Serendipity

There are times when churning out a column a week is torture; when you just want to throw in the towel and switch to an accounting job or something.  This column was written under such circumstance.  Very bad, as my young friend, Idanth would say.

 
The rare pleasures of serendipity

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It was at Atta Galatta that I discovered the pleasures of serendipity. Atta Galatta is Bangalore’s best bookstore, not because of the number and variety of books it sells—Blossom Book House on Church Street has more, but because of the ethos it creates.

The best among independent book stores foster an atmosphere that attracts book lovers and nurtures them in an environment that is civilized and urbane. Atta Galatta is one such place. The books here are chosen with a point of view—with an emphasis on vernacular and children’s books; independent and literary authors. I walked in one day and discovered naturalist M. Krishnan’s book, Of Birds And Birdsong.

How do you find books that you didn’t know you wanted? How do you find objects that you didn’t know you wanted? Online stores spend crores of rupees trying to solve this problem. They suggest objects based on your last purchases; they suggest books based on the “people who bought this book also bought” hypothesis. But no online retailer can match the serendipity that brick-and-mortar book stores engender.

The word serendipity comes from Serendip, or Sarandip, the Persian name for Sri Lanka; which itself came from Tamil (Cheran-theevu or Cheran-island); or Sanskrit (Sinhala-dvipa, or the island where the lions dwell). Horace Walpole, an English politician, came up with the word serendipity after listening to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes Of Serendip, based on Amir Khusro’s poem, Hasht Bihisht. It is a wonderful old-fashioned mystery in which the three princes solve the theft of a missing camel through a variety of clues that they happen upon. These heroes, in other words, were making discoveries, “by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”, according to the Oxford English dictionary.

As a concept, serendipity, or the notion of finding things that you aren’t looking for, is hugely seductive. Entire movie scripts hinge upon this idea of happenstance; chance; tumbling into love; finding a soulmate. It is as if the universe is conspiring to hand you something that you aren’t looking for; that you didn’t But is there a way you can engineer serendipity? I would even know you wanted. suggest that visiting a particular type of café or book store is one: where you meet people or find objects that will give you pleasure you aren’t searching for.

When I walked into Atta Galatta last week, I was looking for children’s books. It was amid a group of picture books that somebody had piled up on the counter that I found this book on birds. Although I’m interested in nature I rarely go into the naturalist section of any book store. In other words, I wouldn’t have found Krishnan’s marvellous book except for the serendipity of its presence atop a counter full of children’s books. It is this sort of thing that makes a compelling case for the presence and patronage of independent book stores.

When I visited, there were a group of Tamil poets arguing heatedly about the merits of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s books. At the next table were a group of artsy types (going by their attire), discussing a project while looking at slides on a laptop. Coffee and brownies appeared on order. Upstairs, a children’s book was being released. A short while later, a storytelling and poetry reading session commenced. Local poets gathered and spoke about their craft.

In shrinking urban spaces, there are a few locations that bring together intellectuals and ideas on a daily basis. In Bangalore, Koshy’s, the much loved coffee shop, is one such location. Cobalt Blue, a new shared-office space, aspires to be another. Part of the reason you visit these spaces is because you don’t know whom you will meet or what you will encounter. Of course, some of these encounters can be unnerving—the classic one being when you run into your ex at a location that was special to you. In such situations, the only thing to do is to fake amnesia or duck into the bathroom. The worst thing is that in most such locations that foster serendipity, the bathroom is usually “For Staff Only”, and needs to be accessed with a key.

I know someone who carries a bar of chocolate for what she calls “serendipitous encounters which have the potential of going horribly wrong”.` She simply hands a bar of chocolate and ends all conversation with that one gesture. “Fancy seeing you here,” she drawls. “Here, have some Ghirardelli chocolate. It’s their new line. Very artisanal.” And so on.

 

Shoba Narayan is reading M. Krishnan’s Of Birds And Birdsong, with a big box of Ghirardelli chocolates by her side. She cannot tell which is better. Write to her at the goodlife@livemint.com

 

 

Moevenpick

Yesterday, the chef at my reading at Moevenpick Hotel and Spa in Bangalore had done such a nice job with recipes from Monsoon Diary.

He had put a contemporary ‘five-star’ spin on the recipes from the book. My favorite was the poha-stuffed-in-papad and displayed by making holes in what looked like lavash bread. Very creative.
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Parsi gara

The sari I liked cost about 100,000 Rupees so I didn’t buy any from this line.

The grace and movement of ‘gara’
Our handcrafted products may be unusual, original, colourful, and wildly creative. But they lack finish
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Ashdeen Lilaowala creates ‘gara’ saris

It is fashionable amongst engineers and systemic solution experts to talk about India’s last mile problem. It applies to roads, power plants, and pretty much any type of construction, they will say. Indian workmen will work diligently and dutifully through the project. At the last mile, when things are to be smoothened and polished, they will lose interest, almost like a baby who suddenly gets tired. Fashion designers have another word for this: finish. Our handcrafted products may be unusual, original, colourful, and wildly creative. But they lack finish. Arguably, this same tenor of work ethics applies to the Aam Aadmi Party too, given as they are, with a penchant for histrionics without worrying too much about follow through. But this is not a column on politics. Rather it is about products, society and contradictions.
Products reflect society. Stands to reason, right? When you think of the cold perfection of a Mercedes or BMW, it stands to reason that they come from Germany. The perfect imperfection of a Japanese raku pot reflects the wabi-sabi aesthetic that the country is known for. India is a colourful, imperfect society and our products reflect that. Except in some areas: textiles for instance. Even among textiles, there are shades of imperfection.
Our woven fabrics are approximations. The peacocks, rudraksh beads and mango motifs that are woven into a Kanjeevaram or a Banarasi are not exactly alike. The trained eye can spot imperfections in the warp and weft of the weave. Often there are threads sticking out. The same applies to block-printing and often, it is these imperfections that are touted as a badge of honour.
But most Indian embroidery traditions are built on meticulousness. One among them being the Parsi gara embroidery, which originated in China but the motifs of which have been localized. To be confronted with a room full of Parsi gara saris is to experience what an obsessive eye can do to a garment. New Delhi-based textile designer, Peter D’Ascoli, is all admiration as he walks through the numerous gara saris that were exhibited last month at Cinnamon, a boutique in Bangalore. “Look at the different types of stitches used just to depict the petal,” he points out. “Look at how expertly they have depicted movement—through the curve of the flower.”
D’Ascoli makes stunning throws which incorporate printed fabric bordered by gara embroidery. Most of his textiles are exported but he showcases a few locally. Like cultural impresario Rajiv Sethi (a tired, overused term, I know, but there is no other way to describe Sethi), D’Ascoli is passionate about India’s intangible heritage: traditions like storytelling, singing, particular type of weaves and embroidery that are disappearing with the urbanization of India. “You have to link the garas to the notion of intangible heritage,” he urges. The Unesco Parzor project attempts to preserve tangible and intangible heritage, including these “threads of continuity”, among other things. These garas were once patronized by a wide swathe of society. They have now become saris used for special occasions.
Ashdeen Lilaowala is a textile researcher, and author of Threads of Continuity, under the aegis of the Parzor project. His New Delhi-based atelier also creates gara saris and Western style clothes. His partial solution to the problem of the disappearing gara sari is to tailor blouses, tops, long dresses and sheaths embellished with gara embroidery. The black cheongsam embroidered with white egrets that is hung at the entrance of Cinnamon is stunning; as are his blouses with butterflies flying all over it. “The multicolour butterflies used to be made with leftover thread,” he says. “That’s why they have many colours.”
Garas reflect an aesthetic and an ethos. They won’t resonate with south Indians who have grown up with Kanjeevarams and Chettinad cottons. We may appreciate the aesthetic of the garas but they won’t remind us of the Parsi ethos: they won’t remind us of attending Parsi weddings and seeing aunties and grandmothers clad in beautiful purple garas (the most significant colour). Objects of beauty become so for many reasons: for the memories they evoke and the intrinsic craftsmanship that is their signature. Even for those who live south of the Vindhyas, it is easy to marvel at the craftsmanship of these saris. As the Parzor website says, the gara saris reflect a confluence of four cultures: Persian, Indian, Chinese and European.
The gara embroidery originated in China when Parsi merchants lived and worked there. The embroidered Chinese silk was adapted to Indian conditions when they brought it “home” to Mumbai. Gone were the dragons, koi fish, and other Chinese icons. They were replaced with Indian flowers such as lotuses. Some Chinese symbols such as the egret and the up-curved pagoda roofs were kept. European floral motifs were adapted from French embroidering traditions. The design and placement of the embroidery was adapted to the drape of the sari with the maximum embellishment at the pallu.
For someone who isn’t Parsi and hasn’t been exposed to its oeuvre, the beauty of a gara sari lies in the precision of its embroidery. Unlike the other great embroidery traditions of India in Kutch, Lucknow and Kashmir, the beauty of the gara embroidery lies in the suggestion of movement. This isn’t a statically graceful paisley or a geometrically refined chikankari. To see the egret taking off from the folds of your sari; or to observe a heavy lotus flower bend gracefully towards your border is to imagine craftsmen bending over the garment you are wearing everyday for months on end, fastidiously embroidering these motifs so that not a thread is out of place.

Shoba Narayan doesn’t—yet—own a gara sari. She is just beginning to learn about the art.

Bangalore: MKOP (My kind of Place)

So many new restaurants in Bangalore. Even since this writing.

My Kind of Place: Bangalore bustling with activities
Shoba Narayan

January 2, 2014 Updated: January 2, 2014 14:23:00

One-page article

Why Bangalore?

This capital of the erstwhile kingdom of Mysore recently lost its king. The Mysore Maharaja died in early December, depriving the city of its last royal – the king had no sons. In recent years, however, Bangalore has become known not so much for its royal trappings (Rajasthan does that better) or for its software industry – which gave the world the phrase “being Bangalored” to indicate jobs in the United States that were outsourced to India – but for gentler pleasures, such as music and theatre.

This city of 5.5 million people is demographically diverse and the second-fastest-growing metropolis in India after Mumbai. Attracted by its cool climate and convivial citizens, North Indians and non-resident Indians have moved to the city and end up staying for years or decades. For tourists, the city offers pleasures throughout the year.

A comfortable bed

A slew of new hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton and the JW Marriott, have opened in the city.

With 277 rooms in the heart of the city, the Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com; 0091 80 4914 8000) is bedecked like a bride. Artwork from local and global artists confronts you at every curve. An aluminium Picasso stares at visitors at the entrance. Giant abstract paintings are hung in the banquet area. At the hair spa by Rossano Ferretti, the chief stylist Carlos dances around clients giving them a haircut. Three dining outlets serve Chinese, Indian and international cuisine. Double rooms for US$225 (Dh826).

The soaring, three-storey lobby of the new JW Marriott (www.marriott.com; 0091 80 6718 9999) is a welcome change from the congested traffic of Bangalore. The Bangalore Baking Company is designed along the lines of its Mumbai sibling and serves great coffee and cakes. The location, opposite Cubbon Park – a huge leafy oasis in the centre of the city – makes it perfect for those who like to run amid trees every morning. The Sunday brunch, with a balloon artist and face-painter, is popular with expat families. The rooms are well-appointed and the manager greets guests personally. Double rooms for about $150 (Dh551)

Find your feet

The best places to start are the pedestrian-friendly areas along Brigade Road and Commercial Street. Both are crowded, bustling and have hordes of locals and tourists bargaining and buying everything from swathes of fabric at Lal’s, jewellery at Khazana, saris at Prasiddhi Silks, holy basil tea at Fabindia and men’s shirts at Prestige. Bargaining is expected, although the prices are so low that it seems a waste of time. The National Gallery of Modern Art on Palace Road is a great place to escape the crowds. Walk down to the Hindu temple to see the statue of the monkey god Hanuman. Across the street from the gallery is Smriti Nandan, where yoga classes and cultural shows are held.

Meet the locals

Enjoy lunch at any of the dozen outlets at UB City (next to the JW Marriott). Toscano serves great pizzas; Fava has good salads; Rajdhani offers steamy and speedy Gujarati thalis (plates); Café Noir is best for sandwiches.

Afterwards, browse the shops for any of the luxury labels such as Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton or Kimaya for stylish Indian clothes. Get a friend to take you to the Bangalore Club to see old Bangalore families – uncles and aunties – sit on the lawns and gossip. The Venkatappa Gallery has fifth-century sculptures and coins. Right next door is the Visvesvaraya Science Museum, which is great for kids to run around in. Both are near Cubbon Park. With Bangalore’s pleasant weather, you can walk through the trees even in the middle of the day and not feel the heat.

Book a table

Sunny’s on Lavelle Road is among the oldest stand-alone restaurants in the city and serves consistently good European food. Try the baked Brie. Next door is the Smoke House Deli, with quirky black-and-white cartoons on the walls and simple soups, salads and sandwiches. Walk next door to Tattva for high-end Indian food and further down to Glasshouse for good pizzas. Olive Beach is set in a lovely bungalow and serves Mediterranean food and a popular Sunday brunch. The sprawling grounds of the Taj West End is home to one of the best Indian restaurants in the city, Masala Klub. Similarly, the Leela Bangalore’s Jamavar restaurant is popular for business dinners.

Shopper’s paradise

Jayanagar 4th Block Market is the place to see the locals buying puja and altar items, plastic garlands, decorative curios, scarfs and shawls. Jayanagar is home to Angadi and Nalli Silks, which have great choices for those wishing to buy cotton and silk saris. The Leela Galleria, which adjoins the Leela Hotel, has a nice selection of boutiques including Anokhi, the Oxford Bookstore and Plantation House for simple clothes. Raintree, which is in a lovely old bungalow, showcases Indian designers like Ritu Kumar and Amrapali.

What to avoid

The touts on Mahatma Gandhi Road, particularly outside the curio shops known as “cottage emporium”. These so-called government shops sell overpriced handicrafts of poor quality.

Don’t miss

Bangalore’s Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, which were designed by Tipu Sultan, with its ancient rock formations, organic shops and old trees. The Rangashankara and Jagriti theatres play host to shows and plays through the year.

Go there

Etihad flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Bangalore. The journey time is about four hours and return flights start at Dh2,000, including taxes.

weekend@thenational.ae

Diwali Generosity Challenge

An acquaintance pointed out that this wasn’t in my website. Given it is the Giving Season, putting it back here.

The diwali generosity challenge

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan
Comment E-mail Print First Published: Thu, Oct 28 2010. 11 57 PM IST

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Money-wise: Caring Friends makes charity easy, doing due diligence on your behalf.
Updated: Thu, Oct 28 2010. 11 57 PM IST

This one is for the NRIs and if any of you feels impelled to pass it along to, say, a Pandit, Khosla, Jain or Harilela, be my guest. This one’s for all you Silicon Valley and Wall Street titans; the Singapore and Hong Kong bankers; and the European jet-setters out of Antwerp and London.

Remember those diaspora Diwali parties when a group of us would sit around, lamenting about how to give back to India? About how to find a transparent, accountable NGO that worked without massive overheads?

When I moved back home five years ago, one of the goals I set myself was to find such an organization. It’s taken me this long but for all my do-gooder friends in the Indian diaspora: I have an answer for you. Read on.

I am sitting at home, serving upma and lemon sherbet to a bird-like, smiling man. His name is Rameshbhai Kacholia and he is here to persuade me to visit Kolkata to see two of the NGOs that he is associated with. I have invited him over to check him out; do some due diligence. We have exchanged sporadic emails for the last two years and finally are meeting in person.

Kacholia, 73, and his close associate, Nimesh Shah, co-founded Caring Friends, a Mumbai-based humanitarian organization that supports over 30 NGOs all over India. They expect to raise Rs 10 crore this year from all their “Friends” across the globe. The money is channelled directly to each NGO depending on donor interest.

“There is no legal entity called Caring Friends so we can’t and don’t accept cheques in our names,” says Kacholia, who pays for his office, travel and related photocopying costs personally. “The goal is to operate with zero overheads so that every paisa reaches the NGO that it is intended for,” he says.

Their American partner, the Arpan Foundation, is federally registered for tax deductions. If you donate $10,000 (around Rs 4.45 lakh) earmarked for, say, Baba Amte’s Maharogi Sewa Samiti, the money is transferred to India in full. Arpan bears the bank transfer charges. Isn’t this what we were all looking for?

Kacholia and Shah (who arrives the next day) are in Bangalore at the invitation of Trilochan Sastry, dean of IIM Bangalore and a long-time “Friend”. They are meeting students from IIM; the Wipro Foundation; the Infosys Foundation’s Sudha Murthy; and the Arghyam foundation. They want to introduce Arghyam to an NGO called Dilasa Sanstha, which does watershed development in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, the area with the greatest number of farmer suicides. Dilasa’s founder, Madhukar Dhas, is travelling by bus to Hyderabad and then flying to Bangalore to meet the Arghyam team. Dilasa needs Rs 1.45 crore for a project. Caring Friends plans to raise Rs 60 lakh and is approaching Arghyam for the rest.

As we chat, Kacholia receives a phone call from a Friend, Srikanth Belwadi, a product manager at Google. The Google Inc. Charitable Giving Fund of Tides Foundations has just donated $150,000 to Snehalaya, one of the NGOs they work with.

After leaving me, Kacholia and Shah plan to visit Unnati in Bangalore, an NGO which provides vocational training with guaranteed job placement for underprivileged youth. Caring Friends has pledged to help Unnati grow to 300 centres all over India in the coming years. Already, they are connecting Unnati to NGOs in Bharuch and Ahmedabad where there is a natural fit. “When we approach NGOs, we tell them that we are not merely a cheque-cutting agency,” says Kacholia. “We want to help them grow and often they help each other.

For instance, two Friends in Singapore wanted to give Vinayak Lohani of Parivaar in Kolkata Rs 40 lakh. Vinayak told them that he only needed 20 and the other Rs 20 lakh could be given to Mamoon Akhtar, who also works in Kolkata.”

Shah heaps praise on Lohani and calls him the “reason that we are all here, doing what we do”. Usually, he says, NGOs are very proprietary about their donors and keep the names to themselves. Not Lohani. “In this last year, out of the Rs 10 crore we raised, about Rs 2-3 crore of (that) came from donors who were sent to us by Vinayak. He is very generous with sharing his donor contacts to other NGOs.”

Lohani and Akhtar are their “two gems in Kolkata”, they say. Kacholia heard about Akhtar and his organization Samaritan Help Mission over 10 years ago. An article in The Asian Age praised Akhtar’s efforts to educate the underprivileged in the slums of Tikiapara, Howrah. Kacholia got his son to visit the area and thus, their association began. “Most of our founders don’t even take an honorarium from the organizations that they started and serve,” says Kacholia. “Mamoon worked as a librarian for a few hours every day to earn the Rs 3,500 he needed for his living expenses. Vinayak Lohani is an IIT, IIM graduate whose father was in the IAS. His mother sends money for his living expenses but he banks it and gives it away during tsunami and other crises. Girish Kulkarni teaches at a university and gives 50%of his salary to Snehalaya.”

I call Akhtar in Kolkata to verify this. Is it true, I ask, that he doesn’t take money from his organization. “Yes, didi,” says Akhtar, even though this is the first time we are speaking. I am oddly touched. “But did Ramesh uncle tell you that he has been paying me an honorarium of Rs 6,000 per month for the last several years?” I also learn that Kacholia is paying Rs 15,000 per annum for the education of Snehalaya founder Girish Kulkarni’s daughter.

Every NGO that Caring Friends works with is resolutely secular; not bound by caste, creed or religion. Each has been “audited” by Caring Friends. Once an NGO comes to their attention, Kacholia and Shah follow it for a full year before bringing the NGO in to make a presentation to the larger group. “Either my family or Nimesh’s family donates money to these new NGOs, not ad hoc amounts like Rs 50,000 or Rs 60,000 but substantially—in the six figures,” says Kacholia. “So that in case the money is misused, it is only ours that is lost. Thankfully, none of the organizations we have worked with for the last 10 years have misappropriated even a single paisa.”

“Why don’t you visit Kolkata and meet Mamoon in person, beti?” he asks. At some point during the last two years, I have gone from calling him Mr Kacholia to the Americanized Ramesh bhai to uncle. He prefers uncle; he is an old-fashioned Indian gent and he has taken to calling me beti.

I may go to Kolkata but it is far easier to simply write a cheque, particularly if catalyst organizations such as Caring Friends can do your due diligence for you. All you need to do is tell them your passions. Is it environment, sanitation, education, vocational training or preserving traditional crafts? Whatever your interest, Caring Friends can cherry-pick a cause. You donate your money and get some good karma in the process.

The point here is not to endorse one agency, although I do endorse them. The point is that there are numerous such agencies that are doing excellent work in a transparent, accountable manner. Finding the right one is always a challenge, particularly if you live abroad. Caring Friends is one way to route your money to the right cause but there are several others. If you come across any, please bring it to my attention. And please do consider giving generously this holiday season. Happy Diwali!

Caring Friends can be contacted at rameshbhai.kacholia@gmail.com or mail2nimesh@gmail.com

Shoba Narayan may visit Kolkata for the first time in her life fairly soon. She has a Parivaar there that she wants to see. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

(Disclosure: Shoba Narayan’s husband is a trustee at Arghyam Foundation.)

Male Feminist

Feminism is important to me, but my stance as a feminist is quite confusing, even to me. I was raised to compromise and many times, I do. What is the difference between compromising and copping out? I am still figuring out stuff. A group of friends and I had a dinner conversation once. If you spouse cheats on you, would you walk out? To my surprise, one of the most intelligent and articulate woman in the group said that she wouldn’feminist--621x414t– walk out, that is. She is quite famous in India and widely respected. My point is that she is no doormat or sissy. Another woman-friend of mine who is the mother of two boys said that she wouldn’t walk out. She is a scientist (Ph.D. to boot) and said this. Both these women had reasons that made sense to me. But I would walk out. That’s what I said anyway, even though I am not quite sure on this.

This article is a start in my trying to figure out this feminism thing.

Sat, Mar 16 2013. 12 10 AM IST

The new feminist is male
For feminism to continue to be relevant, men need to be part of the movement and the conversation
Shoba Narayan

On 12 January, men came to Cubbon Park, Bangalore, dressed in skirts. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP
Recently an advertisement titled Soldiers Wanted has been making the rounds. “Not to guard the borders,” says the ad. But to stand up for women. As I watched the ad, I experienced the knee-jerk reaction familiar to modern women. Come on, I thought. Women don’t need soldiers—or protectors. They need respect. But that really is what the ad says in spite of its unfortunate beginning. It shows men in various jobs and asks them to stand up for women; to “respect” women. Not once is the word “protect” used. I checked.
Feminism is a loaded, misunderstood word. Even Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo! who is in the news these days because of her work-life policy, describes feminists as “militant” and having a “chip on the shoulder”. Off-putting as that sounds, both those descriptions are true. In 1968, 400 American women gathered outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to protest against enforced standards of femininity. They marched, held up posters, and threw pots, pans, aprons, false eyelashes and other female accoutrements into a “freedom trash can”, to symbolically rid themselves of the constraints society placed on them.
Although news reports are mixed about whether these women actually burned their bras, the press coined the word “bra-burning” to describe feminine rage. They compared feminists with angry Vietnam war protesters who burned their draft cards. So, yes, feminism has a history of militancy. As for the chip on the shoulder, feminists have that too. That is because feminists are underdogs; and like underdogs everywhere, they take umbrage easily. Indians ought to relate to this. We are famous for taking offence at perceived slights, particularly from foreigners. Show me someone without a chip on their shoulder and I’ll show you…a baby. When you get hurt by life, you develop a chip on your shoulder.
What is distressing is the number of young women who hesitate to embrace feminism, while enjoying its benefits. These are young college girls who enjoy the fruits of the battles that women before them have fought. Yet they hesitate to identify themselves with the movement.
Feminism needs to rid itself of its militant carapace in order to make it palatable to more young women. The term—and the movement—needs to be softened somehow to become relevant to the needs of the day. There is one way to do this: through men. Quixotic as it seems, male involvement is necessary to legitimize and popularize the feminist movement. Hence the question: Are you a male feminist? Are you, dear male reader, a feminist? What does this term mean to you?
On 12 January, 25 men in Bangalore wore skirts in Cubbon Park to protest the New Delhi gang rape; and the suggestion that it was the way women dressed that attracted sexual assault. I emailed a few of them to ask their views on feminism. “First of all, it wasn’t a protest. It was an awareness initiative,” said one. Okay, I stand corrected. First principle: Rid a movement of its combative edge. The men got that at the get-go.
I asked the men if they would consider themselves feminists. To my surprise, many said “yes”.
Ajay Kumar, a fifth-year law student at Christ University, Bangalore, wore a skirt “because it was important to show people that gender is a social construct and social constructs can be destroyed”.
Adithya Mallya, an entrepreneur who co-organized “Skirt the Issue” with his girlfriend, Samarpita Samaddar, echoed the views of most of these men. “Feminism means equality,” he said. “Treating women equally means that both the good and bad treatment are done away with. One should not restrict a woman from opening a door. She has every right to.”
I quite enjoy men opening doors for me, even though I consider myself a feminist. But Mallya has a point and it reflects why gender equality is so complicated. On the one hand, you can consider gestures such as opening the door for a lady to be small courtesies. On the other, they feed into the “man saving woman” trope that is the hallmark of most Disney movies and children’s stories ranging from Cinderella to Snow White. Why should men save women? Why can’t a woman take care of herself?
M.V. Rajeev Gowda, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and a member, central board, of the Reserve Bank of India, is more cautious and reflects the view of many men I know. Although he is committed to the principles of gender equality, he says, he would hesitate to proclaim himself a feminist because “it seems like a loaded term with an element of confrontation built into it”. Gowda has organized protests against moral policing and wants to correct women’s under-representation in politics. He walks the talk even if he doesn’t cop to the term. “There are many people, especially men, who through their quiet actions and support for women’s rights…are true feminists without the combative edge.”
I know scores of men like this—fathers, sons and brothers. These are men who would hesitate to call themselves feminists even if they behave as if they are. This then is the way forward. Men aren’t the enemy; they are allies. In order for feminism to continue to be relevant, men need to be part of the movement and the conversation. We need their help to take the abrasive edge off this term. We need men to make feminism cool.
Are you a male feminist?
Shoba Narayan admires male feminists. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

War Horse

This one is for Dhruv & Noor for teaching me to love a horse; and for Idanth for providing me with the unforgettable image of a desert rider.

  • Posted: Thu, Jan 19 2012. 7:49 PM IST
The poetry of a horse on the move
Horses are capricious animals that don’t know their own strength

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

 Pappu is nuzzling my neck. He smells of hay and heaven. His hot breath fills my nape as he nudges my tussar silk dupatta aside. The material must tickle his nose because he does something I’ve rarely seen horses do: He grins.

“Hrrummph,” he neighs and takes a playful bite of my shoulder.

“Ouch,” I reply and step away. Pappu stomps his feet and bangs on the aluminium gate. He wants out of the paddock. He wants to run in the afternoon sun and feel his mane fly up joyously. Like in the movies.

 

In motion: Night, an installation from sculptor Sayaka Ganz’s Emergence series. Photo: courtesy Act4.co

In motion: Night, an installation from sculptor Sayaka Ganz’s Emergence series. Photo: courtesy Act4.co

 

Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adaption of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book War Horseopened last month with great fanfare in the US (it releases in India on 11 February). Kate Middleton apparently wept while watching the premiere, as did Spielberg when he watched the stunning theatrical adaptation, still playing in London’s West End. If you happen to go to London, be sure to see the show which features magnificent life-size puppets that eerily resemble horses. Chronicling the love between boy and horse, War Horse is the latest in a long line of love stories between man and beast. 

Horses—Equus ferus caballus. Why do these animals command such devotion? Ever since they were first domesticated in Central Asia (Ukraine and Kazakhstan) around 4,000-3,500 BC, horses have inspired painters and sculptors, most recently Deborah Butterfield, Marcia Spivak and Andy Scott. A horse painting by George Stubbs fetched $35.9 million (around Rs186.6 crore) in July in a Christie’s auction. My favourites are Chinese watercolours, which capture the energy of horses. If you want to give a horse rider a fabulous gift and have a big budget, I recommend Sayaka Ganz’s stunning sculptures of horses, made of reclaimed materials, including spatulas and other kitchen utensils. Google “Sayaka Ganz Emergence” and you’ll see what I mean.

Why do humans feel affinity towards certain species and not towards others? Why do we view elephants with awe and hippos with dispassion, if not distaste? Does it have to do with how an animal looks; or its usefulness to us? What are the parameters that humans use to connect with another species?

Pappu lives at the Equestrian Centre for Excellence (ECE) in Bangalore. He has almond-shaped limpid brown eyes. Every now and then, he swats flies with his tail, munches grass and whinnies softly. They all have the same eyes, these animals: dogs, cows and horses. They vary in size but look dark, sombre, beguiling. You see your reflection in them. You could swim in them if you were a pixie. They offer you a glimpse of history—not the near-sighted mortal history as we know it; or even from the Indus Valley, or Egyptian civilizations. This history is from a long time ago, when humans were Neanderthals and wild beasts roamed the world.

Have you seen a wild horse run? Have you seen a black stallion shake its mane, buck, rear, canter and neigh? Have you had the privilege of watching a wild animal’s eyes whiten as it encounters human attempts to break it down? Have you watched a horse froth at the mouth as it tries to break free from the rope? Have you, I ask, had that privilege? I have. It was unforgettable.

ECE is managed by Nitin Gupta, 37, an award-winning rider and coach. A Delhi boy, Gupta now lives and works in Bangalore. He talks about the world of riding with both passion and despair. Riders may love their animals but they also have to answer uncomfortable questions: What do you do if your horse is sick the day before a big game? An easy option is to pump the animal with steroids or painkillers to get it through the event. Horses keep secrets—till they fall sick.

Gupta coaches young riders now, many of whom have gone on to win national and international awards—Fouad and Aliaskar Mirza; Maryk and Anantya Sahney; and Aliya Dasgupta. For the young children who come to ECE, riding offers a thrill that is hard for a non-rider to understand. It is like driving a Formula One car, except one with a mind of its own—like the movie Herbie Goes Bananas.

I used to ride horses at Agram, a military campus in Bangalore. Our coaches were Rajasthani men who, Gupta says, have a natural instinct for horses and riding. At Manvar Resort, Jaisalmer, a desert camp owned by a friend, I watched a turbaned Rajasthani rider literally tie a six-year-old boy to him and gallop through the sand dunes, inculcating, perhaps, a lifetime of love for these superb speedy beasts. Great riders find that balance between control and respect. They know when to rein in a flighty creature which, arguably, is a skill that can be used on high-strung lovers. Horses are capricious animals that don’t know their own strength. Again, the same can be applied to spouses. Put this way, riding a horse is great preparation for working on a relationship. But that’s not the reason most people ride.

You ride to gain a measure of peace; you ride to be at one with nature; you ride to feel the elements on your skin. Mostly, you ride because you are a privileged member at the top of the food chain and the animal that you sit on has been generous enough to carry you. With this right comes responsibility and that perhaps is what all horse centres ought to instil in their student riders.

Shoba Narayan gifted her dupatta to Pappu so that he could keep on grinningWrite to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

Fashion Story: Grasshopper

Altered notions: recycling last year’s fashions

Shoba Narayan (Writer)

Mar 22, 2010

 

It is a problem that afflicts every fashion designer: what to do with last season’s clothes that didn’t sell? In India, unlike the US or Europe, there are no luxury consignment stores or outlet malls where designer “seconds” can be sold at discount. Instead, says the designer Joe Ikareth, the “dead stock” would just lie in boxes in warehouses because “the label was too precious to just give clothes away”. So he began thinking about ways around this – ways of reinventing and recycling last season’s stock, something that he does with his own designs.

Ikareth graduated from the prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi in 1996 with an award for Best Design Collection. He then worked with the couturier Suneet Varma, experiencing the business of Indian fashion first-hand. Four years later, Ikareth moved back to his native Kerala to set up an atelier. He uses local fabric and traditional techniques of embroidery and woodcutting, but his design sensibility is quirky. He says that he is inspired by the movement of clothes on the acrobats and dancers that he used to design for in New Delhi. But, he says, the image of designer clothes lying dormant in empty warehouses stayed with him through the past 15 years.

Two years ago, he approached the owners of Grasshopper in Bangalore, where he retails, with a bold idea. How about getting a group of designers together to collaborate on last season’s leftovers? They would exchange their creations and transform them into something unlike the original. The owners of Grasshopper, Sonali Sattar and Himanshu Dimri – a husband and wife team who design linen and silk dresses under the label Hidden Harmony – were immediately enthusiastic. They approached some designers, and, in June 2008, six young Indian design teams sat down in Bangalore and came up with TransForm.

“The idea was to give a new dimension to leftover stock so that it doesn’t pile up,” says Krishna Murthy, who designs leather handbags and pouches. “Since we all came from different design backgrounds and principles, we thought it would be interesting to see how we could transform each other’s pieces.” In addition to Ikareth, Sattar and Dimri the original six design teams were Atul Johri, who makes jewellery, candleware, vases and lights using traditional craft techniques; Saviojon, who is frequently cited as one of the rising stars of fashion; Murthy who worked with leather among other things, and the designers Jason Cherian and Anshu Arora, who play with textures and details for their fashion and home products under the label A Small Shop.

“It was wonderful how we all connected and agreed on how things should be taken forward,” says Sattar. For instance, even though they ended up selling the TransForm designs due to public demand, they set out to be a “conceptual exercise without the pressure of commercial output”, as Ikareth says. Also, says Sattar, they originally wanted to make the final products label-less because, in a sense, TransForm was about subsuming the individual ego for a collective one.

She points to a Hidden Harmony dress that Saviojon converted into a blousy top. “Customers liked that they were getting two labels instead of one, so we ended up leaving the labels behind,” she shrugs. The designers agreed that they would share equally in the proceeds from the sales, since the final products were design amalgamations. For the first TransForm event, which happened in November 2008, each designer had four months to create their piece. Ikareth made a fabric wall using material from other designers into which clothes were sewn in. Viewers could put their hands, legs and faces into a piece, “thereby transforming themselves into a new character”, while a photographer documented the entire process and installation.

For this year’s TransForm, the designers chose Alice in Wonderland as the theme to link the products together. Ikareth has created a line of clothes with bags stitched into them so that the clothes fold into the bags. “Poor Alice left for Wonderland in such a hurry that she was really unprepared,” says Ikareth. “Using this idea, I created a Things to carry to Wonderland line in which all the products had a dual purpose: pillows, bags and cushions could transform into skirts, pants and tops. This way you had something soft to lay your head on and spare clothes to change into if ever you find yourself stuck down the rabbit hole.”

The other designers came up with equally creative products: leather necklaces, appliqued hats, dresses converted into lamps, frilly blouses and shirts that used to be trousers. Most interesting, however, is the contrasting design sensibility evident in the difference between each designer’s original products, displayed in Grasshopper’s downstairs area, and the TransForm products, displayed upstairs. Downstairs, the clean lines and minimalist sensibility of each designer is obvious. Upstairs at the TransForm display space, everything is wildly exuberant, colourful and whimsical.

“We all had loads of fun and learnt to work on mediums that we probably wouldn’t have tried since our work is quite specialised,” says Johri. “No one was competing with each other. Rather, we had the luxury of cutting open works of other designers without any limitations and creating something quite unique.” In addition to Transform, Johri has also been invited by The United Nations Development Program and India’s Khadi and Village Industries Commission to develop paper out of banana fibre and launch a series of banana fibre paper lights for the first time in Southeast Asia. He also works with the talented artisans of the Channapatna district outside Bangalore, famed for their wooden toys. Johri has used their talents to create a range of lacquerware lifestyle and fashion products. For TransForm, Murthy made a belt out of some coloured wooden beads from the range. Saviojon took a bright purple silk skirt that was originally a Hidden Harmony design and converted it into a halter-neck dress. The Hidden Harmony duo, in turn, took a transparent blue Saviojon top and added vivid red and yellow borders.

On opening night a few weeks ago, more than a hundred people thronged the exhibition space, trying on clothes and playfully using skirts as headscarves or blouses as vests – all of which was immensely fulfilling for the designers. As Ikareth says: “Fashion isn’t a design that you wear; it is a thought you express. My clothes are represented by a stylised dragonfly label and do not carry my name. It is important that every single piece is first an object with its own independence; later the garment takes on a personal note depending on who wears it.”

For each of these politically conscious young designers, TransForm wasn’t merely a way to revamp their clothes or themselves. They view it as a way to transform the world: “The textile industry contributes in a major way to global warming. TransForm is our effort to give back to nature.”