When art becomes the lingua franca

God is watching you – A familiar saying used by every parent to control their kids’ tantrums. If you hadn’t believed them then, it’s time you changed your decision.

Those captivating eyes, probably of the supreme, are everywhere. They bewitch you, along with the interplay of colours in the paintings, which blend and breathe. At points where the colours merge, you almost want to look away as they moan with pleasure celebrating another creation by Vandana Jain, in her collection, An eternal endeavour at La Galerie D’Expression.

One of the pieces, done on a tray had a couple’s faces at the centre, bulged out – like how you see yourself at the back of a spoon. Then to make things slightly creepy are eyes staring at the couple from the parting of a curtain of colours surrounding them.

“Sometimes I just don’t know what I am painting. See this one here,” said Vandana, walking towards one of her paintings which had eyes drawn on rectangular frames, like reflection of ones face in broken pieces of a mirror. “I just did many geometrical patterns initially and then left it for two days, after which I got a spiritual calling to paint Durga’s face and a tiger’s to complete it.” The piece, however, looks like a result of several months’ planning.

If the eyes didn’t remind you of Karma enough, a few paintings ahead, you find yourself face to face with the huge Gomateshwara, a deity worshipped by the Jains. The 35-year-old painting, seemingly real and intricate, had not missed out even the creepers which, as the history has it, had grown on his hands due to extended meditation.

An ardent meditator herself, she recounts how in the past her emotions have been guided by god himself. “I still remember the night when Ganesha came in my dreams,” she said, automatically joining her hands in a pranam. “The next day, the first thing I drew, almost effortlessly was his eyes,” added Vandana, who has done her thesis on Chinese pottery as a part of her MFA programme at Stella Maris.

Thus, if one wishes to see a lingering obsession with Chinese art in her paintings, there is a series of Chinese literati works at display, which have succeeded in capturing the ecosystem of Mount Fuji and the Indian landscapes, in its magnificent form, all in black and white. Chinese art, she said, focuses a lot on perfection – a flaw in a single stroke will result in your work being discarded. This makes one appreciate the simple bamboo tree, or the more abstract ones like Japanese orchids, even more.

Be it abstract pieces like the portrayal of four seasons on one canvas or concrete ones that depict Shankeshwar parshvanath, the snake god for Jains, and his wife, Padmavathy, one can see the use of peacock feathers, the geometrical patterns of circles and triangles, or the ripe orange sun, being used in most of them to retain a sense of divinity.

While packing the spiritual grace apart from the artistic pleasure, be sure to stuff in some luck from the Waterfall exuberance, which she refers to as her lucky painting, as it got her son married and helped raise her financial status.

The exhibition is on at Ambassador Pallava till June 30.

This article was previously published in The New Indian Express. Check out the link : http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/1230369


Shake a leg with the disney mascot

Clap your hands. Stomp your feet. Make some noise. Groove to the beat, echoed the music – And the kids obeyed every word of it.

Moments before the show began, the kids adjusted their Mickey caps and pulled at their mom’s sarees asking them to begin the show. How could they help? Nevertheless, the kids kept pulling. As the wait prolonged, few conceived their own theories of Mickey’s death, while a few others started yearning for the present cartoon stud – Chota bheem. Things could have gone out of hand, if not for the grand entry of Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and Donald on the stage then.

But, again, “Where is Daisy and Pluto?” moaned one of the kids, pouting. The Disney magic’s ‘Musical show’ at Forum Vijaya mall, however compensated for their absence with the stompy numbers, the high-octane beats and of course, the sing-your-heart-out genre of music which had the tiny tots celebrating their Meeska-Mooska-Mouseketeer days.

While most stood in a sense of wonder, a couple of them recoiled, intimidated by the size of the characters, which were literally larger than life. “It is almost like a reassurance that their friends were not just pieces of fiction, but characters in flesh and blood,” said Mridhula, trying to get her 4-year-old to sit, who had suddenly turned into a ball of ecstasy.

It was time to acknowledge Minnie, who sashayed her way around the stage. The crowd went ‘Yoo-hoo’ with Micky running around Minnie, confessing his love. The song got the kids attention with – Oh, the old tomcat with the meow, meow, meow!- as they mewed till their veins bulged out and barked for –  Ol’ hound dog with the bow-wow-wow! – like a trained pack.

When Rohini Bakshi, MD, Licensing and retail, Disney UTV says that they added the local flavour by making Mickey dance to Bollywood number, believe it. Disco deewane by Micky and group got that disco move better than the ‘students of the year’ with their spring-loaded steps.

“Why should kids have all the fun?” smiled one of the parents as he continued dancing to ‘All is well’.  Following this, with Auntyji – a special dedication to all the moms – the stage saw an explosion of dance styles, pulling down Travolta from the top dancers chart.

“In 2006, we brought Cinderella, Snow white and Repunzelle to Chennai,” sais Jyotika Ahuja, Director-Corporate communications, Disney UTV. “This is the second time. It’s all about giving a live experience,” she added.

The show which has travelled to Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore before coming to Chennai, according to a parent, Lakshmi Prasanna, could have appealed to the crowd more if they had Mickey dancing to Tamil songs. Yet another parent compared it globally and said that people abroad show a lot more spirit and have lesser inhibitions.

However, Heena and her son, Laksh Virwani have no complaints. They seem to have had an easy way with the passes, which otherwise could have been availed only through contests or purchase of goods from the mall. While her son gets busy playing play station at the Disney Pixar cars zone, she is satisfied watching him rejoice the zooming cars.

The 10-day Disney rendezvous  had the kids marching home the Mickey’s march with their tiny legs stomping the ground and hands waving up in the air ‘woo’ing the mickey way.


The article was previously published in The New Indian Express. Check out the link – http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/1216559


A Gift to daddy’s liking


‘There was a cake, a candle and burnt curtains,’ recalls Nikithaa, 19-year-old student. Last year, on father’s day, she had tiptoed to her parent’s room at the stroke of twelve carrying a baked cheese cake topped with a candle. “I only remember saying ‘Happy’, before my dad sprang out of bed and started waving the curtains frantically, thinking the house was on fire,” she laughs.  Though her cake lay in a puddle alongside burnt curtains, the mere effort, she says, had her dad beaming.

Failed surprises, quickie plans and nearest showrooms have somehow become synonymous to father’s day blast. One gets to know the day’s arrival only when the top five super dads of the year list is out and the Facebook statuses get revised to exhibit ones love for dad. Then comes the rush to the nearest shop to pick from the restricted options – perfumes, wallets, ties and more ties. Finally, a tweet about how you can’t wait for the day.

While the hypocrite in us might have a ball, the pinch is felt when you see the gift left forlorn in a day or two. “My daughter was angry that I did not use her perfume. But, how can I use Tommy Girl?” says Kaushik, 54, embarrassed.

For Rohit George, IT employee, who plans to gift his dad a personalized version of ‘The Man’ with write ups and pictures of friends and family in the inside pages, ‘dads are like popsicles. They might be in different flavours, but have a heart which melts easily.’ Studying the flavor is the next tough job.

While moms can nag you to get that Kanchipuram silk with a palm sized border, dads are implicit in their wants. Look out for cues, candid statements and those casual references to know his flavour. ‘My dad always wanted me to be adventurous. So I planned out a treasure hunt leading to his watch’ says Amritha Ajithkumar. “It went on for an hour and then I realized, probably, I took his advice too literally,” she sighs.

Nostalgic dads, however, leave no room for doubts. They are the ones who have their kids’ greeting cards neatly stacked up in the cupboard and who would set their alarm an hour early just to be able to skype more. Buy them those mushy worded cards, the personalized mugs and shirts, because they understand sweetness. So when O S Nair, 93, says he still has the bag which his son gifted him with his first salary, you can guess the daddy in him.

Talk about taking the trend to a global level. Adithya Jayakumar, Phd student, donated money to Syrian refugees through World food program in his dad’s name for father’s day. “My dad was shocked. It’s not everyday that you get a Thank you note for a charity you haven’t made,” smiles Adithya.

If you still haven’t decided your dad’s flavour, read on – the ones with the George Clooney look deserve a nice massage package, cuff links or the men grooming products; If you have seen your dad doing the jumping jhapak anytime, know that he is the best company for a stand up comedy show in the city; If he critiques home made food, take him to the best cuisine; If he accompanies you for walks, a new pair of sneakers would make his day; and if you can’t stand his bathroom singing – you know what to do.  

P.S. Keep these away from the idads. Break that piggy, go stand in queue and get that fancy ipad. If that is tough, just go stand anyway.


The article was previously published in The New Indian Express – Check out http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/1212083

Missing toilets of Kolli

In spite of the toilets provided by the Government as a part of the rural housing scheme, the villagers of Kolli hills  seem to prefer open defecation – an age old practice which has poor implications on their health and sanitation.

In order to abolish the practice of open defecation and hence uplift the hygiene of people living in rural areas, the Central Government made the construction of toilets mandatory under its rural housing scheme, Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY), last year.

Under this scheme, villagers can avail the allotted funds (Rs 1 lakh) only if their newly constructed house meets the required conditions, of which a toilet is a significant one. Officials are appointed to conduct audits and order changes if the house does not meet the IAY guidelines.

Bowed down by debts and low income, the villagers adopt wicked practices to retain the little money they are given by the Government. All of them wait until the audits are complete. Once the money gets transferred to their accounts, they deconstruct the toilets to convert them into store rooms and the like.

However, the scarce income is a secondary issue according to Dr. R. Jagannathan, Namakkal Collector, who said, “For them (villagers), defecating in the open is a social activity. They go as a group to the forests for their morning ablutions. It’s all about their mindset.”

Aiyyasamy, a villager from Sellipatti, who has converted his toilet into a store room for his field produce, said, “This whole forest is my toilet. If suddenly someone asks me to defecate in a 5*5 space, I can’t. I feel claustrophobic.”

According to Venkat, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) employee, the inclusion of toilets under the scheme has come with little thought. “Is a building enough? Where are the water pipelines? Where is the sewage line? Why is the government not taking care of all this?” he questions.

The responsibility of the Government seems to end with the construction of a toilet. The sewage lines and water pumps which are required to make it usable remain missing. The fact that the amount is disbursed without ensuring these facilities is simply inexplicable.

A change in policy that would ensure the provision of sewage/water lines before crediting the money; frequent audits; and more importantly, awareness campaigns for the villagers against the ill effects of open defecation would help better the situation of the ‘missing toilets’ in Kolli.

(With contributions from Vignesh Radhakrishnan)


Slum at Jafferkhanpet – yet to rise from ashes

As youngsters flock the Udhayam theatre under the hoardings of Rajnikanth, unperturbed by the amount they have to spend to purchase a ticket, a locality of 1500 homes and  6000 slum dwellers hides itself silently opposite to the theatre equally unperturbed by the celebrations- be it release of a movie or birth of baby Jesus.

“Entertainment?” chuckles Oliamma, a 70 year old housemaker, glancing at her two granddaughters who immediately blush and run outside. “With Rs 4500 per month, we hardly can afford the basic necessities for six of us. Cinema is out of question,” she adds.

Oliamma lives with her husband, a son, a daughter and two granddaughters.

She has been living here for 26 years. Majority of the people settled here are from Salem and others are from Villipuram and Dindivanam. All of them are daily wage earners or contract workers who are into domestic and construction work.

Oliamma’s son is an auto driver, who like many others in the area has bought an auto for loan and is liable to a payment of Rs 150 as rent everyday. Her daughter is a domestic worker.

“I wish I could work as well,” Oliamma says. “No one wants to hire me because I am old,” she complains.

The house, measuring hardly 50*50 square feet chokingly accommodates one bed, a TV, a heap of clothes, buckets with water up to the brim now layered with dust, two school bags and steel utensils. The narrow space between the bed and TV acts as the study room, the kitchen as well as the dining room.

Oliamma sits down with two bunches of spinach and starts chopping the leaves.”The prices of vegetables and rice have increased so much,” she cribs. “What is the use of holding a ration card or a voting card. No one cares.”

After the fire breakout in August last year that left the slum in ashes, the families had to spend their own money to build things from scratch. The Government, they say, did not give them a penny.

The residents are neither aware of any Government schemes nor is there any representative appointed to question the Government for the compensation or subsidies they deserve. None of them has approached a slum Development Board yet regarding any queries.

Though the Government sets up free medical camps once in a year, the medical facilities in times of need is deplorable. This is evident from the sight of Oliamma’s husband curled up in the corner of the bed, deep in thought. He has been unable to walk for past three months.

There is a sense of rage and disappointment in those eyes. “They(ESI hospital) turned me away,” he says. “They told me to visit the Royapettah Government Hospital. How would I even manage to catch buses to reach there with this ailment,” he adds.

Getting a checkup done is a major challenge for the residents here. Many end up staying put at their homes instead of getting medical advice from the doctors.

Unmindful of the distance and the lack of comfortable transport to the Royapettah hospital, the staffs of the ESI hospital, which is right beside the slum, shoo away the patients.  There is little clarity to the reason behind this.

Common cold and fever are rampant due to the poor maintenance of sewage flow. The sewage lines remain uncovered and the blockages present a nauseous scene rendering the stench unbearable.

While all this does paint a deprived picture, what is ghastly is the provision of toilets. There are four toilets maintained by the corporation for 6000 people in the slum, two for gents and two for ladies. With the shocking ratio of toilets to the strength of people, the fight for the use of toilets can be expected. But, the toilets remain unused most of the time, sometimes ever for days together.

A charge of Rs 5 per head for one time use of toilet explains this mystery.

“I have never used the toilets even once,” says Oliamma defiantly. She has innovatively extended her house a bit to have her own private washroom. So have other households. The young ones do not have to restrict themselves even to this space. They defecate in any open space available.

Oliamma’s two granddaughters are each 10 and 12 years old. They go to a nearby corporation school which has classes up to twelfth grade. The school charges Rs 359 per year exclusive of the learning materials. The mid day meal scheme does not function here. The uniforms handed out to students are hardly their size and are usually faded or torn.

The standard of education is poor. Children are taught subjects which are much below the syllabus they ought to learn.

But, for Oliamma it’s not the expense which bothers her. It is the stretch which her kids have to walk from her house to the school. Though the distance is meager, the children find it hard to cross the busy main road to get to their school. They have to wait for hours as there is no signal to stop the vehicles at this point. Nor is there a provision for pedestrian crossing.

There have been cases of accidents in the past. The risk however, has been constantly ignored by the government.

Despite the challenges, the two kids at Oliamma’s place seem to like their school. The younger one says that she wants to become a doctor and the elder on, a teacher.

Like every child grown in the slum, their aspirations would stay alive till they complete their schooling. The financial crunch in the family would either force them to get married or find work to support their family.

A marriage here is equivalent to taking a plunge in the sea of debts. The total charges for a marriage come to Rs 50000, which a family acquires by taking loans. Unable to pay, this burden gets carried over to the next generation.

With the new set top box norm, Oliamma had to spend Rs 2500 to set up the sun direct. Now she regrets her decision.

“The next day after I installed the set top box, it began to rain and TV stopped working,” she says. The thatched roof does not help keep their house rain proof. A single rain doubles their expenses as all the electronic items are destroyed and so are the books and the bed.

The free electricity provided to them is then of little use.

One thing which the residents here are thankful for is the supply of water. There are seven tanks around the place which supply clean metro water.

Oliamma, however, has not lost faith in the future. She makes it a point to visit the church every Sunday. There are two churches and two temples in the vicinity which never lack worshippers.

The faith they have, more than the Gods, is towards the Government itself – to hear their grievances and address their problems.

“Who else will we go to,” sighs Oliamma as she walks away to wash the vessels.


PS The slum which is written about is located in KK Nagar, Chennai, right opposite to the Udhayam theatre. Around 500 houses were gutted here by the fire last year in August.


Time will heal, so will Sidha

Sidha healers residing in the mountains are usually picturised wearing saffron dhotis with uncombed voluminous hair falling all over their face. The chief healer of Kolli hills, Mooligai Selavaraj’s image does not concur with any of it.

He zooms around in his bike, participates in all the cultural extravaganza during festivals and weddings, pets two dogs and a kitten, indulges in gardening and to top it all, walks around in his white dhoti, a casual checked shirt and a red cap.

Aged 49, he admits to have been in the profession of Sidha since he was just 24. His ancestral inclination towards medicine did not leave him many options.

He grew up running through the Kolli forests, smelling and spotting the medicinal herbs. This explains much about his eloquent rendering of all possible scriptures which have reference to health and medicine.

“There is no disease without a cure,” he says with a confident smile.

Selvaraj is a busy man. Ignoring the continuous buzz on his phone, he shows us a pamphlet with the names of all Sidha Rasams (medicines) used for curing diseases ranging from a simple knee pain to the fatal ones like Cancer and Aids.

He frankly admits that only 75% of the cases he attends succeed. Cases fail when the patient does not take the medicines as prescribed or when the medicine simply does not suit the patient.

“One should have patience while the medicine acts on him,” says Selvaraj. “Most importantly, one should be kept detached from ones family and in complete care of the healer,” he adds.

The trend of allopathy medicine has invaded Kolli as well. But Selvaraj is not against it. He says that for an emergency, allopathy is always advisable.

However, what disappoints him is that villagers opt for Sidha medicine when nothing else works on them. “Most of the cases cannot be cured because they come one hour before their death,” he says.

While he is not attending to patients, he is busy training researchers from all over Tamilnadu. In the two month training, charged at Rs 2000 per head, he practically shows them how to prepare the medicines – the ingredients of which he fearlessly obtains from the sacred forests – an act which could sin him, according to the natives.

Determined to keep the Sidha tradition alive, he says, “I am ready to impart my knowledge to anyone who is ready to receive it.”


Where culture meets nature

Amidst the dense growth of wild bushes and trees, a foot massaged path led to a small patch of land. Three men clad in faded brown veshtis sat there in lotus position, deep in meditation. Each of them clutched a bunch of Agarbattis in their hand, the scent of which combined with that of the wet mud and herbs gave a heavenly aroma.

The prayers and agarbattis were being offered to a small oval shaped clay model rested within a cave. The model represented Goddess Kolli Pavai. The killer of demons. The Guardian of Kolli.

Surrounding the idol were poles which had small pieces of cloth tied to represent cradles. Belief has it that a sincere prayer in this form can bless a couple with a child.

We were at the Attaiyar Kannimar sacred forest in the Vallapuranadu panchayat. This was one among the 15 roofless temples, or the sacred groves of Kolli hills – the result of an effort by the ancestors to conserve the Sholai ecosystem.

Barefoot and cold, the short trek towards the altar felt like Paulo Coelho’s concept of purification through self-flagellation.

“Kolli in Tamil means death,” said Balakumar, a guide from MSSRF who accompanied us. The goddess is believed to have protected the landscape of Kolli from the demons in the past by seducing them with her lustful appearance and then destroying them. Reference to Kolli Pavai can be found in the Sangam Literature and the Tamil epics, Silapadikaram and Manimekalai.

“No one touches these trees for domestic purposes,” said Balakumar pointing at the huge trees which lay flat on the ground unattended. “They fall off when they are old and years later turn into manure.”

The sound of the bell at the altar turned our attention to one of the three men who now swayed on his feet and groaned like an animal. “Kolli amma has possessed his body,” said one of his friends. His eyes were still shut when he swooned and fell on the ground.

“Cases of position syndrome can be seen all the time. This reassures their faith in Kolli amma,” said Balakumar, as we made our way out, aghast at what we had just witnessed.

Of sacrifices and celebration

A short ride from Kannimar took us to the  Iyanarpatnam sacred forest, home to the exotic varieties of trees like Kattu Vilacham, Moolam, Pani, Pala, Arali, Jatika, salem pazham, Naval pazham which could reap in crores if used for trade in Kolli.

However, not a bark is touched.

“Few who dared to disturb the sanctity of forest had to face the wrath of Karupu Sami, lord of the Iyanar forest. They ended up with broken limbs,” said Nallasamy, one of the forest guards. The victims had to sculpt clay models of the deity as an act of repentance.

Entry to the altar is restricted except for the Brahmin priests who perform the pooja.

One can see several stones strategically placed in groups of three to form a stove. Women from around 100 households, dressed in white saris, gather here during the September festival to make pongal as an offering to please the lord. Women undergoing their menstrual cycle are strictly prohibited.

“Any agrarian crisis can be solved here,” said Nallasamy confidently. “All it takes is to sacrifice a goat from ones household, offer its blood, and the lord would bless them with double the harvest and protection of cattle as a bonus.”

Though the forest lands appear unaffected by encroachments and construction, the forest official, Rathnavel said that the forest area has reduced from 33% to 17%. “Agriculture and estates have slowly encroached into forest space,” he added.

Also, there has been a decline in the species of tigers, foxes, wolves and bears.

Around 30000 snakes were released to the forests so as to restrict the entry of poachers.

Although the ‘sacred’ attempt seems to offer some monitoring, the natives fear that the greenery of the forests will wear off in the future, mainly due to education, migration and a decline of lineage.