Tuesday, June 28, 2011

At a Tribal Village Festival

I love the fact that work takes me to places that I would never even lose my way and end up in. And it so happens that every time I go to Sittilingi, there is something exciting happening. The last time I was there, two weeks ago, there was a huge village temple festival.
The story is that the tribals there decided that their cute as a button tribal shrine just wouldn’t do. So they took the idol out and remodeled the shrine into a city-like temple. Now the idol, having been taken out, was supposed to have lost all powers. So the festival was to take the idol on a day trip to a forest shrine deep in the hills to get the powers back and then reinstall into the sanctum-sanctorum.
The festival was an excuse for a village party with animal sacrifices, loud music all night long and feasting. For the night’s entertainment, a group of dancers had been invited. I stayed on till midnight and got some pictures. But jostling with the villagers and under the poor light, the photos are not of the best quality.
The raunchy dances reminded me of the nautanki and sparked a lot of words in my mind. Those will come up very soon. Meanwhile, take a look at the pictures that I particularly liked.
(I wrote the first part of an account of the festival here on the THI website.)

The dancer’s face is slightly clearer in the high res picture.
It isn’t clear, but the motion blur is of one of the girls whirling to the beat of the drums. For some reason, I like the energy in this picture that I felt there that night.

The next morning, the women of the village wait for the animal sacrifice to get over before they go home to cook up a feast. They carry these plates of paper flowers, coconut, incense sticks, bananas and sweet-meat made of raw rice powder and jaggery in a procession around the village before offering them as prasada to Goddess Mariyamma and distributing it to family and friends. The rice powder sweet tasted a little strange and sticky. On second thoughts, I didn’t like it much. Having refused to a feast (being a veggie), I couldn’t refuse to eat it though.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Why Being Simple is Complicated

And so I spent another day wasting a lot of time online, supposedly working, but actually doing a lot else. I have turned a little bit of a net junkie, though I will not, will not admit it! Following one link after another, I came across some articles on the Amish people in the US. I often tend to read up a lot on some topic that catches my fancy (there is a word for that sort of reading, I just can’t remember what it is now) and while doing so I ended up watching a documentary on them. It was specifically about the practice of ‘rum-springa’ (loosely translated to mean ‘running around’) that allows teenagers to live like the rest of the world for about a year or more. After that they have to choose to either be baptized or leave the community if they prefer not to follow the customs of the Amish.
Now for those of you who haven’t heard of them, the Amish are an ultra conservative community that is mainly known for simplistic living and for shunning all modern technologies, including electricity, cars and communication devices. Children study only up to class 8 after which they are baptized and work in the fields from dawn to dusk. The patriarchal system of society emphasizes on family, the church and the community and discourages much contact with the High People or The Englishers as the non-Amish people are called. Predictably, there are several cases of crimes of hate against these people who continue to drive around in horse driven buggies and wear 17th century clothes.
Watching the videos and reading up on them, I got thinking (what else could you expect, eh?). I remember vaguely an old Readers’ Digest article on them, talking about how they churn fresh butter every morning. The pictures were taken at dawn, a cow and some Amish people around a table. Addicted that we are to modern amenities, I wondered how easy (or not) it would be to go to a simpler life. No, I don’t mean the Amish way, which would be rather regressive in these times. But then, hear me out here, will you, do we really need all that we burden ourselves with?
There was a time when I was mighty interested in the idea of kibbutz and even contemplated visiting one. I would be the last person to be comfortable living without my personal space but these experiments in alternative living (I believe ‘conscious living’ is the fancier word these days) have long fascinated me. A kibbutz is where you work for the community, where the kids live in separate quarters and there is no concept of individual space. I wonder then what role individualism plays in the creative process of a life. If all things are for and by the collective, would creativity still thrive? Or in the other case of places like Auroville, where nothing belongs to the individual, would it be an ideal field for a creative process to take root in? I have often wondered.
I recently read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, that gem of female polemic where she argues that a woman, to be able to pursue a career in writing, needs to have her own resources and be allowed to occupy a space of her own. Does to have individuality mean that you are obliged to give up working for the common interest of a unit, say the family? Is it easy to reconcile the two and have both? Can you be an individual and yet be able to fulfill the roles that traditional society assigns you? I think not.
In that light, I sometimes wish (call me regressive, or perhaps idealistic) for ignorance. Ignorance of how big the world is. Ignorance of how many ideas there are. A simple life comes with simpler concerns at least. But when you have seen the other side from over the window, it is just too complicated to let go. To let go of complications in life. To choose the simple over the so-not-simple. To find my way out of another tangle that I have landed myself in with these paragraphs here!
Within the blink of an eye, we go from what is simple to what is twisted, drawn like the proverbial moth to the fire, singeing its wings on the burning blue edges, yet unable to turn away. When simple has been the way things were for longer than they were complicated, why should it be so tough to revert? But it is. Or maybe I am just peeking in from the outside through the coloured panes of the window.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Column 2 in City Buzz, Bangalore

Continuing from last week...
Victorian reading rooms, leisurely reads and cardamom tea
Between pop fiction and heavy Lit, there is another I was itching to start all afternoon, first time author Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation, a very recent release. I am a huge fan of Pakistani writing, so much that I haven’t yet read a book that I wouldn’t heartily recommend. From Saadat Hasan Manto to Mohammed Hanif to Daniyal Mueenudhin to my very favourite Mohsin Hamid to even the fiery Fathima Bhutto (though her writing remains biased), I love them all. Much like I almost blindly love their music. But that’s another story. I have much hope from Fazli as well. Like the other writers I mention, the jacket of the book says the story is set in Karachi and the excesses of its pretty people. Going by precedents in the other books, I know I won’t be disappointed.
Once I sign off here for this month, I shall be returning to Bronte, going back to where I started this long soliloquy. I never studied Literature, though not for lack of wanting, so several passages and their intricacies nevertheless escape my attention. But what never ceases to amaze me is the boundless imagination of the Bronte sisters who wrote the masterpieces that they did without having the luxury of travel, vast experiences, much money or a room of their own. As to why the last two are important, may I suggest you read that jewel in feminist polemic, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
In keeping with the people, the setting and the places they write about, Victorian novels are designed to be savoured slowly, if you ask me. I don’t know about you, but if I try to hurry through a sentence in such a book, I am punished by having to go back and read it slowly. Only then can I turn the sentence around in my mind and see the picture the author has drawn for me. I can’t allow myself a page when I have five minutes to wait someplace. Like how the book was probably written in long slanting handwriting across small pages in blue ink drawn from an inkpot sitting by the right side on a writer’s cabinet, a classic is meant to be read in a particular setting.
Let’s fantasize of a nice high backed chair in a cozy room. Add a fireplace if the weather gets too cold. An Irish Setter would lie by the end of the room and you take your time reading a governess’ tale. Sounds just right, doesn’t it? Quite like a turntable and a few records. Quite like a cup of tea. How so, you ask?
Well, a classic is rather like a cup of hot, sweet milky tea, flavoured with three pods of cardamom. You would want to sip it slowly and let the cardamom linger on your tongue and the aroma drift in the air. You would want to sit across a few friends and “…like on the table, when we’re speaking, the light of a bottle of intelligent wine,” as Neruda puts it. You would want to prolong the conversation, stopping to listen to the cicadas, to watch a firefly in flight.
That isn’t to say there cannot be a pleasing picture for a newer novel. Wouldn’t reading a quick page turner be like a grande serving of say, cafĂ© mocha? There would be Akon or some rock playing on the sound system in the background. You would be with friends talking of shopping and crushes and concerts, trying to be heard above the music. The mocha is sweet, with a dash of chocolate. You linger over the glass and have a fun afternoon. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t also enjoy a cup of cardamom tea now, does it?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Column No 1 in City Buzz, Bangalore!

I don't think the link below to the column is working. So here is the text:

Some tea, some mocha on a Sunday afternoon

While ambitions for life and goals in the immediate future have changed constantly, I hold one fantasy very dear. That of an afternoon where it is raining heavy drops on a tiled roof, the weather grey and cold enough to lay a thick brown blanket across my lap and a window sill across which I see leaves of tall trees hold on to the falling water for a brief second before they wet the fragrant earth. My mother would discourage the endless cups of strong coffee, but yet, the fantasy would include the aforementioned coffee along with a great book, ideally one set in the English moors or in the parlours of Victorian manors.
I spent such an afternoon on Sunday, though it neither rained nor was it cold. These preconditions could scarcely exist in our dear old Bangalore. I wasn’t drinking coffee either. The book was about dark English moors though. Back in college, such days of languid reading was much common place; there wasn’t much else you could do during winters and monsoons in the hills. But after putting myself in the city these past few years, such indulgences are nearly my own decadent delights. There always seem to be something else I should be doing, even if just trawling the wicked web for trivia, videos, articles. Apologetic, am I, about spending such a while? I suppose not.
Where I come to after meandering along like so is that we seem to have lost the fine art of indulging in sitting down in an armchair and reading. Or just sitting down even. Like the turntable and the leisurely activity of sitting around listening to records, which is thankfully making a return, I wonder when it would be fashionable again to spend a free evening in a deep chair with a book. Not with the ends of an iPod stuck in your ear, mind you.
I suppose it is not the done thing now to take things slow. I am old enough to remember a time when there was still some slo-mo in life. Saying this, I feel old. But then, when you stop relating to the latest music sensation, the kid Justin Beiber or the ghastly Lady Gaga, I suppose there is no other way to feel.
I am going to indulge myself a little further and tell you of a time, not too long ago, let me hasten to assure you, when it was ok to have just read a fine book through an entire day. It was also ok to sit on a terrace for what seemed like several hours and look up at the dark blue sky to draw patterns across the million stars. It was also ok to do these things every other day. This summer I spent in the hills at home and I tried doing so. But in many ways the city corrupts you, in thinking that you ought to be productive every minute of every day. I couldn’t sit still for long, though the window in my room opens to a tantalizing vista of lush green trees and a winding mud path. There are fireflies between the leaves of the mango tree. After half a decade running about in the city, I couldn’t sit down long. This, though I come from the hills where dreaming along the twinkle of stars with the cicadas in the background is deemed a perfectly acceptable (and productive) way to spend some time.
While we are on the subject, do you remember late afternoon scenes from Victorian and Elizabethan era novels? Those which had the family cat purring by the fireplace, the mother reading passages from the Bible while the father nursed a long pipe. The girls would knit, or if younger, sit by the feet of a parent, reading or sketching. Would the room be complete without a baby piano and a rocking oak chair? Or one of them reading aloud a long delicious letter from an aunt? The setting reeks of a simpler, less hurried time now, doesn’t it? But then, I indulge too much in anachronisms.
The diatribe on modern times, it’s time I confess, is the result of the Sunday afternoon spent reading Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s classic. That is why you read above of English moors and slower times and around the fireplace scenes. I have this habit of reading 2-3 books at once. No, don’t ask me why I do that. So with the Lit, I was also furiously flipping through the now-cult Immortals of Meluha, Amish’s re-work on mythology.
I remain wary of popular culture and usually stir away from movies and books that everyone writes and talks about. Amish’s book came out when I was still recovering from an overdose of media and I had safely looked the other way. Then it so happened that my library had a copy and gingerly, I clicked on it to have the book delivered. Though the style of writing leaves a lot to be desired, I was rather impressed with the way he humanized the legend of Shiva. His Shiva is one who delightfully swears, doesn’t pass up on a chillum and has a past he isn’t too proud of. The book is the first of a trilogy and between jibes and wise cracks, presents familiar stories and names in a new context. There is even a little pop philosophy, quite in Coelho’s style, just below the surface.
Chetan Bhagat, the poster boy of popular Indian fiction once said that he wrote for people who read while silently mouthing the words to themselves. Amish’s book hovers around the same plane. Not that I complain; I finished the book in one sitting with a break for lunch. Amidst the feverous perfection that Gods are expected to maintain in our mythologies, it is refreshing to read a story where one such of the trinity remains what I can only call a cool dude.
There are books that fall into the middle path between pop fiction and heavy duty Lit. I am going to tell you about it next week…..
(to be continued)

Monday, June 13, 2011

This Blogger is Now a Columnist!! Ahem!!

Somewhere along the way in college, I had decided that I wanted to be a journalist, more specifically a magazine journalist. At least that was what I had answered in my interview at university. Even before that, I knew that one day I wanted to be a columnist, a designation, call it so if you will, that has long fascinated me.
Today, five years into the profession of writing, here I am, (drums rollingggg here!) a columnist with City Buzz, a Bangalore based weekly news-magazine that I even otherwise freelance with. This is just the start, hopefully!!
The link should work, let me know if it doesn't. Read the first part of my first column here.
(Edit: I am so sorry the link isn't working. Please see the post above this. I have pasted the column there. Thanks!)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Can Faith be Wished for?

“How can you see places like this, and have moments like this, and not believe?”
“You’re lucky to be so sure.”
“It’s like the wind. I can’t see it, but I feel it.”
* * *
When there are many thoughts whirring in your mind, I suppose you do uncharacteristic things. At least that is what I seem to do. There has been much on my mind, this and that and a lot else. I would have preferred sitting by the beach under a light rain. But instead, I went to a temple. Uncharacteristically.
My relationship with God is a strange one, more a matter of convenience I think. I have gone through alternative periods of total belief to total rejection to utter lack of concern about the whole issue. As always, my dear parents let me decide where I wanted to be. I can’t thank them enough for that freedom.
Yesterday at the temple, I showed myself to a corner (quiet until an annoying kid started screaming), hoping to line up my thoughts neatly like a row of roses in a manicured garden instead of the messy bunch they were in. Doing that had helped me earlier once, a long time ago. I had been a little of a believer then.
Sitting in that business place of a religious institution, I almost envied the others there. Several were the tourist sorts, but in the crowd there were a few oblivious to the rest and communing with God in that room. I wish I could have that faith.
On most days I don't mind being an agnostic. But sometimes, I admit here, I miss believing in something. I miss having the faith, call it blind or whathaveyou, to hold on to. When there are too many thoughts niggling in the mind, I wish I could feel it in the wind. It would have been a shelter in the storm.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Six full years of being here on these pages. Would never have thought I would persevere.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Looking for an Adjective, Am I?

‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.
Is ‘Wuthering’ an adjective significant enough to describe the atmospheric tumult passing by the days of my life? I wonder.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

On the New Myths of Yakshagana: In Himal Southasian

It's always super fun writing for Himal SouthAsian, the magazine published from Kathmandu, Nepal and circulated in South Asian countries. My second story with them, on Yakshagana, is here. Or see below.


In South India, particularly in Karnataka, there is one form of dance theatre that defies most rules of popular art, perhaps even societal norms; where the hero is just one among many actors on stage; where the villain looks so much grander and has so much more fun that he ends up overshadowing the hero. This is where no two performances, no two series of dialogue, are ever the same, and shows are typically debated for days after the performance; where an actor can become so famous that he (all roles are played by men) is identified by his role, and where the entangled web of the caste system is surprisingly absent. We call this Yakshagana.

Karnataka has full claim to this art form, which originated in its villages, in open grounds or under shoddily put-up canvas tents covering dirty mats and creaky folding chairs. Indeed, Yakshagana is recognised as one of the traditional art forms of Karnataka, just like the Odissi dance of Odhisha or the Mohiniattam in Kerala. Apart from the bhajans and religious discourses, Yakshagana, literally meaning the song of the Yakshas, or demi-gods, offered a fun way to learn one’s Hindu epics and their thousand and more stories. Yakshagana is a mix of folk theatre, dance, theatre and music, a pantomime of sorts. Today, it constitutes an art form that thrives amidst the general decline of traditional arts elsewhere in India and the region at large.

Interestingly, Yakshagana exists with an almost complete lack of caste and its trappings. For instance, there is no preference whatsoever given to artists due to their castes, says Kaje Govinda Prasad, an amateur artiste for nearly 20 years and a doctor in Uppinangady, in Dakshin Kannada district. Between managing his family estate and his medical practice, he finds time to do about ten performances in a year. ‘The money is not important to me, I do it for the passion,’ he says. ‘There may be individual animosity among the artistes in some cases, but caste never benefits or hinders a person from getting a particular role.’ However, almost all artistes, professional or otherwise, are usually Hindu. In addition, all are men, including those playing the female characters. In a society of male dominance, it was not considered respectable for a woman to be seen on stage before an audience, and this tradition has continued.

At the very core of Yakshagana is the himmela. This entourage of musicians includes a narrator, singers (bhagawatha) and musicians playing the chande and maddale drums, and the harmonium. The mummela is a team of actors who interpret and act out the songs from a section of a particular myth. Their performance, usually touching on just one main story and a few sub-stories, is called the prasanga. Performances usually begin just after dusk with elaborate drums in what is called the peetike, during which the narrator sets the background to the play with songs and music, before the actors come on stage to roar and dance until dawn.

Inclusive, interpretive
There are regional variations in Yakshagana performances. Depending on whether you are in the coastal parts of Karnataka or in the northern districts, you could be watching either the badagu-tittu or tenku-tittu styles, distinguishable both by costumes and by the way the various myths have been interpreted into poetic form. Yakshagana is also interesting in its use of symbolism. The stage has few props, if at all. ‘There is no concept of scenery or the creation of a visual context,’ says Taltaje Vasantha Kumara, a retired professor of Kannada who wore the veshas (Yakshagana costumes) while in college. ‘The ambiance is created entirely through words and their interpretation – and the audience accepts this completely.’

No matter where you are, audience participation is always a central component of the performance. It is expected that the actors will somehow involve some members of the audience in their interpretations, often in a humorous way. Spontaneity is important here, with the actors improvising their lines to suit the audience. It is no surprise, then, that actors will typically speak extempore while on stage. For instance, if an important guest is present in the audience, the person will often be referred to in a humorous manner. Or, if a certain character is being mischievous, another actor could warn them of the presence of an important guest or senior artiste or teacher, who could come out and take them to task.

Such interludes also offer a bit of levity in the midst of what are often very sombre stories. ‘The songs are as old as the days of Ramayana and Mahabharata. But as long as they are within the framework and scope of the role, it does not matter how they are interpreted or what modern elements are included,’ says Kumara. For instance, the story of the Pandavas’ Ashwamedha Yaaga is well known, but some comic relief can be added to the traditional tale by including as a character a mischievous demon, who needles the other actors. As long as the story itself does not veer off from the original plot, there are no restrictions regarding the introduction of new characters. As such, with changes in the demographics of audiences and changing tastes, issues of corruption, bribery and bumbling governments find mention in the performances, breathing fresh life into age-old stories.

‘Sometimes, the interpretation can go on for very long if the artiste is experienced and knows his character well,’ Kumara adds. ‘That is how they stretch a story throughout the night. Kaje Govinda Prasad, for instance, was so popular as Arjuna during his college days that teachers used to call him Paartha, another name of Arjuna. He says that before a performance, while he was getting his make-up done, he would decide on the framework of his role for the evening. Although he would have an idea of how he would act that evening, interpretations would follow spontaneously on stage. Most actors tend to grow into certain roles, starting from a junior part in a production and working, over the course of a decade or more, until they ‘graduate’ into a role that becomes a signature. The nonagenarian theatre stalwart Yenagi Balappa tells the story of people taking his blessings thinking he was the philosopher Basavanna – owing to a lifetime of playing that role on stage.

Channappa Shetty is now in his 60s, and has been a professional Yakshagana artist for over 40 of those years. As he talks of how things were then and now, and what he predicts will happen, his eyes glaze over. He is sitting with several other actors, who are painting their faces and getting their costumes ready for a performance due to start in thirty minutes. He is performing too, but given his experience, getting ready should not take too long. An average ‘look’ takes upward of an hour to create, while something more elaborate, for that of a demon or villain, can take up to four hours. The villains in the aata, as the play is known colloquially, always have the more elaborate costumes; the hero’s are far plainer.

Shetty started acting in the 1970s, as part of famous melas – Yakshagana companies – such as Dharmasthala, Raghavendra Swami and Kateel. Those were the days when a prasanga would begin no earlier than 9.30 pm and go on till six the next morning. ‘But we have limited time for plays now,’ Shetty says. ‘No one stays throughout the night.’ Being a professional does not earn him much. While a senior actor might earn about INR 15,000 a month, this income is restricted to the theatre season, just a few months a year. An amateur, meanwhile, might agree to perform for free sometimes, or get a nominal amount of INR 500-1000 per performance.

For most of his life, he has toured with his troupe all over Karnataka, though the art form and its most enthusiastic audience are in the Dakshin Kannada, Uttara Kannada, Udupi and Shimoga districts in Karnataka, as well as Kasargod district in Kerala. ‘There have been times when we were asked to sleep under a tree, despite the host having a huge house,’ Shetty says, referring to the bayalaata agreement, in which troupes arrange for their own accommodation. ‘Artistes were called to perform at functions and during religious events by well off families, but we were not respected.’ During season, from November to end of May, his troupe would tour from town to town, performing. ‘The camps would be far from each other,’ he recalls. ‘There were many days when we would finish an all-night show, pack our bags and, by the time we reached the next place, it would already be evening and we would have to start getting ready again – without any rest.’

Old new
The form of Yakshagana itself has seen significant experimentation, as well. The late Shivaram Karanth, an award-winning Kannada writer, played a significant role in popularising Yakshagana. He also tried experimenting, to see if it could be performed without speech at all – like a ballet. Though these pieces were well attended, the experimentation was heavily criticised by puritans, and it never really took off. Then there was Keremane Shambhu Hegde, who used the same verse over and over again but with different interpretations each time. He died on stage, performing as Rama inSrirama Niriyana, about the end of the Rama avatar. Kukkila Krishna Bhat, Kolyur Ramachandra Rao, K M Raghava Nambiar, Surikumeri Govinda Bhat and others also contributed much to the field.

Other changes have seen increasing numbers of amateurs and young people showing interest in Yakshagana. In this, the popularity of the art form in urban areas, such as Bangalore, has helped a great deal. Even while teenagers in the coastal districts aspire to become, perhaps, software professionals, during the summer many continue to attend theatre workshops – and will, more often than not, put a vesha on. Even once school begins again, many will continue to attend Yakshagana activities during the weekends. Though it is a thriving art, no one could give an estimate of how many artistes might be involved in Yakshagana, owing to the fact that there is no governing or one organising body under which they might learn and work.

Channappa Shetty, for one, says that he is confident that Yakshagana will continue to thrive, though he does foresee changes, continued experimentation and new styles seeping in. The youth taking it up, even in cities ‘is a very good thing for Yakshagana and its future,’ he says. Indeed, there have been many subtle changes in style and form, but the essence of Yakshagana has remained unchanged, in the sense that not many of the core rules have changed. It continues to inspire people to experiment, explore and extend the limits of their creativity.