Monday, December 12, 2011

Koodankulam nuclear plant - here's what some students think

Should then Koodankulam nuclear plant be abandoned? In Tamil Nadu, what do some students think? Well, Nandini Voice for the Deprived, a Chennai-based NGO organised an essay competition for college students in the state. The objective: to provide an opportunity to the students to express their views on the subject and forward their views to the Central and state governments. According to N.S. Venkataraman, who runs the NGO (he had stood for election to the Lok Sabha earlier but was unsuccessful), 112 students participated, with women comprising 65 per cent.

The verdict: 77 per cent of the students said that the Koodankulam plant should be
commissioned, while the rest wanted it abandoned.

The majority who wanted the project to be commissioned felt:

• India has no option other than nuclear power in view of the huge scarcity of coal, fuel oil and natural gas and the latter’s rising international price. While non-conventional energy such as solar and wind power should be utilised to the maximum, they would not be adequate considering the futuristic demand for power in the country

• Given the serious shortage of power in Tamil Nadu, there is great urgency to commission the Koodankulam nuclear plant to avoid production loss of several crores of rupees.

• Many suspicions of the protesting local people such as fisheries getting affected, threat of tsunami and cyclones, radiation effects etc have been pointed out as unfoundeded by senior Indian nuclear scientists, including former President of India, Abdul Kalam. The
• leaders of the protest movement are not listening and the poor innocent people who sit in agitation cannot understand science and technology issues and depend on the leaders of the protest movement for guidance

• There is no justification to doubt the credibility and claims of Indian nuclear scientists who have repeatedly said that they would explain the safety aspects of the project to anybody who approached them. Further, possibility of accidents have not prevented people from traveling by air.

• Many arguments advanced against the project are based on suspicions, av pessimistic view and lack of understanding of the recent technology developments. Further, the leaders of the present movement give an impression that they are sworn opponents of nuclear power . There is certainly a political undertone in the protest movement

• It is unacceptable that religious outfits should take part in such agitations, which essentially concern a matter of science and technology

• Most of the protestors at the site are people from the lower income group who are innocent and who do not have the advantage of a good educational background. Quite a number of them are elderly people living in old age homes or school students and relatives of fishermen . The leaders of the protest movement persuade such people to take part in the protest because of their local contacts and proximity to the local people

The minority felt:
• The local people are the stakeholders and even if the majority of the people in Tamil Nadu woul want the project, it should not be implemented when the local stakeholders object

• Nuclear plant accidents have taken place in the world which cannot be ignored by local people. In the unlikely and unfortunate event of an accident occurring in the Koodankulam area, the consequences would be very severe for the local people

• Human life is more important than the issues of economic and industrial development and such development factors cannot get priority when safety concerns for human beings are prevalent, particularly when local stakeholders are not convinced

• The scientists are not able to communicate with the local people to convince them effectively, may be due to their lack of training in communication skills

• By taking a “silent stand”, the Tamil Nadu Government gives an impression that it favours abandoning the Koodankulam project. Recently, the Chief Minister has not spoken in approval of the project despite the huge controversy it has generated. In the wake of such stand by the Tamil Nadu Government, the Koodankulam project should not be implemented.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Books are magic, says Ken Spillman, author of Advaita, the Writer

When Advaita leaves Delhi for boarding school in Dehrudun, she is lonely and unhappy, even though the school is the best in Asia, even though it is supposed to have a wonderful library. However, the library soon becomes a haven for Advaita as the books more than cover up for her homesickness. One day, she learns that Ruskin Bond, her favourite author, is staying close by. She wonders whether he is the same person, the author whose books she so dearly loves. She also wonders whether she can become her writer one day. Well, all this forms part of a 50-page storybook written by Ken Spillman, who was in Chennai recently to interact with children, something he loves to do.

Spillman, based in Australia, first visited India in 2006 and immediately fell in love with the country. He “soaked everything up and wanted to read and write about it.” He spent hours in the book shops of Khan Market, New Delhi, bought loads of books, read Ruskin Bond, and tried to get a hang of the kind of books that influenced children in India. In 2008, he was invited to the Mussoorie International Writers’ Festival where he met Bond, Ruskin Bond, for the first time. It was there that Spillman met Advaita Kala, a writer, whose book Almost Alone had sold well. They struck a healthy friendship even as she took him to the bookshops in central Mussoorie and got him to savour paan. Advaita had felt lonely while at the Welham School in Dehradun but felt reassured knowing that Ruskin Bond was staying close by.

Yes, Advaita the Writer is Advaita Kala’s story, simply and wonderfully narrated by Spillman for children, encouraging them to read and write. At a workshop conducted by the Spring & Zoom Centre for Literary Arts and Tulika Publishers, Spillman kept emphasising at every point that “books are magic”. To questions from anxious parents, asking him how they could get their children hooked to books, he gave the example of a child’s aunt who took the boy to a large bookstore and left him in the midst of the children’s section while she went away to search for books she wanted for herself. The boy had never shown an interest in reading before, but, left in the middle of all that “magic”, he couldn’t resist picking up a picture book or two and thumbing through the pages. Eventually, the boy grew to become a great lover of books.

Listening to Spillman talking to a group of small children at the Spring & Zoom centre and enthusing them, I was taken back in time – to my days as a schoolboy when I spent most of my spare time reading books. Spillman has now inspired me to find some time to read a book, even if it just be a few pages every day. Thank you, Ken.

For those interested in knowing more about Spillman, log on to

Pictures show Spillman acting out a story, interacting with children while autographing books, and parents (do fathers care at all!) listening to the author.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A book, a storyteller, and some joyous young faces

It’s always encouraging to see children pick up the reading habit. Not that many do that these days. Also, parents, teachers and others who run activity centres for children, who enthuse and motivate them to read storybooks, deserve a lot of credit. Because they are really up against the odds – most children would do anything to be left undisturbed while they are glued to television watching cartons, serials and films. I know of quite a few in my family (including my cousins and others) who have children and are fighting a losing battle every day – while desperately trying to get their children (ages three onwards) away from the television set, getting them to eat properly, do their homework etc. So, getting them to read storybooks and get a broader view f the world is simply beyond them. And many of them don’t really care beyond a point; they have never taken a serious initiative as such.

A couple of enterprising women who run activity centres for children recently teamed up with Tulika Publishers to get storyteller Craig Jenkins to enact stories and interact with children at the launch of the book, In Bon Bibi's Forest. It was heartening to see many of them trooping in to the venue at the scheduled time, enjoy every moment of the evening, and taking part with inhibition. There were several parents, made of mostly mothers, who were also transported to another world. They all deserve applause because in the midst of homemaking and work and all else, they had found time to get their children to a storytelling event at 7pm. Many of them belong to another generation where the book-reading habit came more naturally, when there was no lure of television and other distractions as such. It was clear they wanted their children to experience the pleasure of reading. It was also clear to me as the evening progressed, that if parents and teachers took the initiative, it was not too difficult to coax children into reading books. The joy in their faces was so much evident. You can tell from the pictures here.

It, of course, brings into focus a subject that is always talked about – how our education system needs to change. But that’s another story.

Pictures show Proiti Roy (the illustrator), with Sandhya Rao's (the author) help, showing the children her creations; children raise copies of the book they have purchased and pose for a picture with Sandhya and storyteller Craig Jenkins; the joyous faces; and Craig in full flow as the audience laps it all up.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Sights and sounds - in the Garden City

Clicked these pictures during my last visit: the first and last taken from the house where I stayed; the Ulsoor lake in passing; on the way to Jayanagar, oblivious to the world he almost forgot he had to get down; and a signboard I spotted on the way home.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A chance meeting with Moinuddin in Bangalore

My Bangalore trips never fail to throw up surprises. This time, a couple of weeks ago, the weather was of course a surprise – it was just too warm for Bangalore in October – but it was a drive in an autorickshaw that produced the real one. Sometime late afternoon one day, I had enough of walking down St Mark’s and Brigade Roads, after having had done a fair bit of shopping, spending an hour inside a store looking for DVDs of old Hindi films I wanted. My legs were aching and as I stood there on the sidewalk wondering what to do, there came along an auto; the driver stopped and looked at me quizzically. So I got in and decided to head to where I was staying.

When I’m in the mood I like traveling by auto. You can sit inside and see the world go by and, more than that, if the driver is the friendly sort, you can always start a conversation and get to know a thing or two. We were chatting about the weather and how the Garden City had lost hundreds of its trees to ‘development’ when suddenly vroom! a sports bike roared past. We were on a bridge, a flyover, where overtaking was not on, but here was a youngster breaking all rules, almost like a recalcitrant child. As I perked up to spot the last of him and the monstrous vehicle, the auto driver sighed in horror. “Why does he have to do this,” he said. “You must drive, much like you eat. Don’t you like to savour and relish the food you eat? Driving is like that – you must inhale the air, get a whiff of the smells and not be in a tearing hurry. Just like you must eat slowly for food to digest well, you must drive slowly to experience the pleasure of driving,” he added.

I couldn’t agree with him more. As my eyes strayed to the meter, I was aghast. The fare showed Rs 65 while we had hardly traveled five or six kilometers. Now I’m not good at handling such situations. So I decided to stay quiet and hoped he would get me home fast. And I stopped engaging him in conversation.

When my destination arrived, I produced a 100-rupee note from my wallet and thought I’d say there was something wrong with the meter, which showed Rs 80. The driver leaned back to have a look at the fare on the meter. He smiled, said “sorry”, and went on to explain how he suddenly realised he had not restarted the meter once I had got in, how he had been wanting to tell me that all along, how he wondered whether I would take umbrage, and how, like me, he too was waiting to get quickly to the destination! I was too flabbergasted to speak. He then asked me how much I would have paid in the normal course. Before I could say anything, he nudged a 50-rupee note into my hand.

“Thank you for your gesture, what’s your name,” I asked. “Moinuddin,” he said triumphantly, his left hand raised in half-salute, his way of saying goodbye. He reversed the auto effortlessly and turned the corner. I waited there a while and wondered whether I would ever meet him again.

No picture of Moinuddin or his auto here, but of colourful Brigade Road and its surroundings.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Heritage store in Chennai shows the way

There is always a lot to forward to in the second half of the year, especially after August when the weather tends to get a bit pleasant (where is the autumn of old!), the sun puts on a milder hue, and the curtains draw open for the festive season. The celebrations peak around Diwali; after the Festival of Lights, there’s only Christmas and New Year to look forward to, and of course winter in some parts of India (even the winter of old seems to have disappeared but for many, anything is better than the oppression of the heat).

Many years ago when I was in PR, I was taken on a tour of some of the major retail stores in Madras to witness firsthand the kind of shopping spree during Diwali. Many of the shop owners told me that the sales during the week preceding Diwali accounted for more than 50 per cent of the total sales during the year. I found it hard to believe then, but that seems to be the truth. For most families, purchasing something or the other for Diwali is a must, and some save up through the year to splurge during Diwali, to make the best bargains possible or to benefit from the best discounts on offer.

Retail stores and chains try their best to outdo each other to attract the customer. In Chennai for instance, the number of footfalls in stores such as Nalli’s, Pothys and Saravana Stores is to be seen to be believed. It’s almost like getting onto or out of trains in Mumbai – the surge of the crowd pushes you inside and out.

Less than two weeks ago I was in Anna Nagar, at the new retail store opened by Poppat Jamal & Sons. The name is well known – the enterprise was established in old Madras, in George Town 110 years ago before it moved to prime property on Mount Road. That’s a store worth visiting for anybody interested in buying high-quality crockery, cutlery, glassware and lighting products. You could call it a heritage block.

Those who run such stores are often happy carrying on as they have been all along, but in a changing world the younger generation who are at the helm in many of them have begun to realise that if business has to grow expansion is necessary. So, the Poppat Jamal outlet in Anna Nagar brings a cherished brand to another part of the city, in this case one of the prime areas that is a retailer’s delight (Mount Road, ever since the four-lane traffic system came into force, has lost its sheen and pride of place as a marketing hub).

There are three floors here, and you can, if you want, leisurely spend a few hours looking at the various products on display. The ambience is modern, the lighting just right, and the area devoid of any clutter. Care has even been taken to provide a history of the company (at the entrance). And, of course, it’s all air-conditioned. Am not quite sure whether the main Mount Road outlet has all these things going for it. Anyway, what more would a customer want! Yes, quality and the right price. The store has earned repute for the first; and what better time than Diwali to offer the ‘right price’, which in other words is discounting 15-20 per cent?

I was tempted to talk to the young owner, probably the fourth or fifth descendant of the man who started it all – Poppat Jamal. But things were going slow at the cash counter, with the computers playing up. And he was in the thick of things. It’s always interesting to talk to youngsters and understand their views on taking such businesses forward.

Pictures show the entrance to one of the floors; attractive glass dispensers on display; customers engaged in the magic of touch and feel as bright red balloons overlook; and the elegant reception area.

Friday, October 21, 2011

When a 7-year-old girl showed her love for reading books

I love being in the midst of children. No matter whether you are tired, upset about something, or down and out, children make you come alive. It’s their innocence, curiosity for small things, witty repartee, questions (unending, sometimes) and sheer common sense that puts to shame an adult’s intellect that endear them to one and all. A few days ago, I got invited to a birthday party. She was as pretty as they come, the daughter of my friend’s sister who has spent many years in the US of A and who now likes it in China. I had never seen the little girl before and I was keen, especially after she had come home when I wasn’t around and had reportedly gone chattering non-stop to the dozen.

At the evening party, however, it took me a while to find her in the rush of family, friends, relatives and visitors. And then I spotted her, standing right in front of her birthday cake, sparkling eyes aglow, focused on the candles, on the birthday cake and an array of specially made cup cakes (they seem to be the flavour of the season, saw some of them on Master Chef). She was undoubtedly excited; perhaps overawed by the occasion or perhaps a tad shy, knowing that she was the centre of attraction.

Later, of course, she blew out the candles, cut the cake with a little help from her mother as her father proudly took pictures of her, and as her older brother watched fascinated from the sidelines. Well, girls are always so special, aren’t they? Formalities over, she quickly bounded in and out of the bedroom before settling down to sample the cakes and all the rest that was on offer.

Well, that quite wasn’t the all of it. While the adults tried to make sweet conversation (I failed miserably) after they had gorged on samosas and cakes and had their fill, I suddenly noticed the birthday girl seated in an expansive chair in the drawing room, surrounded by adults but oblivious of what or who was around her, her eyes riveted to the pages of a storybook she had received as a birthday gift. Her friends were playing in the bedroom.

In a world where they say the printed newspaper is dying and where children do not have the time or the inclination to read, I was stumped to see this little girl proving all the doomsayers wrong. What a heartwarming sight she made! I wished then that the other children who were there and many others would be inspired by her. I truly was, and I really felt having missed out in recent years all the reading I had done during my school and college days. For me, it was the sight that made the evening. Not the birthday cake, or the exquisitely made cup cakes, bless their makers.

Well, you charmed somebody almost ten times your age, Lakshmi! May the reading habit continue and perhaps you may graduate to become a writer some day. Her brother Pranav is a prolific reader, somebody whispered into my ear at the end. May be, she had picked up the habit from him. Full credit to him for that. But on her birthday, it was Lakshmi who floored this writer.

Pictures show Lakshmi blowing out the last two stubborn candles; immersed in what she probably loves doing best; and before her birthday cake(s) wondering what to do next.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Yes, Shuvo Bijoya, Pratik... and thank you for 'reconnecting''

Some years ago, while on an assignment in Calcutta, I met a group of youngsters bubbling with energy, most of whom I had recruited to handle the formal processing of US visas (the company that had deputed me was then authorised to process visas for the US Consulate General in three Indian cities, including Calcutta). One day, I received news while at work in the newly furnished office that one of the youngsters had met with an accident. There were too many things driving me up the wall, and now with the accident, I was left wondering why there had to be so many twists to the assignment.

That youngster was Pratik Tarafdar; he was unconscious when a senior office colleague and I rushed to the General Hospital where somebody had ‘deposited’ him. We decided to shift him to a private hospital and getting him discharged took time, which included tipping all and sundry (we hadn’t heard of Anna Hazare’s voice then!). Until we managed to wheel him into a private hospital, which took hours and where a known doctor immediately took charge, Pratik remained unconscious and I had given up all hope. Miraculously though, he survived. And much later, after I had returned to Madras, he continued to keep in touch. He had never forgotten that accident and the efforts we took to give him a new lease of life.

Well, Pratik, I understand, is doing well these days in good old Cal. And at a time when I keep blurting out nostalgia, I receive an email that shows what Durga Puja means to the average Bengali, how times have really not changed in Calcutta, and how, sadly, the romance of letter writing has almost disappeared. Here it is, unedited (he seems to be a fairly good writer, much better than some of the reporters who send me stuff):

Exchanging Bijoya greetings are no more the "only for Bengalis" affair. Globalization has successfully made Ma Durga cosmopolitan. My friends who love Bangla more than many things, be rest assured about my affection and respect for my mother tongue. I still say "Uffff" or now famous "Ishhhh" instead of "Ouch" or "Alas" :) The mail is written in English to reach out to my friends who don't understand Bangla but truly adore and admire the spirit of Durga Pujas.

Let me wish you and your loved ones 'Shuvo Bijoya' and pray that you could steal some time from your super busy schedule to stay connected to people who matter to your happiness, who bring smile on your face when you feel low.

Of late we have mastered the art of reducing the length of our messages to 160 and then finally to 140 characters but do we always succeed to pour our heart into it? I can't, as a matter of fact and hence is this slightly longish mail. Can't help as I love it.

Seldom we wish to share our thoughts these days and restrict it to micro blogging and clicking on the 'Like' buttons. Does anyone write personalised letters any more? I remember my Baba used to buy inland letters and post cards in bulk before the Pujas and Bengali new years. All four of us - Ma, Baba, Dada and I used to write to all the relatives and wish them. It used to be a fun-filled affair - writing them and receiving from others. Now we live in "real time". It has certainly changed many things for better along with ruining certain simple yet special pleasures of life.

Hope you had a great time enjoying the holidays. No work, good food and latest gossips about the friends and acquaintances must have kept you in good spirit and humor. What about the pandal hopping? Did you have shoe bite? It would be interesting to know what special did you do this puja that you would cherish for many years.

Thanks to the weather that it didn't spoil the mood of the festivity. I missed the typical puja weather to a great extent this time. The fragrance of 'Shiuli' and the beauty of dew drops were found only in the SMSs and updates. They have rather started making their presence felt now, right after the pujas. For me it was purely family time. Lazy days spent with mother, brother and wife. Met few friends after ages just at the onset of the pujas and realised how radically the topics of our discussion change with the passage of time. The hot topics of our younger days are not warm any more.

I find Durga Puja to be probably the greatest festival of all available on earth. One event, generates so many opportunities of work. Long live Durga Puja. Long live the tradition of touching base on Bijoya Dashami. I love this sweet excuse to re-connect.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Calcutta, I miss you!

The place where you are born and grow up is always special. Ask people, and nine out of ten are likely to say the same thing – no matter whether it is Asansol or Ranchi, Kanpur or Raipur, Anand or Baroda, Thiruvananthapuram or Hampi. For over centuries many people have chosen to remain in their place of birth, content to work and raise a family there, and retire and die in the hometown. Even those who ventured to distant lands have felt the urge to return and spend retired life where they grew up and studied, had friends and felt completely at home.

Of course, nowadays, after the great IT boom and scores of Indian youngsters having settled abroad – most of them in the developed world of Australia, the UK and the US, many in West Asia – chances of that much-looked-forward-to return is not on the cards, may never be. But out of that lot I’m sure there will still be some who would want to get back to a place they call home.

I was born and brought up in Calcutta and during my growing years, the city, although no longer the country’s capital, still had a lot going for it. If Bombay scored with its commercial enterprise, sense of discipline and the romantic charm that Hindu films and film stars offered, Calcutta always exuded warmth and care, where old-world charm never threatened to let go and leave. And that is how the city is even today, with the same laidback atmosphere and the Bangali Bhadrolok’s love for chai and Capstan filter remaining intact, as much as the boudi's penchant for non-stop shopping in Gariahat, the schoolchild's love for Salim's ice cream, and the college-goer's fascination for Park Street and the gorgeous girls of Loreto (the college was founded by the way in 1912).

To a casual visitor, Calcutta might sometimes almost seem like being at the edge of an abyss – an abyss of hopelessness, of despair. A friend in Chennai, speaking to a small gathering recently, took sarcastic digs at the City of Joy, where apparently he had spent a few years studying – not in a school that was top draw then (must have deteriorated further) or a sought-after school. He was speaking from impressions gained from that influence; even so, I was left wondering how somebody who had stayed in the city, a city known for its generous heart, could speak so disparagingly.

Memories of Calcutta never fail to bring me alive - of my good old friends, and my days in Don Bosco and St Xavier's. This year I suddenly realised that I had missed out on the pujas the past 28 years! Although I do go there once a year, I have never made it during Durga Puja.

I belong to what I call the ‘sandwich generation’, sandwiched between the old world and the new, where nostalgia often gets the better of the present. I also happen to be an ‘uproot’ (I know it’s a verb, but never mind); years ago, my mother had judiciously decided to uproot half the family and head for Madras. For some reason (many, really) the city never really grew on me. I always belonged to Calcutta. My heart is always there.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An 'ode' to a special friend...

She likes to swim with the dolphins, hold a tiger cub in her arms and be a horse whisperer… whatever that means. She advertises herself as a crackpot, a mad-hatter… it’s not very difficult for me to comprehend, because I’m an unorthodox person myself although I’d prefer to hold a pup in my arms rather than a cub… Well, it’s been a meeting of minds – this young woman and I. And from out of the blue she had appeared...

However, what has bound us together in a sense is our common upbringing - she grew up in Jamshedpur, I in Calcutta, she was an ace swimmer and state badminton player, I was a school footballer, she is an animal lover and so am I, she’s had connections with Anglo-Indians and so have I, she seems to bear nostalgia for the old and so do I… the list could probably go on…

Common interests apart, our lives seem to have a followed a particular pattern as well. Her father retired in the mid-1980s and the family moved south. My dad retired in 1978 and we hung on in Calcutta till 1983 when my mother, whose decision was law, decided to move south. A year after her mother arrived in Kerala, she died, possibly find God’s Own Country not really the place she wanted to be. My dad passed away less than a year after he arrived in Madras; it was clear the city was not where he belonged and he found the uprooting too difficult to take.

Thrown into his state of disarray was my state of unemployment, but by the time I got the job of my life in a Brooke Bond tea estate in the Niligiris it was too late – he had decided to leave. For her, it was a double whammy – her father died less than a year of her mother passing away – four days to her first anniversary. So, perhaps you understand what it means when you say your world can turn topsy-turvy in the space of a year.

While she has, after a lot of hardship, got used to living life in Bangalore and loves the place. I wouldn’t still, after 25 years and more call Chennai home. I love Bangalore though – there is still an old world charm to the city, especially in the Cantonment area, that is hard to miss. And then, there’s the weather that Calcutta doesn’t have (save in the winter), weather that is a balm for weak spirits and jagged nerves.

At this stage, relocating to Kolkata is simply not on, although my sister is there and almost a thoroughbred Bengali at that. But visiting the City of Joy, whenever I want to, is certainly on the calendar. After all, there’s absolutely no match for steaming hot Bangla masala chai in a hand-crafted bhand and inhaling sweet cigarette smoke whether you are standing at Gariahat more or Ballygunge Phandi or Camac Street or even outside the Metro Theatre that once was.

There’s no moral of a story here… no finales… no ending as such… Life goes on… but it’s wonderful, and sometimes even mysterious, when you find you’ve hit a chord with someone you hardly knew. That’s why life can be so fascinating, so inexplicable, so much so that you wonder whether is it possible at all!

Well, on a Sunday evening when the earthquake in Sikkim has carved a territory encompassing several states, and when a ‘drowsy numbness pains my sense as if of Hemlock I had drunk’, here’s cheers to good old times, to people of the same stock, and of course to nostalgia and healthy friendship!

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Madras Week: Hotel Green Park scores yet again

Whether Madras Week celebrations received overwhelming or muted response this year, activities at Hotel Green Park, Vadapalani, went on an even keel and the response, like in previous years, was quite overwhelming and encouraging. There were quite a few who had travelled long distances to reach the venue and it was only after the clock struck eight that some began to slowly wend their way back home.

As usual it was the programme for children that set the tone for the evening. When Binita and Shrimati of Spring into Reading set about the task a few years ago, organising events for children during Madras Week, little would they have imagined the kind of response the events would generate. When Gargi of Zoom Kids joined this year, the three, under the Spring and Zoom (an activity centre for children) banner, made the most of an afternoon, welcoming children to experiment and create products using the potter’s wheel and palm leaves. Supported by resource persons from DakshinaChitra, ‘Madras – experience your cultural heritage’ was open to children five years and above.

Later, there was a peppy demonstration by the students, of ‘Madras: Then and now’, complete with song, dance and theatre, touching upon aspects such as traditional games and how children spend their time today compared to those in the past.

For Chithra Madhavan, Hotel Green Park is almost home. She has lectured here on two previous occasions. This year, she chose to make a presentation on ‘Lesser known temples of Chennai – some more’. As usual, hers was a thoroughly researched presentation, pleasing to the ear and easy on the eye. It’s indeed a shame that many of our old temples remain neglected with inscriptions scraped away and gaudy paint plastered over. Chithra points this out time and again, which only shows that it must be the same story in many temples and how it has impacted a lover of heritage like her.

Incidentally, Chithra completed her M.A. and M. Phil. from the Department of Indian History, University of Madras and her Ph.D. from the Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, University of Mysore. She has published five books - History and Culture of Tamil Nadu (in two volumes) and Vishnu Temples of South India (in three volumes). She has also co-edited a book South India Heritage which contains 500 articles on various aspects of South India’s heritage and culture.

Pradeep Chakravarthy made quite an interesting presentation, on how ‘Kodambakkam (Puliyur) was the centre of Madras’. He took a look at how Madras was organised geographically in the 9th-12th centuries, what some troublesome local governance issues were and how they were resolved. There is very little about Puliyur in the public domain and based on what Pradeep explained, there is a whole world out there that needs to be researched. It only shows how little we know about our own local history. Pradeep’s attempt I thought was remarkable simply because there is so little material to base a presentation like his on. I would urge him to conduct research himself, if he can. That might form the background to an interesting book.

Pradeep has two books to his credit – on Thanjavur and the Vahanas. A student of KFI and a graduate from Madras Christian College, Jawaharlal Nehru University and the London School of Economics, he is an executive coach for senior leaders in Infosys Technologies. His articles appear frequently in The Hindu and Business Line.

Pictures show some children waiting expectantly as a little girl gets her fingers thoroughly soiled on the potter’s wheel; a resource person from DakshinaChitra showing a boy how he can be creative with palm leaves; children from the local Corporation school show off their exhibits; a father and daughter look for something interesting to read as Malavika from Book and Borrow looks on; and a packed hall at Green Park.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Learning a thing or two about divine grace, courtesy R.V. Rajan

Divine Grace and Blessings is the headline veteran adman and rural marketing expert R.V. Rajan has given his piece. After retiring and quitting many of the official positions he held (he continues to be chairman of Anugrah Madison), Rajan, who had a sparkling career, now spends his time visiting temples and other places of interest with his wife, Prabha, and also writing articles that gets published either in The Hindu or Business Line or in magazines such as Eve’s Touch. His writing is free-flowing, he uses simple language and talks about day-to-day things that anybody can relate to. I always find some message or the other subtly told through his writings. Here is the unedited version of what he sent me today:

Divine Grace (Anugraham) & Elders Blessings (Aashirvadham) are two values which my parents taught me early in life.

My mother was a very pious woman, who celebrated every religious occasion with reverence and great devotion, with appropriate Poojas performed at home. Whether it was a simple `Kardia Nonbu` or the more elaborate ` Varalakshmi Vratham`, she would spare no pain to make the occasion an opportunity to appease her chosen God / Goddess.

While her favourite Lord was Rama of the Ramayana fame, my father always claimed that Guruvayurappan little Krishna of Guruvayur in Kerala, was his chosen deity whose name he kept invoking whenever he felt happy or depressed. Like millions in the world, both my parents also believed that whatever be their problem, the Lord will always provide a solution!

They also believed in openly expressing their respects to elders. Any elderly person visiting our home was showered with genuine hospitality and made to feel like a VIP. No one left the home without taking the simple meal my mother served, with lots of love! Invariably before the elders took leave, my parents would prostrate before them seeking their blessings! The visiting elders more than touched by the gesture, would be generous in their blessings. Whenever we went on a visit to South on holiday, my parents would make it a point to visit all the elders in the family seeking their blessings.

As for me Lord Balaji of the Tirupathi fame and Vinayaka the elephant God are my chosen deities. Like my parents, I also totally surrender to the Lord not only during hours of crisis but on a daily basis whenever I have the time and opportunity. I am no good at pooja rituals, which are performed by my wife who is proficient in them. My belief is expressed in the form of invoking the Lord`s name, as often as I can, silently.

Keeping elders happy and getting their blessings is also something which I have believed in all my life. Though old age and physical problems are preventing me from prostrating before the elders I do not fail to touch the feet of the elders in the typical North Indian; `Pai Lagey` style, even now! I feel thrilled when they bless me from the bottom of their hearts! I can say with confidence that my bank balance of Elders` blessings is always overflowing.

I believe that Gods grace and elders` blessings have played a major part in my leading a fulfilling life apart from my relentless pursuit of my dreams and goals. I have even named my home and company invoking the Divine Grace; ANUGRAH!

Coming to the younger generation, judging by the turnout of youngsters in places of worship and other spiritual get-togethers of modern day `Gurujis` of all shades, I feel that belief in God is certainly growing among the youth of the country.. Whether it is Rama, Krishna, Allah or Christ, every young man has his chosen deity or a `Guruji` whom he regularly invokes for moral support in his hours of trials and tribulations.

I also find the practice of paying respects to elders, by touching their feet is prevalent among all sections of North Indians, wherever they are located,, even today. You can see an ample display of this fine gesture among the younger generations at Railway stations, Airports, other public places and of course at family functions. It might look perfunctory to some but I always admire at the spontaneity with which the act is performed by North Indian youngsters, even in Chennai. Whereas in the South, particularly in Tamilnadu and among Tamilians, the concept of prostrating before elders, the traditional form of paying respects is slowly fading amongst the younger generation. It is especially difficult for the Vada Kalai Iyengars (a sect of Vaishnavites sporting the `U` Namam on the forehead) because they have to perform the act of prostrating- four times, each time they meet an elderly person!

It is quite a punishment, especially for the newly married couple at Weddings, when they are forced to go around the wedding hall prostrating before every elderly person in the crowd. Of course, a wise young man found a solution to this problem by requesting elders to assemble in groups so that he could perform a `one for all` ritual to get their blessings. Saving effort and time!! The idea is catching on even at homes where families get-together on occasions. The fact is today`s younger generation in the South has to be persuaded to pay respects to elders in the traditional way. It is also true that the stresses and strains of modern life have made them physically unfit to perform this arduous form of paying respect!

I suppose that the present day parents and grandparents should feel happy if their children or grandchildren or nephews and nieces express their love and respect in whatever form they choose- if at all they feel like expressing their respects!

Rajan appreciates feedback at

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Madras Week: Unsung heroes (A. Ananda Kumar)

Probably the youngest hero of Madras Week was A. Ananda Kumar who exhibited his paintings at the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation. Kumar graduated this year from the Government College of Fine Arts, Chennai and is the first degree holder in Fine Arts from his village Koralpakkam in Thiruvannamalai District.

When I visited the g Vennirul Art Gallery there was no visitor. The lights were off and somebody came to switch them on as I entered. The sad part in some of these exhibitions is that there are hardly enough people interested in coming to see what’s on offer.

Whether it’s the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation or the Gallery Sri Parvati or other galleries, it all looks good for the record, to have exhibits during Madras Week, but in reality, except for the inaugural if there is one, you will hardly find people coming in. Lakshmi Venkataraman, who runs Gallery Sri Parvati, has echoed my view many times. She should know. Her gallery, done up fairly well, in the centre of the city, in Alwarpet, does not attract many visitors during Madras Week.

So, I had the whole Vennirul Art Gallery to myself and spent some time looking at the exhibits before an officer from the Foundation trooped in, probably signaling that my time was up.

Outside I was pleasantly surprised to see Ananda Kumar immersed in what he does best – paint. As he wielded his brush, his eyes were focused on an old building on the campus, probably one that might have been the residence of Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.

Pictures show some of Kumar’s work – the flow of the Cooum against a backdrop of heritage buildings, of St Andrew’s Church and Victoria Public Hall, and of the Mylapore Temple tank. I managed a picture of Kumar even as he was providing final touches to his painting of the building that formed the background.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Madras Week: A flavour of early 20th Century Madras

Last year, Nanditha Krishna of the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation had organised during Madras Week an exhibition on Fort St. George. The exhibition included aquatints, etchings and engravings from private collections, maps and sketches.

This year, she had two exhibitions running – one, a display of paintings by A. Ananda Kumar and the other, a display of some splendid photographs taken by the late M. K. Rangaswamy Aiyangar – of Madras and its environment in the beginning of the last century.

Let’s look at Aiyangar’s pictures first. M. K. Rangaswamy Aiyangar was a prolific writer and photographer. Born in 1886 in Srivilliputhur, he was a scholar of art, culture, religion and music, having written many articles on the subjects in leading dailies like The Hindu, Indian Express and the weeklies and magazines of his times. He authored several books, among which Thyagaraja Thatvam and Mahabalipuram – A Guide Book with illustrations of photographs taken by him are noteworthy.

Aiyangar was an eminent photographer and, according to Nanditha, will be remembered for his famous photographs of the early 20th century Madras and Tamil Nadu, especially the temples. Tirumala to Tillai, his famous exhibition of pictures, was held in Madras, Tirunelveli and Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh.

Aiyangar’s son, the late R. Madhavan, who retired from The Hindu, gifted his father’s collection of negatives and prints to the C. P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation library.

Here are a few of Rangaswamy Aiyangar’s pictures: a long-shot view of some of the pictures of monuments, of the Sri Thyagarajar Temple in Thiruvottriyur, of a person feeding vultures in Thirukkalukundram, of the Sangu Thirtham Tank there, and of the St Thomas Church on the Little Mount.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Madras Week: Unsung heroes (John Moses, Winston Henry, Venkatesh)

It appears kerosene was first imported to Madras by Best & Company in 1879. It was sold in tins by the brand names Chester and Monkey. Kerosene lamps were also sold on carts till the late 1970s. With the import of kerosene from abroad, lamps from England, Germany, Hungary, France, Japan and the United States followed. According to John Moses, who had an astonishing display of lamps at the Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar, the lamp industry was highly competitive in these countries – in producing lamps, wicks, chimneys and globes. Most of the lamps then were made of brass, glass and porcelain.

Moses and Winston Henry (who helps put up aquariums and aviaries), narrated at length their passion for collecting anything old. Moses said his collection of old lamps, watches, pens and cycles was so large that there was hardly enough space at his home in Kilpauk to keep them. “My family just manages to tolerate me,” he said.

Winston said just about the same thing. The passageways in his house are lined with large containers filled with old books. He had brought along the 1870 edition of Francis Buchanan’s ‘Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’, published by Higginbotham and Company, Madras. The pages were almost falling apart and the years had taken its toll – but you were taken to another world just by grasping the book.

Together, Moses and Winston made a difference to the exhibition at the school. They also took pains in describing the displays to all those who seemed interested to know and learn more.

Another participant who needs special mention was Venkatesh, a peon at the Padma Seshadri School. He has been an avid collector of coins and has always sought an outlet to exhibit them. Two years ago, he came up with a similar display. School duties have not blunted his enthusiasm to pursue his hobby. His is an example many should follow.

And these are the people who make Madras Week what it is. They toil hard all day long, expect little publicity, prefer to keep a low profile, are happy with even the smallest word of appreciation, and treat every person with dignity.

Pictures show Moses before his prized collection, Winston going about his job of explaining to visitors, Francis Buchanan’s book, a coloured illustration on one of the pages of the book, and Venkatesh beaming before his collection.

Madras Week: Unsung heroes (S.A. Govindaraju)

The Madras Heritage Lovers Forum put up a wonderful show at the Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar. Most of the members are past 50, with consultant architect D.H. Rao, who organised and ‘choreographed’ the entire show, well past 70. More than anything, it was rare commitment on display, a passion for a city and its heritage.

The forum is made up of Rao, V. Prabhakar, Winston Henry, S.A. Govindaraju, who has an amazing collection of old books and magazines, John Moses, Lazer, Roland Nelson and Hemant Chopra. Some of them were there throughout at the three-day event, standing for the most part in a hall without the air-conditioning system turned on.

Govindaraju is 80 years old but his passion for old books and magazines hasn’t diminished a bit. He has been collecting them for more than four decades and has over 5000 books and 10000 magazines, paper clippings and advertisements. A retired labour law consultant, he runs a small garage where he sells these books. What is remarkable is that he is able to identify each of the books just by the look of them – the author and publisher’s names, even the date of publication.

Govindaraju has books on law, philosophy, literature, history, wildlife, poetry, encyclopedias and books on film stars and politicians. He has a large collection of R.K. Laxman’s cartoons as well.

Every day, he spends his time in the garage (Rare Books, R.A. Puram, 2nd Main Road) with his collection, waiting for people with a similar passion, a passion that is hard to find these days.

Pictures show some of the material on display – Manohar Devadoss’s exquisite s pen-and-ink drawings; Govindaraju’s books; and one (Madras – Chennai Pattinam) of several fascinating articles by Nanditha Krishna (director of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation) that had appeared in The Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1970s.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Madras Week: Spontaneity lacking, need for new energy

It’s been a long break with the blog, with work and other things keeping me company most of the time. It’s Madras Week again, but after seven years of playing the catalyst role in putting events together in some places, I get the feeling that a lot of it is not as spontaneous as it should be.

We’ve had two press conferences – one in June to announce broadly the celebration, and the second a week ahead of Madras Week, to drive home the specifics. What if we, the catalysts or coordinators, did not convene the press meets – would we then have had as many ‘celebrations’ of the city or events that are there now? My answer is ‘no’.

People, whether they be individuals, heading schools, colleges or institutions have to be pushed a bit to get events off the starting block. There’s only one school that seems to have earmarked Madras Day and Madras Week in the school calendar. So, why is the spontaneity missing? Does love of one’s city not amount to too much, or doesn’t heritage and allied subjects not rank high at all? I would say heritage does not rank high in a person’s list of priorities.

So, how do we get more people to celebrate the founding of a city? To the best of my knowledge, Chennai is perhaps the only city in India to have such a weeklong celebration bracketing its birthday. There are no straightforward answers to the question as much as there is no short-term solution. The best way is to instill the idea in the minds of schoolchildren from all schools so that when they grow up, they realise the value of protecting and conserving the heritage of the place where they spent their growing years.

The other point is that over the years we’ve been having the same people speaking at various forums. Of course, it’s a pleasure to listen to city historians S. Muthiah and Randor Guy and V. Sriram but we need many others who can speak or make presentations on a variety of other subjects connected to the city. Where are the Tamil speakers? Gnanai Sankaran, Badri Seshadri or Ashokamitran are fairly good speakers and people will come to hear them, but they, and I’m sure there are many more like them, are not part of the week’s celebrations this year. What I’m trying to say is that often it is the same message that goes out, from the same speakers. I think some of the older speakers must make way for new and younger ones.

Overall, it’s schoolchildren who are benefiting the most, from participating in quiz contests, essay and drawing competitions, in exhibitions, and by listening to speakers. The three-day exhibition of Madras memorabilia, put together by the Chennai Heritage Lovers Forum headed by the indefatigable D.H. Rao, at the Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar was a success, with students from many neighbouring schools coming to have a look.

However, a rather disappointing note was struck at the Jaigopal Garodia School in Anna Nagar, when Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan failed to live up to expectations and rather than showing some of the hundreds of pictures he must have taken during his ‘photowalks’, decided to get teachers of the school to demonstrate how they took history classes. His larger message was to get schoolchildren out of the classrooms, a message that we have often heard, and the point was not lost. But if he had enough pictures to show or stories to tell it might have made up for something, but it wasn’t to be.

Pictures show the chart displayed by students of Padma Seshadri School, KK Nagar, at the entrance to the exhibition; the students and an enthusiastic Mrs YGP, dean and director, PSBB Group of Schools await the start of the programme along with S. Muthiah; Ramanujam, chief postmaster general (second from right) and Indira Vaidyanathan, principal of the school; G. Vijaykumar, principal, Jaigopal Garodia School, Anna Nagar seems surprised as his teachers are called by the speaker to demonstrate; and one of the teachers makes a spirited response amidst thunderous applause from the children.