Thursday, December 5, 2013

Kanchipuram In A Day

The temple town of Kanchipuram, well-known all over the world for its famed silk sarees, is located just about 75 kilometres from Chennai. Connoisseurs of temple architecture can spend days admiring the astonishing display of sculpture and art in the ancient temples. Or one can just make a day trip to get a glimpse of our heritage and history, scattered all over the town in the form of temples big and small. We did the latter.

Our first stop was the sprawling Ekambareswarar Temple Complex. Read more about the temple here. This has been in existence since at least 600 AD. That makes it one of the most ancient temples in South India. The main hall with pillars is very impressive. As is the practice in this part of the world, it gets darker and darker when you get closer to the sanctum sanctorum. The deity is visible for just a few seconds in the dim light of the lamp held by one of the priests and then you move on.

The outer pavilion is lined with a galaxy of deities. This magnificent Ganesha in black stone is one of them.

All Shiva temples in South India have a pond outside. This beautiful pond adds a lot of charm to the Ekambareswarar Temple.

And this is the Nandi, mandatory for any Shiva temple.

This imposing Gopuram can be seen from a distance. With these pictures, I first took you inside the temple, and then brought you out, looking at the surroundings. Next stop, Kailasanathar Temple. More about it here.


This is more open, having lovely green patches of lawn outside. Some parts of it have been restored over time and they look different. But it is still very beautiful, representing Dravidian architecture in great style.

A restored panel at the Kailasanathar Temple.

Some views of the temple. All the walls are crammed with sculptures depicting humans and animals.

There are many such unusual forms, lining the boundary walls of the temple.

This is one of my favourite pictures. The Nandi in subdued colour in the foreground with women in bright sarees in the background. I did not actually plan this, but I am happy that it has come out this way.

Our third stop, the Sri Kanchi Kamakshi Ambal Temple. More about it here.

There was this painted elephant at the entrance, blessing people. It provided the visitors with some excitement and entertainment, and its owner with some income in the form of the money that was offered to it.

Offerings to the Goddess, available at the entrance.

Many devotees were carrying heavy garlands entirely made with lotuses for the Goddess. I had never seen lotus garlands before this. Pretty, aren't they?

Fourth stop, the Varadaraja Perumal Temple. Read about it here. The presiding deity here is Vishnu. But unfortunately we could not enter the premises as the temple had closed for the afternoon. All temples in South India remain shut for four to five hours in the afternoon. So, one should start as early in the morning as possible from Chennai to make the most of the visit.

A close view of the same.

I had to be content taking pictures from the outside. Entry had closed. Only those who had entered earlier were still inside.

These old houses lining the street leading to the temple looked very interesting. Children enjoyed a game of cricket while adults were probably taking a nap inside.

Pictures by Lata

And last, but not the least...a saree shop! There are large showrooms offering silk sarees in the main part of the town. But all over the town, one can see such small shops--some of them operating from houses--selling sarees. I got one for myself too!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lotus Hocus Pocus!

This post has been inspired by a news item that appeared in The Times Of India today. To read it, click here.

Lotus farmers in Madhya Pradesh, beware! The Congress does not like the flowers that are blooming in your ponds. In fact, they are exploring ways to cover all the ponds with some waterproof material that will hide the unsightly blossoms from public view. The foremost condition is that the material should be completely opaque. Lightness, durability and reasonable price are other factors that will be looked at before assigning the task to an agency. Several proposals are flooding the Congress headquarters in the state. It is learnt that this project is being given top priority. Party office bearers are busy screening all the applications, while those who have submitted the proposals are waiting with bated breath to find out who the winner of this lucrative deal is going to be.

No doubt, this is going to be quite an arduous task. The terms of the contract will include identifying lotus-infested ponds in the state and covering their surfaces completely with some suitable material. This extreme measure has been necessitated by the sudden realization dawning on a few members of the Congress party that the wretched flower resembles the election symbol of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Now, anybody in his or her right mind would not want the voters to be reminded of the BJP when they are looking at a pond filled with lotuses, would they? Hence this cover-up seems to be the only option that would take care of the problem without offending anybody.

Picture by Lata
Some promising members of the party have shown rare far-sightedness and have already started thinking about how the pictures of Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, that adorn many houses and shops all over the state, can be altered making the customary flower invisible. This is a tricky task and no solution is in sight yet, though frantic efforts are going on.

Some enterprising loyalists of the party have drawn the seniors' attention to the fact that many men and women in the state are named after the flower and its synonyms. It is a deep-rooted tradition and very difficult to undo, but hey, maybe somebody would come up with a remedy for that too. After all, there's no harm in trying, is there?

Meanwhile the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state has got wind of the massive cover-up project about to be taken up by the Congress. They have started thinking in terms of ways to hide the hand. Now, one sympathises with the BJPwallahs as they have a humongous task laid out for them. Somebody proposed gloves, but it did not go down well with many in the Party. They said that the shape of the hand does not change even if it is covered with a glove. They are working on the feasibility of providing loose robes for everybody which would hide the whole hand behind their folds. As for the workability of this idea, trials are under way.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Lunchbox: A Feast Sans Dessert !

Warning: Contains spoilers.

These days, a film's life is very short. By that measure, "The Lunchbox" has already been around for some time (more than a week), and a lot has been written and discussed about it by now. I saw the film, relished most of it, but there were some things that left a slightly sour taste.

No doubt, it is a sweet, simple story told very well. Mumbai comes alive on the screen just as it is: crowded, always on the move, and busy. In spite of being chock-a-block with people, each and every resident of this metropolis is an island within herself or himself...lonely, secluded, caught in the rhythmic cycle of life in a big city.

When a wrongly delivered lunchbox becomes the link between two strangers, it allows both of them to share their feelings, their memories, their insecurities and their fears in an uninhibited manner. They look forward to reading the handwritten notes in it with hope, anticipation and longing. The multi-tiered container becomes a symbol of friendship that brightens up their otherwise drab lives. In the course of this friendship, they get a chance to introspect, find courage and discover the other side of their persona that they didn't know existed.

Irrfan Khan's portrayal of Saajan (wonder if anyone has that for a first name!) Fernandes, an irritable, unfriendly and dour widower is brilliant. His life revolves around the heaps of files on his office desk, his daily commute in overflowing trains, and his smoking break in the balcony every evening while looking yearningly at a neighbour's dining room full of people.

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, the middle class homemaker is very natural when she moves around her cramped place cooking, cleaning and tending to her daughter. She dishes out sumptuous delicacies day after day hoping to win her indifferent husband's attention. What gives her a break in between these repetitive chores is her interaction through the window with her unseen neighbour, a spunky Bharati Achrekar as Deshpande Aunty, who manages to leave a mark only with her distinctive voice.

But who takes the cake among the three lead actors is the affable Shaikh, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. He brings a smile to your lips with his street smartness, his never say die attitude and his exuberant optimism. He is funny without adopting any unnatural mannerisms, without any exaggerated gestures and without any loudness. In fact, he is as close to the Mumbaikar in spirit as one can get.

Lillete Dubey has a small role, but her character looks over the top considering the subtle tone of the whole film. The suggestion that Ila's husband might be having an affair is so subtle that you doubt its veracity. And the end? Well, I think after watching a film through its entire length, one deserves to see the story being brought to a proper end. An ambiguous end could be taken as the writer/director's inability to bring his/her tale to a conclusion. To me, the film seemed like a feast served without dessert.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"Anumati": The Permission

I stumbled upon a Marathi film "Anumati" (2013) on the telly the other day. I liked what I saw. 

Ratnakar (Vikram Gokhale) is a retired school teacher, a romantic at heart; a poet. His wife Madhu (Neena Kulkarni) is the force that has been steering their family, leaving Ratnakar to dream, read and write. Both their children--a son and a daughter--are married, and busy with their own families. The elderly couple live in a small house in picturesque Shrivardhan, a town by the beach along the Konkan coast.

We come to know all this in bits and pieces, through flashbacks. The film opens when the comatose Madhu is lying in a Mumbai hospital, her distraught husband by her side. She has suffered a brain haemorrhage, and is being kept on life support systems. Each additional day at the hospital costs money and they have already exhausted their modest savings in the last few days. The doctors are fuelling the family's hopes in their characteristic measured words.

Ratnakar is hopeful, his son is not. He is under pressure from his son to sign the "Do not resuscitate" form, but he cannot bring himself to authorize an act that might end Madhu's life. He turns to his daughter and his brother for help. He is ready to sell his house in Shrivardhan. He just wants the hospital to try for a few more days, hoping that Madhu would recover.The story underlines the ugly commercial aspect of hospitals today: exploiting people emotionally in order to run their business.

Vikram Gokhale is a veteran who delivers a powerful performance, expressing the pain, desperation and helplessness of Ratnakar with finesse. His small interactions with his daughter, daughter-in-law, brother and son are enough to tell us what kind of relationships they share with each other. And though the story is centred around a patient on a hospital bed, we are not confined to that small room. Ratnakar's efforts to raise money take us to different places, allowing us snippets from the lives of his extended family; and treating us to some wonderful shots of Konkan in the rain. The cinematographer is Govind Nihalani!

Ratnakar's childhood friend Ambu (Reema) brings a lot of energy with her entry into the story. Her scenes with Ratnakar are warm, positive and definitely feel-good.

It is a sensitive subject, handled extremely well by director Gajendra Ahire. He has written the screenplay, dialogue and composed music too. Kishore Kadam, Subodh Bhave, Sai Tamhankar and Neha Pendse are all very good in their supporting roles. It is a touching story of love, told very simply. No wonder then that it has won wide critical acclaim, and that Vikram Gokhale has bagged the National Film Award for Best Actor.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Chennai!

Name: Chennai (Madras)
Date of birth: August 22, 1639
Place of birth: The strip of land where Fort St. George stands today

Well, Chennai is supposed to have been founded on this day in 1639 when a piece of land along the coast was bought by the East India Company from the local chieftain. Acquired with a view to get a foothold in their trading activities, they started building a harbour and a fort here. The construction went on for some years and the fort was ready on 23 April, 1644; a day celebrated as St. George's Day in England in honour of its patron saint. Naturally, the fort was called Fort St. George. Soon, it became a centre of mercantile activity, and settlements developed around it. These settlements were the seeds that grew into what we now know as Chennai. As it enters the 375th year of its existence today, its citizens are throwing a big birthday party for their beloved city. Called "Madras Day", the party goes on for almost a month.

Started in 2004 by a small group of writers, journalists, entrepreneurs and historians, the "Day" consists of a number of events like walks, exhibitions, film shows, online contests, quizzes, bicycle rides and public talks that celebrate the culture, heritage and spirit of Chennai. Many activities in this year's schedule interested me and I participated in one, namely the Fort St. George Heritage Walk. Now, the term "fort" might sound like a misnomer if one goes there expecting the grandeur of some of the best Mughal, Maratha and Rajput forts. Well, the flag post (tallest in the country at 150 ft.) and the moat at the entrance are impressive, but once you step inside, what you see is a cluster of different buildings.

The Cornwallis Cupola is the first thing you notice as you enter. It looks nice and is definitely a photographers' delight. The administrative headquarters of the legislative assembly of Tamil Nadu and the Secretariat are located inside the Fort premises. Many structures are part of military establishment. Then there is St. Mary's Church (built in 1678-1680), the oldest Anglican church in India, Wellesley House, the residence of Robert Clive and the Fort Museum among others. I was there on a Sunday morning, as part of a group led by journalist and publisher Vincent D'Souza. There were not too many people there that day, but I am told the place is bustling with crowds on weekdays...few of them tourists, most visiting the government departments situated inside the Fort. Of course even on a Sunday, the mandatory posse of policemen was there as this is a high security area.

It had rained the previous night when we went there. The streets were punctuated with puddles, but the ancient trees looked fresh and bright. Some of the buildings are maintained well, while some others are dilapidated. Interestingly, some buildings have turned into ruins because of trees growing out of their walls. They must have started as small plants which flourished, eventually eating into the walls. The structures that are still standing are indeed very solid and look good.

We did not enter the church as a service was in progress inside. But we did climb up the wide staircase inside the Clive residence to go up to the wooden-floored banquet hall. It is bare now and one can only imagine the opulence of the banquets that might have been hosted there. The chambers and verandas in this and some of the other buildings have high ceilings supported by tall columns, giving them a stately look. Had to give a miss to the museum as it was not covered in the group's activities for the day, but would like to visit it some other time.

I would think of Fort St. George not as a typical tourist destination, but as a place of interest for those who would like to take a glimpse into the history of Chennai. Meanwhile, the "birthday" celebrations go on. Definitely looking forward to being a part of the events in the future editions of Madras Day!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Bridge In A Garden

It is a floral extravaganza. A colourful heaven of natural beauty just an hour away from the bustling metropolis of Paris. We are at Claude Monet's Garden in Giverny. This is where he lived and worked in the later part of his life. A lovely house opening into a wonderful garden. This was built and nurtured by the master himself.

Claude Monet (1840 - 1926), one of the founders of the French impressionist movement, started painting at a time when most artists preferred to paint in a studio. He broke away from this practice by painting outdoors, using Nature itself as his inspiration. This style was called "impressionism", named after his work Impression, soleil levant (Impression, sunrise).  Before his time, it was common for artists to create artworks that were smooth. He began painting with rapid brush strokes. This gave his works their characteristic rough look (when seen from close quarters).

In 1883, he discovered Giverny when the train he was travelling in passed by this little place. Eventually, he moved to Giverny and bought land to build a house and develop a garden. He lived there pretty much for the rest of his life and painted. He painted the same object at different times of the day in different light. So this location not only provided him a comfortable residence, but it also gave him a stimulating environment to work. His property saw some bad times as a result of damage and neglect during the second world war. It was restored over a period of time and thrown open to public. It attracts about 500,000 visitors in the seven months that it is open in a year.

It is a lovely summer day and the gardens are agog with tourists. Many of them are part of groups that have descended from buses, and some like us who have arrived from Paris by train. The green arches lining the path to the house are covered with rose vines. And the whole garden is covered with flowers of different hues.

The house is open, airy and bright, with large windows looking out into the garden. It speaks of the idyllic lifestyle of its residents. All the rooms are done up well, with period furniture and furnishings. The yellow dining room with a huge dining table and the old-fashioned blue kitchen are very warm and inviting. Photography is not permitted in the house, so we do not have any pictures of these charming rooms, but we click to our hearts' content once we are outside in the gardens.

Go to the other side of the road via the tunnel and you find yourself in the water garden.This has been inspired by the Japanese gardens that Monet was familiar with through his collection of prints. This is where the piece de resistance in this complex is located. It is the celebrated green bridge which has been featured in a series of paintings by Monet. It is a small bridge, built across a small pond filled with water lilies. And then there are the weeping willows, and the bamboo grove, more bridges, and of course, the flower beds flaunting blossoms; some rare, some common, but all of them bursting with colour and energy. 

In spite of the presence of hundreds of visitors, the place is serene in its own way. I wonder if it is the collective vitality of all these flowers, the unadulterated natural ambiance, or the wondrous interplay between the water, the flowers, the leaves and the bridges that brings a soothing feel of calm to your senses.


For more information on the garden, check this.

Enjoy some more pictures from the garden and a picture of a painting by Monet from the bridge series.

All photos in the garden by Prateek

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Yeh Kahaani Hai Begaani!

The following is not a review of the recently released film "Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani". They are some thoughts I had while watching the film. They stayed with me even after the film got over, resulting in this post. Watch out, there are some spoilers!

If the bunch of lead characters in "Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani" represent the youth of India in any way, it is something to worry about. I sat through the entire 139 minutes, trying to find something...anything that would help me make a connect between the characters and the young people of contemporary India, to no avail.

I know that mainstream Hindi cinema is usually a work of exaggeration, where a largely deprived audience gets to fulfill their fantasies of wearing designer clothes, travelling to exotic locations, shaking a leg with glamorous beauties and skiing down the slopes at some expensive resort. In short, experiencing a lifestyle that is out of their reach. I have no problem with that. If people enjoy living in a world of their dreams for three hours, it is alright.

I know that today's youth are sometimes a confused lot, in search of purpose and direction. They are stressed out, ambitious and willing to pay a high price to achieve their goals. But they are also smart, open and articulate.

What I was aghast at was the portrayal of the young brigade as insensitive, self-centered and arrogant beings who do not take any cognizance of their parents, let alone respect them.  Okay, I realize that we have moved away from the era of the eternally sorrowful mother who stitched clothes for a living, and who had an obedient son falling at her feet crying "maa" every now and then...thank God for that! If this was unpalatable, the other extreme is even more so. For, it is conveying a message that this generation can get away with anything, absolutely anything.

Take Ranbir Kapoor's rude and rough behaviour towards his parents--especially his stepmother--who are waiting for him to return home late at night. Or Deepika Padukone's outburst at her overbearing mother at the dinner table. The poor father doesn't even get to say a single word! And that was the last the mother was seen! Later, as our girl goes through many ups and downs on the emotional roller coaster of her love life, she does not ever need her mother's support to help her cope with the turmoil in her life.

The case of Kalki is no different. She delivers a power-packed performance as an adventurous bohemian young woman, but her parents or guardians are nowhere in the picture. Same is the story with Aditya Roy parents. All of them go through their lives as individuals with no family, no siblings, no support system, no responsibilities. They are not answerable to anybody; drinking, dancing and making merry with friends to their hearts' content. And following their passion (globetrotting in Ranbir's case) with an alarming single-mindedness.

Whether it was the weak storyline, poorly etched out characters and rambling script lacking focus at times; or the absence of a more well-rounded depiction of the protagonists that got to me more, I'd say it was the latter. We can debate on the matter of films being inspired by society or society being influenced by films. Either way, the warning bells that I heard while watching this film recently were not only loud and clear, but scary too!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A Slice Of My Childhood Summer

Summer in my childhood. Think of it and you see a kaleidoscope of memories. Two months of carefree holidays when you were not really compelled to do anything. A welcome break from school routine, it was a time when the boundaries between morning, afternoon, evening and night melted into a soft interval of nothingness. Oh,what a happy and colourful nothingness it was...filled with fun, recreation, your favourite books and food. Of course, there was an occasional film to watch and a mandatory visit to your maternal grandparents' place.

But most of the holidays were spent at home in Indore and you looked forward to sleeping on the terrace.The mattresses and sheets that were cool and comfortable at night under a starlit sky, turned dusty and warm as soon as early rays of the rising sun touched them. Sleeping any longer was no option, unless you went indoors and slept under the monotonous drone of a ceiling fan, that is, if you had one. In most houses, the ceiling fan adorned only the living room. You could make up for the lack of sleep by dozing off in the afternoon. The long, languorous afternoons were ideal for a siesta. If you slept on the terrace at night, you needed these midday naps, for your nighttime sleep was often punctuated by the buzzing of a rare mosquito, noisy wedding bands playing late into the night, sounds from a transistor radio coming from your neighbour's terrace, howling of stray dogs or an unexpected rain shower. And then koels' shrill calls pierced the stillness of the skies at daybreak.

Summertime was busy time for the elders. Wheat for the whole year had to be bought and stored safely. One of the rooms at home would be converted into a makeshift granary where quintals of wheat was cleaned before storing it away. A woman was employed especially for this purpose. She would descend with several of her daughters to free the wheat from any impurities like small pebbles and other things. This went on for three or four days. Then the wheat would be filled in sun-dried drums, treated with herbal pesticides and kept in the storeroom.

Raw mangoes appeared in the market which were duly brought home, made into pickles and stored in ceramic jars. The harder and sourer the mangoes, the better suited they were for making pickles. Some were boiled and their extract taken out to make panna, the refreshing, energy-giving drink. Some others were grated or cut into pieces to make murabba, a sweet and sour jam that went well with rotis. All of these were exchanged with the neighbours. The recipe for making these varies in each family, and as a result they taste different.

Then there were papads, stuffed chillies and kurdais to be made and dried in the sun. Kurdais are jalebi-like spirals made from fermented wheat. The process requires hard work, skill and expertise. All this sun-dried stuff is fried and served with a meal to make it spicy..

And then there was sugarcane juice. Temporary sheds were made in each neighbourhood where freshly squeezed sugarcane juice was served with additives like ginger and lemon. A visit to these sheds made for a nice evening outing. Not only was the juice refreshing on a hot summer day, but it was also affordable. Some of the sheds sported private enclosures called family rooms, separate from the common area. Both were furnished with cheap metal or plastic tables and chairs or benches.  One could order a big glass or a small glass. The big glass was often represented by a crude drawing of Amitabh Bachchan on the walls of the shed, while Jaya Bachchan stood there for the small glass. This imagery appeared year after year.

We had fun swinging on the swing in our veranda, playing the simple board game that has been permanently carved on the cement floor at home, eating mangoes, playing in the park behind our house, and reading and listening to stories. A trip to Burhanpur--my maternal grandparents' place--and the prospect of meeting cousins there was a highlight of the holidays. More on Burhanpur in a later post!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Delhi Delights!

Some time ago, I had posted an album featuring some pictures of faces, taken in Delhi. Today, it is a mixed bag of images captured in the streets, malls, parks and markets of the Indian capital in winter. Hope they give you a flavour of the wonderful city.

A mannequin at Dilli Haat in a western ensemble created using handloom fabric. When Dilli Haat opened in 1994, it was known by the more well-known landmark across Sri Aurobindo Marg--the tony INA Market, where one could get rare vegetables like broccoli and asparagus, exotic seafood and meat, and an array of foreign goodies like European cheeses and sauces. Two decades later, the open-air bazaar selling crafts, fabrics and foods from different states of India has overtaken the old market in popularity. Now, INA Market may as well be known as being situated opposite Dilli Haat.

The next two pictures are from Dilli Haat as well.

These eye-catching items from Odisha are a sure way to attract visitors to your stall. Handmade from bits of cloth, they can be used to add colour to a dull corner in any space.

More colour! This time in the form of trinkets. These bangles can be mixed and matched to go with your costume.

These seem to have come to the market straight from the farm. Delhi is a heaven for fresh vegetables in winter. They are so irresistible that I always ended up buying more than what I needed when I lived in Delhi.

These mannequins in a South Delhi mall seem to be making a style statement.

One of the small pleasures of living in Delhi for me was to go shopping for pottery. It is contemporary, varied and easy on your purse. Sarojini Nagar Market in South Delhi is one of the places where one can find it spread out on the roadside for sale. The designs and variety have evolved over time. The somewhat rustic and artsy look of this pottery appeals to a wide cross-section of people. Hawkers selling pottery do brisk business throughout the year, although their profit margins might be quite low.

These coffee mugs sure look very inviting.

Ah, the ubiquitous aloo tikki! Another pleasure in Delhi. True, it is available everywhere, but there are connoisseurs who swear by a particular shop where they go to get their fill of this zesty snack. The freshly fried crisp patties of potato smothered with hot, sweet and sour chutneys and topped with boiled chickpeas, grated radish, onions and green chillies bring all your taste buds alive with the first bite. Here, in a popular South Delhi eatery, it is being served in a more hygienic way where you can mix all the ingredients as you like. At other places, when you place an order, the seller mixes the items one by one and gives you a plateful of ready-to-eat tikki. You can even get them made according to your specifications. I like mine to be extra spicy. Doesn't matter how they are served, tikkis always make for appetizing short eats.

If the mannequins in the mall sported western wear, their counterparts in Sarojini Nagar are all aglow in Indian outfits.

No mannequins here! Heavily brocaded wedding sarees on display in a shop window in Chandni Chowk.

Chrysanthemums in myriad shapes, sizes and colours burst on the scene at the onset of winter. Neatly arranged rows of potted chrysanthemums delight one and all in parks and other public spaces. Flower shows and exhibitions are held in the city where hundreds of these beauties bring joy to visitors. I leave you with pictures of roses and chrysanthemums taken at various places in Delhi.