31 January 2013

Newspaper wars

If you’ve been following this blog, then you’ll know that I’m a loyal reader of The Hindu newspaper. Why? Because it’s the best paper in India in my opinion. More specifically because the quality of journalism is high, it has more international coverage than other papers, there’s no ‘page 3’ fluff the tabloids like to publish, it reprints articles from The New York Times and The Guardian, and the weekend edition has interesting cultural supplements, including the Literary Review.

This week, the paper reported record readership growth, attracting an additional 50,000 readers over the past three months, the highest growth among all the English dailies.

Though The Hindu is the number one paper in Chennai, the city where it originated, readers in Bangalore prefer The Times of India, a paper which is only slightly better than a tabloid. I lost all respect for this paper when the headline of the international page announced that Prince William had broken up with his girlfriend (back when he and Kate were going through a rough patch). The paper also has a popular city supplement with its infamous Page 3 which features a run down of parties, gallery openings and other socialite events with pictures of couples holding champagne glasses. To be featured on Page 3 is a matter of great pride in some circles.

When I ask people why they bother to read the Times, they usually answer: “Because I’ve always read it”, which doesn’t seem like an answer to me, but to each his / her own.

The Hindu’s recent growth in readership most likely has something to do with the aggressive advertising campaign it had launched against its competitor over a year ago when it launched in Chennai. Probably responding to its image as a conservative, ‘boring’ paper which is perhaps also an allusion to the city it was born in, it has been promoting itself as the intelligent paper, the paper to read to ‘stay ahead of the times’, a clever reference to that other paper.

Of course the Times responded with an equally aggressive (but less clever) campaign which tried to declare that it is the paper read by the ‘social elite’ in a ridiculous article which I wish I could locate again. It also reacted with these newspaper ads:

What followed was a battle of television ads, with both papers taking stabs at each other. While the message in The Hindu’s ads is that reader of that other paper are only informed about what’s going on in the celebrity field, the Times is trying to allude that The Hindu has ‘news that puts you to sleep’.

Watch the ads here:

27 January 2013

Chantal’s passion for kolams

I had heard about Chantal before I met her. It was the director of the Mylapore Festival who had told me about this French woman passionate about kolams (also called rangoli), the intricate drawings which adorn the doorsteps of many homes in India. This annual neighbourhood festival features a kolam contest and Chantal is there every year, taking photographs. Then I came across her name more recently, while reading a book on Chennai. In a chapter about Mylapore, the author mentions a few foreigners who have a fascination for this vibrant neighbourhood and visit it every year during the Margazhi season (which falls in December) to soak in everything it has to offer.

Like many other dance and music lovers, I’m also a regular visitor to Chennai every December and have been attending the ‘December Season’ since 2002. It’s not only the music and dance I enjoy, but also the lasting friendships I make with others who are passionate about the Indian arts.

We were introduced by mutual friends. I have always been fascinated by the intricate beauty of kolams and so was happy to meet Chantal who has written two books on this traditional art. She also has a deep interest in Indian classical dance, having studied Mohiniattam and Kathakali in Kerala for many years. So we had many things to discuss and share.

As we were exchanging mobile numbers, email addresses and website links, I was delighted when she said: “India Outside My Window, C'EST TOI??” So she had also had a first contact with me through my blog, which she had already visited and said she appreciates for its high quality. Thank you Chantal!

With her long black braid, kohl-rimmed eyes, Indian clothes and tilak mark on her forehead, Chantal manages to blend in in Mylapore, while not going unnoticed. Many of the kolam-drawing maamis of this conservative neighbourhood have had the opportunity to meet Chantal and have their designs photographed by her over the years she’s spent studying and documenting the kolams of Tamil Nadu.

Since we were both staying near the Kapaleshwarar Temple, I asked if I could join her on her early morning wanderings through the narrow streets of Mylapore on her search for the first kolams of the day. She was more than happy to have company.

We meet at 6am in front of her hotel, and rush off hurriedly down a side street in a part of Mylapore I had never explored before. It is at dawn that pious Brahmin women carry out the task of drawing a kolam on their doorsteps. “I want to catch the women while they’re still drawing the kolams,” she explains. “Because afterwards they quickly get erased by footsteps and scooter tires.”

We don’t go far before we come across a dark figure in the half-light, stooped over from the hips, drawing snake-like interlacing lines around carefully placed dots. “This is a sikku kolam,” Chantal explains. I had seen this style of kolam many times but had no clue it had a name. The lines are formed effortlessly, creating a perfectly symmetrical pattern. But I know that drawing a kolam is not as easy as it looks. The fine rice powder is carefully ‘poured’ between the fingers onto the ground to create an even line. Some women can even draw two parallel lines simultaneously with ease.

“Did you hear that?” Chantal asks me. It was the sound of a drum at a distance. “That means the procession is underway.” We rush off towards the sound, towards the Vishnu temple. Since Mylapore is dominated by the majestic Kapaleshwarar Temple dedicated to Shiva, I had no clue there’s a Vishnu temple in the same neighbourhood. “Women draw elaborate kolams along the procession path, so we’re sure to find some elaborate ones here,” she explains. We soon find a group of temple priests carrying a statue of Andal the saint on a palanquin.

We stop to admire an elaborate kolam decorating the ground in front of a corner house. “This is an Iyengar kolam,” observes Chantal. “What’s typical about kolams drawn by this Brahmin Vaishnavite community is this ribbon-like motif,” she points out. “Come, there’s a lady who lives down this street who draws beautifully.” We head off in a new direction and on the way meet Lakshmi who’s coming back from making an offering to Andal. “I haven’t been able to draw a kolam this morning,” she says to Chantal, almost apologetically. “My husband is not well.” As if to make up for it, she invites us inside. Chantal is thrilled. As we climb the stairs, she tells me in French that women also draw kolams indoors, in their puja rooms and often around the stove. She relishes the opportunity to be welcomed into a Brahmin home where she can see how women decorate the spaces which are most important to them. Lakshmi shows us her puja room which is decorated with small kolams and prayers written in Tamil.

The kolam is a wonderful example of how art is used as an everyday ritual in India. The kolam is auspicious because it protects, keeping the evil eye away, and welcomes visitors and of course the gods, especially Lakshmi, the goddess of the household, who brings prosperity.

This art is handed down from mother to daughter though sometimes it’s the household help who has the task to draw the daily kolam in front of the doorstep. Chantal feels that this tradition is not in danger of dying out, but she does notice a decline in creativity with the younger generation. That’s why she thinks the kolam contest held every year during the Mylapore festival is so important, because it stimulates the imagination of its participants. She is also happy to notice that more and more young women are taking part.

To learn more about Chantal’s work, visit her website.

21 January 2013

Read the sign III

Following the first and second editions, I've collected more funny and quirky signs to share here...

14 January 2013

Habits I’ve picked up in India

After living for a long time in a place, you tend to consciously or unconsciously pick up new habits. I’ve realized that after six years in India, I’ve picked up a few very Indian ways of doing things.

Some of them have to do with food and eating. Eating with the hands is one. This is not a habit I’ve picked up entirely, but I do prefer to eat certain foods with my hands: anything which is eaten with roti or other types of bread, for example. Eating with my hands was not something which came easily to me, especially when eating rice. I only really got used to this when I spent two weeks in a yoga ashram in Kerala and all the meals were served on metal plates with no cutlery. It’s not as difficult as it looks, it just takes some practice, kind of like eating with chopsticks. (By the way, I love eating with chopsticks!) So when it comes to rice, I prefer to eat with cutlery.

Which brings me to another cultural difference: the use of cutlery. Of course high-end restaurants in India will always have cutlery set out, but simple eateries will offer a spoon (sometimes you have to ask for one), or a fork and spoon, but never a knife. This is logical since prepared Indian food does not need any cutting, but when you’re used to eating with a fork AND knife, you really miss the knife – since part of its job is to move food onto the fork, and not only cut. I noticed that when not eating with their hands, many Indians prefer to eat with a spoon rather than a fork. Which reminds me of a meal I had with a group of friends in Brussels, one of whom was Indian. When he asked the waiter for a spoon to eat his meal, he got a strange look. Of course, unless soup is served, there will be no spoon provided. Otherwise, spoons are for small children who haven’t mastered using a fork and knife yet! But I have to admit that I now have to resist the urge to eat certain foods with a spoon…

"How come you can eat spicy food?" is a question I get a lot. Spicy food is something the taste buds adapt to quickly, so I don’t have a problem with this. But waiters still lead me to the 'non-spicy' dishes at buffets: “Have this Madam,” they say, "it’s bland."

Something I used to find odd in India is that sweet and salty foods are often served together. For example, if you’re invited for tea, you’ll probably be served a slice of cake along with potato chips. I found this strange at first, but I’m used to this now – but I have to eat the salty thing first!

Talking about salty things… another cultural difference when it comes to food is breakfast. A typical ‘Western’ breakfast is toast and jam, or cereal… ‘sweet’ things. In India, ‘salty’ and even spicy foods are eaten for breakfast. This is another habit I’ve picked up! Sometimes I crave South Indian food in the morning. This is something my husband still cannot stomach: at hotel buffets he heads to the toast and croissants, while I gravitate to the idli, vada and dosa counter. Which I eat with spicy chutneys of course!

Another food habit I’ve adopted is eating certain foods with ketchup. Samosas, sandwiches and fried noodles are usually served with this condiment, which I first found bizarre... But now I can’t eat fried noodles without it!

The rest of my ‘Indian’ habits have to do with clothing, footwear and grooming…

I’ve always loved wearing Indian clothes because they’re so comfortable and elegant. But I’ve started wearing colours like hot pink and orange – colours I would never dream of wearing at home! There, the usual wardrobe colour palette is quite toned down: white, black, brown, navy blue, maroon, olive green; anything ‘bright’ is sure to get a strange look or even a comment. But in India everything goes, the more colourful, the better!

A habit I’ve picked up (which my mother would not like) is being barefoot. When I was a kid, my mother would have a fit if I walked around barefoot indoors, even in summer. It was the sure-fire way to catch cold! It’s so nice to wear sandals all year round and not have to wear socks. As a result, it’s very uncomfortable for me to wear shoes, my sensitive feet are no longer used to this!

Because I spend so much time barefoot, my feet take quite the beating so pedicures have become a necessity. Which brings me to another very Indian ‘ritual’: the beauty parlour. I’ve already written about how beauty parlours are part of any self-respecting Indian woman’s routine. Pedicures, waxing and threading have become necessary little luxuries.

Coming to bathing, I’ve also adopted the Indian bucket bath. Of course bucket baths and ‘wet bathrooms’ are only convenient in hot countries. I like the Indian way of filling a bucket with hot water and using a small jug to pour water over the body. I’ve realised this is also an economical way to bathe and that you don’t need to use a lot of water to take a bath: less than a bucket!

Because of the hot weather my hair can get frizzy and unmanageable easily so I’ve also picked up another very Indian habit: oiling my hair! I discovered ‘non-sticky’ hair oil which doesn’t make hair look greasy, but just shiny and ‘tame’. This is a lot like hair serum, but cheaper and just as effective. I’ve also got into the habit of putting liberal amounts of coconut oil in my hair and leaving it in for an hour before washing it. The results are amazing!

So that’s my (somehow lengthy) summary of some of the Indian habits, rituals and practices I’ve picked up over the past six years!