October 27, 2006

Surabhi: the India one must see...and be proud of

When I saw Phantom of the opera on Broadway in New York City in 2004, I was totally zapped. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. The costumes, the stage craft, the orchestra, everything was gorgeous, larger than life. And the special effects were simply stunning! One moment the stage was solid ground, another moment it was water with a boat sailing on it; one moment a character was walking, another moment he was sitting on the chandelier on the roof! It was absolutely out of this world, and no doubt, the best theatre experience I had ever had until then. It completely redefined the concept of ‘theatre’ as it existed in my mind.

And of course, the question arose, why don’t we have something like this in India?

I got the answer to my question in February this year, when Vijay and I discovered Surabhi, a unique 121-year old traditional Telugu theatre group from Kadapa, Andhra Pradesh. The ‘theatre’ was a make-shift structure with an asbestos roof with kacha flooring with wooden benches to sit on. The play we saw was Maya Bazar, a mythological from the Mahabharata. It is the story of the romance between Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu and Balarama’s daughter Sashirekha, and how they are united against all odds by the rakshasha Ghatotkachaa (see photo) using his magic powers.

We had heard that Surabhi plays were spectacular, but we really did not know what to expect. And were we in for a surprise! In Maya Bazar, arrows fly on stage, meeting in mid-air, in a display of fireworks; one arrow causes a wall of fire, another brings down rain to put out the fire; a romantic song in a garden has real pigeons flying around; Narada actually descends from the clouds, singing. And when Ghatotkacha makes his appearance, the magic seems to begin all over again—carpets fly, laddus magically ascend into Ghatotkacha’s mouth; brooms rise up to give a beating to the baddies; a couch on which Sashirekha is lying down actually rises up and flies away!!

As more and more special effects unfolded before us, we were mesmerized...and kept exclaiming in wonder and disbelief at what was happening on stage. At the end of the play, both our children asked us if they could go to the play again! We went home and called up about 25 people, family and friends included, and invited them to the play the next weekend. The same reaction from them too... "That was out of this world...why didn’t we hear about Surabhi earlier?"

If people hadn’t heard about Surabhi, it is because this group of skilled performers have no means to get the right kind of publicity. They performed in Hyderabad, 5 days a week for six whole months, thanks to government patronage, but there was hardly any crowd despite the low priced ticket of Rs 15!

Surabhi was essentially a travelling rural theatre. Its decline began with the advent of cinema, and then TV. In its heyday, Surabhi had over 50 drama troupes, all in the same family—now it has just five. Threatened with closure every passing day, the Surabhi family struggles to make a living.

It is a typical story of simple, genuine people, with huge talent, being forgotten, while all the attention is on those pseudo-intellectuals with their ‘nothing-on-the-stage-you-have-to-imagine-it' kind of theatre, which corporate giants patronise, and for which people spend Rs 500-Rs 2000 per ticket, and clap even as they wonder why they are clapping!

Surabhi should not be allowed to die. They need patronage. If you live in India and want to help, please invite Surabhi (98485-80211 / 98490-26386) to perform in your town or city. And if you find them performing nearby, please spend Rs 15 per ticket for an awesome theatre experience.

For this is the India one must see, and be proud of.


Other interesting facts

• Surabhi was started in 1885 by Vanarasa Govindarao and Vanarasa Chinaramayya in Surabhi, a tiny hamlet near Rayachoti (another version mentions a remote Kadapa village—Sorugu), now in Kadapa district in Andhra Pradesh.

• Surabhi is unique also because it is a one-family theatre group in which every member of the family acts, including toddlers who are made to put on some make up and costumes, and walk up and down on the stage. There have apparently been cases when an older family member died on the stage, but the play went on without stopping.

• The name Surabhi comes from the Sanskrit shloka Shushstu Rabhathe Janaanandam, Ithi Surabhi, which literally means, "...because in Surabhi, people’s joy is easily obtained".

• In addition to Maya Bazar, they do other plays such as Sri Krishna Leelalu, Lava Kusa, Balanagamma, Bhakta Prahlada and Sri Veerabramhmamgari Jeevita Charita.

• The hugely successful movie Maya Bazar was inspired by Surabhi, and has the same kind of special effects that the Surabhi play has.

• At the time of writing, there has been a positive development—Surabhi has been invited by a cultural foundation to perform in Vishakapatnam, from 1 to 22 November (The Hindu, 18 October 2006).

October 20, 2006

I black...a poem

Something happened and I could not sign into my blog; tried the 'help' feature but to no avail. So I recreated it...that's why everything is dated 20 October 2006.

I have been up against deadlines. And now this blog log-in problem. Therefore no time for a proper post. I'll just say Happy Deepavali!

And share with you a poem written by an African child, sent to me by my friend Savitri. It was apparently nominated Poem of the Year (details not known) in 2005.

When I born, I Black,
When I grow up, I Black,
When I go in Sun, I Black,
When I scared, I Black,
When I sick, I Black,
And when I die, I still black...

And you White fellow,
When you born, you pink,
When you grow up, you White,
When you go in Sun, you Red,
When you cold, you blue,
When you scared, you yellow,
When you sick, you Green,
And when you die, you Gray...
And you calling me colored???

Of a new friend, and an old...

I get very excited by new species of flora and fauna that are found in nature. The newspapers reported recently that a new bird species, a kind of babbler—Bugun liocichla— has been found by Ramana Athreya and his team, of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Pune, in the Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh. This is being hailed internationally as the first new bird species discovered in India in nearly half a century! Wow!

The bird has been named after the Bugun tribe in whose land it was found. Says Mr Aasheesh Pittie, Hyderabad-based birdwatcher, The discovery of a new bird is really special, but when it’s a stunning species with no geographically close relatives and in a part of the world where bird collectors have sampled birds for more than a century, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

In a world where the front page is full of mishaps, such news, tucked away on the last, is really exhilerating. There is much to crib about, but one must rejoice in small happinesses.

Remembering an old friend

Talking about a new bird species, I remember fondly, an old friend, who has sadly, found its way into the endangered species list, all over the world. The good old sparrow.

On a trip to Nagarjuna Sagar recently, apart from the abundant water in River Krishna, I enjoyed looking at the several insects and birds that frequented the vast openness of Punnami, the guest house we stayed in. The canteen overlooked Krishna, with a glass separating the inside from the outside. The quiet was unbelievable after our daily dose of Himayatnagar’s increasing decible levels.

Suddenly, a house sparrow came hopping near the glass next to our table. It pecked at grains on the floor, hopped around on the back of the chair outside. A familiar sight, one would say. But, no longer, in the part of the world I live in, and in many others. The humble house sparrow, which had been a taken-for-granted part of my childhood, has been one of the casualties of changing lifestyles. They are gone! My children don’t know what they look like. The chirping of sparrows in the background of everyday life was so natural that one hardly noticed it. It has now been replaced by a doorbell simulation (which I hate, and which I judge people by...sorry!)...you press the switch and it goes, cheap, chip, chip chip, chip...!!

Subject of many a pittamma-kakkamma (sparrow-crow) story, pittamma was always the good bird, and the poor old kakamma always played the villian, much like Rajesh Khanna and Prem Chopra in the movies of the seventies! But unlike in the movies, looks like our little hero has been knocked out by the villain...that spoon-stealing, chapati-filching rascal—the crow—who’s still around. More on him another time, for he’s an intelligent and interesting character, and deserves a blog posting all to himself!

For now, I’ll say adieu, little sparrow...we miss having you around.

Links: Where have all the sparrows gone? by Vasudha, V.,
Excitement for Ornithologists by K. Venkateshwarlu, http://www.hindu.com/2006/09/12/stories/2006091202072200.htm
Reference: Wondrous babbler, Editorial, The Hindu 13 October 2006.

Bathkamma, Bathkamma uyyalo...

There are ever so many minor and major festivals in India. Dasara (also spelt Dussehra) is celebrated differently in different parts of India. I write about a lesser-known festival called the Bathkamma panduga, celebrated just before Dasara in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh.

This festival is a 9-day, all-women affair. Girls and women arrange flowers on a plate, stacking circular rows of different varieties of flowers available during the season, on top of which is placed some turmeric and a piece of dry coconut. This is worshipped as Bathukamma. Women stand in a circle and sing songs as they go around the colourful Bathukammas placed in the centre, clapping and dancing rhythmically. On the final day, they gather at temples next to a pond or a lake, again sing and dance, after which they put the Bathukammas in the water.

One legend is that King Daksha Prajapati, father of Sati (Lord Shiva’s first wife) performed a yagna to which he did not invite Lord Shiva. Sati felt insulted and burnt herself. During the Bathukamma festival, women pray asking her to come back to life (Bathukamma literally means 'come back to life, mother).

My own childhood memory of Bathukamma festival is of an enthusiastic grandmother getting together girls from the locality and literally ordering them to dance around as many Bathukammas as could be gathered. They sang folksy songs, which usually began with the words Bathukamma, Bathukamma uyyalo... I watched them, even as my grandmother encouraged the girls to sing ‘one more song’ and then ‘one more’, and then, "don’t you know this song?...we used to sing it when we were children", and so on.

I invariably shied away from the place if anyone asked me to participate. But I went back for the delicious prasadams distributed after the dance. What ingredients those prasadams were made of, I really don’t know (subject of discussion with grandmother on my next trip). But they would put an Almond House or a Dadu’s* to shame!

This year, with a new interest in this colourful festival, I went to Bhadrakali temple in Warangal to see the splendour of Bathukamma. Neatly dressed in silk sarees, wearing lots of jewellery, flowers in their hair, Bathukammas in their hands or on their heads, groups of women came, colour after vibrant colour. They sang with belief; prayed sincerely and naturally, unmindful that the greens and blues, the mustards and maroons they splashed around could be a piece of the culture cake I was trying to taste...

I returned to my world, my Kodak happy and full of bright hues, but with questions in my mind....I grew up on that very land, yet why is that I cannot have the kind of faith those women have? Why am I incapable of singing and dancing like them? Yet, why do I cling on...why can’t I just let go? In fact, why does it sometimes seem like I belong nowhere?

*Famous sweet shops in Hyderabad

Lorry art

It may seem funny but on my first trip to the US (a trip that materialised after many many years of planning), I was bowled over by the humongous trucks that were everywhere. They were colourful, sleek, and so well-maintained that one could sense the love with which the truck owners / drivers took care of them.

In India too, we have lorry drivers who love their vehicles so much that they personalize every inch of their lorries. You just need to look, and you will find every paint-able part of lorries painted in several bright colours with a variety of motifs, words, and messages. The words could be just a simple, ‘Please sound horn’ or a ‘Use dipper at night’. Sometimes they could be, in Hindi, Mera Bharat mahaan (My India is great), or in Telugu, Nidaname pradanamu (being slow is of importance). Very often you find names of gods and goddesses (Jai Hanuman) or those of popular films.
I saw a hilarious one that said Buri nazar wale tera mooh kala, a Hindi expression written in Telugu script, which means...‘one with evil eye--may your face turn black’!! Another such was Maa ki duaa (mother’s blessing), again Hindi in Telugu script. Another funny one that I cannot quite figure out says in Telugu, nannu choosi eduvaku raa, which means ‘don’t look at me and cry’! What in the world....?!

Apart from the words, the visuals painted on many lorries are varied and intricate. Lorry art is indeed very interesting and fascinating, and must be recognized as a genre in itself, if it hasn’t already been. Here are some pix of lorries that I took on a few road trips in South India...I am quite certain if one made a collection of lorry photos from all over India, there would be as much diversity of colour and language as there is in the different States.
For some more lorry art, click on http://www.flickr.com/photos/lens_sense/

While on lorries and grafitti, I must mention Harriet Coles, an English friend from the 1980s, from whom I bought my first vehicle---a moped (TVS 50) for Rs 4000. During her stay in India, Harriet had been fascinated by the words written on lorries and had painted some grafitti on this moped...so, my TVS (which btw, I named Heliothis after the insect pest Harriet had been researching on) came to me with ‘King of the road’, ‘Mohammed Ali’, ‘Sholay’, etc. painted wherever there was any space available. It was cute and different, and I loved Heliothis --- grafitti and all ---after all, it was the first vehicle I bought with my own hard-earned money.

It was okay until the day I returned from shopping to my parked moped, to find a cop waiting, only to tell me to erase the grafitti that was ‘only meant for lorries’! He had already scratched out the "King of the road" painted on the number-plate. This seemed so unfair...if lorry drivers could paint grafitti, why couldn’t I? I helplessly looked at the grinning cop and said ‘okay, I will wipe them out...’But at that moment, all wanted to say to him was: buri nazar wale tera mooh kala!

Playing with nature?

Here is a touching tribute to Steve Irwin, sent to me by Giridhar.
Looking at Steve on Animal Planet, one did not associate him with dying and death. One only thought of how full of life he was, how gutsy he was to play around with wild animals and how passionate he was about nature. His untimely death is indeed tragic. We will miss him.

However, while I admired him, I must admit that Steve’s programmes made me feel very uncomfortable, as do some other wildlife documentaries on TV. Always the thought, “what right do human beings have, to invade the privacy of animals that are simply leading their lives, just as we do, in our environment?”

Germaine Greer, Australian academic, writer, broadcaster and well-known feminist, in her much-criticised criticism of Steve Irwin says: “What Irwin never seemed to understand was that animals need space. There was no habitat, no matter how fragile or finely balanced, that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder and amazement to the skies. There was not an animal he was not prepared to manhandle. Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress. Every snake badgered by Irwin was at a huge disadvantage, with only a single possible reaction to its terrifying situation, which was to strike.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/australia/story/0,,1865124,00.html#article_continue

Even without someone like Steve holding crocs and snakes and showing them off to the camera, scenes on wildlife channels showing lions and tigers hunting a terrified deer, or a group of hyenas feeding on a just-killed zebra, or, worse, copulating animals, or even worse, closeups of a giraffe or an elephant in labour and then, the birth of their young ones…really, what right do we have, to broadcast all this? Or to watch it sitting on a beanbag and munching popcorn? Do we think we have a right to do anything we like with them just because animals don’t have the ability to speak and write, wield a video camera, have names and a religion?

Perhaps these questions seem na├»ve in this world full of much more horrible happenings. Perhaps I am still asking these questions because I grew up listening to the likes of Pushpavilaapam (‘lament of the flowers’)--- a beautiful Telugu song written sensitively by Karunasrii, and sung with great feeling by Ghantasala. It is a song about the cruel act of plucking flowers (yes!).

The flowers cry out to human beings, telling them not to give them such pain:

"We are ignorant; you are wise;
You can think and are discrete!
Do you have a heart that turned granite hard?
Doesn't it bloom a flower or two for your Lord?
The few hours that are allotted to us,
we prosper to the immense pleasure
of our creeper-mother; and in her arms we sing
in joy celebrating our freedom absolute; and
when the destined hour approaches, we breathe our
last uncomplaining, and drop dead at ourmother's cool feet…”

(Complete lyrics and translation at http://www.bhaavana.net/telusa/apr96/0063.html, but one must listen to the song to appreciate it)

Pushpavilapam apparently made people stop plucking flowers. I remember feeling extremely sad when I heard this song, and beginning to hesitate before I unnecessarily plucked flowers.

Human beings have done enough damage to nature. Our generation should make it their mission to contribute actively to the regeneration of the ecosystem, in whatever small way they can, not further damage it by their insensitivity and indifference.

But wait! What have I been saying? What credibilty do I have, to be saying all this? It suddenly struck me that when, as a child, I collected those red velvet mites in match boxes (see 16 Sep blog), I was…playing with nature.

Just as Steve Irwin did.

So, did I contribute to the disappearance of velvet mites from this part of the world?

Did I?

Birba biddi, birba buddi, teri aankh kholo...

One childhood memory which I cherish is of playing with a little red velvet insect, which I now know is called the Red Velvet Mite. They were seen during the rainy season, in grassy areas. We called it arudra purugu (insect of the rainy season) in Telugu and birba buddi in Hindi.

My friends Sudha and Padma, and I collected these very friendly creatures in match boxes, as did a lot of other children. When we collected several birba buddis, the match box was replaced with a bigger box, typically a rectangular toffee box, in which we placed some grass because we just assumed that the velvet mites ate grass! We had hours of fun with them, allowing them to crawl over our palms and up our hands. They were timid insects and when touched, their legs would fold in and they curled up into tiny immobile balls! And when they did this, we would chant a poem, "birba buddi, birba buddi, teri aankh kholo..." (birba buddi, birba buddi, open your eyes), and then another line to the effect that it must go home immediately because its grandmother had died! Soon the birba buddi would unfold its legs and start walking, and we would think it was because of our little poem that it woke up!

We took it for granted---this active contact with nature. I do not remember when it was that we stopped seeing these insects. I hadn’t seen one for many many years until last year, when on a walk in a park near my home, I suddenly spotted one. I was overjoyed! I picked it up lovingly, and my first thought was to go to my children’s school, call them out of their classrooms and show it to them. I decided against this because I felt the teachers wouldn’t appreciate it too much. I wondered whether I should take it home…but the thought of the concrete I lived on, discouraged me. I decided to let it remain where I had found it, and searched frantically for others. I did not find any more, not even one. The rest of the rainy season, my eyes were on the ground as I walked, searching…in the grass, in bushes, in the place where I had last seen it…but, no luck.

The sight of a birba buddi after so many years gave me immense happiness, and I talked about it excitedly for the next two days...in fact, I am still talking about it! I am happy with the knowledge that they have not become extinct in these parts, as I had thought they had.

I subsequently read up about the velvet mite and was in for some surprises. Here is what I found:

At first glance, the minute red critter dancing across the earth is stunning. A closer look under the microscope announces it to be breathtakingly beautiful.

Can this really be said of one of nature's hairy eight-legged arthropods? Absolutely, if it's a red velvet mite. Long a favorite of biologists and children, these ruby gems of the family Trombidiidae are most often sighted on the woodland floors of the world, with millions inhabiting the woods of the Chicago Wilderness region.

"Under the microscope they are beautiful!" says Liam Heneghan, an ecosystem ecologist at DePaul University. "They look like a thumbprint." Most red velvet mites are egg-shaped and less than a millimeter in length. Fine decorative hairs, some of which may serve as feelers, give the creatures their lush red velvet appearance.

Though lovely to the eye, red velvet mites are disliked by the palate: their color may warn predators to the mites' unpleasant taste. "There are stories about biologists popping them into their mouths," says George Hammond, a University of Michigan graduate student who studies velvet mites. Other than ill-advised scientists, however, he knows of no natural enemies of these arachnids: "I've put them on an anthill and no ant would touch them."

In the meantime, my search for these red beauties continues. I hope I find one on a weekend, so I can show it to my children.

Ganeshas for sale!

I took these pictures in Warangal. The Ganeshas were set up for sale on the roadside, extending about half-a-kilometre. What a riot of colour it was!

For more Ganesha photos, click on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lens_sense/

First words on my blog

Suddenly, self consciousness. I will pretend no one is going to read this. Just me.

I have been thinking of blogging since some time, been reading others, but hesitating...and then, what the hell...I like to write; I like to share thoughts...so why not? Even if no one reads it, it'll be a place where I can keep my stuff.

I have figured out that I'll post some interesting photos that I take from my Kodak EasyShare CX7430, and some incidents, some thoughts, some observations of life, some funny stuff. But everything will be straight from the heart. No thinking, no intellectualizing. No whatifs...I hope I can handle that!

And, hopefully, no rules! This is my kingdom, and I am the king, queen, jester, everything. :)

There...I made a beginning! Let me click on 'Publish Post' and see what happens...