Thursday, October 08, 2015

Understanding An Ancient World

By reading cuneiform tablets, Dr. Irving Finkel, of the British Museum, has been able to understand the life and times of the Mesopotamian period

Photo of Dr. Irving Finkel is by Ratheesh Sundaram; a Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet; a reed stylus which was used in those times 

By Shevlin Sebastian

A steady summer breeze is blowing. At the seashore, on Willingdon Island, Kochi, the silver hair of Dr. Irving Finkel is blowing about. But Finkel's mind is far away. In fact, it has gone three thousand years into the past. And that is no surprise.

The Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures in the Department of the Middle East in the British Museum has spent his entire life doing research about the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation. What has helped his research is the 1.3 lakh cuneiform tablets, written in the Babylonian language, at the British Museum, on which has been etched the life of those times.

There are letters between businessmen,” says Finkel. “One asks the other why he has not paid the money due to him. The people understood the difference between good and evil. And when a king took the throne for the first time, he published a statement stating that, unlike the previous ruler, he would be looking after the poor and the sick, and there would be safety on the roads.”

A smiling Finkel says that these are same promises that are being given now also. “The more time I spend in reading these inscriptions, the more it seems to me that nothing has changed in the world,” he says. “Human behaviour is the same.”

In fact, like now, in Babylon, most people had monogamous relationships. “For a marriage, a contract had to be signed, with witnesses,” says Finkel. “There were all sorts of lawyers. And the legal language was complicated, just like it is today.”

And, like the present, women also felt vulnerable. “If she failed to conceive, or produce a son, these could be sufficient grounds for divorce,” says Finkel, who had come to give a lecture at Kochi, on the invitation of the Kochi Muziris Biennale Foundation, the Association of British Scholars, Thiruvananthapuram & Kochi Chapters, and the British Council.

It is one of the miracles of nature that the tablets have lasted for thousands of years. But the documents were made very simply. “Cuneiform tablets are made of clay, taken from the banks of rivers, like the Tigris,” says Finkel. “They used a reed stylus to impress symbols on it. Afterwards, they put it outside, but not in direct sunlight, so that it became hard enough to handle safely.”

As for the size, it is amazingly like the dimensions of a smartphone. “It fits in the hand,” says Finkel. “The writers were well trained. They had a proverb: a good scribe follows the mouth. It meant that they could keep up with the speaker. And as for the reed stylus, it is tough and resilient. It has a sharp end. You can write at least ten tablets before you need to sharpen it.”

Like the stylus, Finkel has a sharp brain. So, one day, in 1997, when a 38-year-old man called Douglas Simmonds came into the Museum, and showed a cuneiform tablet, Finkel's eyes lit up. The tablet was given to Simmonds by his father, who had got it while serving in the Royal Air Force at Egypt during the Second World War.

Simmonds asked Finkel aabout the contents. “It is a story about a great flood, and how a king had told the people to build a large boat so that they could survive,” said Finkel.

Finkel's conclusion: the story of Noah's Ark and the Big Flood existed a long time before the events mentioned in the Bible. “The authors of the Bible were recycling an ancient story,” says Finkel.

And, interestingly, the boat in the Bible has been described as an oblong craft. However, most people often visualise Noah’s Ark, with a house on it, along with a high prow and stern. But on the tablet, it is described as a coracle, which is circular in design. “In fact, there are instructions on the tablet on how to make such a boat,” says Finkel. “It is 3,660 sq. m, with a wall of seven metres.”

Last year, on the Punnamada Lake, at Allapuzha, Finkel made a giant coracle, with the help of experienced boat-makers from Italy and local craftsmen, based on the instructions on the tablet. After a lot of trial and error, the boat was ready and Finkel was able to float it down the backwaters. So imagine Finkel's chagrin, that when he was passing by a houseboat, which contained a few Westerners, one of them shouted, “Oh look, there is Noah's ark.” However, Finkel says, in their defence, they could not see, from a sideways glance, that it was round.

Incidentally, in January, this year, Finkel published a book, called 'The Ark Before Noah - Decoding The Story Of The Flood'.

When you speak to him, there is no doubt about Finkel's passion for ancient history. And it happened by accident. He went to the University of Birmingham to study Egyptology. “But in the very first week, the professor dropped dead,” he says. “The head of the department called me and said it would take a year to find a replacement. He suggested that I knock on Prof. Wilfred G. Lambert's door and learn a bit of his Babylonian cuneiform. And when the University got an Egyptologist, I could come back.”

But Finkel never went back. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Steelman of India

On a recent visit to Kochi, Amandeep Singh talks about he allows cars to go over his body and get hit by sticks and hammers, with no discomfort

By Shevlin Sebastian

Amandeep Singh lay on the floor on a stage in Mumbai. A brick was placed next to his head. His colleague revved up the engine of a bike, turned up the accelerator, and headed towards Amandeep. He rode onto the brick, over Amandeep’s head, and was gone. Amandeep shook his head and got up within seconds. Then another volunteer took a hammer and hit him hard on the chest. Nothing happened. Then he was hit by several sticks. Again, no problems. Then he effortlessly lifted a bike which weighed 130 kgs.

So, is it any wonder than Amandeep is known as the Steelman of India? He has taken part in numerous programmes, on television channels, and on stages all over India, as well as Hongkong and Dubai.

Asked how he can withstand these assaults on his body, Amandeep says, “You need a strong willpower. I stop breathing and keep my body in a state of heightened tension. I also pray to God to give me the strength. When a car goes over my buttocks, the pain will last for two minutes, and then it is gone. But I have also done many years of practice. So my body is used to it.”

But sometimes things can go wrong. Once, while performing in Mumbai, his regular car driver was not present. So a replacement got into the Scorpio. However, instead of driving over Amandeep’s buttocks, the driver took the car over the knees. For a few moments Amandeep felt dazed. Then he got up and continued with the programme. “By the grace of God nothing happened,” he says. “But after the show when I looked at my knees, the entire area had turned a bluish colour. Thankfully, it vanished after two days.”

To maintain his toughness, Amandeep has to go through a tough daily schedule, at his hometown of Ismailabad, Haryana. “Every day, I do about 2500 pushups, 180 kgs of bench press, and I lift weights of 250 kgs,” he says. “I also get punched about 3000 times.” In total, he spends six hours in the gym. He also does an early morning six-kilometre run. But just before that, he drinks one large jug of water. “It removes all the toxins inside my body,” he says.

Not surprisingly, he eats a lot. These include plenty of eggs, vegetables, rice and chappatis. “I drink two kilos of milk every day, along with oats,” says Amandeep. “Throughout the day I am having fruits and juice.”

And he is on a mission to inspire youths to follow his way of life. “There are 2500 students to whom I am giving free training, either directly or through WhatsApp,” he says. “I am trying to lure them away from drugs and become a physically powerful person like me.”

Amandeep says that in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, there is an alarming increase of drug-addiction among the youth. “To get the votes, the politicians give drugs to the youth,” he says. “For them, drugs is a big business.”  

Apart from his shows, Amandeep is busy preparing for the Ultimate Fight Championship to be held early next year at Hongkong. “This consists of boxing, wrestling, and kicking,” says Amandeep. “You have to defeat the opponent at any cost. There is no protection.”

He is being sponsored by Sikh organisations, like Tiger Jatha and Singh Naad Radio of Britain, and the Hongkong Gurudwara Committee.

It will be a big test for me,” says Amandeep, while on a brief visit, his first, to Kochi.

And he likes everything about the city. “Kochi is a beautiful place,” says Amandeep. “The people respect me a lot. They have a clean heart and look happy. I felt a peace of mind here. Nobody interferes with each other.  The food is also tasty and cheap.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

A Multi-Faceted Talent

Balan Nambiar, who was recently conferred with the Raja Ravi Verma Puraskaram, Kerala state's highest art award, is adept at many art forms. He is a painter, enamellist, photographer, academic researcher, as well as a sculptor

Photo by M. Jithendra

By Shevlin Sebastian

Artist Balan Nambiar felt disappointed. During the September 7 ceremony, organized by the Kerala Lalitkala Akademi, at Kochi, to present him with the Raja Ravi Verma Puraskaram, the highest state award for art, there was hardly anybody present from the artistic fraternity. “There were twenty adults in the audience,” he says. “The rest were filled by students of the fine arts colleges. There were two people on the dais who were supposed to give felicitation speeches, but none of them had seen my original work.”

It is no surprise that Nambiar left Kerala a long time ago. “Kerala is yet to become a haven for an artist,” he says. “Not many can thrive here. There is inadequate encouragement or patronage by cultural institutions. And there is a lack of critical responses to art works. Instead, all you get is indifference. That is the worst enemy for an artist.”

Today, the Bangalore-based Nambiar is respected as a multi-faceted talent: a painter, enamellist, photographer, academic researcher, as well as a sculptor. .

His stainless steel sculpture, 'Valampiri Shankha', commissioned by Texas Instruments (TI) and displayed at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, is a striking piece of work. “It is in the form of a conch shell,” says Nambiar. “When a conch is blown, it produces a sound which is closest to the 'Om' sound.” Incidentally, TI are the pioneers of digital sound processing in India. The sculpture gained an entry in the Limca Book Of Records as the largest steel conch shell in India.

Asked why he uses stainless steel, Nambiar says, “It is a durable medium. Ordinary steel gets corroded after a period of time.” Thus far, Nambiar has done over a hundred stainless-steel sculptures.

He is also adept at painting, both in oils and acrylic. While his earlier works were inspired by nature and the ritual art forms of South India, at present his themes are the symbols of growth, energy and mathematics. “The Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Numbers (mathematical concepts) recur often in my work,” he says. He has also done several enamel paintings, having learned the method from the Italian maestro, Paolo De Poli. 

What will be an enduring achievement is the way he has tried to preserve the ancient art forms like Theyyam, Buta, Patayani, Nagamandala and other forms through photographs. So far, he has a collection of 12,000 photographs. Around 1800 of them have been acquired by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. To do the research, he was awarded the prestigious Nehru Fellowship as well as a Senior Fellowship from the Ministry of Culture.

Unfortunately, all these art forms are declining in importance. “They are being diluted, and the spectacular elements are highlighted,” says Nambiar. “The worst aspect is the use of the loudspeakers during an event in the villages. Sometimes, advertisements are blared through the speakers even as the mantras are being recited. This has reduced the sanctity.”

Nambiar is understandably upset because he has an emotional bonding, especially with the Theyyam art form. “I have seen Theyyam performances as a child in my village [Kannapuram, Kerala],” he says. “They would make their ritual costumes from tender coconut leaves.”

A son of a farmer, Nambiar showed an aptitude towards art and mathematics from an early age. “My parents neither encouraged nor discouraged me,” he says. When he grew up, he went to Chennai and got a diploma in Fine Arts (Sculpture) from the Government College of Arts & Crafts. Thereafter, he ventured onto a career in the arts.

Nambiar has displayed his work in places like the Venice Biennale as well as the Constructa78 in Hannover and is part of the permanent collection of many museums in India.

I have lived by art for the past 49 years,” says this former chairman of the Lalitkala Akademi of New Delhi. “When I look back, I realise that I am one of the fortunate people. From the very beginning I was able to sell my work. And I have got all the recognition and creative satisfaction possible in my career.” 

(Sunday Standard Magazine, New Delhi and New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, October 05, 2015

In Love With Elephants

TV Satheesh has provided pachyderms for temple festivals, organised foreign tourists to see them, and is a broker, as well

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

The sixteen-year-old TV Satheesh had been pestering the mahout, Unni, to allow him to sit on the elephant Sivankutty. This was at the Hari Hara Sudha Temple at Kochi. Finally, Unni consented. Immediately, the elephant folded his legs and sat down. Satheesh climbed up by grabbing one of the ears.

Usually, there is a rope around the neck, to hold on to, but there was none on Sivankutty. Somebody then gave Satheesh a three-year-old boy to hold. Meanwhile, as Sivankutty stood up, just to tease him, Unni raised his stick. A mahout does this several times a day, but he rarely hits the elephant. But on this occasion the elephant got scared. And he ran away outside the temple and down a narrow street.

I felt terrified that I would fall off,” says Satheesh. “There was nothing to hold on to, and I had the child with me.” A desperate Unni chased the elephant. Down the street Sivankutty ran, scaring away the pedestrians. Thankfully, there were no vehicles. However, after 400 metres, Sivankutty stopped suddenly at a leaking public tap and began to drink water. This gave Unni the chance to bring things under control. Despite this traumatic experience, Satheesh fell in love with elephants.

Today, thirty years later, Satheesh arranges elephants for temple festivals, takes foreigners to places where elephants are staying, so that they can have an interaction, and gets the pachyderms transferred from person to person. For arranging this deal, Satheesh gets a commission from both parties.

However, as per the 1972 Kerala State Wildlife Act, elephants cannot be sold. Instead, they can be leased out. The current prices range from Rs 50 lakh to 10 crore. When a deal is done, there is a ceremony between the lessor and lessee. The lessor has to tell the elephant, “This is your father.” When the pachyderm hears this, it starts crying. “The elephant knows what is happening,” says Satheesh. “The relationship between owner and animal is, indeed, like father and son. So, if a man has a five-year-old son and an elephant, which is 10 years old, then the animal is the elder son.”

Asked how he figures out which are the best elephants, Satheesh says, “I check to see if there are indentations on the temples. The deeper it is, the older is the elephant,” says Satheesh. “Sometimes, there are wrinkles on the legs and the body. Their prime is from 18 to 50 years.”

But what pains Satheesh is the cruelty meted out to elephants. “Sometimes, mahouts destroy one eye, because it becomes easier to control the elephants,” says Satheesh. “There are cruel mahouts who destroy both eyes by hitting them with a stick.”

In Kerala, during the five-month temple festival season, the elephants hardly get a moment's rest. They are moved from place to place by lorry.

It is so difficult for elephants to maintain their balance on a vehicle,” says Satheesh. “If the driver brakes suddenly, their tusks will hit the wooden boards. Their bodies bang on the sides when the lorry turns to the left or the right. By the end of the journey, they are exhausted. And the moment they arrive, they have to be dressed up, to take part in the festival, which has loud music, from traditional drums, noisy firecrackers and the presence of thousands of people.”

The food is also never given on time. “Only when the festival is over, are they fed,” says Satheesh. “They like to eat grass and leaves, but they are usually given the cheaper coconut fronds and palmyra palms, which they don't like. Simply put, they are in hell.”

Despite that, elephants have a golden heart. “Once, a mahout, owing to severe low blood pressure, fell unconscious next to an elephant,” says Satheesh. “Immediately, it ran on the street and blocked traffic and made people aware of the fallen mahout. Subsequently, the man was rushed to hospital, where, thankfully, he recovered.”

An emotional Satheesh says, as he provides bananas to Kandathil Sudhir, an elephant that belongs to his friend, Martin, “This is the beauty of elephants. When they love you, it is wholeheartedly.” 

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

Thursday, October 01, 2015

A Love Stanza

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sadhana talks about life with the poet TP Rajeevan

Photos: Sadhana Raghavan; (from left) Sreedevi, Sadhana, TP Rajeevan and Parvathy. Photos by TP Sooraj

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sadhana met the poet TP Rajeevan for the first time, in 1982, at the NSS College at Ottapalam. They were both in the same MA English class. “He was wearing a green kurta and brown trousers,” says Sadhana. “I regarded him as a classmate.” Sometime later, Sadhana came to know that Rajeevan was a poet.

Both were part of a group that would attend literary meetings. Once, they went to see Prof. MA Rahman's documentary on Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. “We both enjoyed it,” she says.

Right from the beginning, Rajeevan established his style of publishing sparingly. “He would write a poem and then rewrite it a lot,” says Sadhana. “Sometimes, he would take a year doing this. After that, he would go and show it to [senior poets] Atoor Ravi Varma and K G Sankara Pillai at Thrissur. Sometimes, I would accompany him. Both of them liked Rajeevan's style.”

Meanwhile, one day in 1986, when Sadhana was doing her M. Phil at the University of Calicut, Rajeevan told her that they should start their lives together. “That was when I realised he wanted to marry me,” says Sadhana. “I had only looked at it as a friendship. But when he said this, I knew that if I agreed it would deepen our bond.”

At her home, in Ottapalam, Sadhana's parents were receiving marriage proposals for their daughter. So she told her parents about Rajeevan's desire to marry her. “He had come once or twice to the house, so they had met him,” says Sadhana. “My parents did not object. They said they would find out more about Rajeevan's family. Thereafter, it became like an arranged marriage.”

While all this was going on, in May, 1988, Sadhana got a job as an assistant in Calicut University, while Rajeevan was working in various newspapers in Delhi. Eventually, the marriage took place on September 12, 1988, at Ottapalam. And, immediately, there was good news for Rajeevan. He got a job as a public relations officer at the University of Calicut. And, on October 1, he was conferred with the VT Kumaran poetry award at Vadakkara.

Asked to list her husband's qualities, Sadhana says, “Rajeevan has got a third dimension. If I say something, he is always able to find an unique angle. This is the case with anybody who meets him. He is very sincere in his words and behaviour.”

And hard-working, too. Rajeevan began work on his first novel, 'Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinte Katha', in 1988, and took 12 years to complete it. “There are details about forensic investigations,” says Sadhana. “Rajeevan ensured that he got the technical facts right by reading books about the subject.”

Meanwhile, as a father, to Sreedevi, 25, and Parvathy, 23, Rajeevan has always been like a friend. “He gives advice and encourages them to do whatever they like,” says Sadhana. While Sreedevi is doing her M. Phil from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences at Mumbai, Parvathy, who has a MA in journalism, is working for a company in Chennai.

As for his negative points, Sadhana says, “Rajeevan is short-tempered. He will say what is in his heart, although he will cool down quickly. But some people keep the resentment in their hearts. So, he has a few enemies.”

But Sadhana has been his best friend right from the beginning. When Rajeevan wants to write, she will ensure that there is peace and quiet in the house. “When he gets engrossed he forgets to take his meals,” says Sadhana. “Rajeevan does not have a fixed routine while writing. When he is working on a novel, he can work for five to six days at a stretch. On other days, he will not write at all.”

Sometimes, he shows Sadhana what he has written. “I give my honest opinion,” she says. “Rajeevan is keen to know whether readers will like it.”
Meanwhile, Rajeevan's turning point occurred when he was invited to take part in the Struga Poetry Evenings Festival at Macedonia in 2002. “He interacted with a lot of poets from all over the world,” says Sadhana. “One of his poems was adjudged as the best in the festival. It gave Rajeevan a lot of confidence. He grew up in a village [Palery, in Kozhikode district], so he felt inhibited for many years.”

Thereafter, Rajeevan attended poetry festivals in Poland, Croatia, Israel, and the USA. He was awarded the International Visiting Programme Fellowship by the US Department of State in 2004. Rajeevan also received a Ledig House International Writer-in-Residence Fellowship in 2008 at New York, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation’s writer-in-residence fellowship at Bellagio, Italy, in 2013.

Asked how Rajeevan has changed over the years, Sadhana says, “He has become peaceful and relaxed. In the beginning, he had been tense about how his career would shape up.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Sadhana says, “Both spouses are individuals in their own right. So, you should respect each other. There should be sincerity and transparency between husband and wife. We should always communicate with each other so that there are no misunderstandings.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Charm Of Being Short

Theatre artiste Cyrus Dastur's Shamiana Short Film Club is gaining in popularity all over the world

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

In 2009, Cyrus Dastur, the Mumbai-based founder of the Shamiana Short Film Club, had gone to Kolkata. He was showcasing a few short films at the Nandan theatre. After the show was over, a group of college students came up and had a chat with Cyrus.

Two years later, one of the girls, Shivani Parekh (name changed), called Cyrus and told her that when she had attended the screening, she had been studying science. But, inspired by the films she saw, Shivani began to study film-making.

It was a life-changing moment for Shivani,” says Cyrus. “That was when I realised that Shamiana was having an impact on people.”

Cyrus, a long-time theatre actor, started the club on June 7, 2008. His logic was simple. “For feature films, there are cinema halls, TV channels, and film festivals where you can see them,” says Cyrus. “But for short films there is practically no outlet, except for a few film societies, which are few and far between. So I decided to set up a platform where short film-makers can showcase their works, in front of a discerning audience.”

When Cyrus set out, he also had a stroke of luck. There was a simultaneous growth of the social media. So when people saw the films and liked it, they mentioned it on Facebook. “And that helped in spreading the name of the club,” he says.

Asked the meaning of the word, 'Shamiana', Cyrus says, “When I was a child, my parents would take me to the Shamiana coffee shop at the Taj Mahal Palace,” he says. “That is how the name got stuck in my mind. Shamiana also means a tent. In the 18th century, people would go from village to village, set up a shamiana, and show films.”

Today, there are clubs in places like Kochi, Baroda, Pune, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Chandigarh, as well as Hongkong, Singapore and Melbourne. “In fact, we have a worldwide following of four million,” says Cyrus.

Interestingly, there are no membership fees. Instead, the club depends on sponsors. Apart from halls, the films are shown at restaurants and cafes. “These venues are given free to the club because they get more business thanks to increased footfalls,” says Cyrus.

A wide variety of films from all over the world, including Oscar-nominated ones, are shown. One of the recent films, which made an impact, was 'Baghdad Messi', made by the Belgium-based director Sahim Omar Kalifa.

It is about a ten-year-old boy, Hamoudi, who has lost a leg. A fan of the footballer, Lionel Messi, Hamoudi has a passion to play football with a local club in Baghdad. “The 19-minute film shows how violence has not curbed the Iraqi children’s passion for the game,” says Cyrus.

Asked about the benefits of showing a film at the club, Cyrus says, “A film-maker is able to physically meet with members of the audience, and get a feedback. This helps him or her to become a better film-maker.” 

Recently, Cyrus held a short film festival, at the JT Pac, Kochi, which had entries from all over India. “The films are so much better now, in terms of production, camera technique, and the understanding of the medium,” he says. “And that is good news. We need a lot of meaningful art and story-telling in these intolerant times.” 

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Looking Bright and Gleaming

The 900-year-old Paravur Synagogue, near Kochi, has been restored to its original best

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Samson Pallivathukal and his wife, Miriam Artzi; the inside of the synagogue. Pics by Ratheesh Sundaram 

On a sunny August morning, a smile breaks out on the face of Samson Pallivathukal, 68, as he approaches the gleaming-white Paravur synagogue, with his wife Miriam Artzi. “Look, how nice it looks,” says Samson, who left Paravur for Israel in 1973, but is back for a visit. “There was a time when everything was broken and weeds grew all over the place.”

Yes, but all that changed when, in 2009, the Kerala government's archaeology department took possession of the synagogue, which is 32 kms from Kochi, and placed it as part of the Muziris Heritage Project. The restoration work was entrusted to conservation architect Benny Kuriakose and his team.

And today, everything is spick and span. From the entrance, Samson leads the way through tiled pathways and doors to the prayer hall at the back. Samson looks at the receptacle or the Ark, placed against a wall, and says, “The Torah, which used to be placed inside the ark, as well as the ark, have been taken to Israel in 1995,” says Samson.

Today, the ark is an exhibit at the Jerusalem Museum. To recreate it, Benny sent an e-mail to the museum authorities. They sent four high-resolution photos. “Based on that, a colleague of mine, Clerine Patteri, worked painstakingly for three months to recreate the ark,” says Benny. Apart from that, the floors, steps, ceilings, roof and the Bema, which is the platform from where the Torah is read,  have been restored to their original best.

What is unusual about the 900-year-old Paravur synagogue is that there is a separate set of steps which leads to the first floor. This was where the women prayed, while the men remained in the ground floor.

On the Sabbath, one prayer was conducted on the ground floor,” says Samson's wife, Artzi. “The other one was said on the balcony so that the women can hear it.” The priest took a flight of steps, at one corner of the hall.  

Another unusual feature is the large open courtyard in front of the synagogue. “This is an unique feature of Kerala synagogues,” says Samson. “There were also numerous lamps and chandeliers, which cost lakhs of rupees.”

Unfortunately, all the chandeliers and lamps have gone missing. “The building had been abandoned,” says Benny. “The doors and windows were broken. A thief came one night and took away all the chandeliers. But we have plans to restore all of them.”

Till that happens, when you look upwards, all you can see are the metal hooks on the wooden ceiling which were used to hold the chandeliers. But all around, on the walls, there are plaques which detail the history of the Jews in Kerala, as well as touchscreens which tell the story of the synagogue. So far, Rs 2 crore has been spent for the conservation works.

Meanwhile, what holds pride of place, near the entrance, is a replica of the copper plate, listing privileges, which was given by the King of Cochin, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, to the Jewish leader Joseph Rabban in 1000 AD. “Yes, the King welcomed us,” says Artzi, with a wide smile. “Many Jews were escaping persecution in places like Persia. And Kerala was one of the few places on earth which welcomed the Jews.”

Overall, there is an innate charm to the synagogue. Tourist Aleesha Matara feels peaceful and serene. “This is a beautiful space, and represents the rich inter-religious nature of Kerala's society,” says Aleesha. Adds Innat, an Indian-origin Jew, who lives in Israel: “To see the synagogue where my father and grandfather prayed is very exciting.”

Today, there are only two Jews living in North Paravur. All the rest have left. There are no prayers being conducted in the synagogue, because, according to Jewish custom, you need a minimum of ten Jews to conduct the service. “Once upon a time, there were more than a thousand Jews in Paravur,” says Samson, with a sad smile. 

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

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Native Touch

At the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth at Pune, the images of Mother Mary and Jesus Christ have been made to look Indian

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: The large mural behind the altar; Fr. Alex Gnanapragasam, the treasurer of the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth; Mother Mary in a Maharastrian saree 

Near the entrance of the post-graduate block of the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth, a Christian Institute for Philosophy and Religions, at Pune, a surprise awaits the visitor. There is a statue of Mother Mary holding the Baby Jesus, but with a difference. She is draped in a sky-blue Indian saree, with a gold border.

This is a Maharastrian saree,” says Fr. Alex Gnanapragasam, the treasurer of the Vidyapeeth, which is run by the Society of Jesus. There is another innovation: Mary is standing on an open lotus. “The lotus is India’s national flower,” says Fr. Alex. “We wanted to combine the elements of Christianity and Hinduism, so that God can be better understood through one’s culture.”

Another statue, in the chapel, is of Mary wearing a Bengali-style pastel saree.

However, inside the chapel, what catches the eye is the large mural behind the altar. “Jesus is shown in the traditional Lasya dance of creation,” says Fr. (Prof) Dr. Noel Sheth, a Sanskrit scholar as well an Indologist, who is well-versed in several Indian religions. “The right hand is shown in the vyakhana mudra, the sign of teaching. And the left hand is in the dana mudra – the gesture of giving grace. The two ears of wheat at the bottom of the pipal (sacred fig) tree represent the Bread of Life and the Word of God.”

The other elements include green vegetation which indicates the earth; above it are waves of water. The light blue currents refer to the invisible air. The red flames represent the fire,” says Fr. Alex. “The circular yellow patch above the tip of the leaf points to ether, which cannot be seen or touched or felt.”

Jesus is shown leaning against a pipal leaf. The pipal tree has always been known as a place where one goes to meditate. “In fact, Buddha achieved enlightenment while meditating under a pipal tree,” says Fr. Sheth. “This tree is sacred for Hindus as well as Buddhists.”
Interestingly, the person who made the mural is a Kolkata-based Hindu by the name of Subrata Ganguly who runs a firm called Church Art. “Art has no religion,” he says. “I have been involved with the work inside churches for the past 25 years.”

For the Vidyapeeth mural, it was his mother Gita Ganguly who drew the initial designs. “She is well versed in all religions,” says Ganguly.

The mural, which is 8 feet in height and 16 feet in width, is made of coloured ceramic chips. It was originally made in the firm's workshop in Kolkata and then transported in smaller parts by train to Pune. Thereafter, it was reassembled and mounted.

I have done similar work in other places,” says Ganguly. “At a seminary, at Barapani, near Shillong, Meghalaya, there is a mural of Jesus standing under a pine tree surrounded by people in Khasi and Garo headgear. Jesus is also portrayed as a Bhil tribal. We did this after an extensive research on the Bhils.”

In a church, at Ambapara, Rajasthan, there are scenes from the Bible on stained glass on the windows in the style of Indian art. “At the St. Xavier's College guesthouse chapel in Kolkata, Jesus is portrayed in a sitting position reminiscent of the Lord Buddha,” says Ganguly.

For the past several years, an Indianisation of the church is taking place. “The Catholic Church, during the Second Vatican Council in 1962, stated that more importance should be given to inculturation,” says Fr. Alex. “In other words, in Africa, there should be an African-looking Jesus, in America, an American-looking Jesus and an Indian-looking Jesus in India.”

In fact, the the original name of the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth was the Pontifical Athenaeum. “We changed it in 1972,” says Fr. Alex.

 Meanwhile, the reaction to the Pune images has been positive. “Everybody, whether it be lay people, priests or nuns have expressed their appreciation,” says Fr. Alex. “There is a desire among some of the faithful to Indianise the religion. But this is taking place more in rural areas, than in the well-established older churches in the cities.”

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

"95 per cent of Indians suffer from sexual problems"

Says India's leading sexologist, Prakash Kothari

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

Rohinton Farzad, 46, and his wife Donya, 42, were in anguish. For 22 years, their marriage had not been consummated. Because of this, Rohinton was suffering from anxiety and depression, while Donya felt frustrated that she could not have children. The upper middle-class Parsi couple consulted many doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists. Finally, they were referred to the Mumbai-based sexologist Dr. Prakash Kothari.

Kothari was not surprised. “Two out of ten people do not know how to perform in bed,” he says. “That shows how poor sex education is in the country.”

After talking at length with the couple, he showed them a miniature plastic model of a couple making love. To his surprise, Kothari realised that Rohinton was straddling the hips of his wife. So Kothari showed him the right way. That night, the couple took a room in a five-star hotel, and followed Kothari's advice. It turned out to be good news.

Then Donya told Kothari that she wanted children. So Kothari explained to her about the monthly menstrual cycle, and suggested that the couple should try during the second and third weeks. “Amazingly, at such a late age, Donya became pregnant,” says Kothari. “She gave birth to twin boys!”

And every Diwali, for the past few years, the family goes to Kothari's house, with a box of sweets, and greets him. “I feel so happy when I see their joy,” says Kothari.

Kothari is one of the leading sexologists in India. And after four decades, he says that things are changing. “In the beginning, I did not see any female patients,” says Kothari. “Even when I opened the world's first outpatient department for sex at KEM Hospital, very few women would come. But today the pattern has changed.”

A young woman will call up and say, “Doctor, all my friends are enjoying sex, but I am not. Am I abnormal?” Or a lady will say, “Doc, you had better treat my husband. He is not performing well. Otherwise, I will walk out of the marriage.”

The most common problem for men is erectile dysfunction. “A man should realise failures are common, but that does not mean it is the end,” says Kothari. "As a result, they move from effective sexual performance, to varying degrees of impotence, because of one failure.”

To these traumatised people, Kothari gives the example of cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. “He scores a century in the first innings, then gets bowled out for zero in the second innings,” he says. “Does that mean Sachin cannot score a century in the next innings? He can. So I always emphasise the fact that failures are common but that does not mean an end to the sex life.”

Indeed, for some, there is no end, whatsoever. Kothari's oldest patient is a 90-year-old man. “He wanted to improve his performance,” says a smiling Kothari. “Since he had a testosterone deficiency, I gave him an injection.” Incidentally, this deficiency can be overcome by a diet which is rich in black gram and fenugreek seeds.

Kothari says, “Sex has no expiry date. It is disuse which leads to atrophy, and not the use.”

Interestingly, women, especially menopausal ones, also have problems. “Most women tell themselves that they have a reproductive, rather than a sexual desire,” says Kothari. “She will tell herself, 'I want a child, so I am indulging in sex'. But after menopause, this defense is no longer available. She cannot ask for sex, but wants it very much. So she gets worried, but feels shy to articulate her feelings.”

Sometimes, sex can be painful for a woman. However, there could be a physical reason: a deficiency of estrogen. So, Kothari recommends a diet, which is rich in soya bean, tofu, green vegetables and pulses.

Meanwhile, when asked for tips for an improved performance, Kothari says, “The four-letter word is TALK,” he says. “Communication is very important. You should find out the likes and dislikes of your partner. You must devote time for foreplay. There are plenty of erogenous zones in the body. The skin is the largest sensual organ. So touch is very important. If you kiss somebody, it is touch. If you shake hands, it is touch. If you console somebody, it is touch. And touch releases a hormone called oxytocin. This is a love hormone. It creates a sense of togetherness.”

Unfortunately, togetherness is declining. Rising incomes, the mobile and the Internet has led to a rise in pre and extra-marital affairs. “A flower in someone else's garden looks more attractive, especially when you ignore your own,” says Kothari. “But I would advise people to cultivate their own garden. The four pillars of a good marriage are honesty, affection, trust and love. An affair damages the marriage, when it comes to light.”

Incidentally, Kothari had come to Kochi to inaugurate a conference on sexology. He is frank enough to say that he has a lot of Malayali patients, from Kerala, as well as the Middle East. But after seeing more than 60,000 patients in a 45-year career, he admits that around 95 per cent of the people suffer from sexual problems. “But it can all be worked out and solutions can be found,” says Kothari. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Providing Solace for Society's Wounded

The Welfare Association Trust, near Aluva, looks after physically and mentally-challenged children and adults, as well as the poor and elderly 

Photos: Physical Educator Vijaya Suresh helps a mentally-challenged youngster, Antony, to throw a ball; a young girl. Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram  

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a sunny morning, Physical Educator Vijaya Suresh helps a mentally-challenged youngster, Antony, to throw a basketball. After a few tries, Antony is able to put the ball through the hoop. Just behind them, at West Veliyathunad, near Aluva, there is a large open-air auditorium, with an asbestos roof, where children are sitting around small tables. Some are drawing, with crayons, while others are playing a game with plastic cups. A small girl is writing numbers from one to 10.

One who looks physically imposing is the 34-year-old Reshma. “She weighs 110 kgs,” says VA Mohammed Iqbal, the Vice Chairman of the Welfare Association Trust (WAT). Inside a physical therapy room, 11-year-old Jishnu is walking slowly holding on to two parallel bars. “He suffers from muscular weakness,” says Iqbal. “We do a lot of need-based therapy.”

Next to him, in a wheelchair, is a paralysed youth, Rahul Rajan, 19. His mother, Salila, who is pushing the wheelchair, is employed as a nurse. “Since I work here, it makes it easier to look after my son,” says Salila, who has two healthy college-going sons. “It was complications during my pregnancy that resulted in Rahul being mentally and physically challenged.”

In another room, a group of students are making soaps, paper packets, napkins and phenol. These are packed and put on sale in the office. The staff also buy it.

In the women’s dormitory, there are abandoned wives, as well as old women whose children no longer want to look after them. The 80-year old Subaida Kanjiramattam says that she has a daughter in Munnar, but she never comes to meet her.

There was a girl, Naseema, who roamed around the streets and ate from the garbage in Erattupetta. Somebody brought her to the home. Her teeth were in decay, and her hair was dirty. “Now she is okay,” says Iqbal. “Her relatives come to see her now and then. If there are family functions, they come and take her.”

A few years ago, there was also a mentally challenged woman who had come from Karnataka. She got down from the bus at Aluva and hurt herself. The locals took her to the hospital. “After treatment, the doctors referred her to us,” says Iqbal. “She stayed at the home for a long while, before she died."

The WAT has been running a special school, an old age home for men and women, as well as a welfare village, nearby. “There is an area of 78 cents where we have built 14 houses,” says President Habeebullah. “Poor people are allowed to stay there, but the ownership remains with the Association.”

In another area, of one and a half acres, the WAT is giving three cents to each family but they will have to build their own houses. “Around 35 families will benefit,” says Habeebullah. “The preference is for those who are widows, or if the bread winner is paralysed, or if there are more girls in the family.”

To provide help, the WAT encourages people to send in applications. Thereafter, committee members form a group and go and meet each family. “We want to ensure that each case is genuine,” says Habeebullah.

Sometimes, they come across people who are in a precarious situation. Once, Iqbal went inside a house, near a canal, where during the monsoon season the water would gush into the house. “Inside, a man was lying paralysed on the bed, while his wife was blind,” he says. “They had a 14-year-old daughter and had no source of income. So we arranged to provide a monthly stipend so that they could meet their basic expenses.”

In another case, they saw that a mentally challenged boy was tied to the bed in chains. “When we enquired, the parents, who are labourers, said that they both needed to work, to make ends meet,” says Iqbal. “They did not have the money to get somebody to look after the child. Hence, they were forced to tie the boy up.”

Incidentally, it was a former Deputy Inspector General of Police, PK Mohammed Hassan who donated his family house as well as his property of two acres to the WAT. “Today, the house has become an old people's home,” says Habeebullah. “And Hassan's son, Dr. Mansoor is the chairman of the association.”

The Association depends on donations from people in Kerala and from Malayalis in the Middle East. “There is also the zakat and zadaqah tax,” says executive committee member Asif Komu. “All Muslims have to set aside 2 ½ per cent of their salary for charity.”

Asked the philosophical reason why these tragedies occur, Iqbal shrugs his shoulders, and says, “Sometimes, a mother suffers an illness during pregnancy, or there is a genetic disorder. We don't know how it happens. Even science cannot explain it. As to why the particular person or family has to go through this suffering, it is a mystery. Only God can give an answer. What we can do is to provide solace and comfort.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)