Thursday, December 22, 2016

Picking Up A Crocodile


COLUMN: LOCATION DIARY

Actor Vineeth talks about his experiences in the films, 'Nakhakshathangal', 'Kadhal Desam' and 'Sakthi'

Photos: Vineeth; Vineeth and Monisha Unni in the film,  'Nakhakshathangal',

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the film, 'Nakhakshathangal' (1986), Vineeth, who plays a 16-year-old boy Ramu meets an equally young Gowri (played by the late Monisha Unni) at the home of a lawyer.

Then she takes him to the dining room to have a cup of tea. The chief cook is played by Kuthiravattam Pappu. “As soon as he comes in, he speaks in a mocking voice and tells her that her visitors are supposed to sit in the kitchen, and not in the dining room,” says Vineeth. “But the way he spoke, in his nasal voice and quaint mannerisms, I found it funny.”

Vineeth would start laughing and, invariably, Monisha would also end up joining him. Every time, the scene had to be shot, both would laugh. “[Director] Hariharan Sir showed a lot of patience,” says Vineeth. “But soon Pappu began complaining, because it was affecting his timing and spontaneity.”

Finally Hariharan lost his cool. Abruptly, he got up and walked out of the house in Shoranur. The crew fell silent. “Both Monisha and I were in shock,” says Vineeth.

The assistant director remonstrated with them. “What is happening to you two?” he said.

After an hour, Hariharan returned. “This time, somehow, we managed to control our laughter, and the scene was shot, to our relief,” says Vineeth. “This was an experience that I will never forget.”

Another experience that Vineeth has not forgotten took place on the sets of the Tamil film, 'Kadhal Desam'. The shooting of the AR Rahman hit song, ‘Mustafa, Mustafa’ was taking place at Presidency College, in Chennai, which was adjacent to a slum. There were several dancers as well as junior artistes.

However, one evening, some young men, armed with knives, came barging into the set, led by a ten-year-old. “They showered abuses on us,” says Vineeth. “One of them shouted, ‘Where the hell is the girl? Who does she think she is?’”

Apparently, the boy had been going around selling peanuts. According to the boy's version, one of the dancers said, “You scoundrel, get out.” Anyway, in the chaos, the girl was spirited away in a car. Finally, the crew members intervened, apologies were given, and the mollified youths left.

Vineeth had a completely different experience during the shoot of the Tamil film, 'Sakthi' (1997). For a particular sequence, at a stream in Pollachi, Vineeth was supposed to intervene in a fight between an elephant and a crocodile.

Kanal Kannan, a top fight master, told me not to worry,” says Vineeth.

Kannan's asssistant Peter Hein [of 'Pullimurugan' fame] showed me how to pick up the crocodile and come out of the water.”

To do that, an iron wire was tied around its stomach. The mouth, with the protruding teeth, was also closed up with a wire. The crocodile was quiet. He was floating in the water.

Vineeth went and touched it, in order to get over his fear. “It did not react at all,” says Vineeth. “But his eyes kept winking.”

The shoot began. Vineeth ran into the water, called out the name of God, picked up the crocodile, ran back to the bank and flung it down. “There were five takes,” says Vineeth. “Throughout, the crocodile remained quiet.” The shoot was completed on time.

Thereafter, the crew took a break. Following that, the crocodile became extremely violent. “Nobody could go near it,” says Vineeth. “Thank God, the shoot was over. Otherwise, it would have been very difficult.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Friend To All

Auto-rickshaw driver, Moosa Bava, helps artistes, at the Kochi Bienalle, to procure materials and ferries them around

Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

It has probably never happened before. During an interview with Kochi Biennale Curator Sudarshan Shetty, in the international art magazine, 'Harper's Bazaar Art-Arabia', he talked about how an autorickshaw driver at Fort Kochi befriended him and said he could introduce South American artistes to Shetty. The curator was excited, as well as taken aback, to see the way the Biennale has impacted the local people.

On a recent Friday evening, autorickshaw driver Moosa Bava shows me the article where he is mentioned and there is a look of happiness on his face. “Sudarshan is a good person,” he says. “He is sincere and hard-working. But he, along with the organisers, faced a lot of problems because of demonitisation. They could not pay the workers by cash. Sudarshan went through many sleepless nights. He even went hungry on some nights. But he has set up a different Biennale: music, dance, art and installations.”

Moosa is becoming an expert on art and artistes. And the first artist he befriended was Rami Farook from Dubai. “He is originally from Malabar,” says Moosa, who has been plying his auto-rickshaw in Fort Kochi for the past twenty years. “I met him in front of Aspinwall House. It was raining and he took shelter in my auto. He told me about the Biennales in Venice, Sydney, Sharjah, South America and USA.”

So enamoured is Moosa of Rami that for the next Biennalle, he has suggested that there should be a foreign curator. “I would recommend the name of Rami,” says Moosa. “If he becomes one, there will be a lot of coverage of the Kochi Biennale in the Gulf. This will result in many more visitors.”

Apart from Rami, some of the other artistes Moosa has befriended include Robert Kluijver (Holland), Christiana De Marchi (Italy), Ahmed Amanullah Mojadidi (USA), Angelica Mesiti (Australia), and Ahmed Mater (Saudi Arabia).

During the first Biennale, the Kochi Biennale Foundation had been short of funds. So, artist Ahmed Mater found it difficult to buy a television set for one of his installations. But it was Moosa who procured it for him. “Of course, he paid me later,” says Moosa.

Thanks to his proactive nature, everybody came to know of Moosa. So much so that in film maker Hattie Bowering’s documentary on the first Biennale, called ‘Art: Interrupted’, one of the first images has been shot from the back seat of Moosa’s autorickshaw, as it moves along a bridge. Says Hattie: “Moosa would squeeze our five-man crew and kit into his rickshaw and whizz us about Fort Kochi.” 

For this year's Biennale, one of Moosa's customers, Sheikha Maisa Al Qassimi, is a member of the Royal Family of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates). One day, she called him up on the mobile, and said, “Moosa Bava, I have heard a lot about you in Dubai. Can you take me around?”

As Moosa is recounting his experiences, a woman comes up. She is Asma Mohammed (named changed), a Dubai-based writer for an international art magazine in New York. “I met Moosa during the first Biennale,” says Asma, a regular passenger. “He is definitely a fixture at Fort Kochi. Many artistes know him.”  

Moosa gives a radiant smile when he hears this. “The small shops, homestays, restaurants, hotels as well as auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers, have all benefited because of the Biennale,” he says. “And so have I. The word, 'Biennale', has become part of our language. And it is good to know that there are even more visitors for this year's event. I am very excited.” 

(The Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)  

Monday, December 19, 2016

A Chef Prodigy


Six-year-old Nihal 'Kicha' Raj has his own cooking channel on You Tube. Recently, he gained global fame when he appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show

Photos: Kicha on the Ellen Degeneres show; at home. Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

I want to be an astro chef,” says six-year-old Nihal Raj, at his Kochi home. When the reporter looks puzzled, he says, “I want to be an astronaut who can go to outer space and cook. After many years, because of overpopulation, there will be no space on earth. People will start living on the Moon as well as Mars. So, I am going to invent an oven which can be used in space.”

Presently, Nihal, who goes by the name of Kicha (another name for Krishna, and Nihal's mother's favourite god) is in the middle of a media hurricane. Nearly every day, he is getting calls from all over India for interviews from print, radio and TV channels.

And the reason for this is not hard to find. On September 23, Kicha was featured in the popular Ellen DeGeneres show in the US. In a segment, which lasted just four-and-a-half minutes, he demonstrated how puttu (steamed rice with grated coconut, bananas and honey) is made.

His self-confidence in the show was astonishing. When Ellen asked, “How's it to be the US?” he jumped up and down and said, “It's fun.”

However, Kicha's turning point happened in May, this year, when, on his Kicha Tube cooking channel, on You Tube, he showed how mango ice-cream is made. Soon, he got a call from Facebook. Following discussions, they bought the video rights for $2000. Thereafter, Kicha was featured in several international magazines, web sites, and TV channels.

Somebody on the Ellen De Generes show saw this and got in touch with the family. And that was how father VK Rajagopal, mother Ruby, elder sister Nidha, 20, and Kicha were given an all-expenses stay in Hollywood, for a week, apart from free air tickets, for the DeGeneres taping.

Thus far, Kicha has uploaded about 45 videos. In each of them, he explains how a dish is made. These include items like tender coconut pudding, brownies, Punjabi lassi, Sago patties, garlic fried rice, ice cream cake and bread pizza. The videos are recorded on Sunday by Rajagopal and uploaded on every Wednesday.

Kicha's recipes are either baking or refrigeration-based,” says mother Ruby. “Even in baking, I put the tray inside the oven. When he uses a hand blender, we always mention that parental guidance is required. The last time Kicha used the blender, a lady said, 'Son, be careful about your left hand'. Kicha replied that his mother is standing right next to him, just outside the frame.”

But there is appreciation, too. Viewer Rajah Shan says, “I am a grandfather. I love your recipes. Tried your bread pizza, and it turned out to be beautiful. Bless you.”

Meanwhile, Kicha is waiting to be nine years old. “That is the age my mother will allow me to cook over the fire,” he says, with a smile. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Capturing A Movement


V.K. Cherian's book focuses on the history of the Indian Film Society

Photos: V.K. Cherian by Kaviyoor Santhosh. The cover of the book 

Shevlin Sebastian

Film-maker MS Sathyu was feeling tense, as he stood outside the screening hall in the basement of Rashtrapathi Bhavan in New Delhi. His film, 'Garam Hava' was stuck at the Censor Board. The officials were reluctant to issue the certificate for the film, which portrayed the life of a North Indian Muslim businessman, following the 1947 Partition of India. So Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was viewing the film accompanied by Delhi Film Society President Gautam Kaul.

After the screening, Gandhi looked at Kaul and said, “What is objectionable may be the Muslim girl romancing on the shores of the Yamuna. I think we will be able to handle it... isn't it?”

Kaul nodded. Then he went out and told Sathyu, “It's done.” And thus, one of the iconic Indian films of post-partition India was released, all thanks to the personal initiative taken by the Prime Minister.

This anecdote was revealed in the book, 'India's Film Society Movement' (The Journey And Its Impact) by VK Cherian. Brought out by Sage Publishers, it chronicles, in lucid style, the history of the movement. “Cherian's treatise charts the sporadic beginnings of the society, its enthusiastic course of growth and the excitements and travails of sustenance over a period of nearly seven decades,” says noted filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who wrote the foreword.

In the book, Cherian chronicles the huge impact of Satyajit's Ray's 'Pather Panchali', in India and abroad. In fact, the film has been in the Top 50 list of the greatest films ever made in the highly-respected 'Sight and Sound' magazine, brought out by the British Film Institute.

It is an unparalleled human document, touching the hearts of millions of people, across the continents, over generations,” says the Delhi-based Cherian, a long-time corporate professional, who has been a Film Society member since 1976.

In one of the chapters, Cherian discusses how the movement grew from the Calcutta Film Society and resulted in the Federation of Film Societies in India. Another chapter deals with the visionaries, which included British film scholar Marie Seton, critic Chidananda Das Gupta (the father of acclaimed director Aparna Sen), film-maker Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, and historian PK Nair, among others.

Kerala also had a flourishing society movement. “The film movement ran piggyback on the library movement and spread to all parts of the state,” says Cherian. “Noted members included Adoor Gopalakrishnan.”

In fact, Adoor's first film, 'Swayamvaram', was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). But Kolkata's Mrinal Sen did not find the going that easy. In those days, the FFC used to have an annual competition for scripts. “At that time, the script for Sen's 'Bhuvan Shome' won,” says Cherian.

So, Sen applied for a finance of Rs 1.5 lakh, but the officials asked for collateral. He said he did not have any. So they refused to give the money. So Sen approached Indira Gandhi. She thought about it and asked the FFC, “What is the most important part of a film?” The answer: the script as well as the copyright. “So why don't you consider them both as the collateral and release the money,” said Gandhi. And that was how 'Bhuvan Shome' was made.

For his research, Cherian travelled to Kolkata, Chennai, Pune, and other centres, and met the stalwarts. “I also did research in the National Archives,” he says. Thus far, the book has been well-appreciated.

Says award-winning film-maker Shyam Benegal, “Cherian's book is a valuable addition to the somewhat spare shelf of serious books on Indian cinema and certainly among the very rare ones written about the Film Society Movement.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Hysterical Woman


COLUMN:LOCATION DIARY

Director Balachandran Menon talks about his experiences in the films, 'Uthrada Rathri', 'Kuruppinte Kanakku Pustakom', and 'Ithiri Neram Othiri Karyam'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In June, 1977, the pooja shot of Balachandran Menon's first directorial effort, 'Uthrada Rathri' was about to be shot. As cameraman Hemachandran was about to shoot the scene, of an image of Lord Vinayaka, he looked at Balachandran and says, “Sir, why don't you look into the camera and say, 'Start'?”

So Balachandran stepped up and looked through the lens. Amazingly, it was the first time he did so. After he peered in, Hemachandran said, “How did you feel?”

Balachandran said, “I have realised that in this rectangular frame I have to fit in all my ideas. Verbosity will not work at all. It became one of the most important lessons of my career.”

At another location, Balachandran learned a lesson in improvisation. For the film, 'Kuruppinte Kanakku Pustakom', the shoot was at Tiruvalla. There was a character who plays a villager. Unusually, he wore a long type of underwear that could be seen through the mundu.

This character was important for that particular scene,” says Balachandran. “I have always said that cinema is an art where the director plans everything in detail, but at the same time, there is a unseen force which is always trying to upset the shooting.”

And this was what happened. When everybody was ready, the production controller approached Balachandran, with a sheepish smile, and said that he could not get this specific type of underwear stitched. It was a crisis. Following this shoot, at 7 a.m., the actor Ravi (name changed) was supposed to go to Kochi and catch a flight to Chennai to go and act in another film.

As Balachandran pondered over what to do, he noticed a tall man who was standing at a nearby house. Suddenly, he got an idea. He went across and befriended the man. “He turned out to be a fan,” says Balachandran.

After a short conversation, Balachandran asked whether he could borrow a banian. The man readily gave one. This was worn by Ravi, under his shirt, and since it was a long banian, it reached below the waist. “When the shot was taken, it looked like an underwear,” says Balachandran. “A bit of luck and quick thinking saved the situation.”

But sometimes, situations can go out of control. In the film, 'Ithiri Neram Othiri Karyam' (1982), Balachandran plays the role of a handsome, well-built, but mentally-challenged character.

In a scene, shot at a house, in Kochi, he was supposed to come down a flight of steps and walk past an aged couple who were sitting on a sofa. The production controller had located an elderly woman, Annamma (name changed) who liked to do small roles. The husband was a member of the crew. Annamma had not been told about the story, since there were no dialogues. So, she did not know what to expect.

Meanwhile, to show that he was not normal, Balachandran had to stick out his tongue at the couple. But when Balachandran did so, Annamma became hysterical. She said, “I cannot bear this any longer. This is a punishment for me. What a cursed woman I am.”

Balachandran told her he was just acting.

Annamma nodded and slowly collected herself. Then she said, “I have a son like this at home. I came to this shoot to forget my sorrow. And then I see you in a role which reminded me of my son. And that was too painful an experience.”

At a hotel in Kochi, a sombre Balachandran says, “I will never forget this lady.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Get, Set, Go....


Artistes, guides, assistants and organisers talk about their work as the Biennale gets going

Photo: Bose Krishnamachari with V. Sunil. Photo by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent afternoon, Bose Krishnamachari, the president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, as well as Trustee V Sunil are having a chat under a large tree at Aspinwall House, Fort Kochi. And one of their worries is that they are unable to pay their daily labourers, by cash, because of the shortage of currency following the national demonitisation drive on November 8.

It is a huge problem,” says Bose. “One labourer asked me for money, to have lunch, and I was unable to give him. I felt bad. For the others, we are paying by cheque, so there is no problem.”

Meanwhile, Sunil is in a nostalgic mood. “When we started out, people had to figure out the meaning of the word, ‘biennale’,” he says. “Suddenly, everyone understood that there is something known as installation art. And the biggest impact was made by Subodh Gupta’s work of a large country boat. In 2015, you came to the Biennale and got in touch with the world. This year, there are a lot of performances. If a poet or a performance artist tried to create contemporary art, what would that be?”

Sunil says there is one difference between Kochi and the other Biennales. “Art is usually a rich person's hobby,” says Sunil. “But, in Kochi, the royalty of the art world, like the head of MOMA (Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York), as well as the Tate Modern, London, moved along with the local people. That cannot be seen in other biennales. It is a people’s Biennale at Kochi.”

Standing nearby is Latvian artist Voldemars Johansons. “I am organising a sound performance which will include an autorickshaw and their drivers who go on their everyday routes. There will be special horns.”

As to whether the heat is getting to him, Voldemars says, “Yes, it is very humid. Back in Latvia, the temperature is close to zero. I am missing the snow. There is a longing in my heart when I saw the pristine winter pictures sent by my wife. But I like both Kochi and Riga [capital of Latvia].”

Taking a breather, in the shade, is award-winning Lebanese artiste Khalid Sabsabi, who lives in Sydney. He is doing a 100 channel video work, but he is waiting for the equipment to arrive. “It was supposed to come to Kochi directly from Sydney, but, for some reason, the Customs have sent it to Bangalore,” he says. “These include projectors, media players, and stands. With the help of volunteers it will take me two days to set it up.”

And to help him, there are several production assistants, like Vipin Dhanurdharan, Jayesh L R, and Manu VR. “We have been working with the Biennale from 2012,” says Vipin. As for Pinky Sujatha, who has just joined, she says, “I love art and wanted to be associated with the Biennale in some way.”

At the entrance to a building, Guido Wolfram is marking out measurements, using a ruler, on a wooden frame. He is helping the Goa-based artist Orijit Sen to install his installation work. At one side there is a sign which says, 'Mapusa Market'. It is one of Goa's most famous old-style markets, set in the town of Mapusa in Northern Goa. “In one room, we will be re-creating the market,” says Guido. “And in the other, we will be putting up the Charminar monument of Hyderabad.” 

Asked whether it will be ready for the December 12 opening, Guido says, “Most of it is pre-fabricated material, so I have no doubt it will be ready before that date,” he says.

The New York artiste Tom Burckhardt is also working hard to get his work ready before the opening. His installation work is made entirely of cardboard. Called 'Studio Flood', the image is that of an artist's studio. “I have decided to turn the room upside down,” he says. “So everything will be upside down. There will be a couple of paintings that will seem to be floating in water.”

Tom's inspiration is Hurricane Sandy which hit New York in 2012. “Many works of my artist friends got destroyed,” he says. “I felt a sense of empathy. When Sudarshan [Shetty, the curator] asked me to take part in the Biennale, I thought this would be a bridge to Kerala, which will face the danger of rising seas, because of global warming.”

Standing outside are interpretation guides Nidhi Tambe, from Kollam, and Dona Johnny from Idukki. They are part of an eight-member team. Their job is to explain the various art works for visitors. “For the past two months, we have undergone a rigorous training,” says Nidhi. Adds Dona: “We have been talking to the artistes, have been involved in production work, and helped in the editing of the guide.”

Both have a huge sense of anticipation. “We are waiting to see how it will turn out,” says Nidhi.

Noted architect Tony Joseph is also keen that his 3500 sq. ft. hall, at the Cabral Yard, turns out well. The walls are made of mud and debris. “Somebody has donated the stones, as well as the lighting,” says Tony. “It will be taken back after the conclusion of the Biennale.”

The ceiling is made of reusable insulation panels. Above it, there is recycled flex sheets, which has been bought at Rs 3 per sq. At the back, there are traditional galleries made of arecanut. “These are similar to the galleries in Malabar where I grew up with,” says Tony. “So, I feel a sense of nostalgia.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Multiplicities Of Vision

Sudarshan Shetty, the curator of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, talks about his hopes and aspirations, as well as the themes

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

The auto-rickshaw driver stepped into the Pepper House at Fort Kochi and scanned the people sitting in the open-air café. Then he spotted a bearded man sitting at one corner with his wife and daughter. He went up to the man and said, “My name is Moosa Bava. Are you the curator of this year’s Biennale?”

Sudarshan Shetty nodded. “I enjoyed the first two editions,” he said. “If you need any suggestions about artistes from South America, please let me know. Many are my friends.”

An amazed Sudarshan says, “This can only happen in India. And, indeed, the people of Fort Kochi have embraced the Biennale to their hearts.”

At the Aspinwall House, the main centre of the 2016 Kochi Muziris Biennale, on a humid November afternoon, Sudarshan has a look of anticipation and nervousness on his face. “The past 15 months have been the most hectic,” he says. “I have never worked so hard.”

He has travelled to numerous countries and looked at the works of more than 300 artistes. Now the final list has been whittled down to 97 artistes, from countries like Russia, France, USA, Slovenia, Poland, Norway, Scotland, Argentina, China, Nigeria, Japan, Latvia, Chile, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Australia.

And, not to forget, 36 Indian artistes, including Abhishek Hazra, Orijit Sen and Ravi Agarwal.

In some of his choices, Sudarshan has opted to go outside the art world. While Raul Zurita is a poet, Anamika Haksar is a theatre person, and Sharmistha Mohanty is a writer. Apart from them, there will be craftspeople, performers, film-makers, muralists, painters and sculptors. 

As for the theme, it is titled 'Forming in the pupil of an eye'. “This comes from a Vedic idea that when a sage looks at the world, he assimilates all the multiplicities of the world through that one moment of vision,” says Sudarshan. “That vision also reflects back into the world.”

Indeed, the curator wanted to focus on multiplicities: of language, culture, experiences, people and visions. “We are different, but, ultimately, we all are one,” he says. “And I wanted all the works to have conversations with each other.”

Even as he talks, work is going on in full swing: workmen pounding nails into walls, iron rods being cut with a cutter, new tubelights being fitted, even as some walls get a fresh coat of paint.

Right at the centre of Aspinwall House a showpiece pyramid is coming up, made of cowdung and wood. This is being made by Aleš Šteger, a celebrated Slovenian poet, essayist, and novelist. “It is a homage to all the exiled poets of the world throughout history,” says the Mumbai-based Sudarshan, a JJ School of Art alumni, whose paintings, sculptures and installations have been exhibited in London, Paris, New York, Oslo, and Fukuoka, Japan.  

As for the question of whether the Kochi Biennale has established itself in the international art community, Sudarshan says, “Absolutely. Everybody knows about it. In such a short span, it has gathered a huge reputation, and has become one of the most important biennales in Asia.”

The Kochi Muziris Biennale runs from December 12 to March 29, 2017. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Search For Truth



Tim Boyd, the International President of the Theosophical Society, gives his views, while on a recent visit to Kochi

Photos: Mind consciousness illustration by Sai Nath; Tim Boyd; Society founders Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Tim Boyd, the International President of the Theosophical Society, stood on the stage at the society centre in Pallimukku, Kochi, on a recent Monday morning, he was amazed at the number of people present. “It meant that they found it of sufficient value,” says Boyd. “It speaks about the spiritual urge among people.”

They had come to listen to Boyd speak on the uniqueness and value of theosophy. The society was founded in New York, USA, on November 17, 1875. The founders included Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott and William Quan Judge. One of the more famous members was the Britisher Annie Besant (1847-1933) who played a key role in India’s freedom struggle. She was also the second president of the society, which has its headquarters at Adyar, Chennai.

The principle of the theosophists is that there is no religion higher than truth. Today, worldwide, there are 28,000 members in 70 countries. Out of that, 40 per cent of the membership comes from India. In Kerala, there are 380 members.

As for the low numbers, Boyd says, “It will never be a mass movement, because we do not encourage blind belief. To be a theosophist requires a certain amount of questioning, as well as a self-directed effort, which is less popular than being told what to believe in.”

So the type of person who tends to get attracted to the group includes mystics who want a direct relationship with God, and scientific academicians who recognise that there is a deeper shared truth between science and spirituality. “There are also people who believe that there is something beyond the normal every-day experience,” says Boyd.

According to theosophy, there are seven levels of consciousness. Most people experience the physical world, as well as that of feelings and emotions. “But there are deeper dimensions which are more spiritual,” says Boyd. “To access these worlds, it is important to focus on them.”

Unfortunately, this is getting difficult because of the onslaught of technology as well as social media. “Human beings are getting distracted all the time,” he says. “But what is most worrying is the projection of fear. People are afraid of terrorism, weather change, and of each other. These apprehensions take away a lot of energy. At some point, you have to say, “I have to stop this’.”

One of the ways to do it is to follow a simple technique. “Listen to your breath,” says Boyd. “The moment you do that, it immediately centres you as a person. In the beginning, it is tough but, through practice, you can get adept at it.”

Boyd gives an example. “Two men are having a conversation,” he says. “If one of them is spiritually-evolved, he will not only listen to the other person, but, at the same time, he will be aware of the birds singing in the trees. Through practice and meditation, he has extended his awareness.  Theosophy says that it is possible for all us to extend our minds in this manner.”

Meanwhile, as Boyd travels all over the world, giving talks, he notices differences in reaction. “In America, a young country, just 223 years old, the attitude towards life is all about activity and motion,” says Boyd. “In India, an ancient civilisation, the approach is philosophical. People ask questions, analyse, and come to certain conclusions. In Latin America, there is a deep devotion to something they find value in. However, these are superficial differences. At the core, everybody is united by their search for the truth.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)   

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

'Fan'tastic!


All sorts of things take place during a league match of the Indian Super League at Kochi

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ashwini Nadar, 22, is standing on the steps of Level 1, at the Gate 17 entrance of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium at Kochi on a Sunday evening. But she has a crestfallen look as she watched the Kerala Blasters football players go through their practice drills just before the group match against Northeast United in the Hero Indian Super League.

She is a fan of Josu Currias, the Spanish midfielder. But Ashwini had just come to know that Josu is injured and is not playing. “I have come all the way from Chennai by bus with my sister Abhinaya to watch him play,” she says. “Now, I feel so disappointed.”

But Jijesh S, 28, has no such disappointments. The Cherthala native loves football and is a regular at all the matches. “I buy my tickets online,” he says.

As he talks, there is a cacophony of sounds – bugles blowing, shouts, screams, and a thumping drum beat through the public address system. It is a sea of yellow, but one youngster springs a surprise. He wears a blue and red jersey of the Barcelona football team, with Lionel Messi, written in white letters, at the back.

Another youngster, the 13-year-old Ramesh George turns to his sister, Beena, 15, and says, “Looks like you are the only girl.” But Beena spots an eight-year-old sitting a few rows ahead. “Not the only one,” she says, as she points at the girl. “But I think girls are one in a thousand.”

Yes, indeed, the vast majority of the spectators present are men. After all, football is a celebration of machismo and aggression, apart from skill and talent.

So, when a muscular John Abraham, actor, and owner of North-East United, takes a walk around the stadium, greeting the fans, he gets a huge cheer: Bollywood charm reigns supreme.

Even as he is doing so, on the field, the referee, along with the two linesmen are also doing warm-up jogs across the pitch. Not many of us realise that the referee does as much running as the players during the course of the match.

Here’s a quiz question: what is the way to make 60,000 people become pin-drop silent and not make a movement? It’s very simple. You just have to play the national anthem. It was remarkable how quiet the stadium became. And the roar that erupted when the anthem was concluded must have knocked the decibel record away.

The match begins, on the dot, at 7 p.m. Expectedly, as soon as the Kerala players reach the penalty circle, everybody stands up and crane their necks. And then when the attack peters out, as if on cue, everybody sits down, even as they let out sighs and groans. It is almost like a choreographic dance.

During a break in play, one linesman points at an area in front of a hoarding just near the sideline. Blasters Defender Sandesh Jhingam jogs over and picks up a water bottle. Quickly, he takes a swig and then passes it on to the linesman who also has a sip. It is a rare on-field camaraderie between a player and an official.

The match is boring for long stretches, with poor attacks, passes going a-begging, and a lack of creativity. But it all changes when Blasters Vineeth scores a goal in the 66th minute. Thereafter, the game comes alive.

In the end, watching a match at the stadium is exactly as the song that is played constantly through the public address system: ‘We will rock you’ by Queen.

All of us, at the stadium, are, indeed, rocked by the experience. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Not At All Visually Challenged

'Inspiring Ilango', despite a lack of sight, is a noted voice-over artiste, singer, public speaker and entrepreneur

Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1990, when Inspiring Ilango stepped outside the classroom at the Loyola College, Chennai, a group of seniors stopped him. They said they wanted to talk to him. One of them even yanked at Ilango's collar. The group then moved to the middle of the football ground. And then they began to hurl insults at Ilango.

All of them had been irked by Ilango's passion for the English language. “They felt that I was a snob,” says the Chennai-based Ilango, while on a recent visit to Kochi. “When I told them that I had studied in Tamil-medium schools, they laughed and said, 'Do you think you can master English?'”

Thereafter, one student, Robert Daniel (name changed) said, “Forget about your English. You don’t have something that we all have. You can’t see. You can’t see your mother’s face, you can’t see the sunrise or sunset. You have not seen your own face. Have you ever thought of killing yourself?”

Ilango felt that he had been hit by a thunderbolt. “I did think about killing myself,” he told them. “I asked myself, 'Why was I created like this? All my friends can see and enjoy life.' But from now onwards, let me assure you, I will die a natural death. Because, if people like you can exist then why can’t I?'”

It was a turning point for Ilango. A fierce determination and a desire to succeed sprung to life within him. Eventually, Ilango got a M. Phil in English Language Teaching from the University of Madras. And today, Ilango is a success in every sense of the word.

He is a voice-over artiste, in English and Tamil, for hundreds of advertisements. Apart from that, he is an ace singer, who knows more than 3000 songs in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Telugu. He runs his own company, Ace Panacea Life Skills, which as the name suggests, is to develop people skills so that they can do well in society. 

But his drawing card is as an inspiring public speaker for companies, schools, colleges, NGOs, and various social and cultural organisations. The topics vary from entrepreneurship, leadership qualities, secrets of happiness, inter-personal skills, and effective communication skills for business and personal success.

Incidentally when asked about his name, 'Inspiring Ilango', he says, “Once, after hearing my speech, Dr. C. Sylendra Babu, a senior police officer, at Chennai, told the audience, 'This gentleman is not Ilango, but Inspiring Ilango'. Ever since then I have been known by this name.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether people lack the staying power to reach success, Ilango says, “I agree. One of the most successful insurance salesmen in the US, Ben Feldman, was asked this question: 'How many times would you knock on the door of a customer, who repeatedly says no'. Ben's reply: 'It depends on which one of us dies first'. There is a powerful truth in this statement. Until you succeed, the effort must be there, no matter how long it takes, be it one or two decades. It might happen two days before you die, but you should never give up.”

At Kochi, Ilango had come to offer support for the 22 visually challenged people who are operating the first telesales centre operated set up by the Society for the Rehabilitation of the Visually Challenged (SRVC). “This is a very good initiative,” says Ilango. SRVC Project Head MC Roy says, “Yes, it is. As for Ilango, he is a great achiever.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)    

Monday, December 05, 2016

In A Minority, But Loving It

Women wildlife photographers are a rarity in Kerala. Seema Suresh and Aparna Purushothaman talk about their experiences 

Photo: Aparna Purushothaman  and Seema Suresh 

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Seema Suresh, 38, and a group of friends, were travelling, recently, in a car, through the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu. Suddenly, they saw an astonishing sight. An enraged elephant was attacking a 10 foot tall tree, with his tusks. “For about 15 minutes, he went on knocking the tree,” says Seema. “Then, as if in slow motion, the tree fell down with a thud. 

The moment that happened, the elephant cooled down suddenly. It moved to one side and began to eat grass peacefully. He reminded me of some human beings.”

Seema took dozens of photos. “I love to shoot elephants, because I have seen them from my childhood, when I would go to temples,” she says. “But this was the first time I saw an angry wild elephant.” 

The Kochi-based Seema is one among a handful of women wildlife photographers in Kerala. And she came to this passion by accident. In June, 2011, she saw a Facebook (FB) post about a wildlife photography camp being held at a sanctuary in Thrissur district. She took part. And got gripped by it. 

Today, Seema has taken photos of the tiger, spotted deer, langur, nilgai, sloth bear, and birds like the flamingo and the Great Hornbill in all the major forests of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. In end October, Seema went to the Bandipur Wild Life Sanctuary. Her series on wild dogs was shown at the recent 'Open Origins, Open Ends' exhibition held at the Durbar Hall, Kochi. 

Meanwhile, when asked about the disadvantages of being a woman photographer, Aparna Purushothaman, another wildlife photographer, says, “In our society, it is not possible for us to go into a forest on our own. We don't have the freedom. Instead, I have to be attached to a group.” 

But, mostly, Aparna is accompanied by her husband, Ashok Damodaran, an assistant engineer in the Kerala State Electricity Board. 

Aparna's love of photography was triggered by a gift, in 2012, from Ashok, of a Sony Cybershot camera. She began by taking shots of nature. But, these days, she uses the Canon 5D Mark 3, with 100-400 mm lenses.“Because I am a woman, many people pay attention to my images when I upload them on FB,” says Aparna, a Kottayam-based doctoral research scholar, at MG University, as well as a teacher. 

Like Seema, Aparna has shot in places like the Parambikulam and Neyyar wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala, as well as in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. 

Apart from the joy of shooting pictures, conservation is uppermost on her mind. “If I see somebody aiming a gun at a bird or an animal, I will immediately lodge a complaint with the forest department,” says Aparna. “It is only when you go to the forest and see the beauty of the animals that you realise that killing them is a sacrilege.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

The Kochi Biennale is primed for the December 12 inaugural





By Shevlin Sebastian

Kochi: The anticipation among the people is rising, as the December 12 opening of the Kochi Muziris Biennale draws near. Even the city police are getting ready. At a gathering of stakeholders of the festival, Mattancherry Assistant Police Commissioner S. Vijayan said, “There will be a picket near Aspinwall House [the main venue at Fort Kochi]. Apart from that, there will be 10 bike patrols around the clock. We are also setting up a special control room. In a couple of days we will be holding classes to sensitise bus and autorickshaw drivers, homestay owners, and employees about how to interact properly with the guests.”

Earlier, Riyas Komu, the secretary of the Kochi Biennale Foundation said that there will be 97 participating artistes, including 36 from India who will be taking part. The Kerala artistes include Anand, Bara Bhaskaran, C. Bhagyanath, KP. Sunil, P.K. Sadanandan , T.V. Santhosh  and Tony Joseph.

This Biennale is a diverse one,” says Komu. “There are craftspeople, performers, writers, film-makers, theatre people, muralists, painters and sculptors. And to ensure that the public will enjoy the event, more than 100 'Interpretation Guides' have been receiving training for the past two months.”

Curator Sudarshan Shetty said the theme is titled, 'Forming in the pupil of an eye'. “When a sage looks at the world, he draws in all the multiplicities through that one moment of vision,” says Sudarshan. “This is a Biennale of multiplicity.”

Professor KV Thomas, Ernakulam MP, spoke about the initial resistance by local artistes about the setting up of the Biennale. “It was the media in Kochi who cleared the way,” he said. “Now this Biennale has become very big and is known all over the world. It also has made a huge economic impact.”

The others who spoke included Ernakulam MLA Hibi Eden, writer Sethu, artist K. Reghunadhan, and Cochin Corporation stalwart KJ Soman.

Meanwhile, unlike many other biennales, the Kochi Biennale is involved in multiple programmes: a Students' Biennale, a History Now Project, a film festival, a video lab, Art by Children, Arts and Medicine and a 'Let's Talk' programme. “We are the only Biennale which is involved in so many projects,” says Komu. 

(Published in the state edition, The New Indian Express) 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Spicy Delights


On her first visit to Kochi, Egyptian chef Mariem Magdy talks about her experiences

Photo of Mariem Magdy by Ratheesh Sundaram; the koshary dish

By Shevlin Sebastian

Mariem Magdy always had a soft corner for India. That's because the Egyptian studied in an Indian school, while growing up in Kuwait. “All my teachers were Indian and they will always have a special place in my heart,” says Mariem. Mariem got an opportunity to come to Kerala recently when she took part in the Spice Route Culinary Festival.

And Kerala is just as I imagined it,” she says. “It is like heaven. The people are so sweet. India is very simple and, yet, at the same time, it has many layers.”

As a chef, Mariem is very familiar with Indian cuisine. “In the Gulf countries, there are lots of Indian restaurants,” she says. “But Kerala has a different cuisine. The aroma of the food is completely different. It is much lighter and healthier than the rest of the cuisine in India.”

At the festival, Mariem enjoyed eating the Karimeen Pollichathu (fried pearl spot fish). “This fillet fish, infused with spices, and wrapped in a banana leaf was very good,” she says. “These are items which I have never tasted before, especially the spices. Most of the spices in India have a completely different smell and taste. In Egypt, we mostly use cumin and coriander.”

And she got some valuable tips on her trip. “I understood that if you dissolve the spices in water, before adding it to the food, then each ingredient balances against each other, with no one particular spice overpowering the other,” she says. “I will be trying this when I return to Cairo.”

Meanwhile, it is interesting to know that one of the most popular dishes in Egypt, the koshary, has an Indian origin. “During the second World War, when Indians soldiers were stationed in Egypt, they would make this food,” says Mariem. “Soon, the Egyptians loved the food so much that they forgot their original food. Today, at every street corner, there is a koshary shop.”

A koshary consists of black lentils cooked with rice mixed with a spicy tomato sauce, infused with vinegar. “You can also add chick peas, fried onions and pasta,” she says. “It is a meal by itself and has become part of our street food culture.”

Other dishes include a foul – a form of beans which is cooked slowly and is placed inside sandwiches. Then there is the ful medames, which is a dish of cooked fava beans served with vegetable oil, cumin, parsley, garlic, onion, and lemon juice. Then there is the Marouk, which is a form of chappati. “We use flour, water and oil and cook it on a flat pan,” says Mariem. “We then stuff different types of beans inside it.”

Interestingly, the Egyptians don't eat meat all that much. And when they do, it is usually at official functions like weddings, festivals and feasts. “We like beef, lamb, camel and goat, but we are not dependent on animal protein,” says Mariem.

In Cairo, Mariem works as the Culinary Director for Food Tracks, which has been established by a top Swiss chef Markus Iten. “The company is focused on training and educating chefs,” says Mariem. “We also provide consultancy for food and beverage establishments. As for those investors who want to set up something, we provide the expertise.”

Meanwhile, Mariem is looking forward to coming back to Kochi in the future. “I love the place,” she says. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)