Weekend workshop: A fitting start to a delightful week of the classical arts ahead!

You know you aren’t so young any more when you are too tired to sleep at night after a few hours of intense dancing during the day. But you know you are young at heart when you wake up the next morning eager to begin again!

This sums up my experience of a 2-day kathak workshop held in Gurgaon at my guruji’s home. Shrimati Roshan Datye, eminent and senior disciple of renowned guru Late Smt Rohini Bhate came from Pune to teach us, bringing into my consciousness a whole new level of nuance and detail, enhanced attention abhinaya and an awareness of the theoretical aspects of natya that bind kathak to the great performing art forms across India.  It is this sort of exchange promoted by the guru shishya parampara that, in my view, demarcates the mundane from the truly meaningful in the world of the classical arts. My sincere gratitude to my guru Jayashree Acharya and to my daughter Aadyaa’s kathak guru Sushmitaji for giving us such a wonderful opportunity.

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity...Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

So much to learn, so little time! So thankful for the opportunity…Pt. Birju Maharaj, showing us the nuances of kathak and how we can relate it to our lives. 14th Oct 2013

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days. A lady full of grace and energy

Smt. Roshan Datye who taught us for 2 days this past weekend. A lady full of grace and energy

Mere ghungroo...earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go...

Mere ghungroo…earnestly trying to learn, but a long long way to go…

Over two days, Roshanji taught three batches of students, ranging in age from about seven all the way up to 40! And at least 80 in number. She taught all three batches distinct stage-appropriate compositions. But beyond the compositions themselves, I was impressed by her own energy levels, her attention to detail and her innate ability to be a good teacher- a robust communicator who knows when to pick up the pace and when to slow down and her instinctive use of humor to highlight concepts or lighten awkward moments! Kathak thrives on analogies from our daily lives. A few days ago, we were blessed by the presence of Pandit Birju Maharajji (also at my guruji’s home) who also presented numerous examples of how kathak is drawn from simple everyday actions and emotions. Roshanji took forward that line of thought for me, helping me form many links inside my head, never mind that the body will take many more years of riyaaz to actually translate that understanding into graceful movements!

1240221_10151712498407851_1100834892_nThe two-day workshop set in motion a week of celebration of the arts by the Aakriti Foundation, run by a group of erudite artists including my guruji. This is an annual festival called Tasmai and is dedicated each year to a great artist this year Smt Rohini Bhate, Smt Datye’s guru. On the 22nd at the Habitat Centre at new Delhi, we look forward to none other than Pt. Birju Maharajji grace our festival with his presence on stage, preceded by a performance from the students of Nritya Bharati, Pune. On the 23rd, Pt. Sarathi Chatterjee and the Kedia Brothers will take the stage also at the Habiat Centre. The festival draws to a close on the 25th with dance performances by Maharajji’s children- for the first time, we will get to see both Deepakji and Mamtaji on stage and I really look forward to this. Students of Jayashreeji and Sushmitaji will also be on stage at Epicentre, Gurgaon on Friday the 25th. For those of you in Delhi and Gurgaon, there is plenty on offer. Do come forward to support the arts, for the love of beauty but also for the sake of the continuity of parampara (traditions) that are, as Roshanji reminded us yesterday, at least 3000 years old!

Chavath in Goa Day 3: The joy of Au revoir, till we meet again!

Those familiar with the classical arts in India would understand that it is vital for the tempo to reach a crescendo, like the taan in a Hindustani vocal musical recital, before the climax is achieved and the experience of the rasik (connoisseur) draws to a joyful end, which itself is a state that anticipates the experience of yet another cycle of beauty.

The last day of chavath in Goa feels like this. The family turns out in the best clothes and prepares to enjoy to the fullest even as the mind prepares to big adieu to Ganapati by immersing the God into the waters at the end of the day. Till next year….

I will focus on two experiences of this day that I particularly enjoyed this time round on our trip to Goa. The first is the ritual of taking a trip out to the fields to cut a bunch of rice stalks from the fields. At this time of the year, the rice fields are an electric green and the short stalks of rice stand in still water, imbuing the countryside with a sheen of magical greenery that contrasts and yet blends with the deeper green of the coconut palm skyline.

Nave, tender stalks of rice standing in the marshy fields

Nave, tender stalks of rice standing in the marshy fields

Goa's Green, a salve for the soul!

Goa’s Green, a salve for the soul!

We all trundled into Rohit’s van, a few of us adults and the entire gang of kids! Snehit, Saurabh and Udai were led on by Raunak, the oldest of the lot. Aadyaa tagged along, happy to be part of an adventure. We drove a short distance to the fields nearby, where a few families were engaged in wading out into the field and acquiring the nave, which was subsequently received into the house with pomp and ceremony. This time, Neela kaki did the aarti of the three young boys, washing their feet first, putting a teeka on them and also showing them the reflection of their faces in a shallow plate of water that had been made auspicious by the addition of kumkum and rice. This particular step of the aarti is unique to the Western coast in India, it seems. I’m married into a north Indian family and I haven’t seen anyone do this reflection stuff in these parts. The entire ritual of bringing in the nave seems to be another way, like the matoli, to connect the festival of chavath to the agricultural traditions of the community.

All watching the process of collecting the stalks of rice

All watching the process of collecting the stalks of rice

From a Catholic's fields, but then rice feeds everyone, right? :)

From a Catholic’s fields, but then rice feeds everyone, right? :)

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At some point, Aadyaa decides to adjust her dupatta...

At some point, Aadyaa decides to adjust her dupatta…

Anuja, Nandan kaka and Rohit light an auspicious lamp

Anuja, Nandan kaka and Rohit light an auspicious lamp

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Ushering in the nave, back at home

Ushering in the nave, back at home

Neela kaki in action....

Neela kaki in action….

Kids chilling at home after the little excursion...how cute they are...Snehit, Udai and Saurabh

Kids chilling at home after the little excursion…how cute they are…Snehit, Udai and Saurabh

And these two together are cute too....Saurabh and Aadyaa

And these two together are cute too….Saurabh and Aadyaa

The other tradition unique that may be unique to Goa happens towards the end of the day. Each house in the vaddo (a unit of the village) is visited by a group of singers comprised of a few people from every Hindu household from the vaddo. Our house is the last in the vaddo and so we wait a long time for this group of people to turn up, spending the afternoon preparing the prasad and neatly distributing it into 50-60 portions to distribute later. Even after they have sung the aartiyo so many times over, or perhaps because of that, the sheer energy they bring to the singing fills the air with an electric pulse of joyful energy. This time, I took video clips of their singing, that you can see here.

I found this tradition fascinating. In Rahul’s village in Rajasthan, ladies from the village come in to sing auspicious songs at daybreak during weddings and this is a great form of community participation. In Goa, the ritual of singing the final aarti not just with members of your family but with the larger family that is the village community takes relationships onto a new platform. These are people you may not know very well, but in the socio-economical construct of the village, they are your extended support structure and a certain level of interaction accompanied by the requisite dose of mutual respect is expected. By dedicating a person or two from your home (Viraj and Rohit took turns to go from our family this year) to join this group of singers, villagers create a collective identity that extends into their lives, tying the community together in an intangible manner. Yes, this group is a male group and this sort of distinction between the duties of men and women is also a mark of the traditional functioning of a Goan village that have remained intact through generations.

After the guests leave, the family carried the idol of Ganapati into the living room and we danced around Ganya, showering him with laayo (puffed rice, considered auspicious in most parts of the country). Watch my kakis and even the kiddos Udai and Snehit participate with gusto at close to midnight in this video clip of our little send off ritual. Udai saw this business to its end, insisting on going all the way to the immersion ghaat till he watched our little Ganapati sink into the waters to the sounds of more firecrackers and shouts of “Morya! Morya! Ganapati Bappa Morya!”

Goodbye Goa! We will be back for more, next year!

Ramuli kaka carrying our Ganapati out into the living room for his send off ritual

Ramuli kaka carrying our Ganapati out into the living room for his send off ritual

Our little jig around Ganapati. Check out the video link as well!

Our little jig around Ganapati. Check out the video link as well!

 

Chavath in Goa Day 2: Ganapati Bappa arrives!

We arrived in the ancestral home in our village Kalapur close to lunch time. Anookaka, who is my father’s older brother and was the senior most male member of the family present had gone ahead early and performed the pooja to ensconce our beloved Ganapati in his beautiful altar. When we walked in, we were greeted by his resplendent presence and beatific smile!

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My cousin Nimish in traditional attire paying his respects to the deity

My cousin Nimish in traditional attire paying his respects to the deity

Through the morning, male members of the Naik family offered doorva (a specific type of grass considered auspicious) to Ganapati as an offering. By tradition, an upanayan ceremony is performed for Brahmin boys about the age of 7 to formally adorn him with the sacred thread. All boys who had their upanayan ceremonies done took turns to change into traditional savle attire (dhoti, bare chest, sacred thread and angavastram) and offer dhruv to the deity. Last year, we attended Arnav’s upanayan in Goa. For those of you curious to see what that ceremony is like, here’s a link to my blog post from then.

We all sat around and talked some more. Then we assembled for the aartis, sang them and finally, ate lunch together. Lunch is a traditional spread, the few days in the year when Goan Brahmins remain absolutely vegetarian. Coconut, kokum, ambade and whole bunch of local seasonal vegetables are used to cook traditional delicacies like khatkhate, kokum kadhi, chanyache tonaak, phodi, bhaji, papad, etc.

Talking, playing on phones, giggling....

Talking, playing on phones, giggling….two generations of boys!

All set to sing!

All set to sing!

Fruits and modaks for prasad

Fruits and modaks for prasad

Unneer! The mouse who is Lord Ganesh's vehicle is sculpted out of flour. Kids and older people excited about this small artistic creation!

Unneer! The mouse who is Lord Ganesh’s vehicle is sculpted out of flour. Kids and older people excited about this small artistic creation!

Bonding on a full tummy.... :)

Bonding on a full tummy…. :)

Us with Ajjee!

Us with Ajjee!

Family portrait on the front steps

Family portrait on the front steps

Posing!

Posing!

Chavath in Goa Day 1: Dedicated to Gouri-Mahadev and easy bonding!

This is a day for bonding and easing into the celebrations. As per tradition, married ladies fast on this day, in empathy with Parvati or Gouri, Ganesh’s mother. This is a day dedicated to the Goddess and to Mahadev or Shiv, her husband and also our family deity.

My camera’s roving eye found various groups of people in conversation, in camaraderie over activities like cooking or decorating or, in the case of the children, on burning firecrackers! Looking back at the pictures I clicked, I see how the young and old come together, how barriers come down as people ease their guard, how the ritual activities of a family festival take over a rhythm of their own and individual moods, opinions and priorities take a backseat. It is this transformation that grips me each time I come to Goa for Chavath. I revel in the slowing down of the pace of life, in the inversion of priorities away from the self and into the realm of family, community, ritual and perhaps even faith.

Rashmi kaki creating a small, lovely rangoli

Rashmi kaki creating a small, lovely rangoli

Cousins posing....a series

Cousins posing….a series

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mamas, mavshis, kiddos...

mamas, mavshis, kiddos…

Favorite mama!

Favorite mama!

My little girl...

My little girl…

My aunts sat together, peeling and cutting vegetables and also sharing memories and planning the menu for the next two days. Ajjee sort of oversaw what they were doing, out of sheer force of habit because this is what she has been doing for the last forty odd years! We cousins swapped stories, clicked pictures and ‘Whatsapped’ them to each other and to other cousins far away.

All my kakis, working, chatting, having fun!

All my kakis, working, chatting, having fun!

Ajji the matriarch presided over the session!

Ajji the matriarch presided over the session!

All smiles!

All smiles!

Ajjee, no words, only a big big hug!

Ajjee, no words, only a big big hug!

As evening came, we gathered to sing together. The aarti, to me, is the crescendo towards which the events move. The chaal, best described as the rhythmic tune, in which we sing the aartiyo in Goa are distinct from those in Maharashtra. More musical and complex rather than merely chanted, participating in the aarti is as much about skill as gusto. We all enjoy this bit immensely, as you can see in this video. The kids particularly charm me with their enthusiasm!

Udai sitting right up front in the aarti config!

Udai sitting right up front in the aarti config!

Saurabh on the cymbals

Saurabh on the cymbals

The entire household, from the youngest to the oldest participates in the aarti

The entire household, from the youngest to the oldest participates in the aarti

The kids utilize the evening to do what they enjoy the most- Fog, or firecrackers! See the joy on their faces!

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Chavath in Goa Day 0: Matoli time!

Despite being from Goa, I never made it home for Chavath except perhaps one time during my childhood. I grew up barely aware of the immense importance of Ganesh Chaturthi to Hindu Goan families.

In Mumbai, where I stayed through ages 6-11, Ganpati was all about visiting countless pandals with enormously elaborate statues of the Elephant God as well as interesting tableaus telling stories from the scriptures or even commenting on current politics or sports! We sang the evening aarti with great gusto, running from one community celebration to another to catch the aarti and collect the prasaad, usually sweet modak or laadu.

In 2008, I first attended chavath in Goa, where the festival plays out within the domain of the family rather than in the community or saarvajanik form. I was mesmerized by the numerous ritual and activities that went into the two and half day festival and fell in love with the feeling of family bonding that I experienced. My children were very small then, Udai was four and Aadyaa was a few months old. I felt Goa and family exert an unmistakable pull on my heartstrings and I came back for more, in 2011 and now in 2013. The next few posts on this blog are an attempt at describing the festival as it is celebrated in my ancestral home in Calapur, a few kilometres outside Goa’s capital city, Panaji.

We reached Goa on Saturday, 7th of September. Rahul, the kids and me. All enthused to participate. This was the day the family prepared for the festival. As we entered the home, we saw that the matoli had been put up. On our last visit, we had been in time to actually hang seasonal fruits, vegetables and flowers on the wooden grid (usually made of bamboo or wood from the betelnut palm) that is permanently suspended from the ceiling in the puja room. Ganesh Chaturthi, like Onam in Kerala, is also an autumnal festival, celebrating new life that you can see all around after the three months of rain. Typical items that are plucked (or bought nowadays, the bazars full of these typical seasonal items that would go up on matolis in ancestral homes across the state) and hung are chibud (a cousin of the cucumber), nirphanas, torand (grapefruit), ambade, coconuts, betelnuts, bananas, local yam and bunches of wild fruits and flowers. These are interspersed with mango leaves, considered auspicious in Hindu culture, and tied together using a local vine.

The stage is set for the most popular and fun festival of the year!

The completed matoli....vibrant, symbolizing nature, life...

The completed matoli….vibrant, symbolizing nature, life…

In 2011: My cousin Rohit putting up the matoli and a different decor for Ganpati in the background

Flashback to 2011: My cousin Rohit putting up the matoli and a different decor for Ganpati in the background

 

We also got a glimpse of this time's fantastic decoration around Ganesh's altar. The artist in the family is Rashmi kaki (in the corner), who outdoes herself every year!

We also got a glimpse of this time’s fantastic decoration around Ganesh’s altar. The artist in the family is Rashmi kaki (in the corner), who outdoes herself every year!

Let’s try non-judgemental ways to engage with young people

I find it curious that Orhan Pamuk features as sixth in a list of authors young Indian urban readers intend to read in the near future, after Chetan Bhagat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amish Tripathi, Charles Dickens and JK Rowling, in that order. I do not know what that aberration means (I see Dickens as one too, but can still be explained by a classic hangover!) and whatever little Indrajit Hazra’s article in August 4th’s Hindustan Times (the survey is conducted by partner C-Fore) publishes is not offering clues either.

The events of the past few months have made me change my views of how I see the world around me. Like the Chandravanshis in Amish’s Shiva trilogy, I now accept that each human lives in his or her alternate reality. The reading preferences of the youth are an alternate reality that we snobbish literature enthusiasts may scoff at, but it is a reality nevertheless. Hazra offers explanations even as he looks down on these reading choices, telling us that the Indian market is going through a phase before it inevitable matures into a more evolved market that presumably will prefer more refined literature. He implies that it is important to be able to consume more thought-provoking literature, for “we are what we read”.

Sure, we are. But then, we are a young nation of wannabes. We are in a constant flux of identity–developing or undeveloped, rural or urban, lower middle class or upper, young or mature, traditional or modern, confident or uncertain, and so on and so forth. Young people have to negotiate complex relationships with themselves, peers, family and society. Young people are fundamentally different in the way they consume, process and engage with information and remarkably astute about the way they see the world around them. Yet, as has been so effectively put forth in the recently published ‘The Ocean in a Drop: Inside-out Youth Leadership’ authored by Ashraf Patel, Meenu Venkateswaran, Kamini Prakash and Arjun Shekhar, the opinions of the youth apparently don’t really matter in the overall scheme of things. We are not interested in understanding young people and their aspirations and worse, we are seriously afraid of placing decision-making in their hands. We prefer to see them as consumers and part of the workforce. We forget that they can be effective change-makers as well. We, the elders, hold the reigns. We expect too little from young people.

Then how can we blame them if their reading preferences are not up to snuff? It is unfair, isn’t it, to provide measured inputs, to box the thoughts of young people into regimented education systems, to prepare for a life whose purpose is to produce and consume, and then to judge them about their lack of interest in art and literature? Or indeed, about their lack of values or disinterest in serving society, accusations that I have heard often enough!

I observe a curious mixture of over-confidence and under-confidence among young people. On one hand, they can conquer the world, being confident of aspects like new technology that fall squarely in their domain. On the other hand, they are constantly searching for identity and trying to grasp the soft skills and the right attitudes that they instinctively know will serve as the icing on the cake in their pursuit for material success. The latter explains why genres like self-improvement, health and spiritual are so popular.

I am, however, heartened to read that 37% respondents read authors other than those six listed in the beginning of the article, showing variety. Entertainment (38%) features as the most significant reason to read, followed my ‘Material that makes me think’ (27%), ‘Easy reading’ and ‘Material I can talk about with friends and colleagues’ come in 3rd and 4th (23% and 12%). The motivations are still the good-old ones and that should tell us that things have not changed as drastically for the worse (ouch, there is judgement there!).

Clearly, given the right exposure and guidance, young people can be encouraged to read a wider selection of fiction and non-fiction. We have diversity in genre and language to offer in this country. New technologies have made reading material more accessible than ever before. Perhaps the most fundamental changes we can make is to allow young people more ‘free’ time to read and engage with cultural and creative aspects of life, to expand their minds, so to speak. Also, we must invest in cultural resources to do so- libraries, accessible and affordable spaces and opportunities for the arts to save us from going under the intellectual poverty line Nilanjana Roy so eloquently blogged about recently. I’m sure experts have many more suggestions, but as a parent of two kids aged 9 and 5, these are the two principles that I am actively trying to follow- allow them time and space, and expose them to culture and creativity. Let’s see how it goes!

My emotional bond with art is also my tool for positivity

I feel blessed today by my good fortune in finding not one, but two gurus to guide me through my journeys in art and self-development. For these are intrinsically linked and I see that clearly more than ever before in my life.

Let me back up. Culling out lessons from the experiences of friends, family and my own, dealing with the stresses of urban life and staying positive in the face of multiple pressures are the most oft repeated challenges we face. For those who put all their eggs in one basket, by choice or otherwise, it becomes vital to excel in their chosen area of concentration, whether its the home, the workplace or a serious hobby. My strategy has been to diversify my risks so to speak and is in line with the fact that i do have multiple interests and I may say talents that I can pursue. For many years, I focused on studying and music suffered. If I turned to music, a full time job would mean it would get little attention. If I left it, my guilt would kill me. I would stare longingly at salsa dancers and die to learn. I would go to performances all alone and cry bitter tears of remorse.

In my thirties, in the middle of struggling to balance home and career, raising young kids, something snapped inside me. On an impulse, I joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes, after a gap of ten years! As I learnt to take time out for myself and got back to dance, my confidence grew. Three years later, I started learning kathak, for the first time in my life. I also tried various music teachers till I found my current guru. Between music and dance, both of which I pursue earnestly and purely for self-satisfaction, I found the self-confidence to explore new avenues at work, to think creatively, to approach problems with a positive attitude. If a particularly tough tukda (technical piece in kathak) can be mastered by being attentive and through practise, if my voice can hit that high note that eluded me last year, then issues at work can also be tackled.

Today, I find myself far more centred than I have ever been before. Even if things don’t go as planned, if I don’t meet my expectations in one area of my life, there are other things happening to compensate. I had this vital insight this weekend, that I had been deploying this as my stress management and positive thinking strategy! Whatever works, I guess!

This morning, I had the fortune of interacting with two talented artists. Nishi Singh, a kathak exponent of the Jaipur gharana who weaves the nuances of the Lucknow and Benares gharanas into her dance thanks to her training under several gurus was invited by my kathak guru ji Jayashree Acharya for a lecture demonstration with us students. We were doubly fortunate today to meet Vidushi Mamta Maharaj, daughter of Pandit Birju Maharaj, who also visited the studio. In watching her love for her art and her versatility-she played the tabla, sang and danced with equal ease-I was reminded that love and passion, and an immersion in the arts can bring a fluidity to life that mere hours of tutelage and practice cannot. Mamtaji’s message was one of emotion, of the need to connect to your art through your emotional side as much as through the intellectual side. To me, it is a validation of the emotional bond I have had with music and dance for years. There was a time when I would be ashamed of crying at a performance or being too emotional to sing on certain days when Masterji was too harsh in me. But now I know those were the signs that the bond is there for life.

I sit out hearing Udai go through his music lessons inside. There are days when I see his tears of frustration at not getting his notes right. And I hope with all my heart that he forms this bond just as I have!

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A lesson in loss of identity, misuse of power and.. in peace

It is the Dalai Lama’s birthday today and he addresses the world, urging us towards inner peace and tranquility. A month and a half ago, we were in McLeod Ganj at his abode. The drives and views were glorious, the weather perfect, the food delectable, but what really put this place in perspective for me was the little museum inside the temple complex that told the story of Tibet.

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

The museum dedicated to the cause of freedom for Tibet at the entrance to the temple

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

Monks practice a form of theological debate. They seemed to be having a lot of fun while doing it. Was great to see that religious practice did not impose severity and sternness!

The prayer wheels, everywhere...

The prayer wheels, everywhere…

Faith in motion

Faith in motion

The sanctum inside the temple

The sanctum inside the temple

We were stepping into the museum after seeing the temple, where we had been entranced by monks practicing their rituals and had soaked in the curiously informal yet deeply spiritual, traditional yet uniquely modern feel of the temple. Beautifully curated, the exhibits told the story of the expropriation of Tibet by China, a story of war and a searingly painful loss of religion, culture and identity. The countless lives lost, the homes abandoned, the livelihoods destroyed were one part of the picture, but what came through was the poignant and enduring sense of betrayal, loss, deep sadness.

Udai read every word on display, peered into every single photograph. Aadyaa too sensed our mood from the stillness in the air and asked to be informed. Panel by panel, we went through the story of Tibet’s transformation from an independent State with a very distinct blend of cultural and religious identities to its present amalgamation with China. New concepts like self-immolation caused my children to widen their eyes with wonder and curiosity.

Udai compared the Tibetan story to the hacking off of Hindu sculptures by Portuguese colonizers at Elephanta Caves outside Mumbai, where we had been, fortuitously, just a week ago. It’s the same thing, he said. Someone comes and does not respect what they see. They are stronger, so they destroy it, without thinking.

Not just respect, I gently added, but also inability to tolerate. And a need to destroy what exists to exhibit power, establish supremacy, quell rebellion.

Why, he asked? Why did the Portuguese want Elephanta, why do the Chinese want Tibet so much that they would do this?

Land, mineral wealth, natural resources like water, basically wealth. It is not just foreigners who do this to someone. In our own country, many tribal areas are being destroyed to mine minerals by our own countrymen, because we need those minerals to feed our factories, make machines and products that we now use. I saw a deep sadness in Udai’s eyes and I knew that, at some level despite the complexity, I had been able to get through to him.

I have been wanting to write about my feelings ever since we returned from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It cut me deep, the story of these self-respecting, proud, stoic people. Everywhere you walked, they sat selling goods that tourists would like- jewelry, curios, umbrellas, hats. As they sat, many of them continued to work with their hands, sewing and knitting and creating macrame wrist bands too. Some were happy to talk, albeit with a reserve and hint of suspicion; others refused to even get pictures taken, especially the old men. Monasteries and workshops, NGOs galore, all trying to rehabilitate a broken people. How resilient they are, I kept thinking. To lose everything and then pick up the pieces is a truly remarkable thing.

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

As they chat and stare at the tourists milling about, their hands never stopped knitting! This lady here told me she knits a pair of socks in one day!

Making wrist bands, constantly working...

Making wrist bands, constantly working…

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

Vibrant wrist bands fluttering away

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

The touristy shops and stalls from which many Tibetan families earn a living in McLeod Ganj

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed...he has an artist's eye, my little one!

Udai loved the patterns the jewelry made when displayed…he has an artist’s eye, my little one!

We missed hearing the Dalai Lama speak, but the spirit of the Tibetan leader left its mark on me. Many years ago, when Rahul used to fly the Dalai Lama often, I had had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak at a private audience. I had little background then, of what had transpired in Tibet, but hearing the stories of his escape from Tibet had sent shivers down my spine. Now perhaps, I understand a bit more of this fascinating maze of events. I have no answers, no one does. Nor do I know enough to have convictions. I am hesitant to paint people, nations, ideologies in black and white.

But in everything around me now- in the lessons we derive from Uttarakhand’s tragic flash floods, in the debate around Maoist rebellion in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in stories of college students not being allowed to practice street theatre at Connaught Place’s central lawns, I see a stark mismatch between what is real and what we want to believe. I see a desperate need to slow down, to truly evaluate before we take steps forward, to be inclusive in how we build our community, our city, our nation. Above all, I feel a need to be calm, patient, and ways to control anger and despair and turn these into positive forces. The way I interpret it, this is what the Dalai Lama teaches us. I hope more of us are willing to step off the speeding train hurtling towards we-don’t-know-where, and listen!

Cultural contrasts in Gurgaon: Are we too quick to judge this city?

Yet another article, in the Business Standard this time, highlights the cultural contrasts between the original inhabitants of Gurgaon and its original inhabitants. “The two sets of people do not share public spaces — so vital for a city to become a melting pot of cultures. For example, the city’s sought-after clubs are out of bounds for the villagers because they do not fit the profile,” write journalist Veena Sandhu. Access to private schools is equally difficult for rural children, despite their immense material prosperity. It is a strange situation, by any standards.

I happen to frequent several days a week a space where these two worlds do meet. My gym. Owned by a local, most instructors in the gym belong to Gurgaon’s urban villages. The customers are a mixed bag of ‘us’ and ‘them’. The interaction has helped me look at the young men with a different lens. Often labeled as aggressive and uncouth, the citizens of modern, glitzy Gurgaon would like to dismiss the city’s rural young, avoid them. I, however, see their immense dedication to their bodies, their single minded focus and determination when they work out. I have not once (in several months) seen them ogle at a woman, flirt with one or even come anywhere close without permission. Initially, my attitude was as neutral as possible, perhaps even avoiding eye contact totally. Then slowly, I felt myself relax. Initially a smile would get a stiff response, almost a scared one lest I judge him. Now the regulars will smile back or even have a conversation in the lift. My trainer never introduces me to any of these friends of his by name; that comfort level has not been reached yet. But our distrust is as much the cause for this as the actual cultural divide.

I see spaces like this (and its good to take these spaces even more public than a membership-based gym) as a great opportunity to initiate interaction and sports can be a starting point to evolve a new culture for this city, which is young and in a delicate formative stage. I feel that we are so quick to judge, almost as if someone passing a diktat to allow intermingling will miraculously overnight resolve these issues. And then a woman gets molested, and everything clams shut again, the abyss deepened, trust destroyed.

We need to give this city time to evolve and find its balance. Yes, efforts must be made to initiate those dialogues, and equal opportunity is a good starting point especially in areas like education. Personally too, it is important that we get out of our shells and really open our eyes to the realities, to the ‘human’ side of the people around us.

Urban themes galore at the India Art Fair

Of course, as an architect, my eye gets drawn to works of art that express themes that are urban in nature. But this time at the India Art Fair in New Delhi, there was no escaping the fact that artists are thinking of urban issues and concern, romancing the city, and expressing the nuances of urban life like never before. Not only does this mean that our urban identity as humans is now perhaps mainstreamed, at least for art appreciated by city folk, it also means an increased focus on urban issues that need urgent attention. Art contributed to enhancing awareness about these issues among a wider audience and we need all the help we can get to fix our cities if human life has to be sustainable for the future.

Here are a few glimpses of the fair.

The facade augured well for happy viewing. I loved the colours...

The facade augured well for happy viewing. I loved the colours…

The skyline and the streetscape were the most common representations of urbanism and featured in the work of many artists, even those who were prolific in the ’60s. However, new forms of expression that used mixed media, digital art, recycling of waste etc was interesting to see. Some of these works moved into the realm of activism and highlighted issues related to migration, urban identity, ecological concerns, etc. I was tickled to see that many of the artists exhibiting here were trained as architects.

Sachin George Sebastian is an architect and his work clearly reflects the skills and sensibilities of one

Sachin George Sebastian is an architect and his work clearly reflects the skills and sensibilities of one

A close up explains more clearly what I mean....

A close up explains more clearly what I mean….

Hema Upadhyay’s work ‘Mute Migration’ particularly impressed me. Firstly, migration is my area of research and I am passionate about the need to accomodate migrants into our cities. Her mural highlights that informal settlements are where migrants get absorbed, where the type of mixed-use lifestyle flourishes. Certainly, we need to learn from the amazing tenacity of these self-evolved informal settlements rather than constantly shun them in a bid to redevelop and relocate!

'Mute Migration' by Hema Upadhyay makes a mean point and is spectacularly large!

‘Mute Migration’ by Hema Upadhyay makes a mean point and is spectacularly large!

A close-up to show the kind of materials used. This was first exhibited in Japan

A close-up to show the kind of materials used. This was first exhibited in Japan

Suhasini Kejriwal's enormous pen and ink drawing depicts the teeming vibrancy of urban life. I loved this one!

Suhasini Kejriwal’s enormous pen and ink drawing depicts the teeming vibrancy of urban life. I loved this one!

Sheba Chhachhi's Moving image Lightboxes highlighted the plight of the River Yamuna and made a mute appeal for help

Sheba Chhachhi’s Moving image Lightboxes highlighted the plight of the River Yamuna and made a mute appeal for help

And on a humorous note, another architect Gautam Bhatia brought tears of laughter to my eyes through his sculptural commentary on the Indian politician. The text on his sculptures uses his classic tongue-in-cheek over-the-top style to push the point through. The Minister for Public Health has to leave for New York for a stool test after gas build up post a meal at Parliament Annexe. The Minister for Women’s Rights sells his wife to the private sect…you get the drift!

Lok Sabha Rajya Sabha by Gautam Bhatia...a humorous but cynical view of Indian politics to be sure!

Lok Sabha Rajya Sabha by Gautam Bhatia…a humorous but cynical view of Indian politics to be sure!

It’s always a fun experience to see this Fair. I have watched it grow and it’s great to see so much interest in India both as a nation that produces great art but also for its buying power. I watched many deals negotiated, haggling and also the satisfied smirk on some faces after buying a Chagall or a Raza in the original! As for me, I had no urge to buy. I was here for the visual treat…..perhaps some day……

The exhibits outside were interesting too...

The exhibits outside were interesting too…I clicked this for the colour effect!

Paresh Maity's 'Delhi 7' did not inspire

Paresh Maity’s ‘Delhi 7′ did not inspire

'Triple Gandhi' by Pakpoom Silaphan- Quite an interesting concept

‘Triple Gandhi’ by Pakpoom Silaphan- Quite an interesting concept

An absolutely lovable idea with old books!

An absolutely lovable idea with old books!