Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Little Peace, Sights and Sounds at Auroville

Matri Mandir

Walk in the woods

Cozy corridors

Aurobindo at Savithri Bhavan

Vera and the Russian bells, the sound of the Earth's soul...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Over Ek Cup Chai

Doesn't it seem almost mandatory, that you get thoughts of hot cups of coffee and good books and warm blankets and tight hugs when its cold and grey and raining? Call it a ritual of sorts even, a tradition that some time or the other, in college, after work, we would all have nurtured, loved, looked forward to. And somewhere along the way, sometime, in the business of making money, let go off.

Don't you love those addas in front of college and office, right next to the cigarette and bidi-walla? Those endless conversations and milky, sweet, not too hot coffee? I love the whole picture that you get to frame before you. The tea/coffee cup, plastic/paper, friends/colleagues around you, the wafting sharp scent of a Kings mild or whatever other brands of cigarettes there are, the little bottles of cheap sweets kept in a row, then the pan leaves, the gutka packets, the conversations. Isn't it lovely to have an adda to yourself, for the shopkeeper to recognise you and throw in his bit into the conversation, to give you a little personalised coffee with lesser sugar and more decoction?

Those college days and the dingy canteen and endless cups of coffee over which we discussed the way we would change the world... I almost break out into giggles, thinking of how naive we all were. Life does make you wiser, whether you like to or not. And more practical. And dull. There was an adda then. Back in those Express days, when there were still some vestiges of hope that we could change a few people, we had those addas, the dingy canteen again. And by-two coffee, endless of those.

Over a year now, wiser, older, the adda, albeit a newer one, remains. In a little corner when you turn to the Rest House Crescent Road, a little cubicle. I do not quite remember which of us discovered it. The owner waves at me every time I pass by, talking in English, Kannada and Hindi, in turns. He makes the best sulaiman chai, strong and very sweet. And some masala chai, heaven for a sore throat. There is the normal tea too. And some delicious biscuits and something called a dil-pasand, a crispy thing with sweet coconut stuffing.

Friends and I balance the chai and pieces of snacks and sit below the awning of a shop nearby. Behind is the glossy perfumes and make up and lotions in bottles, all shapes and sizes. We all seem wiser, at least the innocence of life is gone. We are all out there to survive alone. The conversations mirror it too, about travelling, movies, books, wanting to do "something", and then walking up to the routine after all that.

Those are to me the best moments, a few minutes of bonding; friendships are built, a little bit of life is built, everyday, around those favourite addas. And then again, routine disrupts it all. On another rainy day, the absolute need for these snatches of life come gushing in with the evening breeze, with tiny wisps of the monsoon rain. A song. Yet another memory.

Edit: A friend, Soumya, reminded me of Gulabi-akka who used to have a little tea shop bang opposite my university bus stand. I never went there. The guys from the boys hostel always hung around there. Gulabi-akka was very famous and her many stories I have heard. I had almost forgotten about her. Thanks Soumya!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

As Random As I Can Get

I am trying to unlearn a lot of lessons that I did not want to learn in the first place.

Today was one extremely traumatic day. Don't ask why.

I seem to have, somewhere in my thoughts, some profound thing to write here. But then, I don't seem to be able to actually bring it out today.

Self destruction.

Got an email forward today with some very beautiful pictures. Strange how some random things, taken someplace else, hits you so directly.

Depression. And thoughts of coffee.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gabo.

I am not writing enough. Or well. Or writing well enough.

The deep cut on the finger. Did I actually like cooking today?

An old Mukesh song.
"Mein kar ek pal ka shayar hoon"

Numbers and trains and distorted dreams and running and water, lots of it and people and the wish for none of them and travel and a long road and the breeze and a beach in Chennai and yoga. The weirdest assortment of muddled thoughts that just passed through me.

Told you I would be random.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Once Upon a Time, Long, Long Ago....

Dharmarayana Temple, near SP Road, the old Pete area

An old woman with matted hair and several dozen copper and bronze bangles. Was thrilled about her pictures and blessed us for taking them. :-)

I had thought blue doors that were supposed to protect the house from the evil eye was a Middle Eastern idea. But all across the countryside, I have, for long, been coming across blue doors.

Part of the chariot's decor

I loved how these women are chatting, framed so beautifully by white walls and 'panche' or a kind of sarong hung out to dry, dipped in turmeric, a sort of purifying procedure.

Remember that time somewhere back in those days of the innocence of childhood when a fair was the most awaited event of the year? Well, I used to have those days once. It seems like it was one of those 'once upon a time, long, long ago...' kind of memories. There is a temple in Madikeri, Muttappa Devasthana, where there is an annual fair, complete with people walking on a bed of red hot coals, spirits descending on to a man's body, cheap plastic toys, balloons, bangles, masala puffed rice, sweets and chips and candy to eat, to the sound of drums in the background, a misty night and the cold January breeze and the crush of hundreds of people.

It was a standard event for me, every year. Our maids would get off early from work to go to the fair, armed with a ten or a twenty rupee note to eat and buy toys for their children with. My parents and I would go later into the night and stay for an hour or two. I rarely stayed for the walking on coal event, Appa would have got impatient by then and the crowd, a lot drunk and rowdish. But before then, I would most definitely have pulled out my hand from the warmth of a thick shawl and a sweater and got the bangle seller to slip some down my wrist. Glass bangles in black were what you would mostly buy at this fair.

Some days ago, it was all of an evening of deja-vu at Bengaluru Karaga, one of the oldest and most popular festivals in Bangalore. A karaga is essentially a man who has taken a vow carry in procession an idol of a God/Goddess without touching it. It is considered fatal if the karaga falls or if the man touches it. He can keep it down only inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. We have these in Madikeri as well, just before Dasara.

The festival has a beautiful history that the temple treasurer narrated to me. All the names and the dates promptly flew out of my head. The festival, estimated now to be thousands of years old, has a man assume the role of Draupadi from the Mahabharatha and take out the idol in procession along the old city parts, mainly around what used to be Kempegowda's (the founder of Bangalore) fort. Till the festival is over, his wife is deemed to be a widow. The customs are rather secretive. This man wears bangles in a ceremony and then after several prayers, is left alone. It is said that the karaga, elaborately decorated with jasmine flowers, comes up on the man's head alomst magically and he then takes out on an all night long procession.

The Bengaluru Karaga is celebrated by both the Hindus and the Muslims. The procession, that starts after midnight, begins at Dharmarayana Temple, (one of the few temples of the eldest of the Pandavas; also one of the rare places where you are allowed to take pictures of the idol) goes to a dargha and around the old Pete area.

I was to cover the festival. Having never seen it before, I offered to go. Best friend Manju and I covered the preparations. And I regretted that all I had was my sad E71 camera phone. As expected, there was a riot of colour, flowers and lights and huge chariots. I did not get to see the karaga, all the history I write here is what I heard.

The temple had this lovely smell. Now, I cannot describe it. Have you ever been to a place where it smells of thousands of years of tradition and faith and whether you believe it or not, you are drawn by the sheer number of those who do believe? I cannot draw the smell out in words, you have to visit a busy temple during a festival to understand. There is the smell of incense and flowers and the aarthi and the smoke from the fire and camphor. Add to that the hundreds of people talking softly, conversations and prayers and chanting of the mantras underlying the lovely tingle of the temple bells, once loud, sometimes a soft ring, so filled with faith.

We sit there for a while, I aim the camera here and there, atop the gopura where they are tying the flowers, a boy riding atop a stone painted elephant (memories of me again, a long time ago), a woman in a blue saree against a white stone wall, children getting in every one's way, old priests, angry at the crowds, giving out holy water, jostling crowds, a coy couple, hand-in-hand, at a distance, two kids, silhouetted against the setting sun, flying a kite.

We walk out and talk to the temple trustee. The chariots are being decorated. There is an old woman with matted hair that we take a lot of pictures of. She blesses us and is delighted looking at the pictures on the camera. Crowds begin to mill around everywhere, we are an oddity there, like a wrong stroke of paint in that traditional painting.

It is a fair out on the roads. Hawkers call out the wares, many are laying out the toys and the snacks for the night ahead. I buy a few cane trays. We head out and I spot the bangle seller, I simply have to go there. On the next mat is laid out several village snacks, seasoned puffed rice and little sugar balls and peanuts. The white sugar balls remind me of a snack granny used to buy me every time she went to a fair in her mother's village. It is a walk down the ages again for me. Was that Bangalore that evening?

Balloons and noise and drums and snacks and toys and colour and colourful people. Fairs and festivals and faith. That old familiarity. There are still times when I feel I have not travelled too far from who I was, once upon a time, long, long ago....

Friday, April 10, 2009

'Bhagyada Balegara....'

A rather hurridely taken mobile phone picture with my new bangles on...

There was this lovely Kannada folk song that rushed to my mind last evening. "Bhagyada balegara hogi baa tavarige," and the other favourite "Balegara Chennaiah baagilige bandihenu, olage barallappaneye doreye..."
Now I must tell you about these two. Take song 1. A married woman is asking the bangle seller to go to her 'tavaru', her mother's house and sell bangles to her mother who loves them in green with golden dots. The seller asks her how he is supposed to find the house and the woman describes the route and the house as one that has a tiled roof and a copper door with peacocks playing in the courtyard. You can almost hear how much she misses home in the lyrics.

Song 2 is where the bangle seller is asking permission of the owner of the house to enter, he says he has a message from a distant town. The man's wife has gone to her father's house after a fight and is missing him. The bangle seller asks the man to go bring her back.

I have always believed folk songs to be the greatest repositories of a language, its people and their culture. While the literal meaning can range anywhere from flirtatious to raunchy to innocence to devotion and depict an everyday event, the other meaning is much deeper hidden. They are a mark of a language's growth, the lifestyle of the people. No folk song used to be written and improvisation was almost mandatory. You would hear the same song in multiple versions, though they usually retain loosely the story and the tune. I used to be so fascinated that in college I had my own collection of songs I knew all the lyrics of. I had even contemplated studying folk arts. But journalism happened somewhere along the way.

I was to write here about the bangle seller.

Earlier, the bangle seller, usually, an older man with a huge bundle of bangles heaved on to his shoulder would visit homes regularly. He was one of those men traditional women could talk to without inhibitions. Not only was he an informal messenger of sorts, but he would often be the woman's confidante. The bangles were slipped around paper rolls and tied with strings strewn through the hollow of the rolls. Red and green and oranges and gold and black and those 'gileet bale', the ones with golden dots on them, the slightly more expensive kind. I have forever been fascinated with these people.

They also have this way of holding your palm and very accurately judging the size of bangle you would need. Never once, as far as I have seen, have they gone wrong. As a kid, despite Madikeri being what they call a modern town, we would have a lot of these people coming home. In my grandmom's time, when the joint family had lots of womenfolk, a visit from a bangle seller was a much anticipated event. All the young girls first and then the older women, except the widows, would get probably a dozen glass bangles each. The most popular visits were during the festivals when 'bale todisuvudu' was almost customary. Granny tells me stories of how they would all mill around him, chattering and all excited. She still tells me of those days with a glitter in her eyes.

When I was little, these men did come home often. Though I hardly ever wore glass bangles, I simply had to buy a few dozen every time, for weddings and functions, just in case, in every colour. And I wouldn't let ma bargain over the prices. Much later on too, I would get my maid Shailaja to send them to the house in case she came across them.

I suppose they still roam the streets. We do pay a very hefty price for modernity, don't we? I cannot imagine life with my cell phone and internet and iPod, but maybe, given a choice, I wouldn't mind giving some of it up. Not the cell phone though. Modernity has its many victims, the culture of the people, those traditions and the anonymous people that add a footnote to histories. I miss those guys, miss a thousand other little things, half of which I already have forgotten.

Last evening, I was at Bengaluru Karaga, one of the city's oldest and most popular festivals. Lined up along the very busy road were some bangle sellers. And I just had to buy. The old man's hands, when he measured my wrist, was coarse, and wrinkled. He mumbled over the price a bit, clicked on each bangle to see whether they were broken and slipped them effortlessly over my wrist. The dozen green and red ones, with golden dots on them, fit perfectly. I cannot remove them now without breaking.

I don't think these sellers roam the city streets anymore. They would be too much of an anachronism. My aunt in a village in South Kanara is also not too keen about the glass bangles anymore. She complains that the quality is not what they used to be and the bangles break very easily.

As for me, I miss the Chennaiahs, the messengers of sorts. And I miss the riot of colours and the clink of a dozen of them at every flick of the wrist.

In a different story, Yamunavva, my favourite Devadasi in a little progressing village called Chimmadu, bought me a dozen strong green bangles at Savadatti where their presiding deity Goddess Yellamma resides. The blessings of Devadasis are supposed to be much sought after. They are supposed to cause miracles.

I still have the bangles. And I am still waiting for my miracle.

Monday, April 06, 2009

A Couple of New Things

Two places I highly recommend you all to check out:

http://www.openthemagazine.com/ Open is this cool weekly news magazine launched a couple of days ago by the RPG group. I love their website, very Apple Mac-ish. You move the cursor along and each spread is highlighted and you get to enlarge it, use the hand tool and all kinds of really cool things. I also liked the fact that their choice of stories is quite different from the others, though the first cover story was, well, not something that would make a lasting impression. I definitely didn't want to see a poll with the cover story. There is also this hilarious story about bullshit and the power of nonsense. Made a lot of sense and brought me a smile, lol!! :-) Overall, Open looks very international to me.

http://dropoutstories.blogspot.com/ Yet another blog where yours truly will be posting. The blog has been started by journalists Jayashree Nandi and Subhro Niyogi and the three of us would be monitoring it. The blog is about developmental journalism and if you have a social issue in mind, do write about it and mail it, with pictures preferably, to dropoutstories@gmail.com

Thursday, April 02, 2009

All About a Legend

The picture is a Times group copyright and I wrote the article below for TOI last November.

I was going through my work directory just now and found the story from a long time ago that I thought I simply had to share. There was this play at Ranga Shankara (a fabulous place) and I was there to talk to the grand old man. After a stellar performance, he was thoroughly exhausted and couldn't talk to me much. But there was quite something about him.

Legends do not need applause. When a life is the manifestation of an art, appreciation is rather relative. When it is the doyen Yenagi Balappa on stage, a standing ovation is not surprising; it is almost mandatory. A full 25 years later, the legendary Balappa, rather frail at 96 years of age, donned the grease paint again to revive his own old production of Jagadjyothi Basaveshwara at the Ranga Shankara Festival. No faltering steps, not one hint of the frailties of age, Balappa's performance made the audience sit up in nothing but awe, the sheer brilliance of experience and talent could only evoke inspiration, a salute.

The play, directed by Balappa's son, Yenagi Nataraj, follows the life of the saint-poet Basavanna from birth, to his rise to the post of chief minister in king Bijjala's darbar, his reforms, and his renunciation. The play is peppered with his vachanas, also thoughts and reform measures that he tried to introduce. The story culminates in a marriage between the children of Haralayya, of a low caste and a former minister, a Brahmin. The social conditions are not such that a revolution of this gravity can be accepted; Basavanna has to renounce his post.

Balappa had always played the role of Basaveshwara, so famously that people in the northern parts of the state still bow to him with folded hands; its Basavanna himself in front of them. Quarter of a century later, when he agreed to perform once again, he wanted Haralayya's part, a role he had always wanted to play. It was a role he played to beyond perfection.

A little into the play, he walks in and there is a standing ovation. He starts singing in a brilliant high pitched voice and all other sounds become immaterial. The stage has no microphones, not that Balappa needs any. He is a different persona there, his steps are steady, voice modulation, perfect. Every time he is on stage, the awe-struck audience simply has to applaud; his performance almost demands it. A stellar performance; and this, 25 years after he last commanded the stage, this, when he had a fever; not that it could stop him from acting.

After the play ends, another ovation. Yenagi Balappa suddenly looks frail, sitting in a chair in the middle of the stage with the rest of the cast around him. He bends over, a third generation Yenagi boy, also in the cast, leaning on to his chair. There is still that awe that hangs around the auditorium.

The legend gets some fresh air, dips cream biscuits into a hot cup of tea. He is tired but the next show has to go on and he has to don the make up again.

When passion inspires, even age stands on the sidelines and watches, again in awe.