Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Artist in Society

The Baroda-based artist, Gulammuhammed Sheikh, a Padma Bhushan awardee, talks about the life of the artist as well as his own work

Photos: 'Returning Home', oil on canvas; the artist

By Shevlin Sebastian

What should an artist do if there is grave injustice in society? Should he become an activist and go out and fight on behalf of the people? Or should he stay aloof? These questions have tormented artists for centuries.

The Baroda-based artist Gulammuhammed Sheikh, a Padma Bhushan Awardee tackled this vexing subject during a question-and-answer session at a talk organised by the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

“My job is to paint,” he says. “It is not to agitate. I should find ways of working through my medium to reach out to people. Art is the only way I can reach out. It is a perennial debate of whether the artist should join hands with activism.”

Sheikh recounted the debate among intellectuals in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil war. There was a young British poet, Christopher Cauldwell, who was considered to be one of the finest. “The poet was so moved by what was happening in Spain that one day he left for the war front,” says Sheikh. “Unfortunately, he was killed [on February 12, 1937] because he did not know how to fight.”

Within the intellectual community there was a debate. Did the poet make the right decision? By getting himself killed, it was a huge waste of potential. What should an artist do in such a situation? “Some felt that it was right to join the war,” says Sheikh. “But there were others who felt that following one's vocation is the right way.”

Sheikh believes in the latter concept. “Your aim should be to remain true to your profession and push yourself to the maximum,” he says. “However, art does not prevent people from killing others. Art is made so that people can reflect about the actions they are doing. Why are they killing human beings? Why do they hate the 'other'? In the end you will become a better person. It is a long drawn-out business. It is not that as soon as you do a painting, the riots will stop.”

Meanwhile, when asked about the link between the artist and religion, Sheikh says, “The world has multiple faiths. I am interested to know how Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jains perceive the world. However, I want to explore every religion without being judgemental. I would like to see how a Jain monk lives. How does he move about without wearing any footwear?

The members of the Digambara sect do not wear any clothes. Isn't that fascinating? What drives me is a sense of wonder.”

And Sheikh has also been wonderstruck that Kochi has made a mark internationally. “It is wonderful that Kochi has hosted an international Biennale,” he says. “And it was amazing that it was not Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata, but a place in the south. What I saw at the Biennale was extremely enriching. I am very glad to be here.”

Sheikh had come to Kochi to visit sites where he can put up a work for the upcoming Biennale in December, 2014. And he also gave a talk to an audience, which comprised artists and art lovers, regarding his work, which was titled, 'Walking The World'. “This is because I have wanderlust,” he says. “And whereever it is possible, I go walking.”

In 1969, Sheikh returned, after a three-year sojourn in England, and made a painting called 'Returning Home'. “I brought in an image from my childhood in Kathiawad, where I grew up,” he says. “I also borrowed an image of the prophet Mohammed from a Persian painting. The boundary wall in the painting was similar to the one in the area where I lived as a child, along with a mill and a mosque. And right in front I have put a photo of my mother. This was an attempt to re-create my home.”

However, today, Sheikh is best known for his monumental mural, 'Tree of Life', commissioned by the New Vidhan Bhavan of the Madhya Pradesh legislature at Bhopal at a cost of Rs 20 lakh.

In the work, which is about three storeys high, there is a door and images of legislators among the branches of a large tree. “They are discussing issues like the Narmada Dam agitation and the Bhopal gas leak,” he says. “By the tree trunk, I have placed a chair. This is to indicate the chair of the government. Around the chair there are many characters hovering about. During the time of King Vikramaditya, he had 32 dolls which would come to life the moment he sat on the throne. They would ask the king whether he deserved to sit on the chair. So I thought this was the right kind of symbol to use in a political space like this.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Frame by Frame

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Sajitha talks about life with the film director VK Prakash

Photo by M. Jithindra

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sukumaran Nair and Arvindakshan were colleagues in the same department at the Kozhikode Corporation. While Sukumaran worked in the health section, Arvindakshan was a training officer. One day when the friends were having a chat, they realised that their children had reached a marriageable age. Arvindakshan suggested his son, VK Prakash, as a possible bridegroom to Sukumaran's daughter Sajitha.

And that was how Prakash came to meet Sajitha in June, 1986.

The Bangalore-based Prakash was in advertising then, while Sajitha was doing her first year B.Sc (physics) from Providence Women's College in Kozhikode. “Prakash spoke about his career,” says Sajitha. “He asked me whether I would be able to cope with the pressure. I said I could. Then I told him about my studies.”

But it was a different era. Children just obeyed their parents. So Sajitha said yes. The wedding took place on August 22, 1986, at the Sumangali Kalyana Mandapam at Kozhikode.

In the initial years it took Sajitha some time to adjust to life with a creative person. “In my home, my dad would come back home after work always at the same time,” says Sajitha. “But with Prakash it was different. He would stay for a few days and go away for several weeks.”

Asked about her husband's plus points, Sajitha says, “He is not demanding at all. I can do whatever I like in my spare time. I have an inner freedom.”

Other pluses: “Prakash is a family man,” says Sajitha. “Whenever there is a break in shooting, he will come home.” This happened recently, when Prakash was in Mumbai, shooting the Marathi remake of the Malayalam film, 'Shutter', and returned to Bangalore for just one day to see his wife.

Or sometimes, when the gap is too long, and Prakash is unable to come, Sajitha goes to the sets. And she is surprised by how different he is. “At home, Prakash is relaxed and lazes around,” says Sajitha. “But on the sets he is energised, focused and passionate. He is another person. Somebody who is concentrated on his work.”

But the director has his shortcomings. “Prakash is short-tempered and gets angry over the most trivial of things,” says Sajitha. “He does not like any disturbance when he is working. He needs space and silence.”

Not surprisingly, Prakash is over-sensitive. If he hears a negative comment about his work, he feels upset for days together. “I tell him that you cannot please everybody all the time,” says Sajitha. “We have to learn to live with criticism.”

Unlike most directors, Prakash came to Mollywood after ten years in advertising. But Sajitha was not apprehensive, because Prakash never closed his advertising company 'Trendz'. So there was a steady income. Sajitha had been sure Prakash would go into films one day. He had studied at the School of Arts in Trissur. Most of the outings during the early days of their marriage were to the theatre. “He had been passionate about films for a long time,” she says.

Interestingly, Sajitha sees Prakash's film in the theatre and never at home, nor does she look at the rushes. “When I watch Prakash's film, I always think of the enormous amount of work that went into it, which the audience is unaware of,” she says. Her favourite films include 'Punaradhivasam', 'Beautiful' and 'Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla'.

When Prakash is writing a story, he will bounce ideas off Sajitha. She listens to the storyline, like an ordinary viewer, and will tell him whether she likes it or not. But she does not give any creative suggestions.

Expectedly, when one of his films is a hit, Prakash is in a happy frame of mind. To celebrate, sometimes, he will take Sajitha and their daughter, Kavya, 21, for a short vacation. Some of the places they have visited have included the Jim Corbett Park at Uttarakhand, and cities like Jaipur and Singapore.

In their spare time, they watch a lot of movies. In fact, their last film was 'Queen', which starred Kangana Ranaut. “Prakash liked it a lot,” says Sajitha.
He said that it was a new-generation style of film-making. The approach was fresh. Prakash felt that it was a good sign for Bollywood that the audience had accepted a woman in the lead role.”

Finally, when asked for tips for a successful marriage, Sajitha says, “You have to understand the merits and demerits of your spouse. And learn to accept the negative aspects. Nobody is perfect. Healthy criticism is good. But you have to be careful that it does not become nagging. When a spouse has a passion, you should give him or her the space to concentrate on that.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, April 07, 2014

Not Throwing Anything Away

Cristelle Hart Singh and her husband, Ravinder Singh, run 'Amay', a shop which deals in recycled clothes, bags, and knick-knacks

Photo by Melton Antony

By Shevlin Sebastian

A few years ago, when Cristelle Hart Singh was pregnant with her first child, she did not suffer from food cravings. Instead, this British-Swiss woman had a desire to do carpentry. And so was born the idea of making a large chess board. “Neither Ravinder, my husband, or I play chess, but I insisted on buying a saw and plywood,” says Cristelle.

The couple, along with a friend, made large knights, rooks, pawns, bishops, queens and kings. Then, in their shop, they made a chess board, with black and white tiles, at one side on the floor. “Unfortunately, not many people took the time to play chess on a big board,” says Cristelle. So the board remains a charming attraction, while the pieces have been stored elsewhere.

Four years ago, on the island of Mattancherry, near Kochi, Cristelle and her Punjabi-origin spouse Ravinder converted a godown, with a sloping tiled roof, into a shop called 'Amay'. It is a Sanskrit word which means fair. “We want to be fair in our practices,” says Cristelle. “We try as much as possible to source our products from NGOs, like the Bangalore-based Belaku Trust, or woman's groups which are ethical. So, if somebody says that their products are recycled, it should be recycled, or if it is natural, it must be so.”

In fact, the charm about 'Amay' is the way the couple have used ordinary items as props. A wooden shelf rests on two pairs of old tyres. Bags are draped over a ladder as well as an old door. Plastic crates, flower pots, and water canisters have been used to hold up rods on which hang shawls and t-shirts.

On a low table, there are unusual glass trays. “This is made by a person called Joy, who melts beer and Caesar brandy bottles and makes trays,” says Ravinder. “The idea is to encourage reusing things, instead of throwing it away.”

Then there are note pads and greeting cards made from elephant dung. The dung is collected, cleaned, cooked, salted, then it is pulped and dried. “Then sheets are made from it,” says Ravinder.

They also sell recycled salwar kameez suits and cloth bags. These are made from leftover cloth at tailors shops. These could be a part of a dress material, furniture cloth or ends of curtains.

The couple make their own T-shirts under the brand name of in:ch. IN stands for India while CH is for Confoederatio Helvetica, the official name of Switzerland. One T-shirt has the legend, 'Coconut Republic', a nice reference to Kerala.

Not surprisingly, in tourist-magnet Mattancherry, 90 per cent of their customers are foreigners. “Most are looking for gifts to take back home,” says Cristelle. “So, our products sell well, especially during the November to March tourist season.”

The Britain-based Fiona told Cristelle, “We love your shop. There is so much of space to walk around. Don't change anything.”

A sale of part of the products is used for the upkeep of 'Dil Se', a boys home in Manasery, which is run by Cristelle. There are six boys, ranging in age from 5 to 18. “They are from destitute families,” says Cristelle. “Some are orphans.”

Meanwhile, despite living for so many years in Kochi, Cristelle is still trying to get used to the Malayali mind-set. “The Malayali has a child-like curiosity,” she says. “It can be fun, but sometimes they ask too many personal questions.”

But there are positives. “A stranger on the train, after just ten minutes of talking, will share his food and invite me to come home and meet his family,” says Cristelle. “You will not get this kind of hospitality and friendliness in Europe. It's wonderful.” 

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

Taking Art to The Street

Chicago photographer William Jerard showcases his work on a street in Fort Kochi and many people stop by to see it

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In May, 2012, William Jerard was assigned by his group, Global Vision International, to be a volunteer at the Sree Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SDPY) Central school at Kalathra, near Kochi. “I felt very nervous,” he says. “I did not know how the children would react. I also did not know if I had enough inside me to teach them.”

William's room was at the end of a long corridor. There were several classrooms at one side. And as he walked past, on the first day, the students greeted him and touched his hands. “It was beautiful,” he says. In the end, Williams spent three months and took numerous photos of the children.

They include a group shot of young girls, in brown uniforms, standing in the courtyard and praying during the morning assembly. What catches the eye is a particular girl in the front row, her eyes closed, her hands clasped together. “You can tell that she is connected to something spiritual,” he says. Then there is a photo of a number of students standing next to their teacher, just outside the science laboratory. Another shows a group of boys and girls playing on a patch of ground in front of the school, the dust rising up in the air.

In February, the Chicago-based William is in Fort Kochi. He has hung photos of the school children, placed in wooden frames, alongside a wall on Bastian Street. The location has been carefully selected. “Look up,” he says, and points at a tree, with several overhanging branches. “The tree is almost cradling the exhibition. It is so beautiful and natural. My home town, Chicago, is lovely, but it is a manicured beauty. It is one tree here, a gap, and another tree there. In India, growth is organic. And things are left alone, to be what they are supposed to be.”

William also has another aim. “I want all kinds of people to access art,” says the artist, who is casually dressed in a white sleeveless T-shirt and shorts. “The art community should come out on the streets. We should not keep the work locked away in galleries and museums.”

And, statistically, it may be the right thing to do. “On an average, about 250 people have viewed the street exhibition in Fort Kochi every day,” he says. “In Chicago where I held an exhibition in a gallery, there were 90 visitors during an entire month.”

William uses a Canon D3000 camera. Self-taught, he has no idea of technique, and relies solely on his intuition. “You have to engage with the subjects so that they become relaxed and reveal their true selves,” says this peripatetic traveller, who has taken photos in China, Cuba, France and Mexico, apart from Chicago.

They include a Buddhist monk praying, a couple walking in the darkness towards the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, a homeless man lying beside a busy road, an empty wharf, and a group of smiling people inside a restaurant in China having bowls of soup.

William's work is aimed at fulfilling his definition of art. “I am approaching art through the perspective of Leo Tolstoy, one of Russia's great writers,” he says. “Tolstoy believed that it is through art that one man can feel another. And that is what I want to portray through my photos. As human beings we should be able to feel each other.” 

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

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Middle-class Mores

Lillete Dubey's Primetime Theatre Company brings alive Mahesh Dattani's extraordinary play, 'Dance Like a Man'

By Shevlin Sebastian

At the introduction of Mahesh Dattani's play, 'Dance Like a Man', at the JT Pac, Kochi, the announcer says, “This is the 501st show. It is the longest-running play in English in any genre in India. An original Indian play in English it is written by an Indian about Indians.”
Interestingly, there was applause following this statement. Because, for decades, English theatre in India has always borrowed plays from the West. So, it was good to see that desi plays are having a resonance, not only in India, but all over the world.

'Dance Like a Man' has been performed in Portland, USA, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in Auckland, New Zealand, among numerous other places,” says the announcer. “There have been two-week runs at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival, Off-Off Broadway, and London's West End.”

So, it was with eagerness that the audience looked forward to see the actors of Lillette Dubey's Primetime Theatre Company enact the story.

Jairaj and Ratna Parekh, ageing Bharatnatyam dancers, are anxious that their daughter Lata make a powerful impact at a concert in New Delhi which would be attended by many luminaries including the President of India. But their immediate worry is that the mridangam artist, Srinivasan, has broken his arm and cannot perform. Husband and wife are discussing alternatives and the dialogue is typical of the gossipy nature of Indians.

Jairaj: “We could ask Seshadri.”

Ratna: “Are you mad? He is busy rehearsing with Chandrakala. When he is not rehearsing, he is sleeping with her.”

Jairaj: “It is just gossip.”

Ratna: “I have seen it with my own eyes. In a hotel at Moscow. 3 o'clock in the morning I saw him sneaking down the corridor and into her room.”

Jairaj: “What were you doing in the hotel corridor at three o'clock in the morning?”

Ratna: “I was checking to see in whose room you were sneaking in.”

As the audience laughs, Jairaj says, “I was downstairs in the bar drinking vodka.”
In a sub-plot, Vishwas, a son of a businessman, who is courting Lata, has come to see Jairaj and Ratna at their large bungalow in Bangalore in order to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage. But when he arrives, only Lata is at home. The dialogue quickly highlights the materialistic mind-set of the middle classes.

Lata: “I am the sole heir to this property. It is right in the centre of town. A Sindhi builder offered my father Rs 2 crore. He wants to build a shopping complex. But my father does not want to sell.”

Says Vishwas: “Did you tell them [parents] that my father owns a mithai shop on Commercial Street?”

Lata: “Yes, also that he owns half the buildings on that road.”

The story within the story is of Jairaj's late father, Amritlal Parekh, who made a fortune by buying and selling houses. He cannot tolerate the fact that his son wants to be a dancer. 
Amritlal tells Ratna, “A woman in a man's world is considered progressive. But a man in a woman's world is considered pathetic. Help me to make him an adult.” In the end, the domineering and contemptuous Amritlal destroys Jairaj's self-worth and confidence.

This flashback into the past is done so well. Actor Vijay Crishna just moves to one side of the stage, puts on a cream waistcoat, a Gandhi cap and spectacles, and immediately transforms from Jairaj to Amritlal. The facial expression and the change in tone are remarkable. This also happens when Joy Sengupta, who plays Vishwas, becomes a younger Jairaj while Suchitra Pillai who is Lata takes on the garb of a younger Ratna, with a distinct South Indian accent.

One of the most remarkable scenes occurs when Lata's performance is a huge success and a certain Dr. Gowda calls up to congratulate Lata. But she is sleeping, so Ratna picks up the phone. The way she cloyingly talks to the well-connected doctor and her rage that erupts subtly when Ratna comes to know that her arch-rival Chandrakala is on the selection panel for an upcoming cultural tour to Canada.

Chandrakala?” says Ratna. “She was such a good dancer (a tiny pause) twenty years ago.” With this sentence, playwright Dattani confirms the intense jealousies and hatreds that mar the relationship of rival artistes.

Meanwhile, newspaper critics also take a hit when the family reads the write-ups on Lata's performance. Says Lata, looking at one newspaper, “See this: 'Lata's rendition of Jaidev's 'Geet Govinda' was tenderly intense and intensely tender. Her cheerful expressions and heaving bosom convey all that was humanly possible.”

A mocking Lata says, “Arrey my bosom was heaving because I was breathless from the previous varanam [the centre-piece in a Bharatnatyam dance].”

The other topics which were explored included the contentious husband-wife relationship, the pain of being a parent and losing a child, sexual abuse by relatives, social ostracism and the class divide.

Throughout, the actors were brilliant – Vijay, Joy, Suchitra and Lillete herself. And who can forget Lillete's biggest asset: her unique voice. It was husky and sweet, serene and cold, kind and cruel, sarcastic and cajoling, moving and merciless. Long after the play was over, Lillete's voice continued to echo in the head. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

On The Road

Spouses of candidates talk about their experiences during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign 

Photos: Usha Ramachandran; Damodaran Nambiar and PK Sreemathi with their grandson

By Shevlin Sebastian

He is spotlessly clean”

Says Usha, the wife of Union Minister Mullappally Ramachandran, who is standing as a UDF candidate from the Vadakara constituency

It is a familiar problem for Mullappally Ramchandran, Union Minister and UDF candidate for the Vadakara constituency. He needs money to finance his election campaign. “Ramachandran does not have an illegal income,” says his wife Usha. “He has been spotless throughout. Fortunately I have been working for many years.”

Usha had recently retired as Chief Manager (Law) of the Syndicate Bank, while working in Delhi. “For this year's campaign, I had to delve into my retirement benefits, to finance part of the campaign,” she says. However, like most wives, Usha does not go on the road, to meet voters. “I am not a political person,” she says. “But I try to ensure that things are comfortable when Ramachandran returns home.”

But the politician returns home late, usually after midnight even though the campaign concludes at 10 p.m. every day. “After that he will go and meet people in their houses, if there has been a death or a wedding,” says Usha. “They are happy when he comes visiting.”

Meanwhile, at home, visitors are also waiting to meet Ramachandran. “He is tired, but meets every single person before he has his bath and dinner,” says Usha. Astonishingly, Usha has her dinner along with him.

So how does she manage to stay awake? “I watch a lot of TV,” she says. “There is so much of political coverage going on.”

During the day, Usha goes to meet friends and relatives to canvas for votes. Once she met a Malayali family who lives in Dubai. “They told me that they had specifically returned to Kerala, so that they could vote for Ramachandran,” says Usha. “I felt very happy when I heard that.”

Asked about her husband's chances, Usha says, “People are aware of what he has done. He is a politician who is clean and continues to remain so. What more can he do? Keep your promises and do whatever you can in your constituency. The rest is for the people to decide.” 

A lot of women support her”

Damodaran Nambiar talks about his spouse Sreemathi Teacher, the LDF candidate for Kannur

When Sreemathi Teacher embarked on a career in politics, it was I who offered her support and encouragement,” says her husband, Damodaran Nambiar, a retired schoolteacher. “So, in her first campaign as a LDF candidate for the MP election at Kannur, I continue to help her although in a low-key manner.”

So there are no speeches or campaigning alongside the candidate. Instead, Damodaran talks to friends, colleagues, relatives, party workers, and local people. And the party workers, apart from his wife, are giving a feedback. “One complaint is the bad roads in the constituency,” says Damodaran. “Then there are the difficulties of getting the entire government pension. People are also having economic difficulties. Then there are problems of drinking water.”

Even though PK Sreemathi Teacher is pitched against the formidable K. Sudhakaran (UDF), Damodaran is optimistic that his wife will win. “A lot of women have praised her for the good work that she had done as Health Minister,” he says. “They also say she was a good MLA. All this will help Sreemathi Teacher. She is highlighting the lack of development in the constituency.”

As to whether he feels any tension about the result, Damodaran says, “No, I don't feel any nervousness at all. It is not about winning or losing, but taking part. However, the one benefit for Sreemathi Teacher is that she has been able to understand, at first-hand, all the problems that the people are facing in the constituency.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, March 31, 2014

'Thomas' Accessibility is his Strength'

Says wife Sherly as she campaigns for her husband, KV Thomas

Photos: Sherly Thomas; Ninitha with her husband MB Rajesh and children

By Shevlin Sebastian

It is a ritual that they have been doing before every general election for the past 30 years. A few days ago, Union Minister and Ernakulam MP KV Thomas and his wife, Sherly, took a train to Velankanni, where they prayed at the Basilica of Our Lady Of Good Health. “We have a lot of faith in Our Lady,” says Sherly.

In 1996, Thomas was charged with aiding a team of French nationals who were accused of spying on naval installations, off the coast of Kochi. But he could prove that on the day he was alleged to have helped the Frenchmen, Thomas and Sherly were at Velankanni. Subsequently, Thomas was exonerated.

On a recent Sunday morning, at their home in Fort Kochi, Sherly meets a group of visitors. “Some of them have not been able to see Thomas,” she says. “So I note down all their complaints.” Then, at about 10.30 a.m., Sherly embarks on her own campaign. “Most of the time I visit the churches and convents in places like Mattancherry and Fort Kochi,” she says. “I also go to places where my husband is unable to go.”

Sherly says that she has received a positive response from voters, thanks to the minister's easy accessibility. “Despite being an Union Minister, anybody can see him at home every morning,” says Sherly. “For the past five years, he has been trying to fulfill all the requests and needs of voters.”

In fact, in a book brought out by Thomas, 'Janasamaksham', there are several instances where he has helped people, including the case of Raghu Kumar (name changed). Owing to an accident at home, he suffered severe burns. Thomas arranged to pay the costs of the medical treatment at Lourdes Hospital. Thomas has also arranged to provide a mid-day meal for a few thousand students in 100 government schools. 

Sherly is confident that her husband will win again. However, she does not deny that there is an anti-incumbency mood among certain voters. “In some places, there is a drinking water shortage,” says Sherly. “I have told the people that Thomas will look into it, although it is actually the responsibility of the local [Cochin] Corporation councillor.”  

"He has done good work"
Says Ninitha R, the wife of sitting Palakkad MP MB Rajesh

A few days ago, Ninitha Rajesh, a teacher and the wife of sitting Palakkad Member of Parliament MB Rajesh (CPM) went to a student's home. There she met the 80-year-old grandmother, who was once a sports stalwart. When Ninitha was introduced to the old lady, the latter said, “I have always wanted to meet and thank Rajesh.”

The reason: in January, 2014, several students were going to Ranchi to take part in the national athletics meet. At that time, the sportsmen did not have confirmed tickets. 

However, when this large group entered the unreserved compartment, the other passengers objected. Subsequently, after a fracas and protests at Shoranur station, Rajesh arranged a sleeper bogie for the athletes, as well as the coaches. “I was very thrilled when the grandmother expressed her admiration for Rajesh,” says Ninitha.

In fact, once when Ninitha was travelling on a bus, she got into a casual conversation with a group of women. And at the end of the journey, one of the women said, “We are traditional Congress supporters, but this time, we will be voting for Rajesh,” says Ninitha. When she heard this, Ninitha revealed her identity. “They were very happy to meet me,” she says.

Ninitha says that Rajesh has done good work in the constituency. “So far, I have not received any complaints, either from UDF or LDF supporters,” she says.

Asked whether living in the spotlight is a burden, Ninitha says, “Not at all. I like to meet people. And both my husband I are committed to public service. We want to do good for society.” In fact, Ninitha has been in politics since her college days. She was a member of the central Secretariat of the Students Federation of India and former chairperson of Calicut University Students Union.

Each time they step out in public, people come forward to speak with them. “Sometimes, they will have a problem that needs to be solved,” says Ninitha. “And there are times when people show appreciation of my husband's work. When I hear that, I feel happy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)     ​

She's a Noisy Mama all right!

Carola Grey, who is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world, plays Indian jazz rock with her 'Noisy Mama' band

Photo by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1996, legendary Carnatic musician TV Gopalakrishnan was performing in Frankfurt, Germany. One day, a friend presented him with a CD of the 'Noisy Mama' band. When he listened to it, there was one drum solo section which sounded a lot like Indian music. Gopalakrishnan met the band's founder, Carola Grey, and invited her to his music school in Chennai.

So Carola went to Chennai and, after some training, she joined Gopalakrishnan's troupe. “I found Carnatic music fascinating,” she says. “The rhythms, the calculations, and the mathematical construction behind it. And yet, it is so musical.”

But just as Carola was getting the hang of it, one day, just before a concert, Gopalakrishnan said, “I have a good idea. Why don't you do the beats in khanda gati (quintuplets).” Carola felt panicky. “In western music we play with sixteen notes and triplets and that's it,” she says. “As for quintuplets, only crazy people do it.” Seeing her stricken face, Gopalakrishnan said, “Don't worry, to a great artist, it will come by itself.”

On stage Carola was performing beside Kadri Gopalnath, the pioneer of Carnatic music on the saxophone. She started hitting the drums and, somewhere along the way, the magic happened. “I realised that I was playing quintuplets effortlessly,” she says. “This happened because I put my ego to one side. Great art occurs when you step out of yourself and allow the universal energy to flow through you. You tap into something that is higher than yourself. It gave me goosebumps.”

Today, Carola is regarded as one of the best drummers in the world. And there was no doubt about that during a recent performance, with her 'Noisy Mama' band, at the JT Pac, Kochi. She did a mesmerising solo that remained in the minds of the listeners for a few days. Says audience member Dr. Sunil Mathew: “The solo was unforgettable. Carola blended the western and the Indian styles of percussion seamlessly. The music was a treat.”

Of course, what helped was that Carola was accompanied by a talented group, which included John Anthony on lead guitar, Palaghat Sreeram on vocals and flute, Naveen Kumar on bass guitar, and Biju Poulose on the keyboards.

At the concert Carola sang a song called 'Mad Chicks Fly', from her album 'Drum Attack'. “Whenever people think you are mad, you can do anything you want,” Carola told the audience. And it seemed like an autobiographical statement. The song has a catchy, infectious sound.

And Carola herself exudes a charismatic stage presence. Brimming with energy, her hands move with intense speed on the drums, while her facial expressions keep changing: sometimes, she is smiling or grimacing or looking with narrowed eyes or nodding her head rhythmically. At other times, her eyes are closed. Then suddenly she places one stick across her mouth as she adjust the mike and belts out a song.

They love the music in Europe,” she says. “They have some things they can hold on to, like the familiar jazz sounds, and then there is this strange thing that they don't know anything about.” And in India too, the band has received a positive response. “The people told me it is a fusion that works out,” says Carola. “It took me years to combine it in a way that makes sense.”

Meanwhile, when asked why her band is called 'Noisy Mama', Carola smiles and says, “It is a nickname that was given to me when I was playing music in New York many years ago and I liked it.”

Yes, indeed, this Mama will not go silently into the night. 

(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)  

Saturday, March 29, 2014

On The Road

Wives of politicians talk about their experiences during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign 

(Part 1) 

Photo of Nisha Jose by K. Shijith and Betty Louis by BP Deepu

Wife Nisha follows in Jose K Mani's footsteps
By Shevlin Sebastian

Sometime ago, Nisha, the wife of Kottayam MLA Jose Mani, went to attend the annadhanam at the Pisharukovil Devi temple at Piravom. There, she met several womenfolk, including an 84-year-old lady who requested Nisha to come for the celebrations of her birthday in February.

It was a day when Nisha was heading towards Bangalore in her car with her daughter, Priyanka, who had to sit for the entrance exams for the National Institute of Fashion Technology. But, somehow, Nisha managed to make a stop at the temple and greet the old lady. “Her look of happiness made my day,” she says.

During the election campaign for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Nisha had campaigned extensively, and given her number to numerous women in the seven Assembly segments - Ettumanoor, Kottayam, Puthupally, Kaduthuruthy, Vaikom, Pala and Piravom - that comprise the Kottayam constituency. 

I told them to contact me in case they need something,” says Nisha. “And they have been calling me. And we have become friends.” 

Thus far, Nisha has 500 numbers saved on her mobile phone. And following in the footsteps of Jose, she has attended weddings, birthdays and death ceremonies. “Yes, definitely, I am doing this to help my husband,” she says. “But I am also a people-person and enjoy meeting women.”

In fact, once desperate to find a toilet, while travelling between Kaduthuruthy and Thalayolaparambu she stopped at a random house, knocked on the door, introduced herself, used the toilet and became friends with the family. “I have attended their birthdays and baptisms,” she says, with a smile.

Interestingly, Nisha says that she does not play politics. “In fact, I don't even know which party they belong to or have sympathies for,” she says. “I have a clear mind on this.”

Meanwhile, her day begins very early when people come to the house at Kottayam. “Many of them are well-wishers, who want to meet Jose,” she says. Nisha ensures they all have something to eat. However, if there is a woman accompanied by a child, she will provide breakfast.

Thus far, the feedback she is getting from voters about Jose for next month's Lok Sabha election is positive. “With God's grace, there is a good chance that Jose will win once again, although I have told my husband not to take anything for granted,” says Nisha. “He should keep working as hard as ever.” 

​“My gut feeling is that Baby will win” - wife Betty Louis

Betty Louis, the wife of MA Baby, the senior CPI(M) leader, had a laugh when Congress supporter Celine D'Cunha recounted the experience of her son Sheen. He had gone to a nearby pilgrimage centre in Kollam. As is usually the case, there were several beggars sitting outside. Feeling in a magnanimous mood, Sheen gave Rs 10 to a beggar. The man said, “I am grateful that you have given me the money, but you must do me one favour. Please cast a vote for MA Baby.”

It seems that even though he was a beggar, he was a Left sympathiser. “He was not only begging for money, but also for votes,” says Betty. “Just like what I am doing now.”

In Kollam town, Betty met a senior Congress leader and asked for his vote. The man said, “I will give it.” But suddenly Betty remembered seeing a photo of the leader with NK Premachandran, the UDF candidate on Facebook. So Betty said, “You are not being honest when you said that you will be giving my husband the vote.”

But the Congressman said, with a serious look, “I shall help you because Baby is my friend.”

Betty starts her campaign at 8 a.m. She is accompanied by her old Students Federation of India activists like Jaji Sunil, Vimala Teacher and Chintha Jerome. “The team gets expanded at times,” says Betty. Kollam Mayor Prasanna Earnest sometimes joins the house-to-house campaign.

Interestingly, Betty says that this time there are very few complaints. “Earlier, when we used to go to the town of Kundara, people would gives us a long list of complaints,” says Betty. “One reason could be that there is development, like the Techno Park, better roads and drinking water facilities.”

Since the LDF has always been strong in the labour-dominated constituency of Kollam, whose chief industry is cashew production, Betty's gut feeling is that Baby will win. “There is a 99 per cent possibility,” she says. “But 1 per cent has to be left open. Anything can happen at any time. The party should work hard. The opponent is a good one. And the voters should decide who they think is the better candidate.”

As for the All-India election, now that the right wing, led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has put in a strong thrust, Betty says, “In the elections just after the 1975 Emergency, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was voted out. The people of India are wise and will choose what is good for the country.” 

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

When Old Age Comes Calling

This is a representative photo 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever I look at childhood albums, one photo always makes me squirm. It was of me standing three feet away from an Alsatian dog that belonged to George Thomas and his wife Molly. Standing right next to the animal, in a garden, was my bold childhood friend, Suresh. No matter how much the elders coaxed me, I was too scared to step close to the dog. And so Molly Aunty laughed and shouted, “Okay”, and the photo was taken. Looking back, I realise that I had unconsciously adopted my mother's irrational fear of dogs.

It was a time in the 1970s when my parents were young and energetic, with jet-black hair and pearly white teeth, in the bloom of health, enjoying life to the hilt. And we had gone from Kolkata with the Jacob family to spend a vacation in a small town in Orissa.

George Thomas was a senior manager in a private firm and lived in a large bungalow with his effervescent wife Molly. She was childless, but never seemed to mind it. And I remember all the laughter, jokes, the occasional teasing, and the imbibing of alcohol among the adults as we children played on the lawn. Undoubtedly, all of us had a good time.

Fast-forward more than 40 years: A couple of weeks ago, along with my parents, I meet Molly Aunty for the first time since that vacation. She has greyed, wears spectacles, and lives in a single room in an old people's home in Kochi. Her Chennai-based husband had died of a heart attack a few years ago. And the moment she sees me, she exclaims, “I still have that photo of you and Suresh standing next to our Alsatian dog. Both of you were sweet and well-behaved children.”

But soon her face falls as she ponders about her life. “I don't feel strong enough when I walk now,” she says. “I fell down sometime ago. It has affected my confidence.” She pauses and says, in a low voice, “Nobody comes to see me.”

But Molly Aunty quickly becomes magnanimous. “I can't blame people these days,” she says. “They are under so much pressure. We should not burden them with our problems.”
As she speaks, I am trying hard to recall the image of that jolly woman of a long time ago. As if sensing my thoughts, she suddenly clasps my mother's hands and says, with a youthful smile, “What wonderful times we had, isn't it?” And my mother smiles and presses her friend's hand in return.

What can both of them say? Everybody is given a youth. And when you have that, you live as if you will remain young forever. And then time comes and knocks it away, puts in middle age, then after a while it knocks that away and then you slide into into old age.

In his book, 'A World Growing Old', author Jeremy Seabrook writes, “Ageing seems to take most people by surprise. There are no rites of passage, no ceremonies, and no rituals to mark the entrance into old age. There is also little evidence that old age is a time of serenity.

In the middle stages of my own life, I am fearful that, one day, old age will creep onto me, like a thief in the night, and, most probably, leave me devastated. 

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