28 February 2013

Drummers for hire

The sound of drumming is common in my neighhourhood, especially during festival season. There’s a temple in the next street so many noisy processions go by on festival days. And just a few doors away, is an office of the Congress party who like to have noisy ‘functions’, complete with long speeches yelled into a megaphone and of course firecrackers and yes, drumming. Funeral processions are also accompanied by drumming as a way of letting people know that someone has passed away.

The sound of loud drumming can’t go unnoticed, that’s why the city authorities regularly hire drummers to make a lot of noise as a tactic to embarrass tax evaders and get them to pay up. I have already written about this here and in the past week there have been several stories in the paper revealing the success of this tactic. The drummers show up in front of the tax offender’s house or business with a banner listing his name and the amount due, and start drumming away. And it works!

The sound of drumming is quite hypnotic and even trance-like. During festival processions there’s usually a few people (always men) dancing away to the frenetic beat of the drum as if in a trance. The vibrations of the drum are also very strong and you can feel them reverberating off your body just a few metres away; it’s almost uncomfortable.

So I’ve often thought about these drummers, who they are, where they come from and especially, how they manage to drum for so many hours. Recent articles in The Hindu and The Caravan have mentioned these drummers and something about their background.

Most of them have day jobs working as labourers, construction workers, auto rickshaw drivers, etc. They’re hired to play the drum (tamate in Kannada) at funerals or by political parties for their rallies, and as mentioned above, by the city authorities. The Hindu article reveals that they make about 300 Rs. each for a few hours of drumming.

Believe it or not, as I write this, I hear distant drumming… it could be a funeral procession, a political rally, or a tax defaulter!

Once during Ram Navami, while I was lying sleepless in the middle of the night, listening to the loud, crazy drumming, I wondered to myself: “Why kind of drugs are these guys on?” Seriously, they drum for hours non-stop, and not only is it very loud, it's extremely energetic and fast-paced. It must be exhausting (and deafening)!

The Caravan article shed some light on their superpowers. A senior drummer reveals: “Without alcohol it is impossible to play the tamate... there is a lot of vibration that comes from the tamate. If you don’t drink, your hand will start hurting after a while. If you’ve had enough to drink then you can keep playing the tamate continuously, come rain or shine.”

24 February 2013

A ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Recently I took a trip to Coonoor and Ooty, two hill stations in Tamil Nadu which are nestled in the Nilgiris mountains. The Nilgiris are part of the Western Ghats mountain chain. These two hilltop towns are situated at 2286 metres (Ooty) and 1850 (Coonoor) metres above sea level. Because of the altitude, people like to go here to escape the heat, especially during the summer months of April and May.

The two hill stations are connected by the famous Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built in 1897 and completed in 1908, the railway climbs from an altitude of 326 metres to 2203 metres on its way from Mettupalayiyam all the way up to Ooty, passing Coonoor on the way.

This is one of the most scenic and unique railway journeys in India. I made the trip from Coonoor down to Mettupalayiyam.

We passed through lush tea plantations, eucalyptus groves and dense forests. We also passed through over a dozen tunnels and over many viaducts. The views were breathtaking.

There are many things which are unique about the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. It runs for only 45.88 km on a 1-metre gauge single-track.

The track is a ‘rack railway’, a 'toothed' railway track. The train has cog wheels which interconnect with the rack rail. This is how the train can climb and descend the sharp inclines on the way. (See an example of a cog wheel in the photo above - and spot the monkey.)

The locomotive is steam-powered. During the journey, we stopped at each station along the way so that the locomotive could be filled with water and the wheels oiled (see above).

The train stopped for some time at Hillgrove station, giving passengers the chance to disembark, stretch their legs, buy cups of tea at the station’s kiosk and feed the many monkeys.

This was a charming and picturesque railway station where time seems to have stood still.

Mr Maraiyan is the station master at Hillgrove station (he looks very serious in the photo but is actually very jovial).

There are two trains running per day between Mettupalayiyam and Ooty. The train travels at an average speed of about 10km/hour so the trip from Coonoor to Mettupalayiyam took almost 2.5 hours. The cost of the ticket was only 5 rupees. This was definitely one of the most unique and scenic train journeys I’ve taken in India.

15 February 2013

Watermelon season

I love watermelon season. I noticed that Bangalore has two watermelon seasons. The first starts sometime in January. That’s when these huge piles of watermelons show up on the city’s sidewalks.

At night the piles are covered with big tarpaulins and I’ve seen lights and heard coughs coming from underneath, which means that the sellers must sleep with their watermelons (or pay someone to) – to prevent them from disappearing during the night!

They cost 20 rupees per kilo. Or less if you’re good at bargaining.

Another surprising thing is that any watermelon you choose is sure to be sweet and juicy.

Temperatures are starting to rise to the 30s now, and there’s nothing more satisfying than some fresh watermelon on a hot day!

08 February 2013

Film frenzy

In a country which has the world’s biggest film industry and where actors are considered to be demi-gods, new releases featuring the most popular actors are major events.

Hype is built up weeks before the release. There has been much talk of veteran actor Kamal Hassan’s newest release of the Tamil film Vishwaroopam. He mortgaged his house to make the film. Then the release was delayed in Tamil Nadu because Muslim groups opposed the film and there were concerns it could disrupt law and order.

I don’t go see Tamil films but maybe I should just for the entertainment value of the film-going experience. There seems to be more happening off screen than on screen!

Consider this article on the release of Vishwaroopam in the Coimbatore edition of The Hindu:

"It was a day they dreamed of for weeks. Fans of Kamal Haasan would never forget February 7 — the day Vishwaroopam hit the screens after the ban on its screening was lifted. Cut-outs, posters, T-shirts…Kamal Haasan was everywhere. The sound of drums and crackers rent the air as his fans danced their way into movie halls.

And when Kamal appeared on screen, fans whistled, hooted, screamed and threw their hands up in the air. Some even took photos of their hero on their mobile phones. Clad in a white kurta, Kamal, as the effeminate kathak dancer Vishwanath, drew applause for the slightest side-glance — he played the role so well. His fans lapped it up; their whistles for the song ‘Unnai Kaanadha’ were deafening. One could hardly hear the song!

Kamal’s first fight sequence had the audience up on its feet. With every slow-motion stunt, the screams grew louder. But there was absolute silence as the spy-thriller progressed."

You can read the whole article here.