Friday, April 28, 2017

The End Of The Road

At a discussion on death and dying, at Fort Kochi recently, participants aired their fears and concerns

Photo: Dr. Suresh Kumar 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When yoga expert Nuthan Manohar saw a Facebook post mentioning a talk about dying and death, at Fort Kochi, she was keen to go. “I found the subject fascinating,” she says. “After all, every breath you take is bringing you closer to death. You need to think about it, because most of us live in denial of death.”

The discussion on death and dying was moderated by Dr. Suresh Kumar, one of the leading lights of palliative care in Kerala and the Founder-Director of the Institute of Palliative Medicine in Kozhikode, a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre. He is also a Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bradford, UK, as well as a Ashoka Fellow.

Interestingly, when Suresh asked the audience which death touched them the most recently quite a few, including Nuthan spoke about the death of animals.

Nuthan had two kittens, Hedley and Unda. She had taken them to a vet's clinic, for grooming. However, owing to the presence of infected cats, both her kittens contracted the parvovirus and died within days. “I couldn't understand why something so innocent and powerless had to die so painfully,” says Nuthan. “What was God’s role in this?”

Suresh is not surprised by Nuthan's reaction. When asked about the reaction of terminally-ill patients, Suresh says, “Many of them have questions about the meaning of their life. It is a time when they take stock. They think about the issues they want to settle before they leave. Sometimes, they think, 'Is it okay to die?' If a person is a young father, then it is a painful feeling that he will not be there, for his wife and children. Some will think, 'What will happen to my bank balance and all the possessions that I have acquired? What will happen to me in the afterlife?'”

There are other concerns, too. Do you want a life support system, or do you prefer to die at home? Do you want to be cremated or buried? Has it been discussed? “One participant said that her father did not want any rituals,” says Nuthan. “But after his death, this request was ignored by the family and all the rituals were done.”

Interestingly, very few people say that they are afraid of death. “They will call it a worry or concern,” says Suresh. “A fairly good percentage feels remorseful about certain things they did in their life. They want to make amends, although it may be late. They tell me, 'If I get another six months, I will do things differently'.”

Meanwhile, the good news is that, in terms of palliative care, Kerala is way ahead of the rest of the country. “Out of 1500 centres in India, 1300 are in Kerala,” says Suresh. “Kerala is one place where the common man is involved in the care of dying people.” Suresh is also running similar projects in Puducherry, West Bengal and Manipur, as well as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

Asked about his own experience at viewing death so often, Suresh says, “It reminds me of the fragility of life. It tells me that my time is limited. I will be taking the same path tomorrow or after a few years. It is only a matter of time. So, each moment counts. I tell myself, ‘When I die, I should have minimum things to regret’.”

As for what happens after death, a stoical Suresh says, “I don't believe anything happens after death. I am a non-believer. Life ends. That is all.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Obedient Snakes And Hyper-Active Monkeys

Cinematographer Saloo George talks about his experiences in the films, 'Kashmeeram', 'Thaniyavarthanam' and 'The Guard'

Photos: Saloo George taken by Melton Anthony; the poster of 'Kashmeeram'
By Shevlin Sebastian
For the film 'Kashmeeram', there is a fight between Black Cat commando Suresh Gopy and his team against a group of criminals at the back of a house.
The shoot was in Delhi. But try as they might, the crew could not get a house for shooting. Because it was during the days following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991. “There was enormous tension in Delhi,” says cinematographer Saloo George. “So, finally producer Suresh Kumar got in touch with his friend S Krishna Kumar, the Union Minister.” The latter agreed to the shoot although he said he would not be there, but his wife Usha would be present.
The shoot was at night,” says Saloo. “Soon, there were gun fights and bombs going off. After a while, without us realising it, the whole area was surrounded by police, who had automatic machine guns. They thought that the minister's bungalow was under attack.” Finally, Usha had to come out and tell the cops that a film shooting was taking place.
Suddenly, one of the assistants, Rony Shashi (name changed) decided to place the dummy guns in a car parked outside. As he was doing so, he was spotted by another group of policemen. “Rony was seconds away from being shot,” says Saloo. “Quickly, the production controller, who speaks Hindi, managed to explain the situation and resolve the issue peacefully.”
Another issue which was settled peacefully took place in the movie, 'Thaniyavarthanam' (1987), which stars Mammooty. The shoot took place in the 40-room bungalow which belonged to the family of Sreedevi, the mother of the late actress Monisha Unni. The actor's uncle, Unni stayed with his wife and two children in just four rooms. At the back of the bungalow, the canteen was put up. “One day, the cook came running,” says Saloo. “He said he cannot cook in the area because it was full of snakes. Unni immediately said there was nothing to worry.”
He went to the back, spotted the snake and said, “Gopalakrishnan, go away. Don't frighten these people. Let them work in peace.”

Amazingly, the snake looked up and left quietly. Unni had names for every snake in the vicinity. Another day, when another snake came, Unni said, “Ramakrishnan, stop being a nuisance. Go away.” And once again, the snake left.
Unni said that snakes will never attack you unless you try to kill it,” says Saloo.
That may be true, but not all are comfortable in the presence of snakes or animals. The shoot of 'The Guard' (2001) took place at the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Kalabhavan Mani was the star in the film. After the day's shoot was over, he was offered a room in a tree house. It was at a height of 30 feet,” says Saloo. “You climb a ladder, and, later, it is removed. Otherwise, certain animals could climb up.”
However, when Mani went to sleep, at about midnight, the flush started working on its own. Mani got up and checked the bathroom. There was nobody around. But he could see the water moving in the cistern. Mani tried to sleep, but the flush started working again. Soon, he could hear other sounds: the growl of tigers, the howl of jackals and the roar of elephants. Not surprisingly, Mani could not go to sleep. “Later, Mani began to sleep with us in the dormitory,” says Saloo. “The local guards later told us that sometimes monkeys entered the bathroom in the tree house and operated the flush themselves.” 

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

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Daughter Remembers

Uma Padmanabhan, the only child of the late artist KG Subramanyan, talks about her father. A month-long exhibition of his works is taking place at Kochi

Photos: Illustration of KG Subramanian by Sai Nath; Uma Padmanabhan; photo by Melton Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the father and daughter stepped out, after watching the circus, along with a Dutch piano teacher, it was snowing heavily. So they walked silently, the 10-year-old holding her father’s hand. After a while, even though the street was deserted, they managed to get a cab. They dropped the piano teacher at her residence before they headed home, to Lincoln Towers, in New York. “This is a fond memory of my early childhood,” says Uma Padmanabhan, the only child of the famed artist K G Subramanyan (1924-2016), who won the Padma Vibhushan in 2012.

Thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant, Subramanyan was spending the year, 1966-67, in America. So, Uma studied at a school in New York. And it was there that Uma realised that her father was an artist. “Appa was doing drawings on egg cartons,” says Uma. “He also did acrylic paintings, tapestry work and fibre weaving. I was seeing this for the first time.”

The Baroda-based Uma had come to Kochi to attend the inauguration of her father’s one-month long exhibition (till May 19) called ‘Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings’ at the Durbar Hall. There is a poignant look on her face as she gazes at her father’s work. “I enjoyed the animals that he drew,” says Uma. “He has also done portraits of me, but that is now with an art collector.”  

When her mother Susheela Jasra, an artist as well as a Gandhian social worker, passed away on February 28, 2005, it became Uma's responsibility to look after her father. So, she would spend two weeks with her husband in Mumbai and the rest of the month in Baroda. “Whenever I would come back, I would be amazed at the number of sketches and canvases Appa had done,” says Uma.

One reason for Subramanyan's prolific and varied output – paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics and illustrations – was because he led a disciplined life. Every day, after breakfast, he would enter his studio at 9.30 a.m. For the next several hours, he would work, before breaking off for lunch. Following a nap, he would return to the studio by 3.30 p.m. He stopped work at 5 p.m.

At night, he would do something or the other,” says Uma. “It could be either scribbling, or writing poems.”

Father and daughter would have long conversations. And he passed on to Uma his philosophy of life. “Appa told me to avoid gossiping or criticising people,” says Uma. “He should I should be friendly with everybody and help them.”  

Subramanyan, himself, had a helping attitude. When young artistes would come to the house, he would be friendly, co-operative and encouraging. And when they held their exhibitions, he would always attend them.

So, it is no surprise that the passing away of this artistic icon has left a vacuum in Uma's life. All the people who would come to meet Subramanyan, at their bungalow at Sama have stopped coming. They ring Uma up and promise to come, but none of them do. “The world is selfish,” says Uma. “It is more so in the art fraternity. People became friendly with my dad because they felt they could gain something. Most of them were not sincere.”

Meanwhile, recently, Uma went through a poignant moment. While cleaning a cupboard, she came across a brand-new saree that her father had bought her and which she had not used. “Tears started rolling down my face, as I remembered Appa,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, April 24, 2017

Highlighting Nutritious And Healthy Food

The book, 'First Food: Culture of Taste' focuses on traditional Indian food

Photos: Vibha Varshney (left) and Sunita Narain; the book cover. Pics by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning, the Kolha and Santhal tribals of Mayurbhanj in Orissa pluck chakedopaah (pennywort). Then they prepare a chutney and have it with their breakfast of watered rice. The tribal belief is that a few leaves a day enhances memory and checks body tremors among the old.

Meanwhile, members of the Lingayat community of Karnataka take the leaves of the narale (grape family) and make a chutney. Elderly people in the community believe that the chutney consumed once a year prevents cough and stomach infections and strengthens muscles and bones.

When food and nutrition consultant Sangeeta Khanna got married, she noticed her mother-in-law boil the leaves of the parijaat (night-flowering jasmine) to make kadha (a herbal mixture) to ease the pain in her joints.

These are examples from 'First Food – Culture of Taste', a stylish cookery book brought out by the Centre of Science and Environment (CSE).

The idea to do the book came up when reporters of 'Down To Earth' magazine, (a sister organisation of the CSE), would return from field trips and inform the editors about the varieties of food that they ate. “That's how we started working on the project more than a decade ago,” says book editor Vibha Varshney. “'Culture of Taste' is the second book in the 'First Food' series.” (The earlier book, published in 2013, was called, 'A Taste of India's Biodiversity').

But there was another urgent reason. “We want to revive India’s traditional culture of eating home-cooked food with seasonal ingredients,” says CSE Director Sunita Narain. “It was getting lost because we are losing the holders of that knowledge – our mothers and grandmothers. Our food today is getting 'multinationalised', 'industralised' and 'chemicalised'. In short, it is a McDonalidisation of food.”

The book has been divided into different sections: leaves, flowers, fruits, vegetables and seeds. “This is the pattern followed by rural communities. They consume all parts of the plant, like the leaves, flowers and fruits, as and when they became available. This method ensures the availability of food throughout the year,” says Vibha.

For example, in Dindori district of Madhya Pradesh, when tender pink leaves appear on the peepal tree towards the end of March the locals cook and eat it. Then during the spring season, everybody picks a leaf or two and chews it, because it strengthens the teeth. Later, the bark and the fruits are also consumed. “This is a method that urbanites can also follow,” says Vibha.

Meanwhile, when asked about the target readership, Vibha says, “It is for those who want to eat healthy food. This option is available in our Indian diet, but we have overlooked it. It is far more healthier and nutritious than the processed food that we eat now.”

Book Details

Title: 'First Food – Culture of Taste'

Publisher: Center for Science and Environment

Pages: 218

Price: Rs 950. 

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

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Dark Side Of Childhood

Director Jude Anthany Joseph has made a short film, which stars Mollywood star Nivin Pauly, and highlights the safety measures that children need to take

Photos: the short film; (From left: Directors Jude Anthany and Lal Jose, dubbing artist Bhagyalakshmi, Shobha Koshy,Chairperson of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and compere Shobha Vijayabhanu

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few months ago, Shobha Koshy, the Chairperson of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights was sitting in her office at Thiruvananthapuram. Suddenly, she looked out of the window and saw somebody who looked like Mollywood film director Jude Anthany Joseph. But she was not sure.

However, a couple of minutes later, her assistant came and told her, “The director of ‘Ohm Shanti Oshaana’ wants to see you.”

And when Jude told Shobha he wanted to make a film about child sex abuse, she felt very happy.

Shobha was talking at the launch of the seven-minute film, ‘No. Go. Tell’. The film starts with a group of girls playing in a park. Some are on the swings, while a few are on the sea-saw. Through the entrance, Nivin Pauly enters. The girls recognise him and they get all excited. He greets them as he settles down on a bench. Soon, the group sits on the grass in front of him.

There are certain parts of the body which no stranger should touch,” says Nivin. “These are the lips, chest, buttocks and between the legs.”

And he tells the children that they should learn to identify two types of touches: good and bad touches. When parents touch the child it is a good touch, but not a stranger. And when somebody does try, there are three safety measures.

One is so say No loudly, the second is to Go away from the person and the third is to Tell a trusted person like a parent, grandparent, or a teacher,” says Nivin. “If a stranger wants to give you sweets or ice-cream, or tries to show you some videos, you must walk away.” The film ends with a song by the children. And the all-India Childline helpline number 1098 is flashed on the screen. 

Earlier, Shobha had said that when you open the newspaper you are confronted all the time with reports of child sex abuse. “People ask me, 'Is this really true? Are there so many cases happening?',” says Shobha. “Unfortunately, I cannot compare with earlier times, because we don't have any statistics. But the difference today is that more people are speaking about the issue.”

To get an idea of the scale of the problem, the Commission has been collecting data for the past two years. “And the findings are disturbing.,” says Shobha. “The largest number of abuse does not happen with strangers. It happens within the family and the neighbourhood. It happens not just for girls, but boys, too.”

The best way, of course, is by creating awareness. “Children are the most vulnerable and yet they need to be sensitised,” says Shobha. “We, at the Commission, were quite excited when Jude came forward. They are people who can create a ripple in society.”

Director Lal Jose, who was present at the viewing, says, “Only by seeing the film did I understand the seriousness of the issue. But it is also very important that children receive the right kind of message. If there comes a point when a father cannot hug his child, because everybody is under a cloud of suspicion, it will be very sad. And I say this as a father of two daughters. But having said this, this is a really well-made film and we need more films like this to spread the message in our society.” Dubbing artiste Bhagyalakshmi also spoke.

'No. Go. Tell’ has been brought out by the NGO Bodhini, with a sponsorship from the Muthoot Pappachen Foundation. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

ISIS Slogans And Saddam's Poster

Director Mahesh Narayanan talks about his experiences in 'Take Off'
By Shevlin Sebastian
At Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates, in December, last year, the crew of 'Take Off' had placed black ISIS flags all over. This was to resemble a rebel-controlled area in Mosul, Iraq. The movie is about the ordeal of nurses in Iraq, in 2014, as ISIS battled to take over the country. In order to create a realistic atmosphere, slogans of the ISIS were painted on the walls.
We had a lot of Pakistani extras as Iraqi soldiers,” says director Mahesh Narayanan. “They were alarmed when they read the Arabic slogans. They thought that we were making a film showing the ISIS in a favourable light.”
They pleaded with Mahesh not to put them in any sort of trouble. They were all construction workers.
They did not understand that it was a fictional film which would be shown in South India,” says Mahesh. “Instead, they thought that I was making a hard-hitting documentary.”
Mahesh tried his best to convince the extras through his Arabic-speaking co-ordinators, but they remained unconvinced. In the end, they all left.
Then, somebody posted an image of the location on Facebook. The next day the police arrived. After all, it can be a cause for alarm to see ISIS flags in Ras al-Khaimah. Once again, Mahesh had to explain that it was a film set and had the necessary permissions. “It took me a long time to convince them about it,” says Mahesh. “But in the end, the police left.”
Mahesh himself almost fell into trouble. Last June, he had gone to Dubai to check out possible areas for shooting. At the immigration, when the officers checked his handbag, they spotted a book, 'Pakistan: Before And After Osama' by former Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Gul. “I did not know that it was banned in the UAE,” says Mahesh. “They have a long list of banned books. However, they handed the book back to me, but made a red mark on my boarding pass.”
But he had a stroke of luck. In his luggage he had some computer hard drives which carried a large amount of material on the ISIS. Thankfully, it is not easy to check a hard drive, so Mahesh was able to go in, without further problems.
As Mahesh talked in a cafĂ© in Kakkanad, Kochi, suddenly, four young men came up, sporting smiles. And then one by one, they shook his hand, and said, “We enjoyed ‘Take Off’ a lot. It was a good film.”
Mahesh smiled gratefully. After 52 films, as a noted editor, it was probably only now that he is being recognised in public. Soon, the youths left, and the conversation continued.
To recreate the city of Tikrit, the home town of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a 30ft tall flex poster had been made of the leader. “We wanted to use this as a cue to indicate to the audience that Tikrit was a place that belonged to Saddam,” says Mahesh. Incidentally, the real-life nurses worked in the Tikrit Teaching hospital, which was a stone's throw away from the Presidential palace. But the shoot was being held at Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad.
Before the cameras rolled, the art department people had placed the poster on the ground in order to clean it. Inadvertently, one of the assistants was standing on the face of Saddam Hussein, to wipe another part of the poster.
A few extras saw this and shouted, “Do you know who this person is?”
The assistant replied casually, “Yeah, I know, it's Saddam Hussein.”
Immediately the extras shouted, “Don't stand on his face. You should show respect. He was a prominent leader of Iraq.” 

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

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Rhythms Of Life

English teacher Lekha Nambiar has brought out an engaging collection of short stories

Photos: Lekha Nambiar. Pic by Melton Anthony; the book cover 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is not every day that one's debut collection of short stories can get a preface written by a noted writer. But the introduction to Lekha Nambiar's 'Mysterious Resonance' was written by none other than the award-winning writer M. Mukundan.

And this is what he wrote: 'These stories are written in English, but the author is a Malayalee. There aren't many female Malayalee writers writing in English. Though a debutante, Lekha's voice is to reckon with. When you have read all the stories in this collection, you will have a better understanding of the working of a woman's mind.'

This is indeed an engaging collection of stories, mostly, from a woman's viewpoint, but there are some interesting exceptions. In 'Umbrella', Lekha has written it from the point of view of an umbrella: 'It took around two weeks for the first customer to pick me up. I instantly hated his rough hands and lecherous eyes. He was so outrageously insensitive that when he carried me in his arms, his nails almost pierced my soft flesh'.

Most of the stories are just two or three pages long. And it is an easy read, with simple sentences and spare imagery.

Despite this spareness, she is able to convey a lot. In 'Mindscape, Lekha writes about two women friends, who set out on an outing towards a mountain and later, stop at a pond:

'They removed their clothes feeling no shame around their naked bodies. Like a pair of majestic swans, they skimmed on the glassy surface of the water. Kavitha wrapped her arms around Sukanya and both laced their fingers together. As the luscious unevenness of their flesh created soft ripples, they mutually adored their feminine grace. After swimming for some time, the girls walked towards the bank in a dreamy langour. In the baking heat, both exhausted each other with long caresses.'

This story is a celebration of the physicality of two females, and an exploration of feminine sensuality,” says Lekha. “In fact, those who read it told me there is a lesbian touch to the story, although I was not aware of it when I wrote it.”

Sometimes, she gets her inspiration from real life. In 'Agony', Lekha has written about a woman who is married to a man who speaks very little, while she is talkative. “This is a similar experience of a good friend of mine,” says Lekha. “That is her agony. It is an unrequited love. So I made it into a story but I used my imagination also.”

The 18 stories have been divided into three sections: 'Nuances of Love'; 'Some Existential Affairs' and 'Strands of Reminiscence'.

The last section is autobiographical. These include memories of her dance teacher, college mates and friends, as well as amusing encounters with her own grandmother.

Here is an extract:

'After about a year when I went to see my grandmother, she gathered me to her breasts and softly murmured into my ears.

Give me some poison.”

With a shudder I sprang up and burst out, “What? Poison!”

With a glint in her eyes, she replied, “Yeah.... that perfume you gave me last time.'

Incidentally, Lekha took five years to write the book. That is because she has a full-time job as an English teacher at the Jama-Ath Higher Secondary school at Thandakkad, near Perumbavur. Whenever she would find time, Lekha would scribble something. The end result is a promising debut.

The book, priced at Rs 195, has been brought out by Authors Press and is available on Flipkart and Amazon. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hiding In Plain Sight


Director Leo Thaddeus talks about his experiences in the films, 'Oru Cinemakkaran', 'Payyans' and 'Pachamarathanalil'

Photos: Leo Thaddeus; Rajisha Vijayan (left), Vineeth Sreenivasan and Leo Thaddeus on the sets of 'Oru Cinemakkaran'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 9 a.m., on a hot day in March, a man stood at the side of the main road outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium at Kochi. None of the daily commuters recognised him. That was because he had tied a handkerchief around his face and kept only his eyes free. Soon, there was an all-clear on the walkie-talkie. Vineeth Sreenivasan quickly took off his handkerchief and set off on a run towards a parked motorcycle. He stops and runs back.

By the time, the people realised it was Vineeth, the shoot was over.

This scene was for 'Oru Cinemakkaran', directed by Leo Thaddeus, in which Vineeth plays Alby, as aspiring film-maker who is the son of a priest.. But not all the shoots were this smooth for Leo.

For the same film, they were shooting in the market at Broadway, Kochi. There was a scene when a boy, (played by Prashant, a debutant), snatched Vineeth's mobile phone and ran towards Marine Drive.

On the Drive, a car was supposed to come from the opposite side, at 80 kms per hour, brake immediately and the vehicle was supposed to do a 360 degree turn, in front of Prashant. Sand had been sprinkled on the road, to ensure this happened. The driver was stunt expert Jolly Master, who has worked in more than 750 films.

So Prashant ran very fast, followed by Vineeth. “However, when Jolly Master braked and turned, the bonnet hit Prashant on his arm. He felt shocked, but, thankfully, nothing serious happened.”

But what made Leo get heart palpitations was when he noticed, at the last moment, a scooter travelling right behind the car, with a father and two school-going children. But, thankfully, the man braked in time, waited for the car to go completely around, and then coolly drove past. “That was a very nervous moment for me,” says Leo.

There were other nervous moments too. Ultimately, Prashant was caught by the people and was given a mock-thrashing by members of the crew. However, some of the bystanders, including the workers and shop staffers, at Broadway, got so carried away, that they came running up and actually hit him. A shocked Prashant fell to the ground. “I felt sad but only after I said, 'Cut'," says Leo. "Before that, I was busy trying to capture this realistic scene.”

Meanwhile, in 'Payyans' (2011), there was a moment when Lal, who plays a Navy officer, was shot at by a LTTE operative. Lal was supposed to fall 20 ft backwards into the sea. The shoot was at Tuticorin. Leo was hesitant to ask Lal to do the stunt. So, he was thinking of getting a stunt double. But to his surprise, Lal offered to do it himself. “I was amazed,” says Leo. “There was no need for such an esteemed director to take the risk himself, but Lal Sir did it without any complaint.” And the shoot went through smoothly.

Another actor who impressed Leo was the Tamil thespian M. Nassar. During the shoot of Leo's first film, 'Pachamarathanalil', in the interiors of Pollachi in 2008, there is a confrontation between Nassar and Vinayakan. But the shoot continued till 2 a.m. However, during the gaps in the shooting Nassar kept himself occupied in an unusual way.

He had collected charcoal stones and did a large surrealistic drawing of a girl on the wall of an unused godown. “It turned out to be a magnificent drawing,” says Leo. “I was impressed by how Nassar Sir diverted his energy in a useful way. Plus, he had such a natural talent.” 

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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Making Works Of Beauty

Architect Tony Joseph was recently selected to be in the top 50 of the most influential architects in the Indian sub-continent. He talks about his career
By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Xandari Harbour; the Vythiri Resort and Tony Joseph 

Architect Tony Joseph is dressed in a laid-back manner: a loose black shirt, black jeans and shoes. But the award he received at the Grand Hyatt, Mumbai, on March 31, was anything but laid-back. Tony received a prize for being among the top 50 most influential architects and designers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

A week earlier, Tony's firm 'Stapati' had also won a national award for excellence in hospitality and recreation by the Indian Institute of Architects for their work on the Xandari Harbour hotel in Mattancherry.

At the old town of Mattancherry, with its run-down godowns and narrow streets, Xandari fits in seamlessly. This is, no doubt, helped by the unobtrusive entrance. It is a large wooden door, which had belonged to one of the traditional houses of yore.
We wanted to retain the colonial fabric of the area,” says Tony. “However, we did not want a project that was all about restoration. We wanted to use the materials of today, like steel and glass.”

So, in the large restaurant, which is actually a converted warehouse, a lot of steel and glass has indeed been used. “We used bigger spans, so that the view of the harbour could be wide and clear,” he says.

The Xandari Harbour is one of the numerous projects that Stapati has done. The others include the still-famous Kumarakom Lake Resort, Rainforest At Athirapally, Vythiri Resort, Wayanad, Brunton Boatyard at Fort Kochi, the Enchanted Island Resort in the Seychelles, and many others. Thus far, the firm has executed more than 200 projects in India, the UAE, and the Seychelles.

And he has some ardent fans. Says leading international architect Christopher C. Benninger, “Stapati's creations are spiritual precincts, not mere locations or destinations. They are catalysts for self-discovery, not canned products like a 'five-star hotel'. Each design derives itself from its natural context. Each retreat is inspired by its organic setting, from which it emerges from the earth.”

The popular Vythiri resort also seems to have emerged from the earth. “Since it was a forest setting, we used the local mud, earth blocks, wooden roofs and tiles,” says Tony. “In all my projects, we try to have as much of the area as non air-conditioned. In Vythiri, there is no air-conditioning at all.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the meaning of Stapati, Tony says, “It is a Sanskrit word which means master craftsman or architect.”

Stapati was set up in 1989, and today, there are offices in Kochi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Kozhikode. A few years ago, Tony made a change in his business model. He opted to have partners and associates. “If the firm gets larger, it is difficult to give individual attention to clients,” says Tony. “But if you give ownership to others, we can retain that. That is why I opted for partnerships.”

However, this happens rarely. “Usually, the business is passed by the owner to the next generation,” says Tony. “But what happens is that the firms tends to die out. So I changed it, in order to remain successful.”

Asked about the qualities needed to be a successful architect, Tony says, “You need to have passion for your work. Talent contributes 25 per cent, the rest is sheer hard work. You also need interpersonal skills – the ability to understand and get along with people.”

Finally, regarding global trends in architecture, Tony says, “There is an urgent need for sustainable and environment-friendly architecture. The resources of the planet are finite. If you destroy the environment, nothing will be left.”

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Serving The Faithful

The Pastoral Orientation Centre, at Kochi, has celebrated its golden jubilee recently. A look at its activities

Photos: Staff and visitors at the Pastoral Orientation Centre, Kochi; the inside of the chapel. Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent morning, at his office at the Pastoral Orientation Centre (POC) at Palarivattom, Kochi, director Fr. Varghese Vallikkatt received a visitor.

His name was George James (name changed). In his early thirties, George was out on bail, after spending five years on a murder charge.

“George told me that he had been falsely accused,” says Fr. Varghese. “Now the woman who said she was a witness to the murder has recanted her statement during the ongoing trial. There is a good chance that he will be set free.”

George said that he had become more spiritual in prison. After speaking for a little while George left. “Many people who come to the POC feel a sense of peace,” says Fr. Varghese.

The POC has been in the news because it celebrated its golden jubilee recently. The centre houses the representatives of the three main churches of the Catholic community, namely the Syro-Malankara, the Syro-Malabar and Latin rites. In Kerala, the Catholics comprise about 55 lakh people. “The POC has an important mission of bringing all the churches together,” says Mar Cardinal George Alencherry. Incidentally, it is also the secretariat of the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council.

The idea to set up the Centre came following the second Vatican Council (1962-65), which propagated the idea of the universal church being a community of individual local churches. And the Palarivattom POC got a big push by the late Cardinal Joseph Parecatill who was an ardent supporter of the Indianisation of the church.

At the centre, there are 21 Commissions, comprising priests and lay people, which look after subjects like justice, peace, development, education, family, bible, and the media. Apart from that, regular seminars and conferences take place.

“We discuss matters connected with our faith and the relationship with the larger society,” says Fr. Varghese. “What should be our contribution? And what should be our mission at this particular time?”

Sometimes, there are soul-searching discussions. “There have been recurring criticism about our work in education and health care, and of our institutions becoming commercialised and competing with others,” says Fr. Varghese. “We had a lot of discussions about our role. And we came to to the conclusion that all educational and health-care institutions should be part of our mission, where we should serve the poorest of the poor.”

Following the arrest of Fr Robin Vaddakumchiryil, the vicar of the St Sebastian church at Kottiyoor, on sexual abuse charges, there were deliberations on how to ensure a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults.

The POC is a good place to have talks thanks to its campus spread over four-and-a-half acres. There is a main administrative block, a chapel, a residential building for visiting Bishops and priests, a canteen, and a block for the womenfolk.

Interestingly, at the back, the priests are growing tomatoes, small gourds, cabbage, cauliflower and bananas. A gaggle of geese, turkeys and ducks can be seen, apart from hens, an emu and a Doberman. At one side, the POC and the Vediyoor Madom Temple share a wall, while on another, it is with the Madavana Panchamoorthi Temple.

Asked whether the increasing siege on minorities is a source of worry, Fr. Varghese says, “It is a challenging and difficult time, especially in North India. We are a peace-loving people, who have contributed much more to society than the size of our population. But we value as much the union and the solidarity with other communities.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)