30 October 2007

Home delivery

One of the first sounds I hear in the morning is the milk delivery boy who arrives on his bicycle ringing his bell. In India, everything comes to your door. If you wanted to, you could get everything you need without leaving the comfort of your own home! Throughout the day there's a steady stream of vendors walking by with their pushcarts selling a variety of goods and yelling out whatever it is they have for sale. Vegetables, flowers and plants, fruit, fish, rice and other grains, and household items like pots, blankets, rugs, dusters, straw mats, bangles... everything is for sale right outside the door! The lady across the street doesn't even bother to go to her door - she yells what she wants to the vendor from her balcony and then has her maid carry everything inside.

Most shops can also arrange for home delivery. It just takes a call to the grocery store or the pharmacy and someone will deliver whatever you need to your home. No need to go to the bank to open an account or apply for a credit card - a bank employee will come to your home or office to do the paperwork. Many utility and other service companies also offer the same service.

Though supermarket chains are popping up all over the city, it's hard to beat the convenience of the walking vendors who bring everything right to your doorstep!

22 October 2007

Ayudha puja

While having my tea on the terrace on Saturday morning, I watched while my neighbour carefully decorated his car with stalks of banana leaves and colourful garlands of flowers. I thought maybe he was going to be part of a wedding party that day. Later, driving through the city, I couldn’t help but notice that almost every vehicle on the road – car, motorcycle, moped, bicycle, auto-rickshaw – and even the city buses were decorated with flower garlands, banana leaves and streaks of red and yellow vermilion. All these flowers and foliage gave the roads a colourful parade-like atmosphere.

There’s always something to celebrate or commemorate in India. The past ten days were the festival of Dasara, an important Hindu holiday which is celebrated as Navratri in the north, while for Bengalis this is the feast of Durga puja. In Karnataka, Ayudha puja is performed on the 9th day of Dasara. On this day, tools and machines – including computers and cars – are blessed and worshipped by offering prayers and then carefully cleaning and decorating these objects with flowers and vermilion. Shopkeepers decorate their shops, drivers adorn their vehicles, tailors do the same to their sewing machines – and yes, office workers decorate their computers with flower garlands! This is a gesture of appreciation for the tools and machines used in daily life which often also contribute to a livelihood. Prayers are offered for continuing success in coming years. It’s also auspicious to start a new business or buy new household items on this day.

Once I learned it was Ayudha puja, I understood that my neighbour was not attending a wedding that day, but instead offering his humble prayers and flower garlands to his beloved Ford Ikon!

16 October 2007

Chennai's December Season

Above: Bharata Natyam dancer Urmila Sathyanarayanan performing during the 2002 Chennai December Season

(If you've come to this page looking for information on the 2010-2011 Chennai December Season, click here.)

It's only October but I'm already looking forward to going to Chennai (formerly Madras) this December for the annual festival of Carnatic (South Indian) music and dance, which has come to be known as the ‘December Season’. Chennai is an important cultural centre with over 60 sabhas, or cultural organizations. Each stage their own programme every December featuring all the big names in Carnatic music and South Indian classical dance, as well as young upcoming artists. Most concerts and performances take place during the second half of December, but many already start around mid-November and run up to the middle of January. This time of year corresponds to the Tamil month of Margazhi, a time dedicated to spiritual activities and bhakti or devotion, which is traditionally expressed through classical music and dance, which are considered to be forms of worship. This is also the time of year when the weather is at its mildest, driest, and most pleasant, ideal for attending concerts and dance performances.

The vast majority of concerts are by Carnatic vocalists, accompanied by South Indian instruments such as the violin, mridangam (a double-sided drum), ghatam (an earthenware pot used as a percussion instrument), flute, and veena (a stringed instrument). But there are also many concerts featuring musicians of other ‘non-traditional’ instruments such as the saxophone, mandolin, guitar and keyboard played in the Carnatic style. Most of the dance performances feature Bharata Natyam, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu, but other Indian classical dance forms, such as Mohiniattam, Kuchipudi and Odissi are also showcased.

The festival has its origins with the All-India music conference which took place in December 1927, organized by the Indian National Congress Party. At this time, the now famous Madras Music Academy was founded, and a music festival was subsequently held every December. Since then, more and more musical organizations have hosted their own festivals, in parallel to that of the Music Academy.

To perform during the music season in Chennai is considered to be a great privilege for artists as it has become the biggest and most important festival of South Indian music and dance in India - and the world, featuring over 2000 performances by hundreds of artists at over 60 venues, with performances running from morning to evening.

Some of the sabhas have already published their schedules. I've decided to post the links here for any dance or music lovers who happen to come to this page looking for details of when their favourite artists will perform during the Season. This page will be updated as new schedules come out. See you in Chennai this December!

Chennai December Season 2007-2008 schedules:

Kartik Fine Arts (1 December 2007 - 1 January 2008)

Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (1 - 14 December 2007)

Brahma Gana Sabha (4 December 2007 - 17 January 2008)

Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (5 December 2007 - 17 January 2008)

Meenakshi Sundararajan Arts Academy (5 - 21 December 2007)

Nungambakkam Cultural Academy (6 December 2007 - 13 January 2008)

Shanthi Arts Foundation (8-17 December 2007)

Mudhra (8 December 2007 - 13 January 2008)

Thyaga Brahma Gana Sabha (9 - 31 December 2007)

Mylapore Fine Arts Club (12 December 2007 - 15 January 2008)

Bharat Kalachar (14 December 2007 to 15 January2008)

The Music Academy (15 December 2007 - 1 January 2008)

Narada Gana Sabha (15 December 2007 - 1 January 2008)

Kalarasana (15 December 2007 - 1 January 2008)

Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha (16 December 2007 - 3 January 2008)

Sri Rama Bhaktha Jana Sabha (16 December 2007 - 6 January 2008)

Indian Fine Arts Society (16 December 2007 - 4 January 2008)

Tamizh Isai Sangam (21 December 2007 - 1 January 2008)

Kalakshetra Music and Dance Festival (22 December 2007 - 3 January 2008)

Kartik Fine Arts Tamil Isai Vizha (26 December 2007 - 1 January 2008)

Music Academy Dance Festival (3-9 January 2008) A MUST for all dance lovers! Many of India's top dancers will be performing.

Sri Bhairavi Gana Sabha (4-6 January 2008)

Kartik Fine Arts Dance Festival (6-18 January 2008)

Lecture demonstrations at Narada Gana Sabha (22 - 31 December 2007)

Music concerts listed by date

Here is a link to a handy database which lists schedules by artist/date/sabha

Above: Veena concert by Geetha Bennett during 2002 Chennai December Season

14 October 2007

Todi the cat

There’s a little cat that visits my terrace. She used to come with her mother and five other brothers and sisters but I haven’t seen the others for a while. This cat is half-tabby, half ginger-coloured and about four or five months old. She also wears white 'socks' and a white 'bib'.

She’s friendly and playful but also has a contemplative nature. She spends her days watching the crows nesting in the big tree, trying to catch butterflies, and playing hide and seek behind the plants with another cat with a fluffy tail. She also likes to just hang out and watch the world go by.

Notice how her nose is half black, half orange.

In the mornings I find her sleeping on the garden chairs. I named her Todi, like the morning raga.

1 May 2008: R.I.P Todi Cat

Sad news: Poor little Todi cat was hit by a car or motorcycle. Her injuries were severe and she had to be put to sleep. Rest in peace dear Todi cat.

05 October 2007

Lunch at MTR

I recently took a visiting friend to the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. This 240-acre oasis of calm in the heart of the bustling city is literally a breath of fresh air. All that walking and fresh air can work up an appetite so a visit to the gardens is not complete without a meal at the nearby Mavalli Tiffin Rooms – or MTR as the locals call it.

Walking down Lalbagh Road, this unassuming but famous South Indian eatery is easy to miss – if it wasn’t for the crowd of people waiting outside! This veritable Bangalore institution has been around since 1924 and once you step inside the door you wonder if it has changed much since. But it’s obviously not the décor that draws the daily crowds, it’s the food!

We arrived during the lunch shift which is the busiest time of day. There was only one thing on the menu: the ubiquitous South Indian ‘meals’ – a set lunch of traditional Brahmin vegetarian food. After paying at the cashier and collecting our receipt, we were directed up the narrow stairs to the waiting room. The room was already full of impatient customers who filled the long benches along the walls, while the adjacent dining hall was mysteriously empty. A man with a clipboard guarded the doorway and after adding us to his list, motioned towards the bench by the window. While we were waiting I had time to take in the old pictures on the wall, the ugly curtains and the minimalist décor which somehow gives the place an old-world kind of charm.

After a quick head count, the man with the clipboard finally ushered everyone into the dining hall filled with black marble-topped tables and red plastic chairs. He pointed with his chin to the table at the far end and we obligingly took our seats. I was starting to feel like we were in a military canteen and not a restaurant! Soon barefoot waiters dressed in long-sleeved shirts and lungis folded to the knee appeared with compartmentalized stainless steel plates. Next came a silver tumbler of fresh fruit juice and a glass of water.

What followed next was a feast for the taste buds. A potato curry and coconut chutney was served first. I wondered if this was going to be followed by a dosa, but next to arrive on our plates was a carrot salad and a dish made with green beans and coconut. Both were equally delicious. The waiter then spooned a creamy liquid into one of the compartments on my plate. I discovered it was payasam, a sweet dish and remembered that sweets are often eaten at the beginning of a meal in South India. I was saving the potato curry and chutney for the imminent dosa, but we were served hot puris instead – a small flat bread fried in oil, along with a flattened vada, which must have a special name but I don’t know it. My friend thought that it tasted a lot like falafel. Another sweet followed: a gooey serving of badam (almond) halwa. Bisbelebath, a local rice dish made with lentils and vegetables was next on the menu, served together with raita, a refreshing yoghurt preparation. These were all served by the efficient waiters out of shiny stainless steel pails.

I was quite full at this point but I knew that the meal was far from over. A proper Brahmin meal is not complete without rice and sambhar, followed by rasam rice and rounded off with curd rice. I decided to skip the sambhar and rasam rice and wait for my serving of curd rice which is supposed to aid digestion. Last but not least, we were treated to a small bowl of fruit with a scoop of ice cream for dessert. We definitely got our eighty rupees worth!

MTR is also known for its open kitchen where anyone is welcome to walk through and observe the impeccable standards of cleanliness and hygiene (as long as you take your shoes off first!). Close to closing time the front doors are locked and the only way out is by the kitchen door!

Some scenes from the kitchen:

Mavalli Tiffin Rooms is located at 11 Lalbagh Road, close to the main gate of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. Bon appetit!

04 October 2007

Free Burma!

Today international bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. They want to set a sign for freedom and show their sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. Today bloggers around the world are refraining from posting to their blogs and are just putting up a banner with the words "Free Burma!".

I have been following events in Burma for a long time and am concerned about the harsh political situation, the massive abuse of human rights and the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi who was democratically elected in 1989 and has been under house arrest almost continuously since.

To show your support and find more information on the Free Burma! campaign visit their website: www.free-burma.org