Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Food For Thought!

Recently I got an opportunity to visit the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in Mysore. I was part of a group that was taken around the institute by some of its expert officers. It was a very interesting and enlightening tour. The institute is housed in a grand mansion. It was built by Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV for the third princess of Mysore. As we approached the building, we were impressed with the sight of the imposing facade. The interiors are equally stately and well-maintained.

The institute is one of the 42 national research laboratories set up by the government under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). It develops technology and equipment that the food industry can use in making their products better in many ways. 

Photo by CSRI
Gone are the days when we used to buy pulses and grains from the neighbourhood grocer who would pack them in newspaper sheets before handing them to us. Today an array of processed, semi-processed and unprocessed food vies for our attention from attractively arranged shelves in supermarkets. Then there is the booming online market too. Advances in agriculture have meant better and more yield of crops and fresh produce. This has resulted in requirement of superior technology to preserve and package food in such a way that it can be transported to different parts of the country and the world, retaining as many nutrients as possible while ensuring its longer life at the same time. If this is not done, a lot of food will be wasted for want of proper preservation and distribution. So, some foods need to be packed in a certain way using certain types of materials, some foods need to be dehydrated, while some need to be frozen or roasted or pickled to save them from getting wasted. 

Photo by Lata
The experts at the institute explained to us what all the institute does to achieve its goals. They made it interesting and interactive so as to engage laypersons like us in the proceedings. We walked through a section of the institute where the walls are covered with informative posters filled with charts, pictures and numbers decribing various techniques in a simple way. It is done quite well and all of us appreciated it. Then looking at and looking through the scanning electron microscope was a unique experience. It produces greatly magnified images of objects in very high resolution. It was interesting to see images of the surface of a chapati and that of a puri through it.

They demonstrated the use of a dosa making machine and offered the tasty samples to us. They were really very good! This machine and a chapati making machine have been developed at the institute. They are suitable for use in temples, gurudwaras, canteens and hospitals where a large amount of food needs to be made efficiently and hygienically.

We saw many other things and learnt a whole lot which is not possible to reproduce here. I am grateful to all those who made this visit possible. It has made me realise how much thought goes into designing the size, shape, texture, packaging and storage of a food item that we casually pick up from a supermarket. If it has made life easy for us, we should be thankful to the farmers, scientists and food technologists who have worked towards it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Poorly Made "Bucket List"!

I did not watch the 2007 American film "The Bucket List" starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. But I remember reading somewhere that it was about two terminally ill men who embark on a road trip with a wish list of things to do before they kicked the bucket. It was a box office success.

Recently I watched the Marathi "Bucket List", a new release marking Madhuri Dixit's entry into the world of Marathi films. When a star like Madhuri lends her name to a project, it is bound to arouse interest, and get people to engage with the project with heightened expectations. I am no exception and I went to watch the film anticipating a scintillating performance by her.

Madhuri plays an upper-middle class homemaker in her early forties who lives in a beautiful house in Pune with her husband, two children, parents-in-law and grandmother-in-law. She gets a new lease of life after a heart transplant surgery. When she finds out that the donor was a 21-year old young woman, she sets out to fulfil the wishes that are neatly jotted down in the deceased woman's bucket list. In this process she discovers herself, who was hidden under the persona of a wife, a mother and a daughter-in-law for all these years.

Fair enough. This could have been a good film, one of her several attempts to return to the big screen, and her stepping stone to a career in her mother tongue. She was playing a character that suited her age. She could have been instrumental in giving out a positive message about organ donation. In addition, she had a supporting cast featuring prominent names from the Marathi theatre and film industry. In spite of all this, the film just did not work for me.

Madhuri never looked convincing as a homemaker. She looked too poised with perfect hair and makeup to essay the role of someone who was cooking vegetables in four different ways to please everyone in the family, assisting her mother-in-law in her paapad-making enterprise, and in general being an ideal wife, mother and daughter-in-law around the house. Her Marathi sounded stunted, not having the ease of someone using the language for everyday conversation. Her super slim frame made her look more like a model than a homemaker with a comfortable lifestyle. And come on, which upper-middle class household has paapads being rolled in their living room with a bunch of women helping the lady of the house?

I wonder if Madhuri was inspired by Sridevi while playing a Maharashtrian homemaker. Sridevi played the role with ease in "English Vinglish".  Unfortunately Madhuri could not deliver. And her effort to emulate the late actress in comedy turned out to be a complete fiasco. Her antics in the pub's kitchen are neither amusing nor entertaining.

The direction (Tejas Vijay Deoskar) and dialogue (Tejas Vijay Deoskar and Devashree Shivadekar) are very ordinary. When the husband asks Madhuri's character where does he feature in her bucket list, she replies: you are not in my bucket list, you are my bucket! Excuse me, does this make any sense? There is nothing to write home about the dialogue. The characters drag the names of sponsors in their conversation in a jarring way.

The saving grace in the film is the presence of Sumit Raghavan, Vandana Gupte, Pradeep Welankar, Ila Bhate, and Dilip Prabhavalkar. They are seasoned actors and do not seem to be overwhelmed by Madhuri's star value. Sumit Raghavan holds his own as her husband. He could have done much better if his character was more well-defined. Madhuri's "Hum Aapke Hain Koun" co-star Renuka Shahane delivers a lacklustre performance as the dead woman's mother. Shubha Khote's role as the grandmother-in-law and her portrayal are both unrealistic and flawed. In fact, none of the characters is written well.

It is saddening to see Madhuri who ruled the silver screen for decades, making an appearance so listlessly in a production so unworthy of her presence. Even the dance sequence in the end lacked her magic touch. Perhaps it is time to wait for a better project and a better production team? Until then, let the memories of Madhuri in her heydays remain in our hearts!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

More Snapshots From London!

I had the opportunity to live in Central London for a few weeks between mid-April and mid-May this year. Barring the first few days, the weather was generally great to go out and soak in the sights, sounds and smells of the city. The sprawling parks had just begun to look lovely with fresh green leaves on the tall trees and unending stretches of luxurious lawns spread across the length and breadth of their expanse. With the fabulous public transport, it was wonderful to experience London this spring. Here are some pictures to tell the story:

The shops were filled with merchandise related to the royal wedding weeks before the event. Shelves were overflowing with bells, boxes, decorative plates, mugs and masks displaying images of the handsome royal couple. Breakfast shows on the telly (that was the only time I watched it for a little while) couldn't stop discussing the forthcoming extravaganza. The British do adore and love their royals a lot! Pictures from Oxford Street.

And this one from a shopping centre in Surrey Quays! Parents were busy getting masks for their children a few days before the royal wedding.

St. Paul's Cathedral is imposing, and in spite of being located in a busy urban area, it manages to offer a good amount of space for citizens to take a break, or catch some sun on a nice day, or sit amidst the flowers and greenery while having a quick bite on a busy work day. At the St. Paul's Cathedral.

The telephone booth is one of several icons of London. This particular one at the St. Paul's Cathedral serves as a backdrop for many newly-weds when they pose in their wedding finery. With the Cathedral at one end and the Tate Modern at the other end, and the Millennium Bridge joining them; this area is very charming.

It is hard to imagine the streets of London without the sleek red buses winding their way through them. Some of them display "Incredible India" advertisements with images of popular tourist destinations in India. This particular one with the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

This beautiful water fountain caught my attention while walking in a park. When I went close and read the inscription, I found that it had an India connect (not surprising or unusual in London). But just that I was amused to find it when I was least expecting it. At the Regent's Park.

This stunningly beautiful piece of fabric attracted me with its radiant colours and rich tapestry. To my surprise, I found that it was possibly from Burhanpur in central India. It was used as a panel while making tents for the royals while travelling. At the Victoria & Albert Museum.

This is an ubiquitous item in our kitchens. A round stainless steel box containing several small containers for different spices. Looks like it has caught the fancy of shoppers in London! At the Borough Market.

Surprised to find signboards written in Gurmukhi in London? Well, it is Southall, the mini-Punjab in the city. With gurudwaras, turbaned mechanics at work in an automobile garage, Indian eateries, Punjabi matrons wearing salwar suits visiting the local market, and huge stores selling Indian groceries and vegetables; it gets as Punjabi as it can.

It was as if this peacock was trained to entertain visitors. It gave a long enough performance for everyone to shoot videos and take pictures to their hearts' content, its magnificent plumage spread like a huge fan against the green foliage of the garden. At the Holland Park.

Photos by Lata

This picture symbolises spring and summer in a London park, fresh, tranquil and beautiful! At the Regent's Park.

My previous post on the same lines is here.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A Portrait Of My Father!

It is not easy to write on people who are close to you. They could be your family or friends, but penning a sketch is equally difficult. I have been mulling over the thought of writing on my father for the past few months, but never quite got around to doing it. Finally, gathered some courage to attempt it today.

My father, Baba as we call him, defies stereotypes in many ways. In his eighties. he is as techno-savvy as can be. Ever willing to learn and adapt to new stuff, he uses modern gadgets and devices with ease. He is enthusiastic and doesn't shy away from asking help from his grandchildren whether they are with him or away. He communicates with them with ease on social media and keeps himself updated with the newest trends.

He worked in the textile industry and later in the industrial chemicals business. His work took him to Iran for four long years, away from his family and away from his young children. More than four decades ago, Iran seemed to be a distant place. Communication was not easy, modest aerogrammes being the only mode of keeping in touch. The thin blue letter would take a couple of weeks to reach us, and it used to be the most awaited item from the postman's bag.

Brought up in a traditional vegetarian household by his parents, he made the necessary changes in his diet while living in a remote textile town in Iran, eating the bland, unfamiliar food day in and day out without complaining. Even now he is quite adventurous in trying out new foods, unlike some of us who have reservations about experimenting with different cuisines. The town offered hardly any recreation, and spending weekends used to be a torture. He occupied himself with reading, swimming and listening to music.

Talking of music, he is a trained violinist in the Hindustani style. He used to perform regularly on the All India Radio before going to Iran.The fact that he pursued this interest without having any musical background in the family makes it more creditable. He was a part of the regular music circle in the city and I remember informal recitals taking place in our living room, with music lovers enjoying the offerings by fellow musicians followed by cups of coffee brought out by my mother from the kitchen.

Baba took driving lessons at a very young age and drove his father's Austin regularly with ease. Much later, he got his own Ambassador and then a Fiat. He does not drive anymore, but was an expert driver who understood the working of a car almost as well as a mechanic does. He loved his cars, took good care of them and was always ready to take friends and family where they wished to go in his car. When we used to arrive from Delhi to Indore by train, he would be waiting at the platform in the hot summer afternoon, his car parked outside, eager to take us home.

These days, taking pictures has become very easy. Anybody who has a reasonably good mobile phone takes pictures. Baba was a proud owner of a Minolta and took great pictures. I remember seeing wonderful slides from my parents' Europe trip projected on our living room wall using a slide projector. An early black and white masterpiece from him featured me as a little girl enacting the three monkeys of Gandhiji in a single frame!

Another of Baba's remarkable interests is his expertise in fixing things. Be it an electrical or a mechanical appliance, if it is not working well, he would open it up and tinker with it until it got back into shape. Acquaintances, friends and relatives would often leave their damaged radios, tape recorders, mixers or toasters with him and he would bring them back to life again. Now when everything is disposable, this skill is on its way to becoming obsolete, but still comes in handy while using several household items like a water purifier, a telephone instrument or a water pump.

Baba is blessed with a large circle of close friends. They have known one another for decades and share a great bond. In spite of some age-related issues, he maintains a cheerful disposition, keeping himself occupied with a regular exercise routine in the morning, followed by breakfast, bath and offering pooja to family deities at home. He enjoys going to a play or a concert in the city, though of late his movement is a bit restricted. Well-wishers and friends routinely drop by at home and he loves catching up with them.

He can keep up with present day life and can easily relate to people much younger than him in age. This is possible because he has not allowed himself to "feel" old. It is easier said than done. A big round of applause to him for that!

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!