Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Crusader Of Languages

In his 25th year as a translator, the Kochi-based Santosh Alex talks about his career  

By Shevlin Sebastian

It had been a long and tiring day for Santosh Alex. Nevertheless, by 7 p.m., at his home at Thevara, Kochi, this Assistant Chief Technical Officer at the Central Institute of Fisheries Technology is at his desk. Next to him are his two older children, Jason, 13, and Jessica, 11, who are doing their homework.

And so is Santosh, in a way. He is translating Benyamin’s short story, ‘Shatru’ into Hindi. The story is an insightful look into mob psychology.

In between his assignment, Santosh has dinner, and later, the children, his wife Jai and their one-month-old baby Jerome go to sleep. But Santosh carries on working, past midnight before he calls it a day.

Santosh is now in his 25th year as a translator. “I have translated directly from English and Malayalam to Hindi, and Hindi to Malayalam,” says Santosh. “For Tamil and Telugu, I do live translations. That means I sit with the author and we work together.”

Some of the authors he has translated include MT Vasudevan Nair, ONV Kurup, K Satchidanandan, Paul Zachariah, NS Madhavan, T Padmanabhan, Punathil Kunjabdulla, Sethu, Madhavi Kutty, Balachandran Chulikkadu, TP Rajeevan, Anwar Ali, Gracy, Rosemary and Sarah Joseph. In total, he has translated the works of more than 150 authors.

Asked about the behaviour of writers, Santosh says, “There are authors who do not open up to strangers and are very guarded. There are a few who live cut off from people, while others are generous and kind and like to have conversations.”

One such person was Jayanta Mahapatra, the legendary Indo-Anglian poet. Santosh met him at his home in Cuttack a few years ago. He had travelled from Vishakapatnam, where he was staying at that time, to give a book of poems written by Jayanata that Santosh had translated into Hindi.

As soon as Santosh entered the house, he saw that Jayanta was having his breakfast.  

The poet said, “I am very sorry. I am on pills, which I need to take on time, and have my breakfast soon after. So, without your permission, I am having my breakfast.”

Santosh was taken aback. “I felt that there was no need for Jayanta Sir to apologise, because I was just a beginner,” he says. Nevertheless, Jayanta provided breakfast for Santosh and they started chatting about poems and his magazine ‘Chandrabhaga’. He was helped by the poet Rabindra K Swain who was the assistant editor.  

After a while, Rabindra came visiting. Soon, Jayanta and Rabindra asked Santosh to recite the poems. As Santosh did so, he noticed that the duo were whispering in Oriya to each other. After a while, Rabindra said, “Your Hindi recitation does not give any indication that the poem had been translated. It seemed as if it is an original poem. Thank you, it is very nicely done.”

Santosh felt elevated. “I will never forget the kindness and hospitality of Jayanta Sir, who is 90 now,” says Santosh, who has also published his own poems and taken part in international literary festivals in Istanbul and other places.

Meanwhile, when asked how he got interested in doing translations, especially in Hindi, a language not many Malayalis are skilful in, Santosh says, “I was born and brought up in Visakhapatnam and studied in the Kendra Vidyalaya, where I learnt Hindi, English and Sanskrit. My Hindi teacher Malathi Devi engendered in me a love for the language. I was a topper in Hindi during my school days.”

So, it was of no surprise that Santosh ended up doing his MA in Hindi. And somewhere along the way, he got interested in doing translations.

As for the rewards of doing translations, Santosh says, “In my own small way, I am contributing to enriching Indian literature. I am building a bridge between different cultures, especially during a time when there is so much of division in society.” In fact, his work had received appreciation earlier. Santosh has won the prestigious ‘Dwivagessh Puraskaar’ National Award for Translation from the Bhartiya Anuvad Parishad in 2008.

But, of course, there are negatives. There is hardly any money that is paid to translators. “80 percent of the publishers say that they do not sell enough copies,” says Santosh. “This is not true, because I know of books that have gone into the second or third reprints. Most publishers exploit the author as well as the translator. And translators get far less respect than the writer.”

He gives an example. When Benyamin became the winner at the JCB Prize for Literature recently for his work, ‘Jasmine Days’, he received a prize money of Rs 25 lakh, while the translator Shahnaz Habib got Rs 5 lakh. “It should be fifty-fifty,” says Santosh. “Because without the high-quality translation, Benyamin would not have won the award. Nevertheless, I am happy that Shahnaz got a good amount.”

But whether there is any amount or not, Santosh himself is committed to serving Indian literature. He is, in fact, a crusader… of languages. 

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

Monday, November 26, 2018

Showcasing Another Skill

Kottayam Nazeer, one of Kerala’s leading mimicry artists, makes a sparkling debut as a painter in a show curated by the veteran Asif Ali Komusons

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian  

As you walk around Kottayam Nazeer’s recent exhibition, ‘Dreams of Colours’, at the Durbar Hall Gallery at Kochi, one painting above all catches the eye. It is a black-and-white image of an elderly man, with oversize black spectacles, piercing eyes, a lined forehead and wavy white hair, apart from a walrus moustache.

But a closer look gives a shock: the moustache is actually two white polar bears, the nose is the back of a frog, the eyes are two fishes, the eyebrows are two falcons, while the frame of the spectacles is actually two entwined king cobras. There are also giraffes, dinosaurs, and an owl. And the wrinkles on the forehead are actually several snakes lying next to each other.

The qualities of all these animals are inside every human being,” says Nazeer, one of Kerala’s top mimicry artists, who was holding his first-ever painting exhibition, which was curated by the veteran Asif Ali Komusons. “And we are the only animals who can live anywhere.”

The polar bear, he says, cannot live in a place where it is hot and humid. “But a man can survive in a hot or a cold place,” he says. “We also eat meat, snakes, dogs, frogs, hens and even elephant meat. We are flexible.”

Since Nazeer is also an actor, he has also given a bow to the two superstars of Mollywood. Standing next to a painting of a lion in repose, he says, “Mammootty is the lion for me: calm and determined.”

Another image, of a tiger, also has numerous animals in it, including a fish, birds, an elephant, dog, goat, cat, rabbit, rat, a kangaroo with its baby, as well as an image of scientist Albert Einstein and writer Rabindranath Tagore.

I wanted to show that Mohanlal can play any role,” says Nazeer. “To me, he is a complete actor.” Incidentally, Lal’s blog is called ‘The Complete Actor’.

In total, there are 54 works on display. It is a mix of acrylic, oil and watercolours. Nazeer’s strongest gift is his ability to draw piercing eyes, that hold your attention wherever you stand in the gallery. And he has an explanation for it. “I have focused on the eyes because I feel that people express all their emotions through the eyes,” he says. “No matter how you draw the face or the body, if there is no life in the eyes, then the painting will not come to life.”

When an ordinary person looks into an eye, he sees a black and white colour. But in the iris, there are different types of colours. “It is only when you look at an HD [High Definition] photo and zoom in, you can see a bit of brown and blue. For older people they have a bit of green, too,” says Nazeer. “I did online tutorials on how to draw the eyes and that’s why it has become so effective.”

Meanwhile, when asked the pleasure of painting, Nazeer says, “A creative profession like mimicry or acting has a lot of stress because you are performing in front of the audience or on the screen,” he says. “So when I paint, the stress just melts away. I feel I am doing something meaningful and not wasting my time.”  

Interestingly, Nazeer, the son of a dentist, had shown an interest in painting from his childhood. He would spend time with professional sign people at the town of Karukachal where he grew up. “I learnt how to draw figures using enamel paint,” he says. Later, for three years, he learnt watercolour drawing at the AP arts school in the town.

He has also done oil paintings in his childhood, apart from cartooning and clay modelling. “I received a lot of prizes at that time,” says Naseer. “Then I became interested in mimicry and that became my career.”

However, Nazeer did not stop painting altogether. Whenever he was on a film set and there was some spare time, he would draw images on a piece of paper, using a pen.

And when he would go for international tours, there would be a three-to-four day gap between events.  So, he started painting.

And today, he has made an acclaimed debut as a painter.

A new career beckons. 

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

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A Colourful Tapestry

Historian and author Manu S Pillai details the history of the Deccan from the 14th to the 18th centuries

Photos: The cover of the book; Manu S Pillai; Artist Abul Hasan's painting of Jahangir sending an arrow towards Malik Ambar

By Shevlin Sebastian

On May 19, 1520, Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire (1509–1529) and Sultan Ismail Adil Shah of Bijapur went to battle. They both coveted the same prize: the highly fertile Raichur district which is in modern-day Karnataka. The district had numerous iron and diamond deposits and lay between the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers.

However, it was an unequal battle. While Ismail had 18,000 cavalry, 1.2 lakh infantry and 150 elephants, Krishnadevaraya only had 27,000 horsemen. But nevertheless, through clever tactical moves, Krishnadevaraya had an easy victory. Astonishingly, after the loss, Ismail sent an emissary to Krishnadevaraya asking for the city of Raichur, together with all the artillery, horses, and elephants that the sultan had lost in the battle. Krishnadevaraya told the emissary “I will do so if Ismail Adil Shah comes and kisses my feet.”

In his reply, Ismail said that as a sovereign ruler he could not enter the territory of another prince. So, Krishnadevaraya offered to go to the border town of Mudgal, to meet the Sultan but before he got a reply, he went there. Not surprisingly, Ismail  stayed away. So Krishnadevaraya went all the way to Bijapur City but again the Sultan left before the Vijayanagara ruler arrived, to avoid the embarrassment of facing the king. Later, Krishnadevaraya had a good laugh about it.

This anecdote has been recounted in the book, ‘Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji’, published by Juggernaut, and written by young Malayali historian Manu S Pillai. The book has been well received and is into its third reprint. It details the history of the Deccan Sultans, from the 14th to the 18th centuries. They include the rulers of Vijayanagar, Bahamanis, Adil Shahis, Qutb Shahis and Nizam Shahis, not to forget the contribution of Shivaji. He writes about their rise, their long reign and the inevitable fall.  

Asked the reasons for their decline, Manu says, “There were internal dissensions. It was a diverse society: there were thousands of Africans, many immigrants from Persia, Ottoman artillery men and artists from Iran. The Persians were called foreigners or Westerners, and most of whom were Shias. Then there were the Dakhnis who were mostly Sunni, and of Indian origin. Finally, there were the Marathas and various Hindu groups. If it was a wise Sultan he would have had the skill to carry the various groups together. But some of the Sultans took sides. However, in the final reckoning, it was their inability to stay together that did them in. When the Mughals invaded the Deccan, if the Southern Sultans had united, they could have withstood the attacks.”

Asked whether any lessons could be learnt for the rulers of today, Manu says, “History is not black and white. While religion was a factor, it was not what motivated the leaders. To think so is a mistake. The politics in those times was guided by the same things which guide politics today: power, greed and money. Religion was a smokescreen to legitimise personal ambitions. Of course, there were numerous leaders who were bigots, but, interestingly, there were also kings who did the opposite.”  

And Manu gives an example of the Bahmani Sultan Firuz Shah. He defeated the Vijayanagar king in 1406. But, as part of an agreement, he took a princess from the kingdom. “But Firuz also made an interesting demand,” says Manu. “He asked for 2000 artists, dancers, musicians and writers from Vijayanagar because he wanted to develop a South Indian element in his own court. So his court had not only Hindustani culture, but Persian, and Tamil segments and all combined in a deliberate manner. So, it was no longer black and white but a rich and colourful tapestry.”

But for Manu, perhaps the most memorable leader was Malik Ambar. He was an Ethiopian slave who began life in Harar Province in Ethiopia. At age 10, he was enslaved and after spending a few years in Yemen and Iraq, he was sold to Chengiz Khan, the Peshwa of the Sultan of Nizam Shahi in Ahmadnagar, who was himself an Ethiopian. For twenty years, Malik served the Peshwa, gaining invaluable experience,  and after the latter’s death, in 1594, he managed to put up an army of his own.

He was the only man standing against the ambitions of the Mughals, from the end of Akbar’s reign to Jahangir,” says Manu. In fact, so enraged was Jahangir that in his ‘Memoirs’, he called Malik ‘that black wretch’, ‘Ambar of dark fate’, and that ‘crafty, ill-starred one’. Interestingly, the talented court artist Abul Hasan did a painting where Jahangir is standing atop a globe and shooting an arrow through the severed head of Malik that was impaled on a tall pike. “What he could not achieve in real life, it was achieved through art,” says Manu with a laugh. “However, Malik remains one of the great figures of Deccan history.”


Allaudin Khilji: The True Picture

The way Allauddin Khilji (1267-1316) was portrayed in the Bollywood hit film ‘Padmaavat’ was nothing short of sensational. “In ‘Padmaavat’, Alauddin is shown as a savage,” says historian Manu S Pillai. “That is not true. He was part of a long-standing court culture in Delhi. He did not eat like a barbarian. There was tremendous exaggeration in the film, to show him as uncivilised. If anything, he was a very clever man.”

There is a famous story that when he conquered the Yadava Kingdom at Devanagiri in 1296, he did not have enough forces. When the Devanagiri army arrived, Allaudin sent off some horsemen into the distance and asked them to rake up a lot of dust to create an impression that he had a large army.

To paint all Muslim kings as violent people, we must remember that violence is not a one-sided affair,” says Manu. “We have read stories of Mughals who killed their brothers or sons killing fathers to become kings, but such cases also existed among Hindu kings.”
There was an instance in Vijayanagar where a son killed his father, and a brother killed his brother. Also, in Vijayanagar a Queen reached out to a Sultan in Bijapur to come to her help because her brothers were scheming against her and her child. “In those times, violence and power were two sides of the same coin,” says Manu.  

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

The German-born Prem Manasvi P lives in a 200-year-old house surrounded by a forest that he has nurtured for over two decades

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Prem Manasvi P opens his eyes in his bedroom of a 200-year-old house in the village of Cherpu (80 kms from Kochi), on a recent morning, he hears familiar sounds: the twitter of birds, the occasional crowing of a rooster, followed by the mooing of a cow. A little later, the 77-year-old steps out and heads towards his 2000 sq. ft. pond. 

Entering a traditional structure with a tiled roof, he has to take several steps downwards before he reaches the pond’s edge. Then he uses a sieve to clear the leaves and algae off the surface. “I collect more than one hundred litres,” he says. “I do this twice, in the morning and the late afternoon during the monsoon season.” Then Prem sets out on his swim, comprising freestyle and backstroke movements. Because the pond has a depth of 21 feet, there are more than two million litres of water.

As a result, there is plenty of groundwater and the six wells on his three acres are full throughout the year. “The pond, which I consider to be the crown jewel of the property, has helped in the recharge of groundwater. This is of important public significance, more so at a time when climate change and construction activities have made this area drought-prone during the summer months.”

Meanwhile, an hour later, Prem has finished his swim. A bath and breakfast follow. Then Prem goes for a stroll. It is an amazing place: there are numerous trees, shrubs, plants and flowers. “This is the result of 23 years of work,” he says, as he points at a banyan tree. “I must thank my friend Shelly P, who lives nearby and did all the work of planting and nurturing this forest. In fact, you will be surprised to know that when I bought the property it was mostly bare, with just a few jackfruit and coconut trees, and banana plants.”

In total, there are 32 different types of trees, like the Red Beed, Blackboard, and the Indian Berry, apart from 45 different species of plants and flowers. 

So how did the Kassel-born German (original name: Heinz J Paul) land up in Kerala? Answer: Osho. Prem was a devotee. And it was at the Osho International Meditation Resort at Pune in 1991 that he met Shelly who worked as a photographer while Prem was a Coordinator in the Press Office. “Shelly invited me to accompany him on a visit to his native place, Cherpu, where his parents lived,” says Prem. 

When Prem arrived at Cherpu he quickly fell in love with the place. “I was fascinated by the sight of elephants, the greenery, paddy fields, and bullock carts,” he says. “On later visits, I was drawn to the rich cultural heritage of the state, especially the Kathakali, Koodiyattom and Tolpava (puppetry) art forms.” 

And thus, one day, a desire arose in Prem to own a traditional house. With the help of Shelly, he inspected more than one hundred spots before he zoomed in on the house where he is living in now. Prem acquired it on May 2, 1995. 

But he has not had an easy time maintaining the house. “We are finding it difficult to find carpenters and masons who know how to work in such an old house, without damaging it,” he says. “It is important that renovation should be done properly.” 

The house is a traditional naluketu -- there are four halls, in the north, south, east and west that face a courtyard which is open to the sky. Inside, there are rooms which had been used as a granary, a kitchen with a fireplace, sleeping quarters, puja room, a room to store large vessels, a ‘pampu kavu’, which is a space dedicated for snake worship, while another room was used by women who were going through their menstrual periods and had to remain isolated. 

Prem has a look of pride when he shows the visitor around his house. So, it is not surprising that he is worried about the direction Kerala is going. 

“Too many traditional houses are being torn down,” he says. “As a result, you are losing an important part of your cultural identity. In its place, concrete monstrosities are coming up. In the West, the preservation of heritage is a pillar of development. New structures are harmoniously integrated with old ones. I am hoping that the devastation caused by the recent floods will make the politicians, administrators, leaders of civil society and ordinary people have a re-think of what is happening in the name of development. That is the only way Kerala can regain its title of ‘God’s Own Country’.”

Saturday, November 17, 2018

So Cool And Sweet

Entrepreneur Shafeek K talks about how he set up a Kulfi Shop at the Lulu Mall, Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, Shafeek K was in a nostalgic mood. Soon, an image popped into his mind.
It was the lunch break at the NSS High School at Ottapalam. As he stepped out of the class to go to the ground, he could hear the tinkle of a bell. With other schoolboys, he ran to the gate. It was a man pushing a cart. He was selling kulfis. “It cost Rs 1 at that time,” says Shafeek. “Four of us shared one kulfi stick.” He began to have it regularly.

For Shafeek a lifelong love for kulfi was engendered. This was deepened when his Delhi-based uncle KU Kutty would come for his annual visit. “Whenever he came home, he would bring Bengali sweets like sandesh, rosagollas and malpuas,” he says.

So Shafeek developed a sweet tooth. As an entrepreneur, he was thinking of starting a business when suddenly he got the idea of starting a kulfi shop in Kochi. But he did not know anything about how to make kulfis and whether the business could be a viable one. “But I knew that there are not many kulfi shops in Kochi,” he says.   

So Shafeek went to the best kulfi shop in Delhi called Krishna Di Kulfi. “They have been running it for 60 years,” he says “It is a small area but there is always a huge crowd.”

The owners allowed Shafeek into the kitchen so that he could have an idea of how it is made. Then, through a friend, Shafeek met a dessert chef in Delhi called Raju Bhagel, who was willing to relocate to Kochi. Later, Shafeek flew to Mumbai and wandered around the kulfi shops on Chowpatty Beach and spoke to many people. He gained more insight into the business. 

Thereafter, he returned to Kochi, mulled over his experiences and decided to take the plunge. Shafeek decided to set up his shop at the Lulu Mall, to ensure that he has brand visibility. “Let’s face it, the mall is a very popular place,” he says.

The ‘Kulfi Shop’ had a soft launch three months ago. The 320 sq.ft. outlet is just near the Kochi Metro skywalk. “It is an apt location, as many people use the Metro these days,” says Shafeek. “They see our sign and tend to stop.”

There are more than 50 items on offer. These include the Malai, Pista, Mango, Meetha Pan, Sitafal and Coffee Walnut. The prices range from Rs 50 to Rs 150. The most expensive is the traditional kulfi kept in a mud dish called the matka. Fruits like mango and guava are also added. Other kulfis have rose petals and gulab jamun. Green chilly is also popular. As the name implies it is a mix of chillies and cream. “But the most popular is the four-in-one kulfi,” says Shafeek. “This has mango, guava, sapota and strawberry and costs Rs 120. But we keep changing the combinations.”

Expectedly, the crowd is the most during the weekends and on festive occasions. Surprisingly, there are a lot more Malayalis than North Indians or outsiders. “That is because Malayalis have become curious to try it,” says Shafeek. “I am happy to say that many are returning customers.”

As he talks, he points at a middle-aged Arab with his wife, wearing a black hijab, and a small boy. “They have been repeat customers for a while now,” he says. Another customer is electronics engineer Amit Das (name changed) from Aluva. He told Shafeek that when he asked a friend where to get the best kulfi in India the latter mentioned the Mumbai Kulfi shop. So Amit went to Mumbai and had it. Then he came to the Kulfi Shop and tasted their products. He told Shafeek, “I have to say yours is much better. I like it a lot.”    

The good news is that the kulfis are not outsourced. Instead, Shafeek has set up a six-member team overseen by chef Raju at a location in Edapally to make the kulfis. The milk is boiled for eight hours, and to the residual cream is added sugar, fruits, and almonds. Then it is put in a freezer at minus 12 degrees Centigrade for several hours. When it is brought to the shop, Shafeek tastes most of them. “I am trying to ensure that the quality is maintained at all times,” he says.  

Thus far, the shop is doing well. “Whenever I look at the kulfis, I feel a sense of happiness,” says Shafeek. “Maybe, it is a reminder of the enjoyment I had in my childhood having them.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Slices Of Reel Life

Sanu Varghese, the Kottayam-born cinematographer of the Bollywood hit, ‘Badhaai Ho’, talks about his experiences  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The day before the Hindi film ‘Badhaai Ho’ was released (October 18), the film’s cinematographer Sanu Varghese told friends, “I have no doubt that the film will be a hit. Just not sure how big it will be.”

It is big all right. At the time of writing, it has earned Rs 115 crore at the box office and is now one among the top grossers of 2018.   

The story is simple. A middle-aged couple, played by Gajraj Rao and Neena Gupta, get intimate. As a result, Neena gets pregnant. The only problem is that they have two sons, one aged 25 (Ayushmann Khurrana), while the other is 15 years old (Shardul Rana). 

The reaction is predictable: everybody from Neena’s mother-in-law (Surekha Sikri in a transfixing performance), who stays with them at their modest apartment in Delhi, the sons, relatives and the society at large are shocked and ashamed. Thereafter, it is a mix of comedy and sadness but it makes for riveting watching.

The cinematography is unobtrusive. Most times, you forget you are watching a film. But Sanu says that there is also an active storytelling by the camera.

There is one scene where the family is back together, after their mother gives birth,  and the children are cracking a joke with their grandmother,” he says. “The camera stays on the children and then it slowly moves away and focuses on the father and the mother who are in the kitchen. I am leading the audience along. This is deliberate story-telling.”

Asked the reasons why ‘Badhaai Ho’ did well, Sanu says, “It is like a Malayalam script. The best example would be Mohanlal trying to set up a biscuit factory in ‘Mithunam’ (1993). It is a film where you make everybody laugh in the first half and then cry in the second half.”  

Sanu’s journey to Bollywood was not in a straight line. He had been interested in photography even as he did his Bachelors at the Fine Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter, he did a MA in communication at the Sarojini Naidu School of Communication at the University of Hyderabad. Following that, in search of a job, the Kottayam-born Sanu left for Mumbai in 1996. Then, without any technical training, he got work as a cameraman in documentaries and advertising films and later joined TV18.

But he showed a natural talent from the beginning. One who is a fan is ‘Badhaai Ho’ director Amit Sharma, who says, “Sanu is a cinematographer who has a story-telling ability. He has always been an asset on the set, whether it be advertising or feature films, because I have done both with him. He has a clear vision and has his own point of view. His scenes are very realistic. Shooting realistic scenes is much more difficult than taking glamour shots.”  

The start

Sanu got his first break in ‘Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon’ (2003), which was produced by Ramgopal Varma, of ‘Satya’ fame, and starred Rajpal Yadav and Antara Mali. “It received praise from critics but did not do so well at the box office,” he says. Some of the other films he worked in include ‘Karthik Calling Karthik’, ‘David’, ‘Wazir’, the Malayalam films, ‘Elektra’ and ‘Take Off’, and Kamal Haasan's Tamil film, ‘Marmayogi’, which was shelved in pre-production.

But in 2011, he shot for Kamal’s ‘Vishwaroopam’. The shoot took one-and-a-half years to complete, but it was a turning point for Sanu. “When you work with a legend like Kamal Sir, you learn something new every day,” says Sanu. “He comes from a choreography background, so he looks at scenes through that angle. Till then I tended to shoot static frames. But Kamal Sir is the one who opened my mind to the possibility of everything moving. How the total energy of a scene can be changed, with the camera as well as the actors moving. This was something new for me.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether the competition in Bollywood is severe, Sanu says, “I don’t look at what the other guys are doing. I am only thinking about what I can do when I am shooting for a particular film. It is an inner exploration. That’s how I will be able to do work which I can call my own. I also want to tell stories without showing off.”

Interestingly, he says, to be a good cinematographer, you need to understand music, drama, the craft of acting, cinema on a larger level, how light and water behave, as well as the climate.

At present, he is working on a Telugu film called ‘Jersey’ starring Nani, a new- generation star. And, unusually, he does not take any film that is offered to him. “I earn my living by making advertising films so I can choose scripts which I like,” says Sanu, who is married to Sandeepa, a commercial filmmaker and they have a daughter called Miyako. 

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

‘Visitors should also be participants’ -- Curator Anita Dube

By Shevlin Sebastian

Anita Dube, the curator of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, said that she was inspired by a sculpture of the late Malayali artist KP Krishnakumar (1958-89). “It is about a young boy who is listening -- to the stones, flowers and earth,” says Anita, at a ‘Meet The Curator’ function held in Kochi on Friday. “I chose this work because it is a boy who has not yet acquired a masculinity that all men aspire to be. He is in a nebulous state. I am working against that type of toxic masculinity that has been the norm in our social life.”

So, not surprisingly, more than half of the 89 artists who will be taking part in the Biennale, (December 12, 2018 - March 29, 2019), are women. “They do not get as many opportunities as the men,” says the first woman curator of the Biennale. “So I wanted to correct that.”

The theme, incidentally, is titled ‘Possibilities of a non-alienated life’. And Anita came to it through prolonged thinking and reflection. “The first question I asked myself was who is my primary audience?” she says. “Is it the one percent that goes to Venice, Sharjah and the Kochi Biennales? Or is it the six lakh spectators who came to the last edition with no stake
in culture except for a thirst for aesthetic knowledge?”

And she realised that she needed to showcase accessible artworks for the majority. Also, she wanted the visitors to be participants. So, apart from the exhibition area, Anita is setting up a pavilion where anybody could come and speak, show a film clip, or talk about a lecture. “You could even sing a Malayalam song,” she says. “I am hoping conversations could develop, and arguments could be had.”

Interestingly, Anita, in her travels to over 30 countries to select artists, decided to focus on those from Latin America, and Africa apart from many countries in South-East Asia, like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. “I want to give a chance to those who are on the margins of international art,” she says.

Earlier, Bose Krishnamachari, one of the founders of the Biennale stated that after the floods devastated Kerala a few months ago, he called up Anish Kapoor, one of the world’s leading artists. He told him that they had set up an ‘Art Rises For Kerala’ initiative and were planning an auction of works. Anish replied, “Anytime for Kerala and the Kochi Biennale Foundation.”

And Anish has already contributed a work. The other notables who will contribute include Dayanita Singh and Subodh Gupta. “About 40 national and international artists will take part in the auction that will take place in Kochi on January 18, 2019,” says Bose. “The proceeds, which I hope will reach Rs 5 crore, will be given to the Chief Minister’s Fund.”

Another notable plan is to re-use the materials which will be used to set up the pavilion at the Cabral Yard to build houses for the downtrodden. “We will Recycle, Reuse and Rebuild,” says Bose. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Timeless Songs Of Shonar Bangla

At a song-lecture demonstration at Kochi recently, musician Dr Santanu Dutta focused on the nearly 2000 songs composed by the creative genius Rabindranath Tagore, as well as the folk song genre of Bengal 

Pics: Rabindranath Tagore (illustration by Tapas Ranjan); Santanu Dutta 

By Shevlin Sebastian   

Santanu Dutta sits cross-legged on the carpeted floor of a hall in The Kerala Museum at Kochi on Saturday. In front of him is a harmonium and sheaves of paper. Behind him is a plant, placed in a glass vase, with its leaves and thin branches reaching towards the ceiling. The lights are muted, as the audience waits with a sense of expectation.

Santanu says, “You will be surprised to know that, apart from India’s national anthem, Rabindranath Tagore also wrote the national anthem of Bangladesh.” And the musician immediately moves the keys of the harmonium and sings:  

Amar shonar Bangla
(My golden Bengal)
Ami tomay bhalobashi
(I love you)
Chirodin tomar akash
(always your sky)
Tomar batash
(your air)
Amar prane bajay b√£shi.
(sets my heart in tune as if it were a flute)

Adopted in 1971 by the new country, it had been actually been written to protest the partition of Bengal on communal lines by the British in 1905.

Santanu was giving a song/lecture demonstration on the songs of Tagore, which is called Rabindra Sangeet as well as the folk song genre in Bengal. But not surprisingly, Rabindra Sangeet dominated his talk. “To compose his music, Tagore took inspiration from Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, from Western tunes and the folk songs of Bengal,” says Santanu.

The literary genius of Bengal would compose songs as and when inspiration hit him. “In his lifetime, Tagore had written the lyrics and tunes of about 2000 songs,” says Santanu. “But, out of that, around 50 are really popular.”

Some like ‘Ami Chini Go Chini’, which Kishore Kumar sang for the Satyajit Ray film, ‘Charulata’ (1964), are regarded as classics. In ‘Ami Chini Go’, Ray changed the word ‘Videshini’ (woman) to ‘Bou-Thakurani’ (sister-in-law) in the last line. “That’s because, in the film, the brother-in-law was singing to his sister-in-law. And that created a lot of controversies. At that time, the copyright of the song remained with Visva Bharathi University (it expired in 2001). And I think Ray did not take the permission to change the lyrics.” Nevertheless, the change remained.  

Interestingly, the Rabindra Sangeet songs were not popular during Tagore’s lifetime (he died on August 7, 1941). Instead, the big push came when the Centre celebrated Tagore’s 100th birth anniversary on May 7, 1961. “Many Rabindra Bhavans were set up in several states,” says Santanu. “There were musicians like Pankaj Kumar Mullick who propagated his music on radio and later, on TV. Soon, it became very popular.”  

Asked the charms of Rabindra Sangeet, Santanu says, “The lyrics are timeless and universal.” Broadly, the songs can be placed in five categories: love, nature, worship of the Divine, nationalism, and themes like laughter and sorrow.

In earlier times, the songs would be accompanied by the esraj, a stringed instrument. Later, the harmonium began to be used, even though it is regarded as an incomplete instrument. “It does not have all the notes, especially when you move from one tune to another,” says Santanu.

But it does not matter. Whatever instrument you use or books you read, you cannot avoid Tagore in Bengal. “He was active in so many genres: painting, poems, novels, dramas, and dance dramas,” says Santanu. “He was a gigantic talent, on par with Leo Tolstoy in Russia. Like Tolstoy, Tagore had clear views on how to organise the rural economy, improve agriculture and have a new system of education.”

To fulfill his vision in education, Tagore set up the Visva Bharathi College in 1921 at Santiniketan (it became a full University in 1951). Today it is a centre for languages, the arts, music, philosophy, literature and rural management, as well as a green oasis. “There were few trees in Santiniketan many years ago,” says Santanu. “But now there are trees from all over the world.”

Apart from Rabindra Sangeet Santanu spoke about the different folk music genres in Bengal. He should know since he has done a doctorate from Burdwan University on the geographical locations of the different genres.

In the northern part of West Bengal and Bangladesh, the Bhawaiya music is very popular,” says Santanu. “Abbas Uddin Ahmed is a famous singer of the Bhawaiya. The instrument used is a dotara (two-stringed).” In Eastern Bengal, it is the Bhatiali (boatmen songs). “The lyrics deal with love and devotion to the guru,” says Santanu.

In the western part, it is called the Jhumur. This is very popular among the tribals like the Mundas and Lodhas. And in central Bengal, it is the songs of the Bauls. Their songs are the most popular among all the folk styles. “Purnadas Baul is the most famous Baul singer,” says Santanu. “All in all, Bengal has a rich cultural heritage when it comes to music.” 

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

Sunday, November 04, 2018

The Sounds Of A City

German sound artist Lisa Premke, who spent two months at Fort Kochi, put up an unusual sound installation

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Berlin-based sound artist Lisa Premke walked on the streets of Fort Kochi, in end July, her ears pricked up. There were so many sounds: the noisy exhaust of an auto-rickshaw, the blaring of a car horn, the blast of the horn of a ferry from the nearby backwaters, loud conversations among people in the different languages of English, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi. This was followed by the muezzin’s call for prayer from the local mosque. And when there seemed a break in the noise, she could hear the cawing of the crows and the chirping of sparrows.

“The loud sounds occurred so often, there was a constant rhythm,” says Lisa,
who had come as a participant of a two-month residency programme of the Goethe-Institut in Bangalore.

Lisa says that in Kochi, the sounds were not singular. “Instead, they were all mixed up together,” says Lisa. “Because of the humidity, the sounds carried long and far. But since the buildings did not have sleek surfaces – most had crevices, pock-marked concrete walls, and green moss, the sounds did not bounce back. So, the sounds entered everywhere. I would compare it to an early morning fog. Surprisingly, it did not get on my nerves at all. On the other hand, it was rather calming.”

And it was in Kochi that Lisa heard some sounds for the first time. One was the fall of the monsoon rain. “When it fell on a roof made of an asbestos sheet, it made a different sound than when it fell on a tiled roof, or when it hit concrete walls and vehicles,” she says. “Nature was creating its own pattern of sounds.”

The monsoon set a dominating rhythm to the life around. “When it rained, life slowed down,” says Lisa. “People waited patiently. And after an hour when it stopped raining, life continued at its usual pace.”

Of course, Lisa was heartbroken to see the widespread destruction wrought about by the floods. “It was so sad,” she says.

But the most unique sound she heard was through an excursion. One night, she, along with a friend, went into the backwaters and recorded the sounds of thousands of frogs as they let out their once-a-year mating cry. “It was a like a choir,” she says, with a smile.

Lisa spent days going mulling over her experiences at her Pepper House studio which faced the backwaters. And finally, she came up with an installation, in which she hung thin, long chains on bamboo rods across the hall. And when the breeze blew through the windows, the chains swayed creating a tinkling sound, or it could be the sound of rain falling, or glass breaking into small pieces. In her own way, Lisa had created a unique sound.

And in December, during the Kochi Muziris Biennale, she will take this installation outside, so that the crowds can enjoy the chains swinging in the open breeze and making a noise.

Meanwhile, when asked to compare the sounds of Kochi and Berlin, Lisa, who has a Masters of Sound Degree from the Glasgow School of Arts, says, “The sound in Kochi is like when you play music on the sound system while you are working – you get used to the constant background noise. In terms of sound, Berlin is quiet. But when the sound happens, like a car horn blowing, it is very loud. That is because it usually hits against the sleek surfaces of buildings and bounces back very hard. So, it can get irritating, unlike in

As to how she got interested in sound, in the first place, Lisa says that it has something to do with her childhood in Hanover, Germany. “There were distinct seasons, so in summer you could hear the sounds of birds, but this stopped in winter when the snow fell and the temperatures went to - 14 degrees Centigrade,”  says Lisa. “So, you end up doing 'active listening.' And when you hear something you know exactly what it is. I got fascinated by sounds at that age.”  

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Plastic, It's Fantastic

Rotary Club members Simi Stephen and Maya Varghese are giving awareness classes in schools and colleges about the benefits of recycling plastic even as they collect the waste to give to recyclers

Illustration by Tapas Ranjan. Simi Stephen and Maya Varghese. Photo by A. Sanesh   
By Shevlin Sebastian

Rotary Club member Simi Stephen stood on the stage of the St. Peter’s Senior Secondary School at  Kadayiruppu next to a row of students in white and green uniforms as they began to sing:

Bits of plastic
Bits of plastic
Plastic everywhere
Plastic everywhere
Pick them up
Stamp on them
Keep them in your bag
Keep them in your bag
Let's recycle
Let's recycle

(The tune was based on the popular nursery rhyme, ‘Bits of Paper’).

The auditorium was filled with students who made movements as if they were picking up waste from the ground, then they rolled their arms in a circular motion to show that recycling was taking place.

Simi Stephen and her colleague Maya Varghese are on a plastic collection drive. They belong to the Rotary Club of Cochin North which has a ‘Conserve’ programme run by the women called the Rotary Annes. But now they have become the Ernakulam District Co-Ordinators for the ‘I Challenge Plastic Bottles’ campaign initiated by Fr. Davis Chiramel of the Kidney Federation of India. It was launched on October 2 all over Kerala.

So Simi and Maya have gone to different schools, colleges, youth clubs, and resident associations and talked about how plastic bottles can be recycled. At the Santa Maria Senior Secondary School, at Mundamveli, the principal Sr Rosamma said to the students, “After the floods, the plastic bottle has become a great threat to Kerala. We have to do something to save ourselves as well as the earth. I will ask Simi Maam to talk more about this.”

Simi nodded, smiled and said, “Please do not throw plastic bottles. If you throw it, it takes 1450 years for a plastic bottle to decompose completely. These bottles have chemicals in them. When it leaks into the soil, it will enter the food chain and into our bodies. And when it rains these chemicals pollute the ponds and rivers.” And burning it results in harmful chemicals entering the atmosphere.  

But there is a way out. Many things can be recycled using the bottle. “With 63 mineral water bottles you can make a sweater,” says Maya. “And you need less than 30 bottles to make one T-shirt. After it is recycled, usually into threads, it can be sold to manufacturers who make buttons, mugs, buckets, stick files and polythene covers.

In Tamil Nadu, 20 percent of the bottles are recycled for road making. “If we can do this in Kerala, all plastic can be reclaimed or recycled,” says Maya. “All roads will become very strong and be able to withstand the strong monsoon rains. Plastic can also be used in construction. Instead of brick and cement, hollow bricks can be made from plastic.”

So, plastic bottles should not be regarded as a waste. And recycling can reduce costs. "Since plastic is a byproduct of petroleum, if we recycle, we can reduce its manufacture," says Simi. "As a result, a huge amount of money can be saved.”

But the biggest problem is that when the waste is given for collection, it is not segregated. “In Kerala, there is no awareness among the people on how to segregate the different types of plastic,” says Simi. “And it is necessary that we do so. Because there are different types of recyclers for different plastic products. So, one recycler may only take plastic and soft drink bottles. Another may take plastic covers. A third uses milk packets, bread covers and grocery packs. Another recycler only wants Harpic, shampoo, and five-litre bottles.”

But for all this to be successful, the plastic has to be segregated at home. If it is not,  it is difficult to segregate using labour because of the high costs. “The payment is from Rs 8 to Rs 11 per kg,” says Maya. Apart from this, it is difficult to get an open space to do this type of work. “No landlord would like to give his place for this type of work because he knows that it will become a dumping ground, as well as a health hazard,” says Maya.

Meanwhile, the duo’s talks at the schools have borne results. From the St. Peter’s school alone, they collected 535 kgs of plastic bottles. Over 2.5 tonnes have been collected from different schools and colleges in Kothamangalam, Kolencherry and other places in Ernakulam district in the past three weeks. These are put in large white sacks and transported by the Kerala Scrap Owners Association to various recyclers who pay Rs 10 per kg. This money is sent back to all the contributing schools.  

Interestingly, the pair were surprised at the change of attitude among the students. This has come about because of the floods which devastated the state in September. “They told us that even as they observed the overflowing rivers, they were astonished to see the huge amount of waste, like plastic bottles and packets which went past. So, they are very aware of the damage that is being done to the environment. Hopefully, future generations will ensure that we will have a plastic-safe world.” 

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

Friday, November 02, 2018

A Voice From The Past

A comment that I received yesterday on FB from the Singapore-based Prakhar Kumar Goel, sent me hurtling into the past:

'Hello Shevlin sir. I read your book "A race to win & other stories" long time back during my school days. It had a very positive impact on my upbringing. Thank you for authoring the book and making my childhood more memorable. May God bless you!'

(Image 1) 

'A Race To Win and other stories' was published in the mid 1990s by HarperCollins.

The book consisted of short stories about growing up as a child in India.

There were tales about a ball boy becoming a tennis champion, a boy overcoming shyness through his prowess as an athlete, a daughter talking about life with an alcoholic father, sibling jealousies, how a story-telling servant inspires a child to become a writer and even a Letter To God.

It is out of print now.

Is there a publisher out there that will republish?

Copyright is with the author.

(Image 2) 

The title story, 'A Race To Win' was selected for the ten-story anthology, 'Best of Target Stories'. This was to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the magazine.

In the 1980 and 90's, Target was the leading English language children's magazine in the country. It was brought out by the India Today group. Sadly it closed down.

The editor was the legendary Rosalind Wilson, who was of British origin. She gave opportunities to so many new writers including myself.

She published several stories of mine, sent through the post, in those times, before I was finally able to go from Kolkata and meet her at her New Delhi office.

Her dedication, sincerity and her unparalleled desire to nurture talent -- which writer can remember the late Rosalind (she died of cancer, aged 49, in 1992) except without a deep sense of gratefulness.