Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Delhi In October: The Magic Happens!

October brings with it a promise of deliciously cooler mornings and pleasant evenings, although one has to wait for almost the whole month for that to happen. It is only towards the end of this month that the weather Gods decide to smile on Delhi. The early days in October are pretty warm, but some time during the later half, the magic happens. If you wake up early in the morning and step outdoors, the air feels different. And you wonder, could this be the reason behind the smiles on the faces of those who are out at that hour...morning walkers in neighbourhood parks, newspaper delivery boys, parents taking their children to bus stops and people queueing up in front of Mother Dairy booths to buy milk.

Politicians make a mandatory appearance in the early hours on Gandhi Jayanti at the Rajghat, their pristine white khadi clothes looking brighter in the mild sun. It is a sombre occasion, repeated every year with customary piety; telecast with strains of Bhajans and occasional chirping of birds in the background. The Khadi Gramodyog Bhawan near Regal in Connaught Place announces its annual discount sale, providing khadi lovers with an opportunity to stock up on their favourite apparel. With the introduction of designer khadi, it is no longer the staid fabric it once was. It has come a long way from the days of the freedom movement, turning itself into a cool and happening material for designer wear.

Huge images of Ravana take shape in various areas across the city, complete with 10 oversized heads. As they near completion, they are mounted in large grounds; their enormous bodies stuffed with firecrackers. Two smaller figures of Kumbhakarna and Meghnad stand on either side of Ravana. On Dusshera, around dusk, these go up in flames, filling the surroundings with deafening sounds from the firecrackers as they catch fire. The colossal effigies start collapsing, symbolising victory of good over evil. This spectacle takes place at many locations, prominent among them being the Ramlila Maidan and the Subhash Maidan.

Karva Chauth, familiar to everybody thanks to Hindi movies, is a big day for married women. They observe a fast, praying for the well-being and long life of their husbands. One can see heavily made up women in most neighbourhoods, sporting bright red sarees or dresses, their arms full with glass bangles and palms covered with intricate henna designs. Looking at the evening moon through a sieve, they accept the first sip of a drink or the first bite of food from their life partners. This must have been a private ritual that families observed in the confines of their homes. But almost all our festivals are turning commercial and Karva Chauth is no exception. Shops selling women's merchandise announce sales and beauty parlours offer special packages for this festival, giving it a new dimension altogether.

Photo by nkjain [CC-BY-SA-2.0]
Talking of commercialism, the most commercial of all our festivals is Diwali; Christmas and New Year being a close second. With all the gift-giving around, the joke in Delhi is to never open the dry fruit boxes that you may have received by the dozen. One is not sure how long ago these were packed, and it is better to just pass them on to somebody, who in turn will do the same. Jokes apart, it is indeed a time for new clothes, sweets, holidays and get-togethers. The dark night is illuminated by millions of lamps across the city to the accompaniment of thunderous bursting of firecrackers. The trail of haze and smoke that is left behind late into the night is there to stay for the next few months, as winter is about to set in in Delhi.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Celebration Of Talent

The last three days were so full at the Svanubhava in Chennai that I feel very empty today. The lovely Svanubhava theme music is echoing in my mind throughout the day. They describe themselves as a cultural movement by students of the performing arts. It is amazing what a bunch of dedicated and enthusiastic people can put together. The Rukmini Arangam at Kalakshetra was buzzing with activity, what with hordes of school children and dance/music loving elders descending on it at nine in the morning every day. The day was chock-a block with performances and question-answer sessions back to back, but for a short lunch break and even shorter tea break.

Most of the artistes who performed are stalwarts in their fields and it was heartening to see how humble they are. When curious kids asked them about the feats they can so effortlessly perform in their chosen art form, they simply attributed them to the blessings of their Guru or God, not mentioning their own hard work and years of practice behind it. There was a fairly varied spread for all to enjoy. Vocal and instrumental music in Hindustani and Carnatic style, qawwalis, baul sangeet, thevarams (Shaivaite hymns), a Bharatanatyam lecture-demonstration, yakshagana, villu pattu (folk story-telling), and a discussion on 'Does Indian cinema reflect the reality of Indian women?'. Some of these performing arts were of special interest to me as I was watching them for the first time. My appreciation for villu pattu and yakshagana would have been several times greater if I had a good knowledge of Tamil and Kannada respectively.  But even without that they were a pleasure to watch because of the involvement and passion of the performers.

The ambience contributed a lot to the enjoyment. The open auditorium at the Kalakshetra and the informal seating arrangement made one feel as if it was a mehfil in a friend's house that one was invited to. Everybody sat together, everybody ate the same food together and everybody had a good time together watching whatever was going on on the stage. Almost all the volunteers in their twenties or early thirties were wearing traditional attire...veshtis and tops for men and cotton sarees for women. That presented a pretty picture too. A bunch of foreign students were no exception.

All these art forms have been existing for a long time, but when you experience so many of them in a short span of time, it makes you proud of your heritage as an Indian. The young men and women who belong to the Svanubhava team deserve a big applause for their efforts in bringing together such gems from various parts of our country, organising a celebration of their talent, and sharing it with dance and music lovers across the world. Webcasts of all the events have been made available on their blog for those interested.

The organising team headed by T M Krishna, an accomplished vocalist in the Carnatic style, has put in a lot of work and it shows. Fresh sheets about the day's programme were handed out everyday, giving brief but well-researched introductions about the artistes for the day and their accompanists, complete with lively illustrations. Students from several schools were not only invited to attend the event, but were encouraged to ask questions to the performing artistes. For many of them, this must have been their first exposure to the cultural scene in their city and country.

I sincerely hope that this movement continues and gets bigger every year. This year, after the Chennai leg, it has gone to Delhi, where it will be on until the 15th of this month. It will be nice to see more representation in terms of performances from states in the North, East and Central India in the future editions of Svanubhava. And inviting some younger artistes will be a good idea too. But for now, heartfelt thanks to the whole team for letting me share this wonderful experience, which has been very enriching and which I will cherish for a long time to come.