Monday, July 30, 2018

Melting The Most Hardened Of Hearts

Dr Mathew Kuruvilla, of the NGO, Reach World Wide talks about their project of rehabilitating criminals 

Photos: Mathew Kuruvilla; P. Lalji. Pics by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It is a rainy July afternoon in Kottayam, Kerala. Standing outside his office of the NGO Reach World Wide (RWW), the founder Dr. Mathew Kuruvilla points at a canopy of trees, in translucent green that stretches hundreds of metres on the opposite side. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he says, with a smile.

Kuruvilla has plenty to smile about, apart from the beauty of nature. He is celebrating the tenth anniversary of RWW’s remarkable criminal rehabilitation programme. “More than 700 criminals have been saved,” he says. “They now lead straight lives, with a good family life and enjoy a peaceful sleep at night.”

The programme began rather accidentally. One day a woman, Anita, in Kuruvilla’s neighbourhood came and told him that when her husband Shibu would come home on parole, he would beat her up. So, Kuruvilla met Shibu in the jail and told him, “When your children grow up how will they describe you? Won’t they say, ‘My father is a criminal as well as a murderer’?”

It was a stunning opening gambit. Shibu grabbed Kuruvilla’s feet and said, “Sir, please save me.” Kuruvilla replied, “I will. Remember Shibu let us try to leave good footprints behind in our lives.”

And thus the programme began. The convicts are taught that when calls come from their former associates, they should politely say that they will call back and cut the call. “Most of the time when they start drinking they have a tendency to meet old friends,” says Kuruvilla. “This happens in the evening. So at that time, we conduct a lot of activities to divert their attention.”

Also, to convince them, RWW uses former prisoners as counsellors. The just-released prisoners listen far more carefully to former convicts,” says Kuruvilla. “Eventually, they feel emboldened to go down the straight path.” 

One man who did so was P. Lalji, a stocky forty-year-old. At the RWW office, he recounts a memory from his youth: it was a Good Friday afternoon. From a distance, Lalji saw Manoj. He moved forward and in one smooth movement, he swung the sickle on Manoj’s arm. 
Apparently, Manoj had attacked Lalji’s father regarding a debt and the son had taken revenge. 

In the end, Lalji used the sickle 30 times. Lalji was duly arrested and sent to jail. But there was nobody to come forward as a witness, thanks to Lalji's political connections. So, the case fell apart. Thankfully, Manoj survived. So, Lalji was freed after a few weeks.

But for the next sixteen years, Lalji went in and out of prison. “Many a time I did the dirty work of political parties, as a member of a gang,” he says. “Then people would give us money to harass and intimidate their rivals. It was easy cash, but there was no peace of mind. At night if I heard an unusual sound, I would wake up, my heart beating fast, imagining that it was an enemy coming to kill me or a policeman out to arrest me.”

In the end, Lalji got tired of this violent life. It was at this moment he met Ranjit Mathew, a staffer for RWW. “He told me that my life's path was not correct,” says Lalji. “Ranjit would come to my house often and talk to me. Slowly, I was able to break away from my criminal activities and my addiction to alcohol and marijuana.”

Good luck continued for Lalji. One day, a woman, Manju, who was working in Saudi Arabia heard about Lalji's story from a friend. Amazingly, she quit her job, came to Kottayam, met Lalji and said she would marry him. Lalji accepted the proposal and today they have two children, a girl, Abigail, 9, and a boy, Abhishek, 5. “God has been kind,” says Lalji. 

Incidentally, apart from prisoner rehabilitation, RWW also has programmes for women empowerment, feeding the hungry, building houses for the poor, and cleaning the environment. “We depend on donations for our works,” says Kuruvilla.

How it began

RWW began in July, 2004 because of a specific incident. One night, a local acquaintance Samuel Thomas (name changed) came to Kuruvilla for monetary help. Unfortunately, Kuruvilla did not have any money. This man had been a successful businessmen but his company had gone bust. 

Samuel began working in the same company which he had owned at Rs 150 a day. But the creditors would take whatever money he earned. Samuel told Kuruvilla he could not bear the sight of his children going hungry. The next morning Kuruvilla learnt that Samuel had committed suicide. “I decided then and there I would do whatever it takes so that nobody goes hungry,” says Kuruvilla.

He also had a personal experience of suffering. When Kuruvilla was 13, his father died suddenly of a heart attack. As the eldest child, the responsibility fell on him. “I had to look after my family which included eight members,” he says. “I went to school but in the evenings I worked as a door-to-door salesman. The rejections, the 'Get outs' that people shouted at me, it was all very painful. But, as a result, I understand keenly the pain of others.”

When ex-prisoners ask Kuruvilla, why they went through such harrowing experiences, the latter says, “If you don’t go through the pain of that situation how will you know the pain of others? How will you know the pain of rejection? I tell them they have now discovered their purpose in life.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Signs From The Universe

Director Jayaraj talks about his experiences in the films, 'Johnnie Walker', ‘Bhayanakam’, ‘Ottal’, ‘Vidyarambham’ and 'Kudumbasammetham'

Photo by TP Sooraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

The start of the shooting of the film, 'Johnnie Walker' (1992), took place in Bangalore. It was a time when there was trouble between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the sharing of the Cauvery waters. Many Tamil Nadu registration cars were set on fire.

Director Jayaraj was shooting a song called ‘Minnum Palunkukal’ inside Christ College at midnight. There were 1500 junior artistes present, which included a few Tamilians. “I was filming a stage show where Mammootty was singing,” says Jayaraj. “Soon, we heard that a mob had gathered outside the gates. They started throwing soda bottles and bricks. We could see this. It was a panicky situation.”

Jayaraj stopped the shoot. Mammootty was herded inside a room in the college, while security guards stood outside. “We called for police help,” says Jayaraj. “Thankfully, the protestors did not enter the campus.”

In the Pemandu hill, near Ooty, for the picturisation of the song, 'Poo Mariyil', for the same film, many buffaloes along with carts had been requisitioned. One evening, a young helper took a few buffaloes to the lake at the bottom of the hill to give them a wash. “Somehow, one buffalo gave him a kick and the boy slipped and fell into the water,” says Jayaraj. “And since he did not know swimming he drowned. It was a tragedy.”

Throughout the shoot, there were other disturbing events. There was a scene when Mammootty was supposed to be thrown off a bike at high speed. A stunt driver did the scene. “Unfortunately, when he fell from a height, he hurt himself,” says Jayaraj. “He had to be rushed to the hospital.”

Later, in Cubbon Park, there was a night scene where a group of youngsters were riding bikes. To stop them, several beer bottles were rolled across in a bid to stop them. Unfortunately, one bike skidded and it came and hit the camera and the rider was injured too.

Jayaraj pauses and says, “I am convinced there are negative forces in the universe.”

But there are positive forces, too. In ‘Bhayanakam’ (2017), there was a scene where Renji Panicker as a postman returns home when suddenly a stray brown dog accidentally enters the frame. “When I looked through the camera lens, it seemed appropriate,” says Jayaraj. “After the first scene, we gave the dog biscuits in the hope that he would stay. Instead, it vanished.”

There were four major scenes when the dog came in and it was always at the right time. “There was one scene when the postman is leaving his place and I felt the presence of the dog would be appropriate. And suddenly, it appeared,” says Jayaraj. “Later, I felt that Nature and some power in the Universe had helped me during the making of the film.”

In the film, ‘Ottal’ (2015), while on a location search, Jayaraj decided that if he spotted somebody who would suit the role, he would select him. One day, next to a river, he saw a man rowing a boat. “And I immediately realised that he would be suitable to play the grandfather’s role,” says Jayaraj.

This film is about a young boy and his relationship with his grandfather. The boatman’s name is Kumarakom Vasudevan. He is a fisherman in real life and ended up playing the role.

These accidental discoveries were there from the start of Jayaraj’s career. “In my debut film, ‘Vidyarambham’, I wanted to place a school against the backdrop of a few hills,” he says. So, he along with a few crew members travelled around in Palakkad for several days. But they could not find what they were looking for.

However, one day, in Muttikulangara, Jayaraj was going down a road, when he spotted a narrow lane. He asked the driver to turn into it. “It led us to the perfect location I had in my mind,” says Jayaraj. “I was shocked. I now firmly believe what the author Paulo Coelho had once said: ‘When you want something, all the Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it'.”

Sometimes, the Universe also gives an advance warning. In the film, 'Kudumbasammetham' (1992), the climax was supposed to take place at the Thyagaraja Aaradhana Temple at Thiruvaiyaru. But the authorities for various reasons did not allow the shoot to take place. Monisha Unni had a role in it.

“While the arguments were taking place, we had taken shots of Monisha as she had to leave to Chennai the next day to catch a flight to Dubai for a programme,” says Jayaraj. “In fact, her last dialogue was 'I don't have the luck for anything'.”

Unfortunately, two weeks later, on March 5, 1992, Monisha died in a car accident at Cherthala. “When I heard the news, I immediately remembered her last dialogue,” says Jayaraj. “It seemed as if the Universe was telling us something. It was almost like a farewell.”

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

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Flowering Under A Genius

Shashaa Tirupati, the Indo-Canadian singer, who has just won a National Award for Playback Singing, talks about her career in singing South Indian songs and her association with music maestro AR Rahman
By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the Reliance music studio in Mumbai, Oscar winner AR Rahman was playing the piano. A group of six girls were singing along. They had come for the audition for Rahman's show in the Coke Season 3 programme. Suddenly Rahman stopped playing and said, “Which one of you is Shashaa [Tirupati]?” There was a pin-drop silence. “It was a heart attack moment for me,” says Shashaa. “I thought he would not select me.” Shashaa raised her hand. Rahman looked at her and then looked away. 

Later, during a break, Shashaa asked Rahman whether she had performed badly. He said, “Oh no. Actually, one of my assistants played me your work and I feel your voice sounds like a musical instrument.”

At that point, Shashaa did not know whether it was a compliment or not. But a month after the shoot, Shashaa got a call from Rahman's studio in Chennai. “He wanted me to sing for one of his songs,” says Shashaa in her hotel room at Kochi, where she had come to take part as a member of Rahman's troupe at a show last month. 

There was an easy smile on her face when she says this. Of course, Shashaa has plenty to smile about. Recently, she won the National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer for the Tamil song 'Vaan Varuvaan', which was composed by Rahman. And she remembers clearly what Rahman had told her when she received the award. “He said, 'Don't let these awards and accomplishments be the governing factor in what you do',” says Shashaa. “Mr Rahman wanted me to remain focused on the singing. And that is a beautiful wisdom.” 

Incidentally, apart from singing several songs in Tamil for Rahman, Shashaa is also adept at singing in Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Punjabi, Konkani Bengali English and Hindi. Some of the songs have done well. The 'Humma Song' from the Hindi film, 'OK Jaanu' was one of the highest ranking songs on YouTube and was viewed more than 200 million times. 

This is a career which Shashaa could not have envisaged when she was growing up in Vancouver, the child of Indian immigrants. Her parents loved Hindi music, so Shashaa listened to songs from the 1950s to the 70s.

One day when she was five years old, she sang Lata Mangeshkar's 'Jao Re'. “My mum was like, ‘What?!’” says Shashaa. “She ran and called my father. My dad was also shocked. Then they decided I should get proper training.”

So, from the time she was eight years old, Shashaa was taken to India during the vacations and studied classical Hindustani music. However, there were several years of struggle before she got the breakthrough with Rahman....

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

Monday, July 23, 2018

A Symbol Of Hope And Pain

Kashmiri artist Insha Manzoor's installation at Fort Kochi takes inspiration from the fishermen of the backwaters

By Shevlin Sebastian

As the visitor stepped into the first-floor hall at the Pepper House at Fort Kochi, he was immediately struck by the installation placed in the middle. It was shaped like a large barrel, with pieces of fluffy cloth surrounding it. It looked like snowflakes, but it was actually a fishing net.

The other materials used included floaters, translucent fabric as well as fishing hooks. Within the installation, there was a boat in multi-coloured sheaves of cloth.

High up, the ceiling had blue lights. It gave off a feeling of tranquility and apprehension at the same time.

The 30' x 10' installation is called 'Trapped, not defeated'. “This is a symbol of my own psyche,” says the Kashmiri artist Insha Manzoor. “I feel trapped by the memories and emotions and the conflicts which are taking place in Kashmir.”

Asked why she tied up the net in knots, at different places Insha says. “When we go to sacred places in India, people tie knots with thread and fabrics on the windows of the holy structure. My mother also used to put a knot in her saree. It is a symbolic sign of wishes that have not been fulfilled. So, the knot is a symbol of hope, as well as pain.”

As people gaze at the work, soft meditative music can be heard on the sound system. Soon, the clear voice of Insha can be heard as she recites a poem:

'There’s a light that shines in the darkness.
There’s a destiny waiting at the end of the road.
There’s meaning in the middle of this emptiness.
There’s a reason you’ve been asked to carry this heavy load.'

This is a poem written by the American poet Justin Farley,” says Insha, who also recited a few lines from the great Persian poet's Rumi's book of poems, 'Masnavi 1'.

Insha did not have to go far to seek inspiration for her work. Serving a one-month residency given by the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Insha would come to her studio on the first floor of Pepper House. When she gazed out of the window every morning and evening, she would see the fishermen do their work in small boats in the backwaters.

It made me feel nostalgic as I remembered the shikharas (houseboats) on Dal Lake [in Srinagar]. Boats, for me, are a metaphor about the journey of life,” she says.

Even as the 26-year-old is adept at making installations, Insha also works in mixed media, acrylic, fabric, textiles, threads, and beads. She also makes videos on different subjects. “My themes reveal a desire for hope and a world without conflict,” she says.

And she is a precocious talent. At age 13, Insha, who is originally from Mattan in Anantnag district, held her first exhibition. Thus far, she has held numerous solo and group exhibitions. She has done a four-year course in Fine Arts from the Institute of Music and Fine Arts, Jammu University.

Insha also did a two-year Master’s degree of Fine Arts (Painting) at Visva-Bharati University at Santiniketan. “It was while staying there I came across many international artists and their works,” says Insha. “It was an eye-opener for me.” At present, Insha is doing a Double-Master’s degree in painting at the Royal College of Art London. She got entry by availing of a career development loan from JK Bank as well as a grant of Rs 20 lakh from the Kashmir government.

Meanwhile, at Kochi, when she would tell people that she is from Kashmir, their eyes would widen in wonder. “They told me that Kashmir is a paradise on earth, and I would agree,” says Insha. “Then they asked me about the problems that are taking place and I would talk about that. It was heartening that many showed empathy for our difficulties.” 

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

Saturday, July 21, 2018

All Things Bright And Tasty

Chef Sanjeev Kapoor talks about his passion for food even as he inaugurates ‘The Yellow Chilli’ restaurant at the Lulu Mall, Kochi 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was their last shopping trip at the Lulu Mall, Kochi before Shyama from Chandigarh and her friend Insha from Jammu boarded the flight to Delhi. As they wandered around the Food Court, they suddenly saw celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor giving an interview in front of 'The Yellow Chilli' restaurant. They got very excited. Since the entrance was barred with a red rope, they called out to a manager who said he would not be able to interrupt the interview. But they replied that they had a flight to catch. 

Thankfully, through the corner of his eye, Sanjeev saw them and waved for the duo to come over. They rushed up and shook the chef’s hand. Then they told him they were regular visitors at his Yellow Chill restaurants in their states. Selfies were taken with Sanjeev and the pair left with happy smiles on their faces.

It showed grace on Sanjeev's part. He had come to Kochi to officially inaugurate the restaurant on July 9. But the restaurant had a soft launch in November 2017. “It is doing very well,” says sales manager G. Anil Kumar. “Our clientele consists of North Indians who live in Kochi as well as many affluent Malayalis. We also have many Mollywood stars like Asif Ali as our customers.”

The food is North Indian: paneer tikka, sarson ke saag, murgh malai kofta, fish tikka, tandoori pomfret, green chilli chicken and mutton chops, among many other dishes.  

The reviews have been positive. Says a visitor Priyanka Bose: ‘The flavours are very Indian, earthy and simply delicious. I wanted to try more of the main course, so, feasted on the uber-popular Lalla Mussa Dal, Meen Moilee and Fish Caldine (satisfied my affection to fish, totally!), Prawn Hara Masala (must-try) with Lachcha Paratha and the fancy Tomato Cheese Naan.’

Asked whether 'The Yellow Chilli' is different in Kochi, as compared to the 70 other Chilli restaurants worldwide, Sanjeev says, “We don’t want it to be different. But we would also like to use local ingredients, because the food has to be fresh. However, some ingredients are used everywhere. For example, turmeric, which is supplied to our Santa Clara restaurant in the USA, in Mumbai and Kochi is probably from Salem.”

Interestingly, he says, there is a common taste all over the country. “India’s taste is khatta (sour), meeta (sweet), tikka (chilly) and namkeen (salty)," he says. “A combination of this can be seen across all states.”  

Sanjeev elaborates further: “Everybody uses the same chilly, turmeric, ginger and coriander. Only the proportions are different. You may use mustard oil in north India, while in Kerala it is coconut oil.” 

Sanjeev is also a fan of Kerala cuisine. “It is the birthplace of spices and has perfumed not only India but the world,” he says. “There is a lot of seafood, coconut and rice, as well as Malabar parathas. There is also a sweet pasta called aada, a mixture of jaggery and coconut.” 

The food of the Syrian Christians has Portuguese and Dutch influences. “Because of that it is unique, and has its own rich heritage,” says Sanjeev.

Sanjeev is one of India’s most famous chefs. His long-running TV show ‘Khana Khazana’ has been broadcast in 120 countries and has more than 500 million viewers. He also launched his own Food Food channel, in January 2011.

Asked the reasons behind his success, Sanjeev says, “You have to apply your skills, surround it with knowledge, have a great value system, which includes honesty. Don't harm anybody. Be disciplined, truthful, and think positively all the time.”

And you must take advantage of opportunities. “Opportunity knocks on the door for all people,” he says. “Some people open the door, while other's don't. Those who open the door have a better chance of success.”

Like most people, Sanjeev accidentally fell into a profession that he loves dearly. “I wanted to do something different,” he says. And unlike most people, he was successful from the very start. At the age of just 28, he won the Best Executive Chef of India Award given by the Indian Federation of Culinary Associations at an award ceremony at Geneva. He has also brought out many cookbooks. And in 2017, he was awarded the Padma Shri. 

Life is good,” he says, with a smile. 

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

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Playing A Drug Peddler


Actor Sudhi Koppa talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Aaadu’, ‘Sapthamashree Thaskaraha’, 'Anuraga Karikkin Vellam', ‘Manglish’ and ‘Paipin Chuvatile Pranayam’

Photo by Melton Antony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, actor Sudhi Koppa was told that a director was doing auditions at Ravipuram, Kochi. So he presented himself. But after performing a bit, the director Ajeesh Kumar (name changed) said that he did not suit the character. So Sudhi went away. Then a friend called and said that an audition was taking place in Thiruvananthapuram. “So I went there and discovered that it was Ajeesh,” says Sudhi. “He said, ‘I told you are not suitable.” Sudhi apologised and said that he did not know it was for the same film.

Then a few days later, another friend in Kochi called Sudhi and told him that a director was looking for new people. “I was informed at 8.30 p.m.,” says Sudhi. “By the time I reached the hotel, it was 9.30 p.m. Somebody asked me to wait. By the time I was allowed to go in, it was 10 p.m.”

But amazingly, it turned out to be Ajeesh again. He shouted at Sudhi and said, “What are you doing here?”

Sudhi replied, “Sir, I did not know it was for your film.”

Ajeesh looked at his associates and said, “This fellow comes everywhere. I told him no at Kochi, then he came to Thiruvananthapuram and now again he has come. Whenever I set up an audition he is there.”

Says a smiling Sudhi: “It was an embarrassing moment for me.”

Sudhi also felt embarrassed following the release of ‘Aaadu’ (2015) where he plays a character called Ganjavu Soman. “I stay in Palluruthy and wherever I went people would come up to me and whisper to me, “There is a shortage of ganja. Do you have some?”

Sudhi said, “No, I just acted as a peddler in the film.”

Sometimes, he would say, “No I don’t have. Do you have some?”

The men would reply, “Obviously, we don't have, that's why we asked you, Ganjavu Soman.”

Says Sudhi: “They were convinced I was a real-life peddler. It was hilarious.”

There were more fun moments on the sets of ‘Sapthamashree Thaskaraha’ (2014) where he plays a character who looks like a Bengali. At the location at Thrissur, Sudhi overheard a youth tell his friends, “These Bengalis have taken our jobs. Now they are taking our roles too.”

After the shot was over, Sudhi waved out to two friends of his. They looked at him puzzled. Nevertheless, they came up and then they realised it was Sudhi. “They looked completely shocked,” says Sudhi.

In 'Anuraga Karikkin Vellam' (2016), Sudhi played a character called Thangai. “The shooting took place near my home at Thoppumpady,” says Sudhi. “Most of the people know me.”

In the scene Sudhi is supposed to hit his wife Radhika (name changed). “As Thangai is hitting his wife, his mundu slips off,” says Sudhi. “I am supposed to carry on hitting my wife in my underwear.”

There were many takes. But Sudhi remained standing in his underwear only.

My friends and neighbours came to have a chat,” he says. And Sudhi talked animatedly.

Finally, the film’s hero Biju Menon came up, and said, “The way you are talking it seems you are wearing a coat and trousers. But you are only wearing a underwear. Don't forget that.” Then Biju laughed.

Sudhi had a completely different experience on the sets of ‘Manglish’ (2014) at Kumbalangi.

I had a scene opposite Mammooty,” says Sudhi. “But when I looked at him, I would remember his classic films like ‘Pazhassi Raja’ and 'Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha'.”

Sudhi’s specific job was to help Mammootty with the Kochi slang. “He knew it but I was there to help in case he needed some clarifications,” says Sudhi. When word went around that Sudhi was with Mammootty, his friends and relatives thronged the set.

At one point, Sudhi had stepped away. Suddenly, there was Mammooty’s voice on a megaphone saying, “Where is Sudhi Koppa? Koppa? Where are you? Come here.”

The people who knew Sudhi were stunned. “They realised that I was very close to Mammootty,” says Sudhi. “None of them knew that I was meeting the superstar for the first time. And when I came up to Mammootty Sir, he whispered something in my ears. Thanks to all this, I became a star with my neighbours and relatives.”

In ‘Paipin Chuvatile Pranayam’ (2017), Sudhi realised that acting can be physically very demanding. His character's name is Ayyappan. There is a scene where Ayyappan’s wife (played by Sruthy Jayan) is not well and he has to carry her for a distance of 50 metres to a boat on the river’s edge. “Shruthi weighs 55 kgs,” says Sudhi. “To lift her and carry her for a distance was not easy. And Shruthi kept twisting and turning to show her agony.”

Overall, Sudhi had to carry her 12 times, because of repeated takes. “In the end, I felt exhausted,” he says. “The next day my whole upper body was in pain and I could not move my arms at all.” 

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

A One-Woman Army

Ammu Joseph is the only woman currently who is working on the field in the tea plantation industry. She talks about her experiences at Devikulam, Munnar

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a sunny morning in Devikulam, near Munnar. The sky is an azure blue. A steady breeze is blowing. In the distance, there are rolling hills. Ammu Joseph, 26, sets out on her Bullet Enfield. She is wearing a black jacket, half trousers and canvas shoes. Soon, she is riding through rough gravel up a steep road at the Lockhart Estate at Munnar belonging to the Harrisons Malayalam Limited company.

After a while, she stops at a place where a group of women workers are plucking tea leaves. Ammu asks, “Everything is fine?” Since there is a guest present, they nod politely.

What is unusual about Ammu is that she is the only woman currently who is working in the plantation industry in Kerala as an assistant manager. “I knew it would be a challenging job,” says Ammu. “It is a male-dominated area. I knew as a woman I would not get any special considerations. I would have to stay alone and travel on my own.”

But a year on, Ammu, who has a BSc (Forestry) degree from Kerala Agricultural University has adjusted to the work. Asked her job profile, Ammu says, “I am handling crop management, pest and disease management, harvesting and agricultural operations.”

However, her most important job is to deal with the labour force, the majority of whom are women. “There is a labour strength of 400 spread across two plantations,” says Ammu. “They stay in the labour colonies within the estates. Once a month there is a meeting and we thrash out the problems that they are facing, especially in the colonies.”

The women labourers are happy. “Ammu is a very understanding person,” says Mary, 58, a fifth-generation worker. “Because she is a woman she can understand us much better. Also, we are able to relax and have a heart-to-heart conversation with her.”

But it does not mean that Ammu is always soft. Once an elderly lady Radha complained to Ammu that her husband would drink a lot and physically harass her. “When I met him, I asked him what the problem was,” says Ammu. “He suddenly got scared when I confronted him. They are not used to women speaking with authority. Thereafter, he stopped disturbing Radha.”

Her reputation for being tough is spreading. A worker called Anjappar would also harass and shout at everybody. “But when people told him that they would inform me about his behaviour, he would go quiet,” says Ammu, with a smile.

It has been an eye-opening experience for Ammu, who grew up in Thrissur. “In the city, we are not bothered about the lives of other people,” she says. “But in the hills, everybody is closely linked to each other. They celebrate jointly. When a death takes place, everybody cries. They have lived and worked together for so many years. Hence, there is an intimacy.”

Since they work so closely with Nature, they have a deep respect for it. “Before they set out for work, they say a prayer to Nature,” says Ammu. “The people have a belief that they need Nature, today, tomorrow and the day after.”

They are also adept weather readers. “Just by observing the sky, the direction of the winds, the sunlight and the moon, they can predict the weather,” says Ammu. “They know when it will rain at least two days in advance. However, these are the skills of the senior generation. I don’t know whether their children will have the same aptitude.”

Asked whether, like the workers, she believes in Mother Nature, Ammu says, “There is some power in Nature. I don’t want to call it God. Earth has a power to look after us. If I am stuck somewhere in the night I always have a feeling that Mother Nature is looking after me. So, I have never felt scared. On the other hand, I feel a lot bolder these days.”

Incidentally, work on the estates starts at 8 a.m. and carries on till 11.45 a.m. when the leaves are weighed. There is a lunch break for one hour. Then they will resume work from 1 pm till 5 p.m. Apart from a basic pay, workers are given additional payment according to the kilos they collect. “On an average, each worker collects between 50 and 100 kgs every day,” says Ammu.

For Ammu, the work is physically taxing. In many areas, the Bullet cannot go through. So she has to walk a lot. “The toughest time is during the rainy season,” she says. “The whole day I am in the rain, wearing a raincoat. Even then it feels very cold. My shoes get wet. I also get wet sometimes. The rain is so strong. But when I stand with the workers, they feel energised and so do I.”

And her energy and boldness are being appreciated. “Ammu has made a difference,” says Jobsy Thomas, General Manager-Operations (High Range Group). “I feel that she communicates more transparently and openly than I, as a male, would be able to do so. At the same time, she has to get the work done. So it is a tough balancing act. But she has been doing quite well. Kudos to her.” 

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

Friday, July 13, 2018

Rolling With The Ice

The Melto Creamery in Kochi provides roll ice-creams which are growing in popularity

Photos: Shafeeq M and his wife Zunairah; the different types of icecreams. Photo by A. Sanesh 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the Melto Creamery in the Kakkanad suburb of Kochi, a customer comes in and orders a Guava Chilli. Chef Zunairah Shafeeq immediately gets to work. She quickly cuts up two guavas into small pieces on an ice pan. Then she pours chilly powder on it. Zunairah takes up two triangular spatulas in two hands and keeps chopping on the guavas until they become tiny pieces. It sounds like a drummer banging at high speed. Then she pours high-fat milk over the mix. Using a flat knife, the mix is now spread out like a square paste by Zunairah on the pan.

“The pan has been imported from China,” says Shafeeq M, the husband of Zunairah and the owner of the outlet, along with his entrepreneur friend Shazil Hiqma. “The surface has a temperature of minus 35 degrees centigrade. The milk freezes immediately and becomes cream.”

Then once the paste solidifies, it is cut into three rectangles and made into rolls. These rolls are placed in a plastic cup and given to the customer along with a spoon. “This is called roll ice-cream,” says Shafeeq. “We are the first to make it in Kochi. Roll ice-cream is a street food in Bangkok. We got the idea when we saw videos of it on YouTube.”

The fruit ice creams, like Guava Chilli, are very popular with older customers, as the taste of the fruit is retained. “Also, they see it made right in front of their eyes,” says Shafeeq. “So, that makes it authentic.”

Some of the fruits that are used include the jackfruit, mango, strawberry, kiwi, banana, and the avocado.

There are also ice-creams that promote health benefits. One is the Matcha ice-cream. Matcha is a premium green tea powder imported from Japan. “It has been used in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony for hundreds of years,” says Shazil. “The Matcha has an excess of amino acids and a high level of antioxidants. It helps to boost the metabolism, lowers the cholesterol, and prevents a buildup of toxins.”

Adds Zunairah: “It is very bitter but when we add chocolate or fruit, it becomes tasty.”

But the premium item of the creamery is the gold-studded Thai ice-cream. “It is a regular roll ice-cream on which we paste a gold sheet,” says Shafeeq. “This has been imported from Dubai and is made of edible gold.” But the price is a cool Rs 1000. “The aim is to highlight the brand,” says Shafeeq.

While the elders loved the fruits, the youngsters go ga-ga over the chocolate items. These include ice-creams with the Nutella Hazelnut and Hershey's Macadamia Nuts. “These are our signature items,” says Zunairah. “It moves a lot. You can also have ice-creams with peanut butter.”

And the youth are happy. Says Soumya, a 24-year-old IT professional, “Melto is a slice of heaven in Kakkanad. Nope, I am not exaggerating. This place is awesome. Good bunch of people, nice ambience and awesome ice-cream!!”

Says another young woman Vinitha: “Melto has the most innovative ice-creams.”

What also helps are the generous amounts that can be had. Three rolls are equivalent to more than 300 grams of ice cream. “Because of this, we have a lot of repeat customers,” says Shazil. “In Kochi, people want quantity as well as quality.” Incidentally, the prices range from Rs 79 to Rs 350.

Asked the charm of ice-cream, Zunairah says, “It is always a reminder of our childhood days and the happy memories associated with eating it with our parents, sibling, and friends. So ice-creams will always remain popular.” 

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Converting Data Into Unique Sounds

One of Kochi's leading digital musicians, Salim Nair is busy getting his first digital record ready 

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At his soundproof studio at Kochi, digital musician Salim Nair stands in front of his Linnstrument as well his Ableton Push2 midi controller. He is dressed casually in a white cotton shirt and grey trousers. The bespectacled musician then gently starts with a tap of one of the keys on the midi controller. The sound of a piano can be heard. This performance is seen live on Facebook.

And the name of the instrumental song is called 'When love rains'. Soon, he uses the sax, sitar and the flute. After a while, the sound becomes mesmerising; there is a rise and fall in the tone. Salim gets so involved in the playing that he keeps swaying from side to side. In his other songs, the instruments he uses include the sitar, sarangi, sarod, violin, santoor, saxophone, brass, and the keyboard. “I also use synthesized sounds,” he says. On YouTube and Facebook, he has put up over 60 song/videos.

I call it a digital art music show,” says Salim. “[The late American writer] Susan Sontag has said art music requires the listener to put in a little bit of effort into listening. My songs have a slow and nuanced development. You can get bored. So my target audience is anybody who can appreciate music as more than just being a background sound.”

Now Salim is busy working on bringing out his first digital art album, 'Decohered', a collection of tone poems, a few of which are based loosely on the works of the late Urdu writer Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Asked the charms of Faiz, Salim says, “His poems are very lyrical. It is very amenable to a song structure. I look for poems that can give me an emotional flow.”

A trained Carnatic musician since his childhood, Salim felt disappointed by the limitation of the traditional sound. “I used to play the flute and it is monophonic,” says Salim. “It cannot produce more than one sound.”

The other problem was the structure of Indian classical music. “Until 25 years ago, there were very specific caste-based restrictions about what you can sing and perform,” says Salim. “Most temple sanctums are closed to everybody except the Brahmins. The music was specifically created to support this hierarchical structure.”

That is the structure that Salim wants to break. “I am using Carnatic idioms and making my own rules,” he says. “Think of this: you spend 12 hours a day perfecting a song sung by composer Thyagaraja (1767-1847). What is the point of that? Express what you feel not what some singer felt 170 years ago.”

It was only when Salim, an electrical engineer by profession went to Philadephia, USA, in 1999 that he had a change of mind. While there, he realised that he could use the computer as a primary music instrument. “It has more capabilities than my single flute,” says Salim, who relocated to Kochi in 2014 and is working as a software programmer. 

Asked the difference between digital and analog music, Salim says, “In analog music, we are physically using an instrument to create music. In digital, I am just changing data and this creates a different kind of sound. The production method is the biggest difference between analog and digital music.”

As to the charge that there is less soul in digital music, Salim says, “Is the violin natural? There is so much engineering that goes behind the making of a violin. On the other hand, digital music is more malleable. I am transferring what I am thinking directly. I don't have the constraints of a physical object.” 

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

Friday, July 06, 2018

Memories Of A Family Helper

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: The ancestral house at Muvattupuzha 

The other day my aunt sent a WhatsApp message in our family group: 'Pappi, who was with us at Muvattupuzha [Kerala] passed away. The funeral is at Neercode. Please pray for his soul'.

As soon as I read it, my mind immediately went to back my grandparents' house in Muvattupuzha. I would spend my summer vacations there with my mother and siblings from our home in Kolkata.

The back courtyard of their house was long and narrow. Across it, there were several trees, apart from a cattle shed, and a hen’s coop.

One day, when I was ten years old, while I was exploring the area, suddenly I saw a snake lying motionless on the ground. It was yellow in colour with black stripes going like a spiral all along its body. I looked at it stunned. Then I screamed and sprinted away to the kitchen where my grandmother was supervising the cooking and told her about it.

She immediately called the helper Pappi, a short man with thick biceps and shoulder muscles and possessing a vibrant energy. He strode out towards the courtyard, with a stick in his hand. But by this time the snake had moved away. After that, for days, I was afraid to go to the courtyard. My grandmother and Pappi laughed, but I did not want to take the risk.

This Pappi: I remember him taking me for a walk to a place in front of the town's bus terminus, where our family had some property. We had to climb steps, cut into the slope of a hill, reach a tin door, and go in. All around were trees and a large building in the distance.
Pappi would use a shovel to clear wildly-growing grass, plants and bushes. As for me, all I did was to stand and stare and sometimes slip into a daydream.

My mother told me that when my grandfather was suffering from glaucoma, and could not see properly, Pappi would walk in front of him wearing a white shirt. My grandfather would aim his torch at Pappi's back and that would enable him to get his bearings when he was on his way to church.

The years went past. Then on July 22, 2001, my grandmother passed away. Pappi had come for the funeral. When I saw him, I was shocked. Pappi had become thin, frail and stooped.
The contrast with his younger days was stunning. Somehow, even now, when I recall that image, I feel a stab of pain.

And then I realised that nobody can escape the circle of life: the blossoming of youth, a productive middle age, followed by a frail old age and, finally, death.
Rest In Peace Pappi! 

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

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Providing Colours To A Dark Cell

Murali Cheeroth, the noted Bangalore-based artist talks about his experiences of conducting an art camp in Tihar Jail in Delhi 

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

In their New Delhi neighbourhood, the Naths and the Tiwaris were always arguing over one small matter or the other. One day, the son Rakesh Nath snapped. He went to the Tiwari house and using a piece of wire strangulated the elderly couple. Four relatives dropped in at different times. He strangulated all of them. The end result: Rakesh was caught and sentenced to life in prison. And he has been in Tihar Jail in New Delhi for the past fourteen years.

“He is a graduate,” says the Bangalore-based artist Murali Cheeroth, during a recent visit to Kochi. A group of six artists including Murali held an art camp at the jail recently for the prisoners; this was organised by the Central Lalitkala Akademi along with the Delhi Akademi.

“That was when I met Rakesh,” says Murali. “He told me that it was a moment's madness that made him commit the crime which destroyed his life.” Murali encouraged Rakesh to paint. He did so and Murali was impressed. “He is a realistic painter,” says Murali. “And he did some good work at the camp.”

Around 60 prisoners took part. “The aim was to change their criminal mentality and to enable them to develop an artistic sensibility,” says Murali.

And Murali discovered that many of them were talented. “I met a criminal Arjun Reddy from Andhra Pradesh,” says Murali. “From childhood, he was exposed to the sight of his father hitting his mother. In the end, the father killed the mother. Arjun was staying with his grandmother. She said something which angered him and he killed her in a fit of rage. That was how he was convicted.”

In the jail Arjun felt endlessly frustrated. “But taking part in the art classes has been a healing process for him,” says Murali. “He has gained an inner confidence.”
In his abstract work, an acrylic on canvas, Arjun has drawn himself sitting in the middle of the canvas, with his body being pulled from all sides. “Arjun now feels that when he is released he will be able to contribute meaningfully to society,” says Murali.

Murali also urged the prisoners to develop their finer qualities. “One of them could write good Hindi,” says Murali. “So I told him to become a writer.”

As for the crimes they have committed Murali says that it consisted of murder, rape and cheating. “I met five prisoners who have been involved in rape cases,” says Murali. “But two of them told me they had been framed. One young man who belonged to a lower caste fell in love with a higher caste girl, so the girl's father, taking the police's help, framed a rape case against him and got him jailed.”

Another person who appears to have been framed is Suvojit Ghosh from Kolkata. One night, he talked to a prostitute at a street corner. The next day the lady was murdered. “On the CCTV, Suvojit's meeting with the woman was captured,” says Murali. “Soon, he was framed by the police.”

But Murali was impressed by Suvojit's artistic talent. “His theme is of gods and goddesses, in the Kalighat style,” says Murali. “Suvojit participated in an exhibition where 13 of his works were displayed.”

Another prisoner who Murali worked with was a convicted in the Nirbhaya rape/murder case, which rocked the nation a few years ago. “He told me that he has enormous regrets about what had happened,” says Murali.

Reluctant to wield the brush, Murali persuaded him that this was a way to get rid of his inner demons. “Soon, he started painting,” says Murali. “He did a work of a monkey jumping across a river, followed by a thousand monkeys. These monkeys are holding flags on which are written the numerous abuses which were hurled at the rape accused when he was convicted.”

The time spent at the jail was one of intense observation by Murali. And soon, he noticed that there was a caste system in the jail. “There were conflicts between different caste members,” says Murali. “The caste system is very strong in North India. In Kerala, everybody is getting educated. But in places like UP [Uttar Pradesh], they are not, and hence they are not aware of their rights as a citizen.”

As Murali interacted often with the prisoners, they also warmed towards him. “They were very friendly,” he says. “That was because I was giving them an experience which they don't usually get in jail. And I was also shaken to come across so many lives which have been destroyed thanks to a moment's madness.”

(Some names have been changed)

A Full-time Artist

Born in Thrissur, Murali Cheeroth did his Masters in Fine Arts from Kala Bhavan in Shantiniketan, West Bengal. He has been a full-time artist for the past 21 years. His works can be found in private collections in Japan, France, Canada, Thailand, Holland and India. He has been a two-time participant of the Sri Lankan Biennale. And has just completed an arts residency in Malaysia. Murali has taken part in numerous solo and group exhibitions. Murali has also taught at the College of Architecture, Ahmedabad and National Institute of Fashion Technology. 

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