When I visit my sister in Mumbai I step into a most coveted position and one that I love and believe is meant for me. I am put in charge of entertainment. Loosely translated this entails choosing which shows to go to, find out venue, date and show times, how to get tickets – my sister then plans the logistics. This portfolio is an extremely important one for both of us – I must make full and gainful use of the three weeks or so that is my quota of vacation time in India, while my sister is equally busy with her various commitments and must juggle a few to keep up with my constant suggestions/urgings to visit every art festival in town. Ah, life….it can be demanding! But, oh sweet bliss – wish this was happening every day of my life.
Anyway, back to what I was trying to say. Every morning during breakfast each of us opens a newspaper, from a pile of four dropped off early at the door by the paper-wallah, and between mouthfuls of toast and tea and intermittent conversation we are soon skimming through various subjects, which will be discussed later at a more leisurely pace. At that time we are both rather rushed for time. I need to go through the entertainment section (I know my sister will fill me in on whatever’s going on in the political scene so I skip all of that) and there is so much. Paper and pen poised I start jotting down shows, dates, venues, ticket information – for we will need to discuss logistics based on my findings.
I chanced upon an ad that caught my fancy last November. Ruhaniyat. I was practically drooling for although clueless to its meaning it sounded like a ticket to heaven. I quickly Googled and was directed to the Banyan Tree website – they were presenting this event in association with Mumbai’s own famed and glorious Museum made possible by a group of major artists from across India. It promised to be mysticism at its best. I wanted to be there. After much planning we decided Saturday Nov 26th, would suit all of us. Getting tickets proved a bit complicated but a few phone calls later I knew where they would be found. Even the taxi driver turned out a real help and drove us downtown to the exact place, a bookstore, where in a corner sat a young man with our tickets to heaven. I still have mine as a keepsake.
The show took place on the impeccably preserved grounds of Mumbai’s Museum. Imagine this: under the sky amidst palm trees and potted plants sit the audience. The stage is well-lit with coloured lights bringing a depth to the ambience. A scene of peace and harmony. The ticket aptly said – The Soulful journey begins….Oh my, one by one performers are introduced on stage and begin performing. The first one was ancient Vedic mantras for Peace and Harmony by Banaras ki Rishikayen, an all-girls group; second was Sopanam by Kavalam Vinodh and B. Krishnadas, third performer was Mukhtiar Ali and Group whose heart-stopping rendition of Meera and Kabir’s hymns had us swaying in our seats. An Indo-Belgian production came up next – combined effort of the Louvat Brothers from Belgium with Mukhtiyar Ali and group. The last performance of the evening was Qawwali by Hifzur Rehman Hakimi and group. We were served cups of heavenly aromatic tea and delicious savouries during intermission.
This was a performance that transported me to a level of euphoria hard to imagine. Ruhaniyat has been performing for quite some time this being their sixteenth year and I was fortunate to have been in Mumbai when the caravan came to that city. The name itself conjures up feelings of eternal peace and love. Sitting among the audience that November evening in the heart of Mumbai city listening to the performers pouring out their souls singing and reciting ancient texts, taking us through a journey of divine love and showing us an emerging light that the world so desperately needs, Tagore’s sonnets, Rumi’s verses and the Psalms from the Bible began to mingle in my awe-stricken consciousness. Yes, we do need that reminder. That even during the darkest of days when bottomless despair will grip the very soul of humanity we need to lose ourselves in faith of the Divine. Mystics did it for theirs was a life-long search of pure love and peace.
Another performance worth mentioning here that I was lucky enough to witness in Mumbai last year was Chi Udaka. The name signifies Chi or Earth, and Udaka or water. This was a seamless blend of exciting Taikoz virtuosic drumming with the sinuous beauty of Lingalayam’s Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi dance forms. It was explosive and energetic, colour, rhythm and music of this cross–cultural performance coming together like they belonged to each other, a veritable cornucopia for the senses. What more could I ask for?
I love my portfolio….work involved is hardly anything to speak when the end result succeeds in feeding my ever-demanding appetite for art, culture, mysticism and all things glorious.
Keep Well…..Keep Smiling
As in previous years, this August we heard the siren call of the road. There is something about a trip taken in the comfort of one’s car – simply throw a few things in the back seat and you are good to go.
A pre-dawn departure has a lot going for it. The previous day is history, a new one on the horizon with promises of better things yet to come. A certain stillness in the air, the road less-travelled, the sky hovering between dark and light, a magical aura on everything.
There was one road trip I remember, from my childhood. One December our aunt (father’s youngest sister) and her sixteen-year-old son (our wonderful cousin) were visiting from Calcutta. When the time came for them to leave it was decided we would accompany them to Calcutta. And, we would travel by car, a distance of about 300 miles, I imagine. I set about collecting my favourite dolls, their clothes, bedding, etc. to take on this momentous journey. Instead of the train we would travel the distance by car.
The day of our journey arrived. Although the sky still bore traces of ink around the edges, yet we are up. That winter was especially cold, we could see our breath. Our cousin was still abed. He wasn’t used to frigid temperatures. My aunt pulled the comforter off of him, it had to be packed, and the house filled with his startled yelling his mother trying to convince him to leave the warm bed. Father intervened, the boy was allowed back under the covers. I looked on wide-eyed. I failed to fathom why he would want to sleep and miss out on the fun.
Soon, my sister and I were put to work. Father instructed us to sit on what appeared (to the un-initiated) a huge mound; it was actually the family bedding in a brown canvas hold-all, and into its capacious and numerous pockets and compartments were packed various pieces – sheets, blankets, comforters, pillows – it had been rolled tightly ready to be strapped and buckled. Only, it wouldn’t cooperate. The leather straps just would not meet. That’s where we came in. The two of us pressed down as hard as our little selves could, father tried the straps one more time, our cousin who was up now and wanting to get in on the act, helped. The joint effort won the day. The hold-all was tightly buckled, it was placed beside an assortment of cases, a large trunk, the food basket, water canteens, shawls to ward off the chill (cars were not heated) our faithful cook standing guard beside the lot. He had been up even before the rooster crowed. Mother had been helping to prepare food for the road. Tons of mouth- watering items were still being packed into tiffin carriers. Ah, the life of a spoilt young’un. I couldn’t wait to begin the journey sure of the tasty reward somewhere in-between. Our dog would be left with cook to guard the house. I would miss him.
Our journey through the Hudson valley last week, although not as exciting as the one taken in childhood described above, was still every bit as enjoyable. As the sun began to rise, cars and trucks magically appeared on the highway their tail lights a warm glow in the grey dawn. Our first stop would be Kingston. We were fairly confident not too many people would be out at that time. Boy, were we wrong! An enormous tourist bus followed us to the first stop, we sprinted to the restroom, returned to the car and were enjoying the sandwiches packed from home before the first tourist had got off. As I ate, my mind cast back to the time when we had eaten potatoes and loochies on that other road trip.
Around noon, and still far from New York city, we stopped in a small town called Deposit. I was immediately captivated by the quirky name. Deposit is in the county of Delaware, New York with a population of approximately of 1,712 (this last was gleaned from Wikipedia). After re-fueling, we entered the small store which is part gas station, part restaurant. As I ordered a veg subway and chatted with the very nice lady across the counter she asked if I would like cucumbers in the sandwich. Of course, that’s awesome, I replied, and discovered they were surplus from her own garden. Holding my lunch, I walked to the back to get a cup of tea. A very nice old man moved over insisting I get the although he had been there before me. I demurred, he replied that he had all day. The store was nicely set up for travelers like us to sit and enjoy a meal, then carry on. A delightful place, indeed. We spent the night in the town of Wallkill (another one!) in Orange county. Next morning, we reached Manhattan in a couple of hours.
Keep Well….Keep Smiling
Many years ago a child once approached her mother and asked in a timid voice if she could join a dance school. Her mother loved the idea. Bu where could a school for dance be found in their small town?
The girl’s desire to learn the intricate steps of Indian classical dance forms turned into a contemplative dimension of longing as in prayer.
Then it seemed her prayer had been answered. For the school she attended hired a professional dance teacher, she was ecstatic for now she could learn what she had seen performed on stage. Life could not be better. Unfortunately, it seemed too good to last – the teacher after only one year left for another school.
You may have guessed, that child was me. Yes, I have had this dream ever since I can remember of longing to learn Indian classical dances. Now thinking back of those days I cannot help but chuckle and yet, underneath that mirth there is a trace of sadness. For I still live that dream in my heart. So, the next best thing to an unrealised dream is to see it alive in others, vicariously. Not a performance do I miss and there are absolutely great ones from artistes from India who have performed in Toronto.
Then, one day, I read about the Little Masters, a short article without too much background but it had fired my imagination. Since we were planning a trip to India then why not incorporate parts of the south in our itinerary? After a brief tour of the backwaters of Kerala we set off on our quest for that for which I had been waiting.
As it often happens with us we did not actually plan anything in particular preferring instead to wing it. Just that article had fired my imagination. The bus took us along the Thrissur-Shoranpur highway. From Thrissur town Kalamandalam is about thirty two km in the north. We had booked a room in Thrissur for the night. Next morning saw us boarding a local bus, when we asked to be dropped off at the school we were met with blank stares. No one had heard of it. Now here was a problem. How do we get there? Not to be daunted my husband and I got off midway and decided to ask the locals; finally a three wheeler took us on saying he knew how to get there.
Our vehicle stopped in front of a beautiful structure, somewhat dilapidated but situated in the midst of vast orchards and quaint gardens on the banks of the river Nila. At our calling out repeatedly someone did appear. Imagine our disappointment when told that the school had moved to a new location. Did we give up? Not on your life!
If I was determined to find the school before now my heart was hard with unshakable faith. I had come so far to see with my own eyes and feel with my heart something that I knew was waiting for me, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, then nothing on earth could stand in my way. I did not rant or rave yet my husband sensed my feelings.
So now, armed with the address we jumped into the waiting tempo and were off once more hoping this time it would take us to the end of our quest. It was now close to 11am – we had been on the road searching for that elusive school for almost three hours.
I had set my heart on visiting this school, Kalamandalam, the place where students as young as nine receive training in the performing arts – vocal, percussion, Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Mohiniyaattam, Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi. I was happy to learn that thanks to this academy two of the major dance forms of Kerala, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam – which were on the decline, had been revived. All this was made possible by Vallathol Narayana Menon, an eminent poet, who founded the school in 1927 aiming to bring back Kerala’s rich tradition of art and dance forms.
The place itself is beautiful beyond imagination, the main building or Koothambalam (Natyagriha) being the heart of the school. The roof and floor are made of teak the pillars of granite, there are no doors and the school keeps to the tradition of Gurukula sambradaaya – the ancient way of education in which exists a deep bond between teacher and student. The administrator took us around various buildings, free of charge, and we had the privilege of watching students at their kalaris (teaching classes) where students were practising hand gestures, facial expressions, leg exercises, torso movements, character enactment and more.
In a daze I stood by the open door of a class where students were being taught the basics of Karnatic music, then watched boys painting Kathakali masks. The sight of students seated on the floor and applying different facial makeups on earthen pots conceiving them as human faces was as intriguing as it was enlightening.
How can I ever describe my feelings when I walked through the gates of Kerala Kalamandalam that January afternoon in the year 2003? Surrounded with such beauty I became part of the dance of life. This journey had turned into a pilgrimage.
Keep Well…..Keep Smiling
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