Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Backbone Of Life

M. Santhamani's installation, 'Backbone', at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, resembles the spinal cord, and is a metaphor of the presence of the backbone in lives and societies

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram 

In early 2010, the Bangalore-based artist, M. Santhamani, embarked on a boat journey, down the Ganges, along with two other women friends. She wanted to understand better the relation between nature and human beings. The trio began at Allahabad and, for the next three months, they travelled steadily, till they reached the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, 800 kms away. On the way they keenly observed the life on the banks. And it was then that Santhamani had an epiphany.
Everything that we do on the banks of the Ganga is being enacted in our lives,” she says. “The journey gave an understanding of how people live and cope with this river, not only economically and physically, but mentally. Then I realised that the Ganga is a backbone of the country. So many rivers, like the Indus and Brahmaputra are the backbone of civilisations. Somewhere along, the concept of the backbone came up.”

So when she was invited to provide an art work for the Kochi Muziris Bienalle, Santhamani decided to make a backbone. At her studio in Bangalore, she used cinder and cement. Cinder is the waste material after coal is burnt. “It is hard and robust,” she says.

The end result, called 'Backbone', consists of 23 pieces. Each is shaped like a vertebrae, and has been placed on the ground, at the Aspinwall House, one after another, in the form of the spinal cord, with a length of 73 feet. “The actual spinal cord has 33 links,” says Santhamani. “But I did not want a too-obvious reference to the human backbone.”

In fact, when you look at the sculpture, you get a feeling of a flow, like that of the river, near the site. “Yes, I wanted to give a hint of the impact of water on Kerala's multiple cultures,” she says.

It is one of the more striking works at the Biennale. Many people come up and touch it. Some caress it. A few lean on it. A happy Santhamani says, “As an artist I don't want art to be only viewed. I want it to be part of your tactile experience.”

But not all agree. When a photo shoot is going on, with Santhamani leaning on a vertebrae, a volunteer, who does not realise that she is the artist, rushes up and admonishes her, “You are not supposed to touch it.” Santhamani smiles enigmatically.

Throughout her career, Santhamani has opted for unusual materials for her art, but her preoccupations have been charcoal and paper. “They come from different processes,” she says. “Wood is burnt to become charcoal, while the pulp of wood is grinded to make paper. Both are fragmented and fragile. So I felt that the material lends itself to talk about issues like global warming, which is leaving the planet in a fragile state.”

Her attraction to paper occurred when, in 1991, following her MA in painting from MS University in Baroda, she went to Glasgow and worked with Jacki Perry, one of Europe's foremost artist papermakers. When she returned she began sculpting things with paper.
I wanted to use delicate materials and talk about strengths,” she says. Santhamani placed photos, textiles, fibre and charcoal into the paper installations, which were at a height of 8 and 10 feet. “I just tried to push the scope of paper,” she says. “The Japanese can build a house with paper. So, we have no idea of how strong paper can be.”

Today, her work has been displayed at Miami, Paris, London, Tel Aviv and Singapore. Asked the difference in the audience reactions in the East and the West, Santhamani says, “The West embraces experimentation quickly. They give importance to what is new and want to look at the possibilities of whether they can take it further. We are slow in this aspect.” 

But the awareness of art is speeding up. At Fort Kochi, when she tells a tea-seller that she is an artist, he says, “Last year I could not make it to the Bienalle, but this year I want to make sure I see all the art works.” 

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

Monday, March 02, 2015

It's all About the Honey

Aleyamma Siby is the only woman bee-keeper in Kerala. Recently, she won the Stephen Memorial Award for the best bee-keeper

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

It is 9 p.m. Outside their house at Panathady in Kasaragod district in Kerala, Aleyamma and her husband Siby are hurriedly placing bee hives inside a van. Later, they climb in, and the van sets out towards the Coorg district in Karnataka, which is only 30 kms away. Once they reach there, they quickly place the hives, in 3 feet high stands, below trees, at a distance of three metres. “We have to do this before the sun comes up,” says Aleyamma. “Because, at sunbreak, the bees would want to come out in search of nectar and pollen. And if we keep the hives shut they will die of asphyxiation.”

Aleyamma is a breeder who practices migratory beekeeping. Once the honey is harvested at all the hives placed near her home, during the months of January to March, she moves off to Coorg and does bee farming there. “Somehow, the quality of the honey is far better,” she says.

But there is a reason for that. In Kerala, the major source of nectar is from the leaves of the rubber tree. “This is called unifloral honey,” says Dr. Stephen Devanesan, Principal Scientist, All India Coordinated Research Project on Honeybees and Pollinators, Kerala Agricultural University. “But in Coorg, the hives are placed in forests where there is diverse flora. So, the quality of this multi-floral honey is much better.”

However, the collection of honey is not an easy process. First the bees have to be warded off, using smoke. Then the honeycombs are removed from the hive. With the help of a honey extractor, the honey is taken out from the cells and stored in containers. All this has to happen in less than an hour, before the bees start stinging the person.

In the beginning the stings used to pain a lot and there would be a swelling,” says Aleyamma. “But now, although we get pain, there is no swelling. This is my bread and butter, so I have learnt to tolerate the aches.”

The biggest problem with honey is that it crystallises and ferments. To avoid this, Aleyammauses the double-boiling method. In this technique, she pours water into a large container. Then she places a smaller bowl, which contains honey, inside it, resting on three bricks. The bottom container is heated, so that the temperature inside the smaller bowl reaches 45 degrees centigrade. 

Then the honey is taken out, and put through a sieve, to get rid of wax particles, dust and pollen. Following this, it is reheated to 65 degrees centigrade for about 10 minutes. “After the honey cools, it is filtered,” says Aleyamma. “Once this is done, the honey will last for years, without going bad.”

Interestingly, Aleyamma is the only woman bee keeper in Kerala. Last year, she produced 40 tonnes, thanks to the 5000 colonies of Indian and Italian bees that she has.

And thanks to this high productivity, Aleyamma was recently awarded the Stephen Memorial Award for the best bee keeper of 2014 by the State Agriculture Minister KP Mohanan. This award has been instituted by the Federation of Indigenous Apiculturists.

To get a high productivity, Aleyamma depends a lot on the Tamil workers, who are experts at bee collection. “They are sincere, hard-working and not afraid of being stung,” she says.

Aleyamma also credits her success to a workshop which she attended. This was conducted by Devanesan, along with Dr. K. Prathapan, Director of the State Horticulture Mission. Says Devanesan: “I have imparted training to Aleyamma and other breeders on how to maintain the health of the bees, manage colonies, and do high-tech apiculture. Today, they are all doing well.”

Like most good things in life, Aleyamma came to bee-breeding by accident. When she got married and went to stay at her in-laws home in Thodupuzha, she saw bee hives for the first time in the backyard. In the mid-1990s, she and Siby decided to move to north Kerala to improve their economic prospects. They tried pepper farming and rubber cultivation. “It did not do well,” she says. “That was when I thought about bee farming. And now, here I am, the only woman in Kerala doing this work.” 

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

Sunday, March 01, 2015

The Enduring Superstar

Colleagues in Mollywood talk about their experiences of working with Mammooty

By Shevlin Sebastian

During the shoot of the Malayalam thriller, 'Munnariyippu', young actress Aparna Gopinath was on a fast. When superstar Mammooty came to know about it, one day, after lunch, he placed his hand under Aparna's nose and said, 'Chicken'. “Then he gave a hearty laugh because he knows I am a foodie,” says Aparna. “Mammooty Sir is a cool guy. He has the heart of a 18-year-old.”

He is also an intelligent person. “I call him a walking and talking encyclopaedia,” says Aparna. “You can discuss any subject with him. He has this knack of learning continuously. I am sure all the world knows that he is a gadget freak. He is always updating his devices.”

The main reason for his success in Mollywood is his fearlessness to go to the next level. “So, he takes on all sorts of roles,” says Aparna. "Sometimes, the films do well, and, sometimes, they don't. Most of us are scared to try experimental roles. We feel that if we take a risk, we might not last in the industry. But Mammooty Sir went beyond that thinking very early in his career.”

Asked the reasons for his enduring popularity, Aparna says, “He always puts in an immense amount of hard work for every role that he plays.”

In 'Munnariyippu', in which he plays a prisoner, there were many discussions with the director Venu, scriptwriter Unni and Aparna, who plays a freelance journalist, to understand the motivations of the character.

Mammooty Sir has the capability of looking at a film from the point of view of the audience, the actor as well as the camera,” says Aparna. “To be able to have a three-pronged point of view has enabled him to remain on top.”

The actor-director Joy Mathew agrees. “Mammooty knows where the camera is all the time,” he says. “He knows everything on the technical side. The type of lenses that are used: wide-angle, zoom, and high speed. And he knows where to stand and give his dialogues.”

When Joy was doing a fight sequence with Mammooty in the film, 'Rajadhi Raja', it was the superstar who showed Joy how to block a hit and shift the gun from one hand to the other. “You can clear any doubt with him,” says Joy. “In fact, he feels happy to do so. And this is not only about acting. If you want to know the meaning of some Malayalam word, or discuss art, literature or politics, he is ready to do so.”

In essence, Joy says, Mammooty has a heart. “Whenever he has home-made food, he will always invite people to share it with him,” says Joy. “It is a sign of humanity. You can share your liquor with friends, but the sharing of food is rare.”

However, like most people, Mammooty has lapses of temper. But Joy does not get upset by it. “An artist is always disturbed,” says Joy. “All good artistes are like that. Take the case of John Abraham [the late Malayalam film director], Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh. It is because of inner disturbances that great art and acting are born.”

Asked why Mammooty has been able to remain on top for three decades, Joy says, “You have to be committed if you want to do well in your profession. And Mammooty is very committed. He is punctual on the sets and can shoot till 3 a.m., without voicing any complaint. His hunger and passion for acting has remained undimmed, despite so many years of success. He told me one day, 'Why don't you write and direct a film for me?'”

Not many people know that Mammooty has given opportunities to many writers, as well as associate directors, to become directors. “Director Lal Jose got his first break in 'Oru Maravathoor Kanavu' (1998) in which Mammooty was the hero,” says actor Jagadish, who has known the stalwart for three decades. “Aashiq Abu's first film, 'Daddy Cool', (2009) also had Mammooty as the hero. When he feels somebody has calibre, Mammooty will say, 'Why don't you direct? I will give you the dates.'

As he remains focused on his career, Mammooty keeps an eye on the other aspects of life. “He follows a careful diet,” says Jagadish. “Mammooty will avoid fried eggs. On rare occasions, he will have red meat.”

He is also religious. “On Fridays, whereever he is, no matter how hectic is the shooting, he will go to a nearby mosque to pray,” says Jagadish. “He keeps track of what is happening in the lives of his colleagues. When my children became doctors he complimented me. That is an admirable trait in him.”

Jagadish smiles and says, “He also has a hidden trait: he likes to drive very fast. But I would not call it rash driving.”

In the film, 'Inspector Balram', there was a car chase. Jagadish acted as the police driver Sudhakaran. But in one particular scene, Circle Inspector Balram, played by Mammooty, pushed Jagadish aside and took the driver's seat. They were chasing a man who had a bomb.

He drove with tremendous speed,” says Jagadish. “I was terrified. If you look at the scene, there is real fear on my face. I felt that at any moment we would have an accident.”

Asked whether the presence of Mohanlal has enabled Mammooty to remain on his toes, Jagadish agrees. “There is a healthy competition between them,” he says. “This has enabled Mammooty to remain in the race.”

But, despite a long and glorious career, Mammooty has a few regrets. “Once he told me that had he been a Bollywood actor he would have got worldwide fame and a far higher remuneration,” says Jagadish. “Instead, he is confined to a small industry in Kerala. When it comes to talent, both Mohanlal and himself could have shone in Bollywood, if they had been Hindi-speaking actors.” 

(This was an input for a cover story on enduring superstars in the Sunday magazine of the New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

One Hundred Years Of Joy

The Cochin Club celebrated its centenary recently. Today, with more than 250 members, it is still going strong

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photos: The main Club house; a card game in progress; watchman Varghese Kulangara. Pics by Ratheesh Sundaram

It is a sunny and sultry February afternoon. In the library of the Cochin Club, a group of elderly women are playing cards. Thanks to the high wooden ceiling, there is a coolness inside. Asked how often they play cards, Susheela Johar says, “Eight days a week.”All the women break into laughter. But they have a fixed routine. They come at 2 p.m. And play till 6 p.m. On some days, they play rummy. On other days, it is bridge.

Most of them have been members for years. “In fact, I have been a member for 53 years,”says Beena Joseph. Mary Jose Mooken says, “I have been here for 45 years.”

On February 14, the club celebrated its centenary. During the festivities, there were cricket and football matches, a beer-drinking competition, a treasure hunt, and it ended at night with a concert by singer Usha Uthup, followed by a fireworks display and a sumptuous dinner.

For many years, of its history, the club was the exclusive preserve of the Europeans. So exclusive was the privilege that even Sir Robert Bristow, the chief engineer of the Cochin Port, was denied membership because his wife Gertrude was not fully British. Apparently, she had a Belgian Jewish strain in her ancestry. Humiliated by this rebuff, the Bristows set up the Lotus Club in mainland Ernakulam.

One living witness of the past is gate watchman Varghese Kulangara, 84. In 1940, Varghese had worked as a ballboy at the club. “My father, who worked at Aspinwall Company, died and I was given this job,” says Varghese. “There were nine ballboys. We were paid Rs 5 a month. Many times, we received tips also.”

However, a few years later, Varghese left and joined a company on Willingdon Island. After he retired, in 1990, he was re-hired as a watchman at the club.

Another long-time employee was head waiter Manu who passed away many years ago. But he had remembered the momentous day of August 14, 1947, vividly. Many members were present at midnight, in their black suits and ties, to listen to the radio. 

And when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially,” everybody heard the speech in silence. “Soon, I saw [BS] Holloway Sir, the then president, shedding tears,” said Manu, as recollected by veteran member NK Shashi who added, “It was at that moment that the life of country club garden parties, with ladies in sweeping gowns and wide-rimmed hats, an array of domestic servants, and a pompous lifestyle came to an end.”

However, it was only in 1954 that Pixie Iyenger of Madura Coats became the first Indian to be admitted, followed by DK Mukherjee of James Finlay. The first Indian president was Justice Govindan Nair, who assumed the post in 1963.

Today, there are more than 250 members. And the children of these members have fond memories, too. “I felt that the entire three-and-a-half acres was my home,” says Diya Mathew, a mother of three. “We had at our disposal, a large playground with swings, see-saws and a slide, an expansive lawn, a library with great children's books and bearers that made the best lime soda.”

But what Diya liked the best was Christmas Day. “I have seen Santa emerge from the roof, arrive in a fancy car, an auto, a cycle rickshaw, and pulled by a horse,” she says. “But before our time, Santa was even more sophisticated. He once arrived by boat, and, hold your breath, even by helicopter!”

Hold your breath again, because the club has one celebrity who is a long-time member. She is none other than Usha Uthup. “I had stars in my eyes and a heart full of love the first time I entered the club, the great big happening place of Kerala, in 1969,” she says. “Everything about the club was magical. The walls of the clubs and the lawns have seen and nurtured so many relationships, so many joys and so many tragedies, so many glasses of alcohol, so many fights, tears, parties and amazing guests. The place is still magical to me.”

Yes, indeed, it is a magical place. There is a manicured lawn, a main club house, a children's playing area, an indoor badminton and squash court, two tennis courts, billiards tables, a well-stocked library, with books by Winston Churchill, Eric Newby and Agatha Christie, among many others, a Blue Room where parties take place, as well as a bistro where coffee, tea and snacks are served.

At the back, there are charming suites and deluxe rooms, with high ceilings and wooden floors, which are used by members and guests alike for overnight stays.

On the walls, there are paintings of the many landmark buildings of Fort Kochi, crests and coats of arms presented by visiting British and Commonwealth ships, as well as photographs of long-deceased members.

The Cochin Club is deserving case for inclusion in the list of Protected Heritage Monuments compiled by the Archaeological Survey of India,says Shashi.

But modernity is also calling. “We are the in process of making the club a specialty restaurant destination,”says President Abraham Tharakan. “So there will be a Pan-Asian fine dining restaurant, a tapas bar and a Swiss coffee shop.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Long-Distance Love

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Sureka talks about life with the athlete Renjith Maheswari

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sureka photo by Ajesh Madhav

At an athletics training camp, at New Delhi, in 2005, triple jumper Renjith Maheswari approached pole vaulter VS Sureka and said, with a smile, “Do you know me?”

Sureka nodded and said, “Aren't you Renjith?”

In that camp, they were the only two Malayalis present, so, naturally, they became friendly.

In 2006, both were selected to represent India in the Asian Games at Doha. While there, they used to have their meals together at the Games Village, and saw all the competitions, sitting side by side. “It was at Doha that our feelings for each other became stronger,” says Sureka. “But when Renjith missed the bronze medal by 2 centimetres [to Kim Deok-Hyeon of South Korea], he teased me by saying he got distracted by moving around with me.” Incidentally, Sureka finished fifth in her event.

Later, during an Inter-State athletics competition at Bhopal, Renjith proposed marriage. Sureka accepted and, on September 21, 2006, she called her Chennai-based parents and informed them. “My parents did not say yes, because it was a love marriage,” says Sureka. “They said that since I had grown up in Chennai it would be difficult for me to adjust to somebody who came from Kottayam. On the other hand, Renjith's parents told him that I was a city girl and would find it hard to adjust to life in a small town.”

However, both stood firm, and the engagement took place on November 8, 2007. But it took another one-and-a-half years, because of various athletic competitions, for them to tie the knot. It took place on April 15, 2009, at Kottayam.

For Sureka her unforgettable moment happened a day before the marriage.  Sureka's family had rented a house. The couple were told they could not meet or have meals with each other before tying the knot. But, at night, Renjith called Sureka on the phone. Then he came to the back of the house, and gave a packet, which contained food, to Sureka, without anybody knowing.

Unfortunately, they could not go for a honeymoon. Instead, Renjith and Sureka had to attend a training camp at Patiala. “Even though we were married, according to camp rules, we had to stay separately,” she says.

And that has been the case all these years. The couple have rarely spent time together. Renjith is usually in Bangalore, while Sureka trains in Delhi. But the good news is that all this intense training has been bearing fruit. At the National Games, held at Thiruvanathapuram recently, both won gold medals in their respective events.

But Sureka's happiest moment occurred, when Renjith won the bronze medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. She was pregnant, and was at home in Chennai. So she watched the event on TV. Just before he left his room for the competition, Renjith called up Sureka. “I said, 'Go all out and do your best',” says Sureka. “And he did. He crossed 17 metres and set a new national record, too. So, I felt very happy for him. ”

And Renjith became ecstatic when Sureka gave birth to a daughter. “In fact, Renjith was crying when he held the baby in his arms,” says Sureka. Today, Jhiya is four-and-a-half-years-old and she stays with Sureka's parents in Chennai. “My daughter misses me a lot, but she is aware that I am away because of my training,” says Sureka. “She always tells me, 'Amma get a gold medal'.”

But Sureka admits that she does suffer from guilt, at times, because she is not a hands-on mother. “But when I see how nicely my dad and mom are taking care of her, I feel glad,” she says. The one drawback is that both Renjith and Sureka are unable to be strict with their daughter, since they see her so rarely. “And my parents are equally soft with her,” says Sureka. “So, in the end, nobody is strict with Jhiya. I feel a bit worried about this, because she might get spoiled.”

When Renjith and Sureka are in Chennai together, they will have breakfast at home, before they spend the entire day outside, along with Jhiya, usually in the malls, watching films and eating outside. “We tend to reach home late,” says Sureka.

Asked to list her husband's plus points, Sureka says, “Renjith is very loving. If we have a fight, within a day he will say sorry and make up. He is very close to me and our daughter. He will call me three to four times a day to keep track of what I am doing. So I don't miss him much, because we are always talking on the phone.”

Renjith is also very religious-minded. “Every morning and evening, he spends one hour in prayer, reciting shlokas, alone in a room,” says Sureka. “And whenever he gets time he goes to pray at a nearby temple.”

As for his negative attributes, Sureka says that Renjith can get angry all of a sudden. And it may be over trivial matters. “He is also very frank and says things straight to the face,” she says. “That can upset a few people. But I don't have any problems with that. I am very much in love with Renjith, and feel very happy when I am with him.”

As for tips for a successful marriage, Sureka says, “Don't argue with your spouse. Because then both will get angry and it will lead to a fight. But the best way is to closely observe a marriage which is doing well.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cooking up a storm in Macau

The Kerala-origin chef, Justin Paul, of the Golden Peacock, was instrumental for it to get the first Michelin star for Indian Restaurants in Asia

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Justin Paul; the interior of the Golden Peacock; Assam Tea Chocolate, Sandalwood Icecream and Coconut Lychee Mousse

Chef Justin Paul had one the busiest times during the Christmas week last year. This was at the Golden Peacock restaurant of the Venetian Macau hotel. There were 650 people from a leading company of India who had come to stay for five days. Justin's brief: he had to provide top-class Indian food for all these people, with the help of his team. And, one day, he cooked up a storm: 15 starters, 75 dishes, and 40 desserts. “We were working day and night,” he says.

And thanks to the hard work of the entire team, the Golden Peacock has a high reputation. It is the first Indian restaurant in Asia to get a Michelin one-star rating (this is for the food only). “We initially got it in 2014 and won it again this year,” says Justin, with a smile.

Two Michelin inspectors came, like ordinary customers, and tasted most of the dishes. “It was only the next day that they revealed they are from Michelin,” says Justin “But they never gave us their names. They asked a lot of questions about the ingredients and other details, like where did we get the produce from.”

In fact, the restaurant gets its stuff from all over the world. Ducks are imported from France, tomato, cucumber and capsicum from Australia, lamb shanks from New Zealand, chicken from Brazil, okra from Thailand, edible flowers from Japan and cress, which is a form of edible herb, from Holland. “But all Indian spices are from Kochi,” says Justin.

One of the most popular dishes is the dal sonamor, which is a black lentil. “We soak the dal for six hours,” says Justin. “Then we will put this dal, mixed with tomato puree, fresh cream and butter, in a slowly heating tandoor overnight. The next morning, the dal is perfect.”

Some of the other dishes include the Kandari Murgh Tikka, which is skewered and roasted over a charcoal fire. It is an organic chicken boiled with baby beetroots and served with pomegranate. Then there is the Goa-style Scallop Ambot Tik, which is a pan-fried Scottish scallops, served on top of a spicy tomato jam.

A popular dish is the Dal Sath Nizam. This is made of seven types of lentils, pink onions, royal cumins and tomatoes. Desserts include the Assam Tea Chocolate, Sandalwood Ice Cream and Coconut Lychee Mousse.

To help Justin, he has a team from all over India. They include Mohammed Khalim (Lucknow), Raju Lankapalli (Hyderabad), Binu Baby (Thiruvananthapuram) Deepak Singh (Rishikesh), and Shyamal Kumar Prodhan (Kolkata).

Justin, on the other hand, grew up in Chalakudy in Kerala and had stints in the Leela in Mumbai and Goa, the Marriot in Goa, the Jashan, Hyatt Regency and the Veda restaurant in Hongkong, before he joined the Golden Peacock in June, 2007.

Incidentally, most of the patrons are from India, but they come mostly during the vacation months of April to July in north and south India. Many Chinese also come for the first time to try Indian food. “They tell me that they thought Indian food consisted of only gravy,” says Justin. “But when they experience our variety and style, with less spices, they like it a lot. We have many repeat customers.” And there are also foreigners from America, Japan, Spain, Germany and Britain.

One notable foreigner was former British footballer David Beckham, who is a business partner of the Venetian Macau. “David wanted small portions of several items,” says Justin.

So he was given the lamb rogan josh, mango prawn curry, chicken tikka masala, bhindi bhujiya, dal tadka, rice and nan in small bowls. “After the meal, he told me that he often eats Indian food in London, but this was the best that he had,” says Justin.

Another celebrity guest was Bollywood star Nana Patekar. “Nana loves cooking,” says Justin. “So he came into the kitchen and helped me in the cooking of the prawn curry. The people of Maharashtra like hot curries, so I had to put in a lot of spices.”

And the patrons are happy. The Bangalore-based Amit G says, “If you want Indian food this does not get better. Chef Justin Paul has more India here than some parts of India. Take it from me!” 

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

Thursday, February 19, 2015

All Types Of Voices

Visitors from outside the state and the country talk about their impressions of the Kochi Muziris Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Ajna Laville; Daniel and Monique Schuh; (from left) Elizabeth Sowmya, artist Gigi Scaria and Cilara Jacob. Pics by Ratheesh Sundaram

The slim and serious-looking Ajna Laville listens raptly to a media interview of Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator of Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Art. Ajna is a research assistant, as well as a guide, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale. So when visitors come to the art festival, Ajna takes them around and ensures that they see all the sites. “There are 69 artists at Aspinwall House,” she says. “It takes about two-and-a-half hours to see all the works.”

Interestingly, Ajna never gets tired of seeing the exhibits. “Every time I get a different perspective, thanks to the people I accompany,” she says. “They find new interpretations which I had not observed earlier.”

Ajna, incidentally, is of mixed origin. Her Thiruvananthapuram-based father N. Rajendran is a Malayali, while her mother, Maryse, a Kathakali dancer, is from France.

Like her mother, Ajna is also interested in art. She has just completed a six-year course in the History of Art and Animation at the State Institute of Art in Urbino, Italy. Once the Biennale is over, on March 29, she is planning to go abroad for further studies in art.

Standing nearby are the French couple, Daniel and Monique Schuh, who have seen both editions. "The first time is always more exciting and amazing,” says Daniel, a retired physician. “However, in this edition, I have been disappointed with the many video installations, especially the one where an American speaks in English, without subtitles, for more than 10 minutes. It was a boring and uncreative performance.”

But yoga teacher Monique did like a few works. One was a video installation of artist Neha Choksi called 'Iceboat'. “It is a moving meditation on global warming, as well as a reflection on life itself,” says Monique. “I visualised the boat as our own life in which we need to row constantly in order to stay afloat and move forward. We are rowing to meet death which is inevitable at the end of one's life. It is almost like we are rowing steadily only to meet Death....or is there something beyond? The lady in the video was beautiful and looked like a queen.”  

The other work which Monique enjoyed was called ‘Bubblegum God’ by Goa-based artist Subodh Kerkar at the collateral show called ‘Janela’. Inspired by Moia sculptures from the Chilean Polynesian islands, it was created by Subodh using an old catamaran from Thiruvananthapuram and a bubblegum from the US. “It is a satirical depiction of the human race's journey, from the Inca valley to the Bubble Gum civilisation," says Monique.

Meanwhile, the Bangalore-based advertising professional Cilara Jacob sits on the ground at the back of Pepper House, and stares mesmerised at Gigi Scaria's 'Chronicle of the Shores Foretold'. This is a large stainless steel bell, which hangs on a grilled iron structure, and sprouts jets of water through various holes.

Art and nature have combined so well, with the Arabian Sea as the backdrop,” says Cilara. “And this continuous movement of water, through the holes in the bell, signifies life. Art is part of nature. The blending has been done so well by the artist.”

When she is informed that Gigi is present, she gets up and rushes to meet the artist. Then she takes an autograph and gets herself photographed with a smiling Gigi, by her friend Elizabeth Sowmya.

A freelance journalist, Elizabeth is also enjoying the Biennale. “Compared to the first, the scale is bigger this time,” says Elizabeth. “It has heightened my artistic sensibility. And the Aspinwall House is such a unique place to have an arts festival.”

The Mumbai-based Smriti Nevatia leans against a wall of the Pepper House and stares intensely at the bell. She is a curator of the film festival, 'Our Lives to Live', which is sponsored by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television.

Today is my fourth and last day,” she says. “Before I left for the airport I wanted to revisit the bell. I am enjoying the sight of the small boats, and the bigger ships passing by, and this bell on the edge of the water. It has made a deep impact on me. It makes you very appreciative of the kind of space this is. I have fallen in love with Pepper House. It is so beautiful. The way the works have brought alive the colonial and local histories is so stunning.”

Later, as she sips a cup of coffee, a smiling Smriti says, “This Biennale is fabulous. I have had an enriching time.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

High And Low Notes

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Habeesa talks about life with the ghazal singer Umbayee

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

Four days after her marriage to ghazal singer Umbayee, on May 8, 1977, Habeesa got the shock of her life. At 2 a.m., there was a knock on the door, and three people dragged a dazed Umbayee into the house at Fort Kochi. His eyes were bloodshot and there was a strong smell of alcohol on his breath. Umbayee was placed on a bed and his friends left. After a while, he moaned and then vomited. Habeesa spent the rest of the night cleaning up and crying. “Nobody had told my father, when the marriage proposal came, that Umbayee was an alcoholic,” says Habeesa.

Within a few years of the marriage, three children were born: Shailaja, Sabitha and Sameer. Although Umbayee gave money to run the household, it was not enough. He was using most of his income, as a tabla player, for drinks. So Habeesa bought a sewing machine and became a tailor.

During the day I would stitch the clothes,” she says. “At night, I would sew the buttons. Umbayee would always come late, long after the children had gone to sleep. He would be so drunk, often he would lean on the door. So when I opened it, he would fall to the floor. Then I had to lift him up. Every time he became sober, he would promise that he will not drink again. But he was unable to stop.”

After eight years of this agony, Habeesa begged Umbayee that they should split up. “I told him I cannot take it anymore,” she says. “I will manage on my own, and look after the children.”

Around this time, one morning, Umbayee walked past the Fatima Girls High School at Fort Kochi. The next day, his daughter Shailaja said, “Bapa, did you go in front of the school yesterday?”

Umbayee shook his head. “My friends said that you were drunk and were swaying from side to side,” said Shailaja. That sentence pierced Umbayee's heart.

He decided to stop drinking,” says Habeesa. “Umbayee feared for the children's future if he died suddenly.” And he held on to his resolve and became clean. But he had to go through withdrawal symptoms, like cold turkey, and even a bout of jaundice. “But ever since that time, he has not touched a drop,” says Habeesa.

Umbayee began to concentrate on his ghazal singing. And he would sing regularly at a restaurant on MG Road in Kochi in the 1980s. One night he sang Ghulam Ali's ghazal, 'Chupke, chupke'. One North Indian patron was so amazed that a Malayali could sing this song so well that he came forward and showered Rs 5000 in Rs 50 bundles on Umbayee.

The singer was stunned. This was the first time somebody had done something like this. He immediately gave Rs 1000 to the tabla player. “When he came home, he told me that we were going for an outing the next day,” says Habeesa. “And that was how, for the first time in our lives, we went to the Athirapilly waterfalls in a tourist taxi and had a good time.”

This was a rare good moment. For many years, a struggling Umbayee went through many embarrassing moments. “I remember in the early years, when we would go shopping, Umbayee would only set aside Rs 400,” says Habeesa. “My second daughter would not know about this. She would ask for a dress which would cost Rs 500 and my elder daughter would shake her head sternly. Umbayee would feel bad when he saw this.”

But now to make up for all those years of deprivation, Umbayee sends the entire family to the best shops in Kochi and tells them to buy whatever they want. “And when we do that, he looks upwards and thanks God,” says Habeesa. “He has also taken us for numerous holidays, as soon as he began to earn well.”

And in December, 2014, Habeesa went for her first trip abroad, along with a relative, to attend the Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. “I could not imagine even in my dreams that one day I will be able to travel outside the country,” says Habeesa. “After I returned my husband told me that my behaviour had changed. I had become more tolerant and soft. So, he is very happy and promised me that he would send me every year.”

Interestingly, despite living with a noted ghazal singer, Habeesa has only seen one performance of Umbayee. This happened ten years ago, at Koyilandy. “When I see him on stage, I get very anxious,” she says. “I want the programme to go through nicely, with the audience appreciating him. So I cannot enjoy the music, because I am praying all the time. So my husband told me that it is better I stay away. I am also worried that as he grows older, the physical strain is growing. It is not easy to do a two-hour performance. So, Umbayee is doing a lot of yoga and daily walks to stay fit.”

As for tips for a successful marriage, Habeesa says, “Both spouses should show patience. Otherwise, you will end up fighting a lot. Don't have too many expectations. Whatever is the husband's income, you must learn to live within that. A woman should look after her husband and he should do the same to her. That is the way the marriage will move forward." 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Joy of Art

The London-based Vanessa Branson was instrumental in setting up the Marrakesh Biennale. The sister of billionaire Richard Branson was in Kochi recently to see the Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Vanessa by Ratheesh Sundaram; Vanessa with Kochi Muziris Biennale Curator Jitish Kallat; an image from the Marrakesh Biennale

In December 1998, the billionaire Richard Branson was in Marrakesh, Morocco, to try to make a hot-air balloon crossing across the Atlantic Ocean. His sister, Vanessa, had gone along to offer moral support. But bad weather was delaying the departure.

This gave Vanessa the opportunity to see the country. “It is a very special place,” she says. “And there are many things in common with India. In both countries, there is an openness among the people and a contrast between the ancient and the contemporary. And there are beautiful colours everywhere.”

Somewhere along the way, Vanessa began an arts festival in Marrakesh, which later became a Biennale, the first trilingual (English, Arabic and French) in Africa. And the inspiration behind it was none other than former US President George Bush.

One morning, in 2004, when Vanessa was listening to the Today show on the BBC, in London, Bush said, “You are either with us or against us.” That was a tipping point for Vanessa. “I felt there should be an arts event to highlight all that is common to mankind,” she says. “That was how the arts festival, which includes films and literature, was born at Marrakesh.”

Many world-renowned artists took part, including Whalid Raad, Francis Alys and the actor Richard E Grant. Richard had made an autobiographical film of his childhood, in Swaziland, called 'The Wah Wah Diaries'. On the day of the screening, Vanessa called Richard up and said, “Have you got a copy with French subtitles?' Richard said, “Goodness no, we have not distributed it in France, so there are no subtitles.”

The rule was that films should be screened in three languages. Vanessa went into the town square, feeling desperate. And right there, on a horse and cart, a man was selling a pirated version of the film, with French subtitles. “So we used that version,” she says, with a laugh.

And the people of Morocco have been responding positively. “There is a great awareness among the people about aesthetic beauty,” says Vanessa. “But there is no opportunity for them to see art. Till recently, there were no museums in Morocco. It has been a slow whetting of curiosity. There are a lot of street performances, as it is there in India. Everything is new to the people but they are intensely curious.”

And the country is happy with her contribution. In October, 2014, Vanessa was made an Officer of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite by King Mohammed VI during the inaugural ceremony of the Museum for Modern and Contemporary Art in Rabat. “The king said, 'Our country is grateful for what you have been doing',” says Vanessa.

She had recently come to the Kochi Muziris Biennale to give a talk as well as look at the exhibits. “This is an extraordinary art event,” says Vanessa. “In 2017, the Kochi Biennale will be established on the international art world map. I have no doubts about it. It is a wonderful place to visit. The reason why I love going to Biennales is because you are introduced to artistes you have never heard of before.”

When asked to psycho-analyse artists, whom she meets all the time, Vanessa says, “It takes a sort of obsession to be an artist. They have something within that is special. Art is number one in their life. The wives and children have to bear this passion. If you are an artist and have an idea of creating a giant vertebra [pointing to Indian artist M. Shantamani's exhibit, 'Backbone', lying in the garden of the Aspinwall House], you need to have an extraordinary self-confidence. That is the only way you can take an abstract idea and make it a reality. All good artists have this innate confidence.”

Her favourite artist is William Kentridge, who is represented in the Kochi Biennale. “He is one of the most profound and interesting artists working in the world today,” she says. “His focus and dedication and the way he has moved his career forward are so exciting to see.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa says that Kochi and Marrakesh have similarities. “Both do not have an arts infrastructure,” she says. “They have their own charm and a deep cultural heritage. They are both ripe for making some extraordinary leaps into the future, with some great ideas. The Biennale will have an impact on the local people over a period of time and that will make them stimulated and curious. And when students come, they will feel inspired to try and do something in their schools.”

Finally, when asked about the impact of Richard, her elder brother by ten years, Vanessa smiles and says, “He has influenced me a lot. Sometimes, siblings influence you more than your parents. Richard is a larger-than-life personality and very encouraging and supportive. He has a good sense of humour. And he always tells me that I must not take anything too seriously. You have to enjoy what you are doing. And then other people will also enjoy it.” 

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

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Maizie Cool

The Boney M band, featuring Maizie Williams, is in Kochi 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Maizie Williams, the lead singer of the Boney M band, has one regret. When her band members went on a boat trip, near Kochi, she was stuck on land, doing media interviews. “They told me they had a wonderful time,” says Maizie.

Yes, indeed, the band is having a wonderful time in Kochi. “The people are so humble and nice and have been treating us so well,” says Maizie. “The place is also so beautiful. The palm and coconut trees and all the greenery reminds me of my home town – the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean.”

And she has been delving into the local cuisine, “I love the dal curry a lot,” she says. “In fact, I am enjoying having all types of spicy food.” The band members have been to Fort Kochi, visited temples and enjoyed a beach-side barbeque.

Maizie has been amazed that people love Boney M songs, especially the new generation. “It is overwhelming,” she says. “My heart is filled with gratitude when I see all the young fans. And I am thinking, 'Wow, 40 years later, and the songs are still popular.'”

Asked the reason why, Maizie says, “I feel that God laid his hands on us when we were recording the songs. Another reason is that the melodies are so good. The lyrics are simple, clean and family-oriented. So, children and grandparents can listen and dance along.”

About her favourite Boney M song, Maizie says, “It's none other than 'By The Rivers of Babylon'. I love the spiritual vibe of that song. It touches my heart every time I sing it. And, always, all the hands of the audience will go up, as they sway to the music.”

And this seasoned performer, with more than four decades of experience, still gets butterflies in her stomach before a show. “But once I step on stage, I forget about it, because I am so keen to deliver a good performance.”

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi)