Saturday, August 31, 2019

The faces tell a story

At his recent exhibition, artist Girish Kalleli has focused on how spiritual enlightenment can change the human face  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Now and then, the artist Girish Kalleli would meet up with his neighbour Raghu at his hometown of Muvattupuzha. The latter is an anchor on a local TV channel. He writes skits and enacts it. But he is also facing some personal troubles.   

One day Girish got an idea. He would do a painting of Raghu. So he called 
him to his house, drew an outline on a piece of paper and took a photograph. Then Raghu left. Girish was planning a solo exhibition and was wondering about the theme. 

After a few days, he got an unusual idea. He would showcase some of the people in his area but would give them a spiritual look. “In other words, I wanted to imagine how they would look if they became spiritually enlightened,” says Girish. 

So, he drew Raghu with a pompadour hairstyle. There are small white flowers in the hair. The eyes are a striking blue-green. The ends of the moustache meet the beard through two thin lines. There is a small tuft of hair below the lower lip. On the left ear is an earring. The background of the work consists of tiny leaves.  

Raghu is a dynamic person, with lots of energy,” says Girish. “He has gone through difficult times but now things are getting better. I wanted to show his strength.” 

Girish’s next subject is a labourer, Pritam. “I found him interesting because he greets everybody the same way, whether rich or poor,” says Girish. “He is also honest and straight-forward.” Pritam, like Raghu, has a thick black beard and large piercing eyes. He is wearing a green banian along with a necklace which has a small amulet. Pritam’s maroon towel has been folded to make a turban. And on his head, Girish has drawn roots going all the way down to his shoulder. The background consists of several small fishes. “Pritam is rooted to the soil,” says Girish. “And whenever he has some spare time, he goes to the river and does fishing.”  

Another portrait, all mixed medium on paper, is of Girish’s eight-year-old daughter Arya. But she looks much older, almost as if she is in her early twenties, looking straight ahead, with thick hair and a bindi in the middle of her forehead. “My daughter is much more mature than her years and very confident,” says Girish. “I feel there is an older person inside her. Arya looks after her younger brother in the same way my wife looks after him.”

Others who have been portrayed include Gireesh’s wife, a local temple priest and a youth. All these portraits were on show in Girish’s first solo exhibition, ‘Lifetraits’, which was held a few days ago at the Durbar Hall, Kochi.   

During the time he worked on these images, he realised that everybody has a mask. 
We wear them at home, in the workplace, in front of our spouses, relatives, parents and children,” says Girish. “Where is the real Girish is the question I ask myself. This is the case with all the portraits. Where is the real Raghu? Or Pritam? No matter how close we are to people, we will not be able to know their innermost selves. In a way, we are actors in a drama. We have been trained to behave like this from childhood.”  

A full-time artist, Girish owns a paddy field and a few cows. So, it is no surprise that the only animal that has been featured in his show is a cow. “I would see this cow in the town,” he says. “It seemed to me that it was not happy because it had not been treated well.” The cow that he has drawn has deeply soulful eyes, which seem to have seen a lot of suffering. It is an eye-catching work, so it came as no surprise that a visitor had bought it following the conclusion of the show.  

Yes, thankfully, a few works did get sold,” says Girish, with a smile. 

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

To make India litter-free

On September 1, marathon runner Ripu Daman Bevli will be setting out from Kochi on a ‘plogging’ journey cleaning the trash in 50 cities all over India  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

It is a sunny Sunday morning at Leisure Valley Park in Gurgaon City. In the sprawling 25-acre park, there are fountains, slides, gardens, large flowering trees, and numerous cemented walking paths. A group of people have gathered -- a mix of children, youngsters, middle-aged professionals, and seniors with grey hair. In the middle of this group, is a tall man with an orange T-shirt with ‘Super Sikh’ embossed on it. He is Ripu Daman Bevli, the pioneer in India of ‘plogging’: collecting garbage as you go jogging. 

Soon, the group is handed reusable gloves and bags. Then Ripu says, “When you bend down to pick up the first piece of litter that’s where your journey begins. That's because the awareness that you get from picking up that first piece is an unmatched feeling. If you don’t do anything else, you will surely stop littering.” 

The group nods and Ripu says, “This is a pristine place. But you will be shocked at the amount of trash you will be able to collect.” 

Soon, the group spreads out all over the park….

One hour later, the group has collected over 400 kgs of trash: white plastic packets, wrappers, chips and biscuit packets, numerous Coca Cola and Pepsi plastic bottles, clothes, condoms and sanitary pads. 

The group was in disbelief because the place they thought was clean, was actually so dirty,” says Ripu. “Our normal eye is an ignorant one. We don’t see trash. We just walk past it because we are so busy in our day-to-day activities.” 

Ripu has so far organised and supported 312 drives across 21 cities to make people aware of how this casual throwing of trash damages the environment and spoils the beauty of our villages, towns and cities. 

And on September 1, he is embarking on his most ambitious project: a clean-up of 50 cities in different parts of India, spread over a distance of over 1000 km. The estimated time is two-and-a-half months. The starting point is Kochi. From there, he will go to Madurai, Coimbatore, Salem, Puducherry, Chennai, several other cities in South India, then to Kolkata, Guwahati and cities in North India. 

He is being helped by three friends, Shresth Saha, Sanjay Karki and Siddharth Shankar, who will be taking turns to drive the crew car, and uploading the details of the journey on social media. Ripu is also accompanied by the sponsor R/Elan, a company which makes sustainable fabrics out of PET bottles. “They will take care of the waste management,” says Ripu. 

He plans to start at 4.30 a.m. and do cleaning till about 2.30 p.m. It will be tough on him physically and mentally. “One hour of plogging is equivalent to four hours of jogging,” says Ripu. “It’s exhausting because you are squatting every second or third step. You cannot build momentum. Also, seeing garbage all the time can be depressing.”  

But not everybody is a fan of what he is doing. “Some people asked why they should do a ragpicker’s job,” says Ripu. “My reply to them is that you never question people when they are throwing the trash. But you are questioning us when we are picking it up.” 

The Delhi-based Ripu began this programme two years ago. He was a marathon runner who would go for early morning training. “At that time, there are much less people and traffic,” he says. “That’s when I observed a lot of trash all over the place. All of us crib and complain, but no one does anything about it. So I decided to do something.” 

In December, 2017, Ripu started collecting garbage from the streets of Delhi and began posting pics on Facebook and Instagram via the page that he created: ‘My City, My Responsibility’. “Suddenly I saw a lot of people applauding and taking an interest,” he says. “Many wanted to join. So we organised our first clean-up. And we posted pics of ‘before’ and ‘after’.”  

Following this, Ripu decided to take it to the national level. So, he went to Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Kolkata and launched drives. 

Meanwhile, in January 2018, Ripu came across a news item about Erik Ahlström, a Swedish runner who was doing the same thing in Stockholm. But he called it ‘plogging’: it’s a combination of the Swedish word ‘plocka upp’, which means ‘pick up’ and jogging. Finding it an attractive word, Ripu has renamed his group as ‘Ploggers of India’. “It’s a catchy word and will draw the millennials,” says Ripu, who has taken this as his life mission and does not have a regular job.  

I am doing this out of passion,” he says. “There is no financial gain. My family is giving me moral support, but they have apprehensions, especially on the financial side. However, for the long-term success of the mission, I will have to bring some financial self-sustainability. My aim is simple: I want to make India litter-free. I want to bring out a behavioural change in the people so that India will be as clean as any developed country.” 

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

Monday, August 26, 2019

Behind high walls

Fr. John Puthuva is celebrating 25 years as a priest as well as a prison counsellor all over Kerala and in Delhi. He talks about his experiences

Pics: Albin Mathew  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Harish Nair stared at the wedding card. For a moment, he felt that his heart had stopped. He could feel the blood rush to his head. He blinked, took a deep breath and stared hard at what was written. There was no doubt: his neighbour and childhood friend Monica Kumar, in a Delhi neighbourhood, was getting married to Shiva Prasad, an IT engineer working for a company. A spasm of rage swept through him. ‘Monica is mine,’ he thought. ‘Nobody else can marry her.’

He calmed himself and walked out. Some distance from the house, he googled Shiva’s company and called the office. He managed to secure the home address. When he asked at what time Shiva reported to work, he was told, “2 pm.” 

He looked at his watch. It was only 10.30 a.m. At 24, having just completed his MBA, along with Monica, in the same institution, he was on the lookout for a job. 

So, he was free now. He went to a wholesale market and bought a knife. Thereafter, he went to Shiva’s house, and called him out. As soon as Shiva stepped on the sidewalk, Harish stabbed him twice in the heart. Holding the blood-stained knife, he went to a nearby police station and told the shocked officer, “I killed a man who was supposed to marry my girlfriend. You can arrest me.” 

Not surprisingly, Harish was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in jail. “And it was at Tihar Jail that I met Harish,” says Fr. John Puthuva, who is celebrating 25 years as a priest as well as a prison counsellor. “He is a very nice boy. And he has experienced deep remorse at what he did several times.” 

The story did not end there. Two years after he was incarcerated, Harish secured parole for ten days. He met Monica and confessed his love. She reciprocated. On another visit, they had a registered marriage. And in later years Monica gave birth to their baby daughter. “Harish has a few more years to serve,” says Fr. John. “Monica has a good job. Their love is very strong.” 

Fr. John is recounting this story in the waiting shed for visitors just outside the Kakkanad District Jail in Kochi. The monsoon rain is beating down. In the distance the 20-foot high walls are getting a proper drenching. On the opposite bench sits a young woman with a sleeping baby, his head resting contentedly on her shoulder. But she looks morose. She has probably come to see her husband. 

Another woman in her fifties is holding a transparent plastic packet. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, a toothbrush and a couple of Liril soaps could be seen. Opposite, at some distance away, a small gate within a large gate opens. A policeman sticks his head out and hollers their names. They get up, open their umbrellas and walk towards the gate. 

As Fr. John watches them go, he says, “Sad, isn’t it? It’s such a social embarrassment for the family when a husband or a father is jailed. Relatives keep away. People whisper to each other when they are walking on the street. Children are told not to interact with the convict’s children. Money is short. The wife has to face harsh words from the local grocery store because the dues are mounting.”   

Dressed in a white cassock and with an easy smile, Fr. John provokes respect. A group of schoolboys and girls rush in to take shelter. “Good morning Father,” they say in unison. He smiles happily and greets them back.

He turns to me and says, “You will be surprised to know, like these schoolchildren,  there are many innocent people in jail.” 

Then he recounts an anecdote. A man, Suresh, committed a murder. Then pretending that everything is fine, he went to his friend Anil’s house. “Anil did not know that Suresh had just committed a murder,” says Fr. John. “As a friend, he invited Suresh to stay the night. The next morning Suresh left. But when he was caught by the police, Anil, as his friend, was also arrested. It’s three years now. The case is still going on. So, for no fault of his, Anil is in jail.” 

But, of course, there are hard-core career criminals who kill people for a living. It is to these men that Fr. John offers counselling. “I tell them that the taking of a human life is a grievous sin in any religion,” he tells them. “I ask them to take care of their families, have a belief in God, and learn to behave in a law-abiding way in society.”   

But the road to redemption is not easy. “There are many who belong to gangs and find it difficult to break away,” says the priest. “They feel trapped. Their group has a vice-like grip on them. Having said that there have been many who have managed to break free and lead straight lives once again. Through the support of the jail authorities, we give moral support so that they remain strong.” 

Asked the reasons behind their criminal activities, Fr. John says, “Many murderers come from disturbed family backgrounds. The father might hit the mother. Or he is an alcoholic and hits the boy. Sometimes, they think a murder is an easy way to make money.” 

Criminal activities spans all the classes. “Nowadays, even educated people also commit crimes,” he says. One day, a group of college students in Delhi, coming from good families, came up with the idea of robbing an ATM to make some money. So they selected one in which there was no security guard and no cameras. They managed to break the ATM and take away the money. But unknown to them there was a tiny camera. So they were caught and jailed.

And now three years have gone past as the case drags on. “They are doing their education in the jail,” says Fr. John. “But their parents are anguished. And their names will be permanently there in the police records. In their social circles, their names are forever tarnished.”  

Meanwhile, the rain has stopped. The woman with the baby steps out. She gets into an autorickshaw and is driven off. Soon, the elderly lady also moves away.  

As it become silent, Fr. John slips into a reminiscent mood. “When I was studying at the St. Joseph’s Seminary, at Aluva, once a week we would go and say prayers for the prisoners at the local jails. That’s how I got interested in prison counselling.” 

He has worked in many jails in Kerala, and had a three-year stint at Tihar Jail, from 2013-16. While there, to provide mental relief, he organised football and cricket matches. “[Former cricketers] Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh inaugurated the cricket tournament,” says Fr. John. “For a football match between India XI and Tihar XI [former Indian captain] Bhaichung Bhutia played.” Of course, India XI won 3-0.  

Sometimes he held variety entertainments. Once, there was a dance programme by boys and girls. While the show was going on, Fr. John noticed a man in his forties, who was sitting in the front row, with tears rolling down his face. “After the programme I asked him why he had cried,” says Fr. John. “He said that when he saw the boys and girls he was thinking about his own children. He missed them terribly. He said, ‘I spent my life trying to earn money and did not spend time with the family. Then I murdered somebody, got caught and now I am in jail’.” 

As our conversation meanders to a close, Fr. John, who is now the parish priest of St George’s Church at Kalady, stands up and says, “There is a special reason I came to this jail today. I want to meet the superintendent so that, during Onam, I want to sponsor a special lunch for the prisoners to celebrate my 25 years.” 

(A shorter version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South Indian editions and Delhi)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

In the middle of nowhere

The former principal of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Dr George Mathew talks about his experiences in Biru, a tribal village of Jharkhand

Pics: Dr. George Mathew; a community meeting taking place

By Shevlin Sebastian  

When the 45-year-old tribal, Majhi was brought to the Shanti Bhavan Medical Centre in Biru, Jharkhand, blood was spurting out from a gash in the neck. The nurses rushed to call Dr George Mathew, the general physician and gastrointestinal surgeon. When the doctor came, he was shocked. He pressed hard against the blood vessels to stop the flow, even as Majhi was wheeled into the operation theatre on a gurney. 

The gash had gone through his ear,” says Dr Mathew. “His nerves and muscles were cut. I worked through the night and managed to repair it. But I told the family Majhi may not be able to speak or hear again.” Apparently, Majhi was having a drink with his friend. Then a misunderstanding arose and the friend slashed him with an axe. They carry axes because they cut wood often. Majhi recovered slowly and then went home. 

Six months later, there was a visitor in the outpatient department. He was accompanied by his 20-year-old daughter. “He was smiling, but I could not recognise him,” says Mathew. “He pointed to his face and I could see a scar. And then I remembered.”  

Majhi had recovered well and could speak properly but could only hear a little. And he was back to farming. Majhi presented a paper packet to Mathew, which contained bananas, and said, “This is my first crop. Thanks to you, I am alive.” 

The daughter beamed. And Mathew felt a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. 

Mathew has been in Biru for the past one-and-a-half years. The former principal of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, he retired in 2011 and spent the next few years in Jakarta, Indonesia helping to develop a newly-begun medical college and to start a teaching hospital. But when his friend, Arwin Sushil, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Centre invited him to have a look, Mathew did so. “I saw that there was a need for senior doctors,” says Mathew, who has a doctorate in surgery from the Royal Adelaide Hospital, University of Adelaide. “So I decided to stay.” 

Asked about the health issues of the people, Mathew says that because of their poor living standards, many suffer from tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhoea and dehydration. “Owing to their illiteracy and ignorance, they come to the hospital only when the disease is at an advanced stage,” says Mathew. “For some, we can do something. But for the others, it is too late. We can only give a palliative.” 

Another problem is that because there are good roads, accidents have become very common. “High speed combined with alcohol is a dangerous combination,” says Mathew. “We get accident victims every day. Many of them come with severe head injuries because they don’t wear helmets. The mortality rate is 25 percent, which is very high.” 

Interestingly, the patients are getting subsidised treatment. “There is a government health insurance,” says Mathew. “So, we don’t charge the patient but the government reimburses us if the people are below the poverty line.” In 2017-18, the partially-free treatment was to the tune of Rs 1.9 crore.  

The Shanti Bhawan centre has 50 beds and sophisticated equipment. It has two Operating Theatres and X-Ray facilities. It plays an important role in the area because the nearest hospital is at Rourkela, 100 kms away.  

Backward and poor 

Biru is one of the most backward regions in Jharkhand. The majority of the people are tribals. And their primary occupation is farming. But they use the basic equipment of ox and plough. “Since they depend on the rain, they grow only one crop annually, mainly rice and vegetables like brinjals, ladies finger, tomatoes, chillies, and groundnuts,” says Mathew. “If the monsoon fails, their crops also fail.” 

They also collect forest produce like honey, wood and the mahua flower. “This flower is destroying the community because they make alcohol by fermenting it,” says Mathew. “Alcoholism is rampant. Both men, women and sometimes children drink it.” 

Interestingly, the terrain is very much like Kerala. It is full of forests with clearings in between and there are small hamlets. 

Asked to compare a village in Kerala with that in Biru, Mathew says, “It is like comparing the USA and Africa. The availability of health-care facilities is very low in Jharkhand as compared to Kerala. It is a world apart. The South of India is far ahead as compared to the North.”

Surprisingly, the locals have heard of Kerala because some of them had gone to work as labourers, because of the high daily wages. “They said they were treated well and felt happy,” says Mathew. 

Asked how long he would stay, the 69-year-old says, “As long as my health permits, and my family is okay with it.” 

The family includes his wife Alice, a gynaecologist, who is on a temporary assignment in Brunei, till December, while his son Sidharth, 35, is a Bengaluru-based lawyer. Another son, Anirudh, 32, is a neuropsychologist at CMC, Vellore. 

In conclusion, Mathew says, “This stint has provided me with a lot of happiness. I was able to provide medical care in an area where there is nothing. Also, I have experienced the joy of saving people who would have died otherwise.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, August 19, 2019

Join the pyramid and get swindled

Aruna Ravikumar’s book, ‘Marauders of Hope’ focuses on the many multi-level marketing scams that are taking place in India

Pics: Illustration by Tapas Ranjan; Aruna Ravikumar 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

The Hyderabad-based journalist Aruna Ravikumar would anchor a weekly TV programme on a regional channel where guests would discuss political and social issues. On one show the topic was Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) firms.

Participants included a representative from Amway, a multi-billion dollar company, a victim and a member of an NGO. “At that point of time, a lot of these MLM companies were being busted in Hyderabad,” says Aruna, while on a recent visit to Kochi. 

During the channel discussion, Aruna was intrigued by what she heard. The business had impacted a cross-section of society: rich, middle-class and poor, the educated and uneducated, urban as well as rural. And yet, it had not been a major subject of discussion. So, when the TV channel closed down last year, Aruna decided to do research on the subject. 

And this has resulted in a 166-page book called ‘Marauders of Hope’ (Rs 299), which has been brought out by the publishing arm of Crossword Bookstore called ‘The Write Place’. It is a clear and lucid look at the subject. The topics include beginnings, causes (liberalisation), the anatomy of the schemes, the ruined relationships of the victims, precedents, landmark court decisions, and the way ahead. 

What comes as a surprise is the companies that have been accused of exploiting people by Aruna include household names like Amway, Tupperware, Herbalife and Mary Kay.  

The modus operandi of the firms is very simple. “Investor No. 1 at the top of the pyramid recruits six new members at Rs 100 each earning a profit of Rs 600,” says Aruna. “These six recruits will then recruit six new members, each earning a profit of Rs 500 (minus the initial investment of Rs 100), and adding 36 people to the pyramid. Now, the 36 people, to earn any profit will have to recruit 216 people who subsequently must recruit 1296 people and so on. This pyramid quickly becomes unrealistic. Practically speaking, anyone below the fourth and fifth level is likely to lose 100 per cent of his investment.”      

In fact, the only investor who is guaranteed a return is the one at the top of the pyramid. Amway ‘Diamond Distributor’ Ashok Reddy, who is from Hyderabad, has over 2000 people below him. But the people above him are only two Americans Bill Britt and Dexter Yaeger.

They make commissions on all recruitments and purchases of Ashok,” says Aruna. “So these Americans are getting an income from India, without paying any tax.” At this moment, there are more than 4 lakh Amway distributors, like Ashok.  

Here is another example: In early 2000, a company called Frontier Trading started retailing Japan Life mattresses in India at Rs 1 lakh a piece when the actual price was less than Rs 5000. The company representatives said that if you sleep on it, a lot of your ailments would be cured. It was an MLM scheme where buyers had to recruit new buyers.

The company sold Rs 800 crore worth of beds. Astonishingly, in a small town, Hubli in Karnataka beds worth Rs 82 crore were sold in a single month, “Soon complaints began to pour in that the bed had no healing powers,” says Aruna. “And the scheme collapsed, but in the process, many people lost their money.” 

However, these companies argue that they are different from pyramid schemes because members can earn by selling their high-priced products. However, the odds are high when you start selling their products. Each member is expected to buy a certain number of products every month. For every purchase, you get 50 PVs (Point Value). On every PV, you get a bonus. But you get a bonus only after you reach 200 PVs. So, the lower the quantity you buy, the lower is the bonus. As a result, those who are at the bottom of the network, in terms of purchase, make no money at all. 

The argument that these are not pyramid schemes has been put forth time and again, to arm-twist the judiciary,” says Aruna. “No one is fooled by this argument but it is bandied about, helping the companies to win lawsuits and explore newer markets. And continue their exploitation. The result: too many victims.”

A Village Revenue Officer Chakradhar was induced to become an MLM distributor. So, to recruit people, he tried to cajole his friends, family and subordinates. Many did not join, so Chakradhar put up the money himself. But despite his investments, he did not get any bonus. People began to avoid him, as recruiting more to the network became an obsession. But eventually, the pressure got to Chakradhar and he committed suicide. 

Aruna says that stringent laws are in place, especially The Prize Chits and Money Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act, 1978. “But nobody has acted on it, thanks to the deep pockets of the MLM firms, even though the losses are pegged at Rs 7 lakh crore,” she says. “The only way is to close the loopholes, but do governments have the will to do so?” 

In conclusion, Aruna gives some simple tips: “Do not trust schemes that promise you very high returns. Do not join projects promising enrollment as they are all pyramid schemes in disguise. Don’t fall prey to marketing techniques employed by close friends and relatives as the ‘quick money’ bug can become lethal. When you become aware, the less are the chances of becoming a victim.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, August 16, 2019

Strokes of awareness

The Kochi-based artist G Prathapan’s works on plastic waste were displayed at the Kaarisilta Biennale in Finland recently

Pics: G. Prathapan; the works at the Kaarisilta Biennale in Finland; pen portrait   

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On most evenings, G Prathapan cycles down to the David Hall Art Gallery in Fort Kochi, which is less than a kilometre from his home. He is dressed like an artist: a loose shirt, tight trousers, sandals and a satchel across his shoulders. It contains his work materials: micro-tipped pens, and A3 paper. 

There are visitors, both foreign and local, who come to see the artworks at the gallery. Later, they hang around at the restaurant in the back. When they are told that Prathapan does caricatures as well as portraits, some opt to sit in front of him. 

Prathapan smiles and says, “All of them want me to do it within five minutes. I could, but it won’t be a good job.” Instead, he takes half an hour. Sometimes, it can go up to an hour. By then the subjects are anxious. They scratch their nose, twist their lips to one side, crack a knuckle, roll their eyes, or shake one leg continuously. 

The people include a mix of single men and women, sometimes it is a couple, sometimes a family of three, sometimes two female friends, or teenagers, both boys and girls, as well as children. It is in black and white and looks remarkable. Most illustrations seem very alive, as if at any moment they could step out of the paper and become flesh and blood people.

Prathapan smiles when he hears that. “Thank you,” he says simply. There are other reasons for Prathapan to feel happy. He has just participated for the second time as an invited artist at the Kaarisilta Biennale in Finland (June 26-August 4). “Eight of my works were on display,” says Prathapan. Again, these are drawings done in black ink on A3 size paper, all part of a series titled, ‘Trapped Earth by Plastic’. 

In one of the images, there is a plastic globe near the bottom of the sea. “Somebody has thrown it away because it was broken,” says Prathapan. “We are now in the throwaway culture. If there is slight damage to anything, we tend to get rid of it. The globe is giving company to the numerous plastic bottles in the rivers, seas and oceans. There is also a plastic packet on the ocean floor.” 

In another image, Prathapan has drawn a plastic packet, with just the tip above the surface of the water. “It is like an iceberg,” says the artist. “Only 1/7th of an iceberg is above the surface. The people only see the surface of the oceans. They don’t see what is happening underneath. So they think there is not much pollution. But what I am trying to say is the opposite: there is too much of pollution below the surface. The oceans are a dumping place. We don’t realise that when we throw a plastic packet on the road, it eventually reaches the ocean.”  

In another striking drawing, Prathapan has drawn the earth inside a plastic packet. “The whole world is inundated with plastic,” he says. “As a result, none of us can breathe. There is a fish which has got stuck inside a plastic packet. On the seashore, I have drawn a large city, with fumes coming out of the factories. There is pollution in the seas as well as the land.”

In the earlier edition of the Biennale, Prathapan’s topic had remained plastic waste. But at that time, he showed the waste in and around Kochi. “Waste is a topic that I am deeply interested in,” he says. “That’s because environmental damage is the biggest threat facing mankind.”

Says Johanna Immeli, the curator of the Biennale, “The jury was very impressed by Prathapan's drawings. The subject matter of plastic waste is very important. It is a problem all over the world. This appears in the news often. Many visitors liked Prathapan's works. They stood and observed the drawings for a long time. It made them think, they told me later.”

Prathapan passed out with a BFA in painting from the RLV College in Tripunithara. He has been a full-time artist, since 2007, and has participated in state and national solo and group exhibitions over the years. He has won a few state awards.

Prathapan says he would now be focusing on the environmental damage caused by ships and tankers. “When a ship leaks oil as it happened with a Chinese ship, the oil spreads for kilometres together,” he says. “It will damage the sea for a long while.” 

He pauses and says, “As an artist, I must bring awareness. The people should awaken and so must our leaders.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Talking about my life

Film-maker Ranjan Kamath’s ‘Mitra Tantra -- Archive of Personal Narratives and Oral Testimonies’ allows the eminent and the ordinary to reminiscence about their lives

Pics: Film-maker MS Sathyu; film director Ranjan Kamath

By Shevlin Sebastian

Noted film-maker MS Sathyu is sitting on a wooden chair in his living room at Bengaluru. Behind him is a sofa which has large pillows. On the cream-coloured walls, there are framed paintings. It is a tranquil setting. But Sathyu, clad in a grey waistcoat and trousers, looks sombre.

Raising a despairing hand, he says, “I blame [late Prime Minister] Mrs Indira Gandhi for all what is happening now. She became corrupt. When she was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, she was all right. But the moment she entered politics and became the President of the Congress Party, and the first Communist government was installed in Kerala, under EMS Namboodiripad, she destroyed it. And later, when she lost the elections, she brought in the Emergency. She was mad for power. Now all the politicians have become corrupt.”

He pauses and then says, “The assets that they declare during election time, I wonder where did they get that much money. They only talk in crores. That poor fellow, [Manik] Sarkar in Tripura, he does not even have a car. He has no bank balance. He has no money. And he was the Chief Minister for 20 long years. That kind of integrity is not there anymore.”

Sathyu was a participant in the ‘Mitra Tantra -- Archive of Personal Narratives and Oral Testimonies’ organised by film-maker Ranjan Kamath. Some of the other participants included author Shashi Deshpande, artist Balan Nambiar, scientist Prof. CNR Rao, historian S. Theodore Baskaran, filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, Captain CR Gopinath, father of low cost aviation, and many others.

The reminiscences are free-flowing. Participants take anywhere between 4 and 7 ½ hours. “The stories include events from their childhood, school and college life, careers, failures, day-to-day life, relationships, friendships, collaborations, witnessing the Partition and Emergency first-hand, growing up in Bengaluru, and views on marriage and family,” says Ranjan. “It is a fascinating variety of topics.”

Ranjan gives them a brief before the shoot. “I tell them there is nothing too insignificant or inconsequential,” he says. “I want them to talk as they feel. It is a liberating experience for them to talk spontaneously.”

The result is heartfelt. Many times the sincerity, truthfulness and vulnerability shine through.

Some stories can be agonisingly sad. Kishore S Rao, the chairman of Karunashraya, a cancer hospice in Bengaluru, recounted the story of a house painter, Basavaraj (name changed), who was in the final stages of lung cancer. “He kept asking the nurses, doctors and staff, ‘How much do I pay?’” says Kishore. “We told him there are no charges. But Basavaraj found it difficult to believe. Because everywhere he went, whether it was to a government facility or private hospital, he had to pay, either over or under the table.”

Basavaraj said, “It is impossible that this place is free. How much do I pay?”

A nurse again said, “You have to pay nothing.”

So, he said, “I have to do something to repay.”

Then he made a list, of paints and brushes and asked the nurses to get the material, so that he could paint the walls for free. The hospice bought the material just to make him feel good. “Because, by then, he was too weak to do anything,” says Kishore. “In fact, he passed a few days later.”

As he said that tears rolled down Kishore’s face.

When Ranjan saw that, he remembered his own sadness. His mother, Cecelia D’Souza, a former teacher passed away, on May 29, 2017, at the age of 79. “She died within 30 days of discovering that she had liver cancer,” he says.

When he gazed at his mother, Ranjan suddenly realised that he had lost his chance to record her memories. “That’s when I realised that if I can’t do it for myself, I must do it for others,” he says. “For years, people have been passing away -- great singers, artists, actors and writers. And I realised that nobody has preserved their wisdom and experience. So that was the immediate trigger.”

Ranjan had already seen a format. His friend, the British film-maker Christopher Sykes has done a project called Web Of Stories. “Some of the greatest achievers, like author Vladimir Nabokov, actor Richard Pryor and the writer Philip Roth shared their life stories,” he says.

But Ranjan does not want to do it only on the eminent. “That would become too exclusive,” he says. “So I am also looking for ordinary people to tell their stories.”

But the immediate problem is funding. So far, he has spent a few lakhs of rupees doing the recordings. “What is driving me is the sheer joy I experience when I listen to the stories,” he says. “But I want people to own this and contribute financially to this project.”

Ranjan is also looking for corporate as well as private funding. All the recordings will be put up on a website as well as on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Interestingly, the clips that he has put up so far, range from 90 seconds to three minutes only.

That’s the attention span these days,” he says, with a rueful smile. So, for Sathyu, there are 78 videos, most with an average time of one minute. “But if you listen to all, it is like getting a university degree, in terms of knowledge and insights,” says Ranjan.

One insight is about the relationship between the sexes. “Husband and wives speak separately,” says Ranjan. “The idea is that you get different perspectives of the marriage. But what I have noticed is that there is a bitterness and a suppressed anger which comes up between the spouses.”

This could be seen clearly in the women, those who were very accomplished and had to give up their careers because their husbands were equally accomplished but they are living in a patriarchal society, so they had to give up their careers and look after the family and home.

This has certainly come through in women who are in their seventies and eighties,” says Ranjan. “Marriage takes on different dimensions. There are changes and adjustments to each decade. Spouses become either friends or partnerships. There is some sort of love. But if you ask them individually whether they love their spouses, they might say, ‘I don’t know’.”

There were other interesting insights. “Women are more forthright in expressing their emotional side,” says Ranjan. “For men, the thinking mind comes through. There is a gender divide. Men want to share their minds and their philosophies. Women are more comfortable sharing their emotions. Men took a lot of time to tap into that. This could be why there is a problem between the sexes.”

But what was clear in the interviews is despite the marital strains, the men were very appreciative of the roles of their spouses. “Most of the menfolk have unequivocally said that were it not for their wives, they would not have reached where they are today.

Spouses gave unconditional support particularly for those who were in the creative fields. It enabled the men to go ahead and do what they wanted to do, without worrying about the household, or that kind of thing. The partnership was critical. The women, themselves, could have had a great career but they chose to support their husbands. The men were
appreciative of that.”

(An edited version was published in Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Enjoying the moment

Sara Caleeckal, at 78, has just participated in a painting exhibition. A cancer survivor, she is also a poet and helps troubled juvenile delinquents through art therapy.  

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the East India Street Cafe, at Panampilly Nagar, the 78-year-old Sara Caleeckal stands out because of her silver hair and white saree. Her friends, the budding artists Thebzeera Valiyakath, Priyam Saini, Amal Joy and art impresario Reema Singh are all in their twenties and thirties. But along with them, Sara is showcasing her paintings at an exhibition where amateur talent has been given an opportunity to showcase their works. 

Sara has a painting titled, ‘Dance of a Dragon’. It shows a dragon curled up like a snake around the trunk of a tree while a squirrel rests near the tail of the animal. It has been done in the distinctive Gond tribal style. To learn this art form, Sara went to Chennai to attend a workshop by Biennale artists Subhash Singh Vyam and his wife Durga Bai, who are from Madhya Pradesh. 

Another work, of the blue-coloured Lord Krishna and Radha, with the gopis at one side, was done in the Madhubani style. The third is a simple abstract painting of a bamboo grove. If Sara sells a work, 20 percent is set aside for poor cancer patients or underprivileged children.   

On most days, at her home, at Irumpanam, when she awakens, if she feels happy, Sara will set up an easel and do a painting. On other days, when she feels a bit low, she sits down and writes a poem. 

Here is one called ‘Storyteller’: 

I tell stories 
with letters, with words, 
with songs, with verse, 
with lines, with curves, 
with dots, with strokes, 
with pencils and pens 
sharper than swords, 
with black charcoal, 
with while chalk, 
of myriad hues 
of heaven, earth and seas, 
of laughter and tears, 
of excruciating ecstasy, 
of divine pain…

And on other days, as a member of the Art Outreach Society, she goes to the Kakkanad District Prison, where she teaches art to the juvenile offenders as well as the women. “Some of the boys are unbelievably talented,” says Sara. “I am told they are lured into crime, as drug carriers, because of the easy money. They want to buy smartphones but their parents cannot afford it. Some belong to very good families.” 

Not surprisingly, some of their artworks show blackened faces, an all-seeing eye and fences with sharp pointed ends, which has a trail of blood going like a band across it. “They feel much better after they do their paintings because they can express their anger or frustrations safely,” says Sara.

Meanwhile, in her own life, Sara had been a teacher for decades, in Mumbai, Tanzania and Chennai. An arranged marriage to John Mammen, a Naval officer in 1964, resulted in three children, two daughters and a son. Unfortunately, it was a difficult relationship and in 1988, the couple separated.     

Thereafter, Sara became a single mother. “For two years, I was ashamed to show my face in society,” she says. “I went through a period of depression. The fact is when trust is no longer there between the spouses, there is no point of staying together. However, it is the children who bear the emotional damage.” Any hope of reconciliation ended when John passed away in 2000. 

Life goes on,” says Sara. After her teaching career ended, Sara began a career of doing medical transcription online. Her knowledge of medicine helped her to detect a lump in her breast. A check-up at the Christian Medical College at Vellore revealed that it was cancer. “Instead of chemotherapy I opted to remove the breast,” she says. 

And Sara learned some quick lessons. “Cancer made me aware of my mortality,” she says. “Before that, I would postpone things for tomorrow. Now I tell myself, ‘Don’t wait for tomorrow, do it right now’.” 

What she does regularly is to go for a swim every evening at a local school. She swims for one hour and prefers the backstroke. “I feel so rejuvenated,” says Sara. “This is the best exercise at any age. To be honest, I feel more at home in the water than on land. That’s because I have been swimming since the age of five.” 

Finally, when asked to give tips on how to lead a fulfilling life, Sara says, “Self-love is very important: love your body, mind and soul. Most people do not like themselves. Do any activity that makes you feel feel passionate. And you will always feel young at heart.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Kozhikode) 

Friday, August 09, 2019

A new motif for National Handloom Day

By Shevlin Sebastian

Among the crafts of India, handloom stands a league apart. It may be the most complex, but the most poetic as well. The real concern on The National Handloom day, on August 7, is to save the art form from extinction by evolving into new forms and designs. 

The first in the series is a mapping of the rhythm of the loom. "The back and forth movement of the wooden shuttle laying the weft of the fabric creates a rhythmic sound," says social entrepreneur Lakshmi N Menon. "The form of that sound wave translates for us into a design motif. That is the ‘Heartbeat of the Handloom.’ Heartbeat is the most rhythmic sound expression in any living being. And we just discovered the heartbeat of every fabric made on a loom!

The Heartbeat of Handloom intends to create a new paradigm in design and the process. Heartbeat aspires to redefine the socio-cultural and anthropological aspects through continuous engagement in both theoretical and the practical front.

It is also a design that connects the weaves and the waves of the mega flood of Kerala of 2018. "I want to aspire for a new social fabric by weaving communities together just like the unity and solidarity that we displayed during the harrowing times with the floods," says Lakshmi, who is the lead designer of this project. "The elements of the design include the texture, form, mood, space and the line. The shuttle in the loom resembling the boat is weaving friendship between the weaver and fishermen community."

This collection was part of the ‘Make friendShip’ campaign initiated to express gratitude to the fisherfolks who saved 65000 lives during the floods. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

“The youth are one-dimensional”

Eminent social scientist Ashis Nandy talks about the mindset of the youth, the state of the minorities and online attacks on him 

By Shevlin Sebastian  

Eminent social scientist Ashis Nandy was careful about his sugar intake. At the restaurant of the Le Meridien, he put only half a sachet of the sweetener in his tea. “At 82, I have to be careful,” he says, with a smile.  

Nandy was in Kochi because he was a featured speaker at the ninth annual conference on Metaphysics and Politics, organised by the Backwaters Collective.  

Although he looked calm, he was in the midst of a media storm having been one of the signatories among the 49 eminent citizens who wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 23 expressing their alarm at the lynchings taking place all over India. 

Online trolls have been attacking me non-stop,” says Nandy. But what particularly upset him was when veteran directors Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and Aparna Sen were attacked. “Adoor is such an eminent film-maker,” he says. “And what about Shyam? He has done so much for the country. Shyam has done a film on the constitution of India and a wonderful series called ‘Discovery of India’. He is not a self-centred Bombay filmwallah. As for Aparna, she has also done fantastic work and comes from a distinguished family. Her family has been associated with the freedom movement for generations.” 

Asked whether he was scared, Nandy says, “I am not, but my family is worried.” 

Interestingly, he says, the brutalisation of society is not an overnight phenomenon. “There was barbaric violence during the Partition of India (1947),” he says. “This violence has continued, in different forms, over the past seven decades. Something has gone wrong.” 
Today, nobody reacts if a father molests his daughter, a husband kills his wife, a son hits his mother, or a man is lynched. “These were aberrations earlier, but are now regarded as normal,” says Nandy.  
There is a siege mentality in the country. “The majority community has the fear of being outnumbered,” says Nandy. “How can 82 percent of the population be outnumbered? So many people have written saying this is so. It’s unbelievable.” 

As for the minorities, there is an erosion of trust. “But still, they continue to believe in the Indian state and the judiciary,” says Nandy. “In their day-to-day life, they can get things done. So, life is going on. If Hindus and Muslims can live together despite the barbarity during Partition, I am sure they will be able to live together now.” 

Asked whether the next generation can make a difference, Nandy is doubtful. 
Many youths take to science and technology and tend to go to IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), or IT  (Information Technology),” he says. “These are disciplines where you can score very high marks. You can get good jobs. And they also tend to do very well in the civil service exams. So a large number of IAS and IPS officers come from this sector.”

The students are brilliant, but they lack a liberal education. “They are one-dimensional, and have no idea about social values,” says Nandy. “What are the conditions of democratic governance? What are the limits of behaviour in the public sphere? They are ignorant of literature, sociology, psychology, arts, history, and philosophy. A study of these subjects would have developed the finer aspects of their self. As a result, today, young administrators have no empathy for the common people. It is only about data and statistics.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

On the divine path

Monk Sadhviji Sayampurna Shriji, who will be spending the next four months at the Jain Temple at Mattancherry, talks about her life

Pics by Jayant Pithadia

By Shevlin Sebastian 

On the street of Mattancherry, youths in scooters hold aloft a banner welcoming the Jain monk Sadhviji Sayampurna Shriji to Kochi. A few youngsters are banging on drums and cymbals. The scooter-borne youths are followed by men, of varying ages, wearing a scarf across their shoulders. A few are waving the Jainism flag, which has five colours: red, yellow, white, green and blue. 

The procession stops. A few girls, wearing white salwar kameez, do the Maharashtrian folk dance called lezim. A band provides the music. Suddenly, somebody shouts, “Chalo” (let’s go) and the procession resumes. 

All this is part of the welcome ceremony called Chaturmas Pravesh, on July 11, for Sadhvivarya. The monk has come for a four-month stay at the Jain Temple. During the monsoon season, monks and sadhvis all over India don’t travel as numerous insects come out at that time. So, to uphold ahimsa -- not to cause harm to even the tiniest living being -- they remain at one place.  

The Sadhvivarya, accompanied by two disciples, was coming from Pondicherry. Over several months, they walked, because they are not allowed to use any vehicle. They also avoided footwear because they did not want to harm any living being. On the way, they stopped at numerous Jain temples, ashrams and schools, for several days at a time, giving talks, doing meditation, and advising people of other faiths, too. On an average, they walked about 10-12 kms a day. “We usually started at 5.30 a.m, and by 8 a.m., we would stop for the day,” says Sadhvivarya. “Thus, we did not get tired.” 

When Sadhvivarya entered the spacious temple at Mattancherry, very soon, she felt very happy. “The vibrations are very good,” she says. “The temple is very spacious too.” 

Sadhvivarya quickly settled into her daily routine. The trio gets up at 3.30 a.m. and does prayers, meditation and devotion to the Tirthankaras (Jain gods). Because they do not cook food or are not allowed to eat food prepared specially for them, around 48 minutes after sunrise, they visit the different Jain houses in the area to receive vegetarian food. This practice is called goachari.  

From each house, we take little so that the family members do not have to cook again,” says Sadhvivarya. “We go to a few houses to get enough food. Then we bring it back to the temple.” 

There is a prayer over the food before they sit down to eat. At 8.30 a.m., for one hour, Sadhvivarya gives a talk (pravachan) to devotees. The subjects include the grace of the divine, how to connect with the Almighty, the uniqueness of karma, and how to live peacefully, balancing the spiritual and the practical. 

Throughout the day, Sadhvivarya does meditations, prayers and rituals. In the afternoon, she gives another talk, followed by a public prayer in the evening. Sadhvivarya has gone all over India inspiring and motivating people. 

And it seems she was destined for this work. Right from her childhood, she wanted to become a monk. This feeling strengthened when she met her guru, Acharya Bhadraguptasurishwarji MS. “I used to read his books on Jainism when I was in Class 8,” she says. “Once he had come to Ooty for a month’s stay.”

The sadhvi, the daughter of a businessman, who is from Rajasthan, grew up in the hill station. She did her schooling from Nazareth Convent High School, her Class 11 and 12 from Girl Memorial College and her BA in English literature from Emerald Heights College for Women. It was during this time, she broached the idea to be a monk. Expectedly, the family opposed to the idea. “My mother felt that I was too delicate and sensitive to walk on this path,” says Sadhvivarya. “My father and elder brother were very attached to me. They said, ‘No, no, we will get you married’.”

But Sadhvivarya prevailed. She says, “I had no doubts because it was an inner calling.” And Sadhvivarya took her diksha (renunciation ceremony) at Dholka, 48 kms from Ahmedabad on January 25, 1998. The congregation consisted of sadhus, sadhvis, shravaks and shravikas (Jain laymen and women). 

It lasted two hours,” she says. “There was one shravak from Mumbai who took diksha along with me.”  

It was after her renunciation that Sadhvivarya went for further studies. Eventually, she did her PhD from the Jain Vishwa Bharati Institute (a deemed university) at Ladnun, Rajasthan. “My thesis, ‘The Concept of Divinity’ was based on a work, ‘Vitaraga Stotra’ by [Jain scholar] Acharya Hemachandra, which defined the divine qualities of the Tirthankaras,” says Sadhvivarya. “I also did a comparison of Jainism and other religions.” 

Asked whether it is a difficult life, she says, “My life is tranquil, beautiful, serene, and I am on the precious path of merging with the divine,” she says. And her parents are also happy. “During Chaturmas Pravesh, they usually come to visit me,” says Sadhvivarya. “So, they will be coming to Mattancherry soon.”   


The five vows of a sadhvi are: 

Ahimsa Mahavrat: Vow of absolute non-violence
Satya Mahavrat: Vow of absolute truthfulness
Asteya or achaurya mahavrat: Vow of absolute non-stealing
Brahmacharya Mahavrat: Vow of absolute celibacy 
Aparigraha Mahavrat: Vow of absolute non-attachment  

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