25 December 2008

Christmas wishes

Every Christmas eve, sand sculptor Sudarshan Patnaik creates a giant sandy Santa Claus out of the sand of Puri beach in Orissa. The morning paper had a photo of his current creation.

Wishing a very Merry Christmas to my readers!

(Photo: PTI c/o The Hindu)

17 December 2008

Train to Chennai

Indian trains are as stratified as Indian society: there’s unreserved seating for those who can only afford the cheapest ticket, reserved air-conditioned seating for the middle classes who like their comfort but don’t want to pay too much for it, and first class air-conditioned seats for the upper classes who like to travel in comfort and style, and for whom money is no object.

I chose the middle option. When I found my seat it was empty. I was surprised because usually there is always someone already in my seat when I find it. The person occupying it usually explains that they would like to sit with their wife/husband/daughter/sister-in-law and would I mind taking their seat instead? They would kindly direct me to the seat that was allocated to them. When I would find it, someone would already be sitting there. I would then again be politely asked if I wouldn’t mind taking their seat in the next car… There was no need to play this game of musical chairs this time. When I found my seat, it was empty and waiting for me.

As soon as I had settled in my seat, I felt a tap on my shoulder. “Didn’t we meet on the bus to Pondicherry?” an older woman asked. I remembered her: an Indian woman who lives in the US who was travelling with her husband. We had chatted over a quick cup of coffee during a stop on the way to Pondicherry, and they had told me that they go to Chennai every year for the music and dance festival. I had told them that we may meet again because I’m also a regular. Now they were sitting behind me! To my right there were two police officers dressed in their distinctive khaki uniforms. I wondered if this was a new security measure. To my left an Indian man was travelling with his family to Chennai. His children’s American accents gave them away as ‘NRI’s (non-resident Indians).

The chorus of food vendors started.






It’s impossible to go hungry on Indian trains. The vendors in their checkered shirts and matching caps filed in and out of the car tempting passengers with their breakfast offerings. As the journey wore on, other snack options appeared:


And then later: ‘BREAD OMELETTE…!’ and ‘VEGETABLE CUTLET…!’

Followed by ‘SWEET POLLI…!’, and finally ‘BISCUITS…!’.

There had been a delay leaving Bangalore but somehow we rolled into Chennai Central right on schedule. The porters in their red shirts and lungis rolled up to their knees were already on the train before it had come to a stop, pulling at suitcases on the overhead racks and carrying them out on their heads.

I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the midday heat of Chennai. The crowd of passengers made it’s way along the platform towards the exit where it dispersed into waiting cars, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws.

(Image: The Times of India)

15 December 2008

Musical nights

The festival season is also a time when many music and dance festivals take place. Last weekend I went to Pune to attend the Sawai Gandharva music festival. Given the current security climate, I had wondered if the festival would suffer the same fate as the Bangalore Habba, but luckily it did take place as planned but not without some security arrangements in place.

This annual festival was started 56 years ago by renowned classical singer Bhimsen Joshi who was honoured recently with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. The programme is a who’s who of the Indian classical music world, featuring some of the most celebrated musicians of Hindustani (North Indian) music as well as notable young up-and-coming artists and some established musicians of the South Indian style of Carnatic music.

What surprised and impressed me most about this festival was the sheer size and enthusiasm of the audience. Every year, 15,000 people attend! It takes place outdoors under a huge tent and runs for four days. The music used to go on all through the night but this changed when the city authorities imposed restrictions on noise after 11pm.

I missed the opening day, arriving only on the second day of the festival. When I enquired about seats, I was told that the chair seating and more cushy (and expensive) sofa seating were already sold out. The only available option (also the least expensive) was ‘Bharatiya Baithak’ which was translated for me as ‘Indian seating arrangement’, in other words: seats on the floor! At first the thought of sitting for 5 to 6 hours on the ground didn’t seem like the most comfortable option – but I quickly found out this is where the true spirit of the festival lives. It was like taking part in a huge picnic! A vast area in front of the stage was corralled off for the floor seating. Though I had arrived an hour before the concert was to start, three quarters of the space reserved for ‘Bharatiya Baithak’ was already taken, covered with a hodgepodge collection of colourful blankets, rugs and bed sheets, where the young and old were reading, sleeping, drinking chai, sharing snacks and chatting, patiently waiting for the show to begin.

The music started at 4pm sharp. The crowd of spectators now stretched to the back of the tent. At first there was enough space to stretch my legs but as the concert progressed, more and more people managed to squeeze in and join the crowd already seated on the floor. In India, there’s always room for one more and progressively there was less and less space until each person’s knees were touching those of the person next to them! Little boys stepped gingerly through the crowd selling paper cones of roasted peanuts.

While there were security arrangements in place, with metal detectors at the entrance and armed police, I looked at the makeshift fences separating the floor seating from the long rows of plastic chairs and couldn’t help imagining a scene of complete chaos in the event of an emergency. There was only one entry/exit to the venue and no emergency exits. As the evening wore on, people kept arriving and joining the crowd, putting down their sheets and blankets on any available space on the ground. Others were standing in the wings. With thousands of people crowded into a small space, any emergency could easily result in disaster.

I put these thoughts aside and turned back to the music. It was 8am on Sunday morning, the last day of the festival. The air was a little too cool and I wished I had remembered to bring a sweater. Ronu Majumdar had just started his concert and was elaborating the nuances of a morning raga during the alap. The huge crowd was quiet and attentive. The only other sounds were muffled coughs and the mynah birds calling to each other in the distance. As the morning progressed, it got increasingly hotter. The dozens of ceiling fans suddenly whirred in action, adding a din to the background noise and some fresh air. By noon when Pandit Jasraj took the stage to enthusiastic applause, the air felt heavy and hot.

No festival or event in India is complete without food. Behind the huge tent, a series of makeshift food stalls made brisk business selling coffee, tea and all kinds of snacks. Other stalls offered 2 for 1 deals on music CDs and DVDs. A TV crew was following the handful of foreigners around, asking us if security concerns had made us think twice about coming to the festival and who our favourite Indian musicians were. There was an exhibition of photographs of Bhimsen Joshi, as well as his beloved 1965 Mercedes on display.

Everyone was expecting Pandit Joshi, now 86, to make a surprise visit to the festival and perhaps even perform for however short a time despite his ill-health. He did indeed make an appearance on the 3rd night of the festival, pulling up close to the stage in his car (another Mercedes). Everyone stood up and clapped, knowing instinctively who this surprise visitor was. He didn’t get out of his car but spoke to the crowd in Marathi to enthusiastic cheers from the audience. In this city of music lovers, Pandit Joshi is regarded as a god, and the festival he started 56 years ago in memory of his guru is the biggest event of the year.

Photos courtesy of desiknitter.

10 December 2008

Sounds and colours

With the festival season still in progress, this has been another noisy and colourful week. The main road which runs parallel to my street is decorated with red and yellow Karnataka flags and colourful garlands of lights which hang down in a vertical pattern across the facades of the shops and buildings. Next to the Hanuman temple, an image of Hanuman the monkey god has been outlined in colourful lights and the words, Hanuman Jayanthi – this is a holiday which celebrates the birth of the god Hanuman. I remember this being celebrated a few months ago… sure enough some Internet research revealed that this festival was already celebrated in April this year. I don’t know why it is being celebrated again… perhaps any excuse for a party is a good one?

This morning there was a huge crowd in front of the temple so today must be the pinnacle of this festival which started over a week ago. Of course there were the usual noisy processions with loud frenetic drumming, bursting fireworks and the more soothing sound of temple priests chanting in the early morning hours.

On Sunday afternoon I went to the stationery shop and came across a colourful and noisy procession of camels, people wearing colourful masks and costumes, men on stilts wearing tall hats, followed by frenetic dancers being worked up by the energetic street drummers, and a float pulled by a tractor which carried a female deity covered with garlands.

I asked the shopkeeper what the fuss was all about. He told me it was to celebrate Kannada Rajyotsava (the founding of the state of Karnataka), a holiday which was already celebrated on November 1st! This left me even more confused… Anyway, whatever the occasion was, it was celebrated with much pomp and fanfare and as I write this, I can still hear the drumming! I was able to film some of the noise and commotion happening outside my window – well, around the corner… Have a look and experience some of the sounds and colours of India:

05 December 2008

Security concerns

I was looking forward to the Bengaluru Habba, an annual dance, music and arts festival which was due to start yesterday and run for the next 2 ½ weeks. I and my dance friends were excited about the excellent line-up of dancers who were due to perform this weekend, beginning this evening with a performance by the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. But I was surprised (and disappointed) to read in this morning’s newspaper that, only hours before it was to start, the festival had been postponed indefinitely. The reason cited is security concerns. It appears that the State government has asked for a postponement of mass public gatherings until December 15 because of threats of terrorist strikes.

In light of the recent events in Mumbai, airports around the country have been put on high alert. This is also in anticipation of December 6th, which is tomorrow. Every year on the 6th of December, security is tightened in airports, bus and railway stations, and other public places all over the country. This is the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque 16 years ago which had sparked off deadly riots.

Security had already been on everyone’s mind following the bomb blasts here in Bangalore this past July. The tightening and enforcement of security measures since then has been very noticeable. When we go to movies for example, there’s always a long line to get into the parking lot. This is because security personnel inspect the trunks and back seats of each and every vehicle, while a mirror on wheels is slid under the car to check the undercarriage. To enter the mall, each person has to pass through a metal detector and bags are searched at the door. Then, before entering the cinema, cinema goers are asked to step through another metal detector before being frisked and having their bags searched a second time. A night out at the movies resembles a trip to the airport!

All this extra security means long lines, and lots of tedious waiting… people try to be patient because they know that unfortunately such measures are necessary given the current climate. But it seems like our patience will be further tested now that additional security measures are being put into place. Hopefully, life will continue as usual with no unexpected incidents and the Bengaluru Habba can happen soon!

Image © The Times of India