Monday, December 11, 2017

“We Should Agree To Disagree”

Artist Somji, a former Deputy Commissioner (Taxes), talks about his exhibition, 'Identity of Tolerance'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photos by Ramees MA

In his terrace art gallery, at his home behind the sprawling campus of the Cochin University of Science and Technology, at Kochi, KA Soman (Artist Somji) is busy getting his works ready. Some have already been framed, others yet to be. His exhibition, titled 'Identity of Tolerance', which is being held at the Durbar Art Gallery, from December 12-17, will consist of as much as 70 paintings. But they have all been done in the abstract style.

One striking image is of an old man, with his right hand covering his nose and mouth. Standing next to him is a woman in a black shroud. Behind her, there are raised hands almost pleading for help. On the right, there is another hand which looks like it is raised in protest.
The ordinary man is horrified by what is happening in the country now,” says Somji. “He probably knew about a tolerant India earlier. Now he is feeling ashamed of what is happening.”

The retired Deputy Commissioner (Taxes) continues, “Tolerance is a very relevant theme these days not only in India but all over the world. A lot of atrocities are being done in the name of tolerance. For example, the insistence of singing the national anthem, the over-protection of the cow, hyper-nationalism, the suppression of free expression,  and the insistence of eating only particular types of food. People are also prescribing the way you can dress. So, they are frowning on T-shirts and jeans.”

In another work, there are several cows crowding the frame in front. Behind it are two faces with grim expressions. “The cow has become the dominant motif in our national discourse,” says Somji. “In north India, the cow is being deified. It is an animal which gives us a lot of milk, and other benefits. But to raise it to a divine level, will cause problems. India has a huge and diverse population, so the only way to move forward is to consider the views of all the people.”

But the airing of views has become a fraught affair. “When we express a point of view, there are people who will oppose you vehemently,” says Somji. “Many times, they use violence. This has been exemplified by the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. I believe that one should agree to disagree so that all views can be aired. We have to formulate new ideas through discussions and mutual understanding. But that is not happening at the moment.”

In another work, a couple is looking at each other. But staring at them is a man who does not look pleased at all. There is also an image of a man who is wearing a full-sleeved shirt, but who has the face of a rhinocerosis with the horns sticking out from the face. A person standing next to him has the same horns. At the side, there are two women who are kneeling and praying.

The rulers are pretending to be human beings, but they are rhinos, ready to use their tusks, and shed blood, to achieve their aims,” says Somji. “They are building a society where people have to be like rhinos in order to survive. As for the women, they are kneeling and praying to their forefathers. I also wanted to show that in a male-dominated society they will always remain in the background.”

Besides most of the paintings, Somji is planning to put up telling quotations by great people. One is by the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who said, “In the practice of tolerance, one's enemy is the best teacher.” Noted educationist Helen Keller had said, “The highest result of education is tolerance.” As for the Father of the Nation, this is what Mahatma Gandhi said: “Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit.”

This exhibition makes us aware of the direction the country is moving. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

A Senior Bureaucrat Remembers

M. Ramachandran has written a memoir of his 38-year service in the Indian Administrative Service

By Shevlin Sebastian  

In the 1990s, at Meerut, the Governor had come on a visit. According to protocol, he was lodged at the main Circuit House. At the same time, a central minister had come visiting and was put up in an annexe. It affected the minister's ego. In front of everybody, the minister shouted at the Divisional Commissioner M. Ramachandran, although this was not under his purview. Ramachandran was deeply anguished and wrote a letter to the Chief Secretary apprising him of this incident.

This incident was recounted in Ramachandran's memoir, 'The Mavericks of Mussoorie' (Life in the corridors of power). Today, decades later, Ramachandran still keenly feels the humiliation of that moment. And during the panel discussion following the book release, recently, at New Delhi, retired senior bureaucrats like TSR Subramanian, BK Chaturvedi, Amitabh Kant and others did talk about the need for a code of conduct for politicians, just as it is there for members of the civil services. “This discussion should be taken forward,” says Ramachandran.

This well-written memoir is a must-read for all those who are entering the service or beginning their careers. It gives a clear picture of the problems a bureaucrat can face, and the ways to solve them, as well as the pulls and pressures from politicians and the public. It can also be interesting to others.

'For the general reader, the book is a chance to acquaint themselves more intimately with how the Indian Administrative Service or the bureaucracy functions,' writes Ramachandran in the preface. 'All too often it is assumed that civil servants lead cushy and luxurious lives. People are quick to feel frustrated with bureaucracy and failures in governance, but I think the book will provide a perspective and an understanding of the multi-layered challenges of functioning within a layered and structured system.'

Indeed it does. Apart from that, there are nuanced portraits of leaders like Narain Dutt Tiwari, S. Jaipal Reddy, Rajiv Gandhi, Arun Nehru and Kalyan Singh.

And not surprisingly, there are interesting anecdotes. On December 6, 1992, the day the Babri Masjid fell, Ramachandran received a call from a batch-mate who was posted in another state, seeking immediate help for troubled family members who belonged to a minority community and were being targeted. He immediately passed on instructions to the local administration to make sure that that protection was provided.

'Such was the bonding of batch mates in the All India Services; this colleague knew he could count on immediate help and relief being provided,' wrote Ramachandran. 'I would have come to the help of any other such person as well, but the question was how many people would have been able to contact me directly, like my batch mate?'

In another time, when he was personal secretary to Arun Nehru, who was a minister of state for internal security, Mother Teresa came visiting at North Block. And Ramachandran accompanied her to the Customs Board located on the other side of the building. 'After some time, while on her way back, she made it a point to walk back to my office just to thank me and present me with a small memento,' writes Ramachandran. 'I was greatly touched. This was very gracious of her. I felt happy I could be of some help to this rarest of rare human beings dedicated to the service of humanity.'

Ramachandran describes many other experiences, the numerous developmental works, his stint in the United Nations Development Programme as well as his stay at the University of Glasgow where he did his M.Phil in Economic Planning. Eventually, he secured a doctorate from the University of Lucknow.

After a 38-year-service, Ramachandran reached the post of Secretary, the Central Ministry of Urban Development. And he was all set to reach the apex post of Cabinet Secretary. But he experienced a major disappointment, when the incumbent received an unprecedented extension, resulting in a four-year term.

It is a sad reflection of the decision-making process,” says Ramachandran, who retired in 2010 and stays in Delhi. “But I knew that I had to move on.” Today, he is the Chairperson of the Indian Heritage Cities Network Foundation, Chairman of the National Urban Transport Awards Committee, as well as a chancellor of a university. 

It has been a life well-lived.

Title: The Mavericks of Mussoorie – Life In The Corridors of Power'

Author: M. Ramachandran

Publisher: Rupa

Pages: 307

Price: Rs 395 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, December 04, 2017

A Taste That Grows On You

So good was chef Anjappar that Tamil Nadu superstar MG Ramachandran hired him on the spot. Today, the Anjappar restaurant chain, which has opened its first unit in Kochi, is going from strength to strength

Photos: The inside of the Anjappar restaurant at Lulu Mall, Kochi; a variety of items; the late founder Anjappar

By Shevlin Sebastian

Malayalam singer Madhu Balakrishnan was very happy when the Anjappar restaurant opened at the Lulu Mall, Kochi, a few months ago. “I have been a fan since long,” he says. “Whenever I would have music programmes in places like Dubai and Singapore, I would always go to have the Chettinad food.” (this is the cuisine of the Nattukotai Chettiars, who belong to the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu).

Asked the reason for his liking, Madhu says, “It is light on the stomach. And the food has a different taste.”

This is affirmed by the Food and Beverages Head S. Gandhinathan. “Our base is black pepper and spices, instead of masala powder,” he says. “To get the best spices we buy from wholesalers, instead of retail outlets. And to maintain quality, we grind the spices ourselves. Our USP is that we use different spices for every dish.”

So, for the mutton sukka dish, the spices used include cinnamon, cloves and pepper cumin. But for the chicken dishes, it is chilly and coriander. Some of the other spices, which are used, include star aniseed, tamarind, fennel seeds, fenugreek, as well as curry leaves and peppercorn.

We also use a lot of shallots (small onions),” says Gandhinathan. “It makes the dishes tastier.” For a first-time visitor, there is an initial feeling of the food being a bit hot, but gradually the taste grows on you. And, indeed, at the end of the meal, you don’t feel heavy at all.

According to Gandhinathan, the most popular dishes are the special Chettinad meals, as well as the different varieties of dum biriyani: chicken, fish, prawn and mutton. “In fact, the biriyani is very popular abroad,” he says.

There are Anjappar restaurants in the USA, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, while, in India, the majority are in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Pondicherry, and now, the 79th outlet in Kerala.

In Kochi, interestingly, most of the Malayali customers who come, have already had meals at Anjappar restaurants while working in West Asia. There are also Mollywood stars like Aju Varghese, Mamta Mohandas Asif Ali, Vineeth Sreenivasan and former cricketer S Sreesanth who are regulars. In the comments book, Sreesanth wrote, 'Amazing food and service'.

A life-changing move

When the founder Anjappar left the village of Ponnamaravathy, in the Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu, with his family, to Chennai, 400 kms away, in the 1950s, to better his economic prospects, little could he have imagined that his life would turn out the way it did.

What helped was Anjappar's natural talent for cooking and a fateful meeting with the colossus of Tamil Nadu, the filmstar MG Ramachandran, on the sets of a film, where Anjappar was providing the food. “MGR Sir liked Anjappar Sir's food so much that he immediately hired him as his personal chef,” says Gandhinathan. Thereafter, he worked in MGR's kitchen for the next 20 years. Then, with the blessings of the superstar, he ventured out and started his first restaurant in Royapettah in 1964. And never looked back.

The success story has continued for decades. Unfortunately, Anjappar passed away on January 7, 2001. Now his two sons, Kandasamy and Maruthu Pandian are running the show. “We are focused on expanding our chain,” says Kandasamy. With their unique taste, success seems to be assured. 

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

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Trying To Change The Mindset

Manjeri Nasser, with his Idea Factory group, is on a mission to make people change for the better

Photos: Manjeri Nasser; members on their first Caribbean cruise 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was a Caribbean cruise from Kochi. More than 50 people from North Kerala were on the ship. They were making their first trip overseas trip to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. They came from different backgrounds: artists, businessmen, teachers, IT executives and entrepreneurs, all in the age range of 23 to 40. While there, they interacted with the local businessmen, as well as administrators and bureaucrats. They were led by businessman Manjeri Nasser and his 99 Idea Factory CCD team (CCD= Collection, Coordination and Distribution).

For the group, the trip was a revelation,” says Nasser. “They met people with completely different attitudes. As a result, they could better understand our Malayali mindset.”

And what is that mindset? “Malayalis have a lot of common sense but they lack professionalism,” he says. “We have an attitude problem. We will not allow anybody to do anything good nor will we appreciate it when something nice is done. Instead, we tend to look for faults.”

And we take our freedom for granted. “One person takes the freedom of one-and-a-half people,” says Nasser. “There is a lack of productivity among the people. And we don't have a vision for our life. If I ask somebody, 'what are your aims for 2030'?, nine times out of ten, they will have no answer.”

For Nasser, the best visionary was the late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “Thanks to his far-reaching thinking, he was able to set up the Indian Institute of Management and many other institutions all over the country. In Singapore, too, the administrators have a long-term vision. And they do their work aligned with this.”

Through the Idea Factory, the Manjeri-based businessman wants to change the attitude of the people. So Nasser holds a 'Salute to the Seniors' programme, where successful people talk about their life experiences and take questions from the audience. “If we spend two hours with a 70-year-old man and can get an idea of his experiences and life lessons, it will be very helpful to us,” says Nasser.

Some of the speakers included the collage artist Manu Kallikad, the Limca Book record holder, CP Kunjumohammed, chairman of Iqraa hospital, as well as motivational expert Santosh Nair.

After attending Santosh's one-day workshop, an ordinary farmer by the name of Rafeeq Shah (name changed) felt that he had an entrepreneurial gift. He started a business in steel rods and it took off. Now, Rafiq has 32 branches all over Kerala. So, some people have made dramatic changes.

Another programme is called the Positive Circle programme. Again, the aim is to change the mindset of Malayalis. “90 percent of the people who live in the state have a negative attitude,” he says. At this moment, the programme is taking place in Manjeri, Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kochi. But Nasser wants to spread it all over Kerala. “Interestingly, most of the attendees tend to have a positive attitude,” says Nasser. “The others stay away.”

He has taken the concept to Dubai, where again about 400 people took part in a four-day seminar of talks, discussions and ideas.

Meanwhile, Nasser has just returned from a trip to Germany, Holland,  Switzerland, Belgium and France. “Our next trip is Idea Tour Europe,” he says. This will take place next May, and 40 people will comprise the group.

There will be different types of interactions, apart from sight-seeing,” says Nasser. “I believe the 12-day tour will help develop a new mindset among the participants.” 

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

Monday, November 27, 2017

Hopes And Worries

At the inaugural exhibition, at the Onyx Art Gallery at Mattancherry, 31 artistes are displaying an intriguing variety of moods and thought processes

Photos:  Jagesh Edakkad’s graphite pencil drawing, 'A Glance To The Past'; Varghese Kalathil’s ‘Self-portrait with burning memories’, work by Sunil Asokapuram

By Shevlin Sebastian

A glance at artist Jagesh Edakkad’s graphite pencil drawing, 'A Glance To The Past', brings a smile to one’s face. It is a drone-like view of a village: the typical tiled houses of Kerala, with smoke billowing from chimneys. The narrow roads have very little traffic. There are numerous coconut trees, apart from paddy fields, dotting the landscape. There is the familiar bakery shop, a hotel and not, to forget, the ubiquitous toddy shop. And a train in the middle bifurcates the canvas neatly.

It is a moment of nostalgia for me,” says the Kochi-based Jagesh. “This is an image of my village in Kannur. Nowadays, all the places are crowded and polluted. I wanted to show a village that was neat and environmentally-clean.”

He has memories of going to the bakery shop as well as the toddy shop as a child. “I would go and get fresh toddy so that my mother could make appams,” he says.

In complete contrast is Varghese Kalathil’s ‘Self-portrait with burning memories’. It shows two portraits side by side of the pony-tailed Varghese. In one he is looking downwards. Right in the middle of the chest, there is an image of a lifeless child in a red sweater. This is the world-famous image of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach in the Greek island of Kos. Along with his parents, they were trying to escape to Europe on a boat from Syria when the boy drowned.

In the second portrait, Varghese has drawn the back of his body. This time, there is an image of a thin girl, with protruding limbs, with face bent, almost pressing into the mud, but looking in a state of agony. A vulture stands close by. This was a Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph, which was taken by the South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, while on assignment to Sudan in 1993, where a civil war was taking place. 

There was a famine in the area,” says Varghese. “People were dying. The vulture was also waiting for the child to die so that it could eat her.” Unfortunately, Kevin was deeply affected by what he had seen in Sudan. The 33-year-old committed suicide a year later because of depression.

I want to tell the truths of life,” says Varghese. “I am not very much bothered if the work does not sell. As for this particular work, I don't think anybody would like to put up in their homes. But I am okay with it.”

Another sombre work is that of Sreeja Pallam’s ‘Dirge of a Soil’ Through a broken wall, you can see a semi-naked woman clutching the dark brown mud. Next to her are the openings of two empty canisters pressed into the mud.

The woman is a representative of Mother Nature,” says Sreeja. “I wanted to show that nature is being shattered. We are reaching a stage where the water cannot even penetrate the mud. We seem to have no address on this earth.”

Sunil Asokapuram is equally worried. In his acrylic on canvas, there is a person at the back of the painting with his arms upraised. “This is to reflect the crucified Jesus Christ to show the state of mankind,” he says. “We are being crucified by all sorts of problems.”

In the middle of the painting, there is a broken down pillar. “Again this is a metaphor to show the broken state of our society, politics, and the loss of belief worldwide in ideology and human beings,” says Sunil.

However, he has not lost all hope. At the side, there is an image of a man whose opened chest reveals a lamp burning. “This painting can elevate life for the viewer, and so can music, books and films,” he says. “There is always a space for good things to happen.”

A total of 31 artists are taking part in this inaugural exhibition of the Onyx Art Gallery at Mattancherry, which has been started by artists Onyx Paulose and Sara Hussein.
Almost all the works are impressive including those by OC Martin, Babitha Rajive, Robert Lopez, Baby KG, Devadas, Sajith Puthukkalavattom, Tom Vattakkuzhiy, Suresh Koothuparambau, Sreelal and Manoj Narayanan.

Curator O. Sundar said that he did not suggest any theme to the artists. “I wanted them to feel free,” he says. The artists have been invited from the districts of Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Allapuzha, Kollam and Thrissur. “Many of them are unable to get a space to display their works at Kochi, the art capital,” says Sundar. “So I wanted to give them an opportunity.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Falling Into A Deep Lake


Mollywood actor Hareesh Peradi talks about his experiences in the films, 'Sir CP', 'Mersal', and the television serial, 'Guruvayurappan'

Photo by K. Shijith 

By Shevlin Sebastian

It was 12 noon at the Marthandam Kayal, Allapuzha. Actor Hareesh Peradi was standing atop a boat. The shoot was for the film, 'Sir CP' (2015) by director Shajoon Kariyal. Dressed in a brown kurta, he plays a villain. Jayaram as the hero is supposed to violently push him away. And Hareesh had to fall backwards into the water.

“This could not be done through a stunt-man since there was a close-up of my face,” says Hareesh. “So the crew located an area where it was shallow so that when I fell into the water, I would be able to come up quickly.”

It took some time to set up the shoot. Then Jayaram pushed Hareesh and he fell. And that was when he got a shock. Hareesh went right down. It was not a shallow area at all. “Even though I knew how to swim, I was panicking, because there was a strong undercurrent,” says Hareesh.

Somehow, he managed to stop the downward movement. Slowly, he moved up. And then suddenly, he saw a rope, which was dangling from the boat. He grabbed at it and pulled himself up and reached the surface, where he was rescued by the crew members.

It had been a puzzle about what had happened till locals said that the delay in shooting resulted in the boat moving ever so slightly from its designated place, thanks to the moving waters and a strong wind. “None of us had noticed this,” says Hareesh.

Lessons from Mersal

In the recent Tamil blockbuster, 'Mersal', which stars Vijay, Hareesh plays a villain doctor by the name of Arjun Zachariah. In a flashback, he is at a new hospital in a small village near Madurai. A patient, played by Nithya Menon, is about to give birth. And Hareesh had to act as a male gynaecologist.

“I knew that the stomach was an artificial one, and it had been made by the art director,” says Hareesh. “I also knew that the baby was a fake.” Nevertheless, he had to cut up the stomach and take the baby out. “Then I had to upturn the baby, and hit his buttocks a couple of times so that it starts crying,” says Hareesh.

Earlier, the actor had been present outside the labour room for the birth of his two children, Vishnu and Vaidi. But he had no idea about what took place inside. It was only when acting in 'Mersal' that he realised giving birth is such a difficult thing.

“My respect for my wife and all women increased tremendously,” says Hareesh. “I must thank 'Mersal' for that.”

Hareesh is also thankful for the extraordinary experience in the TV serial 'Guruvayurappan'. He played the character of Kimvadhan, another version of Lord Shiva. The shoot was in Thiruvananthapuram.

There was a scene when he arrives at a house, and the family gives him food to eat. He sits on the steps and a crow is supposed to come up. Then he had to tell the family, “Do you know who this is?”

When they plead ignorance, Hareesh says, “This is not an ordinary crow. This crow has seen seven Rama-Ravana fights, as well as nine Mahabaratha battles.”

The shoot was at 7 p.m. So there was no chance for a crow to be spotted at so late an hour. “What we were planning to do was that I would say my dialogues, look up as if to see a crow, and then we would shoot a crow the next day,” says Hareesh.

When the shoot began through the corner of his eye, Hareesh saw a crow flying onto a branch of a tree nearby. Soon, it flew down right next to Hareesh. The crew was stunned. Then when Hareesh said the dialogues, the crow ate quietly and flew away.

After its departure, all the crew members shouted loudly, as one, “Krishna, Guruvayurappa.”

Says Hareesh: “This is an experience which I will never forget. Before this event, I was an atheist. But thereafter, I have become a firm believer in God.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhide and Thiruvananthapuiram)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Reliving The Past

Malayali Jew Menahem Pallivathukal, who lives in Israel, talks about his experiences during the former students' reunion at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani

Photos: (From left): S. Jayaraj, Menahem Pallivathukal, and KN Sasi; the people gathered for the function 

By Shevlin Sebastian

K.N. Sasi hugged Menahem Pallivathukal and said, “Hi James Bond.” Another friend S. Jayaraj also embraced Menahem and said, “Hello, Mr Bond.”

All three of them – hostel mates at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani (1971-74) – met on November 11, at the college campus where they held a reunion.

In college, Menahem was a big fan of the Bond movie franchise. Whenever he would have a friendly argument, he would use his fingers like a pistol. That was how he got the nickname of Bond.

Meanwhile, the reunion was not with the students only, but there was a meeting with the teachers, as well – a Guruvandanam. While the teachers were in their late seventies, the students were all in their sixties.

Not surprisingly, everybody had retired except for Menahem. A Malayali, of Jewish origin, he works as a Chief Agronomist and Forest Officer at the Agricultural Department, at Netanya, 30 kms from Tel Aviv. “In Israel, the retirement age is 67,” says Menahem, who migrated to the Jewish country in 1975.

But all of those who came for the function had been gainfully employed. “They were mostly state government agricultural officers,” says Menahem. “A few worked in the agriculture department of banks. All worked until retirement. There were no job losses like it is there now.”

Interestingly, in the college, Menahem was the only Jew. And a humorous moment would occur often because teachers found it difficult to pronounce his full name: Menahem Pallivathukal Rufeldhor. “The teachers would try to pronounce it. Then they would say, ‘Please stand up and tell your name’,” says Menahem, who smiled at the memory.

Otherwise, he faced no problems whatsoever. “In the hostel, all of us, belonging to different faiths, came from places like Kozhikode, Kottayam, Thrissur, Kasaragod, Kollam, Kottayam, and Ernakulam,” says Menahem. “And we learned to live with each other in a harmonious manner. We were like brothers and sisters.”

But, like all college students, they were always up to mischief. “When classes became boring, some of us, after getting our attendance marked, would jump out of the window and make our escape,” says Menahem. “Thankfully, our classes were on the ground floor. And because there were 50 students in a class, the teacher also did not notice the one or two students who went missing.”

In the evenings, they would raid the farms within the campus and steal pineapples, bananas and mangoes. Sometimes, they would get on a boat and travel down the canal behind the college. “We would sing songs and have a good time,” says Menahem.

They would also go for evening film shows, and inevitably miss the 10 p.m. deadline. “When the warden would come inspecting our rooms, he would not see us and our parents would be informed,” says Menahem. “Then we had to do a lot of explaining to our own families.”

All these joyful memories were exchanged among the former students and teachers.
But there were sombre moments too. Quite a few of the teachers had died. And Menahem’s closest friend in college, O.V.A. Fuad, who was from Tellicherry, died because of some problem with his nerves. “I miss him very much,” says Menahem. In total, seven classmates have died so far.

For the function, 37 people attended, out of which eight were women. “We have plans to hold the next reunion a year later at Kochi,” says Menahem. “Hopefully, I will be able to attend.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Aiming To Hit The Bull's Eye All The Time

Shooter Elizabeth Koshy, who has won gold medals at the World Police Games recently, talks about her dreams and hopes

Photos by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Elizabeth Koshy prepared to lift the rifle at the start of the 50m event at the World Police Games in Los Angeles, in August, she was told of a rule change. “The organisers said that I had to remove the butt, which is the main support,” says Elizabeth. The Kerala lass was taken aback. Then the organisers explained their rationale: the Indian team consisted of professional award-winning shooters. But the competitors from other countries worked as policemen and did shooting as a pastime.

Elizabeth accepted the argument. “But I found it a bit difficult to adjust,” she says. Nevertheless, Elizabeth ended up winning the gold in the 50m rifle prone and three-position events.

On the day she returned, to her home at Kochi, there was a surprise visitor. It was Loknath Behra, the Thiruvananthapuram-based Director-General of the Kerala Police who came to offer congratulations. Soon, there was an avid discussion and it was decided that a state police team would be set up. “Six air rifles will be imported,” says Elizabeth. And because of her busy schedule, she will only be a part-time coach as well as a mentor.

So far, she's had a fairly successful career. Elizabeth is the first Malayali to win a shooting medal; this was achieved at the National Games at Thiruvananthapuram in 2015. Earlier, she had won a few junior titles and still holds the 50m prone junior national record. At the international level, Elizabeth has taken part in World Cups, World Championships, Commonwealth Games, Asian Championships, as well as the South Asian Federation Games, in which she has won two individual gold medals.

But it all began by accident. When she was twelve years old, her father took her to a pre-national event at the Muttom Rifle Club at Thodupuzha.

There was a 20-year-old lady who was shooting,” says Elizabeth. “I was immediately attracted by what she was doing.”

Seeing her interest, her father enrolled her at the club. It helped that Elizabeth's school, the Village International was nearby. Within a week, the coach Suresh told her parents, “I see some talent in her. She can do well.”

This turned out to be true. Within a year, Elizabeth qualified for the district, state and national championships.

One reason for her skill could be that shooting is in her genes. Her grandfather, Punnoose Abraham, who owned a large rubber estate, would go hunting regularly. She remembers seeing double-barrel guns and air rifles at his house.

Of course, the unique thing about shooting is that it is an individual sport. “It is always about you and your weapon,” says Elizabeth. “You rise and fall by yourself.”

She gives an example. Some time ago, she began to feel frustrated as she was missing the bull's eye regularly. She blamed the ammunition and the weapon. However, soon, Elizabeth noticed that there was a difference in her breathing pattern from shot to shot. “I also observed that there was a change in the way I held the rifle,” she says. “So I decided to concentrate on my body movements, and ensured that I had the same style for every shot that I took.”

As she goes about perfecting her technique, Elizabeth is also concentrating on qualifying for the Indian team, so that she can take part in the Commonwealth Games in April, 2018, at Queensland, Australia. There will be a trial in November, the nationals in December and two trials in January. Based on the aggregate result, the top two will be selected.

Women's shooting is very competitive,” says Elizabeth. “So, I am training very hard.”  

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Crown Of Rope And Sticks


Photo of SB Satheeshan by K. Shijith; Manju Warrier and Jayaram in the song, 'Confusion Theerkaname'

Costume designer SB Satheeshan talks about his experiences in the films, ‘Kathapurushan’, 'Guru', 'Black' and 'Summer in Bethlehem'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In his first film – Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Kathapurushan’ (1995) – costume designer SB Satheeshan was told to make a uniform of a Kerala policeman of the 1940s. But when Satheeshan came across the cloth, he realised that it was of a very thick material, almost like a canvas.

It was very difficult to stitch that cloth,” he says. “I used an old Singer machine, with a thick needle, which was provided by Adoor Sir, but still could not do it.”

So, he went to Adoor and told him that when he tried to stitch the uniform, 15 needles broke. “This was an exaggeration,” says Satheeshan. “But I wanted to show how difficult it was. Adoor Sir replied, ‘No problem, break about 25 needles, but I need this material only’. 

This gives you an idea of his dedication and desire for authenticity.”

In his next film, ‘Guru’ (1997), Satheeshan was asked to make a crown for Suresh Gopi who played a blind king named Samanthaka Rajavu. To suit the story, Satheeshan made a crown and costume of coir and bamboo.

But when Suresh saw it, he wasnot sure whether it would be suitable for his character.

I felt a great tension within myself,” says Satheeshan.

Actor Mohanlal, who was nearby said, “Wearing such a costume is a rare opportunity. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.”

But Suresh remained unconvinced.

Then Mohanlal asked Satheeshan’s help to put on the costume. “When I did so, all the crew at the location looked amazed at how good Mohanlal looked,” says Satheeshan. “That was when Suresh was convinced.”

The shooting resumed. “The next day, a grateful Suresh gave Satheeshan Rs 1000 to show his appreciation. “I shared it with my assistants,” he says. “It was a happy moment.”

But Satheeshan went through moments of deep tension on the sets of 'Black' (2004). At the climax, there is a conflict between Mammootty and Lal. A bottle of brandy falls to the floor. Mammootty throws a matchstick and Lal's white dhoti catches fire.

This shot was taking place at night in a house at Thevara, Kochi. Satheeshan was at home a few kilometres away. At 12.30 a.m. he got a call from the set. Three dhotis with a black border had been burnt but director Renjith was not happy with the shot. Satheeshan was asked to get another dhoti. But as he was being driven to the set, he wondered, 'At this time of the night, how am I going to get another dhoti, with a black border?'

If the production stopped, the producer would lose lakhs of rupees because it would have to continue the next day. But when Satheeshan arrived at the set and saw the burnt dhotis he suddenly got a brainwave. He cut away the non-burnt black border, and stitched them together on a white dhoti and got the border again. “So, the continuity in the scenes could be maintained,” says Satheeshan. “I was so relieved.”

Lal, who was producing the film, was also relieved. He shook the costume designer's hand and said, “This is the reason why we hire SB Satheeshan.”

The designer smiled happily.

However, there was similar tension on the sets of 'Summer in Bethlehem' (1998). For the song, 'Confusion Theerkaname', Satheeshan made Jayaram wear a white juba, dark sunglasses, and a white headgear. One day, Jayaram’s wife Parvathy came to the location at Chennai. When she saw Jayaram, she said that this is the type of headgear that women wore when they worked in the paddy fields. “I agreed, but had wanted to give a different look to Jayaram,” says Satheeshan. “I said the costume was aimed at matching the zany mood in the song. But Parvathy suggested that it should be changed.”

At that time director Renjith was looking after the costumes. Satheeshan asked Renjith to have a look. And when the latter did so, he liked it. So it was retained.

The song became a big hit,” says Satheeshan. “Thereafter, in many reality show competitions on TV, I had to give marks to participants who wore the same costume as Jayaram. In fact, Jayaram said the same thing happened when he was a judge.” 

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

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Man Who Triggered the war for Independence

(These articles appeared in the 'Letters to Indira' supplement of The New Indian Express, Kerala editions)

Mangal Pandey: The Man who triggered the war for Indian Independence

On the afternoon of March 29, 1857, Lieutenant Baugh, Adjutant of the 34th Bengal Native Infantry was told that several men of his regiment were in an excited state.

Baugh did not have to go far to seek the source of the anger. At that time, a new Enfield rifle was introduced in India. A soldier had to bite off the ends of greased cartridges to load the weapon. There was a rumour that the lubricant used was either cow or pig lard; this was repugnant to Hindus and Muslims respectively. Soon, there was a belief that the British had deliberately done it.

Baugh was then given new information that one soldier, Mangal Pandey, was pacing in front of the regiment's guard room with a loaded musket.

So, he immediately set out to confront Pandey. When he came near, Pandey took aim and fired. But he missed. Instead, the bullet struck the horse, and horse and rider were brought down.

Baugh quickly got up and fired himself. But he also missed. Thereafter, Pandey attacked Baugh with a sword, and slashed his shoulder and neck and brought him to the ground.

In the end, Pandey was overpowered by other British officers but not before he shot his musket at his chest. But the wound was not fatal. Pandey recovered and within a week he was brought to trial.

There were suggestions that Pandey was under the influence of drugs – possibly cannabis or opium – and hence was not fully aware of his actions. But the judge remained unmoved and sentenced Pandey to death. He was hanged on April 8.

Following this, there were many similar mutinies all over India. Without realising it, Pandey had triggered the first war of Indian Independence.

As a result, he has been remembered in many ways. A film called 'Mangal Pandey: The Rising', starring actor Aamir Khan, and directed by Ketan Mehta was released in 2005. The life of Pandey was the subject of a stage play titled, 'The Roti Rebellion', which was written and directed by Supriya Karunakaran.

On October 5, 1984, the Government of India issued a postage stamp bearing his image. There is also a park called Shaheed Mangal Pandey Maha Udyan at the place where Pandey attacked the British officers in Barrackpore.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel: He united the country

In 1918, the farmers in the Kheda region of Gujarat suffered from plague and crop failure. Despite that, the British insisted that taxes should be paid. When the farmers were not able to do this, the British rulers responding by confiscating the lands. In stepped Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel who stood tall amongst the agitating farmers and spearheaded the 'No Tax Campaign'. He united all the castes and creeds of the region. When the protests snowballed, the British quickly came to an agreement to suspend their tax collection and the lands were returned to the agitating farmers.

This showed the early leadership qualities of Patel. And thereafter, he made a steady march upwards in the hierarchy of the Congress party. Patel, who was deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, worked closely with him during the Quit India Movement.

Once India gained independence in 1947, Patel became the country's first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. He showed his heart was in the right place when he organised relief camps for refugees fleeing from the communal riots in the Punjab and East Bengal.

He was also a man of decisive action. When the Partition of India resulted in huge bloodshed and realising that Delhi and Punjab policemen were personally affected by tragedy, Patel immediately arranged for the South Indian regiments of the Indian Army to restore order, impose curfew and shoot-at-sight orders.

But his major achievement was when he convinced 565 self-governing princely states to merge with the Indian Union. He did this by using diplomacy and the threat of military action. As a result of this achievement, he earned the title of 'Iron Man Of India'.

He was also the one to set up the structure of the Indian Administrative Services. This includes the Indian Police Service as well as the Forest Service. So, it is no surprise that he is known as the patron saint of the Services.

Patel also played a major role in the shaping of the Indian Constitution. It was he who ensured the appointment of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee and called in leaders from different political streams. In the end, India has one of the most comprehensive constitutions in the world.

His career came to an end when he died on December 15, 1950, at the age of 75. Patel was posthumously awarded India's highest civilian honour the Bharat Ratna in 1991. And in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his birthday, October 31, as the Rashtriya Ekta Diwas (National Unity Day).

Gopal Krishna Gokhale: the gentle face of the Congress

On February 27, 1914, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to Congress leader Gopal Krishna Gokhale, 'I propose to leave for India in April. I am entirely in your hands. I want to learn at your feet and gain the necessary experience. My present ambition is to be by your side as your nurse and attendant. I want to have the real discipline of obeying someone whom I love and look up to. I propose to use the funds you have sent for our passages'.

Gokhale and Gandhi had met for the first time in 1896. But it was only when they spent a month together at the Calcutta Congress of 1901 that they got close. Gokhale asked Gandhi to return from South Africa and serve the people of India. He then wrote recommendation letters for Gandhi to several lawyers in Bombay to secure an opening. But Gandhi who was preoccupied with fighting for the rights of Indians in South Africa decided not to take up the offer at that time.

Gokhale was always regarded as the moderate face of the Indian National Congress. He always believed in dialogue and accommodation with the British government to achieve the goal of self-rule. Not everybody, especially his fellow Chitpavan Brahmin Bal Gangadhar Tilak, agreed to this approach.

In fact, they had a confrontation over the Age of Consent bill. This was introduced by the British Government, in 1891. It raised the age of consent of marriage for a girl from 10 to 12.

Gokhale and other liberal reformers supported the bill to curb child marriage abuses. As for Tilak, he said that the British should not interfere with Hindu traditions. He wanted such bills to be introduced only after Independence. The bill, however, became law in the Bombay Presidency.

In 1905, Gokhale was elected the president of the Indian National Congress. It was at this time that he founded the Servants of India Society. Its aim was to expand education. Gokhale felt that if India had to gain political change, then a new generation has to be educated regarding their civil and patriotic duties.

The Society soon organised mobile libraries, founded schools, and provided night classes for factory workers. Although the Society lost much of its vigour following Gokhale’s death, it still exists to this day, though its membership is small.

In his autobiography, 'The Story Of My Experiments With Truth', Gandhi described Gokhale as being 'pure as crystal, gentle as a lamb, brave as a lion and chivalrous to a fault and the most perfect man in the political field'.

Gokhale died on February 19, 1915, at the age of 48.

Madam Cama: the fiery woman who fought for India's cause abroad

On August 22, 1907, a fair-faced woman wearing a white saree with a blue veil stood up among the thousand delegates of the International Socialist Conference at Stuttgart, Germany. She unfurled a flag.

It had three colour bands on it: green, saffron and red. On the green band, there were eight lotuses which represented eight provinces of India before independence. In the middle of the saffron brand, the words, 'Vande Mataram' was written in Hindi. On the red band, there is the rising sun, to represent the Hindu faith and a half moon to represent Islam.
Then Bhikaji Cama said, “This is the flag of independent India. I appeal to all gentlemen to stand and salute the flag.”

The delegates were taken by surprise. Nevertheless, they all stood up and saluted the first flag of independent India. Bhikaji had a clear aim behind the unfurling. She wanted to highlight the poverty, starvation and oppression of the Indian people under the British Raj, and also to make aware that Indians wanted freedom.

And that drive for freedom was brutally being suppressed by the British authorities through ordinances, bans on public meetings and imprisoning revolutionaries for life.

At the conference, many people wondered who Bhikaji was.

This is her background: She was born on September 24, 1861, into a wealthy family. Her father, Sorabji Framji Patel, was a famous businessman who was known for his philanthropic work in Mumbai.

Thanks to the ferment in the country, Bhikaji was drawn to the freedom movement. In 1885, she married a well-known lawyer by the name of Rustomji Cama. But there were problems between the couple. While Rustomji loved the British and their way of life, his wife was opposed to them.

Meanwhile, in this unhappy situation, in 1896, the bubonic plague broke out in Mumbai. Bhikaji became one of the volunteers helping the victims. Unfortunately, she too caught the disease. Although she recovered, she remained in poor health.

So, the doctors advised her to go to Europe for rest and recuperation. In 1902, Bhikaji left India for London.

It was in Europe that she continued with her political activities. She met up with Dadabhai Naoroji, the founder of the Indian National Congress and joined the party. She also came in contact with other Indian nationalists and addressed several meetings in London’s Hyde Park, apart from meetings in Europe.