Rhythm Divine: Pandit Birju Maharaj

Acting it all out

He’s a small man, Pandit Birju Maharaj. If you’ve never met him face to face, that is one of the first things you are likely to notice about him. And yet, when he is dancing on stage, he seems to cast a shadow over it, so larger than life is his personality.

As we enter the modest room where the interview is to take place, India’s foremost Kathak legend is sitting cross-legged on the bed, in a simple blue kurta, and humming the Lata Mangeshkar classic, Rasik Balma. Once again, those who don’t know enough about the dance maestro will be taken by surprise at how well he sings.

And just in case you thought that was it, during the course of our conversation, the 72-year-old fishes out a notebook and, with childlike glee, shows us his pencil sketches of a jhalmuri wala, and a group of dancing children, made on the train to Kolkata. Oh, and he also writes poetry and composes music.

However, all of this, he insists, is secondary to the joy of teaching, something he has been doing since he was 13, trained by his father and guru, Achhan Maharaj. Also part of his lineage are his legendary uncles, Shambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj. “The way I see it, my values and skills should reflect in each and every one of my students,” he says, as his American ‘shagirda’ (disciple) Natalia, who sits in on the interview, nods vigorously.

There is a joy in watching Panditji speak, because the impeccable abhinaya (dramatisation) that he brings to each of his performances permeates his conversation as well. His eyes, his hands, his entire face and body, sketch graceful, intricate movements as he describes the joy that Radha and her sakhis feel when Krishna teases them, but the show of mock anger that they put on.

In between, the conversation takes in his students in countries as far apart as China and the USA, who have been propagating his uniquely contemporary version of Kathak, which remains true to tradition in many ways, and yet incorporates such ‘untraditional’ forms as satire, humour, and social commentary, emerging from the stereotyped Radha-Krishna ‘leela’.

Sadly, though not uniquely, his efforts to set up an academy have been in vain. Kalashram, his dance school in Delhi, is a two-room affair courtesy the municipality, where 250-odd students train. “This is not a degree diploma waali taalim, yeh anand waali taalim hai (they don’t train for a degree or diploma, they train for pleasure),” he smiles. “But I wish I had some help from somewhere. When I see the government rewarding sports stars, I sometimes feel, what of artistes? Not that I have anything against sports stars…”

On his return to Delhi, the maestro, who was in Kolkata to record for a private album, will begin rehearsing with his troupe of 400-odd dancers for the Commonwealth Games opening, assisted by son Deepak and daughter Mamta.

What of filmdom, and his compelling work in such films as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi or Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas? “Haven’t received worthwhile offers, really,” he says, with a straight face. “Today, dancing in films is confined to the hips.”

So he will continue to travel the world, disseminating the “laya (rhythm) that God created”, teaching his students that each of us is born with rhythm. “There’s rhythm even in the way we breathe,” he beams.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

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Images of Life: Shabana Azmi

Gestures that speak

Having sat through endless interviews for print and TV, Shabana Azmi is not, apparently, in the best of tempers. So it is with some trepidation that one asks if her play, Broken Images — to perform which she was in Kolkata recently at the behest of Seagrams Black Dog, Sanskriti Sagar, and Weaver’s Studio Centre for the Arts — has anything to do with the way in which she views her life and career.

She pauses over the question, and her famous temper is, for the moment, kept at bay. Instead of answering directly, however, Azmi speaks of moments that are apparently random, and yet have a lot to do with the way she has evolved as a performing artiste.

One of the most recent is an incident that happened in Rohtak, where she was staging Broken Images. Originally written in Kannada by Girish Karnad as Odakalu Bimba, the play became Bikhre Bimb in Hindi and Broken Images in English, directed by Alyque Padamsee. “There I was in Rohtak, with an audience of about 1,800 people, when the organiser pointed out, minutes before the start, that only about 20 per cent of them spoke English, so could I please do the play in Hindi?” she says. “I was so astounded I didn’t know what to do, though I did feel like whacking him!”

Nonetheless, the actress prevailed over the nervous-as-hell woman, and she did do the play in Hindi, translating her lines on the spot as she went along. “See, I’m getting goose bumps even now when I think about how I did it,” she says, holding out her arm. “Actually, I must tell Girish this, and I don’t know if I can repeat it, ever. When I told Javed (husband Javed Akhtar) about it, he was thrilled!”

Indeed, such courage — or desperation — she says, is what defines an actor. “You put everything you feel through a sieve: your heart, mind, body, and then come up with a particular moment.”

Not all those moments can be captured, though. Take the classic scene in Goutam Ghose’s Paar (1984), which required Azmi and co-star Naseeruddin Shah to swim across the Ganga with a herd of pigs. “Naseer was not a good swimmer, so he was nervous to begin with. And the swineherd was about 90 and looked like he would collapse any minute. To top it all, one of the pigs died right at the very beginning of the shot, in front of our eyes,” she says.

Amidst the madness, Azmi was required to place her chin on the rump of one of the pigs, which she actually managed, but none of the three cameras aimed at the shot managed to catch it. “An actor’s life is full of such images, which is why it holds a certain random quality,” she muses.

Having mentioned Shirley Maclaine once during the conversation in the context of acting, she may well quote the great actress to sum up: “I think of life itself now as a wonderful play that I’ve written for myself, and so my purpose is to have the utmost fun playing my part.”

This article was first published in Hindustan Times on September 12, 2010

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Mother Superior?

Mirror image

There’s a cacophony outside Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa’s ‘home for the destitute and dying’ in Kolkata’s Kalighat area, right next to its famed Kali temple. A ragtag bunch of children are clamouring for what they call chhoto coupon (small coupons). These prized scraps of paper make them eligible for an ‘outing’ the next day.

It is the morning of Mother Teresa’s 100th birth anniversary, and apart from the much-discussed outing, the children are also being treated to cakes and juice, consumed at lightning speed. In case we have missed the point, one of the kids gravely points to the photograph of the ‘saint of the gutters’ at the building’s entrance and says, ‘Boro ma’r janmadin’ (roughly, ‘it’s the senior mother’s birthday’).

As a beleaguered Missionaries of Charity (MC) nun tries to keep them under control and smile enquiringly at us at the same time, a shriek suddenly goes up: “Laash aschhe (corpse coming)!” In a trice, the doorway is forsaken, the children dispersing in all directions as one of the home’s inmates emerges from it for the last time, on a stretcher, mercifully shrouded, but still forcing us to shrink against the wall of the narrow passage.

As soon as the body disappears inside a van, though, the children are back. Business as usual. Inside, it’s business as usual, too, though there has been some effort to brighten the gloomy interiors with blue and white balloons, and the destitute and dying are dressed in colourful new clothes. Two nuns and a volunteer are in charge, and permission to speak to them or to the inmates is politely but firmly refused.

On the previous evening, at Mother House on AJC Bose Road, the mood is quiet, too. There’s almost nothing to indicate the significance of the day after. Near Mother Teresa’s deserted, unpretentious, nearly unadorned tomb, two Spanish volunteers shred marigolds and collect the petals in a carton, for “tomorrow’s decoration”. Lawyers from Madrid, the two women are also volunteers at an MC centre there.

Every day, between 1 pm and 3 pm, all MC centres take a break. At Mother House, nuns take it in turns to police the otherwise wide-open gate during this period, sifting through the constant stream of visitors — camera-wielding Japanese tourists, a chattering group of Anglo-Indians, bemused Americans, an argumentative journalist from Delhi — to decide whom to let in. The routine never varies, and the rigid sense of discipline and abhorrence for pomp is uniformly striking.

Emmanuel Biswas, a Bengali man in his mid-50s, limps in, takes off his shoes, heads for the tomb and prays audibly, almost weeping.

He’s a Protestant, he tells us later, but has been praying at the Catholic nun’s tomb ever since a debilitating stroke robbed him of normal movement. “What can I say about her? My sins are great, but she will forgive me,” he says.

On the official Missionaries of Charity website — operated by the California-based Mother Teresa of Calcutta Centre — there are 195 entries in a section that invites users to “report any favours or miracles received through the intercession of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta”.

Of course, 13 years after her death, Mother Teresa is an overwhelming presence at the institutions she founded. Both Mother House and Nirmal Hriday are overflowing with reminders of the woman who evoked love and distaste in almost equal measure during her lifetime.

Critics, led by Christopher Hitchens, accused her of accepting money for her mission from gunrunners, smugglers, fraudsters, and mass murderers. They demanded explanations about what she did with that money, ridiculed the Vatican’s rush to canonise her (a process that remains unfinished, hence ‘Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’ instead of ‘St Teresa’), accused her of abetting poverty rather than alleviating it, and were scathing about her decision to be treated at a California hospital rather than one of her own “primitive” medical facilities, where the caregivers supposedly depended on love and faith rather than medical training.

Today, in private conversation, former associates confirm what many suspect: despite her critics, Mother Teresa’s personal charisma went a long way in drawing attention to her order. That is not to say that the MC has stopped its work, or that there are any visible signs of decline (MC accounts have never been audited anyway), but, as one former donor says, “They won’t admit it, but there has been a 200 per cent drop in public interest in the MC.”

In similar vein is a comment by a young woman whose livelihood indirectly comes from Mother House —she ‘guides’ all the ‘lost’ foreigners who come in to the house as volunteers, and finds accommodation for them nearby, for a fee. Did she ever see Mother Teresa? No, her husband did. “Mother used to look after him and his brothers when they were children. She used to give them baths, meals…the sisters now are nothing like her,” she says.

Really? “Look at that pagla (lunatic),” she says dramatically, pointing to a homeless man lying on the pavement. “He’s been asking for some clothes for months now, and they won’t give him any. You think Mother would have tolerated it?”

Unfair, probably, given the rate at which the MC’s workload has gone up over the years.

And there’s nothing to show that the order minds the diminishing attention levels. A nun, who declines to give her name, says they love nothing better than to be left in peace. “We are only letting people in because of Mother’s centenary. All this attention is very distracting,” she says.

Nonetheless, attention from all corners of the world made the MC what it is. Today, its founder’s iconic status hasn’t eroded, but in death as in life, she seems to be surpassing the order that she founded, and the cult of the Blessed Teresa is alive and well. Is her life’s work as secure?

This article was first published in Hindustan Times on August 29, 2010

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Five Things To Know Before Dating A Journalist

I’m slightly ashamed to say that the following post is not my own. But, as a professional journalist, I loved it so much that I stole it for myself, with all credit to Rockmycar.net

Ok, here we go:

Five things you should know before dating a journalist
By Tom Chambers

So, you’ve been eyeing that smart, attractive journalist you’re lucky enough to know personally. You’re intrigued. Your journalist is smart, funny, confident. Visions of Clark Kent taking off the glasses and ripping off his clothes to reveal a perfectly toned body in blue spandex coming to save you run through your head.

Who can blame you? Journalism is a sexy occupation.

But journalists aren’t like the bimbos you usually pick up at the bar. Nor are they the assholes you ladies continually fall for. No, journalists are different beings (which is why you’re attracted to them in the first place), and you should realize — before jumping in — that this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill, boring, lame relationship you’re used to.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. We can figure things out. Understand, we’re paid to dig deep, find the secrets and wade through bullshit. We can pick up on subtleties, so what you think you are hiding from us won’t be hidden for long. Sure, we’ll act surprised when you eventually tell us you starred in German porn as a freshman in college — but we already knew.

We don’t take shit from anyone, so don’t lie to us or give a load of bullshit. We spend all day separating fact from fiction, listening to PR cronies and dealing with slimy politicians. If you make us do the same with you, you’re just gonna piss us off. And don’t think we’ll be quiet about it. We’ll respond with the vengeance of an Op-Ed page railing against society’s injustices — and we’ll enjoy doing it.

Just tell us the truth. We can handle it.

2. At some point, you will be a topic. Either through a feature story or an opinion column, something you do or say will be a subject. Get over it. Consider it a compliment, even if we’re arguing against you in print.

Think about it: we live our lives writing about life. If you’re a part of our life, we’re going to write about you, your thoughts or a subject springing from one of the two.

Don’t be upset when an argument against your adoration of Hillary Clinton turns up on page A4. We’re not directing the writing at you, personally — your ignorance was just our inspiration (there, doesn’t that make you feel better?).

3. Yes, we think we’re smarter than you. In fact, we know it. Does that smack of ego? Absolutely — but that confidence is what makes your heart go pitter-patter.

We have a strong, working knowledge of how the world works. That makes us great in conversation. We can delve into the intricacies of zoning laws, local and national politics, where to find the good restaurants, what’s happening with pop culture, where the good bands are playing and more.

But there are pitfalls.

Guaranteed, when you say “towards,” we will automatically say “toward” — “towards” is not a word. We’re not trying to call you dumb (even though you don’t understand the English language), it’s habit. The same will happen when you say “anxious” when you mean “eager” and when you answer “good” when someone asks how you are doing.

We carry ourselves with a certain arrogant air. Embrace it (that’s what attracted you to us in the first place, after all). Don’t be surprised if we’re not impressed when you say, “I’m a writer, too.” No, you are not. The fact that you sit in a coffee shop wearing black while scribbling in your journal does not make you a writer. Nor does the fact that you “wrote some poems in high school” or that one day you want to pen “the great American novel.”

Look, we’re paid to write. Every day. What’s more, our writing matters. It changes opinions, affects decisions and connects people with the world around them.

We’re not spewing our angst or trying to fabricate an aura of creativity. We write about the real world — with real consequences.

Our words go through three or four cranky editors who make us rewrite before it’s printed a few hundred thousand times and distributed all over town. You don’t do that unless you’re confident, even egotistical.

You may have some great journal entries, poems and rudimentary short stories — good for you. Just don’t assume we’ll accept that as on par with what we do (unless you’re really hot, then hell, you’re a better writer than I).

4. You’re not less important than the job — the job is just more important than anything else. One doesn’t become a journalist to sit in an office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday.

We do take our work home. If news is happening, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing — even if it’s with you — to cover it. We’re always looking for stories, so yes, we’ll stop on the street to write something down, interview a passer-by or gather information for a lead.

On that same note, don’t get upset if you call us on deadline suggesting some afternoon nookie and we say, “I’ve got to put the paper to bed first.” That could mean hours from now, but we’ll have plenty of time to put you in bed later.

5. You won’t be disappointed. Journalists are intense, driven, passionate folk. We carry those same attributes into our relationships, making it an extremely fun ride well worth the price of admission. Our lives are never boring and each day is different.

If the pitfalls are scaring you away, consider this:

The fact that we’re inquisitive means we’ll listen to you. Even if it does seem like an interview, we’re paying attention to what you have to say (see rule No. 1).

We’ll write about you or your thoughts because you’re an important part of our life and we care about you (see rule No. 2).

Our brains are a great resource. Ever go on a date with an attractive person and wind up wishing you hadn’t because everything they say is just, well, stupid? That’s not going to happen here (see rule No. 3).

Yes, it may seem that we put the job ahead of you, but we’re driven. You’re not with that loser whose life is going nowhere and who’s completely content being mediocre (see rule No. 4).

There you go, five things you should know before dating a journalist. Feel free to add to the list, point out where I’ve missed something or leave a comment.

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Dance Like Me

A performance by Kolkata Sanved members

Sitting in the sparse, nondescript Kolkata Sanved office deep inside Jodhpur Park, the slim, soft-spoken Sohini Chakraborty hardly seems the kind of woman who, with her Sanved team, is driving a relatively unique concept – dance movement therapy (DMT) – that appears to have the potential to actually heal broken minds.

A student of Sociology, who took a special paper on criminology, Sohini is also a trained dancer who was with Manjushree Chaki Sircar’s Dancers’ Guild. “But I always knew I wanted to do more with dance than just perform or teach,” she explains. And the idea took firmer root as Sohini began studying such issues as women’s trafficking and violence against women. “There is a tendency to view dance as either entertainment or, if it’s a classical dance form, as elitist,” says Sohini. “But dance is much, much more. In its purest form, dance is total catharsis.”

The dancer-cum-social activist realised she could attain her goal when she came across a poster for the NGO Sanlaap at the Kolkata Book Fair, and took the first step towards a life-long dream of working with survivors of trafficking and violence. And yet, when she first began teaching the women how to dance, she realised she was not connecting with them. “I was using stereotyped, traditional dance moves, and I realised I would have to devise something new,” she says.

One thing led to another, and Sohini finally set up her own NGO, Kolkata Sanved, in 2004. Today, she can proudly say that many of the girls whom she worked with during those early days are now dance therapists themselves. “We sort of discovered dance therapy without realising it was already a valid therapy tool in the West,” she laughs, describing the time in 2000 when she helped organise Rangeen Sapne, a physical theatre performance comprising dance and mime, with 120 children.

Once they did realise it, however, there was no looking back. From training 10 dancers initially to propagate what Sanved calls ‘saving lives through dance’, Sohini and her team have now devised a whole DMT curriculum that focuses on ‘body awareness’ and ‘integration’.

“Being a trained dancer helped me, but if you look at it another way, dance is in all of us. We can’t survive without movement, and dance is nothing but a series of coordinated movements,” Sohini says. “And movement is in itself a liberation.”

Based on that principle, Sanved has been working with inmates of the city’s Lumbini and Pavlov mental health centres and has commissioned a study on the effects of DMT on mentally challenged individuals. “In terms of rediscovering the body, discussions reveal dance brought in an element of magic and fantasy that energized and inspired the participants,” says an extract from the abstract of the study.

“We like to think we have broken the elitist approach to dance,” smiles Sohini. “Of course, Sanved is not a miracle worker, but we do recognise that DMT has had an impact on people living with mental illness, as well as helped numerous women live purposeful, dignified lives.”

On March 27, Sanved launched the Kolkata Sanved Curriculum – Dance Movement Therapy for Mental Health & Recovery. For details, call +91 33 24174093 or write to sanved_india@rediffmail.com

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William Dalrymple: Going Native

Photo courtesy Penguin India, so it's Dalrymple at his best

After nearly two decades in India, which he now calls home, it seems rather obvious to ask William Dalrymple if he has ‘gone native’ and become an Indophile. But one needs a conversation opener, so one goes ahead and asks the obvious. Sitting by the pool at Taj Bengal, Dalrymple smiles wryly and says, “I should think so.”

The boy who grew up near the Firth of Forth in Scotland has raised his three children in this country, and clearly, India has finally, and firmly, taken to him. His latest book Nine Lives (Bloomsbury, Rs 499, hardcover) has, in his own words, sold 35,000 copies in India within two weeks of its release and “gone straight to the top of the charts”. He says this quite nonchalantly, but adds, with a certain quiet pride, that this is his first book to sell more copies in India than it has in Britain.

The relative brevity of this work may have contributed to its popularity. “I was very clear that I wanted to write a shorter book after the last two monsters,” he says. The monsters in question are White Mughals and The Last Mughal, which boosted Dalrymple’s credentials as a historian, but drew him away from the kind of ‘travel writing’ that most of his readers have come to expect. “I think those two were too much for a lot of people,” he laughs. “And I had to get out after 10 years in the National Archives.”

With Nine Lives, Dalrymple is back to talking about people and places, but with an underlying theme. These are nine people who represent different religious faiths or paths, and most of them have found these paths through deeply moving personal experiences. The people themselves tell the stories, with Dalrymple acting largely as a medium to transmit them to the world.

How difficult was it not to become involved with these people? “I think there’s a difference between being moved and being involved. At the end of the day, I’m no more involved than you are, but I was certainly moved,” Dalrymple explains, and then laughs, “Until April, there was a lot of me in the book.” Indeed, in the initial stages, Nine Lives ran into nearly double the 300-odd pages that it does now. “I cut and polished, cut and polished,” Dalrymple sighs.

Helping him in his efforts was wife Olivia Fraser, his “best and most vicious” critic who has, as usual, done some of the illustrations for the book. As for the ‘real’ critics, who would have liked Nine Lives to be a more comprehensive account of modern religion, Dalrymple says, “This is not about kar sevaks or jihadis, or about politics of any kind. It’s about individual lives.” It’s also about Dalrymple’s love for Chola bronzes, rural West Bengal and baul music, and about experiences like watching naga sadhus rushing to the sangam like “a herd of wildebeest, ash-smeared, c**ks hanging”.

Along the way, Dalrymple has realised that India’s rural-urban divide really isn’t that difficult to bridge, though he does get the occasional query like, ‘Why only religious faiths? What’s wrong with writing about computer engineers in Gurgaon?’ He has also, gleefully, observed a growing revival of the market for non-fiction books in India. “The non-fiction XI teams has some killer batsmen and bowlers now, like VS Naipaul and Suketu Mehta,” he says gravely. Let’s just call Dalrymple the all-rounder, then?

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Speechless, thanks to Begum Akhtar

Begum Akhtar, 1914-1974

First, the words:

Aye mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya
Jaane kyon aaj tere naam pe rona aaya

Yun toh har shaam ummido mein guzar jaati hai
Aaj kuchh baat hai jo shaam pe rona aaya

Kabhi taqdeer ka matam kabhi duniya ka gila
Manzil-e-ishq mein har gaam pe rona aaya

Jab hua zikr zamane mein mohabbat ka Shakeel
Mujh ko apne dil-e-nakaam pe rona aaya

Then, the song.

Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Vocalist: Begum Akhtar

This is one of Begum Akhtar’s most popular ghazals. I myself have heard it innumerable times, but never paid attention to the lyrics, for some strange reason. Until I heard it once again yesterday, on a mobile phone.

How I wish I had continued to remain inattentive.

The next time anyone uses the term ‘heartbreak’, think of the words above, though I may have got one or two wrong. And how aptly they describe Akhtari Bai Faizabadi’s tormented life.

Shakeel Badayuni, I dare not applaud you. Will tears do?

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