Thursday, November 12, 2009

When mouse turned cat

Fifteen year old Amini was returning from Gokhale Memorial Govt Girls’school when her neighbour Kala’s mother gestured her urgently to come to their door. Amini quickly ran up to their door

‘. Shhh—not a word to anyone in your house or in the neighbourhood here ,’ Lalita mami cautioned her ,’Quietly go and bring to me the beautiful cross stitch tablecloth and the smart canebasket you made last week.’

To the confused looking Amini, Lalita mami explained briefly-“They are coming for Kala’s bride seeing ceremony. We have to show them some skills of Kala.She is not talented like you. I will return your tablecloth tomorrow. Now hurry and tell no one. Eh…remember “.It sounded more like a plea than like an order.

As Amini shook her head side- to- side rapidly in affirmative and prepared to leave , she caught sight of her Kala Akka smiling weakly from the inner room .

A month later, Kala Akka was married and gone, But Amini could never get to know how far her tablecloth and cane basket had helped in finalizing the marriage. But disquiet grew within her. Wasn’t it cheating? Again, why was a cross stitch tablecloth necessary to get husband? Was it not enough for Kala to be accepted for being a kind and gentle person?

Yet, how could she discuss it with anyone? She had not told even her mother whose crude and loud manner had often embarrassed her.. Her mother was sure to broadcast it all neighborhood and that won’t have been fair on Kala.

As time passed, she was to learn more. She saw a cousin rigorously practising singing ‘Samaja vara gamana’ for days together to get it perfect for the bride approval ceremony. So, decided Amini, this is why my parents have insisted on my learning Carnatic music, despite the distant travel and at the cost my studies, so that one day, I may be approved by the groom. But, what does a groom have to do to get the approval of the bride’s family?

The Question rose in the mind but no answers came.----neither from the mind, nor from the society.

One night, she put this question to her grand Athai, who had come for a short holiday. Athai let out a loud guffaw.’ Hoho, hihi, Boys have to do nothing!. It is enough for them to have a male organ.! Not even necessary for them to earn!!. Do you know that I was asked by my prospective groom’s mother to thread a needle as proof of my good vision? Further, I was asked to stretch out both my hands to show they were equal because my approval photo showing one hand resting on a flower stand aroused doubt in my cynical mother in law.!!

Amini was shell shocked. But Why????? How is it fair? Angry and confused, a lot of stormy questions rose and fell like waves in the mind. How is the matrimony market any different from the cattle market? Amini began to dread her turn.Whenever she saw a cat, she imagined herself to be a mouse in its paws!!How dreadful, this cat and mouse game. And we call it ‘approval’ ceremony??

The time arrived sooner than expected. Everything happened quickly unknown to her. Arriving home from Ashutosh college one evening, she found delicacies being prepared .Before she could protest, she was quickly done up and ushered into the presence of prospective law. But the groom was absent.” We are Ravi’s parents, I am GK and my wife is Thangam .Mr.Gopalakrishnan began the introduction.

Where is Ravi? - asked Amini.

‘He is in US and like an obedient son, has left the decision to us to choose his bride.’

But—how ??my parents too must see him, isn’t it ?‘– asked Amini logically.

Though taken aback a little,the gentleman smiled genially and said, ‘We have come all the way from Chennai to see you. Similarly, your parents can go and see him in US- no problem! I can show you his photo, though’

. Saying this, the man took out a photo from his pocket which showed a group of boys. ‘Ravi is the one with dark glasses,’ he spoke proudly.

Amini sizzled inside. First, he is in a group photo and then to top it, in dark glasses! Whew! How can one assess?

She could see her parents signaling to her to be silent and behave.

’”I hear you are studying English literature,….GK continued,’ …..Name some plays of Shakespeare”

So,the interview had begun.!!

Amini felt she was drowning in a wave of humiliation.A long pause followed. Her mother nudged her subtly.Her father looked anxiously at her. Amini looked blank. GK smiled complacently like a predator who has trapped his prey.Amini did not answer.

After awhile, the silence seemed oppressing and unable to bear it, GK repeated the question.

‘Who is Shakespeare?-I have never heard of him- Amini shot out with a tinge of defiance, much to everyone’s shock.

‘And also please know that I donot sing, nor cook, nor stitch’ -She quickly added, pouring out all her suppressed collective resentment of years.

Her mortified mother pinched her to be silent. But the words had escaped beyond retrieval. Her father was crestfallen. GK and his wife gazed at the floor.

It seemed like eternity before GK and wife walked out in a huff. The food and drinks remained untouched.

That night, no one spoke in Amini’s house. But this stillness was deceptive, like the calm before the storm. Somewhere, in a nondescript lane of Calcutta, undocumented by media a small spark of revolution had been kindled by a brave young girl.


Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Grinding Stone

Who knows when it came into existence! But this Attukallu as it is known has been a part of south lndia households since time immemorial. Literally translated, it means ,the moving stone which is an ancient tool used in all south Indian homes, for manual grinding of rice and pulses, mainly to make batters for the ever-satisfying idlis and dosas. Of late, it has fallen into disuse since the launching of electric grinders.

I am intrigued by the massive granite attukallu in our ancestral home which is over 110 years old. This is a fixed accessory on the kitchen floor near the wash area– an ancient concept to facilitate easy cleaning. Hemispherical in shape with a central cavity, the attukallu comes with a companion called Kozhavi, a rounded cylindrical shaped granite tool tapering at one end, and broader at the other. This kozhavi rests with broad end into the attukallu’s cavity.The narrower end of the kozhavi is held using the cupped palm over it to move it clockwise for grinding soaked grain.It is an intelligent device to manually grind large quantities of soaked grain into batter. Rotating the kozhavi in the cavity of attukallu crushes the softened grains easily .and it is a common practice to initiate little girls into this art of grinding early in life so that the overworked mothers have some respite.

If it could speak, our attukallu would surely have many tales to tell –both poignant and interesting. Tons of grain must have been pulverized by generations of daughters and daughters in law over a span of 100 years to produce thousands of gallons of batter to feed large extended families! One poor widowed aunt-Parvatham Athai- whose story moves me to tears, must have slogged over this attukallu for nearly 50 years in the era, when young widows were treated as domestic slaves.

The attukallu too bears the scars and wounds of ageing. Its edges, used repeatedly to break coconuts over the years, are jagged at the rim.The cavity has enlarged and the kozhavi has slimmed at waist due to protracted friction. It is overdue for rest now. At its retirement, it at least deserves some commendation!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Preserving Kerala Mural Art

Changes driven by technological innovations, mass media, contact between societies, competitions, and wars are sweeping traditional societies affecting their culture. Culture includes not only an integrated set of beliefs values and knowledge but also excellence in arts. Today, unfortunately, in our rat race , we seem to give little thought to the damage being inflicted on our culture of fine arts particularly in our temples. A national newspaper recently carried a story on the extent of vandalism happening in Kerala and Tamilnadu temples in the guise of renovation An extract from the report is given below

CHENNAI: An array of striking paintings has been whitewashed out of existence at the Rajagopalaswamy Kulasekara Alwar temple at Mannarkovil in Tirunelveli district. These were images of the coronation of Rama, the Dasavataram, Narasimha, Garuda, a wrestler fighting an elephant and so on. Estimates put their antiquity at 150 to 250 years.

More recently, murals of the late Nayak period were whitewashed at Muthalamman temple at Kodangipatti, near Karur.

Over the past several years, similar mural masterpieces have been whitewashed at the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, the Arunachaleswarar temple at Tiruvannamalai, the Vishnu temple at Tiruvellarai near Tiruchi, and Siva temples at Patteeswaram near Kumbakonam, Tiruppulivanam in Kancheepuram district and Vedaranyam, all administered by the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department of the Tamil Nadu government.

Similar vandalism has been witnessed at other temples in the State, including the Varadarajaswamy temple in Kancheepuram, the Lakshmi Narasimhar temple at Sevilimedu, and the Sanjeeva Rayar temple at Iyengarkulam, both near Kancheepuram.

This is sad news for the art lovers. Such incidents are only pointers to the fact that persons appointed in HRCE departments are either ignorant of the value of our heritage or willfully indulge in obliterating masterpieces which should make them liable for charges of criminal negligence. This also points to the urgent need to create awareness about this great heritage among our people particularly the youth and children.

Kerala mural art which thrived on royal patronage, has a rich tradition of religious themes based on principles of proportion, poise, gunas-sattvic, rajassic, tamasic which are symbolized by the colour.The uniqueness lies in the selection of earthy colours like ochre, saffron, from natural sources like herbs, grasses, stones, vegetables, fruits, roots etc, and the use of elaborate costume,, ornaments, etc. all of which, results in graceful compositions.

There is some comforting news too! A new genre of mural artists determined to revive this unique mural tradition are bringing about a lot of awareness among public. One such training programme conducted exclusively for women by S.K. Pottekat cultural Centre at Calicut was a trend setter. I was fortunate to be a participant.Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, Sri. K.K. Marar, scholar and artist, remarked that it was only befitting that women be trained as they are the rightful custodians of culture.!! Sri K.R. Babu , a senior mural artist and faculty at Kalagramam, Mahe, conducted the training which was highly appreciated by the participants and applauded by the media. Alongside is a photograph of my maiden attempt in Mural painting

Friday, September 18, 2009

Elephants as guests

Indian culture values hospitality- extended even to the unexpected visitors . I too was brought up imbibing this tradition .Recently, when I had a call from the local temple secretary just before the annual temple festival asking if I could help in an accommodation problem, I agreed to have him over to discuss. How was I ever to know the accommodation was sought not for humans but for three pachyderms?
Taken totally by surprise, I hardly had time to react I had my fears. What if the elephant brought down a tree? What if it kicked the brick wall? Dismissing my fears as unfounded, the team from the temple, underplayed it as if I was talking about handling 3 domesticated goats!

‘Nothing to worry! They are disciplined ‘gajaveerans” of Trichur pooram fame with excellent track records.!’ Having said it with finality , they moved briskly to the task of finding three tethering spots.

Things moved fast and very soon, three majestic tuskers –Krishnankutty, Karnan,and Ayyapan strode in royally and along with them , a large crowd of excited onlookers, and children shepherded by parents. I was dumbstruck to say the least as I wondered how to play host to everyone. But I had to do nothing. Everything happened by itself.!!

Suddenly,my place had turned into an open house . We watched as visitors took up positions volunteers made suggestions, children attempted touching the pachyderms, babies squealed in delight, youngsters clicked cameras. A goods van drew up with a load of palm leaves as dinner for the elephants. People lent a hand and soon unloaded the fodder into a mini mountain. Loads of plantain bunches appeared from nowhere. Someone switched on the pump and using the hosepipe began to spurt forth water at the elephants. The”Gajarajans’ enjoyed these jets of spray and soon the courtyard was one big mess. Alongside, the smell of elephant dung rent the air.

Movements were swift thereafter. People lent a hand in bathing feeding ,decorating the elephants for the function. It was the greatest experience in community spirit and in the togetherness of man and beast in celebration. The gates stayed open for day and night. After three days of festival, when the elephants left, strangely, all of us felt saddened as we do when a cherished guest leaves.. As we cleaned up the courtyard of the terrible mess of palm leaves, and dung, I felt a strange emptiness. The house was back to normalcy but strangely, the silence seemed overpowering. Like travellers in one’s journey of life, Karnan, Krishnankutty, and Ayyapan, came into our lives briefly, only to part forever, perhaps!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Annapoorna-The Food Giver

It is a small brass figurine of a crudely moulded Goddess with no fine etchings or embellishments. It is present in almost every Hindu home, particularly in all homes wherever an ancestor may have undertaken a pilgrimage to Kashi. All pilgrims buy this figurine as souvenir . While some keep it in the pooja room, others store it away where it may lie forgotten for years.
I grew familiar with it since childhood as it was part of the assortment of articles of daily worship in my parental home. I did not like its popping eyes, and found it funny to see it holding a ladle.. My mother would make us recite prayers for all deities and explain the significance of each.-Lakshmi for wealth, Saraswati for knowledge,Annapoorna for food…….. etc.. But, I was only keen to do well in exams and therefore I fixedly prayed to Saraswati alone. After all, father would give money and mother would give food!! I need not worry on that score.I forgot all about Annapoorna!!

Years later, after I had assumed charge of household and my children, I happened to come across a similar figurine locked away in my father in law’s cupboard. Overcome by nostalgia, I cleaned it and placed it in the pooja room. The priority of feeding the family now being uppermost in my mind, I began to dwell on the significance of this form. As all of us know, Fate tosses all of us at times.Unfortunately, our family too unexpectedly plunged into a deep lingering financial crisis . At times, I was not sure if days of hunger were ahead. While brooding sleeplessly one night, wondering how to handle the hunger of growing children, I thought of this figurine. Without loss of time, I brought her to my kitchen, placed it reverentially on the kitchen shelf, and surrendered my kitchen to her imploring her to keep feeding us. Every morning, I recited the Annapoorna stotram before commencing the frugal cooking. As a gesture, I EVEN POLISHED THE LADLE as if making a bid to revive it.
Call it faith or coincidence, the all merciful Annapoorni Devi responded to my prayers and all through the 10 plus years of crisis, there was some food every day. Not a day, my children had to go hungry. Post crisis, I still continue to keep her ladle polished and think that this wide eyed figurine is the most beautiful and precious of all possessions.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Kumaran, the mango man

It is difficult to say which was older- the huge mango tree in our compound or the mango plucker-Kumaran. He was part of the scene when I entered the household as a bride.He must have been about 50 years old then.He'd visit off and on but the visits were more frequent from February when the mango blossoms sprouted forth filling the air with a sweet scent. From that, he could predict how good the crop might be.He earned his livelihood by booking these as his contract to pluck and sell mangoes from most households in and around Calicut.
He 'd then come off and on- to pluck mangoes at various stages- as small tender ones for short term pickles, chutneys,and semi matured ones for curries and finally matured ones for ripening as fruit.His expertise in identifying, grading , sorting and evaluating mangoes could put to shame a qualified horticulturist.He delighted in spotting,handling and admiring mangoes.His eyes lit up when he gazed at any mango tree. In fact, he smelt of raw mango himself
By April, naughty school children throw stones at tempting mango bunches dangling on trees and bring them down. This menance of child raiders is much dreaded by all but nothing can be done except to prematurely pluck part of the crop. Invariably this led to losses in his transactions. More so with growing years when his diminishing vision and hearing let him down badly in the competitive market.Yet it did not deter him from contiuing to be in the trade till the age of 85.For,the mango tree was his bread, his skill, his life ,his delight and his strength.
Kumaran died last month. On a rainy day,the helper lad brought me the sad news.The mango trees, all over Calicut, were orphaned! Kumaran will come no more to them. I stared into the blankness helplessly. The gusty winds sent the branches quivering. the leaves rustled twisting and turning violently in the breeze letting off a deep mourning sound.The trunk shook sadly.The rain poured all night adding to the depressing mood.As the leaves from the highest branches poured forth streams of the water from the skies as their homage, the tree seemed to weep uncontrollably..Rarely can any mortal get such a touching farewell from nature's majestic trees.Adieu, Kumaran , You were Great.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Childhood Fascination

Unlike the present day, children in my generation were not decision makers. They had little freedom to express desires and had to contend with what they received. As a result, many desires -even simple ones - remained unfulfilled within. Some of these died away with growing years;some lay dormant biding the right time.
One such gnawing desire was to own and wear thin chains of colourful beads knotted in copper wire.These chains, though inexpensive, looked enticing and matched most occasions from casual to festive ones. I craved for owning one but finally gave up.
However,after nearly 50 years in time, when I spotted these chains, recently at an exhibition, I, now a grandmother, was overcome with nostalgia. I donot why I picked it up happily.Having bought it,I brought it home to feel and admire this art object of timeless beauty. Is there a child in every adult?
I donot know what to use it for now . Perhaps, I should give it away to some little girl in the street,who may be yearning for it...... that'd be ideal and perfect way of fulfiling my childhood desire.
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Thoughts and Voices by Radha Iyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.