's mind and body.”

While this is going on, Andrea does a bit of psycho-analysis. “By studying the movements, the use of space, breathing, and body configuration, I can get an idea of the past history of the girl,” she says.

Here is one past history: Sunita was about to get married off. But at the last moment, the boy called it off. The parents got very angry with their daughter. They felt she was at fault. So they abandoned her. “Suddenly, Sunita had no husband or family,” says Andrea. “She did not want to speak about it, but expressed her anger through a drawing. She drew a heart and filled it with angry images.”

When asked to compare the troubled girls in Valencia and Bangalore, Andrea says, “In Spain, when girls are abused, they are able to go to the police, who will treat them sympathetically, or take the help of teachers and their families.”

However, in India, if a girl says she has been abused, the reaction is different. “It is like as if it is her fault,” says Andrea. “The attitude is, 'One more girl, nothing new.' There is a lack of seriousness and concern. Society tends to blame the girl and condemn her. She carries a sense of culpability throughout her life.”

Not surprisingly, rehabilitation takes time. “It varies from individual to individual, the type of trauma, the age of the person, and how intensely the patients have participated in healing activities,” says Andrea. “There are some girls who are able to express their feelings through words after doing a session of dance therapy. But this does not happen to everybody.”
After the Bangalore stint, Andrea came to Kochi and conducted a two-day workshop for social workers, nuns, teachers and counsellors.

Thus far, it has been a learning experience for Andrea. And it happened rather accidentally. One day, the idea occurred to her to do psycho-social projects in different areas of the world. “I wanted to understand hows the mind works in various countries,” she says. So Andrea searched the Internet and came across SOI. She got in touch with Olga, who asked for Andrea's resume, and enquired about her interest in India.

Eventually, Andrea passed Olga's scrutiny. “It has been so wonderful to be in India,” says Andrea, who is a well-studied professional. Apart from a degree in clinical psychology from the University of Valencia, Andrea has got a masters in the behaviour of children and teenagers, a masters in emotional intelligence and expressive arts, another one on sexuality and sexual education, and a fourth one on dance from the professional conservatory in Valencia. Today, Andrea is working in a private centre of mental health at Valencia. And she is only 24 years old.

Please don't call me a superwoman,” she says, with a laugh.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)