Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Upside-Down World

Affected by Hurricane Sandy, which hit New York in 2012, American artist Tom Burckhardt recreates a flooded studio, in a unique way, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale
Photo by Albin Mathew
By Shevlin Sebastian
When you step in to see the American artist Tom Burckhardt’s cardboard installation, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, you experience a sense of disorientation. The reason: everything is upside down.
So, paint cans on shelves are pointed towards the floor, there are black monochrome paintings which are also upside-down, some books, like Leo Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 'Notes from the Underground', defy gravity, while a couple of canvases are stuck on the ceiling.
Titled, ‘Studio Flood’, the work was, indeed, inspired by a flood. On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York with destructive force. “There was five feet of water inside many houses and artists’ studios,” says Tom. “Some artists, who had basement studios, lost their entire work.”
This was also the situation at the art gallery district called Chelsea, which is close to the shore. “The image of all the art works floating in the water stayed in my mind, apart from all the wasted effort,” says Tom. “The only good that came out of it was that artists, normally so self-centred, came together and helped one another.”
Asked whether his installation is an exact replica of a studio in New York, he says, “There is a bit of Kochi, too.”
That is true. When you look through the window, you can see palm trees. On one wall, there is Kerala-style political graffiti, with the familiar hammer and sickle, the symbol of the Communist Party.
Like in the US, flooding is a big issue in coastal Kochi as well as Kerala, owing to global warming. “So I believe there is a link between New York and Kochi,” he says.
Tom also believes his work is an apt metaphor. “When a tragedy hits people they will always say, 'My world has turned upside-down',” he says.
Initially, when Tom arrived in Kochi, he did find his world go upside-down. That’s because he could not find the right type of cardboard to make the installation for several days. When Biennale founder Bose Krishnamachari came to know, he made a call. Within a day, the correct material arrived. “It gives you an indication of Bose's clout,” he says.
Asked why he used cardboard, Tom says, “People can relate to it, unlike oil and acrylic.” The other materials he used were black paint and glue.
As for his impressions about the Kochi Biennale, Tom says, “This is a very organic festival. It is based on an artistic vision and not so much a curator or a theorist's vision, and I tend to be uncomfortable with the latter.”
There are other charms, too. “The setting is unique,” he says. “I love it that this festival is for everybody in this town. In other Biennales, art seems to belong to the rich and the cognoscenti.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Friday, March 24, 2017

“The Art Works Are Fascinating”

Noted Bollywood film director Vidhu Vinod Chopra talks about his experiences in the Kochi Muziris Biennale, as well as his upcoming film

Photos: Vidhu Vinod Chopra with wife Anupama; Vidhu at the art installation by Orijit Sen

By Shevlin Sebastian

Bollywood director Vidhu Vinod Chopra breaks out into a smile as he looks into a telescope on a first floor sea-facing balcony at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi. This is an installation work of the French artist Francois Mazabraud. “Nice, he says. His wife Anupama, a noted film critic, also breaks into a smile.

This is my first visit to the Biennale,” says Vidhu, who is clad casually in a blue T-shirt and cotton trousers. “I am obsessed with cinema, so coming here is a liberation for me. I am enjoying an art form which is outside of cinema. And the works I have seen so far have been fascinating. What adds to the charm is the beautiful ambience of Fort Kochi.”

Both Vidhu and Anupama are a playful couple. At the ‘Going Playces’ exhibition of artist Orijit Sen, they took up the challenge of placing pieces with magnet ends into the ‘From Punjab with love’ painting. “Wow, this is cool,” says Vidhu, as he places a piece in the correct slot. Later, both take up a similar challenge in the Charminar exhibit.

Meanwhile, on the career front, Vidhu is putting the finishing touches to his script of his next movie. The theme: the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits, from the 1980s to the present time.

This theme is not a surprise. Vidhu was born and brought up in Srinagar. “Kashmir is very close to my heart,” he says. “The movie is going to be an epic.” The shooting will begin in September. And the locations will be in different parts of Kashmir.

When asked if it is safe, Vidhu says, “I go to Kashmir every year. It is as risky as anywhere else in the world. Maybe, because of terrorist attacks. Paris may be more risky now. Tell me which place is not risky today? That is the world we are living in now.”

He has not selected the cast, as yet. But he is hoping to release it sometime next year. “I don’t worry about the release date,” says the maker of hits like ‘1942: A Love Story’ and ‘Parineeta’. “The film will somehow make its way into the world.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Shooting On The 27th Floor


Director Lijo Jose Pellissery talks about his experiences on the films, 'Angamaly Diaries', 'Amen' and 'Double Barrel'

Photos: Lijo Jose Pellissery; the posters of 'Angamaly Diaries' and 'Amen'

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a windy day in January, director Lijo Jose Pellissery, cinematographer Girish Ganghadaran, a few crew members, as well as the hero of 'Angamaly Diaries' Antony Varghese were standing on the 27th floor of a building in Bahrain. Next to the building was a tower crane.

In the film, Vincent Pepe, played by Antony, following his marriage to Lichi (Reshma Rajan), in Angamaly, was working as a tower crane operator in a construction company at Bahrain.

We wanted to use a drone, and show Antony sitting in the cabin of the crane,” says Lijo. “It was a sunset scene.”

However, what came as a shock, was that there was no lift to enter the cabin. “So, we did not know how Antony was going to enter the cabin,” says Lijo. In the end, Anthony had to hold onto the side of the crane, on the 27th floor, and carefully make his way to the cabin.

At that height, there was a strong breeze blowing. “But Antony was brave, although it was a risky thing to do,” says Lijo. “In the end, it turned out to be a brilliant and realistic shot. In fact, it was the last scene of the film.”

There were many realistic scenes in 'Angamaly Diaries'. At the start of the film, a group of actors, in fancy dress, looking like Jesus Christ, a nun, and a solider were having drinks. The soldier, Paripp Marti, was played by actor Sreekanth Dasan. Soon, there was a skirmish with an opposing group and the two groups rushed down the steps of the first-floor bar.

In the melee, Sreekanth got his nose dislocated,” says Lijo. “We had to rush him to the hospital. It took him four days to recover.”

There were several fight sequences in the film. As a result, there were quite a few injuries. “This happened so often, that the nurses and doctors asked us, half-jokingly, whether it was actually a cinema shoot that was going on,” says Lijo with a smile. “But the actors were all dedicated to making a true-to-life movie.”

This dedication could also be seen in Lijo's earlier blockbuster, 'Amen'. In a scene, on a narrow bridge, there was a confrontation between Solomon (Fahadh Faasil) and his love interest Shoshanna (Swati Reddy), with the local Catholic priest's assistant Kochuousep (played by Sunil Sukhada) standing in the middle.

As Shoshanna accused Solomon of wanting to abandon her, because of his plans to become a priest, Kochuousep tried to persuade the girl to forget about Solomon. But so incensed was Shoshanna that she pushed Kochuousep away. And Kochuousep fell from a height into the water. “It was not very clean water,” says Lijo. “But Sunil unhesitatingly jumped. That showed his dedication.”

But sometimes, this dedication can be risky, too. In Lijo's 'Double Barrel', he wanted to shoot a fight sequence between two gangs using a helicam. The location was on a hill in Goa. At one side was the famous Vagathor beach. For some reason, the helicam signal was not working. So, the operators were running after the helicam, with their remote, to get the signal working.

Without realising it, they had reached the edge of the hill,” says Lijo. “At the last moment, our crew members managed to hold on to them before they slipped over the edge. I have never forgotten how close they were to falling off.”

Thankfully, the signal soon started working and they were able to shoot the scene. “For everything to work well, on a shoot, you need a large dose of luck,” says Lijo. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

In Praise Of The Almighty

Sufi singer Ashraf Hydroz, who performed recently at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, talks about the art form
Photos of Ashraf Hydroz by K. Shijith; Amir Khusrow

By Shevlin Sebastian
As Sufi singer Ashraf Hydroz begins his concert at the Cabral Yard, Fort Kochi, during the Kochi Muziris Biennale, he tells the audience, “The first composition is called a Hamd. It is a song in praise of God. This is always a tradition in Sufi music.”
Surrounded by members of the Khayal-e-Qawwali band, who play instruments like the harmonium, tabla, dholak, the bulbul tarang and the keyboard, Ashraf starts with the invocation, 'Allahu Akbar' [God Is Great].
Then as the music rolls on, he sings, in Urdu:
Every beginning is in your name,
When the life on earth becomes extinct, that is also in your name.
You are the Master of the Entire Universe, O Allah
When there was no earth,
When there was no sky.
When there was no sun,
When there was no moon
When there was nothing
But, at that time,
You were there.”
Sufi music is like Hindu bhakti music. “In both, the singers are trying to evoke the Almighty,” says Ashraf. “There are also songs in praise of saints like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya.”
For Ashraf, the singing has a spiritual component. “Sometimes I forget where I am,” he says. “Often I have felt that I am a vessel of the Almighty. But in daily life, I am just an ordinary person.”
This 'ordinary person' was a manager of Lakshmivilas Bank till he retired five years ago. “To make ends meet, I had to do a job,” he says. “But I always kept doing public performances, usually on the weekends.”

Interestingly, the majority of the songs that Ashraf sings have been composed by Amir Khusrow (1253-1325), who is regarded as the father of the 'Qawwali'. “He has composed thousands of spiritual songs in Urdu, Brajabasha, Poorvi and Farsi,” says Ashraf. The singer also sings the romantic songs of the musical genius. “In one song Khusrow had said, 'At the sight of the beloved, I lose all my control, because of my love for her’.”
Ashraf also sings songs of other religions. During a performance at the Ernakulam Karayogam, in 2015, he sang Hindu shlokas and Vedic chants. “The audience was very surprised,” says Ashraf, who is a senior disciple of renowned Hindustani musician Ustad Faiyaz Khan. “They were expecting only Sufi songs. I believe that the songs, of every religion lead one to the same Universal Energy and Love.”
In fact, thanks to this multi-religious capability, Ashraf has been invited to give a two-hour performance at the Madhuvanam Ashram on the Maha Samadhi day of Sri Sathya Sai Baba at Thiruvananthapuram on March 28.
Meanwhile, Ashraf's interest in Sufi music was sparked, when, as a M. Phil student of music at Delhi University, in 1988, he went for a Qawwali concert of the famous Sabri Brothers of Pakistan, along with Indian singer Ustad Jaffar Hussain Khan. The brothers were the first to use the word, 'Allah' repeatedly during their songs. “They gave a wonderful performance,” says Ashraf. “It was then that I decided to become a Sufi singer.”
Whenever he had leisure time, Ashraf would spend time at the holy shrines of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer, the dargah of Hazrath Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, the Salim Chisti Tomb at Fathepur Sikri and the Makhdum Ali Mahimi shrine in Mahim, Mumbai. 

I would sit with the Sufi singers and listen to them,” he says. “After a while, I started singing along with them. And that was how I ended up as a singer.” Today, he has performed hundreds of concerts all over India and abroad, too.
The Bangalore-based Ashraf pauses and says, “In these polarised times, music helps to bring people together.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ten Of The Best

Popular author Nikita Singh talks about her just-released novel, 'Every Time It Rains'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, recently, best-selling author Nikita Singh, got a message on Facebook.

It was from a 16-year-old boy, Akash Agarwal (name changed). He said that his mum was seriously ill at a hospital in Vadodara. In fact, Akash was sleeping in the same room.

Feeling disturbed, he chanced upon one of Nikita's books, 'Like a Love Song'. “As soon as I started reading it, I could not stop,” wrote Akash. “It removed me from my present situation. I have now read all your books. It helped me cope with the stress that I am going through.”

Interestingly, the 25-year-old Nikita has already published 10 best-selling novels, with the latest one being 'Every Time It Rains', which has just been published by Harper Collins.

Asked why her books have been so popular, Nikita says, “They are very honest. The characters are real, they make mistakes, they are not perfect. And it is about life and relationships. But I always give happy endings. I am a firm believer in that. People want to feel good.”

In fact, her new novel is a continuation of 'Like a Love Song'. The earlier novel is about Maahi and her best friend Laila. But there was not enough space to develop Laila's background. So, Nikita decided to tell this story from Laila's perspective. In the earlier book, they had set up a bakery, so the action takes place in the same environment, as they are building up their business, but the other characters are new.

Nikita's stories are character-driven. “They are very real in my imagination,” she says. “Every time I write, I can see them clearly in my head. I am very close to them. I am okay with changing the plot, but not the characters.”

Nikita is also an interesting character. She seemed an unlikely person to become a writer. She was doing her B. Pharm at the Acropolis Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in Indore. But when Nikita was in her third year she realised that this was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. “Writing was always at the back of my mind,” she says.

Her entire family – father, mother and older brother – are avid readers. And Nikita also read extensively from her teenage years. But, one day, when she read a poorly written novel by an Indian author, she felt that she could do better. So, she sat down to write – long-hand, in a notebook.

Within weeks, she sent a synopsis and the first two chapters to the Delhi-based Pustak Mahal publishers. In just two days, they conveyed their acceptance. And her life changed thereafter.

Meanwhile, after graduating from pharmacy, Nikita completed her masters in creative writing from The New School, New York. Today, she works as a men's fashion stylist at cloth retailer J Crew in the same city. “I am always looking for new experiences,” says the hot-shot author. 

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Saving Young Lives Through Surfing

The Belgian Jelle Rigole runs the Kovalam Surf Club for disadvantaged youths. He talks about his experiences

Photos by BP Deepu 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sitting on the terrace of a building, in Kovalam, the Belgian Jelle Rigole looks relaxed on a Tuesday afternoon in March. A pleasant breeze is blowing. The roar of the waves can be heard in the distance. Sitting around him are members of the Kovalam Surf School.

Asked how he got the idea to start a surf school, Jelle says, “When I began to work in the slums, I noticed that a lot of children had to deal with physical abuse. Many of their fathers were alcoholics. There was so much of misery in their lives. There was nobody around to tell them about the importance of going to school.”

During this time, to get away from the stress of his work, Jelle would go surfing in the early mornings. Soon, he noticed that a few boys on the beach were looking at him with interest. That was when he came up with the idea, 'No school, no surfing'. “The children have to be in school from Monday to Friday and be on their best behavior,” says Jelle. “Thereafter, they were allowed to do surfing on Saturday and Sunday.”

Sitting next to Jelle are muscular young men who have been surfing for several years. They include Ramesh HR, Akash MG and Varghese Antony. They smile widely when Jelle says, “All of them were members of the school. Now they are mentors to the youngsters.”

Asked what he likes about surfing, Varghese says, “There is a nice feeling when you ride the waves. And I enjoy the sea breeze.”

Of course, surfing is not an easy thing to do. When you stand on a board, you have to realise that it is a moving platform. So maintaining one's balance is not easy. But there are health benefits. The breathing becomes stronger, since you have to hold your breath while going through the waves. It is also good for the muscles and the joints. “Overall, it is a good exercise,” says Jelle. “If you surf for one-and-a-half hours, you will sleep like a baby at night.”

So far, over the years, around 500 children have been part of the school. “Some have come for one year, some for two,” says Jelle. “Many have got jobs and are leading good lives.”

Clearly, surfing has had a good impact on the children. “In the water, they meet many foreigners,” says Jelle. “They learn how to say hello and talk to them. Slowly, they are able to improve their English. Their behaviour also changes, for the good.”

And they also save lives. “Many times, tourists, who don't know swimming, get caught up in the rip currents and are swept out to sea,” says Jelle. “Thankfully, since the boys are surfing nearby, they are able to rescue them.”

Jelle came to Kovalam, in November, 2005, to do a three-month internship in social work for the Sebastian Indian Social Project, which is run by fellow Belgian Paul Van Gelder. The goal of the project is to improve the living standards people in Vizhinjam village and surrounding areas. “I stayed on and carried on doing similar work,” says Jelle.

On an average, Jelle spends four months a year, from December till April, in Kovalam. Thereafter, he returns to Bruges, (93 kms from Antwerp) where he runs a small hotel. The school is then run by manager Mani Sreekumar.

Asked what he likes about Kovalam, Jelle says, “I like the waves, but there is more waste now than waves. As for the people, they are nice, although there is a lot of gossip and jealousy. Nevertheless, it has been one of the most enriching experiences in my life.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Variety That Is India

Noted artist Orijit Sen's work, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, focuses on the extraordinary society in Punjab, the charms of the Charminar in Hyderabad, as well as the Mapusa market in Goa

Photos: By Albin Mathew. Orijit Sen in front of 'From Punjab With Love' and the Charminar exhibit

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, sometime ago, noted artist Orijit Sen's college-going daughter, Pakhi, came home after finishing her part-time job as an assistant at an art gallery in Delhi. When Orijit asked about her experience, she said, “I just have to follow people around and say, 'Don't touch, don't touch'.”

That sparked a thought in Orijit: 'Why can't I create an art work that encourages people to touch it?'” About this time, curator Sudarshan Shetty called Orijit up and invited him to be a participant at this year's Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

So, it was no surprise that Orijit's installation, called 'Going Playces', at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi, is an interactive exhibit. At the 30 ft. wide exhibit, 'From Punjab with Love', some pieces have been taken out and placed on a table. So you have to try and place it, at the right spot, on the painting. A magnet holds the piece in place.

Incidentally, this work is a smaller version of the 246-feet long mural, which is on display at the Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab. It is like a drone's eye-view of life in Punjab – farmers working in the fields, women washing clothes, children flying kites, and buffaloes wading into a pond.

In the next room, there is an acrylic cum goatskin work of the Charminar of Hyderabad. Orijit had been invited to the city by art collector Prshant Lahoti to set up a piece of public art. His research was a voyage of discovery into the soul of the city.

On the surface, Hyderabad is an aspirational IT centre, and often gets compared to Bangalore,” says Orijit. “It has lots of cars, flyovers and steel buildings. But as I started to dig deeper, I realised that this city has a history, unlike any of the so-called cosmopolitan cities, like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata, which are all colonial cities set up by the British.”

Hyderabad is much older. Golconda, under the Qutub Shahi kings (1512-1687) was the famous centre for diamonds. It attracted people from Central Asia, Turkey, Iran, and Africa.

All these people carried on living here and speak the Hyderabadi language,” says Orijit. “This is the real multi-culturalism. Most of us cling to our caste background, religion and are hesitant to trust our Muslim neighbour. But, in Hyderabad, there have been centuries of inter-mingling.” So Orijit is planning a public art installation incorporating these ideas.

At the Bienalle, on a table, in front of the Charminar, there is a puzzle that needs to be solved, again by placing pieces into different slots. But if you do solve it, the reward is that the Charminar lights up. The third installation is of the Mapusa market. This is one of Goa's famous old-style markets, set in the town of Mapusa in Northern Goa.

Meanwhile, as Orijit converses, while sitting, on a cement ledge, outside, a ten-year-old boy, Daniel Pinto, accompanied by his parents, comes up. “Uncle, I really enjoyed doing the puzzles,” says Daniel. 

A beatific smile spreads across Orijit's face. 

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Digital Is Everywhere

Urban planning expert Charles Landry talks about the impact of the digital world and the need for new spaces in cities, while on a recent visit to Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

At a hotel in Fort Kochi, the urban planning expert Charles Landry, from England, points at his friend, Vinu Jose, a director of the Qatar-based Synergy International, who is looking intently at his mobile screen. “Vinu is now working with his team in Doha,” says Charles. “So, he is in Fort Kochi physically, but mentally in Doha. He is an example of the new means of production.”

It is a strange world, says Charles, when the world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no taxis, when Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content, when and Airbnb, the world’s largest hotel chain, owns no hotels.

The digital world has created immense possibilities. But it can also overwhelm, because there are so many alternatives. “It reduces the attention span, and fragments the mind,” says Charles, who had come to Fort Kochi to give a talk at the Kochi Biennale. “We end up losing focus.”

This tendency to lose focus has already become evident in the West. So companies are taking action. The German car-maker Volkswagen has come up with a new rule. No manager or employee can access company e-mails or Whatsapp messages from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. “The management realised that their staff were not being efficient, because of endless distractions,” says Charles. “So, they felt a ban was the only way out.”

Meanwhile, this connectivity will change the way cities will operate. “Cities will need to have many more spaces, apart from the office or the home,” says Charles. “People will meet in clubs, hotels, bars, and parks, because that is where all the work will take place. Nobody needs the old-fashioned office. Why should I take a place and pay rent, when I can link up with everybody through my Wifi connection.”

Asked what a 21st century city will look like, Charles says, “One of the most important infrastructures is digital connectivity. There will be sensors everywhere. A smart city, in Amsterdam, will keep the lights switched off, at night, to save energy. But the moment a person is 100 metres away, from a road, the lights will start coming on.”

Meanwhile, in the couple of days he spent at Fort Kochi, he liked the town. “Fort Kochi has a historical weight,” he says. “Its strength lies in its international cosmopolitism. For hundreds of years the town has had connections with the outer world. There are very few places that are like that, probably cities like Amsterdam, London and New York. The question is: which part of Fort Kochi's history can be translated into the future?”

And then he gives an off-hand suggestion. “There are so many old and unused warehouses in Mattancherry,” he says. “Maybe, an eco-system for start-ups can be started there. It could become a creative hub.”

However, for a society to be creative, there should be freedom and openness. But, today, there are many regions in the world, like the USA, under President Donald Trump, Britain, through its Brexit vote, and Europe, with the rise of nationalistic forces, which are putting up barriers and opposing diversity.

However, it has been seen that most successful companies depend on staff which comes from diverse environments,” says Charles. “The number of Indians working in Google is very large. They have conversations with Italians and Australians and something good always comes out of that. Studies have shown that companies, which have diverse staff, tend to be more innovative. So, when a society puts up people barriers, it ends up in a creative stagnation.” 

Who is Charles Landry?

Charles Landry is best known for his books, 'The Creative City: A Toolkit for Urban Innovators', 'The Art of City Making' and 'The Intercultural City: Planning for Diversity Advantage'. The creative city has now become a global movement. The idea is to rethink the planning, development and management of cities. Prof. Landry is a Master of International Urban Creativity with The Beijing DeTao Masters Academy at Shanghai. 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thjiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Figurative Look At Life

Belgian artist Nico Vaerewijck is displaying his works at the Anubhuti Art Gallery in Jew Town

Photos: Nico Vaerewijck with Anubhuti gallery owner Helga Peeters; Nico in front of the painting of the carpet

Shevlin Sebastian

When Anubhuti art gallery owner Helga Peeters of Belgium invited compatriot Nico Vaerewijck to showcase his work at Jew Town, the latter was zapped. “I could not believe it,” says Nico. “An exhibition in India is not something that I ever imagined. I have been showing mostly in Germany, France and Belgium.”

And when Helga spoke about the Kochi Muziris Biennale, Nico was even more puzzled. He had never heard about it. So he immediately googled the art festival and checked out some images from the 2014 edition. He liked what he saw. What was heartening for Nico was the fact that fellow Belgian artist Hans Op de Beeck had taken part.

When Nico eventually visited the Biennale, recently, he was much impressed. “It's very professional and similar to the Biennale Interieur in Belgium,” he says. “But the Kochi Biennale is larger. The quality of the art works is so good. We don't see a lot of Indian and Pakistani artists in Europe, so it was an eye-opener to see their works.”

Nico also had a revelation at the Biennale. “I realised that art is universal,” he says. “At Kochi, I saw the European style, but it was done by an Indian artist, in an unique way.”

Nico has also produced something unique in his exhibition, too. His inspiration is viewing footage from old 8 or 16 mm films. Then he takes a printout of an image he likes. Using it as the start, he starts painting. Usually it ends up as an abstract or a figurative image, an oil on linen or canvas.

I always do a series,” he says. “The last series was called Reminiscences. As a middle-aged person, I began thinking about the past.”

One who served as a creative spur was his wife's 92-year-old grandfather, who lived in a house all by himself in a town called Sint-Niklaas. When Nico went visiting, he found the interiors very interesting. There were old artifacts, like a statue of a Chinese girl, and a small carpet on the floor.

People don't see these hand-made carpets in Belgium anymore,” says Nico. “Everything is machine-made. Unfortunately, the craftsmanship is no longer there. Products lack soul these days. It's always too perfect.”

So, Nico decided to do a six feet high painting, an oil on linen, of the carpet, which is displayed at Anubhuti. “You experience another dimension when you see a carpet on a wall,” says Nico. “When it is laid on the floor, people don't notice it all that much.”

Another painting is that of the German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97), playing the drums. “In America, he has a big reputation,” says Nico. “He was a musician, as well as a painter, who made large installations. This is a tribute. Even though Martin was a member of a punk band, he would always wear a tie and a suit. I saw this image in a small catalogue and enlarged it.”

Surprisingly, even though he is based in wealthy Europe, Nico is a part-time artiste. During the day, he works at the Antwerp port as a supervisor, but he ensures that he works on his art from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.

Yes, it is difficult to be a full-time artist,” says Nico. “Out of 100 artistes in Belgium, only 10 can live only by art. I have three children, a house to maintain, and many bills to pay.”

Nevertheless, Nico's works are selling steadily. “One day, I hope to be full-time artist,” he says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Searching For Equilibrium

In Sudha Menon's book, 'Devi, Diva or She-Devil - The Smart Career Woman's Survival Guide', women talk about how they try to balance marriage, motherhood and a career

Photos: Sudha Menon; the cover of the book 

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the end of 2010, Bollywood director Farah Khan released her film, 'Tees Maar Khan'. There were great expectations, since her earlier two films, 'Main Hoon Na' and 'Om Shanti Om' had been blockbusters. However, 'Tees Maar' became a flop. 

“I remember the day the first reviews came in and the nasty jokes started doing the rounds,” she says. “I locked myself in our house when I realised that even my friends were laughing behind my back, saying cruel things about me and the film.”

Her husband Shirish Kunder told Farah to switch off her phone and stay off Facebook and Twitter.

Eventually, Farah recovered from the fiasco by recalling what her mother-in-law once told her: “None of the folks who are laughing at you, have achieved what you have. Just be grateful for the many blessings you have.”

This is an anecdote from 'Devi, Diva or She-Devil - The Smart Career Woman's Survival Guide', written by the Pune-based author Sudha Menon.

A lucidly written book, it details the experiences of many achievers as they tackle marriage, motherhood and a busy career. The chapter headings gives an indication of how Sudha went about her task: 'Living Your Passion', 'Don't talk to my chest, I have a face', 'Ambition is not a bad word', and 'Dealing with mother's guilt'.

Talking about their lives are achievers like food writer Karen Anand, actor Lilette Dubey and international boxing champion Mary Kom.

But what was an eye-opener was the guilt that women felt as they became mothers, and continued with their careers. Says Mary: “Returning to the boxing ring after leaving my one-year-old twins back at home [in Manipur] was one of the most difficult phases of my life. I was torn between the pull of the ring and the wails of my babies, and so I drove my husband and family crazy by calling them repeatedly, to give them instructions on how to take care of my kids.”

Some took the decision to prioritise their child over their careers. “Having a child did slow me down, but I know my duty to nature is more important than my duty to my job,” says top professional Manisha Girotra. “There is a reason why a child calls for the mother and not the father when she is sick or in trouble.”

Or as another professional Aruna Jayanthi says, “In the corporate world, no one is indispensable, but in my daughter's life, I am irreplaceable.”

Another hidden problem is the ostracism of the career woman by the home-makers. A mid-level executive told Sudha that she leads a solitary life, even though she lives in a gated community. 

“One reason is because the [all-woman] activities like belly dancing and Zumba classes take place, either at 11 a.m. or 4 p.m., virtually barring anybody with a career from their inner circle,” writes Sudha. “When they socialise in the evenings, it is within their group.”

Meanwhile, since women wear so many hats at the same time, the key to survival is through delegating. ANZ Bengaluru Hub Managing Director Pankajam Sridevi says, “If you focus on all your seven or eight roles with the same precision, you will burn out and drop the ball. So, let go of trying to be the super wife and super mother.”

The book concludes with tips for working women. Businesswoman Devita Saraf says, “Find something to do that you are excited about, and work will never seem like a chore or a struggle.” As for scriptwriter Honey Irani, she says, “Who we become and what we do is all about self-belief.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Thursday, March 02, 2017

A Touch Of Paradise

'Kakkathuruthu', an island on the Vembanad lake in Kerala has hit the international spotlight when it was featured in the National Geographic story, 'Around The World In 24 Hours'

Photos: Marco and Valerie Ferrand of France. Pics by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

Marco and Valerie Ferrand of France lean back, while sitting on a boat, on 0a recent Wednesday evening. The scene is serene: On the Vembanad lake, 18 kms from Kochi, the water is placid. There is a deep silence, except for the soft sounds of the paddle used by boatman Shaji. The sun has set. But twilight is yet to come in. All around, there are small islands.

Last week, we were in the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai,” says Valerie. “It was so noisy, but fun: the drum beats, large crowds, and the joyful smiles on the faces. So, this is the perfect environment for my husband and I to recover.”

After an hour's ride, the boat returns to Kakkathuruthu (Island of crows). The place hit the international spotlight when it was featured in the National Geographic feature, 'Around The World in 24 hours': one exotic place is featured for every hour (See link: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/around-the-world-in-24-hours)

And for 6 p.m. National Geographic editor George W Stone wrote:
'Sunset in Kerala is greeted by a series of rituals. Here, on Kakkathuruthu, a tiny island in Kerala’s tangled backwaters, children leap into shallow pools. Women in saris head home in skiffs. Fishermen light lamps and cast nets into the lagoon. Bats swoop across the horizon snapping up moths. Shadows lengthen, the sky shifts from pale blue to sapphire, and the emerald-fringed 'island of crows' – the Malayalam name for this sandy spot along the Malabar coast – embraces night.'

In December, 2015, George had stayed, with a couple of friends, at the Kayal Island Retreat, at one end of Kakkathuruthu. “I had no idea George was going to write about the place,” says resort owner Maneesha Panicker. “But once the item appeared, [in October, 2016] it went viral.” And the resort has been house-full ever since.

Kakkathuruthu is similar to many islands in the area. There are numerous coconut trees, wildly growing grass and plants, and, in between, several small houses. Around 350 families or a total of a thousand people live on this 4 km long island, with a width of one km. “They are primarily fishermen, farmers and labourers,” says Shantha Panicker, Maneesha's mother.

There is a government ferry at one end. At the other end, there is a man who runs a boat privately. The charge is Rs 5 one way. “To go to school, hospital, see a film, or get provisions, they have to go to the mainland by boat,” says Shantha.

But the people don't mind. Sindhu Thirumeni, 38, a classical singer, says, “We like it here. There is no pollution, no crowds, no noise. And it is such a healthy place to live.”

And they eat healthy, too. At one side there is an organic farm. “And now, our island has become famous,” says a smiling Sindhu. “We feel good about it.” 

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

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Praising God In A New Way

Playback singer Franco Simon has brought out a Christian meditation album, 'Moran Amekh', in Sanskrit

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Every morning, in Orlando, USA, when Poulose Kuyiladan took his five-year-old autistic son, George, to school he faced a problem. “As soon as he got into the car, George jumped up and down,” says Paulose, a businessman. “Once he suddenly opened the door and ran out.”

But, inadvertently, one day, Paulose solved the problem. He placed a CD called 'Moran Amekh' in the car stereo. As the music grew in volume, George calmed down. Thereafter, Paulose has always played the CD. And things have been quiet ever since inside the car.

'Moran Amekh' is a Christian meditation album in Sanskrit. It has been produced by Indian playback singer Franco Simon, and will be formally launched in mid-January. Incidentally, the words, 'Moran Amekh', in the Aramaic language used by Jesus Christ, means, 'The Lord Be With You'.

Franco wanted to do an album in Sanskrit because there is a texture and divinity in the language. “This cannot be seen in any other language,” he says. “I can say this with certainty because I listen to a lot of world music.”

Initially, Franco faced the problem of getting somebody to write Christian lyrics in Sanskrit. After a four-year search, he came across retired Sanskrit professor Dr. K U Chacko who did the job.

Thereafter, Franco assembled a team of talented musicians. They included Franco's own uncle, the national award-winning Mollywood composer, Ousepachan (violin), Rajesh Cherthala (flute), Sandeep Anand (guitar), KJ Paulson (sitar), Dr. Bhavya Lakshmi (Carnatic violin), KO Gopi (shehnai), William Francis (keyboard), and Mithun Jayaraj (vocals).

In order to create a reverb effect (sound reflection capture), it was done at the Our Lady of Doloures Basilica in Thrissur. This is a Gothic structure, with a very high ceiling. “We worked through the night,” says Franco. Apart from the musicians, there was a group of singers who rendered a hypnotic chant.

“The orchestral tones contain theta waves and binaural beats,” says Franco. “This is a frequency where you feel most relaxed. So when listeners, who are stressed out and low in energy, listen to the songs they will calm down.”

On the album, there are eight songs, ranging in time from 10 to 30 minutes. “The first one, a wake-up song called 'Yesusuprabhatham', has a faster tempo,” says Franco. “The rest are slow and meditative.”

Incidentally, Franco has worked on meditative albums before. As a member of 'Band 7' a Hindi pop group, they brought out eight meditative albums for Cosmic Music, apart from a pop album called 'Yeh Zindagani'.

Meanwhile, he admits that this labour of love, which is available on YouTube, has burnt a hole in his pocket. “My parents, who live in the US, contributed a sizeable sum, apart from my brother,” he says. “But I have no regrets. I believe that as people get more and more stressed, there is an urgent need for meditative music. And this is my gift to the world.” 

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