Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Snapshot From Chennai!

It is a hot summer morning. In Chennai, that doesn't deter people from stepping out. They are busy shopping, running errands, commuting to work, or hawking their wares. Some are walking with umbrellas and caps to keep the sun away.

This is a bustling neighbourhood, the skyline dominated by the ornate gopuram of the ancient Marundeeswarar Temple. A heavily fenced temple tank, and stalls selling flowers, fruits and puja items complete the picture.

Interspersed with the temple scenario are all kinds of shops, restaurants, small businesses, residential buildings, and offices. I am on my way to the bank when I spot a huge orange-coloured figure in the courtyard of the temple. Increased activity and decorations around the area tell me that the temple is hosting some festival. I make a note to come and take a look after I am done at the bank. I have other errands lined up for the morning so it will have to be a brief stop, but I want to do it.

A little while later, I am at the imposing gate of the temple. The large image is set in the entrance corridor. It stands on a platform that in turn is resting on two long horizontal poles. People will lift the poles on their shoulders and take the idol in a procession around the temple. But clearly it is not yet time. The palanquin bearers are waiting on the side, perched on one of the long poles.

Somebody is distributing prasad--that looks like pongal to me--amongst the visitors. Many people are lounging under the brightly painted designs on the ceiling of the corridor. Women in colourful sarees, with fragrant strings of flowers in their hair are buzzing about, gazing in wonder at the pot-bellied idol, collecting the prasad on a leaf plate,or just squatting on the floor soaking in the atmosphere. The men are either in casual wear or veshtis. Two more large idols--one of them is the Nandi Bull--are set on a side. Perhaps they have had their turn of going around on the palanquin, or they will go later.

The whole scene is far removed from the world outside, where it is a normal day and people are at work. This is a tranquil oasis with old-world, unhurried charm. This is quintessentially Chennai, allowing both worlds to co-exist naturally and happily in its bosom.

Resisting my urge to linger for a little longer, I make my way out, but not before taking a picture of the resplendent God.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Revisiting The Kalakshetra Saree

"Art is life. It is character. People think of art as if it were something far away from themselves. You may think of me as a dancer, an artist, but are you not going to be artist also? Have you not some art in you? My idea is that everyone is an artist, for everyone responds to beauty."

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Rukmini Devi is survived by Kalakshetra,  the magnificent academy she founded in 1936 for the preservation of traditional values in Indian arts and crafts, especially in the field of Bharatanatyam. It is a premier institute today, imparting training in classical dance and music to scores of students who go on to become dedicated teachers, researchers and performers of their art, taking it with them all over the world. Spread over a serene campus in Chennai, the institute reflects its founder's views on art and beauty in everything it does. The performance spaces, the classrooms, the lovely kolams, the colourful practice attire of the students, and the overall ambience oozes tradition and beauty.

I have had the pleasure of watching several dance dramas originally choreographed by Rukmimi Devi, and later revived by her illustrious students who are renowned dance gurus now. In all of them, not only the dance steps, but other things like the music and the costumes of the dancers are also presented according to her specifications.

The dance dramas are exquisite, but the focus of this post is on costumes and sarees. Rukmini Devi's aesthetic sense is evident in the beautifully colour co-ordinated costumes, with striking contrasts and unusual combinations. They are always very pleasant, and nothing is ever over-the-top.

Rukmini Devi maintained the same sense in her own sarees. She directed weavers to make elegant sarees for herself, and dance attires for her students. Slowly, a Kalakshetra saree came to be known as a precious possession amongst admirers.

Keeping in mind that textiles were an essential part of her dance dramas, Rukmini Devi had set up a weaving centre in a thatched hut in the premises just a year after Kalakshetra came into being. This not only gave means of livelihood to weavers, it also helped to keep the traditional craft alive at a time when markets were flooded with foreign-made clothes. That small hut has grown into a larger production unit called the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) over time.

Recently the CERC has revived some of Rukmini Devi's sarees. They are on view at an exhibition at the CERC until March 25. The original sarees are more than 50 years old. They are also part of the exhibition, neatly spread over white sheets on long tables. Also on view are the recreated sarees. There are 15 looms where inspired by the vision of Rukmini Devi, trained weavers are busy creating masterpieces in pure silk . Those who would like to own a piece of this beautiful heritage, can do so by placing an order for any of the sarees at the exhibition.

Photos by Lata
I am at the exhibition on a bright afternoon. The new sarees, neatly clipped to stands, are fluttering gently under the rotating ceiling fans. An artisan is bent over a parrot woven in one of the old sarees. Armed with a magnifying glass, he is busy transferring the pattern on a sheet of graph paper with dots and crosses. A little distance away, a stunning saree in yellow/orange and magenta is proudly displaying the same motif on its pallu. Besides four parrots, the pallu has two rows of shapely deer. The symmetry, proportions and colour scheme all complementing one another to make an outstanding work of art.

The CERC team is putting in a lot of hard work in creating these sarees. Everything from the yarn, to the zari, the motif, and the colour has to be just right. One feels a sense of loss looking at the original sarees, some in reasonable condition, some tattered. But at the same time, the newly woven creations swaying gently alongside reassure you about the preservation and continuation of this legacy.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

An Evening With "Haathi Mere Saathi"!

I stumbled upon a hit film of yesteryears "Haathi Mere Saathi" (1971) on the telly last night. I have vague memories of having seen it in my childhood. I remember it to be a popular entertainer that most parents took their children to. It was an attractive combo of a circus and a movie rolled into one. Good music, superstar Rajesh Khanna (this is one of his 17 hit films between 1969 and 1971) and the lovely Tanuja added to its appeal.

I watched the film with today's eye that is used to generous doses of technical gimmickry and virtual reality. None of that here. This must have been an ambitious project to undertake at that time because of the extensive use of animals during its making. It is amazing how the numerous scenes have been shot in real time with the four elephants dominating the frames (pun intended!).  In fact, in some scenes you wonder if they were emoting! They walk, run, dance, push and pull a car, cry, perform Ganesha pooja, summon a doctor, engage in amusing tricks and stunts during road shows with their master, and above all; try to save his marriage! Earlier, at the time of his wedding, the feast for the animals was a treat to watch and had me wondering how long it must have taken them to shoot that scene. The elephants, the big cats and others come, take their seats on neatly arranged chairs and enjoy the food served lovingly by their master and his new bride. How cool is that!

I like noticing the actors' makeup, hair and clothes while watching old films. Tanuja with her tight pants and short tops doesn't look outdated at all. In fact, her wardrobe fits well with the current trends. Her hair is another story though. Her makeup could have been better too. Rajesh Khanna wears his trademark guru kurta in some scenes, while in others he wears shirts with a round collar, two rows of buttons and long sleeves without cuffs. Sometimes the shirts are matched with the trousers in bright feminine colours. In one scene he sports a black guru kurta with pink trousers! One can only cringe in horror looking at his wardrobe. In some shots, his shirts are unable to hide his paunch and give away its clear outline showing behind them, a distinct difference from today's actors with well-toned bodies and six-pack abs. The crinkling of the eyes, the bending of the head to one side and shaking it are all very much there. The pimples are unmistakeable (remember the old joke Mummy Dimple, Baby Twinkle, Papa Pimple?) and together with the mannerisms and the wardrobe, make the persona of the much adored superstar.

The film is laced with the usual fare of those days. There is a wicked Munimji, an evil villain, an upright hero with his unusual four-legged friends, a doting dad, and a darling daughter who addresses her father affectionately as "daddy" and asks the hero angrily to "shut up" in their first meeting. The story by producer Sandow M M A Chinnappa Thevar is very predictable, at times jumpy and having loopholes in places. But watching the film more than four decades later, I realize that I didn't notice any of this when I first saw it in a huge cinema hall. I guess, the lure of the big screen, the life-like images of the stars, the dialogue, the music and the ambience of the place was too overwhelming to notice such small details. Also, generally you saw a film only once, so there was no chance of looking at such things later.

The celebrated pair of Salim Javed wrote the screenplay (their first collaboration) but the spark in their talent was yet to appear. Inder Raj Anand's work as dialogue writer is pretty ordinary. Wonder if Salim Javed could have done a better job had they written the dialogue. Laxmikant Pyarelal's music is a winner. All the three duets are sweet and with a lilting tune. For Sun ja aa thandi hawa, they put the lead pair in two hammocks for the entire duration of the song. A novel idea saving them the trouble and the monotony of running around trees. Solos are good too, two happy and a sad one, the evergreen Chal chal chal mere haathi being kids' favourite.

A story has it that Rajesh Khanna used the signing amount that he received for this film to complete the transaction of buying his bungalow "Ashirwad". He did set up his pyaar ki duniya (world of love, also happens to be the name of his zoo in the film) with his family in that bungalow. All those are things of the past now. What remain are such moments that have the power to transport you back to those days!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Simhanandini: A Feat With One's Feet!

Music and dance go hand in hand with temple rituals in South India. Temples were places where these arts thrived and flourished. Many of these arts have been carried forward by generations of practitioners. With changing times, they have moved from temples to performance spaces. Some of them are very much alive and are a part and parcel of cultural scenario across the country and abroad amongst art lovers. Others lagged behind because of their complexity, not having sufficient exposure and reach, the absence of enough performers or other reasons. But thanks to learners, researchers and performers, many of them are not only being revived but are also being practised and showcased in front of audiences across the world.

I witnessed one such gem recently. Called Simhanandini, it is a ritualistic temple dance belonging to the Kuchipudi style. This ritual calls for the dancer to draw an image of a lion using her feet. This is a part of worshipping the divine Goddess, the majestic lion being her vehicle. In olden times, devotees used to accomplish this feat in front of the temple chariot during Vijayadashami celebrations.

In the version that I saw, the dancer made deft use of her feet to draw the image in a large rectangle that had been filled with rangoli powder. Another way to do this is for the dancer to draw on a canvas after smearing her feet with coloured powder. The canvas can then be mounted on a frame for people to see her work.

The accompanying music for the performance is very special. It is set in six talas or rhythmic cycles, all adding up to the Simhanandana tala of 128 syllables or counts. The high-energy music and dance climax at the pièce de résistance: drawing a lion using the feet. 

What I saw was quite amazing. After what seemed like invoking the Goddess with the powerful music, the dancer entered the rectangle from the top left corner with small, firm steps and used her big toe to form an ear. Then with swift, gentle steps she moved across her "canvas" pressing her feet, at times forcefully, at times lightly; drawing face, body, legs and finally an upturned tale to create the magnificent simha. It did not take her long to create a wonderfully proportionate sketch prompting the audience to break into an admiring applause.

In the short break after the performance, people rushed to see the drawing from close quarters and take pictures. I managed to take just this one picture. It is not satisfactory, but just enough to get an idea of what all this is about.

There are two more variations of this art form. Called Mayura Kautvam and Mahalakshmi Udbhavam, they involve drawing a peacock and a lotus with one's feet. I am full of appreciation for the people who are working towards preserving these art forms and wish them well in their endeavour.  

I watched this performance at the Kalakshetra in Chennai. The dancer was noted Bharathanatyam and Kuchipudi exponent, Uma Murali.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Celebrating Oneness With Devotional Music

16 July 2016. It is supposed to be an evening of music at the beach. When I reach the venue, I find volunteers of the "Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha" standing there holding a banner. They are politely directing visitors to a compound across the road saying there has been a change of venue. Sure enough, a colourful announcement has been put up at the gate of the compound. This lovely place is called "Spaces". It offers a platform for experimental work in the performing arts to artists and students.

Inside, it is a sprawling area having an old world charm. There are leafy trees and a good old well adding a nice touch to the ambience. There is a small performance area built in the Kerala style, complete with a stage and parapets along the boundary walls in the audience area for those who do not wish to squat on the floor. Volunteers are busy preparing the area for the evening's performances. The sudden change of venue has meant last minute hectic activity for them. But the saving grace is that the small theatre matches the mood of the event perfectly, informal and open.

Noted Carnatic vocalist T. M. Krishna, who is the main force behind this event echoes the sentiment of the people associated with this movement saying they wished they could have had the performances at the beach as planned. There are some permission issues. But they go ahead enthusiastically anyway. The evening opens with a group song by the children from the nearby fishing village, Urur Olcott Kuppam. They are smart and their presentation is well-prepared.

Now it is the turn of the singers belonging to the Nagore Sufi Trio, Abdul Ghani, Ajah Maideen and Saburmaideen Babha Sabeer. They come from the Nagore Dargah, a sufi shrine in coastal Tamil Nadu. They are dressed in flowing white robes, their green and pink turbans adding colour to their costumes. Their singing is full of devotion, energy and rhythm.

Next, several young men and women belonging to the Choirs of Angels from Loyola College take the stage. Their singing changes from mellow and soulful to rapid and exuberant at times. They manage to present a good sample from their repertoire.

The last performance of the evening is Namasankirtanam by Karthik Gnaneshwar and group. Their abhangas and bhajans are mesmerizing, the repetitive refrain taking the listeners in a trance. Devotion is of course the common theme for the evening, wonderfully highlighting the idea of "Celebrating Oneness" through different styles of music. 

The thought behind this movement is to make music accessible to people and learn from each other. And they do it while Celebrating Oneness, in keeping with their tag line.  I wish it a long life and look forward to being there for the next editions. I had enjoyed the first edition a lot. Here is my post on that.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

At The Tribal Museum In Bhopal!

I visited the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum in Bhopal recently. And I was very happy that I did. Inaugurated on June 6, 2013, this lovely space offers a glimpse into the lives of various tribes of this diverse land. The entire museum is a work of art. The exhibits are simple everyday items used by the tribal people, but each and every one of them exudes beauty.

From the outside, the museum resembles a huge thatched hut. The tall walls are adorned with large wooden murals depicting life along the river Narmada. The museum is divided into six sections: Cultural Diversity, Tribal Life, Tribal Aesthetic, Tribal Spiritual World, Guest States and Exhibition Gallery. Once you buy your ticket and start exploring, you feel as if you were in a tribal wonderland.

Dwellings made with clay, bamboo, mud, grass and leaves are not only pleasing to the eye, but they also tell you about the lives of their inhabitants. One gets a peek into how they keep their cattle, how important their courtyard is to them, how they store their food grains. A mammoth food grain container dominates the view in one of the sections. The array of cooking vessels and accompanying stuff makes for interesting viewing too.

In another section the exhibits focus on their wedding rituals, jewellery, combs, birth and death rituals, farming, singing and dancing, costumes and other things. A gigantic bangle is the centre of attraction in one of the halls. It is a replica of a bangle that is given to the new bride while welcoming her into her marital home. Symbols of productivity like a pair of ploughing bullocks, farmer, field are ingrained on this bangle and the bride is supposed to keep this with her as a lucky charm while preparing seeds.

Music is an important part of tribal life. A mind-boggling variety of drums, string instruments, wind instruments and others occupy pride of place in a hall.

The tribal people have their own belief system, their own deities and their own symbols. A pillar, stone, stick or flag are often their objects of worship. The section showcasing their spiritual world could be called the most abstract amongst all since it is indeed hard to conceptualise.

The guest state featured presently is Chhattisgarh. It was a part of Madhya Pradesh until it was carved out of it on November 1, 2000 to be made a separate state. There is a large tribal presence in this state. The tribal homes featured here are simply awesome because of their pretty lattices made with bamboo and clay.

Photos by Lata

The exhibition gallery opens out before us the world of games played by tribal children. Their games need minimal or no objects, but they are designed cleverly towards making the players physically and mentally strong. It is amazing how many types of games they play inside or outside their homes. This gallery has real photographs as well as models of kids playing a particular game. A short description of the game is displayed too. An interesting and rather unique presentation!

Gond, Bheel, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol, Bhariya...terms that were just obscure names for us suddenly start making sense once you see--even if fleetingly--how they live their lives in the lap of nature, how well-developed their aesthetic sense is and how intelligently they devise ways to make the best of their minimalist surroundings.

Any downside? Well, the space may look too bright and a bit kitschy to some. That could be because it is still quite new and too many exhibits are on display, crowding the halls and the galleries.  But it does bring together many aspects of tribal life under one roof.


On a different note...when I was there, a big group of men, women and children had descended on the museum. They were not only loud and indisciplined, they showed utter disregard for the exhibits by touching them, scrambling around them for getting pictures taken, passing comments inanely, running, climbing and in general making a nuisance in the otherwise quiet halls. The museum attendants did request them to be silent or speak softly, but their polite pleas fell on deaf ears. It was only after the group had left that peace returned to the museum.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Light And Sound At Rajwada!

Dusk is falling rapidly around Rajwada, the stately palace built by the Holkars in the 18th century in Indore. The structure stands tall in the old part of the city, dominating its skyline. Once the seat of power in this region, today it is surrounded by shops and houses separated by narrow lanes.

I am here to see and listen to the light and sound show put together by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism very recently. Eager to enjoy this new initiative in the city in which I grew up, I make way for the ticket window. It is in a makeshift booth just outside one of the side gates. There is hardly anybody there. I buy my ticket (Rs.100) and am told that the show will start at 18:45, instead of 18:30 to allow people to come and settle down. The event has just been introduced in the city's social calendar and not too many people are aware of it yet.

I enter through the side gate, and after a little walk; find myself in the courtyard just behind the main gate. The imposing facade looks impressive even from inside. Some 50 plastic chairs have been arranged in the open space, but we are only about 15 people. As we sit facing the backside of the main gate, an army of mosquitoes descends upon us. They attack from all sides, making me wish I had carried a tube of repellent with me. My dupatta comes to the rescue, and I wrap it around my head, shoulders and arms tightly.

Photos by Lata
The show starts at 18:45. The commentary in Amitabh Bachchan's rich baritone is informative and engaging. The story of Malhar Rao Holkar-- the first prince from the Holkar family which ruled the state of Indore--comes alive with the help of lights, sounds and drawings projected on a huge wall in the courtyard. We are still in the first few minutes of the narration, and suddenly there are loud fireworks just outside the main gate, their lights and sound dominating those of the show. I wonder if they are part of the show, but they do not seem appropriate at this point in the story. It is not yet time for Malhar Rao's coronation or wedding in the script. The illuminations and bursts continue for a long time, marring the lights and sounds of the show all along. There are single blasts, multiple blasts in a long series and other different crackling sounds all accompanied by a shower of colourful sparks in the evening sky. Maybe it's a wedding procession, I tell myself. Being a hub of activity in the old city, this area is likely to have wedding processions, political rallies and demonstrations frequently.

The show goes on. I lose quite a bit of it to the noise from the crackers, but manage to get the gist anyway. Malhar Rao and his worthy successor Ahilyabai (his daughter-in-law) form the main fabric of the story. It touches upon the lives of all the other nobles who ruled the princely state of Indore until it merged with the newly independent Indian states in 1948. The story is rather well told, opening a small window to the history of the royalty for residents of Indore as well as visitors. 

How to make the experience more enjoyable for the viewers and listeners? Spray some powerful insecticide in the courtyard every evening before the show begins. And ban firecrackers in the Rajwada area for the entire duration (45 minutes) of the show.  The buzzing of mosquitoes and the incessant bursts of crackers take away the sheen of the production in spite of all its richness.

When I come out, I ask a policeman what the hullabaloo was all about. He tells me that they were celebrating because Indore is going to be a Smart City. Become smart, stay smart Indore!