Rajinikanth the icon.

Had fun writing this piece.  Going to watch Kabali today.

23 July 2016 | E-Paper

All is well in the Rajini world

You don’t go to a Rajinikanth movie for the plot. You go for the comfort it gives


The Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali released in theatres on Friday

 

To understand the hold that Rajinikanth has on his fans, you have to meet my ex-driver, Robert. An archetypal Rajini fan, Robert dresses, walks and talks like Rajini. Conversations with him are a triumphant reminder that while English is the language of logic and analysis for us Indians, our mother tongue is the language of the heart. It is Tamil that I turn to when I want to plead or persuade. And like many of our great vernacular tongues, Tamil lends itself to exquisite hyberbole. What passes of as conversation in Tamil would sound like a film dialogue when restated in English.

Robert quit working for us for two reasons: he wanted to open a restaurant and he was tired of my accusations that he was drinking away his salary every time he came to work with red eyes.

“Modom,” he told me. “I follow Rajini. Not just me. My whole family. Yes, I did drinks. My father got spot out in a lorry accident because of drinks. My mother asked me for a promise from her deathbed. ‘Dai, Robert,’ said she. ‘Give up drinks.’ But I couldn’t. Not then. But when Thailavar told that drinks is bad, I quit immediately. On the spot,” said Robert just before he quit.

It was Robert I turned to when I wanted first-day-first-show tickets for Kabali in my neighborhood Lavanya theatre. I was tired of all the trainers in my gym crowing about snagging tickets. I called every theatre in Bangalore, Chennai, and every town in a 400 kilometre radius, pleading for a ticket. They laughed—like Rajini, I might add. And like how, I, in unconscious imitation of Thalaiva, laugh.

“Even God cannot give you a ticket to Kabali,” said one particularly uppity lady from Abirami Theatre in Erode. “Why God? Even Thalaivar cannot get you a ticket. Ahh-hahahaha.”

I could imagine her rolling her eyes heavenward, like Rajini does when he laughs. I looked heavenward for guidance. God sent me an image of Robert.

Robert knew the moment he saw me waiting outside his children’s school at 8 a.m. He tried to escape by pretending he hadn’t seen me. I appeared like Rajini as he made the turn into Coles Road. I stood in the middle of the road, planted my feet apart, removed my sunglasses and twirled it around my finger. Unlike with Rajini, my sunglasses fell on the road and cracked. That is why Rajini is Rajini—he wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his rage. My sunglasses crack and cry with a mere twiddle of my thumb.

Robert, without his wife, Mona-darling (actually, that’s not her name), braked his moped in front of me and sweated.

“Robert, you have to make a sacrifice,” I said without preamble.

“Modom, ask me for my blood. Ask even for my children’s blood. But don’t ask for this. I fall at your feet.”

“Remember, Robert, you owe me Rs. 30,000. You said you wouldn’t forget. Well, this is your chance to remember. I want those tickets.”

“My wife will kill me,” said Robert sullenly. In that moment, I knew I had him.

“It isn’t the first show. I can only give you one ticket.”

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly it is not an objective exercise.  It is not even about taste.  Rajini movies for me, aren’t really about plot, character or cinematography. They are about ethos, dialogues, predictability and Rajini-style. They are about how Rajini says his character’s name, whether it is Padaiyappa or Arunachalam or Basha or Muthu. I love them all for complex contradictory reasons that have to do romance, nostalgia, and yes, loss of a stage of life. Rajini is a way of connecting with the patch of earth that I call home.

For a man with two daughters, the chauvinism inherent in Rajini films makes my blood boil. His heroines play to every traditional stereotype, beginning with their names. I mean, who names their daughters Kumudavalli (heroine in Kabali) or Tamilselvi (in Sivaji) or Ranganayaki (Muthu) these days? The names set the tone for the character. Rajini heroines speak softly, dress demurely, jump if a man appears near them, and don’t look a lover in the eye. Come on. Are you telling me that Rajini raised his daughters in this fashion? And how do his two girls put up with this? An assertive woman with spunk is cast as the villain in his films. Ramya Krishnan played this role unforgettably in Padayappa and almost stole the show from the superstar. But you don’t go to a Rajini movie for its stereotypical heroines or predictable plot: Rajini is a poor servant or don, with a heart of gold. He kills all the villains and snags the girl. That about covers the storyline of pretty much every Rajini movie. You go to a Rajini film for the comfort it gives. Europe may be going to hell in a handbasket. Christine Lagarde may liken Brexit to 1914 when World War I started. America may be caught in the throes of a fulminating childish narcissist who thinks the country is like a giant Legoland where fences can be erected. But all is well in Rajini land. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the women are sweet and don’t answer back.

Watching a Rajini movie in a multiplex is a total waste of time. Its pleasures come from the “tharai-ticket” or floor-seats, where you are caught in the warm embrace of other rabid fans who are whistling and screaming so loud that you can barely hear the dialogues that you know by heart anyway.

It will be the same at Lavanya theatre. I know the drill with every Rajini movie. There is a thumping irrational exuberance when the screen comes to life. The unabashed whistling and shouting. I take earplugs, and they aren’t much help. This continues throughout the movie. Every time Thalaivar appears, we jump up and pump our fists. When he announces his name with great style, whether it is “Badshah,” or “Kabali-daa,” we all shout along prayerfully. When his face morphs into a tiger, our eyes riveted on the screen. After a particularly good stunt, when Rajini swings a dozen villains 180 degrees and tosses them aside, I glance at the man next to me, unable to contain my excitement. It is one of my building’s security guys. In that moment, I forget that he is supposed to be at work manning the gate, and not playing hookey. He forgets that I am on the building’s Human Resources Development committee, meant to patrol his patrolling. We are simply two fans enjoying the moment when our beloved Thalaivar has left the abode of the mortals to mingle with the gods. I chew on my red-stained paan and grin at Gagan from Bihar companionably. It is beautiful.

 

Shoba Narayan plans to watch Kabali about ten times this week.

 

Gauri Diwakar, Aditi Mangaldas, GR Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty, Matt Ridley and the art of collaboration

22 January 2016 | E-Paper

What rehearsals tell you about an artist

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance


G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

 

“The arts have become unidimensional, and we live in a multidimensional world,” says the petite Kathak maestro, Aditi Mangaldas. We are in the basement of the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Mangaldas and her foremost disciple, Gauri Diwakar, are rehearsing a new work, titled Hari Ho…Gati Meri: Muslim Poets In Love Of Lord Krishna. They will present it the following day.

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance. A few arts institutions—the Lincoln Center in New York, for instance—accord the privilege of watching a rehearsal for a price. I am at Kamani at the behest of Minaakshi Dass, whose venture, India Heritage Desk, aims to discover the next Aditi Mangaldas or Malavika Sarukkai. Gauri Diwakar may be one candidate.

In one virtuoso display, Diwakar—clad in yoga pants and a top—mouthes a series of bols, or syllables of beats, that sound exactly like a tabla would. To watch her interact with the tabla player, the harmonium player and the singer, is like watching jazz musicians jamming. A young boy—the tabla master’s son—sits in the middle, absorbing it all. This, I think, is how the next generation of musicians is fostered.

“One beat is off,” says Diwakar. They go over the sound of beats again. Her tongue does gymnastics. The tabla sounds like the beats coming out of her mouth. They are immersed in the complex rhythm. At the end, Mangaldas says, “It is still off.” And off they go again.

During a rehearsal, you learn many things. I learnt that Kathak dancers arch their feet like ballet dancers. That pure dance, called nritya in Kathak, can take your breath away. To hear Diwakar beat her feet to the immersive sound of the tabla master is to watch two bodies performing to the same beat, each one goading and celebrating the other. It is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. As I watch the group, I am envious. Diwakar dances joyfully, sweat running down her forehead; Mangaldas watches the dance she has choreographed come to life—with unwavering eyes and a slight smile. The singer plays the harmonium and sings. The tabla and mridangam players nod their heads, their eyes on the dancer’s feet. All of them are in unison; in another world. Dass and I are interlopers.

More than other art forms, dance is a synthesis—of music, song, lyrics, and costume. If Mangaldas believes that it is unidimensional, what does that say about the rest of the arts?

I think about this as I walk through Sudarshan Shetty’s new sculptural installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Haunting and intimate, the space he has created reminds me of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, which, as it happens, is where sculpture and dance came together during the Chola dynasty. What would happen, I wonder, if Mangaldas and Diwakar were to dance between the pillars that Shetty has erected in this vast space? Would it enhance the sculpture or detract from it? Shetty, more than other artists, would understand and appreciate this fusion of dance, space and sculpture. His wife is a dancer and his father was a yakshagana artiste.

Artists collaborate, of course. But as they become bigger—in fame, and perhaps, ego—the urge to merge with other arts falls short. When you are a Jitish Kallat or a Priyadarsini Govind, why would you want to inhabit another space, particularly after you have slaved away at technique, research and expertise in isolation? To collaborate, you have to leave ego at the door; and that, I guess, is what Mangaldas means when she says that most art these days is unidimensional. It does not mimic the richness and messiness of life.

Govind was felicitated last Saturday at the Dhrishti National Dance Festival in Bengaluru. I read about it in the Deccan Herald, my hometown’s paper. I have never seen Chowdiah Memorial Hall so full. Every seat was taken. Children sat on their parents’ laps. People crammed every aisle. It was among the best performances I have seen in recent times. Anuradha Vikranth and her dance ensemble presented the navarasas (nine emotions) of Durga. Ten beautiful dancers enacted scenes about the goddess. To choreograph two dancers is a feat. To choreograph 10 of them is like herding planets. Four male dancers—two in the Kuchipudi style and two in the Bharatanatyam style—followed; a treat to watch. Dass should keep an eye on Vikranth’s dance ensemble for the next rung of talent.

Which brings us to the question: How does succession planning work in the art world? How does the public access the artists, dancers and musicians in the rung below the top layer? G.R. Iranna is an example. He has had a mid-career retrospective of his work at the NGMA in Bengaluru, but isn’t well known outside the closed confines of the art world.

The NGMA, Bengaluru was buzzing the day before the show opened on 16 January. A museum group from the US was chatting with Iranna. The usually dour museum guards accorded him the deference given to a native Kannada speaker. “He learnt shilpakala (sculpture) in Bijapur,” one guard told me when I asked him if he liked the show. I loved Iranna’s sculptures, which spoke of brave, rebellious politics. Made of white fibreglass, they are visually striking. I could imagine ayakshagana performance amid them. Or Akka Mahadevi’s poetry being read out by Ramya the actor—dressed in a white sari to match the white sculptures. Two different worlds colliding with each other. As they should. For, as Matt Ridley said in his TED talk, we live in a multidimensional world where ideas should meet and “have sex”.

Shoba Narayan loves watching artistic rehearsals. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Are you listening to Kodaikanal rap?

Trying to mix multiple streams in one column: millet, music, film extras and environmentalism.

Are you listening to the Kodaikanal rapster? 

Are-you-listening-to-the-Kodaikanal-rapper

The old woman in Palani—down the hill from Kodaikanal– was trying to recruit me to be a movie extra.  Muniamma looked like a rock star.  She was about 80, with weathered skin about the colour of a coffee bean.  She was clad in a soft white cotton sari sans blouse in the fashion of village women in Tamilnadu.  

Muniamma’s recruitment strategy was fool proof.  She would make me homemade “kuthirai-vaali kanji” for lunch if I would dance in a video that her grandson was making.  I said yes without asking any more questions.

Kuthirai vaali belongs to the Echinochloa family and is called barnyard millet; bhagar or varai in Maharashtra; jhangora in Hindi, and odalu in Telegu.  Kuthirai vaal means horse’s tail in Tamil and for a moment, I idly wondered if it would give me the strength of a horse, like Ashwagandha does in Ayurveda.  Muniamma gave a knowing smile and said that the effects of barnyard millet wasn’t mere strength; it was more like the effects of Moringa, widely touted as an aphrodisiac in Tamilnadu.  “Your husband will be very happy tonight,” she said, with a knowing, if sexist smirk.

Muniamma approached me as I stood outside the tonsure shed in Palani, contemplating whether I should shave my head: an action that I have often considered.  Even though I was wearing a sari, she had pegged me as a “jeans-pant Madam,” who were, apparently in short supply in the area: Dindigul district.  Her grandson wanted to make a video to protest the dumping of garbage in the Shanmukha lake in Palani.  He needed extras to dance behind him and fill up the screen. 

“Don’t worry, nobody will see you,” he said reassuringly if somewhat quixotically.  What was the point of dancing in a video if nobody would see me?

After filming, he would post it on Youtube “just like that Kodaikanal girl had done.” 

That was how I heard about Sofia Ashraf, the star musician of a viral Youtube video called “Kodaikanal Won’t.”  Smartly set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, which earned the Indian video a tweet from its muse, Kodaikanal Won’t has garnered over 3 million views and some amount of action.   

Most environmental issues, unfortunately, involved a clichéd set of actors: Big Business who is usually the villain; and the Disenfranchised Poor, who are usually the victims.  So it was with Bhopal; so it was with the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods where rampant real estate development led to an environmental collapse; and so it is with Kodaikanal’s case against Hindustan Unilever, where it alleges that the company’s now-closed thermometer factory caused mercury poisoning in 600 people; water pollution; widespread environmental problems; and 45 deaths.  Ashraf is the protagonist.  In a video interview, also posted on Youtube, she comes across as a spunky, funny, independent woman– the kind you’d hope your daughter would grow up to be.  She got involved, she says, because three NGO’s– Kodaikanal Worker’s Association, The Other Media, and Vetiver Collective—who have been fighting Unilever for years asked for her help.  They also roped in Bangalore-based Jhatkaa.org, which does online campaigns.  I enjoyed Jhatkaa.org’s website, flowing as it was with the milk of human idealism.  This isn’t a fly-by-night operation.  They have run campaigns to “Save the Western Ghats,” “Clean Ganga,” and fight moral policing, rape, censorship and sexism.

Once the video gained traction, Unilever CEO tweeted that he does “not accept” different standards of environmental compensation.  Then, he added, somewhat unnecessarily that he believed that “all humans are the same.”  In its website, Unilever refutes all allegations.  It says that that its former employees, and the environment, did not suffer any adverse effects because of its presence in Kodaikanal.  Each side has offered its version of “proof” to substantiate its statements.  The issue is being negotiated on an ongoing basis.

As an interested observer, I hope that the issue is seen through to conclusion.  Now that the spotlight has been cast, the aggrieved parties need a different cast of characters.  Rather than dancers and actors, they need environmental experts, lawyers and accountants to look through regulatory codes and mercury levels to figure out if and how much compensation would make sense. 

For people such as Paneer Selvam—Muniamma’s grandson and wannabe rapper—the video has inspired copycat ventures; and the hope that they can change things.  Citizen action is often a nebulous exercise. How many times have signed change.org petitions? I have signed countless online petitions, mostly because they came from friends and happen to align with causes I support.  The problem is that such online action doesn’t have good follow-up.  The petitions vanish into the Internet and the signers don’t really know what happened to the issue they supported.  I have friends who scoff at online petitions as “useless efforts” that don’t really move the needle in terms of the effect they generate.  I happen to be one of those idiotic idealists who believes the opposite: that each individual action, however small, can make a difference.  Perhaps the way forward is to mix creativity with causes. 

Petitions usually come with a nauseating amount of self-righteousness that says, “They are wrong.  We are right.”  They are serious and cause you to flip the channel or stop reading simply because you don’t want to be weighed down by the words at the end of a very long day.  They are stern and do the email version of the principal’s pointed finger.  In the future, perhaps such folks should do a Sofia Ashraf and lose the stern, self-righteous seriousness and use social media in ways that are both effective and fun. 

 Shoba Narayan didn’t make the cut to star in Paneer Selvam’s video.  Anyone interested in performing should contact Muniamma at Virupatchi Village, Oddanchathram Taluk, Dindigul District, Tamilnadu.

 

Hum Raag performs at Bharat Kalachar, Chennai on April 11th at 6:30 pm. Please come.

We are so thrilled to be going to Chennai.  Mrs. YGP is a doyenne in the field of education.  She started Padma Seshadri School.  Her son YG Mahendra is a theatre and film actor.  Now, three generations are running the cultural component of the school– called Bharat Kalachar.  Madhuvanti Arun is YGM’s daughter.  If you happen to be in Chennai on April 11th, please come in the evening to attend our show.

BHARAT KALACHAR

16, Thirumalai Road, T.Nagar, Chennai 17; Phone: 28343045/42024304

Website: www.bharatkalachar.com

Cordially invites you for the programme for APRIL 2015

———————————————————————————————–

11/04/2015TAMIL NEW YEAR CELEBRATIONS

6 30 pm – HUM RAAG by

                       Shoba Narayan (narrator) & Chitra Srikrishna (carnatic vocalist)

                       Jayanthi Keshav (violin) & Madurai B. Sundar (mridangam)

 

HumRaag – a show that explores the classical roots of Indian popular music, from Abhangs, Bhajans, Ghazals and Movie music. A multimedia presentation filled with Carnatic and classical music accompanied by poetry, story-telling and video music

 

14/04/2015   – ViSHU CELEBRATIONS

       6 30 pm – “BHARATHA RATHAM” – Malayalam Drama by

                       Kaliyuga Theatres & K.P.Samskarika Vedi, Payyanur

Bharatha Ratham – Through the live visuals of the dynamic characters and main episodes of the great epic Mahabharata, the historic events of India’s Freedom Struggle are symbolically presented in the play ‘Bharata Ratham’. The parallel between the epic and the freedom movement is brought out so convincingly through powerful dialogues and similar events. ‘Bharata Ratham’ was written by the great patriot, orator .and freedom fighter, Sri K.P.Kunhirama Poduval in 1942.

CO Sponsor : MALAYALEE RECREATION CENTRE (MRC) Chennai 76

Venue for the above Programmes: Sri YGP Auditorium

                                               17, Thirumalai Road, T.Nagar, Chennai 17

ALL RASIKAS ARE WELCOME

——————————————————————————————————————————-

Dr.(Mrs) Y.G. Parthasarathy ; Y Gee Mahendra; Smt. Sudha Mahendra;   Smt. Madhuvanthi Arun

             Chairman                         Secretary                   Joint Secretary                 Cultural Consultant                                                                    

The joy of a migratory bird going back home

Have been working on our upcoming music shows in Chennai all weekend.  We are completely redoing the show, and including more Tamil songs.  The Chennai audience is both discerning and has a specific taste.  Like the fabled Hamsa birds that can separate milk from water and drink only the milk, the Chennai audience has forgotten more about music that I care to remember.

So it is exciting for me.  I feel the joy of a migratory bird that is going back home.  The rosy starlings that are currently thronging Ulsoor Lake will go back to Tajikistan at about the same time I will go to Chennai.  April 11 and 12.

So Chitra and I are talking every day.  Deciding on film songs and classical music composers.  It is fun.  Speaking of birds, there is a lovely passage in this essay on that fine magazine, Muse India.  On birds here

VSCO Cam

So I have been using Instagram a lot and my account is here so please ‘follow’ me if you like those images.

I like clicking photos and sharing them on Instagram and VSCO Cam. The two sites are somewhat different. Instagram is huge, and VSCO Cam is artsy. Clicking photos on my handy iPhone is a way of getting back to the visual side of things. It helps me observe as I walk around, and also has forced a problem in my mind.

I find that the people I follow have a subject; a topic. Most of the people I follow on Instagram are in fashion or the arts. They post on one topic. The British Museum and MOMA, both of whom I follow on Instagram, help me stay abreast of the goings-on in the art world. Fashion sites on Instagram are just visually beautiful and help me track designers who I like. This raises an interesting problem for me: what is my visual aesthetic? I’m still toying with the idea and don’t have an answer yet. On the one hand I like photographing humans; and on the other, trees and nature attract me as well. I love birds, but don’t have the camera expertise or equipment to photograph birds. The site that I troll late at night however, is India Nature Watch, a fantastic site if you are even remotely interested in mammals, birds, and reptiles. Posting on Instagram and VSCO Cam has forced me to figure out what I want to say visually.

Today, I received an email which pleased me inordinately. It is pasted below and is self-explanatory.  Funny to see that the photo which has been chosen is this one.  Does this mean that I should focus on temple photography? The interplay between what psychologists call “strokes” and creation make up the final voice of a writer or in this case an amateur photographer.

Begin forwarded message:
From: “VSCO” <support@vsco.co>
Date: February 21, 2015 at 2:10:06 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
To: Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com>
Reply-To: support@vsco.co
Your image has been selected for the curated VSCO Grid
WITH HONOR
Shoba Narayan, your work has been chosen for the VSCO Grid™ — a curated gallery of original imagery.

Use this link to view and share your work within a selection of the finest images online:
Thank you for using VSCO Cam® and VSCO Grid. We are grateful for your support.
 
The VSCO Team

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Festival of Sacred Music

My friend, Ranvir Shah and his Prakruti Foundation does The Festival of Sacred Music in Thiruvaiyaru every year. Details here

This year, the festival is from March 6 to 8 and has a terrific line up. The Manganiyars, Kadri Gopalnath on Saxophone and Filter Coffee, a rock band. Imagine sitting under the stars and listening to this music on the banks of the Cauvery.

This festival is open to all. Driving distance from Chennai and Bangalore. Reasonably priced hotel rooms are available and you will be helping village tourism. Details at the website and on Facebook here.

Please share. Please attend.

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