Friday, July 31, 2015

A Light In The Darkness


Rakesh Rajnikant was born autistic and blind. But that has not prevented him from having a successful career as a singer of devotional songs

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: By Albin Mathew. Rakesh's family: (from left): Mother Kusum, father Rajnikant Ramji and uncle Krishna Kumar 

On the evening of June 3, 2005, a wedding reception was being held for Arati, the daughter of Rajnikant Ramji, a senior bank employee, at the Sumangali Hall at Kollam. “Since it was the first marriage of the second generation, many relatives from Gujarat had come,” says Rajnikant.

There was a suggestion from some family members that Rajnikant's 22-year-old son, Rakesh, should be allowed to sing. Rakesh is autistic and blind, but had been listening to songs from his childhood. “When we gave the mike to him, the first song he began to sing was Kishore Kumar's 'Yeh Sham Mastani' [from the Hindi film, ‘Kati Patang’ (1971)].” About 70 bank friends of Rajnikant who were preparing to leave, stopped and decided to listen to this song. In the end they stayed and listened to the entire set of eight songs.

That was the turning point,” says Rajnikant. “Thereafter, Rakesh began singing devotional songs in temples.” Some of the temples Rakesh has sung in include the Sree Padmanabhaswamy at Thiruvananthapuram, the Krishna temple at Guruvayur, the Mannarasala Sree Nagaraja Temple at Haripad, and the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Pune. So far, he has done about 800 performances in different languages: Gujarati, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, and Hindi. Rakesh is accompanied by the Kollam-based Adi Shankara orchestra.

The unusual thing about Rakesh is that he does not know the meaning of the words,” says his uncle, Krishna Kumar, who is his perennial companion. “But he has a tremendous memory. He can learn a new song within a day.”

This memory comes to the fore at an apartment in Kochi when Krishna Kumar tells Rakesh to sing a Mohammed Rafi song. Immediately, Rakesh launches into a song. After four lines, Krishnakumar mentions the name of KL Saigal and Rakesh immediately moves to a Saigal song. Then it is on to Hindu, Christian and Muslim devotionals, all at the suggestion of Krishna Kumar. Rakesh also sings a Lata Mangeshkar song. “It is as if he has a computer chip in his brain,” says Krishna Kumar.

But for many years, since his birth, the family went through turmoil. Like any anxious parent, Rajnikant had taken his son to various institutions all over India in a bid to cure his son. But there was no hope.

Initially, Rajnikant felt ashamed and did not want to take his son outside the house. He was the manager of a branch of the State Bank of India, very close to his home at Kollam. “I did not want my colleagues to know about my son's disabilities,” says Rajnikant. “But, subsequently, I realised that God has given me the chance to take care of Rakesh. He is a higher soul and that is why he is in a family that can take care of him physically, financially and emotionally.”

To keep him emotionally engaged, Rajnikant's father, Giridhar Lal Ramji, bought a tape recorder so that his lonely grandson could listen to music. “That was how Rakesh developed a liking for songs and began imitating all the singers,” says Rajnikant.

However, Rakesh has no other skill. “For all his primary needs, somebody has to be with him all the time,” says Rajnikant. “To take food, my wife, Kusum, has to feed him. He is unable to express anything. If he has stomach pain he does not know how to express it. He will start shouting and get angry. When he is hungry, he cries like a baby. But now Kusum can anticipate all his needs. And she travels with him everywhere.”

But on days when there are no concerts, Rakesh can get fidgety. “He can also become violent,” says Krishna Kumar. “He throws things and bites his arms.” Indeed, there are visible teeth marks on Rakesh's arms.

But now the family has found a way to calm him. “Since Rakesh is afraid of the sound of crackers, we just shake a match box,” says Rajnikant. “Then he becomes quiet because he thinks that we are going to burst a cracker.”

But these are rare moments. Most of the time, he is in a happy mood. And Rakesh has great moments, too. On January 10, which is Yesudas's birthday, Rakesh, Rajnikant and Krishnakumar went to meet the singer at the Mookambika Temple, at Kollur, Karnataka. When they came face to face, Yesudas hugged the young singer. Then Rakesh sang two of Yesudas' Ayyappa songs. “Yesudas was very happy,” says Rajnikant. “He said, 'Very good, very good.' He called his wife and children to listen to Rakesh songs.”

Another eminent singer of Ayyappa songs, who is a fan, is Veeramani. After Rakesh sang a few of Veeramani's songs, during their meeting at Kollam, a moved Veeramani told Rajnikant, “Take care of his voice. And God will come to meet him.”

Meanwhile, at his home, many relatives and friends come to meet him. One friend is businessman Jaylal Divakaran who comes every evening. Their friendship began two years ago, when Jaylal took Rakesh to Sabarimala for a pilgrimage. “Ever since then, there is a connection between the two,” says Krishna Kumar. “Rakesh will wait for Jaylal. When he comes, Rakesh will sing the Ayyappa songs. In case Jaylal cannot come, he will wait for his mobile call telling that he is not coming. Only then will Rakesh go to sleep.”

And while Rajnikant is thrilled at his son's blooming career, at the back of his mind, he has an unshakeable worry. “I always think about what will happen to Rakesh once I die,” says Rajnikant. “Although, I am sure that my brothers and their families will take utmost care of him.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

An Italian in Fort Kochi

Claudio Rucher, from Rome, makes authentic Italian pizzas that have become hugely popular
By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

On Christmas Eve, 2014, Claudio Rucher was going through a lot of tension. At his Pizza Italia restaurant, at Fort Kochi, things were spiralling out of control. It was not easy for him to teach the local chefs how to make pizzas, Italian style, and to manage the customers who came from all over the world.

At that time, I was thinking, ‘I am from Rome, and trying to sell pizzas in another country, even though I have been living in Kerala for several years,’” he says. “I felt dispirited and wanted to shut down the restaurant.”

At that moment, redemption arrived. An Italian couple, Teo, 35, and his girlfriend, Emma, 33, stepped into the restaurant. They ate Claudio’s pizzas, and loved it. But they also noticed that Claudio was looking troubled. So they spoke to him. When they heard about his problems, they did the unthinkable. They set aside their holiday plans and spent one month helping Claudio.

Teo and Emma worked from morning till night,” says Claudio. “They helped me to find the ingredients locally, cleaned the place, and interacted with the customers.”

Today, the Pizza Italia is a popular spot and has got rave reviews on Trip Advisor and Zomato. The USP is that Claudio serves authentic Italian pizzas made in a traditional oven.

This oven is made of bricks. There is a gas burner inside which is aimed at the bricks. Once the burner is switched off, the bricks remain hot for several hours. The temperature inside is anywhere between 250 to 300 degrees Celsius. When Claudio places a pizza inside, it gets cooked within three minutes.

Another unique aspect of the Italian pizza is the use of herbs like fresh basil, rosemary, and oregano that serve as the toppings. And, amazingly, whenever Claudio returns from Rome, like he did, a few months ago, he brought 200 kgs of items, which included ceramic cups and saucers, spoons, knives, long handles and herbs to be used in the restaurant.

As for the menu, Claudio serves 33 varieties of pizza. They include the Pizzas Cappricciosa, Nostromo, Marinara and Margherita. “The Margherita is the most famous pizza in Italy,” says Claudio. “It has garlic, fresh basil, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and extra virgin oil.

For the Indian clientele, he has come up with the Pizza Kerala. This consists of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and paneer. To keep the fish-loving locals happy, Claudio has invented the Pizza Fort Kochi. “This has squid and prawns in it,” he says, with a smile.

Claudio had set up shop in Fort Kochi because he expected that the foreign tourists would be his main clients. Indeed, many people from Germany, America, France, Spain and Italy are regulars. “After a while, they get tired of eating spicy Indian food,” says Claudio. “So they are happy to come to my restaurant.” But he is also surprised that many of his customers are North Indian tourists, as well as Malayalis. “I am so happy about it,” he says.

But Claudio is unhappy about the use of ketchup on pizzas by Indians, Germans and Americans. “It spoils the taste,” he says. “In Italy, if you use ketchup, the chef will come out of the kitchen and shout at you.”

So what is the way out? “There is a special way to make sauce,” he says. “We use fresh tomato every day. It is cooked in the oven to remove the water. Dough and water are enemies. Then we mix the tomato with garlic, aromatic herbs and extra virgin olive oil.” 

The end result is that everybody likes his pizzas, including the difficult-to-please Italians. “Do you want to savour a little Italy in Kerala?” says tourist Enzo Bossio from Rome. “Then you can come to Pizza Italia where you will find the people very welcoming and a pizza prepared artfully.” 

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

Standing Out From The Crowd


The 3' tall actor, Vijayakrishnan AB, is carving out a niche in Mollywood, in the footsteps of the pioneer, Guinness Pakru

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Vijayakrishnan AB by Ratheesh Sundaram; Guinness Pakru

Vijayakrishnan AB was feeling nervous. He had a scene with Tamil comic superstar Santhanam for the 2014 Malayalam film, 'Salalah Mobiles'. Just before the shoot was to commence, at the AVM Studios in Chennai, the director Sharath A. Haridaasan introduced Vijayakrishnan to Santhanam. The star bent down, shook Vijayakrishnan's hand, and said, “Hi Sir.” Says Vijayakrishnan: “I was stunned for a few moments by the respect he showed.”

The shoot was a brief one: Vijayakrishnan plays a robot, while Santhanam is an over-the-top businessman. After the shoot was over, an impressed Santhanam told the director that in his next film Vijayakrishnan should be given a bigger role. “The director promised to do that,” says Vijayakrishnan.

The 28-year-old draws attention because he is only 3' tall. He grew up in a village called Pookkottumpadam in Malappuram district, Kerala. “In school, I took part in mimicry contests and won prizes,” he says. “That is how my interest in acting was sparked off.”

Vijayakrishnan's life changed when he got a chance to act in the 2005 film, 'Athbutha Dweep'. It is a film where the men on an island are dwarves, while the women have normal height. Vijayakrishnan had heard that director Vinayan was looking for short people, so he got in touch. Subsequently, he got selected.

It was a momentous experience for me,” says Vijayakrishnan, who was then a Class 10 student. “I had an inferiority complex regarding my height. But when I met 250 men, of the same height, more or less, I felt elated. And it was the first time in my life that I could put my arms around somebody’s shoulders, and that person was not a child, but an adult.”

Vijayakrishnan had another revelation. During the shoot, he was staying with the other actors in a hotel at Malampuzha in Palakkad district. One evening the group wanted to go out of the room, but they could not reach the door handle. And it was Vijayakrishnan who opened the door. “I was the only one who had long arms,” he says. “Even Guinness Pakru Sir's arms are short.”

Guinness Pakru has been the pioneering short actor in Mollywood. Despite being 2'6”, he has acted in numerous films in Malayalam and Tamil, and became a director for 'Kuttiyum Kollam'(2013). In 2008, he earned an entry in the Guinness Book Of World Records for being the shortest lead actor to act in full-length films.

Pakru Sir has been an inspiration,” says Vijayakrishnan. “And he has always encouraged me.”

So far, Vijayakrishnan has acted in eight films. These include 'Ee Pattanathil Bhootham', 'Seconds', 'Chirakodinja Kinavukal' and the about-to-be released 'Viswasam Athalle Ellam'. Apart from films and stage shows, Vijayakrishnan has taken part in a popular comedy show on a Malayalam television channel. He belonged to a troupe called 'Little Stars'. It comprised of five short people: Pradeep Perumbavur, Shafeek Kollam, Sumesh Vaikom, Baiju Kodungallur and himself.

Once the episodes were aired, people began to recognise me,” says Vijayakrishnan. “I received a lot of love and affection. Viewers would often call me, and give comments on Facebook and Whatsapp. So, unlike what most people think, I believe my biggest advantage is my shortness. It has enabled me to stand out from the crowd.”

But to stand out further, Vijayakrishnan has one request. “Scriptwriters should write meatier roles for short people like me,” he says. “It is only then that we will be able to shine.” 

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Passing on Pearls of Wisdom



Master acting coach, the Perth-based Dalip Sondhi, is excited by the acting talent in Bollywood, following his workshop in Mumbai

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Dalip Sondhi; actress Ridhi Dogra; at the Mumbai workshop

At his acting workshop in Mumbai, acting coach Dalip Sondhi gets very excited. The actress Ridhi Dogra is playing the role of the ingĂ©nue Nina in Anton Chekhov’s play, ‘Seagull'.

Ridhi is able to understand the character so well,” says Dalip. “She is a student who can stand up to the best in the world.”

After more than two decades of teaching, Dalip can easily spot those who have remarkable talent. “In a class of 15 people, you will always be able to identify one or two who will make a mark,” says Dalip.

But talent is not enough. “You need an openness, a desire to work well with others, a zest for life and to care about what is happening in the world,” says Dalip. “You also need to have an absolute passion for theatre and film.”

Unfortunately, many fall by the wayside. One reason is because their expectations are too high. They cannot deal with criticism of their work or the lack of money. Many take the rejection for roles personally. “So, they give up,” says Dalip. “It is just too hard for them.”

On the other hand, Dalip has been resilient. Of Indian origin, he grew up in London, and became a police officer, at age 18. And he saw a lot of action in London during the Broadwater Farm race riots of 1985. “It was one of the worst riots,” says Dalip. “We used only shields and sticks against an armed bunch of rioters.”

As time went on, Dalip realised that, as a policeman, he had become narrow-minded. “Everything was either black or white,” he says. His friend, Martin Langshaw, a musician told him he should go to university. But Dalip did not know what course to do. And it was Martin who suggested acting.”

So, Dalip did a three-year degree in the performing arts from Middlesex University followed by a Masters from the Central School of Speech and Drama. Then he tried his luck as an actor.

The Indian parts I got were stereotypical,” says Dalip. “Directors realised that I was not Indian enough. And, in a paradox, I was also not British enough, because of my Indian aesthetic.”

So he shifted to teaching. He worked at Central School, Hertfordshire University, and London's elite drama school, the Rose Bruford College. Thereafter, in 2002, he joined The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Perth as a Programme Director for Theatre Arts. In 2013, Dalip left and formed the SDDS International Institute for Dramatic Art, because he wanted to do something for Indian actors.

Meanwhile, his colleague Dr Abhijit Das has been conducting acting workshops in Mumbai for the past six years. So, he invited Dalip to teach there in July.

But Dalip is frank enough to admit that it will not be easy for Indians to break into Hollywood. “In Bollywood you need emotionally-charged acting, while in Hollywood, they prefer restraint and control,” says Dalip. “So Indians will find it difficult to do well. But by coming to our workshops, they can learn to act in both styles.”

In September, Dalip is planning to set up longer acting programmes in Mumbai. He is also working with actor Nandita Das to produce an upcoming film. “Life is good,” says Dalip, whose family runs the Jalandhar-based FC Sondhi and Company, India's leading cricket equipment-manufacturing company. 

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hitting The High Note


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Louhanath talks about life with the singer Cochin Mansoor

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Suresh Nambudiri 

On August 8, 1990, Cochin Mansoor went to meet Louhanath at her home in Cheranalloor. “The first thing that struck me about him was his large moustache,” says Louhanath. “He wore colourful clothing: dark green shirt and a cream pant.”

Mansoor said, “What is your name?”

Louhanath smiled and remained silent.

You are shy,” said the singer. “Let me tell you about myself. My name is Mansoor. I work in Cochin Stars troupe. I am 5' 6” tall. I stay near the Kaloor bus stand. These are my details.”

Louhanath smiled and thought to herself, ‘I like the way he speaks’.

And Mansoor also liked her. This was the first girl that he had met. They both said yes. But there was a delay of more than a year for the marriage. That was because Mansoor’s niece had suffered an accident and he also had a busy singing schedule. Eventually, the wedding took place on December 22, 1991, at Cheranaloor.

One day, after the marriage, Mansoor had a programme at Eloor. Thereafter, he went to Thiruvananthapuram and many other places. “My relatives teased me by saying that my husband had gone missing,” says a smiling Louhanath.

It was only on December 31, that Mansoor took Louhanath to see a mimicry show at Edapally in which he was taking part. And when Louhanath saw Mansoor performing, she immediately realized he is a talented person. “In one segment, he dressed up as a wife who was having problems with her husband,” says Louhanath. “It was quite funny.”

But today, Mansoor is known as a singer of the Malayalam hits of the 1960, 70s and 80s. In fact, he has an unbelievable repertoire of 7800 songs. “Anybody can ask him about any song and he can tell the name of the singer, music composer, the actors, the name of the film and the year,” says Louhanath. “But he loves best the songs of Vayalar [Ramavarma]. In fact, I tell him he has two fathers: bapa and achan. Bapa is his own father, while achan is Vayalar Sir.”

Meanwhile, when asked about his plus points, Louhanath says, “Mansoor is a laid-back person and very caring of our children [college students Rehana, 22, and Shahana, 18]. When they were small, he would buy them so many toys. Whenever he returns from a programme, he will always bring gifts.  And the girls would look forward to it.”

As for his negative points, whenever Mansoor and Louhanath have a fight, he will not speak for the next few days. “He told me that he does not want to argue, because that will strain his vocal chords,” says Louhanath. “So he remains silent.”

Mansoor is very careful about his voice. “Whenever he goes for a programme, he takes hot water in a flask,” says Louhanath. “Mansoor avoids sunlight at all costs, as he believes that it will affect his voice. So he always goes out with an umbrella. And even when it is sunny, on his morning walk, he will open his umbrella. And people do find it odd. His friends tease him about it. When he goes to sleep, he puts cotton in his ears, because the fan is switched on and he does not want to catch a cold. On my part, I avoid giving him cold food.”

But this beautiful voice came under tremendous strain, on November 29, 2009, when Mansoor attempted to set a Guinness Book of World Records, by singing non-stop for 24 hours on an open stage at Changampuzha Park, Kochi. But his effort lasted for 19 ½ hours. The problem was that since it was held in November, there was a lot of fog and mist at night and that affected his voice.

At the 19th hour, Dasettan [Yesudas], who was monitoring the performance from America, with the help of a friend, Benny, called and said Mansoor should stop, otherwise his voice will get damaged,” says Louhanath.

Mansoor attempted one last song, the classic ‘Periyare’, which was a request from the then Forest Minister Binoy Viswam. But he was unable to carry on.  

Mansoor was then admitted to Punarnava Ayurveda hospital. “There was a fear among the people that Mansoor would lose his voice,” says Louhanath. “It was an anxious time for me. I prayed very hard to God to save his voice. Many people went and prayed at the mosque.”  

Medicine was rubbed on Mansoor's neck. For three days, he had to remain silent. “Finally, by God’s grace, on the fifth day he recovered his voice,” says Louhanath.

It took Louhanath some time to recover from the experience. “It is not easy to live with an artist,” she says. But Louhanath has found an outlet. For the past ten years, she has been working in a play school, ‘Little Gems’, which is near Amrita Hospital. “I feel happy and peaceful when I am with the children,” she says.  

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Louhanath says, “You should adjust to the shortcomings of your spouse. Nobody is perfect. As an artist my husband meets lots of people, men and women. But I don't ask him about each and every person. I trust him. It is important to have trust in each other. Otherwise, it will create problems in the marriage.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Road Beckons....


Thomas Chacko, a retired senior company executive, is embarking on a 30,000 km trip, through 40 countries, in his Elite i20 car. Earlier, he had completed an all-India trip in a Nano car

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Thomas Chacko at the Cochin Port just before shipping his car to Istanbul; a giant redwood tree in Califronia 

Every morning, Thomas Chacko, 65, heads for the fitness centre at the Yacht Club in Kochi. He runs one-and-a-half kms on the treadmill, about three km on an eliptical trainer and does a stint at the rowing machine. This is followed by exercise on a stationary cycle, lifting of weights and body twists. Thomas ends the 45-minute session by hooking his feet to a stirrup and pulling himself up a few times.

Thomas has a need to be fit. Within a few days, he is embarking on a tour of 40 countries in Europe, USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam. “I wanted to do a tour of all six continents, but, because of a paucity of funds, I am confining myself to three,” he says, with a trace of regret in his voice. His mode of transport: the Hyundai Elite i20.

In fact, some days ago, Thomas had the car shipped to Istanbul. He will be driving from the Turkish capital towards Europe. Some of the countries he will be passing through, include Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and Monaco. Thereafter, the car will be shipped from Rotterdam to New York.

In the US, Thomas will be travelling from the east to the west coast. “I am planning to visit the Grand Canyon as well as the giant redwood forests in California,” says Thomas. “In fact, there is a forest near San Francisco, where you can drive through some of the trees because they are so massive. I want to capture some video footage.” The total distance that will be covered is 30,000 kms spread over five months.

Even as he is driving through several countries, Thomas has to keep track of the different traffic rules. “In Germany, the headlights have to be switched on at all times,” he says. “In France, you have to keep reflective jackets inside the car. So, if there is a puncture, you have to wear the jacket before stepping out.”

But it is unlikely that Thomas will step out unless there is an emergency. One reason is that these modern cars have superb ergonomically designed seats. “You get good lumbar support,” says Thomas. “These seats are made for people to sit in them for long hours.”

Another reason is that Thomas loves driving. “I am most relaxed when I am behind the wheel of a car,” he says.

According to his pre-planned schedule, Thomas will set out every day at 6 a.m. He will travel non-stop till 2 p.m. Thereafter, he will to do some sightseeing. And since he has signed a deal with a travel web site, which has 15 lakh followers, Thomas will be filing a 400 word report every day, of the places he has seen, along with photos and video clips.

In most of the places, he will be staying at bed and breakfast hotels. “The standard is high, because it is in Europe,” says Thomas. “I have selected places where I can park the car.” The tariff is around Rs 5000 a day.

On different sections, Thomas will be accompanied by his wife Geetha, a school teacher, son Rahul, nephew Ashley Koshie, and his younger brother, Abraham Chacko, former Executive Director of the Federal Bank.

Incidentally, this is Thomas' second trip. He hit the headlines in July, 2012, when he completed a 26,500-km journey in a Nano car to all the state capitals, as well as the Union Territories. He also travelled through more than a hundred towns and cities, as well as the Khardung La, which, at 18,380 ft, is the highest motorable road in the world.

All this is a far cry from his former career as a company secretary and interim chief executive of Harrisons Malayalam Limited. Apart from that, he is a stellar author.

He has published a novel called 'Without a City Wall'. It is a first-person story of a young Englishman, James Badby and describes incidents in England, Malta, Flanders, Florence, Venice, Maldives, Malabar, Cochin, and the fabled capital of the Vijayanagar Empire during the 16th century.

Thomas has also co-authored and published a 200-page coffee-table book, 'Forest Gold - The story of South Indian Tea'. In 2013, Thomas had written a book on his Nano trip called 'Atop the World'.

Thomas also has his own publishing company, Panthera Imprint Pvt Ltd. (www.indiaimprint.com ), for which he has ghost-written and edited books.

A frank Thomas says that he has had a busier life after retirement. “You must live life in a way that there is something to look forward to, the next day,” he says. “I don't want to be a couch potato. Otherwise, you will age before your time. My trip is a message to other retired persons that age is all in the mind. You are as old as you want to be.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

“Actors should show their deeper feelings”



Says veteran coach, Chris Edmund, whose most famous pupil is the Hollywood star Hugh Jackman

By Shevlin Sebastian

One night, in 2013, acting coach Chris Edmund went to the sets of the film, 'Wolverine', in Sydney, to see his student Hugh Jackman at work. This was at the end of a long working day. “But Hugh's focus remained absolutely intense,” says Edmund. “At every take he was working hard. Very few actors have that kind of focus, dedication and capacity for hard work. I remember thinking, 'Now I understand why Hugh has achieved so much and given such amazing performances on stage and screen.' These qualities have played a vital part in his success in Hollywood.”

Edmund had come to Mumbai recently to give acting workshops for established actors and actresses in Bollywood as well as beginners. He is a veteran at this. Edmund had been the head of the Acting Department at The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts at Perth for many years. He also had teaching stints in places like London, Hongkong, Dublin and Singapore.

But Edmund is frank enough to admit that very few make it. “Acting is a highly competitive business,” he says. “People have a good career for a while. Then trends change and they no longer get the parts they want. Then there are times when actors drop out in their thirties because they have kids to look after and need financial security. ”

Sometimes, the opposite happens. “People get breaks later in life, because they are at the right place at the right time,” he says. “So, there are all sorts of factors in the life of an artist.”

But there are exceptions too. Exceptional talents like Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman are still doing cutting-edge work in their seventies. “If actors are smart they can reinvent themselves,” says Edmund. “They have to keep changing with the times. The great actors are on a constant quest to keep perfecting their craft. That kind of attitude can help you sustain a long career.”

Incidentally, the actor Edmund admires the most is Marlon Brando (1924-2004). He, of course, had a brilliant career in his early years - 'A Streetcar named Desire, 'On The Waterfront, 'the Godfather' and 'Last Tango In Paris' - followed by a long and painful decline.

Brando changed acting completely,” says Edmund. “He was physical, organic, in the moment, and brave. He took acting to an extraordinary level. I admired his courage. I love actors who are able to show their deeper feelings. In fact, in drama school, I encourage students to go deep within themselves. But if they say it is painful, then they will not be able to go far. You need to be strong in this regard.”

However, this inner mining can have a negative effect. After the 'Last Tango', Brando had said, “I am never going to go as deep as that. From now on I am going to take the money and not push myself.”

And he never did. “After a time, good acting comes as a cost,” says Edmund. “People can no longer take the strain. And they will say, 'I'll just drive a car'.”

Despite these pitfalls, a lot of students in drama school have high expectations. “Unfortunately, they are in an industry that can be harsh and cruel,” says Edmund. “Building up resistance is necessary. You need to be resilient. And at the same time you have to be sensitive in order to produce good art. So, it is a very precarious balance.”

Unlike earlier times, you can no longer be a suffering artist and wait for roles. “An actor has to be proactive,” he says. “You need to have an awareness of marketing. The industry is changing all the time. So actors have to respond to that. An actor should develop a canny understanding of the various aspects of the industry.”

Asked about his opinion on Hollywood films, Edmund says, “They are too formulaic. Tried and tested themes are the norm. There is a conservative attitude because of the huge cost of making a film. I prefer to watch TV which is breaking boundaries. But the exciting thing today is that you can buy a camera for a few thousand dollars and go out and shoot a film. Young people are so sophisticated about films. I believe the film industry will reinvent itself to remain relevant.”

Meanwhile, regarding his Mumbai experience, Edmund says, “I was delighted to work with [founder] Dalip Sondhi and the [Perth-based] SDDS International Institute for Dramatic Art. I interacted with a wide range of actors and found them to be committed, focussed and anxious to take everything possible from the workshops. It was a joyous experience. I hope very much to return and continue to work with such talented and dynamic people.”

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

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Artist Slips into the Sunset


Dasan Mekkayail dies while holding his first exhibition in Kochi

by Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Suresh Nampoothiri

On Saturday evening, Roopa George had gone to the Durbar Hall art gallery, Kochi, to view the paintings of her friend, Minu Ninan. After seeing them, Minu led her to the next hall. The moment, Dasan Mekkayail, 74, saw Roopa, he said, “You look like an artiste.” Which turned out to be true. Roopa is a Bharatanatyam dancer.

Then, Dasan took Roopa and Minu around and showed all of his 22 paintings, a mix of oil and acrylic on canvas, on show. The subjects included the power of the Goddess Durga, a boat ride through the Meenachil River, the beauty of the Athirapally waterfalls, Krishna's Vrindavan, and a loving embrace between two cows.

But Dasan's Sir's notable work was against excessive drinking,” says Roopa. It is a painting where youths, of different castes and religions, are standing around, in a large ground. A group of women are watching mutely. And at one side, a man is hanging from a scaffold, but the lower half of his body is inside a large glass. There is an image of Mahatma Gandhi behind the man.

This was Dasan Sir's first exhibition at Kochi,” says Minu. “He had invited me to come to Kozhikode to hold an exhibition there.”

And like a true artist, always on the alert, Dasan felt that Roopa could be a subject of a painting. “You are like a daughter to me,” he said, as he made her sit on a chair and began sketching her. After a few minutes, he looked up and said, “When I go back home, I will develop this.”

Unfortunately, destiny had other plans. On Saturday, at 10 pm, Dasan had a massive heart attack at his lodge near Ernakulam Town railway station. He passed away in minutes, even though he was rushed to Lisie Hospital by his wife, Sathi. At 5 am on Monday, the last day of his exhibition, the body was taken by car to his home town of Kakkodi in Kozhikode. The cremation took place in the afternoon. Dasan was a retired Senior Superintendent of the Kerala State Electricity Board. He leaves behind two sons, Sangeet and Nisheed.

I am deeply shocked,” says Roopa. “Life is so unpredictable. He was such a nice man.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi) 

No Place Like Home



COLUMN: Our House 

Civil Engineer Manaph Sulaiman's house is one which fills him with pride and happiness

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: By Ratheesh Sundaram. The house viewed from outside; dining table and chairs placed in the inner courtyard; Manaph Sulaiman and wife Smitha

Just above the door to Manaph Sulaiman's house at Vazhakkala, Kochi, there is a Quran inscription which states, 'This is a gift of God'. In the living room, there are several verses of the Quran, which have been placed in glass frames and put on a wooden mantelpiece.

It is a large and spacious house, with an area of 3300 sq. ft. and set in 56 cents of land. “This is an ancestral property,” says Manaph. “We have been living in this area for about hundred years now. My father and grandfather were businessmen.”

Manaf inherited the tharavad from his father who died 22 years ago. He is a Civil Engineer who works for the Al Habtoor Leighton Group at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “Like most people, I wanted to build a house in my own style,” says Manaph.

On the ground floor, inside the house, there is a courtyard, which is covered by a skylight. “As a result, there is plenty of light in the house,” says Manaph.

But now, a dining table and chairs have been put there. Their three children, Fidha, 10, Mohammed Fadhil, 6, and Imtiaz Alam, 4, study there. “Since the kitchen is nearby it is easy to serve them their meals,” says wife Smitha.

At one side, Manaph has constructed a 6 x 3 ft washroom. This is used exclusively to wash the hands and feet before prayers. On the ground floor, there are two bedrooms with attached bathrooms, as well as a working area near the kitchen.

In the dining room, a door leads to the outside. “I made a separate entrance, so that the women can enter through there, during official functions,” says Manaph. “For the men, there is a door which leads into the living room.”

For Manaph, his favourite room is the living room. “It is spacious, has good ventilation and plenty of light comes in because of the large windows,” he says. “When there is a function, a lot of people can be accommodated.”

For Manaf the best part of the day is when the children return home from school, his wife is back from her software engineer's job, at Info Park, and they sit around with his mother and have snacks and chat with each other. “I feel a sense of togetherness,” says Manaf. “This is rare for me, since I work in the Gulf.”

Meanwhile, regarding the design, Thomas Kuruvilla, Principal Architect of Living Stone Architects and Designers, says, “Manaph gave us a sketch. We did the design based on that. The style is a fusion of Mughal and traditional Kerala architecture (nalukettu). To compensate for the courtyard set inside the house, we have made a split-level sit-out above the porch. The house is a mix of curves and squares. The staircase has been designed in an unusual way, with each step having a specific style.”

Indeed, the curved staircase is made in such a way that each step is at a slightly different angle from the next. And the underside of all the steps has been painted in a deep brown colour, which makes it shine. The wood used for the doors and beams is original teak. “Half of the wood has been obtained from the teak trees in my own property,” says Manaph.

On the first floor, there are two bedrooms, with attached bathrooms, as well as a door which leads to the terrace, where wet clothes can be hung. Right on top is a dome. “I added this to create a sense of elevation,” says Manaph.

It took two years to build the house. During the construction, Manaph had been based in Dubai, so he could come home every 45 days or so to oversee the work. “Thankfully, there were no financial or labour problems,” he says. “Architect Thomas ensured that the construction went ahead smoothly.”

And for Manaph, the most memorable event was the housewarming, on May 25, 2014. More than 800 people had been invited. They included friends, relatives, family members, contractors as well as the architects. “Many people said that they liked the house,” he says.

In fact, later, when Manaph returned to Dubai, and showed the pictures to his colleagues, quite a few them liked the design. One friend, Yasin Mohammed, a mechanical engineer, asked Manaph for the building plans. “He told me he wanted a build a similar house in Hyderabad,” says Manaph. “I felt good to hear that. Today, whenever I look at the house, I feel proud and happy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Jewel In The Crown



The newly-built St. George Church at Edapally, Kochi, is drawing visitors from far and near

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: By Ratheesh Sundaram

Captions: The parish priest Fr. Sebastian Vazhapally; the inside of the church; a painting, made of cement, of Jesus Christ washing the feet of the disciples 

When Joanna Bishop, 28, from Stockholm steps into the St. George Church at Edapally, Kochi, her blue eyes widen in wonder. There is plenty to be wonderstruck about. The large painting of Jesus Christ, with outstretched arms, behind the altar, is awash in dazzling light rays, which is made of gold leaf. The 34 feet high images, etched in cement, of Jesus Christ being baptised by John The Baptist as well as The Last Supper, on either side of the altar, evokes awe. The floor is made of granite, while the funtiture and the wooden carvings have been done on teakwood.

Around 5000 people can be seated inside the church. “Plus, there is space for another 2000 people on the outside deck,” says parish priest Fr. Sebastian Vazhapally. Through several large vents, air is pumped in, from machines placed in the basement, so that the inside remains cool all the time.

Outside, there are arched windows and buttresses, intricate Corinthian columns, and Kerala-style mandalams. “The style is Portuguese-Kerala,” says Fr. Sebastian. “The committee, overseeing the construction, went to 40 churches to see all types of designs before deciding on this style. The building is shaped in the form of an octagon.”

There is a 19 ft. cross on top of the dome of the church. Interestingly, the number of steps you need to climb to reach the entrance is 33, the age of Jesus Christ when he died. There are two bell towers at a height of 82 feet. The total built-up area is a mind-boggling 88,000 sq. feet. And the cost: a cool Rs 33 crore.

All the money has come from the donations of the faithful,” says Fr. Sebastian. “Like in Sabaramila, there is a deeply-held belief that if you ask a favour from St George, it is usually granted.”

The priest knows of nurses who prayed for jobs in Europe, USA and the Middle East. When the wish comes true, they donate their first salary, of about Rs 2 lakh to the church. But the most unusual aspect is that it attracts people of all faiths.

Recently, Fr. Sebastian saw a black burqa-clad woman, accompanied by a younger woman, and three children enter the church, pray devotedly and then place some money in the donation box. “I was curious enough to approach the elderly lady,” says Fr. Sebastian.

Ameena Thottungal, 65, (name changed) had been coming to the old church for 36 years. And the reason is simple: for ten years following her marriage, she had no children. Then a Christian neighbour told her to go and pray at the St. George Church. She did so. Within months she became pregnant. “I am accompanied by my daughter and grandchildren,” says Ameena. “I am grateful to St. George.”

Incidentally, the church was consecrated on April 19 by Cardinal Mar George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar church, during a public function attended by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and luminaries like the singer Yesudas. “It is the one of the largest churches in India,” says Fr. Sebastian. “This church has been built for the people of all faiths: Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Parsis.”

Meanwhile, Joanna finishes her tour of the church. “There is so much of decorative work,” she says. “It looks beautiful. The churches in Sweden are simpler. But then Christianity is declining in Europe. It is nice to see that the church is thriving in India.” 

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