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!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

18th-century Bajirao Mastani on 21st-century screen!

If a film is based on a historic novel, how much of creative liberty can the filmmaker take? Is he/she free from any responsibility once a huge disclaimer is displayed in the beginning of the movie? Is it then okay to let one's imagination run riot and present the story any which way one wishes to?

I wondered as the saga of Bajirao Mastani was unfolding before me on a huge screen in a multiplex. Bajirao, the brave 18th-century prime minister of the Maratha ruler had fought and won many wars for his kingdom. And he deserved to be portrayed in exactly that light. But when he broke into a dance with his buddies, shaking his well-groomed tuft and mouthing 21st-century Mumbai slang "vaat laawli" I was taken aback. this was a fun-loving, dancing Bajirao who also fought wars as a hobby!

We would have loved to see how the warrior planned his battles, how he made his strategies, how he dealt with his fellow warriors and adversaries. Instead we were treated to this dancing spectacle. Not even for a moment did I think I was looking at Bajirao, all I saw was Ranveer Singh. Ranveer Singh playing the hero who was reduced to a lovelorn romantic once the beauteous Mastani entered his life. On that front too, it would have been in order to see what went through Bajirao's mind, and maybe a bit of turmoil as he embraced Mastani defying his mother and wife. After all, he is shown to be a loyal husband and a dutiful son to his wife and mother respectively. But why get into those nitty-gritties when you can impress your audiences with spectacular sets and rich costumes?

Deepika Padukone as Mastani gets to wear the loveliest of outfits. Her flowing garments in mostly muted shades are simply awesome. But somehow she fails to portray the woman of substance she was supposed to play, looking too demure and stylish to be someone who is adept at warfare. And Priyanka Chopra plays the lonely wife sporting low-waist nauvaaris (9-yard sarees) and skimpy blouses. Never knew high class Brahmin wives in 18th-century Pune were seen in such midriff-revealing attire. And that they could perform a perfectly choreographed dance with their souten in co-ordinated sarees. 

Sure, they have thrown in Marathi phrases and words for effect, but overall the lines mouthed by actors hardly leave any mark. Wish films with historical content were made with more care and sensitivity. Taking the ingredients and putting them in the mould of a big-budget commercial film is not enough! 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Of School Reunions and Bachpan At Pachpan!

An excited bunch of men and women in their mid-fifties descend on their school for a long-awaited reunion. A lifetime has passed since they left the portals of their alma mater for what lay ahead: namely college/university, job, profession, marriage, kids and so on and on. When they left, they had dreams in their eyes and a little sorrow in their heart for the wonderful life they were leaving behind.

A life of sharing little secrets with school buddies. Of seeing an errant student being made to stand outside the classroom by a disciplinarian teacher. Of sitting on the hard bench with a classmate during classes. Of enjoying meals during the lunch break. Of getting toffees from the one celebrating his or her birthday. Of spending nervous moments before the annual exams. Of eagerly awaiting the sound of the bell announcing the recess. Of going on picnics under the watchful eyes of the accompanying teachers. Of singing prayers during the morning assembly everyday. Of small fights over things that seem so insignificant now.

The school had witnessed all this and more. Several generations of boys and girls had spent their formative years in these premises. They had transformed from innocent little children to somewhat awkward adolescents in this very place. When they parted, they had no idea if they were going to see each other ever again. Messages of love and friendship scribbled hurriedly in diaries or autograph books on the last day of school were to be some of the few links that they would have with one another in the years to come. With the modest means of communication available in those times, it was going to be very difficult to stay in touch.

Fast forward to four decades later. Thanks to modern communication systems, long lost friends found each other. And what a joy it was to be able to have a conversation with your chums at the click of a button. Or to be able to see what he or she looks like, on the small screen in your hands! Contacts quickly established, whereabouts found, everyone was now longing to see their classmates in person. After months of meticulous planning, when the day finally arrived; all of them became young boys and girls again...standing in the school compound greeting and hugging their friends amidst shrieks of hysteric laughter.

The awkward teenagers had metamorphosed into elegant ladies and suave gentlemen. Days of struggle to get established in their chosen careers were way behind them. They had found their path, their life partners, and had successfully discharged their duties as parents. Why, some of them were even grandparents now! And then suddenly they had found their childhood once again. 

How comforting it was to be in one another's company! It was as if the decades of separation just evaporated or melted away. There was banter, food, singing, dancing, photo sessions and a lot of catching up. And promises to meet again soon. Everybody realized what fun it was to let out the child hidden in you. Yes, bachpan at pachpan is simply awesome! 

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kerala Kaleidoscope

Kerala---the land of coconut trees, backwaters, elephants, Kathakali, Kalaripayattu, Onam, pookalam, banana chips, avial and much more! When you visit Kerala, your eyes feast on the colour green all the time. White clothes sported by the local people and red tiled roofs of houses and buildings present a beautiful contrast. I returned from a short visit that took me to the port city of Kochi, to the mountains of Munnar and Thekkady and to the backwaters of Kumarakom. Sharing a few images here.

The Chinese fishing nets are one of the tourist attractions in Kochi. We got to see them being operated on a warm Sunday morning not very far from the St. Francis CSI Church in Fort Kochi. The horizontal nets that were held in place by huge rocks being used as counterweights were being pulled out of the water by a group of several fishermen hoping for a good catch. They did get some catch part of which was promptly snatched by the birds hovering nearby!

Fishermen enjoying a break on a routine working day!

St. Francis CSI Church is the oldest European Church in India. It was originally built in 1503. When the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama died in Kochi in 1524, he was laid to rest in this Church. His remains were moved to Lisbon 14 years later. Hordes of foreign and Indian tourists flock to this Church because of the historical importance attached to it.

A doll resplendent in Kathakali finery in one of the street shops in the Jew Town in Kochi.

Typical Kerala cotton sarees in cream and gold! Very elegant!!

From the coast to the hills! Mattupetty (1700 metres) is just a short distance away from the hill town of Munnar. Blessed with tea estates, treks, forests, a dam and a lake...Mattupetty offers a lot to nature lovers.

The tree estates in Munnar are simply stunning. As far as the eye can see, the earth is covered with a lush green carpet of rich velvet. The smoky blue hills in the distance and the mist in the atmosphere add a dreamy look to the landscape. As you stare out of your bus window, you are treated to this lovely spectacle. And you wish the bus ride would never end!

Eravikulam National park...the first national park in Kerala. It is home to Nilgiri Tahr. Offers spectacular views of clouds, valleys and hills.

Another view from the park!

A tranquil moment in the expanse of the sprawling Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary.

A submerged tree in the Periyar lake. You see many of them when you take a boat ride in the huge lake.

Another submerged tree with pretty colours in the trees along the shore.

The scene changes from the hills and the lake to the backwaters. We are in Kumarakom!

A boatman trying to earn some money by offering rides to tourists in the bird sanctuary in Kumarakom.

Daily life along the backwaters. Houses, small boats, clothes hung out to dry. What looks exotic to us is routine for the locals.

As if the greenery all over is not enough, the boats are painted in green too! In Kumarakom.

A ride along the picturesque backwaters in Kumarakom!

A hurried parting shot of the last of Kerala landscape before reaching Kochi to return home!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Bajrangi Bhaijaan: Brotherhood On The Border

According to the box office figures, "Bajrangi Bhaijaan" (BB) has been a very successful film, a blockbuster. Loved by audiences in India and Pakistan alike, this film has managed to walk the tightrope of winning viewers over on both sides of the border. Full of cliches, stereotypes and naivete, how does BB manage to do that? Easy. By pulling on the viewers' heartstrings at the correct places. Often, when addressing people's emotions, one runs the risk of being overly sentimental and weepy. BB's magic lies in the fact that it serves the potpourri in the right proportion. So, what you get is a delicious mix of emotion, humour, drama and patriotism; all rolled into a very palatable dish, ready to be savoured by one and all.

Another feather in BB's cap is that it does not claim to be arty or intellectual. It is a mainstream film with all the baggage that comes with a commercial motion picture. So, it does not shy away from a long and at times rambling first half, having a leading lady when none is required and the ubiquitous song and dance. But this masala goes hand in hand with the tale of the speech-impaired little girl Shahida/Munni from Pakistan who is separated from her parents, and her magnanimous saviour: the affable Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi aka Bajrangi (Salman Khan in a softer role, a clear departure from his image).

This Hanuman devotee is polite, truthful, honest and belongs to the category of people who listen to their heart, not mind. Our little visitor from across the border is fortunate to be in his company. She is in the safest of safe hands. In spite of not knowing how to go about it, and not having any resources; he takes it upon himself to reunite the child with her parents across the border.

From then on, it is a sequence of several situations that the mind may question, but the heart gives a thumping go-ahead to. We meet many lovable characters along the way: the blunt and practical Boo Ali who knows the border inside out (pun intended!), the affectionate Maulana (Om Puri in a special appearance) who is an important link in the whole operation, the bumbling TV news reporter Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in another memorable role) who joins Bajrangi's cause, and many others representing the army and the police in Pakistan. 

I particularly enjoyed some lines that came out of the blue, said little, but meant a lot. For instance Chand Nawab says, "nafrat bechna aasaan hai par mohabbat..." when TV channels refuse to air his story on Bajrangi, the person playing Kareena's dad says, " doosron ki madad karne se pahle apna mask theek se pehno" when Bajrangi brings home the lost Shahida, and the Maulana says, "Kashmir...thodasa hamaare paas bhi hai" when Bajrangi thinks he has to go back to India in order to visit Kashmir.

The climax at the border, though a bit long-drawn, has been shot quite well. You kind of "know" that such a situation involving so many people on either side of the border is not possible in real life, but you "wish" it happened! At that point in the story, it does not matter which side of the border you are standing on. You become a part of the collective euphoria and exult in the happenings unfolding on the screen in front of you. Certainly a "winning" moment for the director and his team!

The Kashmir landscape has been captured beautifully. Equally stunning are the desert views. Purani Dilli is colourful, chaotic and charming. The shots of the Samjhauta Express that runs between Delhi and Lahore are magnificent. Cricket, the favourite game in both the neighbouring countries has been woven meaningfully in the story. And Harshaali Malhotra as little Shahida is a great find. She emotes with her lovely face and large eyes, without saying a word. Kareena Kapoor Khan has nothing much to do, other than dancing to a mediocre "chicken" song, looking pretty in exquisite stoles and huge earrings, and handing a mosquito repellent coil to Bajrangi saying "yahan machchhar bahut hain". Wonder if she was plugging any particular brand!

This is the first Kabir Khan film I saw, his earlier ones being "Kabul Express" (2006), "New York" (2009) and "Ek Tha Tiger" (2012). Will be looking forward to seeing more of his work.