Monday, December 25, 2006

Bicycle and Other Thieves

"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder." ~Alfred Hitchcock

The idea of Do Bigha Zameen came to Bimal Roy, they say, when he was sitting at the top of a double-decker bus on his way home from a screening of Vittorio De Sica’s classic, Bicycle Thief, based novel by Luigi Bartolini. And that was 56 years ago.
Everyone’s got their knickers in such a twist about a supposed trend in Hindi films to go back to literature for story ideas. Look at Parineeta and Devdas and Maqbool and Paheli and Sarkar and 1918 Banaras A Love Story and ……they reel off breathlessly. (If you don’t know which novels those films were based on, you don’t need to read this article anyway!) And now Vishal Bharadwaj is bringing up the rear by the second of his Shakespeare based trilogy with Omkara, which is based on Othello. And “inspired” by aapro Sanjay, there are a whole rash of remakes threatening to crop up. Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam and Umrao Jaan and what not. Everyone’s in such a tizzy, such a dither, such a lather. Why, oh, why, they agonize, wringing their hands worriedly and knitting their brows into a fine Fair Isle, is this happening? Is this because there are very few original scriptwriters around in the Hindi film industry? (How many were there in the first place, is my naive question.) Is it because there is a paucity of ideas? (Was there ever a plethora, I timidly suggest.) Though no one has yet asked perhaps what is the more pertinent question - are the video libraries on strike and so everyone running low on their supply of Hollywood films to…er, be inspired by?
Never mind. But even if it is indeed true that droves of directors in apun ka Hindi phillum industry are enthusiastically diving into their Complete Works of Munshi Premchand and blowing the dust off their Remaker’s Guide to Sarat Chandra (who else) and de-cob webbing their How-to-narrate-Shakespeare-in-One-Liners (would Ram Teri Ganga Gayi be a good title for a “remake” of Romeo and Juliet, I wonder), it might put things a little into perspective if we remember how it all began …..

On 21st April 1913, India’s first full-length feature film, Dada Saheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra was commercially screened. Phalke’s subsequent films – totally around 100 in number - were films like Mohini Bhasmasur, Satyavan Savitri, Shri Krishna Janam, Bhakt Prahlad and India’s first box office hit, Lanka Dahan. Baburao Painter's first film in 1920 was Sairandhri (one of Draupadi’s names) and his subsequent films were Sati Padmini, Shri Krishna Avtaar, Vatsalaharan, Surekha Haran etc. The first South Indian feature film was R. Nataraja Mudaliar's Gopal Krishna. The first Marathi film – and a huge hit – was V. Shantaram’s Ayodhyacha Raja and the first Oriya film was Sita Bibaha. And so on and so forth.
Yeah, yeah, we know all this, but what’s my point? Just this. It’s plain as pie that the first 15-20 years of Indian cinema happily and voraciously fed off two of the world’s greatest pieces of literature, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Even when Indian filmmakers found their filmmaking legs and looked for other story sources, the obvious choice was the vast and rich treasury of Indian literature, both ancient and modern. Baburao Painter's 1925 classic, Savkari Pash (in which V. Shantaram made his debut as an actor) was a film adaptation of the novel written by the man who is considred the founder of the modern Marathi novel - Hari Narayan Apte.

And almost 20 years after Raja Harishchnadra, when Ardeshir Irani made India’s first talkie, Alam Ara, in 1931, it was based on a Parsi play written by Joseph David. In 1937, V. Shantaram took another of Apte’s novels, Na Patnari Ghosta and made into not one but two masterpieces – first in Marathi as Kunku and then as Duniya Na Mane in Hindi, both in 1937. His Shakuntala in 1943, based on Kalidasa’s great play, ran for an incredible 104 weeks Apart from Sikander, Sohrab Modi’s and Prithviraj Kapoor’s other great collaboration, Prithvi Vallabh also in 1943 was based on Kanhayalal M. Munshi’s Gujarati novel by the same name. And of course, there was Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1947).
And this trend to look to literature for stories continued. If you look at the 13 most memorable films that Bimal Roy made between 1945 and 1963, as many as 5 were born of Bengali literature – Bandini (based on Bengali writer Jarasandha’s novel, Tamasi), Kabuliwala (based on Tagore’s short story which Roy produced), Parineeta and Biraj Bahu, both based on novels by Sarat Chandra Chatterjee. I know. That adds up to only 4 but before I mention the 5th, I have to talk about dear ol’ Sarat. From the looks of it, he was Indian cinema’s most popular source for stories. And 68 years after his death, it seems that he still is! At least 41 films have been made of his novels and short stories. And among the more well-know - apart from Bimal Roy’s Parineeta and Biraj Bahu - are P. C. Barua’s Manzil, K L Saigal’s hit film, Pujarin in which he sang the ultimate tipplers’ anthem, Piye ja aur piye ja, said to be the only film song in Indian cinema that was recorded without any rehearsal or any set music! Then in more recent times, Basu Chatterjee’s Swami (1977) and Gulzar’s Khusboo (1975).
Am I not going to mention Devdas, at all, you ask, outraged?
Oh alright then. And Devdas. Which is the 5th Bimal Roy film based on Bengali literature. Since the novel was published 89 years ago (a full 16 years after Sarat Chandra wrote it!), it has been made into film at least 9 times, twice in Telugu including the super hit Devadasu, starring the superstar Akkeni Nageshwara Rao, which was made 2 years before Bimal Roy’s 1953 version. And a Tamil version of P C Barua’s Devdas was released simultaneously in which Saigal sang 2 songs….in Tamil!
So, in the almost hundred-year history of Indian cinema, Indian literature always fired the imagination of our filmmakers, resulting in some of our finest films – Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (based on Mushi Premchand’s novel), Vijay Anand’s Guide (R. K. Narayanan), Basu Bhattacharya’s Teersi Kasam (Phaneshwarnath Renu), Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (Bimal Mitra), M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (Ismat Chugtai) just to name a few. And that’s not something unique about Indian cinema, but also a world wide phenomenon. From the Bible to Ernest Hemingway, from William Shakespeare to William Faulkner, from Charles Dickens to Arthur Miller, from Agatha Christie to Ian Fleming, all inspired both classics and blockbuster hits. And just look at some of the Oscars winners of the last 3 years - Brokeback Mountain, Million Dollar Baby, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, A Beautiful Mind. They all came out of short stories and novels.
And it is only but natural. Story telling is as old as man himself, not just an art form, but an instinct as primeval and compelling as hunger because in our stories, we record the history of our souls and our hearts. And cinema, storytelling’s youngest, most beguiling, most enchanting child has always looked to its elder sibling for inspiration,
So, is it a good thing or a bad thing that we are going back to books? Well, I’d say it’s a good because it means that our filmmakers are finally beginning to read. But, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what a great film comes out of. The heart of great storytelling whether that’s around the fire, on your grandmother’s lap or in 70 mm technicolour is a cracking good story. Stuff that widens your eyes with wonder and shine with delight, makes your heart sigh and sing, makes you cry and laugh; stuff that transports you out of yourself to back inside again. And most importantly, that rivets you, involves you so completely that you forget everything but the burning question, “Phir kya hua?” And that magic could come out of a great piece of literature or a little news item tucked away in yesterday’s newspaper. “Woman with cellphone steals new born baby from maternity ward…”
Willa Cather, the great American novelist once famously said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” And that would roughly sum up the task of any filmmaker – to take a story and tell it as magically if it has never been told before. Be that Devdas. Or Biwi No. 1.

Did you know…
That the 1938 Tamil film that launched M. S. Subbulakshmi to cinematic fame was "Seva Sadanam,", was based on a Munshi Premchand's very first novel, Seva Sadan?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Yoga and how to be a student

Okay, now here’s the thing that I have to say about learning and it’s really quite simple. Be a student all your life. Always learn something, anything. Why? Well, at the very obvious level, they tell us that learning is exercise for the brain, keeps your brain cells limbered up and in shape and your outlook towards life fresh and energetic. While that’s true, there is actually much more than that to this learning thing. Because apart from the subject that you will learn – be that growing mushrooms or anthropology – you learn other things, almost all of which have nothing to do with how to make that fungus multiply by the million or how old “Lucy” the Hominid is. And today, I, hopefully the eternal student, share a few of those lessons with you today …..

Learning to trust
“You can't shake hands with a clenched fist”. Indira Gandhi

I am one of the few people in my yoga class still struggling with the halasana (plough pose). And there are two things stopping me. One is fear – I’m petrified that once i get into the final position, flat on the floor with my body flipped backwards like a sleeping comma, i won’t be able to come back. Ridiculous and totally unfounded, but that is what fear is. The second is that whenever my yogacharya comes to egg me on, (he also has a good laugh while doing this!) and say, “Nothing is going to happen to you. Come on, just do it”, i don’t really believe him. because if i did, I’d flip myself into that dratted halasana, fear or no fear.
So, the thing is, nothing in life is possible without trusting someone. Your business associate, your spouse, the person who made your pressure cooker, the bus driver taking you to work, the man in the car at the traffic light waiting for you to cross, your doctor, your hairdresser, even your parents. And if you are parachutist, then the factory worker who fixed the ripcord on your parachute. Like it or not, you have to trust that they won’t let you down. And without trust, some of the most dangerous and high pressure jobs in the world would not be possible – like fire fighting and exploring the Artic….and being a parent!
And the place that you learn to trust is in the classroom. Becoming a student is like when a child puts its hand into its parent’s to cross the street. What the child is telling the parent is, “I trust you completely to take me across.” Which is exactly the contract that you make with your teacher. That you trust him/her to teach you to the best of his/her ability, with your best interest at heart. Not an easy thing – trust. It requires courage, asking you to surrender, to relinquish control. Children trust easily because they have no fear well, not yet anyway. It becomes more difficult to trust as we grow older and the crust of cynicism and fear hardens and gets in the way. Which is why it is so important to always go back to class – so that you can reconnect with the frightening idea of crossing the road by placing your hand in someone else’s….

Learning Humility
"To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” Confucius
This lesson is easy because it’s a very simple equation – the more you learn, the more you discover how little you know. The greatest scholars and gyanis are the ones who’ve realised this and have never stopped learning and see themselves as perennial students. Because the more they know, the more they know how little they know. Which means that they always constantly swim in the consciousness that for every ocean it may seem they’ve crossed and conquered, there are a million more and then a million more. That humbles you like nothing else because you realize that the termite is a more sophisticated ------ than you and the average bacteria a better diplomat. And you only get this when you are learning.
There is a corollary to this humility business. Which is that you learn to respect all knowledge – with no exceptions. So the more you learn, you figure that knowing how to knead chapati dough is as much knowledge as knowing how to crack the human genetic code. The more you learn, the more you realise that there is a place, a purpose and a need for the potter and the philosopher, the sweeper and the priest, the underwear salesman and the astronaut. And none of them are lesser or greater, they just are. Is a maggot lesser or greater than a butterfly. But most importantly, you realise that there is always someone who can teach you a thing or two. Always.

Learning to learn
"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn." ALBERT EINSTEIN

A visitor who was full of expectations was unimpressed by the commonplace words the Master addressed to him.
"I came here in quest of a Master," he said to a disciple. "All I find is a human being no different from the others."
Said the disciple, "The Master is a shoemaker with an infinite supply of leather. But he does the cutting and stitching in accordance with the dimension of your foot." ZEN STORY

This is actually perhaps the most important lesson in life. Remember the cliché – you can take a horse to the water but you can’t drink for it? Well, what it means is that after a point, in everything including the classroom, each one of us are on our own, walking down the road on which no one can accompany us. Parents, spouse, children, friends, teacher – no one. Because the final act of swallowing the water has to done by the horse. You can tell it what throat muscles to use, describe the technique of swallowing, encourage and demonstrate, even stick the horse’s head in the water. But after that, the horse is on it’s own. With just perseverance and practice as its only companions. And that’s true for anything that you are learning - bicycling, tying your shoe laces, painting the sunset.
Now, a good teacher knows that. So after a point he/she stops teaching and patiently waits for the horse to figure out the rest of it. But most students don’t, getting angry and feeling let down when this happens, blaming the teacher for not “teaching” any further. Because independence is a very difficult lesson to learn. It’s so much easier to hop around on crutches, leaning on this, blaming that and passing the buck to another or…. your teacher. But if you keep learning, you figure out why the teacher let go and why you are now on your own. There comes a moment when in a flash you realize that this is the only way you will really learn – by yourself, on your own. With your teacher only a guide, a compass, a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a beacon to lead you back when you’re lost. Getting to the destination is your baby.
So, sign up for those guitar lessons today. And as you do, think of your teacher as a gardener. And all that the gardener does - and can do - is to prepare the right conditions for the seed. (Which, by the way, is you.) Orchestrating water, air, sunlight, soil and manure to come together in the right proportions in which the seed is sown. After that, it’s the seed’s responsibility to sprout and grow. Whichever way it chooses.

"There is no transference of secrets from master to disciple.
Teaching is not difficult, listening is not difficult either,
but what is truly difficult is to become conscious
of what you have in yourself and be able to use it as your own." Kenneth R. Beittel in Zen and the Art of Pottery

Sunday, October 22, 2006

A peacock’s foot, a broken cloud and the art of making love

“Kama is the enjoyment by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul…….”
I think Vatsyayana would have hated the word “sex”. For a man who tells you about the art of giving a hicky which looks “the leaf of a blue lotus”, who can describe an embrace as a “mixture of milk and water”, for such a man, calling the sublime pleasures of making love “sex” would be like saying that the Kamasutra is a book about sex …..
Long before it became a dirty word and long, long before the Messrs Ellis, Freud and Kinsey delved into the mysterious workings of human sexuality, it was here in India that we believed that sex was not a furtive, unmentionable thing that nice girls do only while thinking of their country, but rather a sophisticated art (even a science, if you see the precision one needs to scratch a “peacock’s foot” on your beloved’s breast), to be learnt and practiced with the same diligence and devotion as one would practice the art of ……bonsai, maybe? Because desire was not a hairy beast to be locked up in the dank, dingy trash cans of the soul, but, like the pursuit of virtue (Dharma) and the acquisition of wealth (Artha), the gratifications of the senses (Kama) was an important step towards the attainment of…. yes, believe it or not, Moksha! (A definition of sex, which, as you can see, extends miles beyond the modern-day obsession with performance and orgasms!)
And so naturally, many ancient Indian scholars and pundits spent their time studying the shastras of pleasure of which, the most famous was Vatsayana. Who wrote the Kamasutra (Aphorisms of Love) which, in his own words, “is not to be used merely as an instrument for satisfying our desires,” but is actually a handy book on everything you wanted to know about anything from interior decoration to baldness…. and oh yes - sex. Very little is known about Vatsyayana except that his real name was either Mallinaga or Mrillana, that he lived anywhere between the 1st and 4th century A.D. and that he wrote the Kamasutra while he was a religious student at Benares. Probably in a state of celibacy, because he did it while being “wholly engaged in the contemplation of the Deity”. (Which seems to work just fine, since Havelock Ellis - whose Psychology of Sex is considered to be ‘one of the first enlightened account of human sexuality’- was a virgin till he was 32 and had a proper sex life only after the age of 60!)
But since Shakespeare by any other name would’ve have made as riveting a read, what better time than this Valentine season to rediscover the 1600-year old secrets of love even if we don’t quite know whether the author’s real name was Popatmal or what cereal he had for breakfast….

Sixty-four steps (er, shouldn’t that be sixty-nine?) to a sexier you.
Actually it’s a fairly simple equation and one that we may have forgotten in our crazed quest for thinner thighs and buns of steel. That sexy begets sex and vice versa. Except that in the Kamasutra, sex appeal goes beyond washboard abs and lasts long after your breasts had wearily given up fighting gravity and time. Because the lure is not just a sleek body or a beautiful face, but the enticement of a well-read, inquisitive mind, the titillation of a charming conversation and the enchantment of a sparkling personality, with as many facets as a well-cut diamond. (Did you know that diamonds have cleavages? A cleavage is the property of certain minerals to split in certain directions and produce flat, even surfaces - fortunately, not something our breasts are known to do!) So, in order to boost your SA, the Kamasutra lists 64 arts and sciences that may be studied along with it, ranging from sorcery to carpentry (how else would you cast that spell over him so that he’d be your slave for life and then build that bed in which to lie together happily ever after?)
So, this summer, while you try to add the sizzle back into your sex life with that aerobics class and the latest whisper of Victoria’s secret, you may want to consider stain-glass making (yes, the Kamasutra recommends it), tattooing, archery, solving riddles, brushing up on your knowledge of gold, jewels, chemistry, gambling, mimicry (they hadn’t invented bungee jumping as yet!) and of course the art of war. Because haven’t you heard? Everything is fair in love and war.

The slow boat to ecstasy ….
by the light of a half moon with the jump of a hare as you take a bite of heaven...
You can’t hurry love, they say. Well, by Vatsanya’s book, you can’t hurry lovemaking either because you see he took the whole business of foreplay very seriously. (It’s interesting that out of the 41 sections in the Kamasutra, only 3 are about the actual act of sex!) From the art of making love to a virgin wife (where he recommends, because “women being of a tender nature, want tender beginnings,” that the man actually spend the first 9 nights without even touching her, though it’s okay to bathe together) to the art of coquetry, from cosmetics more magical than Wonder bras to love potions which subjugate, conquer and all but enslave, from aphrodiasiacs (though I really don’t know whether you want to try the milk and sugar thingie in which you boil a ram’s testicle) to sex toys, from shampooing to piercing him with your breast, from having a love quarrel to how to behave if you are part of the king’s harem, you’ll find every single arrow in Kamadev’s quiver displayed in the Kamasutra. (There’s even a recipe for an ointment that will make your husband hate you – nifty, if you’re contemplating a quick alimony settlement!)

Of crabs and congresses and the wife of Indra.

After you’ve figured out which of the 4 different kinds of love is yours, after choosing one (or more) of the 8 different ways of embracing your beloved (including an embrace which is like the “mixture of the sesame seed with rice”), after losing count of how many different ways there are to kiss, scratch (including one called a `token of remembrance'– which you give your lambkin just before you leave for that annual visit to your mother or that dealer conference!), bite, lie down, make sounds (many more than “yes! Oh yes!”), play the part of a man (where apparently you can choose to either be a top or a swimg!), it may be a while before you get around to even considering ………. what do you guys call it these days?
Did somebody say “sex”? Union is more like it (take your pick from18 different kinds - 9 by the kind of man he is or woman you are and 9 by the strength of your – and his – libido), or congress if you’re more politically inclined and depending on what position you want to take, you could split like a bamboo, yawn (!), be a crab, fix a nail or if you aspire to the highest of high, you could be the wife of the god Indra, a position which needless to say, you achieve only after years of hard work and practice!
And don’t worry about the length of his er, sex drive or the depth of your er, passion. The Kamasutra is an erotic Noah’s ark where there is room for all and a plan for every contingency. So if you are an elephant woman (no reference to the size of your hips) in love with a hare man (let’s just say that the at the other end of this spectrum stands the bull man), if your passion is middling but his will set the Gomti on fire, if you prefer water (though Vatsyayana thinks it’s improper!) or standing up, whether it’s the “blow of a bull” or “the sporting of a sparrow” that transports you to the heights of ecstasy, Papa Vatsyayana will show you how.
I could go on but it would be impossible, apart from being blasphemous, to compress the wisdom of 1250 slokas written by a sage of erotica into 1500 words and I wouldn’t even try. So here I will leave you hoping that I have sufficiently titillated your mind enough (not to mentioned boggled it.) to rush and order your copy of the world’s most famous pillow book! And read the Kamasutra for at least this one reason. Anyone who says that this is the way it should all end, not with a crude bang but with a long, soft, satisfied sigh, laden with the scent of a 1000 orgasms, deserves a dekho…. at least sixty-four times!
“At the end of the congress, (he) should apply with his own hand to the
body of the woman some pure sandal wood ointment……. He should then embrace her with his left arm, and with agreeable words should cause her to drink from a cup held in his own hand…….. They can then eat sweetmeats, or anything else, according to their likings and may drink anything that may be liked in different countries, and known to be sweet, soft, and pure. The lovers may also sit on the terrace of the palace or house, and enjoy the moonlight, and carry on an agreeable conversation. At this time, too, while the woman lies in his lap,
with her face towards the moon, the citizen should show her the different planets, the morning star, the polar star, and the seven Rishis, or Great Bear.

This is the end of sexual union.”

"My Name is Gauhar Jan"

Photo :

I first stumbled upon this lady in the unlikeliest of places - the musty but painstakingly catalogued palace archives of the reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar, one of Mysore’s most illustrious monarchs. I was at the time researching the Maharajah’s astounding patronage of classical music, discovering that it extended not just to the greats from the world of Carnatic music – the expected thing from a South Indian monarch – but equally to luminaries from the world of Hindustani classical music.
And so it was that the legendary Abdul Karim Khan performed at the Mysore palace regularly and was so influenced by Carnatic music that he studied Carnatic ragas and incorporated several of them into Hindustani music. And it is said that the great Faiyaz Khan got his title of “Aftab-e-Mausiqui” when Krishnaraja Wodeyar conferred it on him after a particularly brilliant jugalbandhi between him and the then court musician Hafiz Khan!
But amongst all these Sangeetha Vidwans, as the Maharajah was wont to call them, I came across one more name, quite by accident. As I was chatting about the munificence of the Maharajahs’ patronage with the archivists, someone mentioned that there used to be a dancer in the Maharajah’s court - called something that sounded like “Gohar Jan”
I was immediately hooked. The name had a ring to it that was redolent with the magic of times gone by. I imagined one of those cool, velvety-soft Mysore evenings during Navratri and under the stunning expanse of the ceiling of the Diwan-e-Khas, a beautiful young court dancer. Swathed in whispering silks, adorned with jewels that winked and laughed, her black, kohl-lined eyes as eloquent as her henna-lined feet and her exquisite, soft, perfumed hands weaving their collective web of seduction as the enamoured darkness deepened and throbbed to the tabalchi’s fervent na-dhin-dhin-dha and the stars sighed a thousand sighs of longing…
In fact, Gohar Jan – or Gauhar Jan - was a singer who was 54 years old when she came to the Mysore Maharajah’s court in 1928, at the sad, tail end of her career. Mentally and emotionally sick, swindled and cheated by greedy, grasping relatives and an unfaithful lover, she died just a year and a half later, alone and almost penniless…
But in the fifty odd years of her life before that, she had amassed a dazzling musical legacy. Almost lost in the mists of time, but at my persistent digging, some of it reluctantly crept out, the shadows unable to quell the brilliance of an astounding life and talent …
She was born Angelina Yoeward in 1873, to Anglo-Indian parents of Armenian Jewish descent who lived in Azmagarh in UP. But her parents’ marriage rapidly disintegrated after Angelina’s birth with her mother Victoria’s increasing passion for Hindustani classical music and a Muslim nobleman called Khursheed. Before long, Victoria divorced her husband and went to stay with her lover in Benares, converting to Islam and changing her name Malka Jan and her little daughter’s to Gauhar Jan. Under Khursheed’s patronage, Malka Jan became a famous Baiji, referred to as Badi Malka Jan to differentiate her from the 3 other equally well-known Malka Jans at the time.
Those were heady days for Hindustani classical music. All over North India, the gharana tradition was producing some of the greatest musicians of India. But the heady, glittering vortex of those entrancing sisters of light Hindustani classical music - the ghazal, thumri, khayal and dadra - was in Calcutta, where rich, besotted zamindars flocked and patronized the melodious and gorgeous Baijis from Benares, Agra and Lucknow. In nearby Matiaburj (also known as Garden Reach), Wajid Ali Shah, the freshly exiled Nawab of Oudh had set up a court as lavish and as studded with the best musicians and poets of the land as his splendid Lucknow one had been.

Naturally, Malka and her daughter, just ten years old, moved to where all the action was…
Soon, Malka Jan was the toast of the town. In just 3 years, she had amassed enough wealth to buy an entire building in Calcutta. Meanwhile, her daughter Gauhar blossomed under the tutelage of her mother and other great teachers like Kale Khan of Patiala, alias 'Kalu Ustad', and Ustad Vazir Khan of Rampur. She also learnt dance from the legendary Bindadin Maharaj, granduncle of Birju Maharaj. Her education was both intensive and expansive. Not only did she become proficient in different forms of music including Rabindra Sangeet, she was exposed to literature and poetry and became fluent in 20 languages and dialects including Bengali, Hindustani, Gujrathi, Tamil, Marathi, Arabic, Persian, Pushto, French, Peshawari, and English. She would soon sing in at least ten of them!
Gauhar also inherited her mother’s exotic East European looks. And so, her debut at the court of the Maharaja of Darbhanga at age 13 was a spectacular one. A star had stepped down from the skies, dazzling even in a world already filled with so many other stars like her own mother. Soon Gauhar was not only singing with great virtuosity, but she was also composing her own songs under the pen name “Hamdam”. No self-respecting mehefil was complete without Gauhar’s presence and at the height of her success, the popular saying went, “Gauhar ke bina mehefil jaisa shauhar ke bina dulhan!”
Along with these fascinating stories about her, I also managed to unearth a few pictures of Gauhar Jan. All of them showed was a fair, plump, richly dressed woman who you could have called merely pretty if it were not for the imperious, slightly sulky expression in her large, dark eyes. She was a commanding, handsome presence and I could well imagine her dramatic entry into a mehefil with her silks and jewels and imposing entourage of saazindas…
It was now the turn of the century and Gauhar Jan, just 27, was Fortune’s most favourite daughter. Her fame having spread far and wide, she commanded a fabulous Rs. 3000 per performance. Naturally she had a lifestyle to match. It is said that when her cat had a litter, she threw a party that cost her twenty thousand rupees and which remained the talk of the town of years to come. She dressed to match her persona, never wearing “the same jewels twice. Strikingly effective were her delicate black gauze draperies embroidered with real gold lace, arranged so as to present a tempting view of a bare leg and a naked navel.” Pran Nevile - The importance of being Gauhar Jan, Sunday Tribune, 26.5.2002
In 1910, together with Jankibai of Allahbad, she performed at the Delhi durbar of King George and received an award of a 100 guineas!

But behind that fabulous celebrity persona was also an enormously talented musician. Her mastery over all the genres of light Hindustani music was an inspiration to many great singers who came after her. One story goes that Begum Akhtar who at one time seriously contemplated a career in films, changed her mind after she heard and became influenced by Gauhar and her mother. Incidentally, the sarangi player who used to accompany Gauhar and her mother, Ustad Imdad Khan, became Begum Akhtar’s first guru. Siddehwari Devi professed to be inspired by listening to Gauhar and her contemporaries. In one of her recitals, when the great Faiyyaz Khan refused to sing with Siddehwarafter her superb rendering of the Bhairavi thumri, “Kaahe ko daari re gulal, Brajlal Kanhayi”, he did so saying to her: "After such music there is no room for any more. After Gauhar Malika, the crown of the Thumri rests on your head".

But even more significantly, Gauhar played a pivotal role in providing rare archival material of one of the most exciting periods of Hindustani music. In 1902, Fred Gaisburg the pioneer of the modern recording industry came to India wanting to record Indian singers. And the very first Indian singer who agreed to do so was Gauhar Jan - at a time when many of the other great musicians of the time refused, perhaps suspicious of what must have seemed like some new-fangled fad. Gauhar skillfully adapted her gayaki to complete a song in just 3 minutes, a difficult task for a Hindustani classical singer used to the luxury developing a phrase or even a word for several minutes!

I actually managed to hear clips from 2 of Gauhar’s discs in a wonderfully exhaustive article on the Net by Suresh Chandvankar, Secretary, of the Society of Indian Record Collectors. Even through the poor scratchy quality of recording, Gauhar’s amazing voice struggled through – young, sultry and piercing, now trilling a perfect taan, now hitting a high note with effortless purity.
And at the end of each recording, she imperiously declares, “My name is Gauhar Jan!” (This was done apparently for the benefits of the technicians at Hanover so that they could identify the singer.) In one recording, she says, "This is an Arabic song. My name is Gauhar Jan, You have liked song!”, the last sentence being a command, not a question! In the same article, there is a photograph of one of these discs, on which is printed the legend “Dhun Kalyan. Sung by Gauhar Jan at the Town hall in Bombay, 1907”
Gauhar Jan’s records soon became enormous hits and she went to on to record an astounding 600 discs, about 150 of which are still around, carefully collected and preserved by people like Chanvankar. But ironically, Gauhar herself seems to have become a barely discernable ghost, rarely warranting a mention in any history of Hindustani music.

Like many of her kind, Gauhar’s enormous fame and wealth ultimately became her enemies. By the time she was in her forties, her personal life was a tragic mess, greedy relatives and unscrupulous lovers having taken their toll. And so the Gauhar Jan that finally took refuge in Krishnaraja Wodeyar’s court must have been a broken, sad woman. But glimmers of the dazzling exponent of the thumri and the khayal, vestiges of the gifted poetess must have still shone through to warrant this letter to her from Mr. M. Rama Rao, assistant Secretary to His Highness, The Maharaja of Mysore:

“20th August. 1928
Miss Gohar Jan is appointed a Palace Musician on a pay of R. 500 per mensem (inclusive of salaries of her musicians and accompaniments) with effect from 1st August 1928.
Dil Kush Cottage will be given free for residence.
Miss Gohar jan will be at Mysore during the birthday and Dasara seasons and on other important occasions….”

18 months later, on January 17th, 1930, Gauhar passed away in Mysore’s Krishnarajendra Hospital. Perhaps the most befitting epitaph to Gauhar is her favourite thumri, Wajid Ali Shah’s haunting, tragic composition…..
Babul mora maihar chhooto jaay,
Char kahar mil mori doliya uthaye,
Mora apna begana chhooto jaay.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Doctoring On

“…and it came upon me suddenly that I was profoundly happy in my profession, in which I would never aspire to administrative power or prominence so long as I could remain close, heart and hands, to the problems of disease. “As I Remember Him”, autobiography of Dr. Hans Zinsser, renowned Harvard Medical School Teacher and bacteriologist who isolated the typhus and helped develop the mass production of the typhus vaccine
A half doctor near is better than a whole one far away. ~German Proverb

It is one of the most spectacular drives that I have ever seen. Driving through Coorg, en route to Mangalore from Mysore. The show begins a little after Madkeri town and the feeling is one of entering the womb of Nature. Hushed, greenly dark, fragrant and moist; everything growing out of everything else, everything entwined in everything else in a timeless, primordial embrace of procreation. I turn my head this way and that, dazed and awestruck as the car gingerly makes its way on what seems like a narrow ribbon of a road that has been threaded through the hair of this spectacular lushness. Trees rise like mighty, imperious edifices, blocking out the sunlight that even so, manages to creep through as timorous, vapoury wisps and patches, holding their breaths as they dare to fall on and gently poke this nook, dapple that patch.
And as if to show that it is no less mighty, as high as the trees rise, the ground suddenly falls as deep, hundreds of feet into huge, cavernous maws - Nature yawning lazily to show all her green glory. My breath whooshes out of my chest and plummets into one of those maws as I stare, terrified and wonderstruck, all at once thinking how little it will take to nudge my flimsy little car off that narrow ribbon into it…
And suddenly, I sight what should be the impossible. At the bottom of the maw…a house! No two….. three! Tinier than dinky toys, thatched with little faded maroon flecks of what must be tiles. I am thinking they must be some long abandoned dwellings – surely no one could be living there. When out scurry a few creatures. Humans, as normal as I and me, getting on with the business of living.
Thoughts eddy in my head in crazy whirlpools as the ribbon moves away from the edge of the maw and begins to wraps itself around a steep incline… How would these people ever get a Pizza Hut man to deliver? Okay, no pizza but what about the milkman? (I couldn’t see any cows.) Post? And what if you are cooking and suddenly discover that you are clean out of salt? How did they get the bricks down to build those houses in the first place? Do they have babies down there? (They must … I saw a couple of kids.) How do you get a pregnant woman up that vertical slope? Or an ambulance down it? (Maybe they have a place somewhere else where they go, make and have the baby and come back with it?) And can you grow old down there? Would you heart stand for it? And what if you have a heart attack? What if you break a leg? (A real possibility…..)
And I remembered the time that I did….
I broke it not in a remote, lush, verdant place several hundred feet inside Mother Nature but in Mumbai city, where the best medical help is always on the tap. Within minutes of breaking my right leg – a clean break a few inches above my ankle – I was whisked away to what is considered one of the best hospitals in the country. At least it must be, going by the steady stream of film stars, industrialists and politicians that regularly dot its patient list. To cut a long story short, by the afternoon, I was in and out of anesthesia, my fracture set and put into plaster by a gentleman who is considered – like the hospital – one of the best orthopedic surgeons in India. Naturally. And I was safely and cozily tucked into a bright, airy private room whose large window overlooked the beautiful hospital garden. The food was delicious and I had a steady stream of visitors and gifts and flowers and life wasn’t too bad except that…
The orthopedic surgeon told us that given the site of the fracture, it might not heal on its own and may require surgery, maybe even the insertion of a metal plate. My parents had arrived from Mysore by then and we were faced with making the very difficult decision of whether to go in for surgery or not. You’re thinking - surely that should have been made easy based on the doctor’s recommendation? Well, what we got from him was a menu – you could go in for surgery. Or then wait because she is young and the fracture may heal on it own. We opted to wait…
After a week’s stay at the hospital, I was discharged. It was a relief because by now, my poor parents were fairly frazzled by the hour-long trip each way from my home in the suburbs to the mid-town hospital and back that they made everyday. We were hopeful that the check up scheduled a fortnight later would yield some direction on future treatment. Nothing. The doctor remained as noncommittal, even after examining the last x-ray. Was it healing? Too soon to tell.
Surgery or wait? Well….you decide.
We did. That it would be best to go back to Mysore for further treatment, whatever that might be. It might seem to be an odd decision – I mean, where else but in Mumbai would you get the best medical help. And I already had a head start both with the hospital and the doctor, right? Perhaps. But our decision was based on our belief that the best place to be in when you are in a crisis like this is home. Mysore was my parents’ home. We had relatives there. Also being a retired railway officer, my dad had access to the Railway hospital, which was not only competent but had attached to it several competent private surgeons and specialists. Most of all, Mysore was familiar territory, comfort zone in which my parents knew their way around, not just physically but psychologically and emotionally as well.
As it turned out, the fracture did not heal on its own. According to the orthopedic surgeon who treated me in Mysore and looked at the x-rays, the way the fracture had been set, it wouldn’t have because the broken surfaces which needed to be touching each other for them to “knit” together were not. And since more than a month had now lapsed since the fracture, even if it was reset, it was too late. So surgery was inevitable, not only to reset and clean up the fracture but also to add a bone graft from my hipbone to it to help it heal, besides a metal plate.
The surgery was a success and except for the surgical scar, I walk perfectly now. More importantly, the whole event was relatively stress free because we were in our hometown. There were aunts and uncles to do hospital duty; my parents’ home was just a few minutes drive away to go back to for baths and meals. The only regret is that what would had healed in a few months took almost a year.
I tell this story because I want to make the following points...
First that we are a nation of over a billion people, most of us living in small towns and villages, or even in places as remote and inaccessible as the one I saw in Coorg. And many of these billion people will require serious medical attention at some point in time or the other in their lives. For most of them, that will come from local doctors practicing their medicine in often what are the most basic medical facilities. No 64-slice CT scan, no state-of-the-art operating theatres. And the string of letters affixed after many of these doctors’ names will be just a modest “MBBS”. So called “ordinary” doctors who not just make do but do a darn good job by using that thing that is always state-of-art – just honest-to-goodness doctoring talent.
So, it is natural for talent to gravitate to the big cities and that is true as much for doctors as it is to software engineers. And big city specialty hospitals and hotshot specialists are necessary to keep breast with the latest developments in medical science. But - and keeping aside the cliché that there is only room for a few at the top - the fact of the matter is that there never will be enough room in them for the wealth of exceptional doctors that India has, who work tirelessly, often thanklessly and almost always unnoticed, unsung to heal and save lives, practicing in the remotest corners of this land. And there shouldn’t be, otherwise how will we keep a nation of one billion people healthy?
Second - there is no place like home. In good times but especially in bad times. Apart from the practicality of having money and the support system of friends and relatives within easy reach, there is nothing more comforting and reassuring than being amongst your own people and in familiar surroundings when you or a loved one is sick. So, unless it is an unavoidable situation, the effort has to be to make health care available locally. To empower the “ordinary” doctors and hospitals to be competent enough to provide this so that people don’t have to go to alien, frighteningly unfamiliar environments when they are sick. And that empowerment is as much the responsibility of the government and the medical community as it is yours and mine. Word of mouth is a very powerful tool. And these days, it is popular practice to exchange doctor-hospital horror stories. But perhaps we also need to make it as much a habit to tell each other about a good doctor, a good hospital, about a successful healing experience.
Finally, they say money makes the world go round. I’d like to change “money” to “trust”. Nothing is possible if you don’t trust something. In in business or a marriage, the word of your partner. In the case of those families living down in that place in Coorg – life itself. And in the case of a sick person, the doctor. As American journalist, author and world peace advocate put it, “Drugs are not always necessary. Belief in recovery always is.”

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mother Tongue

I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Jawaharlal Nehru

It’s an old horse, mostly flogged by politicians to win votes or voters’ brownie points. The debate about English versus Indian languages as the medium of instruction in our schools. And I write today conscious about the fact that “convent-educated” continues to be one of the most the coveted attributes of a prospective bride, next only to “fair”. That the “right” English accent can still open many doors that no “desi” accent can including getting you that fancy-salary paying call center job. That without the knowledge of English, higher education as it exists today will be impossible. That I myself am a product of such an education; reading, writing and doing all of my conscious thought in English. I also write wondering why this debate should exist at all. Because, for one, isn’t it obvious that children should be taught to use their minds and their hearts in their own mother tongue? Secondly, in a country where even the “anghuta-chaap” can fluently speak at least 2 languages, why should it not possible to have multi lingual education? And in case it isn’t obvious, too many research studies conducted over the years clearly show that bilingual children perform better in school when the school effectively teaches the mother tongue.

But since the debate exists, let’s get that out of the way first. As you must have guessed by now, I’m throwing in my lot with the Indian languages.
So, am I saying that the medium of instruction in our schools should be in an Indian language? Ultimately and primarily – yes. And before everyone gasps in disgusted astonishment, it won’t do harm to just look around at all the world around us. Every single “developed” economy – and let’s not go too far away and stick to the Asian tigers – speaks, reads and writes in its own native tongue.
And for the ones muttering about how difficult it is to undo centuries of British colonization that branded the English language as the superior-sahib’s language into the psyche of the nation, and how it’s virtually impossible to have one official language in a country which speaks 14 languages and over 3000 dialects, let me remind them that Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong were once British colonies. And Singapore has not 1 but 4 official languages of which one is Tamil. Iincidentally, the name Singapore was derived from the Sanskrit simha (lion) and pura (city).

Besides, some of the greatest Indian minds that shaped not only modern India but also the world were people who had their primary education in their mother tongue and later went on to become proficient in English. I could reel off a long and impressive list but perhaps just one name will do the trick.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

“Up to the age of 12 all the knowledge I gained was through Gujarati, my mother tongue. Then I entered a high school…. Everything had to be learnt through English. The tyranny of English was so great that even Sanskrit or Persian had to be learnt through English, not through the mother tongue. And let me confess to the reader that in spite of all my love for the mother tongue, I do not to this day know the Gujarati equivalents of the technical terms of Geometry, Algebra and the like. I know now that what I took four years to learn of Arithmetic, Algebra, Chemistry and Astronomy, I should have learnt easily in one year, if I had not to learn them through English but Gujarati.… I must not be understood to decry English or its noble literature. The columns of HARIJAN are sufficient evidence of my love of English. But….India has to flourish in her own climate, and scenery, and her own literature. We and our children must build on our own heritage. If we borrow another, we impoverish our own. We can never grow on foreign victuals. I find daily proof of the increasing and continuing wrong being done to the millions by our false de-indianizing education……”

Gandhi writing in HARIJAN, July 1938

Now let me get to the points that I really want to make.

First, that irrespective of what is the “medium” of instruction in school (and we can’t change the system overnight), the responsibility of teaching our children our mother tongue rests first with us parents. And I don’t mean teaching them to just be able to read and write it. We mistake language to be just an alphabet, a script, a conglomeration of words that is a conduit for communication and information.

When in fact, it is so much, much more beyond that. It is literature and music and theatre. It is our great epics and folklore. Listen to a tale from the Panchatantra in an Indian language and then listen to it in English. It is like eating a dosa or a chapatti with a knife and fork. It is with what we feel the summer heat sear our skin, smell the rain’s first kiss on the earth, taste a mango, hear Krishna’s flute, see the colour of his beautiful skin reflected in the night sky. It is our mother’s voice softly crooning us to sleep. It carries in it the fragrance of this land. It is the mirror in which we see and recognize who we are, defined not just by this lifetime but the thousands of lifetimes of our ancestors. It is as much who we are as is the colour of eyes that we inherited from a grandmother or the walk that we inherited an uncle. So how can we leave the responsibility of introducing our children to themselves to someone else?

Second, I plead the case for our mother tongues for one other very important reason. Because they are some of the most musical, most beautiful, most evocative, richest languages in the world, not to mention the most ancient. How can we not give this precious gift to our children?

I wish I could spout passages of prose or poetry to make my point, but I am barely literate, only being able to speak but not read or write my mother tongue and my Hindi comes largely from Hindi films and Hindi film songs. (Which isn’t all that bad because fortunately they come from writers like Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, Sahir Ludhinavi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Rajinder Kishan.) And dim though it is, even by that flickering flame, what I see is spectacular, breathtaking, enthralling. Languages vast and generous like the river Ganges in where there are a hundred choices to describe one thing, each word meaning the same yet not the same.

Aakash, aasman, amber, gagan, digh is all “sky”, yet each have a different shade of meaning. Shyam is evening but also Krishna and his beautiful colour. “Piya ” and “saajan” is lover, but the great bhakti poets of our land – Meerabai, Kabir and Surdas – also used it to mean God. Words so concentrated and packed with meaning and expression that in just one word, you can tell a life story, describe the universe. Perhaps that is why on the one hand, we have sahasranamas for every god and on the other just…..“Om”. And perhaps that is why the Sanskrit lexicon is is called Amar Kosh – eternal treasury.

Can you think of a more beautiful way of saying “mother” than “janani”? And can you find an equivalent word in English that is an adequate translation? For that matter, can you translate “Man tadapata hari darshan ko aaj”? Have you ever wondered why English subtitles in Indian films are so ridiculous? How, for example do you translate “jeevan se bhari teri aanken majboor karain jeene ke liye”? Or “chaudavin ka chand ho ya aftab ho”? How would you explain “sringaar rasa” to somebody who knows only English? Or what Tulsi Das meant when he said, “Tumaka chalat Ramachandra, baaje paijaniya”? Or Meera Bai when she pleaded “Hari tum haro jan ke peed…”? Or Purandaradasa when he begged, “Karuniso ranga karuniso, Krishna karuniso….”?

Many, many years ago, in my penultimate year in school, a wondrous thing happened to me. Her name was Sister David and she was my English Literature teacher. I still remember the class and the poets – Robert Frost and T S Eliot and William Blake – and the poems.

“Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it is likely to go better….”

And I still have that poetry book. Because that day I fell in madly, deeply and irrevocably in love with the English language, a love has not faded to this day. And all that preeti, pyaar, prem, lagan, mohabbat for English – even though today I write against it – started from the wonderful introduction that I had to its great literature and poetry. It led me to its songs and cinema and theatre. I wish I had met such a teacher of Kannada or Hindi Literature. I wish that there could be such a teacher of Indian language in every school.

Perhaps a vain hope because thousands of “English-medium” institutions are sprouting up all over the country even as we speak. Sadly, given the quality of the English taught in a majority of them, most of these children will be both inarticulate and for all purposes illiterate in both languages. Look at the average advertising slogan and you will see how dangerously close we are to that.

“Their vocabulary in the mother tongue is so limited that they cannot always finish their speech without having recourse to English words and even sentences.” Gandhiji wrote this almost 70 years ago but it applies to most of the current generation of Hindi film stars. And many VJ’s and TV show hostesses speak Hindi with an accent that the even the average Angrez baddie in a Hindi film would be ashamed to speak in.

Yet, a century ago, there were Indians with a different vision of things. Tagore founded Shantiniketan, Rukmini Arundale Kalakshetra and it is said that the great physicist, S. N. Bose fought for the introduction of Bengali as the medium of instruction and as Professor in Calcutta University in 1945, taught physics to the postgraduate students in Bengali.

You see, it’s really very simple. How can we have self-respect when we don’t know who we are? How can we raise generations of proud, confident Indians if they don’t know who they are, who cannot don’t read their own poetry and song, who haven’t been touched by the magic of their mother’s tongue? Who know their Mahabharata and Ramayana through assembly line serialization on television and English translations, who never fallen in love with Jayadeva’s Geet Govindam or Bhartrihari’s fabulous love poetry? Who have never seen a Yakshagana performance? It is not enough to declare Tamil and Kannada and Sanskrit as “classical” languages. They must roll off our tongues as easily as our mother’s name. In other words, they must truly become our mother tongues.

I end on a light-hearted note, but one that illustrates the exquisite subtlety of our languages. One of my mother’s closest friends was a Punjabi lady who was eager to make a good impression on her Kannadiga boss. So, after much tutoring from my mother, she went off to work one morning armed with a complete, freshly polished Kannada sentence. When her boss came in, she went up to him and proudly declared, “Neenu beku.” Translation : I want you. All that the poor lady wanted to ask for was water or ‘neeru” which slipped just by one syllable and became “neenu” - you. My mother says that it took the boss a long while to recover….

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Nine nights and a Thousand names - the First Night

Aditi, Aparna, Malini, Nalini, Nandini, Sandhya, Medha, Ranjani, Rajni, Gauri, Nirupama, Savitri, Madhumati Yashasvini Sandhya, Vidya, Damini, Jaya, Sridevi, Meenakshi, Mohini, Lalita, Jayanti, Sita, Uma, Madhavi, Prabha, Indrani, Shalini, Arundhati, Nidhi, Sudha, Amruta, Shraddha, Radha, Tara not to mention Saraswati and Lakshmi. Just think of how many girls or women you know who have one of these names. All names of the Goddess. It’s my guesstimate – and probably a conservative one - that over half of all the girls in India have been named after Her. I recently heard a beautiful explanation about why we name our children after our deities.
Other than because it is auspicious etc., etc., it is also so that if in no other way, then in each time we call out their name, we have remembered God!
Today is the 1st of those 9 days in the year that we dedicate to the Goddess. Navratri. Though there are different nuances to this festival in different parts of India, everywhere for these nine days, we celebrate and exult in the Goddess, in her many forms and manifestations. But “Goddess” is a miniscule description of She whom we so often call “Devi.”
Because it is with her that everything began, begins and will begin. And so, nothing, not even a million names and descriptions would ever suffice to describe the infinitude of Her. But the Lalitha Sahasranama is a beautiful place to start. “Lalitha” meaning one the Devi’s most beautiful incarnations and “Sahasranama” meaning a thousand (sahasra) names or descriptors. The sage Agastya dismayed by the way people had become steeped in ignorance and in the pursuit of worldly pleasures, worshipped the Devi Kamakshi at Kanchi for a solution. Lord Hayagriva (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) appeared before him and gave him the Lalita Sahasranama as the best way to worship the Devi.
When you first hear it, just the sound of the Lalita Sahasranama being chanted, even if you didn’t understand a single word, grandly rumbling and resounding like a symphony of some distant, divine drums have a strange effect – calming, yet energizing; washing over you in wave after wave. But after a while, the meanings begin to filter through. I’m not a Sanskrit scholar, but even to me, who could understand just a few of the thousand names, the awesome beauty came through.
So, this Navaratri, every day, I would like to share with you a few small glimpses of the Devi through extracts from the Lalitha Sahasranama, in the hope that you will be both touched and blessed by Her …..Tonight is the first of the three days dedicated to Goddess Durga. The name “Durga” in Snaskrit means invincible. Just before the start of the Mahabharata way, Lord Krishna asked Arjuna to pray to the Goddess Durga for victory…..

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The strange tale of four triangles, a bit of string and a navel

So what was all the fuss about four little triangles of cloth, totaling up to about as much fabric as it takes to make a saree blouse?
Well, believe it or not, in Hollywood, it was about the matter of exposing the navel, an act that apparently amounted to such a severe form of indecent exposure that it was banned from Hollywood films! Okay, let me begin at the beginning, which as Mary Poppins so perspicaciously pointed out, is a very good place to start. By the time World War II had started in 1936, two-piece bathing suits had already made their appearance on and off screen and by the early '40s, many of the famous Hollywood beauties including Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner had all appeared in films wearing them. By the time the war had ended, the lusciously aquatic Esther Williams had made her tryst with stardom in the 1944 Technicolor spectacular, “Bathing Beauty” and as America’s Mermaid, the two-piece bathing suit would become almost second skin for her.

You’d think that in such a scenario, the world was ripe and ready for what made its debut on July 5 1946 at a poolside show at the then famous Paris swimming pool, the Piscine Molitor. Four little (or shall we say itsy-bitsy?) triangles of cloth totaling to 30 inches held together by teeny-weeny bits of string. Its “official” inventor, Lousie Reard, estimated its impact would be not less explosive than the atomic weapons that the United States had just tested in the Bikini Atoll Islands just 4 days earlier. Which is why he christened it le bikini. And since he could not find a model to wear it, he had to get Micheline Bernadini, a nude dancer from a Paris casino to model it. Which was kind of odd because apparently French women had already been wearing the bikini for a year – only it was known only by the more modest “French bathing suits” – a fact photographically recorded by the Life magazine in its July 16th, 1945 issue. (Micheline’s little modeling assignment apparently got her 50,000 letters. According to one report they were fan mail; according to another, they were proposals of marriage!)
Odder still was the reaction in United States of America. Which was mostly priggish scorn. Esther Williams declared, "A bikini is a thoughtless act". In a Time interview in 1950, American swimsuit mogul Fred Cole said he had "little but scorn for France's famed Bikini bathing suits". According to him, the bikini was only to take care of the French girls’ short legs because of which the “swimsuits have to be hiked up at the sides to make their legs look longer." The assumption being that since the American girls were naturally longer-stemmed, they would have no use for such silly artifice. In 1951, the Vogue magazine primly proclaimed, "Our readers dislike the bikini, which has transformed certain coastlines into the backstage of music halls and which does not embellish women." Of course, this was before that flamboyant high priestess of fashion Diana Vreeland became its editor, because she, true to form is reported to have said that the bikini is the atom bomb of fashion, justifying Reard’s choice of name.
But the oddest of all was the reaction of Hollywood. At the time, a peculiar form of film censorship called the Hays Code governed Hollywood films and according to it, the bikini was a no-no on screen. Why, you might well ask. Too much thigh? Nope. Too much bosom? In the land of the Janes Russell and Mansfield? Nah. Could it be that the derrière, till now demurely under covers was daring to show? Nope. Then what, you ask exasperatedly? Well, apparently what the censors found objectionable was that the bikini exposed ….hold your breath, people…the navel!
Naturally, it took an impossibly gorgeous French beauty to impress the advantages of this French invention on America. And so, though the 1957 issue of Modern Girl prissily pronounced, "It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing", when Roger Vadim’s film, And God Created Woman was released that year and Brigitte Bardot made the bikini’s unforgettable screen debut in a demurely titillating gingham version, it was all over but for the shouting. America – and most of the western world – capitulated in fervent, feverish adoration, begging for more. And Hollywood was more than willing to oblige and how.

In 1962, when Ursula Andress emerged from the sea in a white bikini like a modern day Venus in the Bond film, Dr. No, it became one of Hollywood’s most incandescent moments and made “Honey Ryder”, the sexiest Bond girl ever. (A position maintained 41 years later when in a survey by UK’s Channel 4, this scene in Dr. No was voted No.1 of cinema’s 100 Greatest Sexy Moments! Incidentally, that white bikini was auctioned at Christie’s in 2001 for 61,500$!) By the time Raquel Welch’s fabulous form filled an animal skin version more than satisfactorily in the 1964 film, One Million Years B.C., Hollywood’s – and America’s - surrender was complete and unconditional. And if anyone had any doubts about this, the Sport Illustrated put the bikini on its cover in 1964 and a new genre of Hollywood films called “beach party films” with titles like “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” proved that le bikini had indeed landed
Interestingly the bikini didn’t take all that long afterwards to wash up on Indian shores, making possibly what was its first public appearance when Sharmila Tagore modeled it on the cover of Filmfare in 1967. And according to almost everyone including India Today, she then wore it while water skiing in the song “Aasaman se Aaya farishta” in Shakti Samanta’s An Evening in Paris.
Did she? Ah, now that is a billion-bikini question and I will save the answer for the end. But Sharmila or not, the bikini did in fact make several guest appearances in Hindi films, many of them memorable. Like 16-year old Dimple Kapadia’s Lolita red number in Bobby. Zeenat Aman wore it in Heera Panna and Quarbani and Mumtaz in Apradh etc., etc. And though we were all a teeny-weeny bit (oh alright, perhaps an itsy-bitsy bit more) shocked, it didn’t really send us into such a tizzy of hissing outrage as it did the West. For many reasons, I think.
Firstly, we Indians have never had a problem with the navel, especially about exposing it. In fact, in any description of great beauty, a description of the lady’s navel has always been mandatory. The deeper the navel, the greater the beauty. And so, if the navel isn’t exposed, how else would we ever plumb – both literally and figuratively speaking - the depth of a woman’s loveliness? In the Mahabharata, it is said of that most beautiful of all women, Draupadi, that her intelligence was great and her navel deep. Kalidasa’s - and one of Sanskrit literature’s - most celebrated and gloriously sensuous passages is in the Kumarasambhava. In which he follows the first drops of rain falling on the body of Goddess Parvati who as a beautiful maiden, is trying to distract Lord Shiva from his meditation. The drops, Kalidasa says, lingered a little on her eyelashes, then trickled down the bridge of her nose, fell on to her lower lip, trembled there ecstatically for a moment or two, and then, falling on her breasts, broke into countless little drops. Which then re-grouped and wended their way slowly through the folds on her stomach, and came to rest finally in the pit that was her navel.
This could well have been a Hindi film director’s shot-breakdown for one of our ubiquitous rain songs. And no bikini, please, we are Indian. Not because we are prudish, though. But because we figured quite a while ago that far more can be achieved by 6 yards of clinging chiffon and a few gallons of rain that four itsy-bitsy triangles of cloth held together by string. So a little after Diana Dors changed the Cannes Film Festival forever by appearing in a mink bikini and Bardot flaunted her famous gingham number, movies screens all over India were set aflame by….no, not by a bikini but by “a ladki bheegi bhaagi si”. 1958. Chalti ka naam Gadi. And that famous song in which a luminous Madhubala of rain-kissed, magnolia skin exuded a seductiveness so compelling yet so innocently sweet that she made something like a bikini seem so utterly unnecessary and redundant.
Almost every major Hindi film heroine has had her defining “bheegi bhaagi” moment. From Nimmi (Barsaat mein, hum se mile tum sajan, tum se mile hum) in Barsaat to Waheeda Rehman (Rimjhim ke tarane leke aayi barsaat) in Kala Bazar. From a doe-eyed, dewy Sadhana beckoning Sunil Dutt to Lag jaa gale ki phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho to a wet, white saree-clad, voluptuous Meena Kumari provoking Pradeep Kumar to sing Aise to na dekho ke behak jaayen kahin hum in Bheegi Raat. From Zeenat Aman in Roti Kapada Aur makan (Hai hai yeh majboori) and more memorably in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. And Mumtaz in so many, that it is difficult to list them all. Even Smita Patil had hers, splashing sensuously around in front of a BEST bus stop in Namak Halal (Aaj rappat jaaye to). And of course, who can forget Sridevi in Mr. India crooning Kaate nihin katake yeh din yeh raat, a sequence so sizzling that you almost expected the steam to rise in that wet blue sari. As it most certainly must have in many sections of the audience! So, as far as we are concerned, rain and a wet sari have always been more explosive than a bikini.
On the 5th of July, the bikini celebrated its 60th birthday. That is if you take Louis Reard to be its inventor. Because the bikini figures rather prominently in a huge mosaic on the walls of an ancient Roman villa, the Villa Romana del Casale which dates back to 300 A.D. - at least. But whether 60 or 1700, the bikini is a grand old lady, quite in the pink of health, making something of a comeback recently - last year, bikini sales in the USA amounted to 810 million dollars. After American volley ball queens like the magnificent Gabrialla Reece (voted one of the world’s 5 most beautiful women by Elle magazine!) favoured it both on center court and center spread, it has virtually the official uniform for the US Olympic Beach volleyball team. And the grand old lady’s progeny are many, taking the family motto of “less is more” to newer and more breathtaking heights. Like the string bikini – more string than anything else. And the Brazilian thong version – the less said about it the better.
But I’ll end by answering that billion-bikini question.
Did Sharmila Tagore wear a bikini in Evening in Paris?

The Provocation Of Oriana

Oriana Fallaci died a few days ago at the age of 77.
Perhaps the best way to describe one of modern day journalism’s most incandescent figures is the title that Adam Bernstein gave her in his obituary in the Washington Post. “Reporter-Provocateur”. If at all it is possible to say it all about Oriana in 2 words, these two do a very adequate job.
Famous for her ascerbic, provocative interviews with almost every world famous personality - from Henry Kissinger to Sean Connery and even Indira Gandhi – perhaps her most famous (or then infamous depending on how you look at it) was the one with Ayotallah Khomeni, where she asked him, "How do you swim in a chador?"
"Our customs are none of your business," Khomeini said. "If you do not like Islamic dress, you are not obliged to wear it. Because Islamic dress is for good and proper young women."
"That's very kind of you, Imam," she said. "And since you said so, I'm going to take off this stupid medieval rag right now."
You’d think that was the end of her interview but……
When the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera published an interview with herself in the newspaper Corriere Della Sera, it sold out of its first run of 500,000 copies within four hours.

But I write about her because I remember another Oriana – writer of the most compelling books, the last of which published in 2004 - “The Force of Reason”. A criticism of Islam, it became a bestseller in Europe and landed her, now grievously sick with cancer, with the prospect of two years imprisonment. The preliminary trial began on 12 June in Bergamo and on 25 June, the judge posponed the trial to begin on 18 December.
Fallaci died on September 14th.
About 15 years ago, I read another book by Fallaci – Letter to a Child Never Born. A raw, intense book. When it was published, a Milan daily review began, "Ugly, ugly, ugly. Uglier than this is not possible. It will last only for a summer." The book finally sold over a million and half copies in Italy alone. It has been translated into twenty-one languages. I read the English version and I never forgot it or its author.
And though I can’t the exact words, it went something like this

Pain is the salt of life. Without it, life is tasteless….

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Let it be…….

There’s a neem tree outside my house. You wouldn’t think this of it as you see it tower majestically over almost all the other tree in the lane, with its rather incongruously pretty mane of pale-green arrow-shaped leaves but it’s an unassuming tree. Except for the first few years after my dad planted it as a tiny sapling and watered it lovingly to its current glory, it has stood there pretty much minding its own business, not asking for much – attention or water or anything. We only notice it seasonally. A few weeks in winter when it sheds its all leaves in thick, raspy, mud-coloured snowdrifts and then covers itself rather coyly in beautiful glossy pink little leaf-lets that giggle prettily in the sun. Then in summer around Ugadi (our New Year) when we jealously guard it from passersby who come to divest it of its leaves - now neem-green and waxy-shining - and for its tiny, creamy white flowers that you are supposed to eat with jaggery (bevu-bella) on Ugadi day to remind you that life is a bittersweet affair. And finally just before the rains, when the tiny cream blossoms, now grown up to fat, green fruit like green berries, lure a whole host of birds including gaggles of parrots who noisily visit the tree, bickering about who gets the choicest pick and covering the ground near my gate with indigo-black guano like some strange organic ink-blots.
For the rest of the time, the neem tree mostly keeps to itself, not even asking to be watered. A few months ago I noticed that termites has started to cover its trunk like warty mud snakes. I dimly remembered that termites were the death knell for anything wooden and getting rid of them became an obsession. I was damned if I was going to let some termite army get at my dad’s tree. I tried everything. I poked open the “snakes” manically every morning with a stick, even though I’d be half-blinded by the debris of mud-covered termite (Or is it termite-covered mud?) I desperately rained bucketfuls of water on them. (Which was rather fun as the mud came down in thick rivulets choked with half-drowned termites…) But still the snakes came and by the dint of some hideous termite magic, every morning there’d be a new insidious termite-mud snake on the tree. It was when the snakes started climbing out of reach into the branches that I gave up. My mother tried to console me. All the trees are covered with them she said, as if that was a consolation. I became a tree-termite census taker. What my mum said was true - lmost all the trees in neighbourhood had those hideous mud snakes. But so what? It didn’t make the fact that my neem tree was infected any less horrible. I continued to scour for newer, more terrible weapons against the mud-snake pestilence. Someone suggested choona mixed in water, another said turmeric worked like magic, yet another talked about making a decoction of tobacco leaves in boiling water. I tried all of them and watched helplessly as the snakes took over my tree….

Then one day, I went to my dad’s bank. When he died two years ago, amongst all his financial investments left in meticulously documented and updated condition was one fixed deposit. Mysteriously incomplete, because it did not have any nomination. Which meant that until we either found some record of a nomination made by my dad, the deposit could not be transferred to me or my mum and the money would lie locked in the bank - a dead investment. It was just 20,000 rupees but it niggled. The bank and I patiently went down its trail, tracing each renewal to the previous and that one to its ancestor. But the trail stopped suddenly; cold, scentless, barren of clues. I turned the house upside down, scouring every scrap of paper because it bothered me that a perfectionist like my dad could have thus blotted his copybook. There had to be something, somewhere…. The bank manager for some strange reason seemed to share at least half my enthusiasm and hunted with equal fervour. But it was no use, we both separately hit an unrelenting, mysteriously silent dead end. Exhausted, I gave up and had almost forgotten about it for six months….
Till that day. I had gone to the bank to renew some other deposits that had matured. The bank manger – and my co-hunter- reminded me about the left over FD. I remembered but I was puzzled. Because I didn’t have anymore FD’s left to renew. So where could this one have gone? Absentmindedly I rifled through the lot that I had just handed over for renewal. And there it was, with the manager’s damning remarks at the back. I gave it to him. This can’t be it, he said, because this has already been transferred to your name. This is the one, I insisted, look at your own handwriting at the back. It can’t be, he said, a little more firmly, because… I know, I know I thought, this one has been transferred to my name and that one couldn’t…. But I continued to insist, now bleating like a desperate sheep. Finally, fixing me with a gimlet gaze, he flipped the FD over and looked at it. If bank managers were allowed to balk this is how they’d be trained to do it. He obviously recognized the writing and the FD. Quickly he started accessing stuff in his computer, refusing to look at me for a long time, checking and rechecking. Finally, if bank mangers are allowed to gulp nervously, he gulped. “This is the one and it has been transferred to your name.” How could that happen, I squeaked with incredulous joy. I don’t know but it’s been done by someone else not me, he said, wanting to clear his slate and pointing at the signature. It could’ve have Michael Jackson’s signature and I wouldn’t have known any better or cared. All that mattered is that the dratted thing had cleared itself up, just like that. I came home joyously and told Mum the news…
The next morning, I stood by the neem tree, the memory of the magical FD fading at the sight of the mud-snakes. Suddenly a shower of something fell on my head. I looked up. Nothing. I walked away and came back with a bucket of water. Maybe watering would help to drown the mud-snakes. As I bent to pour the water, suddenly another shower of that something. I looked up again. And this time I saw it. A squirrel, frantically nibbling away at the mud-snakes, termites and all. I could hardly believe my eyes. I went rushing into the house to check with if squirrels were bonafide vegetarians. And then stopped to think….who cares? What mattered is that the mud-snakes were clearing up. Just like that. Just like that FD…..
Right now, the roof of our house in crumbling away. We have to get it fixed but we have been putting it off, the prospect of living covered in concrete-‘n-cement rubble and/or being swindled by unscrupulous contractors so daunting that my mother even went so far as to tell me, “So what if we put it off? The neighbours did till the rain started coming in through the roof and they had to collect in uckets….”Me, I’m just hoping that one fine morning, we’ll wake up and find the roof fixed – just like that. Like the FD and the mud-snakes……

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Lord of Nothingness

The final day of the Mahamastakabhisheka at Shravanabelagola.
Like the turmeric and coconut water and sandalwood paste and milk and all the kashayas and churanas that have cascaded down in ecstatic torrents, so much has been said and written - and so eloquently - these last few weeks about it. And where words have failed, hundreds of breathtaking images have completed the task. Which makes this a very difficult piece to write. Because write about it I must. (Not only am I a Jain but my mother was christened Sunanda, after Lord Bahubali’s mother and my parents were married in the year of Mahamastakabhisheka!)
But what shall I write? My head whirls, tossed about in the swirling torrents and confused, I ask – what shall I say about you, Bahubali? What shall I say that has not been already said about you a millions times over? What shall I say that is not about the wondrous spectacle that made a world that virtually ignores you for the rest of the time sit up and gasp and take notice, but goes beyond that?
Shall I tell them that when, more than a thousand years ago, the sculptors scooped your likeness, head downward, from that massive rock called Indragiri hill, it was as if you there inside all the time, waiting for the right moment to rise out of the rock. According to one version of the story of how Chamundaraya, the great Jain minister and general of the Ganga kings came to commission the statue, Chamundaraya’s mother who was a great bhakt of Bahubali wanted to go to a place called Paudanapura where apparently a Bahubali statue, some 525 bow lengths tall, stood. Mother and son set off but as they slept one night on the smaller Chandragiri hill next to Indragiri, the goddess Padmavati appeared in a dream to both of them and said, “Here on the larger hill, is a stone image of Gommata Jina which was worshipped by Lord Rama, even Ravana and seen by Mandodari. It is covered with stone. Purify yourselves, and …shoot an arrow to the south… Before the sounds dies away, the image will appear.”
And when it did, it was so beautiful, Bahubali, so breathtakingly perfect that some say that Chamundaraya asked for the forefinger of your left hand to be made unnaturally short so that the imperfection would ward off the evil eye!
Shall I tell them the eternally still pose that your statue stands in is called “kaayotsarga”, literally meaning to abandon the body (kaaya). In yoga, there is a similar pose called tadasana. Shorn to the basics, it is just standing absolutely still - the seemingly simplest and yet the most difficult thing in the world to do. Because to do so, first the body’s weight has to be perfectly balanced on both feet, the spine erect and perfectly aligned, but at ease and every part of the body completely relaxed and still. When that is done, the mind forgets the body and abandons it. (Or the body releases the mind, depending on whether you’re starting with the chicken or the egg.) And then, the mind lifts away in search of other things - stillness, peace….
In the last two weeks, we have ooh-ed and aah-ed as hundreds of litres and kilos of all other kinds of wondrous things have poured down you in glorious floods, drenching everything – you, your ecstatic devotees dancing at your feet, even the hill on which you stand. But, the very first abhishek to consecrate your statue was quite a different story, wasn’t it, Bahubali? When the grand ceremony began and Chamundaraya poured the same prodigious quantities of milk on your head, for some strange reason, it would not go beyond the navel. Again and again, the distraught Chamundaraya, tried but in vain. Till a poor old woman turned up. In her hand was a small gulla kayi (a special variety of round green brinjal) whose insides had been scooped out to make a bowl. In it was a little milk. She asked to be allowed to pour that milk on your head. Chamundaraya laughed in derision at the temerity of a poor old nobody who thought she could achieve what even he, the great minister and general, couldn’t. But he allowed her to pour her pathetic little cache of milk anyway.
What happened next was amazing. Not only did the milk go beyond the navel, not only did it drench your staute from head to toe much the way it has these past few days, it is said that it flowed down the hill and became a beautiful white pond. It was then that Chamundaraya realized that the obstacle to the abhisheka was his own arrogance and ahankara at his achievement of having made this magnificent statue possible. And who was the old woman? Some say she was the Goddess Padmavati, others that she was the celestial nymph Kushmandini. Whoever she was, exactly opposite and facing the statue, stands to this very day, the figure of an old woman holding a gulla-kayi in her hands, a befitting reminder that, beyond all the hype, beyond the stunning extravaganza, beyond the superlatives, your message, my Bahubali, is actually something very simple.
So, yes, Bahubali, it is true that you are considered the first Kewala Gyani who attained Moksha etc., etc. But, for many of us, those are just fancy words – kewala gyani, moksha, enlightenment – that we pay lip service to or then relegate to dusty libraries and theological debates. But, if we simplified that – and what could be simpler that you who wears nothing but the sky - yours is the story of the surrender of the human ego, that boasts, “I am”. Therefore everything must be mine.
You were once the dazzling Prince Bahubali, mighty warrior, learned scholar, patron of art and music, son of King Rishabhanatha of Ayodhya whose court was so magnificent that Lord Indra himself descended from Indraloka to grace this fabulous court with his presence and his famed Apsaras. Prince Bahubali - so handsome that they called you Manmatha, the Conqueror of Hearts, so manly and strong that they looked at your mighty arms and shoulders and called you Bhujabali.
And nobody could have loved his elder brother more than you, Bahubali. And the mighty Bharata, Emperor of the World and Conqueror of all the six continents loved you, his younger brother, no less. Yet that love was too small to accommodate your egos. Bharata said I am the Emperor of the six continents, I am your lord and so you must give me Paudanapura.’
And you said, I am Bahubali. I love and respect you as my elder brother but I am the king of Paudanapura.”
And each ego feared that that the other would swallow it up. And that fear begat many children - jealousy, anger, arrogance, revenge, lust for power - who became the armies that waged the war between you two brothers. A war that raged in your hearts. And when, at last you were on the brink of what seemed like victory, your brother helpless and high above your head waiting to be tossed to oblivion by your mighty arms, you realized that “I am” was actually an incomplete sentence.
But the complete sentence evaded you for thirty longs years, as you stood, having abandoned everything, even your body. Everything except a last shred of “I am”. “ I am standing on two feet of land that is my brother’s, not mine……” It was only when Bharata fell at your feet and said, “This land is neither mine nor yours…..” that the sentence got completed.
“I am nothing”.
So, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I tell them about you, Bahubali. None of the history, the facts, the myths, the legends. None of the explanations of significance of all the rituals that took place over these last 10 days, the debates about moksha and ahimsa and Jainism. It doesn’t even matter whether they know that the statue that atop that hill is your statue, Bahubali
What matters is this.
The moment the water hit the top of 58 feet of granite and transformed into a million little diamonds that swallowed the sunlight and flew off into a peerless blue sky, the granite, the towering granite surrendered humbly. To milk that rushed down, shooting ripples of white lightning into it and turning it into marble. To the sugarcane juice whose sticky sweet embrace turned it into translucent green like a lemon lollipop. To rice flour and the churnas that wrapped it from head to toe in gigantic clouds of delicate white mist which then settled as softest white down on the granite so that suddenly it was not stone at all, but living flesh that you wanted to reach out and caress. To turmeric and saffron who fought to turn it into gold. To the blood-crimson sandalwood that melted it into such indescribable fragrance that drenched the air, every conscious thought. And then finally to the flowers – millions of them, frantically trying to kiss this thing which was till now that must have been inscrutable, unyielding granite but now was….nothing.
And through it all, you stood, my Bahubali, unmoved, unaffected, smiling your sweet, gentle, mysterious smile as if to say, “All this is nothing. Because I am nothing.”
Sources : Homage to Belagola by Saryu Doshi, Jainism the World of Conquerors by Natubhai Shah

Bahubali and Yoga.
According to ancient Jain scriptures, yoga and meditation are considered as essential part of the Jain way of life, for both ascetics and lay people. Even later day Jain scholars and monks have written detailed expositions on yoga and mediation. For example, Subhachandra (10th century AD) has elaborated on meditation, including specifying the poses for it. Padmasana, ardhapadmasana, vajrasana, viraasana, sukhasana, kamalasana. And the pose in which the statue of Bahubali stands – kaayotasarga.
Like many other meditative poses, this meditative pose is now being used in alternative therapies to treat hypertension, heart disease etc.

Bahubali and a Natyarani

She was a dancer so accomplished they called her “Natya Saraswathi”. A raconteur so gifted that they called her Vichitra Suthradhare. In the fabulous Chennakeshava temple at Belur, just 86kms from Shravanabelagola, a stunning statue of her stands in front of the main shrine and the walls around are decorated with 42 gorgeous, voluptuous Madanikas or celestial nymphs, all inspired her legendary beauty. Singer, musician, poetess and a woman of extraordinary charm, wit and intelligence - in fact, the perfect candidate to become the chief consort or “Pattamahadevi” of the great Hoysala king, Vishnuvardhana. Which she did. But along with her worldly accomplishments, queen Shantala was a devout Jain and probably worshipped regularly at the statue of Bahubali. Because not only did her husband’s general build the stunning suttalaya around the statue, but she alos built a Jain temple on the adjacent hill in 1123 A.D, around 40 years after the statue came up….

The divine brinjal
For the looks of it, just a brinjal, but in fact, this gulla-kayi is no ordinary vegetable. According to popular legend, it was instrumental in humbling the great Chamundaraya and was the container for the milk that inaugurated the first abhisheka in Sharvanabelagola! It also has another divine connection.
The great the 17th century philosopher, poet, reformer and head of one of the 8 Udipi Mattas, Sri Vadiraja Tirtha, created the paryâya system by which the Sri Krishna Udipi Temple is managed in rotation by each of the eight Udupi Matha heads for a period of 16 months. As the story goes, he gifted the seeds of the gulla to the people of Mattu in Udipi district and it became famous as "Mattu gulla'', growing mainly in this area. Ever since, during the Paryaya festival, when the charge of Udipi Sri Krishna Temple changes hands, it has been a tradition for the people of Mattu village to send cconsignments of gulla for the festival. This paryaya festival in January, 20 gunny bags of gulla did the honours!

Bahubali and Marathi
How do we know that Chamundaraya was responsible for Bahubali’s magnificent statue at Shravanabelagola? By the inscription at the feet the statue that reads, 'Chamundaraye karaviyale’. But the other unique thing about inscription is that it is in Marathi and is the earliest known inscription in this language to be discovered!

Monday, August 28, 2006

What is this love-shove

What’s this love-shove?
I saw the saddest thing yesterday
Sheryl Crow on Larry King Live.
Sheryl Crow, 44 years old.
As Wikipedia describes her, 9-time Grammy winning American blues rock singer, guitarist, bassist and songwriter.
Of late, her newsworthiness has been for reasons other than her music. She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in late February 2006. And in the same month, her much publicised 4-year romance with Lance Armstrong came to an end. Who would think they’d spilt. I mean, they were stuff that fairytales are made of, two brilliant haevenly bodies brought together by the gods and the world watched this celestial mating with envious sighs, the Mills&Boon climax on the Oprah Winfrey show.
For those of you who may not know, Lance Armstong is famous not just because he is champion racing cyclist, but also because he won the Tour de France a record 7 consecutive times from 1999 to 2005 - several years after being diagnosed and treated for testicular cancer that spread to his brain and lungs. His triumph over cancer was so amazing and empowering that he founded The Lance Armstrong Foundation to support cancer survivors and victims and the bright yellow Livestrong wristband became a world wide symbol of this.
So, you’d think, in spite of everything, Lance would rush to be by her side, right? As Larry King who asked the same question, put it to Sheryl, “just as a friend,…would have been a big help, having gone through his cancer was, worse than yours? He was going to die, right?”
Here’s Crow’s answer….
CROW: "You know, actually, interestingly enough, the person that was the most helpful -- helpful for me was Doug Ulman, who works for him…"
In other

It was one of the saddest things that I ever heard.
I know. I am judging somebody else’s private life. But isn’t there a little more to love? A little more beyond the first electric, breathless months, years – something that lasts and endures at least a few centimetres into the “thin”? If friends are for fair weather and foul, shouldn’t lovers be for at laest a bit of the storm?And I wondered….….what is this love-shove?
My parents were married for 47 years.
I don’t think my father could even remember their wedding anniversary. Many years ago, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Not in the early stage. And she went through the works. Surgery, radiation, chemo. At times, my mother says things were so bad during the chemo that she couldn’t stand her own body and would ask my dad to leave the room. He didn’t. Not for a single minute of those 15 long years when she fought her terrible battle, did my father ever leave the room.
There was little said between them.
About the disease.
Or about love.
But he was there for her, by her side.
And so, I wondered again…
What is this love-shove?

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Magic of Words

It’s only words………
“Once upon a time, there was a noetic young boffin called Jcak Fruit, who fell in love with a bobby-dazzler called Molly Coddle. And espoused her. It was a fervid, fecund union; full of sweet, sapid moments that fructified into three beautiful, pinguid little Fruits; a girl Passion and two boys Kiwi and Bread.
And Moll, being a Lucy Stoner, wouldn’t mess with her miss, and even though she had become a Missus, continued to be Miss
Molly Coddle. Which was a good thing because Molly, being a winsome (and lose-some, when she was dieting) wench, was constantly being cuddled and coddled by her uxorious Jack.
One fine gloaming, the Fruits went a-roaming, Jack all gussied up in his best philibeg and molly looking quite splendiferous in her new guttated, virid samfoo. Soon, they reached a bustling bistro where they shared a syllabub and a hautboy charlotte.
And as the sun sank wearily into the pulchtridinous purple eiderdown of a sky, stealing the nitid aurum from Molly’s hair, Jack felt his spritzig philter the cockles of his cardiacus, getting him into quite a tizwas as he thought how frabjous it would be to canoodle his dolly at this very moment, but what a caboodle there would be if he did.
Words. I love them. People think that working with words is a craft. Penmanship they call it. Like enbroidery or petit point. Just a matter of arranging colours and threads in the most pleasing patterns and sequences. But it doesn’t quite work like that. Because words are living things, wilful creatures of whimsy.So you don’t craft words, you grow them. Sow your thoughts actually, finding that nice patch of soil where the little green shoots can stretch and reach the sun’s good morning kiss, watering them with patience and every now and then, helping out with that tricky bit of flowering or fighting off the odd bout of blight. Then, you just wait. Because how exactly the mango will swell with golden flesh or how sunnily the sunflower will smile isn’t going to be in your control. And oh yes, I almost forgot. For a bumper crop, you will have to give then your heart. And if you do, they’ll burst forth in riotous bloom like happy little children. And take over the page, your book and your life. Sometimes as angelic little genies, slaves to your every command, your every wish. Shaping a phrase, carving a line even before you have finished thinking it, with such breathtaking speed and beauty that you will be besotted, bewitched and infatuated into wishing yourself a life where you do nothing but live, breath and eat words.
And sometimes they will turn into stubborn, cantankerous little devils, staring at you with unblinking, defiant eyes; lower lip stuck out in tremulous mutiny. Then, you will have no choice but to let them run amok in chaotic, clamorous gibberish all over the place till something will snap inside your head and you scream, “Shut up!”
They will. And skulk away in sullen silence into the furthermost corners of your brain, refusing to come out or talk, leaving you flogging a few exhausted smudges and blots up and down a worn-out, weary piece of paper. Then, after a while, after you’ve atoned and begged for forgiveness; after you’ve wheedled and whinged in ingratiating coos; after you’ve almost sold your soul to them, they’ll saunter out. First throwing a cursory tantrum to guage how total the rout and then, when certain that you’ve totally repented your churlish, boorish behavior, they’ll relent. And tumble out in an exultant, noisy flood; chattering and giggling, eyes gleaming with excitement as they flit from this thought to that, plucking the choicest phrase which they’ll then arrange on themselves like so many iridescent jewels and then parade up and down the page, showing off their gorgeous little selves for all the world to see. Beautiful, maddening, fascinating words.
(Did you know that the word “pizzazz”, meaning a combination of flamboyance, panache and vigour is an onomatopoeic coinage by that famous American fashion editor, Diana Vreeland? Onomatopoeic? Ah, now that’s a whole new can of words………….)
“…………….the noctilucent moon rose, yawned delicately and wrapped the starry night around her naked, nacrine (nacreous) shoulders. And as Jack began to titinnabulate a soft cavatina on his glockenspiel, a horrisonant ululation lacerated the sable darkness…….”