Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The end of an era - A Titan

Snehil Sinha

Benign, dreamy eyes under a lined brow, half covered by the trademark Nepali cap-this is what the face of Assam looks like. It was christened Bhupen Hazarika about 85 years ago and now lies still in the midst of millions mourning its loss.

The Bard of the Brahmaputra, the Minstrel of the Masses, the Voice of the Voiceless and the uncrowned king of North-Eastern India’s cultural world- Bhupen Hazarika has lived past his times and has managed to become a legend for generations to come. A renowned poet, music composer, singer, actor, journalist, author, film-maker, political activist and a cultural icon in north-eastern India, he has so much to his credit that no single person could achieve in a lifetime. I would refrain from enlisting them here for the fear of reducing him to an encyclopedia entry. His unique, deep baritone voice and his easy-on-the-ear compositions, which quite often culled out finer nuances of classical ragas and the huge variety of folk music of the North East, are hard to forget for anyone who hears them.

Born in 1926, in Sadiya, Assam, Hazarika studied in Guwahati and Banaras Hindu University before going on to receive a Ph.D. in mass communications at Columbia University in New York in 1952. At the age of ten, he was discovered by Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bishnu Prasad Rabha who made him sing a Borgeet taught by his mother at a public function. In 1936 Bhupen Hazarika accompanied them to Kolkata where he recorded his first song at the Aurora Studio for the Selona Company. His association with the icons of Assamese culture was the beginning of his artistic growth and credentials and there was no looking back. At 13, he sang about building a new Assam and a new India. Growing up in Tezpur, he would catch snatches of adult conversation, eavesdropping on talk about Trotsky’s murder and the Indian freedom movement between grown-ups. These were filed away in a then unadorned head and used in lyrics. Achievements sang their way to Hazarika till he cared no more for them. What mattered to him were his principles and ideologies and the pain of his people to whom he dedicated his life.

Hazarika's contributions went far beyond cinema for which he was conferred the Dada sahib Phalke award in 1992. For him, music was an instrument of social change. From early in his life, he was at the forefront of a social battle against the entrenched forces of casteism that sneered at a member of the ‘Dom' community. Gutsy and avowedly anti-establishment, Bhupen Hazarika was a musical genius who put Assam on the country's cultural map through his compositions and songs and his contribution to the development of Assamese cinema. He was named best composer in India in 1977 for his music for the Assamese film Chameli Memsaab. He was a prolific and popular songwriter; his songs connected with the masses because the lyrics often touched on important social issues or promised a bright future. He received the government awards Padmashree in 1977 and Padma Bhushan in 2001.

Hindi audiences took much longer to appreciate his worth. It came, courtesy “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare”, a song extremely melancholic and soulful. The song, in director Kalpana Lajmi's Rudaali, was not exactly in Hindi but its mournful music and soul piercing rendition by both Lata Mangeshkar and Hazarika ensured a place for it in everyone’s hearts. According to popular journalist, Arnab Goswami, “A legend in Assam and an icon in Calcutta, he became my role model for the multicultural identity that I too wanted.”

For Bhupen Hazarika music has always been his first love. During the Assam Movement of the early ’80s, Hazarika was looked upon by an entire generation of agitating students as an inspiration. His music was their sustenance. He wrote and sang for them, drawing on the experience of singing with Paul Robeson whom he met and became closely associated with between 1949 and 1955 in USA.

His humanist song “Manuhe Manuhor Babe” which was also translated into Bengali, talked of pulling down man-made barriers, and was to get Hazarika recognition across the world. His compositions though included Assam's famous Bihu songs, both patriotic and romantic.

Early on in his career, when he was associated with the Indian Peoples Theatre Association, his Leftist leanings came to the fore with songs like “Dola” where, through the voice of a palanquin bearer, he speaks truth to power, telling the rich that their world would not run without the sweat of the poor.

Almost all through his career, he composed anti-establishment songs, using his own rich baritone to voice them powerfully. One of his most popular songs, ‘Bistirno dupare', loosely based on Paul Robeson's ‘Ol Man River, spoke of the travails of the Ganga and questions it for being a mute witness to the sufferings of mankind through the ages.

Hazarika espoused universal brotherhood throughout his life and even in his films one sees similar messages to those in his songs. In Era Bator Sur (Song of the Deserted Path), he told the story of vanishing folk cultures, while in Chikmik Bijuli (The Lightning), he looked at the transformation of Guwahati from a small town to a big city.

His health began deteriorating after a stroke he suffered during the Rongali Bihu (Assamese New Year) celebrations in Guwahati in 2006. Estranged from his first wife and son, Hazarika met Kalpana Lajmi in 1971 and they have stayed together ever since, though never got married. Throughout the period of his ill-health, Lazmi took care of him, till he breathed his last early morning on November 6 this year.

As a singer, Hazarika was known for his baritone voice and diction, as a lyricist he was known for poetic compositions and parables which touched on themes ranging from romance to social and political commentary and as a composer for his use of folk music. Every role he took up, he fulfilled with honesty and for his people, his motherland.

However, one cannot help but notice Hazarika’s painstaking efforts at voluntarily taking up so many roles as if trying to prove a point throughout his life.

An adventure in many worlds

In conversation with Mr Sampath Kumar, Tanu Kulkarni writes about the man who wore multiple hats, that of a news producer, musician, reporter and now a teacher.

Sitting with his eyes closed, with his palms placed on the table and deep in thought, until I entered and broke his moment of silence. Mr Sampath Kumar greets me with his trademark smile.

After gaining years of experience at the All India Radio (AIR) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), he now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism. Mr Kumar was a popular journalist; two of his fans were bandit king, Koose Muniswamy Veerappan and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran

His other fans include his students and if you ask them about him, they will tell you how they felt an instant connect with this 68 year old man right from his very first class.

How were you bitten by the journalism bug? Tell us about your entry into this field.

SK : I never wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a scientist and got into the media by accident. I worked in a paint company and then moved to All India Radio since I was interested in music. I thought working in AIR will give me an opportunity to plunge into these fields. I was privileged and got to meet and interview film stars that I admired.

You later worked for Doordarshan. Tell us about your Doordarshan experience

SK: When Doordarshan opened a bureau in Chennai, my first job there was as a news producer. Since Chennai was the only branch in south India, the job involved a lot of travel. Television back then was in the infant stage and we had to shoot on black and white reversible 16 mm film, edit the film and convert it into video. I learnt it the hard way, but when I look back, my Doordarshan days gave me a chance to learn many things.

But working for a bureau meant working on different beats. Did you at any point find it difficult working on different beats?

SK: One day I would be covering a cricket test match and the next day I would be covering a music concert and the next day I would be out on a documentary shoot. It was an enjoyable experience. My knowledge had increased and improved after seventeen years in television and 6 years in AIR. It also helped me develop tremendous taste and liking towards different areas.

Can you describe some of your memorable stories?

SK: My Memorable stories are many. When I was working for the BBC, I had filed a story on Veerappan and stated that he had killed over 120 human beings and thousand elephants. He later sent a message for me with Mr. Nakkeeran Gopal.I played the tape he had sent and he had told me to correct the number of people killed from 120 to 133.

Veerappan had listed the atrocities committed by the Special Task Force which were responsible for his action. He also told me that he was my fan and wanted to meet me. In spite of that entire he did, I think Veerappan was very straightforward and a man of conviction.

I had also done a report about Prabhakaran when he surrendered his arms to the Sri Lankan government. I got the opportunity of going to Patikola and Jaffna, two places where nobody else was allowed to enter. When I went to meet Prabhakaran, I was treated like a royal guest. In spite of being so ruthless at war, Prabhakaran and his team were extremely hospitable. During that visit, I realized that Prabhakaran was Robin Hood to the village but a villain to the nation.

But was there ever any sense of fear while working and meeting people like Prabhakaran and Veerappan

SK: When I was on the job, I never felt scared. The only time I ever broke down was when I did a report on the Tsunami in December 2004. After reporting from Chennai, I went to Nagapatnam. There were heaps of dead bodies lying all around and I was reporting amidst the heaps of bodies. In the evening, when I finished reporting, I had to travel 40 miles to get to cup of tea. Later when I went back to the hotel room, I started crying.

As students of journalism we are taught about the importance of being objective and distancing ourselves from events and people. Is that possible?

SK: Journalism is a privileged job. When you go out reporting, you suffer with the people when they are suffering and rejoice with people when they are rejoicing. It is impossible to maintain objectivity. I tried my best not to get involved but I couldn’t. Several times I have gone and reported about atrocities committed against poor people. I could not help but give people money and return penniless. I rather be known as a good man than a good journalist. As a journalist you need to empathize with people and fill your heart with compassion.

From reporting to writing a novel, tell us about the novel that you are working on.

SK: I am writing two fiction novels in Tamil. One is about the life of a musician and his wife and their ego problems.

The other book revolves around the hero who is the rebel. I have located my characters in Sri Lanka. The novel captures all the suffering of the people and the tyrannical government. The story is about an easy going young man who is not interested in politics or any movement but how he is drawn into the conflict. I will finish the books in a couple of months.

Although these books are fictional, is there any resemblance to any real characters?

SK: There isn’t any resemblance and even if there is it is not intentional. Certainly people may relate the hero as Prabhakaran but I have not done it intentionally

Today, you are one of the most popular teachers at the Asian College of Journalism and have won many admirers. Tell us your secret.

SK: After I retired from the BBC, Mr Sashikumar, the Chairman of the Asian College of Journalism asked me to teach the radio module at his college. I thought that a younger person may perhaps do justice to the job but he said that my experience was more valuable than youth. Hence I accepted the responsibility. When I interact with students, I get rejuvenated and excited. The mutual love and respect that they have been showering over the years has made me enthusiastic and I am indebted to them.

Cricket. Coffee. Carnatic: In conversation with Rithwik Raja

Zeenab Aneez

“Recently I saw a boy wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and thought, why can’t I do the same for Carnatic music, which I love? “

From a conversation with Rithwik Raja you can detect the bafflement he experiences at the inability of his peers to enjoy something so beautiful. Born in Chennai, Rithwik is among those touted to be the rising stars of Chennai’s music. But his ambitions don’t stop there. As president of the Youth Association for Carnatic Music Rithwik dreams of a day when Carnatic music will be on everybody’s iTunes playlist.

Rithwik recounts his foray into the world of Carnatic music as one that was natural. “ I just started singing along with my mother, Smt. Sudha Raja’s, students, enjoying simply imitating what they were doing. That was how I got initiated into Carnatic music’’ he says. “I wouldn’t say I learnt in the conventional way by carrying a book and a pen and heading to music classes after school. Learning in the very casual atmosphere of my home has benefited me because I was never forced into it.”. But unlike most prodigy’s Rithwik did not make a beeline to professional performing.He had, another, more enticing, passion: Cricket.

Like any other boy growing up in Chennai, playing cricket with friends after school was not just recreation but necessity for Rithwik. However, that was not enough. “ Once my Dad got back from work I would force him to bowl to me too.” he says. He fuelled this passion by attending summer coaching camps and playing for the school junior camp. By the ninth standard he was school team captain and representing the state of Tamil Nadu for the under-15 category, all the while continuing his musical training. Soon, the tough schedule caught up with him and he realized he could do only one if he wanted to give his best, whether it was music or cricket. “I was still playing in the state team I could not leave cricket so easily” he says.

Hence, the choice between cricket and music was certainly not an easy one for him. Music was initially just a hobby for Rithwik who spent most of his time training for cricket. “I was learning only because I loved to sing, not to become a performer.” he points out.

Rithwik recounts two weeks in November which he sees as a turning point. To a person living in Chennai, November means two things: music and monsoon. Chennaiites, young and old brave the heavy torrents and water logged streets to attend Carnatic music concerts all over the city. “After second term exams I had three weeks off and had nothing to do as all my matches were cancelled due to the rain. So I decided to attend all the concerts that were being held in those three weeks. I could say it was these three weeks that are the reason I am a performer today”

Since then Rithwik has not looked back. “I love being on stage” he says. Having taken part in many music competitions in school, he does not suffer from stage fright. Even if that were the case, it would all disappear once he started his performance.

When Rithwik was eleven, his mother decided to put him under her own guru the renowned Carnatic vocalist and eminent musicologist, Smt. Sulochana Pattabhiraman. He trained under his new Guru for two years but as his voice started breaking,in 2003, both his mother and his guru felt he needed guidance from someone who has had the same experience. “ The time when your voice break is a crucial moment,” says Rithwik, “because you need both the mental and physical capacity to deal with the change in your voice. At first it sounds awful and completely out of sync so training and guidance is very important at this stage.”

Thus began Rithwik’s enduring relationship with his present guru and mentor, T.M.Krishna, who has wielded much influence on Rithwik’s musical journey. Rithwik recalls his first meeting with T.M.Krishna in much detail.

“I went to see him on a weekday afternoon, at around 2:00 p.m. The entire house was dark as the rest of the family was sleeping. We sat at his music room and he asked me to sing a varna and he made a few changes and corrections to see if I could comprehend and apply them to my singing before deciding to take me in.Since he was travelling a lot then he could only promise me six months at first. Thankfully things settled down and I am still learning from him”.

He does not have much to say about critics and reviews. So far he has been well received. “My well-wishers do talk to me after a show and tell me if I need to work on something. But ultimately, you are the best judge of your own performance. If I give my best, it will transfer to the audience.” A dream concert to him would be on the beach during sunrise to a small crowd. “I once attended such a concert on the Kalakshetra beach, loved it and have wanted to do one like that since.”

While he performs only Carnatic music, Rithwik listens to a lot of other artists. Ilayaraja is his personal favourite. “When I was young my entire family would sing and listen to his songs at gatherings and even now I listen to his songs regularly. I also like The Beatles for their honesty and dedication to their music”

When he is not training or performing, Rithwik is busy wearing the shoes of the President of the Youth Association for Carnatic Music (YACM). The organization which started out in 1984 was first dedicated to providing opportunities for young performers but that goal is almost achieved, says Rithwik. “You will find a slot for a youth performer at any show today.”

Today, the YACM’s goal is to popularise Carnatic music among the younger generation. “Carnatic music is like any other music. It can be enjoyed purely for its beautiful sound. The problem today is that most youngsters feel intimidated by it. There is the feeling that they can’t appreciate it because they are unfamiliar with the structure.It’s just a matter of conditioning” he argues.

Through the YACM, Rithwik and his team hold workshops on the basics of Carnatic music in schools in and around the city. “We use fun ways to teach kids about our music so they don’t get a mental block against it.” The recently held Indian performing arts festival Svanubhava was a YACM venture towards engaging young students in Indian performing arts. “There were over 1300 students at the festival. This proves that there is interest, so it’s just a matter of exposure” he says.

They have also launched a website, www.avartana.com, which he aspires will become a platform for all things relating to Indian performance art – general information, lyrics, tips, artist profiles, discussions, video lectures et al. “ It is not a serious website,” says Rithwik, “ and we hope it becomes a resource for anyone interested in knowing about Indian performance art. Like Crickinfo is for cricket! ”

He hopes to make Carnatic music as much an element of popular culture among youngsters as Iron Maiden or Pink Floyd. He also spoke about merchandising t-shirts with popular symbols of Carnatic music.

Rithwik has tried his hand at working in an office but didn’t feel at home there. “I felt like my entire life was spent in office. I had no time for anything else.” Right now, he is also the proprietor of a web designing company, Articature Designs. “I’ll do this as long as it does not eat into my time spent on music” he says.

He has been performing solo shows since 2004 and is only too happy to do the 17 shows he has lined up in the next two months.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Familiar goosebumps

V Ramnarayan

As I ignore a light drizzle and set out on my morning walk, I see an intrepid muffler-clad warrior braving the bitter cold of November Madras. The lady is well equipped for an Antarctic expedition, but of vital significance is the secure wrapping she has subjected her ears to, allowing no entry to the treacherous winter wind.

I immediately experience the familiar goosebumps of the seasoned concert-goer of the Madras cutcheri season in withdrawal, someone whose poor time management skills have denied him the pleasures of month-long sabha-hopping for some Decembers running now. For who doesn’t know that the time the Madrasi brings out his or her winter finery is the time the Seshagopalans and Unnikrishnans have to keep their fingers crossed and throats hot-water-gargled to do battle with their audience of mamas and mamis swathed in their warm woollens and swirling silks, and entice them away from their copies of ‘Kutcheri Buzz’, distributed by overzealous volunteers just before the start of the concert?

It’s early days yet for the migratory birds from all over the world to gather at the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary but it’s the time of the year overseas Indians swoop down on Madras. In the past, they came to listen and watch; today some of them come to sing and dance as well. While the rest of sabhadom is in the throes of scheduling concerts featuring the top stars, Hamsadhwani of Indiranagar showcases NRI music talent!

NRIs are not the only strange birds the season brings to Madras. There is quite a sprinkling of foreign nationals dotting the scene, ranging from wide-eyed seekers of nirvana to serious scholars of music and dance whose thoroughness and dedication can shame the best of local students. And if you read the programme cards carefully you will see that some of the morning lec-dem sessions are by experts from quite distant lands.

Many great artistes of the past have passed on and we shall miss them sorely, and I don’t mean the big stars of Carnatic music and dance alone. Many solid performers, composers and teachers who were an integral part of the music scenehave left us. We’ll miss them.

But this is no occasion for grief. It is celebration time. The usual excitement of anticipation catches up with you. The young tyros you watched make their spectacular debuts a couple of decades ago are today masters of their art, occupying centrestage where once was an earlier generation of stars.

The sensational teenager who took Madras by storm in the 1980s with his tiny mandolin. U Shrinivas, is today a seasoned veteran, while an earlier child prodigy, Ravikiran has mellowed with the years to deliver music of surpassing beauty with his ‘chitravina’. (Ravikiran will perform only once this season, at the Music Academy, thanks to some compelling commitments abroad).

Another prodigy of a later vintage, Shashank, today explores brave new paths with the flute, deeply moving one moment and frenetically fast-paced the next. Will the new season throw up some exciting new talent offering similar magic, you wonder.

As always, there will be some variations of the theme, for those who seek a change from the standard cutcheri fare. That brilliant Carnatic violinist Sriram Parasuram will also perform Hindustani-Carnatic vocal jugalbandis with wife Anuradha Sriram. O S Arun will probably sing Tamil ghazals. A number of percussion ensembles will thrill lovers of rhythm, led by such laya wizards as Karaikudi Mani, Vinayakram, Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam and Karthick. For those harking back to the past, who knows, there may be a four-hour vocal concert or two-by the Malladi Brothers, TN Seshagopalan, or TM Krishna.

The Tamilian and his coffee.

Vishal Menon

“M.S Subbulakshmi’s Suprabatham playing loudly on a cassette player, women busy with their bowls of powdered rice, competing with each other to draw the prettiest kolam at their respective entrances. A fresh edition of the Hindu, kept on the dining table for the man of the house to read. And of course! A morning cup of filter coffee for everyone: from the pensioner grandfather to the late for work granddaughter. A perfect day, for any Tamilian, in any part of the world begins with the morning filter kaapi.

It was “Baba Budan” , a Muslim holy man, who smuggled seven seeds of coffee form Mocha on his way back to India after his pilgrimage. He then planted these seeds near Mysore to start south India’s love affair with this beverage. However it took another 300 years, to the beginning of the 20th century for the coffee drinking to become popular with the average Indian. Even at the turn of the 20th century, “Ayothidas Pandithar”, a radical intellectual, refers to Coffee as a European drink.

Before coffee took over the Tamil middle class, in the early 20th century, coffee drinking was greatly critcised. Conservatives argued that coffee drinking was the root cause for every malady. Infant mortality, diabetes and constipation were blamed on coffee drinking. In an article in the newspaper Navashakti in 1927, Fundamentalists even christened it “kutti kal” or junior alcohol when they referred to the beverage.

In spite of these criticisms, coffee drinking kept growing and had replaced neeragaram (cold rice-water) as the preferred morning drink. The nutritional and healthy qualities of neeragaram were overlooked for the intoxicating taste of coffee.

An advertisement for Narasu’s coffee in 1943 called coffee “the elixir that drives away weariness.”

Preparation of this coffee and how it was savoured were very different from how it was in the west. Here, coffee bean varieties such as plantation A or peaberry is mixed with a smaller proportion of chicory seeds (more the chicory stronger the coffee) before roasting them over a charcoal fire. When the seeds, turn into that perfect shade of brown releasing a fragrance known to the expert, it is removed from the roaster and sent in for grinding. These fine grains are then put into the upper cup of a filter, when boiling hot water is poured over these grains; the perforated disc at the bottom of the upper cup slowly starts to release a decoction, drop by drop, taking as long an hour for a cup. The decoction is mixed with the purest of cow’s milk and in “R.K Laxman’s” words “and then the adding of sugar, just enough to mitigate the bitterness but without producing sweetness.”

Coffee houses and Coffee clubs started to emerge with the growing popularity of the beverage. These hotels, often run by Brahmins, served a Tiffin. It became a place of congregation, where friends met and a place where people would go when they were bored of eating at home. Meetings: both business and casual. Famous coffee houses in Chennai were built close to railway stations, hospitals and temples. The coffee in these Brahmins run hotels were considered excellent, but tea, which is a more popular drink in other parts of the country were seen as a Muslim drink in Tamil Nadu in spite of being cheaper. A person had to go to a Muslim hotel called a ‘military hotel’ to taste good tea.

Coffee grew from a beverage drank by a few to that of the entire middle class. It captured the imagination, diet and an irreplaceable part of the Tamil lifestyle. Going out or inviting a guest home would start with the inevitable question, “kaapi saapidlaama? (Will you drink coffee?) In a classic Tamil short story “ Kadavulum Kandasamy Pillayum” , the protagonist takes his guest lord Shiva to a nearby coffee hotel in the intersection of the esplanade and broadway of Madras when he visits earth for the first time. This best describes the love, Tamilians have for their coffee.

‘Staying alive’

How a rural art struggles to retain its identity

A stroll around the ‘Tamil Nadu’ section of 'Dakshinachitra' brings you to a board that reads ‘puppet show-1 pm.’ As you enter the small structure at the appointed time, you are met with a white curtain that acts as a screen, two old women with colourful dolls and three rows of empty chairs. And this despite a sizeable amount of tourists in the place.

Privatisation of televison has brought with it a revolution: television now reaches a sizeable population of the country( last recorded viewership is 416.51 million). However, comendable though the reach of television undoubtedly is, it is also responsible for declineof several tradional arts in India. Unable to cope with the speed of growth of television the country, several tradional art forms are either dead or are slowly dying. One such dying art is puppetry.

The word ‘puppet comes from the latin word ‘pupa’ which means a tiny or a dainty figure. Historical evidences show that Puppetry has been accorded a high place in the India. Srimad Bhagavat Gita, for instance, talks about how God, the greatest puppeter of all, manipulates the entire universe with the three strings- satta, rajas and Tamas.

The earliest mention of the art of puppetry was found in the Sangam text ‘Silappadigaram’ written around the 1 B.C. It was also mentioned in the ‘Natyashastra’, the ancient treatise on performing arts that talks of ‘sutradhar’ or the holder of strings. In fact, puppetry is so much a part of the tradition that it finds a mention in books like the ‘Natyashastra’, the ancient treatise on performing arts and even the Kamasutra.

However, in the age of entertainers such as ‘desperate housewives’and ‘How I met your mother’, this ancient art is now struggling to regain it’s lost identity.

As Mahipat Kavi, a legendary puppeter of Gujarat once said “in swarnim Gujarat, traditional puppetry has neither the state’s support nor the relevance as an entertainment for the masses that it was meant and proved to have”.

Before advent of the private television channels, puppetry became a mode of message dessimination. Although other modes of entertainments such as radio, and cinema were very effective, these were considered mere entertainers and therefore the task of spreading a message would lay with arts such a puppetry. In fact, many master puppeters such as Ramdas Padhye made regular appearances in Doordarshan in shows such as ‘Meri bhi suno’ and ‘Aap he sochiye’.

“Traditional indian performances have an elasticity in them where current problems can come in. so even in a potrayal of an epic, there were places in the story where even what is happening today can be brought in. This is why they are still around,” says V.R. Devika, an activist who works to encourage folk performers arts.

With ushering in of the private televison, the definition of entertainment began to change. In some parts of India, such as gujarat and rajasthan this meant commercialisation of puppetry; in states like Tamil Nadu, the art began to die a slow death.

In Gujarat and Rajasthan the art of puppetry was became a commdity to be sold in the ‘flourishing heritage market’ as an Article in the Economic and Political Weekly aptly puts it. Despite this, however, the artists remained poor.

“Puppeters are not beggars; they are artists and all they want is their rightful living with dignity. Isn’t that the responsibility of the state?” Kavi once asked.

On the other hand, the art of puppetry in states like Tamil Nadu began to disappear. Artists did not want to carry forward the lineage because of the dismal state of the art and the lack of income.

“Artists do not want their children to work in this field because of it’s poor pay. They want their children to go out to offices and work”, said Devika.” Earlier, these artists used to perform in temple festivals. These days, they screen movies instead,” she continued.

As the they are up against the formidable and gargantuan entertainment industry, these arts must now seek new methods to keep themselves alive.

“ These artists are up against the formidable entertainment industry. They must look to reinvent themselves to stay alive”, Devika concludes.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Not the pilgrim’s tale

I promised myself, a long time ago, that I would never travel on a pilgrimage. Not that I’m not spiritual –sometimes even I’m surprised that I am – but because I’ve convinced myself that pilgrimages are ritualistic, hypocritical exercises lacking the serendipity of travel. Because I’ve watched these journeys often peter out into self-flagellation, or worse, self-righteousness. Because, and this is Shug Avery (The Color Purple), God is in the people and not the places. Or because I once read Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and swore off them – pilgrimages and Coelho – for good.

And maybe because I dislike them, I seem to be surrounded by career pilgrims. One of my neighbours takes off on a pilgrimage nearly every month. Leaving family and work behind, her quest for the supreme every first week leads her to temples in obscure places with varying numbers of steps or stupas. Over the years (she’s close to 50 now), I think she’s done the rounds of every tier-I sacred spot in India at least twice over.

There are many others. A friend’s family drives to ‘special’ churches nearly every weekend. My home in Kerala, very close to the first Sabarimala pit stop Erumeli, is always teeming with pilgrims en route. I’ve seen them trudge up the steep slopes, singing, chanting, panting, praying, till the next roadside tea shop arrives. The recent National award-winning Malayalam film Adaminte makan Abu is the story of an old and poor couple’s desperation to save up money for their Hajj. It’s moving, brilliant, the anguish heartrending, even though I don’t agree with the premise of scrounging for the journey.

In fact, even I’ve tripped up on my vow, when the family hopped on the road to Vailankanni a few years ago. Since I could not not go, I decided to treat the journey as a sight-seeing tour. Turned out I didn’t have to try very hard. The shops abounding in this once-sleepy hamlet today make it a picnic spot with a smell of fish that simply will not go away. If I ever had any doubts about my pet theory on pilgrimages, my only one yet very neatly blew them off.

I have three reasons for these views – at a moral level, I think the punitive absolution of sin the pilgrim hopes for is a delusion; secondly, travel is inherently a quest, and a pilgrimage kills its essence, a chance at spontaneity, with its obnoxious instruction manual (light a candle here, chant three times, circle this one barefoot); and aesthetically, for what business has done to these quaint, quiet spots. Pilgrimages are increasingly associated with wealth; fortunes are made selling them, smaller fortunes spent buying them. These, almost always, scream commercial, and that is never really a good thing - package tours to Bethlehem, good luck charms and keychains, magnets for the refrigerator, postcards and polaroids.

I don’t think pilgrimages were designed to be this way; it’s probably only the modern self-assured faithful on the trip I am wary about. I think, in her rush to climb those 99 steps, my neighbour forgets that tranquility is in the journey itself. Do the Sabarimala pilgrims ever keep in touch, email each other, break the class divide, once their annual trek is done? And I don’t believe that the good Muslim couple needed to do the Hajj; a fact that, unfortunately, the moviemaker seemed to have brushed aside.

I’ve convinced myself that pilgrimages serve no real purpose. That doesn’t mean I won’t travel to Jerusalem. I sure want to, just as much as I’d like to hike in Iceland.

Image Courtesy: www.bibleplaces.com

Saturday, 26 November 2011

A “Rockstar”, who didn’t exist!

By Zico Ghosh

Vipul and I were supposed to do a review of the movie 'Rockstar' , but it did not work out. However, our friend Zico (Sankhayan Ghosh) has written a review for the same. So, here it goes!

In “Rockstar”, there is a clear reference to birds (a bird or a group of birds). Not just in the self-explanatory songs or dialogues and props (the "Wings of fire" concert or the big, black eagle-winged Gibson guitar) but in spirit too. And this is a film that is more about spirit than standard cinematic norms. It is the divisive kind that can polarize opinions and I am a little scared about our audience-intellect and hence worried, that a film like this might not be received the way it should be. But if you are a cinema-romantic who is more moved by intense passion-plays than designed-boxes of entertainment then this is a film for you.

“Rockstar” is a slightly difficult film to critique, because it kind of disobeys the structural parameters, but heck, does it really matter all the time? This heavily layered film is like an untamable beautiful beast with a big heart whose dreamy, haphazard madness keeps you coming back to it from various existential points.

The film revolves around a germ of an idea- an aspiring musician seeks tragedy in life in quest of artistic empowerment, when he learns that only a broken heart can provide him with the outlet that he is looking for. Janardhan Jakhar- a Jatt from Delhi’s Pitampura doesn’t quite wear those uber-cool black Rock-band tees. He idolizes Jim Morrison though. He wears hand knit brown sweaters and tight jeans that aren’t particularly fashionable. As the Delhi winter falls, he also occasionally wears that shabby mustard-colored jumper with “Rockstar” emblazoned on it, and goes to Hindu College.

And it doesn’t become a rags-to-rich or an underdog story from here. There is no competition to win, no proving himself, nothing. His transition to a bonafide Rockstar is almost magic realism (the spiritual transformation at the Nizamuddin dargah and the eventual “miracle”), except that we know that this lad has got musical talent.

The transition and the journey that he set out for, to seek music, suddenly becomes sidetracked, because Janardhan (who by that time has become Jordan), almost unknowingly, has started a journey of his own- a journey that of love. His music starts becoming secondary, and all that jazz is just incidental! Our wannabe Rockstar has been kissed by love and nothing else, now, matter to him. His journey becomes his destination, and we suddenly find that all this while, we were being fooled, because this is some crazy, epic, love story that is going on and not any heart shattered musician’s journey of catharsis. And the greatest trick that the devil here pulls is convincing the world that this “Rockstar” existed. It is as if a silent duel between music and love were being played, and that, music had to bow down. When finally in love, it makes a ridiculous mockery out of his “Rockstar dreams”-the guitar burns in front of his eyes as he lies in the bathtub and he throws up on the concert-red carpet. But the movie is as much about soul, as it is about love. And our Jordan is blessed with an untamed sufi soul that can’t be caged, “Yeh bada Jaanwar hain Dhingra sahab, yeh aapke chhote pinjre mein qaid nahin rahega”, Shammi Kapoor, with godlike wisdom and compassion tells the record label owner.

Rockstar is actually layered with so many shades, that he is too much to be real. In fact he is not real at all! His world is shown to have people who are more caricatures than human beings. That Dhingra Sahab of Platinum Records has all the attributes that we attach a stereotyped Hindi pop-music mogul with. And for that matter, even a musician’s most prized possession-his fans (here they constitute that near-perfect “Rockstar-fan-frenzy”), the media- as if all are card board cut outs. They have no depth, no empathy, nothing. And Ali silently plays with them the way a master puppeteer does with string-marionette. They help build the world around Jordan. He feels disconnected to all this. There are few genuine things in his life and few people who are able to touch him. Heer (Nargis Fakhri), their meeting place beneath the snow-white bed sheet in the hotel room at McLeod Ganj, and maybe Khatana bhai and his sister. And the bird (or the soul) that takes flight in Phir Se Udd chala perhaps talks about the same too.

Shehar ek se Gaaon ek se, Log ek se Naam ek.”- The bird has taken flight in search of a never land of spiritual peace and as he looks back at the world that he leaves behind he finds it meaningless. They all look and sound the same.

And to carry a film like this, you need something more than a written piece of paper. The lyrical, free-flowing verses breathe through AR Rahman’s music. And clearly, you aren’t in a position to appreciate the film unless you have read the music. I wonder, what we have come to, and how we have nearly forgotten to read a film by its songs (thanks to “Bollywood”). Here, the effect of the lyrics, music, and the imagery helps create that ethereal atmosphere around the film. And also contribute tremendously are Editor Aarti Bajaj and Cinematographer Anil Mehta. Bajaj’s extraordinary editing almost shapes the film and Mehta shoots like a dream. From the snowcapped Kashmir to the dreamy concert sequences, he does his job astonishingly well.

This brings us to the performances, which means now we talk about Ranbir Kapoor. Much has been said about it already. He oozes such infectious presence on screen that you don’t feel to nitpick anyway and here with a damn good acting performance he makes Jordan alive on screen. Nargis Fakhri is less pathetic than I thought she would be, and she has a presence. However all hell breaks loose once she opens her mouth and she, probably is one of the weak links of this film. And Shammi Kapoor (as Ustaad Jamil Khan) warms up the screen, for one last time, with his gentle aura and dignity; almost as if an invisible halo blesses his godly presence.

Perhaps one of the biggest achievements of “Rockstar” is that it consciously creates a kind of anti-thesis of the clichés that we would normally associate it with, and it’s steeped deeply in Sufi-jatt sensibilities that lend the film its unique flavour. He doesn’t take drugs, doesn’t smoke. Not an alcoholic and he refuse sex even when it is offered. His only cure is love- the ironic twist to a Rockstar identity. Several Sufi philosophies bind the force of the film. The mythological references to Heer-Ranjha and the surreal finale make “Rockstar” this crazy, unreal beauty. Those who question the practicality of the final concert scene, which takes place in a European arena amidst earth shattering fanfare, are clearly missing the point here. It’s to show as if, finally, on the night of his most spectacular feat in the cosmos of music, arrives the terrible tragedy. The circle is completed-the circle of the dichotomy of life. And the hapless soul takes refuge in that never-land in the mystic poetry of Rumi, beyond the realms of all wrong doings and right doings.

As I said, all this doesn't happen in real world. Somewhere it represents a part of all of us, who like Jordan, don’t fit into the civilization. We always somehow manage to adjust and constantly try to fit in. We are trained to be civilized in a certain way, and thus trapped in ourselves. The miracle that happens at the dargah that night in the surrounding of fakirs is after his plea to the almighty- kar de mujhe mujh se hi riha-that’s the juncture of magic realism. From there, the film becomes a fantasy, a protest. And a middle finger to that civilization. He is a symbol of Rumi, Kabir, Khusrao, Hazrat Nizamuddin- a free spirited Nadaan Parindey who once had to leave home because civilization was being built and who never quite returned after that. He is that voice. That spirit. It is a frame of mind that never gets an outlet in real life. Only once in a while, they find catharsis in a film like "Rockstar".

No barriers of Time and Place.....


A human wall as a singing and dancing chorus along with being the actors of the play was something rarely introduced in plays. But Vijay Tendulkar does so; and tides against the current almost like always. Ghashiram Kotwal, a Marathi play by playwright Vijay Tendulkar was made long back in 1972. It was first staged in Pune and after being banned by the Progressive Dramatic Association, was re-staged by its actors through the Theatre Academy, in the year 1974.

One would most certainly wonder why a play this old is being written and spoken about today. But as Mr Tendulkar puts it “Ghashiram knows no barriers of time and place.” The play refers to the political class of Pune in those days. It was dominated by the clichéd religious Brahmins and Tendulkar tries to bring out the irony of this very fact through the theme of sexual lust against the desire for power.

Ghashiram Savaldas is a Brahmin from Kannauj and comes to Pune with his wife and daughter to make a living. But he is looked down upon by the Brahmins of Pune and is accused of a theft. He is tried in spite of not having committed the crime. Ghashiram gives up after his failed attempts at conveying innocence. This triggers his anger at the Brahmins and their attitude. The idea of revenge takes birth here. Ghashiram decides to teach the city and its inhabitants a bitter lesson by taking charge of things.

The deputy of the Peshwas (who are themselves the deputy of the King), Nana Phadnavis, is in-charge of the city and is himself a womanizer, playing out Tendulkar’s idea of irony. He falls for Ghashiram’s daughter and develops an insatiable lust for the girl’s youth and body. Ghashiram makes use of this opportunity to gain power. Nana makes him the kotwal (a police chief-like position) of Pune. The city is under the kotwal’s control. He tightens the strings of all the Brahmins in the city by imposing extremely draconian rules and restrictions on the citizens; soaking in the sadistic pleasure of taking revenge, while Nana was busy enjoying his daughter’s youth.

The play revolves around this theme, breaking into music and dance at short intervals and the Sutradhar (narrator) narrating the story along with being a part of it, keeping the audience in sync with the story. The characters of the Brahmins and other side actors are played by the very people who are a part of the human wall and the dance-music sequences. They have the perfect timing and brilliant acting skills to pull the audience into an era that has long gone past.

Tendulkar’s Ghashiram could easily be related to the present day politicians, villains and a number of such other ironical figures in power and the ones aspiring to be in power. The play therefore does not seem to become an antic; it just gets a renewed meaning every time it is enacted or screened. One tends to relate it to the present day scenario in his/her perception. This is how Tendulkar likes to play with his audience’s minds and he does it in an unpredictable fashion every other time.

Boulevard of broken dreams..

Sudarshan N

April 5, 2009, was just another day for me. But Mahatma Gandhi Road, now popularly called MG Road and South Parade in pre-independence times, was set to lose one of its last remnants of history.

The Indian Coffee House, which stood as a mute spectator since 1959 to many significant changes in MG Road’s landscape, was catering to its customers for one last time in an ambience as serene as ever. For old-timers like my father it was a sad end to a glorious chapter.

Bangalore has always been a city that attracted migrants, its weather the single biggest factor. First, it was the turn of Tamilians who settled in Halasuru, an area off MG Road. Then came the British. The cosmopolitan aura reflects in the areas in and around MG Road. These were part of the cantonment area of Bangalore (other being the ‘city’), which stretched to twelve and a half square miles, established by the British Military Garrison.

Lord Cornwallis is said to have led his army through present day MG Road in the 1780s when he attacked Tipu Sultan’s fort in Kalasipalyam. The British managed to defeat Tipu in 1799. But they were driven out of Srirangapatnam by mosquitoes and they took refuge in Bangalore’s Cantonment. Trinity Church, located at the start of MG Road, was constructed for the garrisoned soldiers.

In complete contrast to the other side of Bangalore (Malleshwaram, Chamarajpet and Basavanagudi), which was conservative to the core and swore by idli vada and by-two coffee, the landscape in the cantonment area was dotted by bars, pubs, discotheques and movie theatres that screened ‘English movies’ and restaurants that served fancy food.

For someone like me, who has lived his entire life in Bangalore, one for whom ‘home’ is speaking in Kannada and munching authentic South-Indian food, MG Road was completely out of bounds. It was an alien territory, as much as London or Paris.

Girls draped in western wear, smoking cigars and having a drink or two were commonplace. New Year’s Eve and Christmas parties at the ‘Hard Rock Café’ found audience among the ‘Generation Next.’ It was, by far, the most ‘happening’ place for new-age Bangaloreans.

Despite this, it is MG Road which settlers, old and new, orthodox and liberal have always associated and identified Bangalore with. Its beautiful green canopy, boulevard with arched bougainvillea that ran the length of the road, theatres like Plaza and Galaxy and the Indian Coffee House were the main attractions.

Bangalore is the only city where exotic varieties of flowers and trees bloom for almost nine months a year. Shades of this are still evident in Cubbon Park, which lies at one end of MG Road with flora and fauna sprawling over 100 acres.

A walk along the boulevard, filter coffee at Indian Coffee House, smelling sandalwood sculptures at Cauvery Emporium and a late night movie at plaza; the MG Road of today offers none of these.

With the exception of one or two, most of the older buildings have been razed. In their place stand multi-storey buildings, corporate offices and malls with glitzy glass exteriors. The Barton Center and the Utility building, perhaps the last showcases of colonial times, no longer have those small little restaurants on the terrace.

Gone are the morning walkers, evening joggers and shopkeepers on the pavements. A giant flyover-like structure right at the centre of the road on which Bangalore’s ‘Namma Metro’ runs has reduced the erstwhile boulevard to rubble.

However, the Indian Coffee House was reinstated last year, albeit at a different location. On Church Street, parallel to MG Road. The aroma of the filter coffee, the taste of the masala dosa and the red-turbaned waiters, are all still the same. But the spirit just doesn’t seem to be there any more; it gives way to a wave of nostalgia that sweeps over people.

In May this year, a high-value commercial space, close to Barton Centre and a few hundred yards away from the earlier location of the Indian Coffee House, was leased to Café Coffee Day. “A lot can happen over a cup of coffee.” A lot can happen, indeed.