Saturday, December 29, 2018

From Malaysia, With A Sense Of Relief

Pooja Stanslas speaks about why she has settled in Kochi after leaving her home country a few years ago

By Shevlin Sebastian  

At 7.30 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, Pooja Stanslas, wearing a red T-shirt and grey leggings, walked up the first-floor steps of the Kerala State Beverages Corporation outlet at Kalamassery. Around one hundred men looked at her, some with their mouths open, a few with widened eyes, and others with smirks. Not surprisingly, she was the only woman present. Despite her heart beating fast, Pooja coolly bought a bottle of vodka and wine. “I never felt so stared at in my life,” she says.

Pooja is a second-generation Malaysian who has relocated to Kochi a few months ago.   
It is not easy to be a single woman in Kochi,” she says. “The city is socially conservative. The men are not used to seeing women speak confidently or dressed in a particular way. It remains a patriarchal society. The Malayali women are pushed hard by society to play a muted role. My women friends tell me, ‘Pooja don’t raise your voice. Always remain understated. Otherwise, you will not be able to get your work done’.”

Nevertheless, she says, the people, for the most part, have been very helpful. Once when she stepped out of a gym at Kalamassery, it was raining heavily. Three members, who were standing nearby, went out in the rain and got Pooja an auto-rickshaw. “Once they come to know that I am a foreigner, they were very accommodating,” says Pooja.  

She came to Kochi because she wanted a break from her life in Malaysia. She says that as an Indian-origin Malaysian, she remains a second-class citizen.

In the 1970s, the Malaysian government came up with the term, ‘Bumiputra’. “It literally means sons of the soil,” says Pooja. “They comprise the Malays as well as the aboriginals. Because I am not a Bumiputra I am heavily discriminated against, in terms of access to education, jobs and business. Basically, you have to fend for yourself. I am still considered a ‘pendatang’ (a Malay word meaning immigrant) despite the fact that my grandparents were naturalised Malaysian citizens and my parents and I were born in Malaysia and speak Malay like a native. Heck, I even have a first class BA Hons. in Malay studies!”

When Pooja was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, there were only five public universities and a complete absence of private universities. And for the minorities, there was a quota system. The Indians got 10 per cent, the Chinese formed 20 per cent, the Malays 60 per cent while the remaining 10 per cent belonged to the minorities like the Sri Lankans and the Eurasians. “The Indians, no matter how well they did in the entrance exams, could only get admitted in the university based on the quota,” she says.  

In public sector jobs, there was a similar discrimination. “No matter how good you are, the top person will always be a Malay,” she says. “He or she may not have a good education or qualification, but because they belong to the right race and religion -- Islam -- they get the jobs.”

In the original Constitution, Islam was made the official religion. “When we were growing up, there was no talk of Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims,” says Pooja. “That was because a liberal form of Islam was practised. We would go to each other’s house. But later a stricter form of Islam began to be practised. The Malays began to look at themselves as Muslims first and Malaysians second. And they would say, ‘Look you are Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. We are different from you’.”

Then the Sharia law which governs personal behaviour and family matters of Muslims was introduced. “So you have a parallel judiciary,” says Pooja. “One which governs the Muslims and another which governs non-Muslims. It means that if you marry a Muslim you will have to convert and change your name. In the end, you will lose your identity. But when a Hindu marries a Christian, there is no compulsion to change.”

And there are other benefits for the Malays. When they buy a flat or property from a developer, they get an automatic seven per cent discount. “And in every building, there has to be a small mosque,” says Pooja.

People were not happy. Large numbers of Indians and Chinese, of the educated middle class, migrated to Australia and Britain. And Pooja, who is an online journalist and an academic copy editor, also followed suit. “I was fed up of the whole situation and decided to leave,” she says. “I did not see any hope or future in Malaysia.” She went to Colombo and spent three years there before moving to Kochi.

At Kochi, thanks to her grandparents having safely preserved their certificate attesting that they were Indians, Pooja has secured a Person of Indian Origin Card. She has now settled in Kalamassery where she has just bought a villa. And she is learning to adjust to the lower professionalism, as compared to Kuala Lumpur. “People like electricians and plumbers take a far longer time to repair things than back home,” she says. “And then, the work is not done perfectly.”  

And she could not escape some bad experiences. Pooja paid a man, posing as a friend, Rs 2.35 lakh for doing interior decoration at her home. “Unfortunately, he has done sub-standard work, will not produce the receipts or return the money,” she says. “So I have filed a case in the Consumer Redressal Cell.”

Asked about the future, she says, “For now I am in Kochi and liking it. I feel as if I have returned to my roots. But who knows what will happen as I move forward? Life is so unpredictable.”

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

A Life Steeped In Art

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, the President of the International Biennial Association, talks about current trends in art as well as the Kochi Muziris Biennale

Photos: Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi; With Bose Krishnamachari, one of the founders of the Kochi Muziris Biennale 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi sits beneath a tree at the Cabral Yard, Fort Kochi. A sliver of sunlight falls on her face but she does not move away. “I like the sun,” says the Director of the Sharjah Biennale Foundation. But she does look a bit harried. In 20 minutes, she has to hold a conference of the International Biennial Association (IBA), of which she is the president. She is grabbing lunch and talking to four journalists as well as a Biennale volunteer, while a photographer takes some pics.

Interestingly, Sheikha Hoor had a particular reason to hold the IBA meeting at Fort Kochi. “I thought it was important for people who had not come to the Kochi Biennale to come and have a look,” she says.

The Sheikha is a fan. And she has attended all four editions. “From the very beginning, the founders [Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu] had a good idea and focus and they started with good intentions,” she says. “The quality of the installations has been increasing through every edition.”

Asked about the international trends in art now, Sheikha Hoor, who is the daughter of Dr Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, says, “Nowadays, it is becoming more and more important for a Biennale to be about the city and the people. In Venice and other major biennales, initially, it was all about tourism. But now that idea has changed.”

As a newly-appointed curator of the second edition of the Lahore Biennale in 2020, Sheikha Hoor is on the lookout for new talent. “At the Kochi Biennale, you see a lot of artists from India and from countries like Bangladesh,” she says. “This is a chance for us to discover new and interesting work. And it is a platform of opportunity for the artists, too.”

And the opportunity is there because the art world is no longer Western-oriented. “Now, a lot of major museums and art festivals in the West are looking to Asia, Africa and Latin America,” she says. “There is a major shift in focus.”

As for the Sharjah Biennale, Sheikha Hoor has a multicultural vision. “It is not only about the Arab world, it is also about South Asia and Africa,” she says. “There are so many cultural influences. It is really important to have a wider viewpoint. And we want to support artists from all over. Arts and culture are one of the few ways where we can overcome boundaries like class, status, race and gender. We can bring people together.”  

As to whether ordinary people are really interested in art, Sheikha Hoor says, “What we are doing in Sharjah, for example, is not for the people of today but those of tomorrow. It is an investment for future generations. The Sharjah Biennale started in 1993. I took over in 2002. And I see the changes.”

More and more people are now interested in art. “There are so many young people who come to see the Biennale and our other exhibitions,” she says. “When we started out there was a staff of five. Now there are 222 people working the year around. That’s how big it has got.”  

Regarding the ongoing Kochi Biennale, Sheikha Hoor says, “It is very nice. There are many interesting works. The artists I liked the most were BV Suresh and Madhavi Parekh. I liked the way the way Madhavi told her stories, as well as her technique. I might invite her for Lahore.”  

Lastly, there was good news for Bose. To be a part of the IBA, you have to hold at least three editions. “Since Kochi is now in its fourth edition we have appointed Bose as one of our Board members,” says Sheikha Hoor.

A happy Bose says, “It is a recognition of the work we have done since the  inception.”


An achiever

Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi did a degree from the Slade School of Fine Art, London (2002), a Diploma in Painting from the Royal Academy of Arts, London (2005) and an MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art, London (2008).

Sheikha Hoor is also on the Board of Directors for MoMA PS1, New York; KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin; Darat Al Funun, Amman and Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. She is also the Chair of the Advisory Board for the College of Art and Design, University of Sharjah and member of the Advisory Board for Khoj International Artists’ Association, New Delhi.

She speaks nine languages: English, Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin, Tagalog, French, Polish, Russian and German.

Sheikha Hoor is currently a member of the Prince Claus Award Committee and on the jury for the Bonnefanten Award for Contemporary Art (2018). 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode)

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dealing With Your Taboos

Luxembourg artist Sophie Medawar’s installation, ‘The Confessional’, a collateral of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, helps people to share their innermost secrets

Photos: Sophie Medawar; 'The Confessional' Installation. Pics by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

When artist Sophie Medawar opened her eyes on a November morning in 2013, at the Grand Duchess Charlotte Maternity Hospital, at Luxembourg, she felt empty. Where for a few weeks she would feel the kick of her baby, now there was nothing. The night before, doctors did an operation to remove the foetus because the four-month-old baby’s heart had stopped beating. Sophie looked out of the window. The weather matched her mood: it was cloudy and cold.

On the next bed, a woman had just given birth. “All her relatives and friends were coming to congratulate her,” says Sophie. “Lying next to her, I felt so low and depressed.”  

One of the nurses came in and said, abruptly, “You know, I am against abortions.”

Sophie thought, ‘Can you just read my medical file and you will know it was not an abortion, but a miscarriage’.

At a restaurant at Fort Kochi on a sunny afternoon, recently, Sophie says, “You cannot condemn somebody even if they have an abortion because you don’t know what is going on in their life? Sometimes, you are forced to do one.”

When Sophie recovered, she wanted to talk about what she went through. “But whenever I raised the subject, I noticed that people felt very uncomfortable,” she says. “A few women told me that it was not something I was supposed to talk about in public. I felt sad. Even my mother was unwilling to discuss it. So, I started thinking about all the things you have to keep inside you because of the pressures from your family, religion and society. Our social mores impose this silence. That’s how the idea of taboos came up.”

And so Sophie decided to make an installation, like a Christian confessional. “While the original confessional is in a square shape, I have made mine in a triangle, to highlight the concept of the Trinity” she says. “Like a person can be a woman, wife and mother at the same time. Or in Christianity, the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The installation, at a height of 7.5 feet, at one side, has been made by her carpenter collaborator TG Antony, of Kumblangi, based on drawings given by Sophie. He has made something that looks like the Zari windows you have in Fort Kochi and the Moucharabieh that you see in the Middle East. (The moucharabieh is a natural ventilation device, a sort of trellis, that is used in Arab countries).

When guests come, the women can look at the visitors through the moucharabieh, but the guest may not be able to see them). “This is the same with taboos,” says Sophie. “You never know who is hiding a secret -- the one behind the trellis or the visitor.”

Because of intricate designs on one side, it was not an easy installation to make. “It took a whole year,” says Sophie. “The wood had to be dried, so they used a special oven. The craftsmen took five months to hand-carve all the panels. I was flying back and forth from Luxembourg to oversee the work.”

Now, this is what a visitor has to do. You have to step into the cubicle. There are strips of paper with an image of a mouth. You write the taboo, fold the paper, and slide it through a slit, which is also made in the form of a mouth, into a bin.

At the end of three months, Sophie will collect all the papers and working with embroidery craftsmen will get it transferred onto a giant open saree that will represent all the taboos.

Sophie had done a similar exhibition in Europe. So when asked about the taboos that people jotted down, she says, “There was plenty about miscarriages. One person wrote that he was in love with his brother’s wife. A woman wrote that she did not love her husband. Somebody wrote the dreaded word: ‘Incest’. But thankfully, there was nothing about wanting to kill somebody or commit suicide.”    

As for whether there is a possibility that healing might take place while doing this, Sophie says, “I am not sure about that. But what will happen is that you will feel a little less alone. And when these are put on a saree and somebody reads it, it might help that person when he or she reads it.”

Sophie wants to take this idea to different parts of the world. “I want to work with different craftsmen and different materials,” she says.

Sophie, who is originally from Lebanon, first came to Kerala, with her family, in August, 2016, and fell in love with the place. “Like Lebanon, which I visit several times a year, Kerala is a place where there are strong family bonds and people of different religions live peacefully together,” she says. “So I will carry on coming to Kerala.”

A group show

Sophie Medawar’s installation is part of a group show, titled ‘Of Memories And Might’, curated by Tanya Abraham. Five other artists are participating: Catherine Stoll-Simon, Indu Antony, Parvathi Nayar, Lakshmi Madhavan and Shubha Taparia. This is a collateral of the Kochi Muziris Biennale and the works, at the Kashi Art Gallery, on Napier Street, will be on display till March 29. 

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The House That Lives On And On


Aspinwall House, in Fort Kochi, is more than one hundred years old. Thanks to it being the prime location of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the building has sprung back into the limelight

Photos: Aspinwall House; John H Aspinwall  

By Shevlin Sebastian

The year was 1925. The time: 8.30 a.m. on a Monday morning. A stream of employees entered the Aspinwall House front gate at Fort Kochi. They were the local people, of Portuguese and Goan origin, with names like Pereira and Alphonse. There were Nairs, too. They settled down behind desks in the main office building. Soon, they opened large red ledgers.

Meanwhile, at one side, near the backwaters, a boat arrived. It was filled with products from England: cycles, pumps and engines. It had been brought by a ship which was berthed in an outer channel. After it was unloaded, workers began to fill the empty vessel with material from the large godown at one side. These included coconut oil, coffee, timber, spices, tea, rubber, coir, mat and mattings. All these were being exported to England and other countries.

The Aspinwall company had a coir factory at Allapuzha,” says city historian VN Venugopal. “Pepper was brought from the high ranges. They had their own rubber plantations at Pullangode in Malabar.”

The company, which has been running for more than 150 years, was set up by a Britisher called John H Aspinwall in 1867.

At Aspinwall House, the general managers lived with their families in two bungalows facing the sea. After work finished at 4.30 p.m. the managers would go home and have tea and snacks. Thereafter, they went to the Cochin Club, which was less than a kilometre away. “The men would play squash, tennis or billiards,” says Venugopal. “Those who were not sports-inclined had a few drinks and played cards. Later, they would go home for dinner.”

On Sundays, the men would play cricket at the Parade Ground. Sometimes, teams would arrive from plantations in Munnar and Wayanad and there would be competitive matches.
It was a comfortable life,” says Venugopal. “A nice bungalow, good food and a comfortable salary. There were a dozen servants to look after you.”

Meanwhile, Aspinwall took several years adding buildings to the House. “He wanted the buildings to last,” says Venugopal. “Lime and mortar were used. Cement had not been discovered then. It was modern looking. There were high ceilings, large windows and wooden furniture. They had a lot of labour in those days to maintain the house.”

On the left of the House, Aspinwall had leased a bit of land to a German shipbuilder by the name of George Brunton. “This later became the Brunton Boatyard period hotel, owned by the CGH Earth Group,” says Venugopal.

On the right, at the present location of the Coast Guard District headquarters, there was the Volkart Brothers and other traders like Harrison and Crossfield and Pierce Leslie. “There was not much competition,” says Venugopal. “Life moved at a leisurely pace.”

Despite that, Aspinwall never relaxed. He was a man with a vision. Aspinwall recommended that Kochi should have a deepwater port. Initially, there was no response. After his death, in 1887, the Cochin Chamber of Commerce took up the request. But nothing happened for decades, although there were several discussions.

However, in 1920, when Lord Willingdon was the governor of Madras, the Cochin Chamber gave another representation,” says Venugopal. “This time, Lord Willingdon spoke to the Admiralty in London, and an engineer Robert Bristow came on April 13, 1920, to do a survey.

Says historian Sreedhara Menon: “It took some time for the British authorities to realise the commercial and strategic potential of Kochi as a port and take the necessary steps for its development as if to compensate for the earlier neglect.”

But it took 21 years before the port could start functioning because it took a lot of effort to make an approach channel from the deep sea to the inner harbour. The port began operations on May 26, 1928. And Aspinwall's wish finally came true.

But something he never imagined is also taking place now. The House has been leased to the Kochi Biennale Foundation which is holding an international art festival for the past few years.

And the building has made an impact. “When I saw Aspinwall House for the first time, my initial reaction was, ‘My God, this is an incredible space’,” says Biennale Founder Bose Krishnamachari. “Visitors have told me that the House exudes a charm and is a character in its own right. What is great for me is that you can explore it like a historical architectural place. There is always an exchange between the buildings and the sea as well as the land. Lastly, Aspinwall House looks and feels new, even though it is more than 100 years old.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Tattoo Initiative For Women Cancer Survivors

The Kochi-based tattoo artist Ankita Jain’s work on cancer survivor Pooja Stanslas was a transformative experience for both

Photos: Ankitha Jain; Ankitha with Pooja Stanslas. Both by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

On most mornings, when Pooja Stanslas, a third-generation Malaysian of Indian origin looked at the mirror, after her bath, at her home in Kochi, she would feel depressed. Right across her right breast, there was a white scar. It was a grim reminder of the close shave she had: a small area had become malignant. At that time, in 2016, she had been living in Colombo. So, through surgery, the tumour had been removed. “To be careful, they removed more than what was necessary,” says Pooja. “So there is a rather large scar.”

Pooja, who works as an online journalist, toyed with the idea of doing cosmetic surgery. But she felt she should do something less invasive. So she felt tattoos would be a safe option. Through a mutual acquaintance, she came to know that the Delhi-born Ankita Jain was running a set-up called the ShivOham Tattoo studio at Kochi

So, Pooja got in touch with Ankita, who was initially apprehensive. “This was the first time I was getting such a request,” says Ankita.  

She discussed it with her partner Priyanka Sivankutty, who told her, “This could make a difference to Pooja’s life.”

So Ankita agreed. And Pooja came over. They talked and clicked. “Pooja is a very down-to-earth person,” says Ankita. “Her only request was that I should make a mandala.”

So, on a recent November morning, Ankita, 28, got going. She cleaned the tattoo area with antibacterial soap solution and removed tiny hairs with a razor. Thereafter, she drew a mandala with the symbol ‘Om’ at the centre on a stencil and placed it over the breast. Then, using a disposable needle, and working carefully, she did the design, using organic inks. The work took all of three hours. “It has to be done perfectly, otherwise the tattoo will stick out, like as if it is embossed,” says Priyanka.  

Everything worked out well. And Pooja is so happy. “Now when I look at the mirror, I feel so confident. The scar had been a constant and painful reminder. So, the trauma is receding. Now I can see the ‘Om’, one of Hinduism’s most sacred mantras and it makes me feel spiritual and grateful for being given a second chance in life."

As for Ankita, it was an elevating experience. “The expression on Pooja’s face when she looked at her tattoo was out of this world,” says Ankita. “I felt so happy that I could bring so much of happiness to her.”

In fact, so overwhelmed was Ankita that she told Pooja she would not be charging for her work. “I am hoping that other breast cancer survivors would avail of tattoos to get over their trauma, and I will do it for free,” she says. “This will enable women to overcome the stigma regarding tattoos.”

She says that Kochi is a conservative city. “Many women are scared because they are not sure about how their husbands, mothers-in-law or society would react if they did a tattoo,” says Ankita. Thus far, most of her women clients have come from the Navy personnel stationed in the city as well as North Indian families. “Most of the women prefer mandalas or floral designs like roses,” says Ankita. “They also like it on the back because as and when it is necessary they can cover it.”

Among Malayalis, it is the men, in the 20 to 40 year age group, who are her clients. “There is a big demand for images of Lord Shiva and Jesus Christ,” says Priyanka.

The tattoo artist is herself covered with tattoos on her arms. She has figures of an angel, a rose, a woman’s face and an image of a handsome young man. “This is how my father looked as a young man,” says Ankita. Unfortunately, her father passed away, aged 45 in 2012 of a heart attack.

She lives with that enduring pain but Ankita is also happy to be in Kochi. She had met Priyanka in Bangalore sometime ago where she had gone to do some freelance work. “Priyanka told me there is scope for a quality tattoo artist in Kochi, so I came in May, last year,” she says. “Kochi is a nice place. I am enjoying myself.”

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

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Luxembourg Artist Ruminates About Bandhs

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Luxembourg-based artist Sophie Medawar opened the newspaper on Friday morning (December 14) at Fort Kochi, and read the news about a strike in Kerala, she could not help but go down memory lane.

In August, 2016, when she landed in Kochi, with her husband and daughter, they set out from the airport to Chingoli, near Haripad. As they cruised on the highway, both could not help but notice the rather deserted highway. Sophie’s husband turned to her and said, “Kerala is very quiet. What’s happened?”

Sophie was also equally puzzled. But when they reached their destination the people said, “Oh you managed to come. We have a strike today.”

And that was when Sophie understood why their driver had pasted a notice in Malayalam on the windshield. She was told it read: ‘Tourist transportation’.

Interestingly, Sophie has had her own experience of a strike. This was when she was studying at the ‘Academie Julian’ art school in Paris. On her second day, when she stepped out on the Boulevard Saint Germain to go to college, she saw people shouting and walking past.

Soon, the police fired teargas canisters. In response, the strikers also let off small explosions. This resulted in white, red, blue and green smoke. “It created a fog and the police could no longer see the rioters properly,” says Sophie. “It was amazing. Thankfully, there was no violence and I was able to reach the college safely.”

Sophie pauses and says, “The French are masters of the strike. And they are still at it. Although the riots in Paris today have become violent.”

For Sophie, that initial experience in Paris of a strike was a novel one. That’s because, in Luxembourg, there are no strikes at all. “It is a very quiet country,” she says. “In fact, the last strike I remember was when I was 12 years old.”   

A boy had been run over by a bus because there were no proper barriers near a school. So the people protested. “We have never had a strike for political reasons,” she says.  

Incidentally, the country has a population of only six lakh or, as Sophie says, “That is the same number of visitors that are expected to arrive for this year’s Biennale.” So, because of their small population, they can pass messages directly to their politicians. And there are swift responses from the powers-to-be.

But having said this, in my travels, I have seen strikes in many parts of the world,” says Sophie. “It’s a part of life for many people, not only for Malayalis.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Friday, December 14, 2018

A Sight To Behold

On a recent visit to Kochi, the visually-challenged Preeti Monga talks about the battling life she has led and about her Delhi-based NGO Silver Linings

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the visually-challenged Preeti Monga, the CEO of the NGO Silver Linings landed at Kochi airport on a recent evening, after a flight from Delhi, she immediately noticed the difference. “The smell was different,” she says. “It was fresh and slightly salty. But it was much warmer than Delhi. There were not too many bumps on the road. Traffic seemed to be less. It seemed to be a prosperous place. And there was far less horn-blowing than in Delhi.”

And she liked the people. “People in the South are much more humane than those in the North,” she says.

Preeti had come to give a talk organised by Aster DM Healthcare. The event was held to recognize the contributions of differently-abled individuals. Preeti’s talk was broadcast live to about 17,700 employees globally.  

It has been a long journey for the 59-year-old. At the age of six, she lost her eyesight.
The damage happened during the first three months of my birth,” she says. “I had been given a smallpox vaccine, which caused an allergy in my eyes. The allergy went away after a month. At that time, I had a functional eyesight. Then it started to deteriorate.”  

Soon, she developed Retinitis Pigmentosa, which led to a complete loss of eyesight. Thereafter, for the next several years, Preeti went through a trying time. She was thrown out of a regular school when she was in Class 8 because of her blindness. “That was the time when I realised the gravity of my problem,” she says.  

Preeti’s parents took her to a blind school in Delhi. But the school was in such a bad condition, that her parents did not want to leave her there. “The school did not admit  day scholars,” says Preeti.”So I stayed at home and read a lot.”

Her parents made her learn the sitar for eight years but she did not have an aptitude. Meanwhile, when she became a young woman, she developed an urge to get married.
If people with sight have a right to live in this world, so did I,” she says. “So, I thought I should get married like my cousins and friends.”

But it was not easy. She faced rejection from hundreds of boys because nobody wanted to marry a blind girl. Eventually, Preeti found a man who said yes. But it turned out to be a bad marriage. She walked out after 11 years with her two children, Fiona and Mark.

Desperate to earn a living, she did not know what to do. She had only studied till Class 10. She stayed with her parents and they were paying for the expenses of the children, like the school fees. She did not feel good about it.    

At this time, in the 1980s, aerobics had become a fad. So, she started teaching it. Preeti did well and conducted several classes a day.

In order to increase her income, she started selling pickles of a Delhi-based company, under the brand name of ‘Granny’s Pickles’. “I would go from door to door, shop to shop, street to street,” she says. Soon, she was selling double the number of bottles sold by the entire sales team. The company offered her the job of marketing and sales head. It was while there that she met Ashwani Monga. “I felt that he is a great human being,” she says. “So I proposed, but it took Ashwani a month before he said yes. And now we have been married for 22 years.”  

Asked about Indian society’s attitude towards blindness, Preeti says, “This world has been made by sighted people for sighted people. There is no consideration that a blind person needs to use the same space. We have to learn to adjust. People feel that we are alien. They ask us how do we eat, walk or dress. But the technology of today helps us to use the phones and the computers, as efficiently as everyone else.”

That was when Preeti began a campaign among corporates to urge them to hire blind people.  
Preeti has other suggestions. “If you give quality and value education from day one, and include blind children in the mainstream schools, they can do well,” she says. “One of our children got 88 per cent in her Class five final exams in a regular school. She uses an e-book reader.”

In 2006, Preeti set up her NGO Silver Linings. This is aimed at blind girls. And there is a reason for that. “I realised that the blind female child is the most marginalised in society,” says Preeti. “She is ignored by the family as well.”

At the moment she is running a hostel and a preparatory school. Later, these children will be sent to mainstream schools. “We also have another programme called Dignity, for working blind women,” says Preeti. “We offer whatever help required, like cooking and daily-use materials.”  

It has been a rich and fulfilling life which she has chronicled in two books -- ‘The Other Senses -- An inspiring true story of a visually-impaired person and her road to success’ and ‘Flight Without Sight’, both available on Amazon.

And her tips for blind people are simple: “Work hard and believe in your abilities.
Learn everything possible. You have to equip ourselves with all that there is to learn. In other words, you must have a fighting spirit. You should take responsibility for your lives and not wait for other people to do something for you.”  


An encounter with Khushwant Singh

Preeti Monga went to meet the famed writer Khushwant Singh at his apartment in Delhi to get some help. She was accompanied by her assistant Aditi. Preeti rang the bell. Khushwant opened the door. Then he said, “Hello Preeti, how are you? Please come in.” Then he took Aditi’s hand and led her in.

Preeti was left standing at the door. Preeti said, “Mr Singh, I am here.”

Khushwant came back and said, “What, you are Preeti. I thought she was the blind one and you are the assistant.”

Preeti smiled. Khushwant said, “I have always got the better of the public till today. You are the only one to baffle me. You don’t look blind at all.” 

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

First sampling of Kochi Muziris Biennale indicates a sumptuous feast for the eyes

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Curator Anita Dube (left, with microphone) in the hall which contains the work of Gond-couple Subhas and Durgabai Vyam; Massive tyre: Installation work by Danish artist EB Itso. Pics by Albin Mathew 

Curator Anita Dube sounds hoarse. “I have been working till 3 a.m. for the past few days,” she says, as she starts a preview tour of the Kochi Muziris Biennale on December 11. And the first stop is a building called the ‘Coir Godown’. This was the original name given to it during the time when the Aspinwall Company (founded in 1867) was functioning at the Fort Kochi location.

But Anita’s voice is sombre as she shows the textile works of the artist Priya Ravish Mehra. “Priya had focused on the marginalised community of Rafoogars of Najidabad, Uttar Pradesh,” says Anita. “I wanted to pay homage to an artist and a colleague who is no longer there.” Priya had died in May this year of cancer at the age of 57.

In a nearby room, Mexican artist Tania Candiani has transformed a traditional weaving loom into a musical instrument with strings. An assistant plays the strings and creates a sound similar to the sitar.

Noted photographer Sunil Janah (1918-2012) has shown searing photographs of the Bengal Famine of 1943. “The mood will change from building to building,” says Anita. “Because we are living in very dark times.”

At one section, when Anita climbs up the stairs, she says, “The upstairs rooms are apocalyptic. There is the work of an artist called Radendo Milak and  Anju Dodiya, who focuses on the battle of the sexes.”

Even as she talks, nails are being hammered in, and work goes on. Manoj Nair, Editorial Director of the Biennale says, “The work started late because of the floods, and so many of the carpenters and electricians were not available, as they were busy trying to repair their own homes.”

One of the exhibits which will have resonance is the work by Sue Williamson, which consists of several white T-shirts. “These belonged to people who were sent on slave ships from Kochi to work in South Africa,” says Anita. “Sue did research and found out their names.” On the shirts Sue has printed the following: Name: Jacob. Place of birth: Malabar. Age: 12. Seller: Antony. Buyer: Aram. “Sue has dipped the shirts in a moat in South Africa and dirtied them,” says Anita.

What is going to be an eye-catcher is a huge tyre, weighing 370 tonnes, and made by JK Tyres,  which is hanging from a height at the centre of Aspinwall House. “This is called developmental mobility and the concept is by Danish artist EB Itso,” says Anita. “The world has invented the wheel and he wants to show the oppressive nature of the discovery as we go forward.” This is set to to become ‘The Spectacle’ of the Biennale.

Another project which is bound to create an impact is by the Gond artist-couple Subhas and Durgabai Vyam. It is a stunning work, where the entire four walls of a hall are filled with marine plywood etchings. “They are telling the stories about their myths, and their lives,” says Anita. “It is a world full of animals and people. Every inch of the walls has been covered with their work, the opposite of minimalism.”

This sampling seems to indicate that this Bienalle is also headed in the same direction as the previous Biennales: a sumptuous feast for the eyes and plenty of food for thought. 

(The New Indian Express, Page 1, Kerala editions)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Feminine View

Anita Dube, the first woman curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, talks about what to expect in the fourth edition

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Anita Dube was chatting with some artists in Kuala Lumpur recently when one of them said, “Have you heard of Pangrok Sulap.” The curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale shook her head. So, she was shown a video.

Pangrok is a collective of artists in their twenties who stay in the state of Sabah. And they have a unique art form. First, they carve words and images in reverse onto a wooden board. Then they put rolling ink on it. Thereafter, they place cloth or paper and dance on it. Then they pull away the paper or cloth and a beautiful illustration is formed. “It was fantastic,” says Anita. “I got so excited.”

Not surprisingly, they have been invited to participate in the fourth edition of the Biennale at Kochi (December 12-March 29, 2019). More than 100 artists will take part, from countries as diverse as Lebanon, Japan, Vietnam, Cuba, South Africa, French Guyana, Poland, Spain and Israel. Interestingly, Anita has avoided the power centres of the West, like the UK, USA, and Europe. “I wanted to give a chance to those who are on the margins of international art,” she says.  

And as the first woman curator, it is also no surprise that more than half the artists will be women. “They do not get as many opportunities as the men,” says Anita. “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. But her unique idea, which probably has not been done in any Biennale ever is to enable the visitors to become participants. So, apart from the exhibition area, Anita is setting up a pavilion where anybody could come and speak, show a film clip, or discuss about a topic that is very important for them. “You could even sing a Malayalam song,” she says. “I am hoping conversations could develop, and arguments could be had.”

At the Pepper House, at Fort Kochi, on a recent November morning, the sixty-year-old sits at a wooden table in the cafe, looking exhilarated but clearly tired. Since April last year, she has been doing an endless and hectic travel to different countries. “I met so many interesting artists, and had enlightening conversations,” she says. “It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Interestingly, she says, it will change her art in some way. “I will have to reevaluate my work,” says Anita. “If you are a writer and you read a great novel, then you know where you stand. It has been a humbling experience for me.”  

Asked about the trends in international art these days, she says, “There are so many, like performance and installation art. But perhaps the hottest trend is social practice. The artists are active as social beings like Pangrok is,” she says.

Meanwhile, Anita’s activity as an artist or social being was not preordained. She grew up in Lucknow, one of four children of doctors. In fact, her father Dr PC Dube was well known as the Head of the Department of Surgery in King George Medical Hospital. Both her parents ran a ten-bed nursing home. “So art was very far from our family,” she says. Nevertheless, Anita felt its stirrings within her.

So, she did her MA (History) from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. Thereafter, she did art history at MS University in Baroda. “I started to visit art exhibitions in college,” says Anita. “I wrote poetry. But when I touched clay and wood, I knew that I had found my destiny.” Anita made her mark through sculpture, photography, video and installation art.

Finally, when asked whether she was nervous about how people would react to her selections for the Biennale, Anita says, “I can only do what I can do. And I think I have done my best. You cannot please everybody. There will be some who might not like my choices but I don’t mind at all.” 

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

When The Locals Said, ‘Thank You’

The local community at Jew Town felicitates the Jews who had come from all over the world for the 450th anniversary of the Mattancherry Paradesi Synagogue

Photos: Some of the Jews pictured at the felicitation meeting. Sitting on a wheelchair is the 80 plus Ellis Roby, who lives in Israel. Photo by Albin Mathew. Travel guides put up a banner which says, 'Welcome to Kochi. We love Israel' in Hebrew. One of them waves an Israeli flag. Photo by SS

By Shevlin Sebastian

As the all-woman chenda team set out from the Mattancherry Paradesi Synagogue people looked out from the nearby shops, houses and terraces. Behind the drummers were a motley group of Jews in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Some wore T-shirts, and shorts, while others were in jeans, while several had caps. Ellis Roby, in his mid-eighties, from Israel was seated in a wheelchair.  

At the end of the road, three tour guides raised a banner. On it was a Star of David. Beneath it was written two lines in Hebrew. The first line said: ‘Welcome to Kochi’ followed by ‘We love Israel’. And under it was the symbol of the holy Hanukkah candle holder. As one guide waved the Israeli flag, the other said, “We want to show our appreciation of the Jews.”

So did the the Kerala Handicraft Dealers and Manufacturers Welfare Association, the Kashmiri Handicrafts Association and the local community. The Jews had come to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Mattancherry Paradesi Synagogue. And the locals decided to honour the Jews.   

Saus Junaid Sulaiman, the secretary of the Kerala Handicrafts Association: “We are grateful to the Jews because thanks to the presence of the synagogue we are on the world map. And for decades we have been having a steady business as a lot of Jews come from all over the world to pray at the synagogue.”

Leading hotelier Jose Dominic said, “Many of the Jews left in their teens and now they are all senior citizens. The relevance of this celebration is that there will probably not be another celebration like this.”  

At the public meeting, in the Ginger House Restaurant, the Los-Angeles based David Hallegua said, “When I get ready to leave this world I know where my soul is going to be. It is going to be by the fishing nets in Fort Kochi, where I grew up as a little boy, spending time with my grandparents, waking up in the morning, hearing a ship’s siren, and hearing the waves hit the banks and the sound of seagulls flying.”  

Essie Sassoon, who lives in Israel, said, “The Jews have been driven out from every other country, but India accepted us. We were allowed to live peacefully and practise our religion. This was very important for us. The authorities would call us and ask when was the date of our Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur festivals so that they could avoid holding public examinations on those days. Where can you find such a caring relationship anywhere in the world?”

And then up stepped the American Steve Hertzman, who brought the house down, when he said, “Sometimes I feel like a colonial plunderer because I managed to pluck one of the most valuable gems in Jew Town: my wife Linda.”  

As for Nima Regev, who studied in St. Mary’s convent school, Fort Kochi, St. Teresa’s and Maharaja’s College, her fondest memory was of the ulsavams (festivals). “We would hear the sound of the chendas and rush out of the house,” she said. “Whenever I come here, it is as though I have never left.”

There were felicitations from KV Thomas, MP, George Fernandes, MLA, KJ Soman, former Mayor of the Kochi Corporation and other dignitaries.

The function concluded with the singing of the Israeli national anthem followed by a powerful rendition by the Jews of the Indian national them. At its conclusion, many Jews raised their hands to the sky.      

As Essie said, “You can take a Jew out of India but you cannot take India out of a Jew.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)