Friday, February 9, 2018

Face To Face With Kathakali At Kalakshetra!

The beats of the maddalam and the chenda can be heard from a distance. They mean that a Kathakali performance is about to begin. The drummers (not seen in the accompanying picture) are standing in the portico of the beautiful Rukmini Arangam at the Kalakshetra in Chennai. 

Photo by Lata

Now, watching Kathakali is a multi-layered experience. You have to decide whether to be completely taken in by the elaborate make up and colourful costumes of the actors, or to listen to the wonderful verses in Manipravalam (a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit), or be mesmerised by the energetic accompanying music, or to pay attention to the exquisite hand gestures, or to follow the movement of eyes and facial muscles of the artiste, or to absorb and appreciate the spectacle in its entirety. 

For people used to watching other dance forms, it may take a while to appreciate Kathakali. But once you get past the initial awe, and overcome the unfamiliarity; Kathakali opens up to you and embraces you in its majestic grandeur and subtle nuances. And when you realise how rigorous and demanding the training that the artistes undergo is, you simply bow to them with reverence.

Kathakali (literally meaning story play) is drama, dance, storytelling, folk art, and mime all rolled into one. Ideally the training should start when one is in early teens. There are excellent residential schools in Kerala imparting lessons. In fact the initial training to get one's body adapted to this dance form is very similar to what students of kalaripayattu (traditional martial art from Kerala) go through. The aspirants work hard for years to get complete control over their bodies including eyes and facial muscles. And then they have to learn to be comfortable in the make up, costume and jewellery all of which weighs several kilos if put together.

I watched some videos to get an idea about the process of wearing make up, costumes and jewellery for Kathakali. And the two words that came to my mind on watching those were: patience and surrender. An actor must have these qualities in abundance to be a good practitioner of this art. It takes between three and five hours to get ready, with the actor lying down flat on the floor to get his or her face painted by an expert. There is a prescribed colour code, and colours are used according to the character being played.  All the ingredients are natural and the coloured pastes are prepared freshly before the performance. Then putting the costume and jewellery on oneself is again an arduous task. The striking face paints, the bold headgear, the exaggerated eye make up, the curved extensions stuck from the chin to either side on the jawbones, the shiny discs that hide the ears, the ornaments around the neck and on the arms, the umbrella-shaped skirt held aloft by layers of pleated strips of cloth tied around the waist with a rope, the metallic nail extensions making fingers of the left hand look longer, waist-length hair extensions, the pleated pieces of cloth worn around the neck with their knotted ends dangling in front, and the red eyes make for a larger-than-life image of a character. I found that actors insert a part of a particular flower in their eyes to make them red. The reason? Else the eyes would look pale compared to other bright colours on the face.

Now the artiste is all set and ready for the act. Almost all the Kathakali stories are derived from mythological texts, so the plays are often long and go on for several hours. The stage is mostly bare other than the mandatory kalavilakku (oil lamp) placed in the front. The major characters usually enter the stage from behind a curtain held by two men. They pay their respects to the drums, drummers and singers before starting their performance. And then the story unfolds to the tune of the songs, the clang of the cymbals, the beat of the drums and the precise gestures and movements of the player. The dedication and devotion of all the performers is amazing. The actors bear the weight of their costume and accessories, while the drummers bear the weight of their drums, for hours and in a standing position. They bring alive a delicate romantic scene and a ferocious war scene with equal ease, the drumbeats reaching a deafening level during depictions of combat.

Kathakali was an all-male domain until some time ago. Female characters were also enacted by men. Now with women entering the world of Kathakali, the scene is slowly changing. 

Photo by Lata

It is always a pleasure to watch a Kathakali performance at Kalakshetra. Kathakali is traditionally performed in the open air, so the open and informal theatre suits it completely. The totally natural ambience, the lovely students in traditional sarees and veshtis, the fragrance of sambrani, the kolams, the floral decorations, the oil lamps, the picture of Rukmini Devi Arundale standing gracefully,  and the image of Nataraja all add up to make the experience magical and memorable. The five-day Kathakali festival which concluded last week was a perfect way to inaugurate the recently renovated performance space--Rukmini Arangam. Thank you Kalakshetra and Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan for putting together this fabulous treat!

Read my previous post on Kathakali here.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Small Sankranti Souvenir!

The phone started beeping incessantly a day earlier with notifications. Messages were pouring in from enthusiastic well-wishers who wanted to be the first to wish you on  Makar Sankranti. There were lovely images of kites, til and gud laddoos (traditional sweets made with sesame seeds and jaggery on Sankranti), haldi-kumkum, flowers, sugarcane, and other related items associated with this festival. On the day of the festival, there was a tsunami of much more of the same. 

Notwithstanding the frenetic activity on the phone, my mind wandered back to the time when Sankranti meant visiting relatives and friends on a cool January day, touching the feet of elders and receiving til-gud laddoos or barfis from them along with the friendly refrain: til gul ghya, goad goad bola (take til gul and talk sweetly).

If a family had had a wedding or the birth of a baby in the months preceding this festival, then the new bride or the new baby would be adorned with jewellery made using halwa (small spiky balls made by coating sesame seeds with sugar syrup on low heat for a long time, a laborious process as the stirring is done using one's fingers). The whiter and spikier the halwa, the better. The bride would usually wear a black saree--otherwise taboo on auspicious occasions--and the white ornaments would stand out beautifully on that.

Sometimes, a kind relative living in a distant town would send a few balls of halwa sealed in a plastic bag kept inside a postal envelope. What fun it was to open that envelope, read the hand-written letter and relish the sweet!

Neighbourhood ladies used to exchange clay pots filled with fresh green peas, sugarcane pieces, ber, and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. It was wonderful to lay your hands on one of these and enjoy the winter goodies. Ladies would also exchange small items of personal or household use as gifts. Bangles, combs, soaps, hair clips, safety pins, pens, postage stamps, inland letters. There used to be a great deal of excitement and anticipation surrounding these gifts.

Such simple times! What makes these memories precious are the personal interactions when wishing someone on an auspicious day. There is always space for these memories. No need to delete them, unlike the ones we keep deleting from our phones every now and then lest their storage space is full!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

It Is Margazhi, Chennai Is Singing And Dancing!

The music season is on in Chennai. Corresponding with the Tamil month of Margazhi, this is the time of the year when the city celebrates its love for music and dance with hundreds of recitals in dozens of sabhas in the months of December-January. The weather in " hot-hotter-hottest" Chennai is at its best. Flocks of NRIs return home for a tryst with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, for a taste of mouthwatering goodies in the sabha canteens, and for a reunion with family and friends.

When it comes to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, I am a novice. So don't expect technical inputs on these classical art forms from me! However, I do enjoy going to concerts and soaking in the lovely atmosphere there. It is as if the whole city is enjoying a festival. Maamis in their best silk sarees -- diamonds sparkling in their nose and ears--, NRIs showing their city and its culture to their foreign-born kids, visitors and tourists from other parts of India as well as other countries, connoisseurs from the city who are adept at the art of sabha-hopping honed from years of experience; and students, practitioners and teachers of music and dance are all there relishing this annual extravaganza.

I caught up a bit with the cultural scene during last few days. Chennai as a city rises early. The concerts start from as early as eight in the morning. Usually the morning and afternoon sessions are free for all, while the late afternoon and evening slots require a ticket. I chose a post-lunch Nadaswaram recital by Kollangode R. Subramani and Parali E. Gowtham at the well-known Narada Gana Sabha. The Nadaswaram and Thavil combo presented a high-energy, high decibel performance. I wonder why the musicians were not acknowledging each other through gestures, words of appreciation or smiles. These would have added a lot to their performance.

I tried buying a ticket to the violin recital by Akkarai sisters at the same venue later in the day, but alas, it was sold out. I quickly glanced through my copy of the newspaper to explore other possibilities in the neighbourhood. Decided to try a vocal recital by N. R. Prashanth. It was conveniently scheduled in the auditorium of PS School on RK Mutt Road in Mylapore. The Kapaleeswarar Temple almost next door was going to be my next stop later in the evening so the location suited me fine. I enjoyed the concert a lot. The rapport between the singer, the violinist and the mridangam player was great and that made the recital delightful.The thin attendance in the auditorium was a bit of a dampener for me, but gladly not for the artists.

Later at the temple, it was a vocal recital by an all-women ensemble. Led by the graceful Saashwathi Prabhu, the women sang several devotional compositions. The imposing gopuram of the ancient temple provided a fitting backdrop to the proceedings. It was nice to see Aswini Srinivasan on the mridangam. She handled the instrument with poise and aplomb, earning a place for herself in the male-dominated bastion of the drum.

Another day, another performance. It is Bharatanatyam by Medha Hari. Her slender frame occupied the stage with amazing energy and grace. Considering that it was an early afternoon session, the auditorium was reasonably full with rasikas (connoisseurs) appreciating her nimble steps and movements. After this very enjoyable recital I stepped into another concert that was already in progress in another hall at the same venue. A vocal recital by Archana and Aarathi. It is common for sisters or brothers to perform as a team. I liked what I heard, but not what I saw.The lighting on the stage was so insufficient that the musicians looked dull. On the other hand, the whole auditorium was lit very brightly. It seems it is normal for the lights to be on in the auditorium during a Carnatic music concert. Later, when I saw the sisters at the canteen in natural light, they looked bright and lovely.

I decided to follow the pattern of the previous day and went to the PS School in Mylapore for a vocal recital by Snigdha Venkataramani. It turned out to be a well-attended concert, and very nice too.  What I liked about the recitals was that almost all of them began on time and ended at their stipulated time. There were no felicitations, introductions or speeches. Just artists directly face to face with the discerning audiences!

Photos by Lata
I ended the day with a Kathak presentation by dancer couple Hari and Chethana with their group in the Kapaleeswarar Temple. It was full of rhythm, colour and awesome footwork by the dancers. The flowing costumes of the performers looked magical during the numerous swirls. They even managed a change of costumes between performances making their act a visual delight. Their performance was enhanced by the ambience of the temple, so suited to the dance form. Sitting in the audience and watching them dance, I couldn't help thinking how appropriate the flowing garments are for the whirls in Kathak, while the tight costumes with a pleated fan in the lower garment that opens out beautifully when dancers strike the half-sitting (arai mandi) or full-sitting (muzhu mandi) pose are just right for Bharatanatyam.

Happy with my outings, when I looked up the performers later, I was even more impressed to learn that many of them have parallel careers in diverse fields. N R Prashanth is an engineering graduate in Instrumentation Technology from Mysore University. Medha Hari is a Chartered Accountant. Snigdha Venkataramani is not only a Carnatic vocalist, but also a Bharatanatyam dancer. In addition to this she has majored in Zoology and completed her Masters in Anthropology from Delhi University.

All this is very inspiring indeed!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

जेल में जश्न!

जेल हुआ तो क्या हुआ, आखिर इंदौर में है. और मेहमाननवाजी इंदौर के कण-कण में बसी हुई है. तो अपने मेहमानों की आवभगत में जेल कोई कसर कैसे छोड़ सकता था? मेहमानों को तरह-तरह के भरपेट खाने और नाश्ते नहीं कराता तो इंदौर की इज़्ज़त मिट्टी में नहीं मिल जाती? जेल एक बुरा मेजबान साबित नहीं हो जाता? जेल कतई नहीं चाहता था कि ऐसा हो.

तो वह जुट गया अतिथियों की खातिरदारी में. उसने अपने आदमियों से साफ़-साफ़ कह दिया: सुबह की चाय, फिर नाश्ता, फिर दोपहर का भोजन, फिर शाम की चाय और उसके बाद रात का खाना सारा स्वादिष्ट हो, सबको प्यार से परोसा जाए, सबकी पसंद-नापसंद का ठीक से ख़याल रखा जाए, फल, सब्ज़ियाँ, मेवे -मिठाइयाँ, अचार, पापड़, चटनी किसी में कोई कमी नहीं रहनी चाहिए. सुबह चाय के साथ मीठे और नमकीन बिस्किट, नाश्ते में सेंव-पोहा-जलेबी, दोपहर के भोजन में तीन तरह की सब्ज़ियाँ, दाल, पूड़ी, पुलाव, रायता, सलाद, और मीठा, शाम की चाय के साथ कभी भजिये, कभी कचोरी-समोसा, कभी हॉट डॉग, कभी पेटिस, कभी आलू की टिकिया, कभी भुट्टे का कीस, कभी साबूदाने की खिचड़ी जैसा कुछ चटपटा, और रात के खाने में कढ़ी चावल, पराठे-सब्ज़ी जैसा कुछ हल्का-फुल्का तो कम-से-कम होना ही चाहिए. साथ ही मौसम के हिसाब से गराडू, गाजर का हलवा, दाल-बाफले-लड्डू, आम का रस, लस्सी, शिकंजी, कुल्फी, गुड़ की गजक, आइस क्रीम जैसी ख़ास चीज़ों को भी शामिल किया जाना चाहिए. आखिर दूर-दराज़ से इंदौर आए हुए लोगों को बुरा नहीं लगना चाहिए कि वे जेल में बंद हैं और सराफ़ा और छप्पन जैसी जगहों पर जाकर इन सारी चीज़ों का लुत्फ़ नहीं उठा सकते.

जेल के रसोइये कमर कस कर जेल के आदेशों पर अमल करने लगे. रसोईघर से सुबह-दोपहर-शाम खुशबू के झोंके आते, मसाले पीसे जाते, सब्ज़ियों-दालों में हींग के छौंक लगते, कोथमीर और हरी मिर्च की चटनी पीसी जाती, नींबू निचोड़े जाते, शुद्ध घी में जलेबियाँ तली जातीं और बड़े-बड़े कड़ाहों में दूध उबाला जाता. इतने प्यार और दुलार से मेहमान खुश न होते तो क्या होते? अपने मेजबान की दिलदारी से भावविभोर हो कर वह बेचारे सोच में पड़ जाते कि क्या खाएँ और क्या न खाएँ. कई बार तो उन्हें मजबूरी में इसलिए खाना पड़ता कि जेल बुरा न मान जाए. यदि खाना बच जाता, तो जेल बहुत दुखी हो जाता था. उसने अपने मेहमानों के लिए पान, सुपारी, पाचक चूर्ण, और हरड़े आदि की भी व्यवस्था कर रखी थी. इसलिए पेट भर कर खाने के सिवाय मेहमानों के सामने दूसरा कोई रास्ता न था.

धीरे-धीरे उन्हें इस सबकी आदत पड़ गई. और वे तरह-तरह के खाने खाने में माहिर हो गए. यह बात और है कि उनका वज़न दिन दूना रात चौगुना बढ़ने लगा. कपड़े छोटे पड़ने लगे. लेकिन मेजबान की ख़ुशी और इंदौर की शान के लिए क्या वह इतना भी नहीं कर सकते थे?


यह लेख इस रिपोर्ट पर आधारित एक हल्का-फुल्का व्यंग्य है. कृपया इसे अन्यथा न लें.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Portrait Of My Mother!

A small rectangle of black granite is her canvas. Heaps of white and coloured rangoli powder are her paints. And her nimble fingers are her brushes. Every morning she is seated in the prayer room drawing a beautiful design to welcome the day. Sometimes they are floral patterns, at other times geometric forms, and on birthdays and festivals, it is brief messages in text. The granite slab is her personal space where she expresses herself using the humble rangoli powder. New Years have been ushered in, Independence Days and Republic Days have been marked,  cricket teams have been wished good luck --she is a cricket enthusiast---, and guests/family members have been greeted on special occasions with her lines and letters drawn here. Once when I returned home from the hospital after a major surgery, her rangoli was waiting at the doorstep to welcome and soothe me.

A birthday feast for her daughter-in-law
On some days, the rangoli makes an appearance on the sunmica-topped dining table, often drawn around the plate of someone celebrating a birthday in the family. What is around the plate is of course beautiful. Moreover, what is on the plate is not only beautiful, but also tempting and delicious. She loves to plan menus and cook, serving the items neatly and aesthetically on the plate and in the accompanying bowls.

Her neatness is not restricted to the dining table, it reflects everywhere around the house. The beds are made nicely, the dining table and kitchen surfaces are free of clutter and are gleaming, the living room is always in order, and the entrance to the house bright and open making visitors feel welcome instantly. The shelves in the kitchen are always lined smartly and all cupboards in the kitchen and bedrooms are arranged meticulously.  What is remarkable is that she executes her neatness without compelling or bothering others in the family. Neatness freaks often terrorise other members in the family with their sometimes unreasonable demands. Not her. She just says keeping the house neat is a continuous process, that's all. Needless to say, she is always tidily turned out in a saree.

The continuous flow of house-guests to the house over the decades says a lot about her warm hospitality and her ability to adapt to the guests' needs. She makes them completely at ease, often changing her schedule to suit their requirements.

A colourful kite to mark the festival of Sankranti
She is the central figure in the family when it comes to celebrating festivals. Be it putting up decorations, getting things ready for certain rituals, planning specific foods for certain festivals and putting things back after the celebrations...she does it all year after year. Another of her interests is gift-packing. Almost all the gifts are personally wrapped by her. She loves knitting and makes sweater-cap-socks sets for newborns to this day. Knitting a sweater for an adult is a bit too strenuous for her now, but she has done that a lot earlier.

A plant-lover, she keeps a charming garden of potted plants in the veranda. It is her hobby to arrange twigs, leaves and flowers in big and small vases spread around the house. The arrangements are often minimalist and do not involve buying flowers from the market.

All these are very pleasant and likeable traits indeed, but what set her apart are other qualities: a loving heart that touches almost everybody who interacts with her, her cheerful demeanour that brings joy to everyone around her, her positive energy and enthusiasm, her ability to share others' happiness and to enjoy small pleasures of life. It is this joie de vivre that keeps her young at heart and in spirit. Of course, age does not spare anybody and she is no exception either. Aches and pains in the knees and back are routine affairs that she manages to keep at bay with regular exercise and a walk in the neighbourhood park. A light eater, she eats simple homemade food in small quantities;  her delicate system not allowing her to eat heavy and spicy food.

She is my mother--Aai, as we call her.

Why am I saying all this? Is it her birthday today? No, saying it because generally we do not express our feelings towards our close family members. We make efforts to send greetings and wishes to friends and relatives living faraway, but keep mum when it comes to recognising qualities of people at home. This is just a small effort towards correcting that. A nod of approval, a word of appreciation, a touch of love and care, and a pat of encouragement do go a long way in making your loved ones happy. So why not do that once in a while?

Aai, may you continue to walk your path happily, healthily and heartily.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

No Presents Please, Just Be Present!

At a recent wedding in our family, we had decided not to accept or give any gifts. It was going to be just a civil wedding followed by a party for near and dear ones. There would be no associated ceremonies like cocktails, mehndi, sangeet and the like. In keeping with the small nature of the occasion, we had requested all our guests not to bring any gifts, bouquets or envelopes. 

Today, when most of us are very particular about the kind of clothes we wear, we thought it was not such a good idea to give sarees and shirts of our choice to women and men. Gifting a decorative item for their house would not work too, for the same reason. Moreover, if we gave, we would have to receive too. We were not in favour of that either. So, just to keep things simple, we went ahead with this idea of no-give-and-take and wrote personal messages to our guests to that effect. Also, this was to be our token protest against the custom of gift-giving which has become more of a time-consuming formality, and less of a pleasurable activity in our circles. In some cases, perhaps out of social pressure too. At many weddings, I have seen unhappy recipients criticising the items they have received, only to dump them in the recesses of their cupboards or to recycle them at the next opportune moment. Then there is that ungainly concept of reciprocity lurking behind any kind of gift exchange. We intended to spare ourselves and our guests of all this.

Few wrote back to us saying they respected our wish. Some asked if we would be willing to accept gifts not at the party, but in the privacy of our home. When we said a polite no, they acquiesced with grace. It is not uncommon these days to see invitation cards sporting a line saying something as blunt as "No gifts please" or "Blessings only" to something more creative like "No presents please, just be present" or "Your blessings are the best gift". In many cases, gifts are exchanged privately at home, not publicly at the reception.

Some wondered how they would bless the couple without the aid of an envelope. Just say your blessings aloud, was my helpful reply! But some managed to hand over a gift or an envelope to us at an unguarded moment, at a time and place where we least expected it. A dear friend sent a parcel via post.

We do value their love and blessings, but we wish it came unencumbered, without the baggage of a box, or a packet, or an envelope. My other worry was: how do we prevent those who had respected our wish from feeling awkward if they saw us receiving something from somebody. It would be natural for them to feel bad if we accepted things from others.  Even an innocent greeting card in an envelope would turn heads and raise eyebrows if accepted at the party. It did happen and some people did ask and we told them it was only a card. Now greeting cards are at the boundary line, they are wishes. How can one possibly say no to them?

Our heartfelt thanks to all those who took time to come and personally greet the newlyweds at this important milestone in their lives, and to those who wrote or called to convey their wishes. Special gratitude to those who heeded our request and did not bring anything other than smiles, hugs and good wishes. Thank you so much for supporting our idea and going along with it. Without your support, our idea would not have worked. Your recognition of our plea of no-gift was the best gift to us!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Snapshots From London!

Sharing some recent pictures from my London album. These days, one takes hundreds of pictures when one is on a trip. I did too. Here are a few of them that tell a story or are just a bit different from the rest. Take a look!

I like how the little girl is holding her own in front of the ferocious-looking lion! Look at her posture, spunk and attitude. Did not particularly see her while clicking. Else I would have included her fully in the frame. Was amused to notice her later while looking at this picture. At the Trafalgar Square.

This picture too happened by chance. How interesting that the man and the woman in the sculpture are looking in the opposite direction while their counterparts in real life are facing each other! A nice contrast. At the Buckingham Palace.

Hundreds of lovely ladies and gentlemen waiting outside the Buckingham Palace on a pleasant sunny afternoon. Apparently the Queen had invited them to tea. While the security guards were busy assisting them and maintaining order, the guests were making the most of the opportunity by posing for pictures using the palace as a backdrop. The ladies were at their elegant best flaunting their flowing dresses and flowery hats. The men looked suave in their formal suits. I had no invitation, I just happened to be there and enjoyed watching the spectacle from the sidelines.

Serenity at its best. This lady had found an ideal spot to relax, rejuvenate or reflect on her life. At the Kew Gardens.

I was in a bus going towards the British Museum when this sculpture of the Mahatma caught my eye. I saw what the nearest bus stop was and made a note to stop there on my way back. 

While I was busy taking pictures, a group of people led by a lady descended at the statue. She stood there for a good ten minutes addressing her group, while I waited at a distance not wanting to eavesdrop. At the Tavistock Square.

The dark clouds. The majestic lion dominates the frame, watching the traffic pass by. A contrast between stillness and movement, this makes for an interesting picture, with the red bus so typical of London adding its own charm to the scene. At the Trafalgar Square.

So exhilarating to see the Indian tricolour fluttering gently in foreign skies. The massive building housing diplomats stands gracefully on a leafy street in Central London. I stood there for some time and witnessed a flurry of activity. Officials getting out of a car being escorted inside the building by a young staff member. Noticed that the car had a diplomatic number plate. At the Indian High Commission.

This pair of pigeons was having the beautifully maintained garden exclusively to themselves. The garden was featuring white flowers especially to commemorate Princess Diana who lived in Kensington Palace before her life ended in a tragic accident 20 years ago. She used to spend time in this garden and often talked to the gardeners. A nice tribute to the stylish lady! At the Kensington Palace Gardens.

As I said, most of these pictures were taken without much planning. I discovered these interesting elements only later while looking at them at leisure!

Photos by Lata
I could not have moved around in London without the Underground and the red busses. The bus has already appeared in one of the earlier pictures. Standing or walking on these escalators is an integral part of every Londoner's life. They take you up to the exit and down to the train efficiently and comfortably. Loved the Underground experience!