Monday, October 21, 2013

On the organisation Aadima in Kolar: In OPEN magazine this week

A dear friend and I had a bit of an adventure getting to and back from Aadima, an organisation on top of a hill near Kolar. But it was a full moon night, the air was still and the place added to the magic of being there, sharing that. Here is the story, in OPEN this week. Open that link or see below.

Kurosawa in Kolar
On a remote hill several miles outside Bangalore, a social and cultural experiment is underway

Photo courtesy: Satyavrata Raut

You are allowed your imagination here—here on top of Terahalli Betta, a few miles from the burrowed-out gold mine town of Kolar, a few dozen miles from Bangalore. The sense of being the only man or woman under a starless sky, looking down at the rocky hillocks past the thin road; the romance of seeing the gentle silhouettes of others under the blinding brightness of the moon; the feeling of being away, reclusive, primeval. On top of the hill, on a full moon night, you are allowed to imagine anything, to make up your own stories, to write your own poetry. This is why Aadima was started, and why it was named Aadima—that which harks at the primitive, the rural, the ancient.

In September, on the night of the full moon—hunnime in Kannada—a friend and I are on this imaginative hill. It is quiet on the ledge where we find ourselves. Behind us though, we hear voices and some drum beats now and then. Under bright bulbs, among a large gathering of people, this month’s ‘hunnime haadu’ (full moon song) is underway. It is poetry reading this time. They usually end around midnight, but this time, it seems the event could go on all night. Closet poets, bad poets, good poets—they all read. They read political reflections, rhyming lines on nostalgia or love—there isn’t a common theme. There are no rules. Aadima, the cultural organisation that runs these monthly events, almost aggressively shuns rules, established forms and defined structures.

While the readings continue, we follow Kotiganahalli Ramaiah to a room next to a cowshed. A black cow moos, but lets us through. Ramaiah is one of the founders of Aadima. He is a poet and a playwright; outspoken, some would say radical. Sitting on a makeshift cot in a sparse room, his temporary quarters, Ramaiah says he would call himself an activist first.

By the 1980s and 90s, when the Dalit rights movement in Karnataka had begun to wane, Ramaiah was already a political activist. Many charged sessions with friends would involve discussions about finding new ways to protest, creating new cultural texts for the emancipation of Dalits, cultural decoding of an established vocabulary of social norms and rules sifting through the existing feudal debris, wondering how to resurrect the Dalit movement and such like.

“During one such meeting in a friend’s house, I saw a decorative sticker of a rupee note stuck to the mirror in the bathroom. That led to the idea where some 20-30 of us saved one rupee every single day,” he says. The group would meet at a different venue each time. One such venue was atop the Terahalli Betta under a large tree, surrounded by the collective memories of Jinke Ramaiah, a legend, a saint, a dreamer revered by the local villagers, who had once lived there.

By then, the rupees saved had cumulated to a fairly large amount. Buoyed by further contributions from here and there, the friends bought a small piece of land on top of the hill and the organisation took off. Not without trouble though, Ramaiah says, telling us about skirmishes with fundamentalist groups, resistance from the locals and the omnipresent caste politics. “But there was a dreamer here who lived in the collective memory still. The greatest politics is to kindle the collective memory. We decided not to go down the hill without creating a reference point here first,” he says.

That reference point was a cultural experiment, which the founders hoped would be emancipatory. Ramaiah and his friends had used children’s theatre elsewhere to drive cultural interventions. That was replicated here with the Makkala Mela, a month long summer camp that has now been running for over six years.

The region is home to people of many castes, and riddled with the expected problems that brings. “There is a lot of cultural context that surrounds the full moon,” Ramaiah says. “These nights have always been very democratic, open, living. In the social context where we were trying to work, there was a need to establish some social security.” This need to establish a neutral, common ground was what led to the Hunnime Haadu.

The one I attended was the 89th edition of the monthly event. Siddalingaiah, one of the most well-known Dalit writers in Kannada, was to make an appearance but his book release the next day has kept him busy. There are a few other familiar names at the Kaavya Hunnime, the poetry session that full moon’s night.

Every month it is a different programme, and villagers sometimes turn up in the hundreds. Once there is a Kurosawa film screening, another time a Japanese folk art performance. An in-house group might perform a preview of a new performance they are working on, or a theatre group from the city might come out. The Aadima team’s performance of the play Matte Ekalavya won several awards at the prestigious Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META) festival this year.

Through Aadima, locals around Terahalli Betta get access to a wide variety of cultural events, plus a steaming hot dinner, all for free. This poetry evening has drawn the least number of people, we are told. There are easily over a hundred for most events, a number most organisers would kill for.

That the locals watch Kurosawa and non-linear plays and might indulge in intellectual discussion provokes a comparison of Aadima with Ninasam, a similar institution started by the late KV Subbanna in central Karnataka. Now run by Subbanna’s son KV Akshara, Ninasam is an influential theatre school and much else—villagers in the region can supposedly hold their own talking about Brecht or neo-realism. I wonder if Aadima is cultivating similar non-traditional audiences for cultural texts that are otherwise perceived as elitist.

Ramaiah is dismissive. He is well-known for his distaste for structured learning and criticises academic institutions for no longer reflecting reality. “There is no layman reading of texts. Academic reading does not reflect the new. They don’t want to reflect and raise these questions,” he accuses, insisting Aadima is different. Property is collectively owned, there is de-classification—it is a cultural experiment. He is saying all the key words. Yet when I ask him if caste politics have loosened, if there have been visible shifts in the social pecking order, he skirts around a direct answer. Instead, he says only that people from all castes and religions come to Hunnime Haadu.

Other voices on the hilltop and elsewhere grumble at how he garners all the attention these days, how he has become the face of Aadima, though there are other founders. Wrinkles in institutional management exist, and not all villagers are happy about these social experiments. Wealthy people are snapping up land to build villas, labour displacement and crime are increasing—the regular ills that plague most societies. But here, atop this hill, Ramaiah and his team are trying something new. And on a full moon night, when a gentle breeze bears down and you can see the sharply-traced silhouettes of mountains miles away, anything seems imaginable, anything possible.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

A Few Words about a Photograph

Much as I am a lover of language, I allow sometimes that there are instances where a photograph says it so much better than a few words. You could describe perhaps how the scent of the cardamom tea wafted into a room with French windows up in the mountains, a scent no photograph could emanate from within its frames. Yet, there are photos of some days which tell you all that you will want to remember about that moment. 

Some photographs best tell of your little anecdote, an aside, of a tiring evening that stretches into a nice, slow mid-morning. On the table, the regular scene where falls the light of a bottle of intelligent wine, on the table perches the blue mug for black coffee, the newspaper, a plant, the light that bleeds in in slivers through the window and throws up pictures on the wall, other stuff in wood stone paper cloth. A photograph coloured by the slight crisp air of a cloudless October morning. No better words could envelope the story of that one moment.

Though in the absence of that precious photograph here on this post, these words will have to do.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

To El Dorado and Back: Filter Coffee column in Kindle this month

The 'Gulf-return' stories are part of every person who was born, raised or lived through the 1980's, when America was still mostly inaccessible, when India was still socialist, when foreign-returned was a coveted credential to have. If you weren't a Gulf returnee yourself, you knew someone who was, you would have seen the glitter on the chocolates they brought in, the gold, the shirts, the scents. You grudgingly envied them their lives, at least the lives they told you about. In this month's issue of Kindle magazine, in my column Filter Coffee, I write about some anecdotes that look at the waves of migration from Kerala to the Middle East that peaked in the 1970s and '80s. 

Read the story here. Or see below.

To El Dorado and Back

“Very seldom in life does a book like Goat Days come along and ruin you for other books. It becomes like that mythic true love you once felt for someone when you were still innocent — but now that you have lived through it, you no longer are that innocent person. You have read it and now other books just don’t compare. You may stop reading altogether, for a while, just to let memories of Goat Days flow through
you unchecked.” Sheheryar Sheikh, in Dawn, a while ago.

Sometimes, like in Benyamin’s Goat Days, language plays only a functional role. Sometimes, you need to strip language of its vocal abilities to tell a story as powerful as that of Najeeb’s. He is recently married; the wife Sainu is now pregnant. He dives for a living; the business of sand mining though might now be regulated. Worried for the future, he doesn’t let go by an opportunity to go to the Gulf, “Only long enough 
to settle a few debts. Add a room to the house. Just the usual cravings of most Malayalis.” From Riyadh airport, Najeeb gets kidnapped. He is driven into a slave-
like situation tending goats for over three years, unpaid, underfed, losing hope often but retaining his faith in Allah. He braves the expanse of the desert; there is a happy ending. But not before your heart wrenches at the cruelty, driven by necessity or otherwise, that humankind is capable of. Not before there is the tension and poignancy that precedes the triumph of the human spirit. Not before you internalize the fact that Najeeb is real and this is a true story.

Stories like Najeeb’s aren’t the sorts you hear very often, even if you discard the magnitude of his. You rarely, if ever, hear a sob story about the Gulf. What is the need to acknowledge the dust on the road to that El Dorado, some would ask. 

The stories that you would hear of would be of Shaji’s, among the first few batches of 
migrants from Kerala who went to Gulf, or to Dubai; Dubai being the generic name for Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Riyadh, Qatar and the rest of the region. You would hear of Shaji being a ‘manager in a shop’ there, when in reality, he would probably have done something much more menial. You would see him coming back to visit and the air would seem different around him. He wouldn’t flaunt the gold wrist watch or place the new VCR too obviously in the front room, but he would bring with him the air of the Gulf, the air that filled the lines on your forehead with specks of sand and smelt rich. His friends, Najeeb might have been among them, would hear from him the word khubus“in the riverside bragging of many Gulf-returnees”, Shaji in that tribe now.

In Shaji’s newly built house, a showcase would be added in the drawing room. That showcase would have things no one in his village had seen before. Those things, the new aura of well-to-do-ness that his wife, his mother walked beneath would become part of the Gulf lore. 

Many years later, after the stories overheard, imagined, exaggerated had become legends and rosier dreams, there would be told stories of people like Abbu, who would have gone to Dubai at the behest of his grandmother and aunts who show him their neighbor Shaji’s house in the distance and push him to help the family out, buy them some status. Abbu would learn to make wafer thin pappadams from a Pappada Chettiyar in the village. It would have once been the domain of that one caste, but economics would have a way of driving away such minor inconveniences. He, several other 19-year olds, would trudge along to these places of learning, ribbing each other, laughing, like the way 19-year olds do. They wouldn’t talk about it much, but Dubai dreams would cloud their every thought, every joke, every new crush.

Abbu would be part of the second wave that supported the lives of Shaji and others of his wave. Those pappadams would probably be sold at Lulu Hypermaket in various cities; the industrial size of consumerism at those would make Abbu feel lost and yet strengthen the sense of awe that Gulf stories arose in him when he first heard them. Two years later when he visits his village, he would wear a slightly see-through shirt and sit in the front seat of the Ambassador car his family would hire to go pick him up from the airport. 

People in this same village in Kerala would have a hearty laugh every time they retold Ahmad Kutty’s misadventure. They would tell of how he fell for an agent’s trick and went on a dubious visa to Oman, of how he was never able to leave the building where he worked and lived for two whole years, never stepping out, never seeing the desert at night. They would tell of how, when he was ready to return, he walked out and surrendered before the police, was sent to prison for not having the papers, where he got his head shaved as was the rule. Ahmad Kutty would be deported, land in Mumbai but stay on a few weeks till his hair grew back a little. The village would tell of how his distant relative (they never liked each other much) saw him in Mumbai and carried that tale of shame to the village. People who had also seen those lands understood though, there were things you did, there was money at the end of it, but you never talked of certain days. People left behind understood, but still made fun, laughter the only mask they could afford to wear. It didn’t matter though because when Ahmad Kutty came back home, they all milled around his suitcases. The Gulf-returnees would have gifts for everyone, however small, scented pens, scent bottles or seedless dates. The opening of the cases, petti thorakkal, would be accorded its due ritual. 

Generations of Malayalis grew up on these stories. Mostly the gold-plated ones. The
Najeebs of the world don’t get talked about though on the shores of the river Nila. Some stories were best left behind on those dry shores. For what you did wasn’t the question, you smelled of Dubai. That was enough.

Disclaimer: Except when referring to Najeeb as part of the book, all other names are 
fictional. The anecdotes, however, are all true, and were collected from friends from Kerala.