Thursday, December 18, 2014

Running Forever

Steve Boone has run 591 marathons. On a recent visit to Kochi, where he took part in the Spice Coast Marathon, along with his wife Paula, they talk about the joys of running

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Mithun Vinod: Steven Boone; With his wife Paula. 

It was around the 18 km mark, during the Spice Coast Marathon at Kochi, that Steve Boone, 65, began to feel tired and dehydrated. Even though the race took place in the early morning, Steve was drenched in perspiration. He drank a lot of water, but still felt dehydrated. He began to slow down. Soon, he was walking. Many runners went past him. But the bystanders cheered him on.

It was my lack of preparation that did me in,” he says. “I came on a Friday from the United States, did not take adequate food or rest, and raced on Sunday morning. I also found it difficult to adjust to the humidity.”

The members of the organising team, Soles, poured an 18 litre bottle of water on him. Soon, they offered to drive him to the finish line. But Steve said no, and struggled on. Finally, 6 hours and 40 minutes later., Steve completed the marathon, the longest he has taken. The average time which he takes is 3 ½ hours.

The Spice Coast Marathon was an unique experience for Steve. “The people were so friendly and encouraging,” he says. “It was also the first time that I have shared the street with goats and cows.”

Steve has run in all the 50 states of the United States five times, and in Iceland, Africa, China, Germany, Brazil, and South Africa.

In the Entabini Game Reserve, in Johannesburg, there were lions, giraffes and rhinos. “We waited for the rhinos to cross the road,” says Steve. “They did look at us and wonder who we were. I am told that rhinos are vegetarians, so there was nothing to worry.”

Another run, which he enjoyed a lot, was the Nanisivik Midnight Sun Marathon
in northern Canada. “It was about 750 kms from the Artic Circle,” he says. “In July, the sun never sets. But ironically, it was quite hot.”

In most of his runs, he is accompanied by his wife Paula, whom he met at the Boston Marathon in April, 1997. They fell in love and got married in 1998. It is a second marriage for both.

Asked about the best aspect of running, both of them unanimously say, “It is the friendships that we have made all over the world. We all share the same passion.”

One of their friends is Mathew Mapram, of Kottayam origin, who lives in the US. “It was Mathew who invited us to take part in the Spice Coast Marathon,” says Steve. “And both of us will be here next year.”

In India, Steve has a clear agenda. He wants to inculcate the joy of running among the people. “You can run anywhere,” he says. “And anybody can do it. At the starting line-up, you cannot tell who is rich or poor. When you run, you tend to develop a positive attitude. For the women, it will empower them. For the children, it is good fun.”

The couple do their bit to encourage youngsters. In Houston, where they live, Steve and Paula hold running events for schoolchildren which have become very successful. In 2014, 9300 children in 24 schools ran 42 km or longer during the school year to earn a Marathon Challenge T-shirt, provided by Steve.

Incidentally, Steve came to running accidentally. He is a computer systems analyst who owns his own company. One day, a customer, Bob McDowell challenged him to run a marathon. So Steve began training for it. When he completed his first race, he was hooked onto running. Now, ironically, after 28 years Bob has only run 47 marathons, while Steve has reached marathon No. 591.

In order to ensure that Steve completes all the marathons that he participates in, he runs 75 kms a week to develop endurance and flexibility. “Then you will feel comfortable during a marathon,” he says. “The joy of running is that you can think about a lot of things, without the interruption of the phone, or e-mails. In short, nobody is bothering you.”

But you can be bothered by the weather. In a race in Delaware, there was a wind chill of minus 58 degrees below zero. “It was so cold that the water in the cups would freeze, before the volunteers could give it to us,” says Steve. “And after a few hundred metres, I received the full blast of the wind and found it difficult even to breathe.”

In Arizona, the couple ran a race in 42 degrees Celsius. “Even though the race was held in the evening, it was too hot,” says Paula. “We drank lots of water. It was pitch black. The roads were dusty. From the knee down, our legs were covered with black dust. But we finished the race and felt proud about that.” 

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Talking about Art and Other Matters

At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a noted psychoanalyst analyses the event, senior artists view appreciatively the work of upcoming talents, while an Indian writer meets her Dutch illustrator for the first time

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: Sudhir Kakar and his wife; Sirish Rao and his Canadian wife Laura Byspalko. Taken by Ratheesh Sundaram

Noted psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar's eyes widen as he views Anish Kapoor's work, 'Descension', at the Aspinwall House, one of the sites of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.
In a large container, buried in the ground, water is swirling around, at great speed, thanks to a submerged propeller. At the centre, it creates a vortex, which is a hypnotic sight. “It is a beautiful work,” says Sudhir, who is accompanied by his German wife Katharina Poggendorf. “But Anish, as everybody knows, is a great artist.” 
As the couple step out on to the side facing the sea, Sudhir's eyes light up. “The beautiful thing about the Kochi Biennale is how rooted it is to the earth,” he says. “The sea is also nearby.” 
Biennales in the West are like their music, says Sudhir. The rules are fixed on how to play it. “But in Indian ragas, a lot of innovation takes place,” he says. “The Kochi Biennale is like an Indian raga.”

Feeling the Heat
The hot sun is taking a toll on Paris Viswanadhan, as he wipes his forehead with his handkerchief. “It is lunch time and I am also feeling hungry,” says the Paris-based artist. His grey hair is like a halo over his head. “There are some wonderful works that I have seen so far,” he says. “I am particularly impressed with the clay works of young Sahel Rahal.”
As he talks, a friend of his comes up. He is Deepak Ananth, an art historian, who teaches at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Caen, Normandy. “He is the first person to do an in-depth presentation of contemporary Indian art in Europe,” says Viswanadhan.
Asked his opinion about the Biennale, Deepak says, “It has been beautifully curated.”

A Happy Supporter
Another person, who agrees with Ananth, is Malayali artist Balan Nambiar. “The selection of the art works has been very good,” he says. “There is a wide variety. And today, in the international community, Indian art is being regarded as pre and post-Kochi Biennale. That’s how big an impact the Biennale has made abroad. We are lucky it is being held in Kerala. I have given unstinted support to [founders] Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu from day one. So I am very happy to be here.”

A Writer meets her Illustrator
The Bangalore-based poet Mamta Sagar exclaims, “I have been searching for you all over.” And then she hugs the Dutch artist Juul Kraijer. Mamta had loved the work of Juul, which she saw on the Internet. Then she contacted Juul through e-mail, and the latter did the cover of Mamta's second book of poems in Kannada called 'Heige Haaleya Meile Haader' (‘Like this the song’). But they were meeting for the first time at the Biennale.
Juul is married to Aji V.N., an artist who was born in Thiruvananthapuram. They met when Juul came to Thiruvananthapuram, and fell in love. Now, they have a small daughter and the couple lives in Rotterdam. His daughter knows only to speak in Dutch. “But they are going to stay at my home in Thiruvananthapuram for a few weeks,” says Aji.

Acrobats doing a Balancing Act
At the Vasco Da Gama square, at Fort Kochi, on a high wire, there are fiberglass figures of colourful acrobats. One stocky male has a woman balancing her head over his, while he holds a cub tiger under his arm. He has hoofs for feet. And there are a few other men and women like this.
A couple who is fascinated by this work are the Vancouver-based Sirish Rao and his Canadian wife Laura Byspalko. They run the annual Indian Summer Festival of literature, music and films. When told the name of Gulammohammed Sheikh, as the artist who made it, Sirish says, “He is a great man. So, it's no wonder that this is a striking work.”

Endless Patience
You have to hand it to Anish Kapoor, one of the Britain's top artists, who has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth and has an estimated fortune of 100 million pounds. The shoot for an international TV channel, in the garden of Aspinwall House, takes a long time to start, because of technical glitches. But Anish keeps his cool and waits patiently for things to fall into place.
The Indian artist Subodh Gupta is walking past with his wife Bharti Kher. But when he sees Anish, he rushes up to take a snap of him on his mobile. Anish gives a friendly wave. It is difficult to visualise some of our prima donnas in the cultural world behave in a similarly calm and humble manner.

Express Special a Hit
Former Prime Minister IK Gujral’s nephew’s wife, Feroze Gujral, an art aficionado, is going gaga at the four-page special on the Biennale, brought out by The New Indian Express. “It looks lovely,” she says. “It is so nice you are doing so much to promote the arts. I am impressed.” Spanish student Elena Brunete, who has a copy, says, “It’s wonderful. The photos look good.” Another impressed person is British artist Hew Locke. “It looks nice,” he says.

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Of Body and Sole

Last year, IT Professional Ramesh Kanjilimadhom started the Soles running club, along with a few friends. Within months they had 1200 members and the group successfully conducted the Spice Coast Marathon recently

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Ramesh Kanjilimadhom and members of the Soles running club. 

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

At 5.30 a.m. on August 10, 2012, IT professional Ramesh Kanjilimadhom set out on a run from his apartment at Kochi. It was raining heavily and there was darkness all around, except for the street lights.

Ramesh was wearing a white singlet and blue shorts and running barefoot. Suddenly, from a bylane, a car appeared. Before Ramesh could realise what was happening he had been hit on his left side and fell down. The panicky driver sped away.

When Ramesh sat up he saw that his leg was broken. “I held my leg and tried to stand up, but could not do so,” he says. A desperate Ramesh tried to wave down a few people in their cars, but nobody stopped. But, as always, there is a Good Samaritan. In this case, it was Rockey Roger, who had just finished his night shift at an IT firm and was on his way home. Rockey rushed Ramesh to a nearby hospital.

When Ramesh recounted this incident to his friends – Renjith Mohan Kumar, Thomas Paulose, Mathew Mapram, Paul Mathew, Manoj Kuriakose, and Prasanna Kumar – they urged him to start a running club. “When we run in a group, safety is a given for the individual,” says Prasanna.

Following discussions, it was Manoj Kuriakose who came up with the club's name: ‘Soles’. “What do runners run with?” says Manoj. “With our soles. It is about our souls, too.”

Ramesh’s wife, Seema, who is also a runner, says, “We felt it is important to spread the habit of running in Kerala, where so many people suffer from diabetes and other health problems.”

Soles was set up by Ramesh and his friends on June 30, 2013. And thanks to their Facebook presence, within months, they had 1200 members which included doctors, IT professionals, businessmen, journalists, homemakers, students and lawyers. There is also a labourer, Mahesh, who works on construction sites. “He always comes for the Sunday run,” says Ramesh.

This takes place at 5.30 a.m. It begins from the Kadavanthra area in Kochi, and ends up at the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium, a distance of 8 kms.

This is the day when beginners are initiated. “There are many who walk the distance,” says Ramesh. “I tell the newcomers they should run for five minutes, and walk for two minutes. Then run again. As a result, they will not hit a mental or physical wall, and will be able to complete the run.”

Of course, sarcastic comments by bystanders are part of the baggage. When they see me running, in shorts, sometimes they will shout, ‘Hey man, did you lose your trousers along the way?’” says Ramesh, with a smile.

Meanwhile, one day, in February, this year, Mathew Mapram came up with the idea to hold a marathon race. Mathew, who is of Kerala origin, is a veteran marathon runner in the USA. “He belongs to a large network of people who are passionate about running,” says Ramesh. “Mathew wanted to give them an experience of running in India.”

Ramesh and his co-founders felt jittery about conducting a marathon, because they had never organised one. But, thanks to Mathew's goading and encouragement, Soles held the Spice Coast Marathon on November 16. Around thousand runners took part, including several from the USA.

One of them was the silver-haired Steve Boone, 65, who has run 591 marathons all over the world. “Unlike other races, conducted by event managers, there was a lot of heart in this race, because it had been organised by the runners themselves,” says Steve. “The people were friendly and nice. I enjoyed every moment.” For Ramesh, the most thrilling moment occurred, when, runners at the finishing tape, shook his hand, and said, “Great race.” 

Indeed, the unique nature of this particular marathon (42 kms) was the 42 heritage sites which the runners had to pass by. These included the Cochin Port Trust, Mattancherry bridge, Jewish Synagogue, Jew Town, Dutch Palace, Spice Market and the Parade ground. “We will be holding the marathon again the next year,” says an upbeat Ramesh. “Soles is here to stay.” 

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Snapshots from the Hotspots

Vignettes from the different sites of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, which begins on December 12

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo of British artist Hew Locke by Ratheesh Sundaram 

In a ground floor room, at the Aspinwall House, British artist Hew Locke walks around, in a hat, blue shirt, Bermuda shorts and sandals. He has made striking images using black beads and cord. One shows trumpeters in the 15th century announcing the arrival of the King of Cochin. “I feel a bit weird,” says Hew. “Most of the scenes I am seeing now, from this window, are those that I have already seen online. So there is a collision between virtual and actual reality.”

As he talks, he seems to have an Indian accent. He smiles and says, “There are two reasons for that. Firstly, I have an Indian wife [Indra Khanna]. Secondly, I grew up in Guyana, where there are so many Indians.”

In fact, says the London-based artist, Guyana is very similar to Kerala. A couple of days ago, when he drove out to the suburbs, he looked at the scenery. “For a moment, I thought I was back in Guyana,” he says.

On a first floor balcony, a young girl, in a white top and black tights, is looking through a camera placed on a tripod. Her name is Elena Brunete, and she is a student from from the School of Architecture in Madrid, Spain. She is part of a team of four students and three professors. “We are putting up a prototype of a bamboo pavilion,” she says. “It's hot, but I am enjoying myself.”

A red-faced Marcus Schaub is also finding the heat a little difficult to handle. “Yes, it is hot,” he says, with a smile, as he sits on a cement ledge and smokes a cigarette. The Zurich-based Swiss is helping his friend, Christian Waldvogel set up his installation, 'The Earth Turns Without Me'.

This is a small biennale, but it looks so comfortable,” he says. “It is like a tropical garden. And unlike biennales in the West, there is a nice mix of Western and Eastern art.”

Standing near Marcus is architect Vinu Daniel, wearing sunglasses. His company is making an umbrella pavilion, where the talks and seminars will take place. “The walls and the sloping roof will be a mix of a mesh, concrete, and jute sacks,” he says. The design looks unique. At one side, there is a gallery where people can sit and the other end curves upwards and becomes part of the roof.

Young Abu Backer Sidique is busy talking on a mobile. He is a product designer for artists Soren Pors and Aparna Rao. “I am helping them set up their electro-mechanical art works,” says Abu, an engineer.

Another youngster, in T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, Adam Jamir, has come all the way from Mokokchung in Nagaland. “I am assisting [Chinese artist] Yang Zhengzhong,” he says. “It's been fun so far.”

At one side, there is a growl of a concrete mixer. Inside a room, facing the sea, a hole in the ground is being made. One of the workers says that it has a depth of nine feet and a diameter of 11 feet. This is where the installation of famed London-based artist Anish Kapoor will be put up.

The Mumbai-based artist Prajaktha Potnis is looking relaxed. Her installation - a mix of sculptural and video installations, drawings, and a transcript pasted on the wall - is nearly up and running. But for a young person, she went back into recent political history to get inspired: the kitchen debates between US President John F Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. “It's a discussion of capitalism vs. communism in a kitchen setting,” she says. “In fact, in life, so many conversations take place in a kitchen. Many government policies enter the kitchen, like the price of onions.”

She breaks out into a smile as the Delhi-based Malayali artist Gigi Scaria has made an appearance. His installation material, made of stainless steel, has just arrived, all the way from Coimbatore.

I am making a bell, which is 13 feet high, with a diameter of 10 feet,” he says. “Through 64 holes, in the bell, water will come out, giving a look of a fountain.” Gigi has done a salute to the great writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He has called his work, 'Chronicle of the Shores Foretold'.

On the first floor of Pepper House, the Delhi-based artist Sumakshi Singh walks across to see the work of Navin Thomas, who lives in Bangalore. “This looks so magnificent,” she says, as she stares at the two huge archery targets, with their evenly spaced concentric rings, facing each other at a gap of 20 feet. “My theme is electroacoustic ecology,” says Navin. “These targets will communicate with each other, through sound waves.”

Noted artist Bharti Kher looks at her installation, which are triangles of wood, inside each of which swings a pendulum, and says, “I have not stepped out of this room for days.”

She is optimistic about the Kochi Biennale, despite the funds crunch. “Take it from me, in ten years, this Biennale will become an important art hub for India and the world.”

She says that the state should be supportive. “We have such a large country and yet, there are so few art events,” she says. “And that's a bit sad.”

Nevertheless, there is excitement among the volunteers, artists and visitors as they walk around, with a smile on their faces and a song in their hearts.

On December 12 an explosion will take place.

Friends, welcome to India's greatest art show!

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

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

My Boss

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Anuja talks about life with the actor Dharmajan Bolgatty

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Melton Antony 

On the morning of November 15, 2007, Anuja woke up in her house at Netoor, Kochi, feeling nervous and scared. She was not sure whether the decision she had taken was the right one. Nevertheless, she steeled herself. At 10 a.m., she slipped out of the house, without informing her parents.

Waiting patiently, at some distance away, was the actor Dharmajan Bolgatty, along with his friend, Stanley, in a car. After changing into a saree, at another friend's house, Anuja, along with Dharmajan and Stanley, went to the Sri Keraleshwara Puram Temple at Mulavukaddu. There, in front of a priest, the couple exchanged garlands and got married.

When they reached Dharmajan's house nearby, the actor's elder brother, Babu, called up Anuja's father, Purushan, and informed him of the event. Two days later, Purushan, accompanied by his son-in-law, Ajayan, came and gave Anuja a few gold ornaments. “My father and I felt sad,” says Anuja. “But for nine months after my marriage he did not speak to me.” The thaw took place when the family invited Anuja and Dharmajan for her brother Anil's wedding.

Anuja and Dharmajan are related to each other. He is her second cousin. They would see each other at family functions. When Anuja was 21 years old, one day, Dharmajan came to the house, took her aside, and said he liked her. Two days later, she told him the same thing.

Her father had opposed the marriage, because Dharmajan did not have a steady job. He was getting bit roles in TV and finding it hard to get a good break. “But we loved each other, although there is a six-year age gap,” says Anuja. When her family showed no inclination to arrange for the marriage, the couple took matters into their own hands.

In fact, they planned it well. One afternoon, two days before the wedding, Anuja packed a few clothes, as well as her educational certificates, in a bag, went out of the house and gave it to Dharmajan who was waiting outside.

And today Anuja is all smiles. “I have no regrets,” she says. “It was a right move.”

Asked about her husband's plus points, Anuja says, “Dharmajan is a nice person, with a sense of humour. Recently, when we were going out, Ajayan and my sister Ambili were sitting in the backseat of a car. As I was about to get in, Dharmajan said, 'Squeeze yourself in. After all, you don't do that in the house. At least, do it in the car.'”

She admires Dharmajan, because he is confident enough to give her a lot of freedom. “I can go anywhere that I want,” says Anuja. “Not many husbands are like this.”

Dharmajan is also a cool person at home. “He might be having a lot of tension, but never tells me much, even though I can see it on his face,” says Anuja. “It may be because of upcoming programmes or the stress of writing a script. Sometimes, he goes to a hotel to write in peace, because we have two children at home.”

They are Vaiga, 5, and Vedha, 4. The children are his fans and often watch his films at home. Once they were watching a Mohanlal film called 'Ladies and Gentleman'. And in many of the scenes, they saw Kalabhavan Shahjohn.

Suddenly, the door opened and in walked Shahjohn. “The children were stunned,” says Anuja. “They could not believe that the person, whom they were seeing on the screen, had just walked in. Vaiga said, 'How did uncle come out from the screen?'”

Usually, when a new film, in which Dharmajan has acted in, is released, he will take the family to see it at one of the cinema halls. “When I see my husband on the screen, there is no difference for me,” says Anuja. “He is the same person on and off-screen.”

For Anuja, the films which she liked the most, in which her husband has acted, are 'Ordinary' and 'My Boss'.

Asked about his negative traits, Anuja says, “Dharmajan can be short-tempered, but he forgets quickly. As for me, the anger remains with me for a longer time. When that happens, Dharmajan will go to the bedroom, dress up in one of my sarees and come back and pretend he is a woman. That makes me laugh.”

Dharmajan's one regret is that he is not able to spend much time with the children. “Most of the time, he is sleeping when they get ready to go to school,” she says. “But whenever he is at home, he plays with them.”

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Anuja says, “Both spouses should show tolerance to each other,” she says. “But, usually, the wife has to do more adjustments, especially when there are children.”

There should also be an honest communication between husband and wife. “Even if it is only for five minutes every day, it is very important,” says Anuja. “And when spouses fight, one of them should quickly make the first move to reconcile. In our marriage, Dharmajan always reaches out first.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, December 08, 2014

The Imminent Artistic Explosion

Work is going on in full swing as the second edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale begins on December 12

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

Captions: Parvathi Nayar; Architect Vinu Daniel and his team; artists D. Sunoj and Sumakshi Singh; members of the media team of the Kochi Biennale Foundation and Shwetal Patel, Co-Ordinator (Exhibitions) of the KBF  

It is a sunny morning in Fort Kochi. A breeze is blowing from the Arabian Sea. Inside the Aspinwall House, the premier venue of the 2014 Kochi Muziris Biennale, a man is banging a nail into a piece of wood. At another side another worker is using a metal cutter, which is creating a shrieking noise.

One can see empty paint cans, wooden planks, and a large crate, encased in plastic, which contains the works of artist Arun KS, which has come all the way from Sante Fe, California, USA. A sticker at one side says, 'Protect from the elements' and has a drawing of raindrops falling on an umbrella.

Along a pathway, Divya Jain has placed her camera on a tripod and is looking through the lens. Standing next to her is Raj Shekhar Kundu, in a red T-shirt and blue jeans. They are students of the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore. “We are doing a video installation of how the art works links to the Biennale sites,” says Divya.

Standing near them is architect Vinu Daniel, wearing sunglasses. His company is making an umbrella pavilion, where the talks and seminars will take place. “The walls and the sloping roof will be a mix of a mesh, concrete, and jute sacks,” he says. The design looks unique. At one side, there is a gallery where people can sit and the other end curves upwards and becomes part of the roof.

In a ground floor hall, Indian artist Parvathi Menon is overseeing workmen as they install fluorescent lights. A few printouts of her poems have been pasted on the walls. One of her works, a remarkable pencil drawing, part of her installation called 'Fluidity of Horizons', is already up on one of the walls.

The artist, who looks casually elegant in a white T-shirt and jeans, suddenly smiles and says, “I am all excited to be taking part in this Biennale, because my roots are in Kerala.”

On the first floor, in another building, Malayali artist Sunoj D is putting up his installation, 'Zero To The Right'. Sunoj is converting $2000 into Dirhams and Indian rupees. “The dollars are being marked in lines as bunches of five, dirhams as single lines, whereas the Indian rupees 1,25,427 (in exchange rate) are being marked as dots,” he says. “An audio recording will call out these numbers in Arabic, Malayalam and English. I am trying to show the relative value of money.”

He is being helped by volunteer Irma Christ, a German artist and teacher. “I am travelling all over Asia,” she says. “I never knew a Biennale is about to take place in Kochi. But now I am helping out Sunoj. I don't know how long I will stay, but I am loving it here.”

She breaks out into a wide smile, when a Biennale volunteer introduces himself as Clins. “It is a short form for Klinsmann (the great German footballer),” says Clins. “My uncle is a fan.” Irma says, “Klinsi is going to love it that somebody has been named after him in a land so far away.”

On the first floor of the Pepper House, Delhi-based artist Sumakshi Singh has hung long sheets of paper, in which plants are drawn. They have been taken from the 'Hortus Malabaricus' (1693), a book written by Dutchman Hendrik van Rheede, the then Governor of Malabar, about the flora in Kerala. “I have exhibited all over the world, but the Pepper House is such an unique setting,” she says. “Look at the wooden beams, and the tiled roofs. This place has personality!”

Indded, not only Pepper House, but Fort Kochi has personality. Edgar Pinto, the propreitor of the Old Harbour hotel says, “We will expect a lot of art lovers from all over the world during the Biennale,” he says. “Big and small hotels and homestays will benefit collectively. In the end, there will be a positive impact on the local economy. We are excited about it.” 

Members of the foreign media are also getting excited about the event, which will be inaugurated on December 12. 

Zehra Jumabhoy, contributor to Artforum International Magazine, New York, says, “I loved the first iteration of the Kochi Biennale, and am excited about the second one. Yes, Kochi is an established Biennale in the art world, but two swallows don't make a summer. I hope there will be more Biennales after this one.” 

Dr. Sabine B. Vogel, a freelance art critic for the daily newspaper ‘Die Presse’ in Vienna, says, “I expect site-specific artworks which deal with the local context. Kochi got onto the map of the global art community with the first fantastic biennale and I am excited to see the second edition. The sites, along the waterfront, give such a special atmosphere. And Kochi is such an extraordinary place!”

The Kochi Biennalle Foundation (KBF) office is also an extraordinary hive of activity. In the courtyard of the rented bungalow, Shwetal Patel, Co-ordinator- Exhibitions, is walking around conversing animatedly on the mobile phone to a BMW company representative. “It's super-hectic now,” he says, as his 40 plus colleagues sit in large rooms, looking at laptops and taking calls. “But it will be ready on time. Biennales are fragile things, but this one is artist-driven and I am sure it will produce unique results.” 

Shwetal spoke of the groundswell of support and goodwill shown by the local people. “That is heartening,” he says. But Chief Operating Officer PM Sirajuddin admits that funds are tight. He also admitted that the loans given by artists like KBF Directors Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu for the previous Biennale have yet to be repaid. “But I am expecting a good support from the state government,” he says. “We will tide over the tough times. The Biennale will be a success.” 

(A shorter version was published in the Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)   

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

United We Stand

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Vimala talks about life with the noted former footballer O. Chandrasekhar

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

On May 6, 1966, the day that Vimala Menon got married to O. Chandrasekhar, the noted football player, the happiest news she received was about her eldest sister Sarala, who was living in Sibu, Malaysia. “She had given birth to a baby girl named Sudha,” says Vimala. “I was happy, because, for the Nairs, the inheritance is through the women. Sarala was also deeply affectionate and would send gifts to us all the time from Sibu. So I liked and respected her a lot.”  

Soon, after the marriage, the couple left for Mumbai where Chandrasekhar was working as a probationary officer in the State Bank of India (SBI). At the SBI housing colony in Andheri, Chandrasekhar’s friends gave them a grand welcome. “When I entered the house, I grew excited by its many amenities,” she says. “It was a modern apartment.”

And it was while she was in Mumbai that she saw Chandrasekhar play for the first time. The match took place at the Cooperage Stadium. It was a third division game between SBI and another team in the Harwood League. “SBI won and were promoted to the second division,” says Vimala. “I saw Chandrasekhar play but had no idea about the game and knew very little about his career.”

For the record, Chandrasekhar was a member of the Indian football team from 1956-67. He was also part of the team that took part in the 1960 Olympic Games at Rome and won the gold medal at the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962, as well as the Asian Cup tournament held at Tel Aviv in 1964. He represented Maharashtra for 10 seasons and, in 1964, as captain, he helped the state win the Santosh Trophy.

In Mumbai, after a while, Vimala got pregnant. Thereafter, she went home, to Kochi, and gave birth to Sunil, who is 47 now. The couple have two more children: Sudhir, 44, and Suma, 38.

Life was moving at a smooth pace. Chandrasekhar was moving steadily up the ladder, while Vimala was busy looking after the children.

In 1979, at age 32, Vimala was at the peak of her beauty, with her long flowing hair, fair skin, and vivacious smile. One day, she detected a lump under her breast.  At that time they were staying in Thiruvananthapuram. A biopsy was done at the Medical College Hospital.

When the result confirmed breast cancer, Chandrasekhar burst into tears. “I asked him why he was crying in front of the children,” says Vimala. “At that time, my daughter was only three years old.”

Vimala had to undergo chemotherapy sessions. Soon, she lost all her hair. The prognosis was grim: she had three months to live. “My whole body was aching, and I was thinking, ‘Will I die?’” says Vimala. Nevertheless, she told Dr Krishnan Nair, “I have to look after my children. I will fight till the last minute.”

But Vimala survived, even though the treatment lasted for five years. Medicines worth lakhs of rupees had to be brought from abroad, sent by anxious relatives and friends. “We were financially stretched, but the bank paid all the bills,” says Vimala.

Looking back, she is all praise for her husband. “Chandrasekhar stood like a rock,” she says. “But he suffered a lot seeing me in this situation.”

Asked about the qualities of her husband, Vimala says, “He is very punctual He gets up at a fixed time, and goes to sleep at the same time. He has his meals on time. If he says that we will be going out at 8 a.m., everybody should be ready before that. Just the other day, my neighbor told me that when Chandrasekhar shuts the gate at 9 p.m., they correct the clock.” 

As for his role as a father, Vimala says, “Chandrasekhar was not strict, but the children knew that their father was disciplined, so they followed whatever he did.”

And in the bank, where Chandrasekhar reached the position of assistant general manager and retired in 1995, he was known for his honesty and integrity. “Chandrasekhar helped a lot of people, but his initial reaction when somebody came for help would be to say no,” says Vimala. “Then he would think about the request and change his mind.”

But Chandrasekhar has his drawbacks, too. “He has a short temper,” says Vimala. “And if anybody makes a mistake, he will say it directly to that person. Not everybody likes that.”

At their home in Kochi, the couple lives alone. Sunil is in Bangalore, Sudhir lives in Tennessee, USA, while Suma is in Chennai. “By the grace of God, all my children are doing very well,” says Vimala, who has five grandchildren.

To the modern generation, Vimala has this to say. “Husband and wife should love each other and have a good understanding,” she says. “In case the marriage does not work out there is nothing wrong in going for a divorce. Earlier, most women had no income and had to remain with the man, even if they were unhappy. Now, many are working. So they have the option to move out and should take it.”

However, if there are children, they should be the topmost priority.  “Nowadays, parents give so little time for their offspring,” says Vimala. “If you are not prepared to look after your children, don’t have them.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, December 01, 2014

Fighting Back With Grace and Grit

Megha Ramaswamy's documentary, 'Newborns', focuses on the lives of acid victims. It won the Jury Prize for Best Short Documentary at the third Delhi Shorts International Film Festival 

Photos: A scene from 'Newborns'; Megha Ramaswamy 

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in May, 2013, film-maker Megha Ramaswamy was reading the newspaper at her home in Mumbai when she came across a news item about a woman called Preethi Rathi.
When the Delhi-based Preethi, 23, got down from the Garib Rath Express at the Bandra station, at Mumbai, her neighbour, Ankur Panwar, 23, a hotel management graduate, threw acid on her, according to the Mumbai police. The reason: Ankur was jealous that Preethi had got a job, while he had not. 

Preethi was scheduled to join a Naval hospital as a Lieutenant Nurse. However, the acid severely damaged her lungs. On June 1, Preethi died at the Bombay Hospital. 

A distressed Megha says, “The nature of the crime was unsettling. I wanted to do something to stop this.” So she became a volunteer with the Delhi-based NGO, 'Stop Acid Attacks’.

It was then that she came across other acid victims like Sapna, Nasreen and Laxmi Agarwal. As she interacted with them, Megha felt that she should make a documentary. “A documentary is empowering,” says Megha. “It changes the way people think.” 

The Hindi film, 'Newborns' (with English subtitles), has been shot mostly in grey tones to convey the bleakness of the subject. But it was striking to see the calm look of Laxmi, when she revealed her scarred face. “Sometime, last year, I got up the courage to remove my veil and show my face in public,” says Laxmi. “So, I felt confident to be myself in 'Newborns'.” 

This confident young woman is also a fighter. In 2006, she had filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court for a ban on acid. On July 18, 2013, the Court ruled that the sale of acid should be regulated. In March, this year, US First Lady Michelle Obama presented Laxmi with the International Women of Courage Award at Washington. 

In an early scene, which is set in a bus, in which the bespectacled Laxmi is travelling, there is a clown who is sitting behind her. This is played by 'Ship of Theseus' actor Rupesh Tillu. “Megha wanted to show that, just like a clown, you don't get to see their actual faces,” says Rupesh. “I hope this film will sensitise people about the horror of acid attacks.”

The statistics are, indeed, disturbing. According to ‘Stop Acid Attacks’, there are about a thousand incidents every year, out of which 76% of the vitims are women aged between 21 and 30. The main reason is because the women have rejected men’s advances.

These women, their lives ruined, get no medical insurance or jobs. Most of the time, they are shunned by society. “There is not enough sympathy shown to them,” says Megha.

Unfortunately, the number of attacks is on the rise. But the heartening news is that victims are coming forward. “More cases are being registered with the police,” says Laxmi.

Meanwhile, when Megha premiered the documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival, in September, she was amazed at the reception it got. “The audience members hugged me, and some had tears in their eyes,” says Megha. “They wanted to know what they could do, to prevent future happenings.”

In November, ‘Newborns’ won the Jury Prize for Best Short Documentary at the third Delhi Shorts International Film Festival. 

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Salt 'N Pepper

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Vani Viswanath talks about life with the actor Baburaj

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo by Albin Mathew 

One day, in October, 1998, Vani Viswanath got a call at her home in Chennai. The director J. Williams wanted to come and narrate a story. Vani said yes. But when Williams arrived, he was accompanied by Mollywood villain Baburaj.

Vani assumed that Williams would be narrating the story, but it turned out to be Baburaj who had written the script. Vani thought to herself, 'Does he have the capacity to narrate a story?'

But Vani got a surprise. “When he began speaking, I stopped listening to the story and was taken up by the way he was talking, the gestures he was making, and the smile on his face,” says Vani. “He was speaking in a much better way than most scriptwriters. I decided to say yes, just because of the way Baburaj was telling the story.”

The film was 'The Gang'. During the shoot, at Kochi, Vani suddenly panicked about whether she would get paid. So she sent a message to Baburaj, who was the producer. Immediately, he provided the payment.

But that same evening, Baburaj called Vani and said, “I need some money urgently. So can you give it back? I promise that I will pay it tomorrow morning.”

But Vani told him that she had already sent the money to her father at Thrissur. “Later, when we got close, he asked me whether I had actually given the money to my father. I said, 'Of course not,'” says Vani, with a laugh. “There was no way I would return money to a producer. Because I knew I would never get it back.”

Nevertheless, Vani and Baburaj acted in another film, a Tamil one called 'Jaya'. In this movie, the lovers, played by Vani and Baburaj, have a physical fight. “We were hitting each other and blood was coming out of our mouths,” says Vani.

However, in real life, the couple were falling in love. After two years of courtship, they decided to get married. There were objections from both families, because Vani is a Hindu while Baburaj is a Christian. Nevertheless, both stayed firm and the marriage took place on February 28, 2002, at the Tirupathi Temple.

When the rituals were going on, I was thinking about the many marriages that I had taken part in Tamil and Malayalam movies” says Vani. “The only difference was that this time it was for real. And I would become a mother in future.”

Yes, indeed, she did become a mother, to Aarcha, 11, and Adhri, 6. “Baburaj is a far better father than husband,” says a frank Vani. “He gives them a lot of care and affection. For his son, he has filled his bedroom with posters and figures of ‘Hulk, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Superman’, because Adhri likes them. For Aarcha, she likes small items like pens. So, Baburaj will buy expensive brands like Cross and Parker.”

Meanwhile, these 12 years have been a topsy-turvy ride for both of them. “Baburaj is a capable person,” says Vani. “Once we needed to put tiles on the floors of our house in Chennai, and he said, ‘What's so difficult about that? We can do it.’ If the TV set goes bad, he will repair it. Baburaj can do painting and electrical works. He is also a good cook and can make tasty chicken and fish curries.” So, it was no surprise that Baburaj’s breakout role was as a cook in the film, ‘Salt N’ Pepper’.

To Vani, Baburaj is a larger-than-life person. “When he gets angry, it is to the extreme,” she says. “But the next moment, he forgets everything. When I remind him, he will say, 'Did I say that? I don't remember'. When he is loving, he is overwhelming. And that is also the case when he is in a humourous mood.”

Incidentally, thanks to Baburaj, Vani has become a passionate cricket fan. One day, during their courtship, Vani asked Babu to rush her to the Chennai railway station. She needed to catch a train to Thrissur. Baburaj drove fast and furiously. After a while, he suddenly braked the car and went inside a shop, did not buy anything, and came back in a minute. Then he drove fast again. At the station Vani managed to get the train. Once the train left, a puzzled Vani called him on the mobile and asked him why he had stopped at the shop. He said, “Molle, India is playing a cricket match. I wanted to know the score.”

That was when Vani decided she had to know how the game is played. Once Baburaj explained the rules, Vani became a passionate fan. “I also love football and like Adriano the Brazilian footballer,” she says. “So I took the first half of the name, and named my son Adhri.”

Finally, when asked for tips on marriage, Vani says, “Between me and Baburaj, there were more than a thousand times when we could have divorced each other. We can divorce tomorrow, too. But the challenge is to remain together. It is not that everybody will get a good husband or wife. The wife might say my husband is a big problem. But maybe, the problem is with the wife. So you should learn to accept each other.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)