20 February 2007


If you take a walk in any residential neighbourhood in South India in the early morning or at sunset on festival days, you’ll see women drawing beautiful and intricate patterns on their front doorsteps. These patterns are called kolam in Tamil Nadu, rangavalli in Karnataka, muggulu in Andhra pradesh, pookalam in Kerala, and rangoli in many parts of North India.
Drawing the kolam is a woman’s task. After carefully sweeping and washing her front doorstep with water, she draws the kolam using rice powder. The designs are bigger and more intricate on festival days and sometimes colours are added.
Kolam are not only decorative, they also have a spiritual significance. It is like a ‘welcome mat’ welcoming you to the family home. One woman explained to me that it “helps the gods find the way inside”, especially Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity.
Above I have prepared a slideshow of some of the different kolams I've photographed in South India.

10 February 2007

Bangalore Bandh

Since being in India, bandh is a word I’ve come across already many times. Before we even arrived, a friend in Calcutta warned us that we’d be arriving in the midst of a two-day bandh or general strike which was planned to take place across West Bengal and that taxis would be hard to find or only at inflated prices. Luckily the strike was called off at the last minute, sparing us of a potential transportation nightmare.

Bangalore has seen a fair share of violent demonstrations lately. In January there was a series of demonstrations (one protesting the hanging of Saddam Hussain) and marches by communal groups which quickly turned violent with buses being set on fire, and the police coming down on protestors with their lathis and even opening fire and killing a young boy.

On Monday afternoon when the Supreme Court announced its much awaited decision in the Cauvery water dispute, memories of the violent demonstrations that followed the previous ruling seven years ago prompted businesses to pull down their metal shutters and close early for the day. By mid-afternoon, the city's roads were clogged with traffic as office workers rushed home before any trouble started.

That evening, a neighbour warned us that a bandh may be called the next day in protest to the ruling which many feel is unfair to the state of Karnataka. He advised us to go to the market and stock up on enough food for two days and to read the paper the next morning before stepping out, to get some insight on the situation. The supermarket was still open so we bought a few things which we don’t need to keep in the fridge (since we don’t have one just yet). We also bought some pomegranates and pineapple from the fruit and vegetable market which was making a swift pre-bandh business.

When we collected the paper from our doorstep on Tuesday morning, it reported only minor incidents despite the warnings and rumours of violence in the city centre. As the morning fog cleared, it was business as usual although some businesses decided to take a cautious approach and remain closed. Later in the day there was talk of a bandh being announced for Thursday which was then postponed by the authorities to next Monday to avoid disruption to the Aero India 2007 air show taking place this week. I imagine that Monday’s strike will bring the city to a virtual standstill with offices and businesses closed and buses and trains off the roads. In this 24-hour society where everything seems available virtually all the time, I can’t imagine what this will be like. I also wonder how to spend the day… I guess it won’t be a good day to buy that fridge.

08 February 2007

Welcome to the garden city?

Arriving in Bangalore after two weeks spent visiting friends in Calcutta, I couldn’t help noticing the stark contrasts between the two cities. While Calcutta is the timeless ‘old India’ of hand-drawn rickshaws, tea served in terracotta cups and rickety city buses made partially of wood, Bangalore is the modern ‘new India’ of high-tech businesses grouped into the city’s numerous ‘tech parks’, mushrooming high-rise luxury apartments and red shiny brand-new air-conditioned Volvo buses. The differences were already apparent as I stepped outside Bangalore airport.

I’m always struck by the contrast between the inside and the outside of airport terminals in India. As arriving passengers wait patiently single-file in front of the immigration counters, oblivious to the air-conditioning, a teeming crowd awaits behind the barriers just outside the automatic doors in the humid darkness of early morning, straining to catch a glimpse of a relative or friend exiting the terminal. Flights from foreign countries invariably arrive at impossible hours in the early morning. But this does not deter the crowds.

As I exited the terminal of Calcutta airport, the early morning humidity hit me, and a sea of faces scrutinised me, as I scrutinised them. Men crouching on the ground, their elbows resting on their knees were covered in woollen hats and shawls and I remembered that it was winter though for me it felt like an early summer morning. A child ran up to me and asked for ‘English money’ (clearly he knew that the British Airways flight had just arrived) and was promptly shooed away by our friend who came to pick us up. He then got into a heated argument with the parking warden who wanted a tip for having let him park so close to the terminal. Yes, I have arrived in India.

When we arrive in Bangalore two weeks later, it’s late morning. We walk out of the terminal and there are no crowds – just a few handfuls of men holding signs of the names of strangers they were assigned to pick up. The sun beats down but it’s also supposedly winter here. No crowds, no beggars, no crouching men. Is this India? As we exit the airport grounds and I see a sign asking for visitors to pay an ‘airport entrance fee’, I understand why there are no crowds waiting for arriving passengers.

As we drive along Airport Road, traffic seems fluid and vehicles are keeping more or less to their lanes. The city buses look shiny brand-new. As the car continues on its way to Whitefield, we pass several construction sites on either side of the road. Workers in hardhats totter on bamboo scaffoldings working around the clock on the ‘tech parks’, offices blocks, hotels and luxury apartment complexes which are springing up everywhere. Work on a subway line has recently started. This city is clearly booming. The ‘city of gardens’ proclaimed by street signs in the city centre is quickly becoming a city of concrete towers and office blocks. Another sign baptises Bangalore, home to international high-tech companies, the ‘city of opportunities’. Professionals from all over India, but not only India, come to Bangalore to take advantage of the job opportunities, favourable climate, and delicious South Indian coffee. But these hi-tech opportunities and luxury apartments are not shared by all. I recently read that there are an estimated 4 million people living in Bangalore’s slum areas – 4 million – that’s a city in itself! A huge ‘sub-city’ of ‘low-tech’ workers who wash dishes, sweep floors and put out the garbage in the luxury homes of the hi-tech professionals.