Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Most Interesting People in The World

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 25 years of meeting celebrities, from many walks of life, one thing has become clear: the most interesting people are artistes. They are flamboyant, charismatic, and mesmerising. When they speak, with their animated faces and expressive gestures, it is difficult to tear oneself away from them.

Why is this so? I believe it is because they forge their own paths in life. They don't follow anybody. Nor do they have a hierarchy to climb. They create innovative works, thanks to a rich inner life.

And in this worldwide climate of intense religious fundamentalism, it is so heartening to know that many of them are liberals. They know that beneath the differences of caste, religion and nationality, all people have the same fears, anxieties, vulnerabilities and the eternal desire to love and to be loved.

So, it is with a heavy heart that one realises that the second edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale is coming to a close on March 29. So many artistes, curators, collectors, eminent people, and art lovers had come from all over the world to see it. Not all works were uniformly liked. Perhaps the most popular were Anish Kapoor's 'Descension', Gigi Scaria's 'Chronicle of the Shores Foretold', NS Harsha's 'Again Birth, Again Death', and Neha Choksi's video installation on global warming called 'Iceboat'.

The star, undoubtedly, was the sixty-something Anish Kapoor. He wore a crisp white shirt and jeans, and squired around his so-very-young girlfriend – the envy of quite a few middle-aged guys. Known to be short-tempered, he kept his cool as a BBC television interview took a long time to get underway, at Aspinwall House. The interviewer, a pretty woman, of Chinese origin, with bright red lips, looked so flustered at the delay that Anish could only give a look of sympathy.

And how can one forget the sight of Biennale founder Bose Krishnamachari standing under a tree, and speaking non-stop for 45 minutes about the event to 30 new entrants to the Indian Administrative Service? His passion and excitement for art was so evident on his face.

Then there was the European artist who, while giving an interview, was mightily distracted by a young foreign woman, in a black top and slacks, who was viewing his work. He was dying for the media interaction to come to an abrupt end, so that he could talk to her. Thankfully, the journalist obliged, because he understood a basic concept: how can a brain give logical answers when hormones are raging wildly?

Then there was the sight of the lissome Vanessa Branson, curator of the Marrakesh Biennale, and sister of billionaire businessman Richard Branson. Throughout the interaction, she kept on her sunglasses. But when the photographer requested her to take it off, she obliged, only to reveal a right eye that was swollen red – a possible victim of conjunctivitis. “I am so sorry,” she told the lensman. “But this has been with me for a couple of days.”

Finally, many thanks to the auto-rickshaw drivers at Fort Kochi. Before we get in, we would invariably say, “Please don't fleece us. We are local people. We can't pay the jacked-up rates.” Many took it in a sporting manner, and allowed us to pay the usual fare. It's called the mellowing effect of art.

(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India) 

Friday, March 27, 2015

A Helping Hand




Dr. Warren Breidenbach and Dr. Vijay Gorantla, the leaders in hand-transplant surgery, talk about their work and the first hand transplant in India which took place recently at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: (From left): Dr. Vijay Gorantla,  Dr. Subramaniam Iyer and Dr. Warren Breidenbach. Photo by Mithun Vinod. Mathew Scott using his transplanted left hand. A cross-section of the transplanted hand 

On December 23, 1985, Mathew Scott lost his left hand because of a firecracker blast at his home in New Jersey, USA. On January 24, 1999, at the Jewish Hospital at Louisville, Kentucky, a hand was grafted by a team led by Dr. Warren Breidenbach, who is now the Chief, Division of Reconstructive and Plastic Surgery, at the University of Arizona.

But it was a difficult operation that lasted 14 ½ hours. “The hand has a very complex structure,” says Dr. Breidenbach. “It has multiple tendons, nerves, arteries and blood vessels. The complexities are different when you are transplanting from the arm or above the elbow.”

However, this operation has become an epoch-making moment. Because, today, after 16 years, Scott's hand is still functional. “This is the longest surviving hand transplant in the history of man,” says Dr. Breidenbach, while on a visit to Kochi. “Scott still needs to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, because the body never totally accepts the hand.”

As for the efficiency of an attached hand, Dr Breidenbach says, “A transplanted hand is never as good as the original. The hand is weaker and has less sensation.” Nevertheless, three months after the operation Scott was able to throw a baseball with his left hand. He can now write, turn the pages of a newspaper and tie his shoelaces, apart from carrying his two children. Before losing his hand, Scott was a paramedic. And, after the transplant, he was able to go back to his job.

Today, Scott has to go for follow-up visits every two months and have annual check-ups. “He has to be monitored all the time, because of the anti-rejection drugs that he is taking,” says Dr. Breidenbach. “Sometimes, there can be side-effects like tumours, diabetes and hypertension.” Incidentally, the cost is steep. Apart from the surgery, the lifetime buying of the anti-rejection drugs will work out to more than $1 million.

Sitting next to Dr. Breidenbach is Dr. Vijay Gorantla. The Administrative Medical Director of the Pittsburgh Reconstructive Transplant Programme at the University of Pittsburgh, he has done five hand transplants.

As to the oft-repeated theory that something of the personality of the donor gets into the recipient, both doctors debunked the notion. “There is no scientific proof,” says Dr. Gorantla.

Asked at what time the hand is taken from the donor, Dr. Gorantla says, “When a person is brain-dead, he becomes eligible for organ donation. But the timeline starts after the retrieval of the heart. Thereafter, the other organs, like the lungs and kidneys, are taken. The hand is usually procured simultaneously with the abdominal organs. And it takes less than 30 minutes.”

Incidentally, both the doctors had come to Kochi to review the results of the history-making hand transplant surgery which took place at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences on January 13, 2015.

The transplant team was led by Dr. Subramaniam Iyer, Professor and Chairman of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. The other members included Drs. Mohit Sharma, Sundeep Vijayaraghavan, Kishore P. and Jimmy Mathew.

What has happened in Kochi is a big deal,” says Dr. Breidenbach. “There are not many hand transplants that have been done worldwide. Thus far, the total is about 100. So we wanted to see first-hand what has been done here. And I have been extremely impressed with the depth of the understanding of the problems and the methods used to do this successful transplant.”

Both the doctors commended the team put together by Dr. Iyer. “You need a top-quality multi-disciplinary team for a successful transplant,” says Dr. Breidenbach. “That means, there should be somebody who is good at immunology, physio-therapy, post-operative cure, ethical aspects, anaesthesia and the psychological valuation of the patient. It is heartening to see Indian medicine doing so well.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Comic Relief



COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Preetha talks about life with the comedian Harisree Asokan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Mithun Vinod

On April 17, 2012, Preetha went for her first trip abroad with her husband Harisree Asokan. He was part of a 16-member troupe that was going to perform in American cities like New York, Chicago, Florida and Houston. The other members included Kalabhavan Mani, Nadar Shah, Ranjini Jose, Afsal, and Bhama.

Preetha helped the women artistes during costume changes and provided refreshments. At the end of the Houston programme, which was called 'Joke Pot', the show's sponsor, Dr. Freemu Varghese stepped on stage and said, “One of the artistes has recently celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary. I welcome Harisree Asokan and Preetha to come on stage.” As they came, a cake was brought in and placed on a table. The 1500 member audience gave a standing ovation, and cheered as Harisree and Preetha cut the cake. “I was completely shocked,” says Preetha. “It was the first time in my life that I had stepped on a stage. It was a wonderful moment.”

Later, the couple also went sight-seeing at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. “There was a water ride which went into Jurassic Park,” says Preetha. “The almost real-life dinosaurs would jump at us. Both Asokan and I had a good time.”

The good times began 28 years ago. One day, Preetha was busy cutting fish at her uncle's home in Palarivattom, Kochi. Suddenly, the doorbell rang. When Preetha opened the door two men were standing there. They were Asokan and his elder brother. They had come to see Preetha because of an arranged marriage proposal. There was nobody in the house as all the family members had gone for a function.

I was not told they were coming,” says Preetha. “So I was not dressed at all. Asokan later he told me that he liked me immediately. I also liked him from the beginning, especially his beard. And ever since our marriage, on February 9, 1987, I have discouraged him from shaving it.”

After the marriage, the couple went to live with Asokan's parents, in a house near the High Court. There were nine children and only two bedrooms. Most of Asokan’s siblings slept on the floor. “After our marriage, we were given one bedroom,” says Preetha. “Asokan would jokingly say, 'Pray hard that my next brother is not going to marry soon. Otherwise, we will have to give up the room.'”

But, today, thanks to Asokan's brilliant comic career in Mollywood, they live in a large villa at Kochi. On a sunny March afternoon, as one approaches the house, one cannot help but smile to see the name plate: 'Punjabi House'.

'Punjabi House' is one of my husband’s best films,” says Preetha. “It ran house-full for so many months, and even now people enjoy watching it on TV. And wherever Asokan goes, in India or abroad, people still talk about that film. So we, as a family, decided to give that name to our house. And I believe we have made the right decision, because visitors always have a smile on their faces when they see it.”

The family consists of Asokan, Preetha, their two children, Sreekutty and Arjun and Asokan's mother. The house is abuzz with activity, as Sreekutty's marriage is coming up. So wedding cards are being distributed and calls are being made. But Preetha manages to find the time to talk.

Asked about her husband's plus points, she says, “Asokan is a loving person and cares for the family. He buys us a lot of gifts. In fact, for Valentine's Day, recently, he bought me a diamond ring. For Asokan's birthday, I will go with my children and buy a gift for him. For my birthday, they will go and buy a gift. We have a culture of giving gifts.”      

At home, Asokan insists on a few things. “He always tells us that we should never waste food, water or electricity,” says Preetha. “Asokan grew up in very difficult circumstances. He told me there were times when he did not have anything to eat. So he wants the children to be grateful for whatever they have.”

As for his drawbacks, Preetha says, “Asokan gets tense over the smallest of matters. If he is late for a shoot he will get upset. If there are some problems on the set, he will get nervous. Then I will calm him down. He also has a short temper. But then he cools down quickly. I am used to it now.”

Meanwhile, whenever any film of Asokan’s is released the family goes to the theatre to see it. Preetha’s all-time favourites, apart from ‘Punjabi House’, are ‘CID Moosa’, ‘Meesa Madhavan’, ‘Aniathipravu’, and ‘Runway’.

Finally, when asked to give tips for a successful marriage, Preetha says, “You may be rich and successful. But if you don’t show love to your spouse, then it is not possible to have a happy marriage. There will always be fights between husband and wife. But you must try to end the problem within a day or two. Otherwise, it could escalate into a crisis.”

One way is to go somewhere, take a hotel room, and discuss the issue. “It always helps when you leave the atmosphere of the house,” says Preetha. “However, as my husband jokingly says, there is another way to solve problems in a marriage: don’t get married at all.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)   

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Glimpse Of The Cosmos


NS Harsha's work, 'Punarapi Jananam, Punarapi Maranam' (Again Birth, Again Death), at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, gives an unforgettable view of the solar system

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

When the London-based art curator, Vanessa Branson, the sister of billionaire businessman Richard Branson, enters the large hall, at the Aspinwall House, at Fort Kochi, her eyes widen, followed by a parting of her lips. “It is a remarkable work,” she says. “When we look closer there are beautiful details that lets your imagination float with the planets and the stars." 

This acrylic on canvas, at the Kochi Muziris Biennale, is 79 feet in length, and 12 feet in height. It is called 'Punarapi Jananam, Punarapi Maranam' (Again Birth, Again Death). These lines have been taken from the hymn, 'Bhaja Govindam', written by the great religious philosopher Adi Sankara. 

It is a view of the cosmos in the form of an infinite loop. For inspiration, the artist NS Harsha had researched many images from the website of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the USA, as well as the Internet.

But it was not an easy work to do. Since the scale was so large, Harsha had to abandon the paint brush. Instead, he took an old bedsheet, from his house, tore a part of it, folded it, and put stones in it. Then he beat it on the ground to create a ragged edge.

Then Harsha dipped the brush, attached to a bamboo pole, into a large bucket of black paint. With the help of a few artist friends, he began putting the paint on the canvas.

Even as Harsha experienced joy while doing this, his mother got a shock to find that her cherished 40-year-old bedsheet had been ruined. A shocked Harsha told her, “I did not realise that it was so old and valuable.”

Eventually, it took Harsha one-and-a-half months to complete the work. “This is a painted reality of its own about space,” he says. “Yes, it is true, I have been inspired by the cosmos for a long time.”

This is confirmed by the Japanese curator, Mami Kataoka, of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, who is working with Harsha to set up a solo exhibition of his works. “There are many images of eternity in Harsha's childhood drawings,” she says.

But his obsession has increased lately. For the past one-and-a-half years, all his paintings have an upward movement. “It is about the human wish to have a relationship with space,” says Harsha.

As for his relationship with art, it began when Harsha did his bachelor's in painting from the Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts at Mysore. This was followed by his Masters at the Faculty of Fine Arts at MS University, Baroda. 

“It was one of the most intense periods of my life,” he says. “I was trying to figure out the idea of art in my life. One of the key things Baroda taught me was that ambition, success or failure has no place in art.”

Nevertheless, Harsha is a successful artist, with an international reputation. He has taken part in Biennales at Osaka, Moscow, Yogyakarta (Indonesia), Sharjah, Singapore and Sao Paulo. His works have also been displayed in Australia, China, Venice, Taipei, Belgium, Spain, and several other European countries. Upcoming shows will be held in London, Tokyo, Dallas and Mumbai.

Asked about the rising intolerance in Indian society towards art and culture, Harsha says, “These attacks – on thinkers, cultural personalities and artistes – are nothing new. There are many similar instances in history. I believe art reworks traditional symbols. Hence, it infuriates people who use these symbols to uphold power. So they resort to physical violence against the artiste. But in the long run their actions are futile. Creative minds have always been innovative and are able to find new forms and voices to highlight the truth.” 

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

As True to Life As Possible



Sculptor Sunil Kandalloor's Celebrity Wax Museum at Kochi brings alive many notable people like MF Husain, K Karunakaran, Anna Hazare and Michael Jackson

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Sunil Kandalloor with the late Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran; with Angelina Jolie and Mr. Bean. Pics by Ratheesh Sundaram 

In 1995, artist Sunil Kandalloor met Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran, at Cliff House, the official residence, at Thiruvananthapuram, and suggested that he could do a wax sculpture. But Karunakaran immediately said, “I have been to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in London. Can you do something as good?”

Sir, I will try,” said Sunil. Then he told the Chief Minister he would need to take some photographs, videos and body measurements. Karunakaran agreed. The measurements were taken of the limbs, nose and hands, and the distance between the eyes and ears. 

Each person is unique,” says Sunil. “All of us have a mouth, nose and two eyes. How this is placed on a face marks the difference between people.” In the end, it took seven months for Sunil to complete his first wax figure.

This figure of Karunakaran, along with 38 others, are on display at the recently opened Celebrity Wax Museum in the Oberon Mall, Kochi. Some of the other notables include MF Husain, Subhash Chandra Bose, VR Krishna Iyer, Anna Hazare, VS Achuthanandan, the actors Innocent and Mukesh Khanna (Shaktimaan), and international celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Michael Jackson, Ronaldo, Queen Elizabeth, and Albert Einstein.

I chose these models based on two attributes,” says Sunil. “They should be famous and powerful in their particular fields.”

And over the years, Sunil has perfected the art of making these figures. First he makes a clay model. Thereafter, he sets up a mould. Then he puts the candle wax on it. On an average, he needs 35 kilos of wax per person. Then it is left to dry. Following that, he attaches the hair and eyes.

Interestingly, he says, the eyeball does not have any expression. “The expression is created by making dents in the forehead, cheeks, lips and eyelids.” Later, he adds the clothes, which are mostly gifted by the people who are being profiled. For long-dead celebrities, like Abraham Lincoln, Sunil studies images on the Internet and gets the clothes stitched accordingly.

Asked about the durability of the wax figures, Sunil says, “They will last for a long time. Candle wax melts only at 58 degrees centigrade. I only have to control the amount of dust, because it tends to get into the eyes and hair. That is why the museum is air-conditioned. As for the clothes, they are washed regularly. And I usually have two sets.”

The Mumbai-based Sunil says that he discovered his life passion by accident. One day, while working for an advertising firm in Bangalore, he came across a magazine which featured wax figures from Madame Tussaud's Museum. He was immediately fascinated. “I realised that no matter what technology or method is used, ultimately, to make a good figure, you would need the talent of an artist,” says Sunil, who has done a diploma course from the Madhava Fine Arts school in Kollam.

But when he realised that there was no institution in India which taught how to make wax sculptures, Sunil resigned his job and returned to his village in Kayamkulam.

Thereafter, for the next eight years, Sunil spent his time in learning how to make wax sculptures. He puzzled over what wax to use and the proper mix of colours to get the correct skin tone. Through trial and error, he figured out the way to fix the eyes and nose to the face.

During those years Sunil survived on his mother's pension. A widow, she lost her husband, a soldier in the Army, in an accident when Sunil was 16.

However, in the initial years, he struggled to get notable people to pose for him. But all that changed when Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan was featured at Madame Tussaud's. “Suddenly, everybody in India understood what a wax sculpture was all about,” he says. “Things became easy after that.” 

Sunil's first museum was established in the Baywatch amusement park at Kanyakumari, and the second one in Lonavala, near Pune. The Kochi museum is his third. Asked about his future plans, he says, “I want to recreate all the characters of my favourite painter Raja Ravi Varma.” 

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

Anil Kumble shines as a speaker

By Shevlin Sebastian

As soon as the former Indian cricket captain Anil Kumble strode into the hall of the Gokulam Park Convention Centre, at Kochi, he received a spontaneous round of applause and cheers from the audience. Looking sharp and natty, in a brown coat and gleaming brown shoes, he was the Chief Guest at the 'Speak for Kerala Finale', organised by the Federal Bank Hormis Memorial Foundation Trust.

Four students – Sana Nazar, Anand Jayan, Aryadevi R and Meera Devi Chalisery – were the finalists. The topic for the debate: 'Make in Kerala should be the core focus for job creation in a densely populated state like Kerala'.

And all of them spoke with confidence, verve, passion and intensity. So much so that even Kumble, in his speech later on in the programme, said, “I feel like a tail-ender coming in to bat after four great speakers. This is the confidence of the youth that we see in all walks of life in India. We also see it now in the Indian cricket team.” But he urged the youngsters to not only be keen about their studies, but to engage in all sorts of extra-curricular activities.

It helps in the development of a person,” he said. “You should also follow your dreams. Give importance to preparation and practice. The problem with today's youth is that they have so many choices. So they tend to lose focus. It is very important to have focus. You should prepare for life like you are playing a Test match, rather than a T20 game.”

And what was heartening to see was how Kumble got completely involved in the proceedings. During a session where the judges had to ask questions to the young speakers, even Kumble decided to ask a couple on his own: 'How do you think the government can encourage sports?' and 'How can the youth be engaged in sporting activities?'

In the end, Sana Nazar, of the Federal Institute of Science and Technology, Kochi, the crowd favourite, was declared the winner. She won the 'Federal Bank - Kerala Youth of the Year 2015 Trophy', a cash prize of Rs 50,000, as well as scholarships worth Rs 3 lakh. Aryadevi R, of Mar Ivanios College, Thiruvananthapuram, came second.

Meanwhile, during a question-and-answer session with the audience, Kumble added a dash of humour, when he pointed to a gentleman and said, “Mid-On can speak first.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kerala editions) 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Ups and Downs


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Seena talks about life with the veteran scriptwriter Kaloor Dennis

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram 

On the evening of June 26, 1982, Seena was crying uncontrollably. An elderly family relative had said, “Kaloor Dennis is from the film industry. You know they have wives and children in Chennai. They usually write their scripts with a glass of liquor in their left hand. You should have thought hard before saying yes.”

But Seena's father reassured her that Dennis is a good man, and did not drink or smoke. “So I decided to go ahead since the wedding was set for the next day,” she says.

At the St. Philomina's Church at Koonammavu, near Ernakulam, the wedding mass was delayed. The actor Sankaradi went up to Dennis and asked what had happened. “For some reason, the priest is taking time to come out and begin the mass,” said Dennis. Sankaradi immediately said, “If he does not come, I can conduct the marriage for you.”

Seena says, “I have never forgotten how Sankaradi Chettan made me smile at that moment.”

Following the wedding, they were not able to go for a honeymoon. Instead, Dennis took Seena to Chennai, where the post-production work of the film, 'Karthavyam', was taking place. Dennis had written the script, while Joshy was the director.

When the actress Srividya met the newly-wedded couple, at the Palm Grove Hotel, she told Dennis, “But this was not the girl you came with earlier to Chennai?”

Seena went into a shock. “Later Srividya told me she was pulling my leg,” says Seena. “She told me that Dennis is a good man and behaved well at all times.”

Asked to list her husband's plus points, Seena says, “He is a loving person. When we go out and if I see a sari or a salwar kameez which I like, he will buy it for me immediately.”

Dennis also helps people. Once a physically-challenged man asked Dennis for help, because his daughter was getting married, but the scriptwriter did not have any money. “So he borrowed Rs 2000, which was quite a lot of money in those days,” says Seena. “Dennis said that he did not want to let down the man who had come to him with so much of expectations.”

However, like most creative people, Dennis has a familiar drawback: a short temper. “But afterwards he forgets what he has said,” says Seena. “But for me, in the early years, the pain would remain. But I have got used to it. However, even now I get irritated by his book and magazine reading. He gets so engrossed, that when I am saying something, he does not pay any attention.”

But these were minor irritations. In June, 2006, they faced the gravest crisis of their life. A rather innocuous allergy on Dennis' right foot became infected. He was taken to the Lourdes Hospital for treatment. One day, after Seena attended the morning mass at the hospital chapel, the priest suddenly announced to the gathering, “Prayers should be said for Kaloor Dennis. His leg will be cut today.”

That was the first time Seena was hearing about this. A shocked Seena   immediately rushed to see the doctor. He told Seena that an operation would take place later that day, but refused to say whether the leg would be amputated. At this moment, their eldest son Dinu suggested that Dennis should be moved to the Amrita Hospital, so that they could get a second opinion.

This was done. A new set of treatments were begun. But, after a few days, there was no change in his condition. The doctor told Seena that they would have to amputate. “When he suggested that that Seena should tell Dennis, she said no. “I told him Dennis would die from the shock,” says Seena. When she asked the doctor about the chances of survival, he said, “Fifty-fifty.” Nevertheless, Seena signed the consent form.

Thankfully, the operation was a success. Three hours later, Dennis asked Seena, “Has my leg been cut?” And she nodded. “But he took it calmly,” says Seena. “During that time, we received a lot of support from directors Vinayan, Shaji Kailas, Joshy, Kamal, Sibi Malayil and B. Unnikrishnan.”

Today, Dennis uses an artificial leg and moves around slowly. He needs help when he ventures out of the house. Asked whether Dennis has changed post-operation, Seena says, “He has become younger at heart and is more loving to me now.”

But Seena readily admits that writing is her husband's first love. “I don't have any problems with that,” she says. “In earlier times, after breakfast, like most people, who go to the office, Dennis would go to a room in a nearby lodge to write. He worked the entire day and stopped only at 6 p.m. At home, he did not do any writing. Instead, he was always involved with the family.”

The couple have two sons, Dinu and Deen. “Dennis was never strict with them, and always fulfilled their needs,” says Seena. “But, by the grace of God, they have turned out to be good children. And like their father, they prefer to stay at home.”

Finally, when asked to provide tips for a successful marriage, Seena says, “Husband and wife come from different families. So they have to learn to adjust. I believe that women should take the initiative to do this. When one spouse gets angry, the other should remain calm. The fights are usually over trivial matters. By being relaxed, the situation will not become too serious.” 

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

Monday, March 16, 2015



Manisha Gera Baswani's photography project, 'Artist Through The Lens', focuses on artistes at their home or the studio. It is a collateral event of the Kochi Muziris Biennale

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Manisha Gera Baswani by Ratheesh Sundaram; Bal Chhabda; Riyas Komu with Mithu Sen

The Delhi-based Manisha Gera Baswani went to see the artist Bal Chhabda in Mumbai in 2012. After the death of Bal's wife, Jeet, in 2008, and his friends, Tyeb Mehta and MF Hussain in 2011, he had become a recluse. “But I so wanted to photograph Bal,” says Manisha, an artist-cum-photographer. “Everybody said he will not open the door. [Artist] Akbar Padamsee said, 'Bal is my closest friend, and he is not even taking my calls. So there is little chance he will meet you'.”

But Manisha's friend, Tunty Chauhan, owner of the Gallery Threshold, suggested that the photographer take a packet of chikki (a mix of jiggery and peanuts), which Bal liked a lot. And so when Manisha arrived at Mumbai, she called Bal and told him about the chikki. Thanks to his sweet tooth, Bal agreed to meet her.

When Bal opened the door, at his Malabar Hill home, Manisha noticed that it was a huge drawing room. There was a broken sofa. The sponge was coming out at different places. There were stacks of newspapers at one side. Across one wall, there was a large painting. “When I asked Bal whose painting it was, he replied that it was his best friend's work, but could not remember his name,” says Manisha. “Later, I came to know that it was a painting by VS Gaitonde.”

Manisha began taking the photos. But after 15 minutes, Bal said, “Manisha, I am feeling tired.” So, she left immediately. Sadly, Bal died two months later.

These photos, along with 400 others, of artists, curators, gallerists and collectors, are being shown at the video installation, 'Artist Through the Lens', at the Rose Bungalow in Fort Kochi. A collateral project of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, it is sponsored by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, along with the Saffron Art Foundation.

Some of the people who have been featured include Anita Dube, Manjit Bawa, Sarbari Roy Choudhury, KG Subrahmanyam, Arpita and Paramjit Singh, Bharti Kher, Gulammohammed Sheikh, LN Tallur, Jyoti Bhatt, Ranbir Kaleka and Minang Apang.

In many of the photos, you can see the artistes in their home or studio, and they look comfortable and happy. Occasionally, they seem vulnerable.

The project has been successful because I am an artist,” says Manisha. “So, they became relaxed in front of me. Once, after Riyas Komu [Kochi Biennale founder] had finished hammering a nail into one of his sculptures, during an exhibition in Delhi, he pretended to put a nail on [artist] Mithu Sen's forehead and I took that shot. I don't think he would have done that if I was an actual photo-journalist.”

The idea for the project came up in an accidental way. Between 1986 and 1992, Manisha was doing her degree as well as master's in painting at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. Her teacher was the celebrated artist and Padma Bhushan award winner A. Ramachandran. Once she graduated, she remained in touch with Ramachandran and would visit his home often.

One day, she decided to take photos of Ramachandran and his wife Chameli. And today, years later, she is still photographing them, apart from many others. And for the past four-and-a-half years, she has been writing a column for an art magazine, which features these photographs, taken with a Canon D500, as well as the stories behind them.

Since Manisha knows so many life-tales, does she feel women artistes are different from the men? Manisha, a mother of two, nods and says, “They are always multi-tasking. Men have the luxury to be on their own, without being disturbed. But women artists are always being interrupted, either by the children or the maids. It takes a lot out of them. That is one of the reasons why men are more prolific than the women.”

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Vintage Love


COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Vasanthakumary talks about life with the 'Thaikkudam Bridge' singer Peethambaran Menon

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

When Vasanthakumary sits in the audience to watch the band, 'Thaikkudam Bridge’ perform, at a show at Kochi, she feels an excitement within herself. The lead singer, Peethambaran, is her husband, the band leader is her son, Govind, while her nephew, Siddharth, is also playing. The song is called ‘Appozhum’ and it is one of her favourites.

Peethambaran is dressed in a dramatic way: a red shirt and black mundu, with a black scarf around his neck. Added to that is his appearance: straggly, shoulder-length hair, thick black beard and piercing eyes behind black spectacles. Soon, he launches into the song. And there is no doubt that he has a distinctive voice. It immediately holds the audience in thrall.

I knew for a long time that Peethambaran had a good talent,” says Vasanthakumary. “Sadly, in those days there were not many TV channels. So he did not get a chance to showcase his talent. It is only now that he is being recognised. And I am thankful to my son Govind. He has enabled my husband [who retired from the Public Works Department (PWD) in 2012 as an engineer] to have a singing career.”

In fact, when Vasanthakumary first met Peethambaran in April, 1980, during an arranged marriage meeting, the thought that passed through her mind was that he looked like a singer. “For some reason which I cannot explain, maybe it was my destiny, I felt happy when I saw him,” she says. “He asked me whether I liked him. I told him I did.”

The marriage took place on September 11, 1980, at the Kodungaloor temple. Following the reception, when the couple returned to Peethambaran’s house at Nadavaramba, near Irinjalakuda, at the entrance, her father-in-law was waiting. “I suddenly felt nervous,” says Vasanthakumary. “When I put my right foot out to enter the house, I saw, to my shock, that my leg was shaking uncontrollably. It was a deeply embarrassing moment for me.”

But things settled down. Peethambaran got busy with his job in the PWD. But now and then, there would be singing sessions at their house where neighbours, relatives, family members and friends would take part. “I ensured that everybody got tasty food to eat,” says Vasanthakumary.

Asked about her husband's plus points, Vasanthakumary says, “He has a strong will power. You can see it in his eyes. And he is God-fearing, too. Every morning, he goes to the temple to pray.”

His negative point is his short temper. “He gets angry all of a sudden, usually over minor matters,” she says. Peethambaran also had a habit that Vasanthakumary did not like at all. He would have regular drinking sessions with his friends. “That was the only time I would get angry about him,” she says. “I told him that this was not the way to live. But a few years after our marriage, he stopped drinking altogether. And I became very happy.”

And Vasanthakumary is also happy that the band is going places. They have performed in many places in Kerala, in other Indian cities, at Dubai and now they are off to Australia and the UK.

But Vasanthakumary is especially thrilled, for another reason. “Peethambaran is more loving now,” she says, with a smile. “Since he is able to use his singing talent, he feels a lot more relaxed.”

And she can sense that the band is making an impact, when Vasanthakumary steps out onto the street. Frequently, people will come up and ask her whether she is Govind's mother or Peethambaran's wife. “I feel so good about this,” she says. “Many youngsters ask me, 'Aunty how does Uncle perform so well?’ When my husband and I go out in public, people come up, shake hands with him, and take photos. They call him 'The Singing Sir'.”

But there have been some poignant moments for Vasanthakumary. Once, at home, recently, Peethambaran told her, “I have lost so many years of my life doing a job I did not like. But that is life. It is not perfect. Sometimes, you are not able to do the things you want to do.”

And Peethambaran’s age of 58 can be a drawback. He gets fatigued now and then. “What tires him is not the performance, but the travelling between venues,” says Vasanthakumary. “After a long trip there is very little rest, before they set out for the next show. But his love for singing helps him to overcome these difficulties.”

Finally, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Vasanthakumary says, “Both husband and wife should learn to adjust to each other. Then the family life will be a success. If one spouse gets angry, the other should remain calm and relaxed and not respond in the same aggressive manner. But I have noticed that young people get angry very fast. There is not much of patience and tolerance. And that is why so many marriages are breaking up. So, for married youngsters, this is my message: pray to God and you will be able to get over the difficult times.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

“Women are as good as men”

Says leading women entrepreneur Beena Kannan in an exclusive interview

By Shevlin Sebastian

What is the present status of women in Kerala?
Women have a very good status in Kerala. They are treated with a lot of respect. They are as good as the men in the professional fields.

When you meet the young women of today, what is the difference that you find, compared to women of previous generations?
All of them are very smart. They look smart, they behave smart, they do their work smartly. But I have noticed a difference in attitude between my generation and theirs when it comes to facing problems. The smartness and courage of the youngsters are far less. The problem with the youngsters is that they get everything so easily. They don't have to struggle for it. They cannot face difficulties the way we can. They lack inter-personal skills because they spend so many hours in front of the computer.

On the other hand, when we were young we would do so many physical exercises and were always interacting with people. We would play outside. We used to develop our physical side so well that automatically our mind also got developed.

Why is there an increasing rate of divorce these days?
That is because women want to be treated as an equal with men. The good news is that there are men who give their wives equal status. But there are many who treat their wives as somebody below them. Women can no longer accept this situation, unlike in the past. They will not suffer or wait for a better day to come.

I do believe that if a woman waits for two or three years, the man does change. Unfortunately, younger women no longer have the patience to hold on. They just want to get out of the marriage. They know that there are many opportunities to earn a living, unlike the olden days. So why should they wait?

But if the parents can convince their children that by waiting, the problems do get solved, then it is a good thing. Otherwise, she will walk out of the marriage, and she might remarry but it does not mean that she will be happy.

What are the qualities that you have which is different from a man and helps you in your leadership role?
Everything of a woman I bring to my job. I am a mother, sister, daughter-in-law, and a friend. To my women employees, sometimes, like a mother, I show compassion to them while they are going through a difficult time. When they do well, I will give a pat on the back of the women, and a smile to the men. I help them out. I will not scold them unless something goes wrong. So my experience as a woman makes me a better leader.

When you have to make an important business decision, do you rely on your intuition?
I don't know about that, but I make decisions very fast. When I see 500 sarees, I will select 50 in less than three minutes. Many people in the workplace find it difficult to handle the speed at which I work. So far I have not gone back on any decision that I have taken. So I believe this is the right way for me.

As a leader of an organisation you have to endure a lot of stress. So how do you handle it?
I do a lot of physical exercise. Every morning, I do yoga, walking or jogging. Earlier, I would do a lot of Bharatanatyam and that relaxed me a lot. The time taken is anywhere between 45 minutes and two hours. Once I do this physical exercise, I feel that my life is under control. And even if I sleep for only four to five hours, I still feel fresh.

What is the attitude of male rivals towards you?
Who is bothered? I am fighting with myself. I don't care what others think. I know where I stand. My aim is to perform well every day. And I always have a desire to improve myself. I know that hard work always pays off. I am happy to say that I am leading the Kerala fashion scene, especially when it comes to Kanjeevaram sarees. Many people look to see what I am doing. So far, many of the designs which I have given have been accepted by the market. 

Any plans for March 8?
Yes, on March 8, I am going to launch a product, called transparent Kancheepuram. This is the first time this is happening. This is pure silk Kancheepuram with pure jari. This has been woven together for the first time ever. It gives the youngsters a new presentation and is easy to wear. A dye will be used in Kancheepuram sarees to give it a shaded look. This is also new and will be launched at the Kochi and Kottayam Seematti showrooms.

(Published in The Women's Day Special Supplement of the New Indian Express, Kerala)