Thursday, October 1, 2015

Andal

Andal was a sensuous woman, who lived 100 years ago. She symbolised the era of the saree, when you start wearing it very early and learn to accept it as if it was your skin. She wore sarees from the age of 7 and she learnt to do everything in it, including playing hopscotch, climbing trees, and skipping. When she reached puberty, she looked at the mirror more often and liked what she saw. She applied kohl made at home on those almond shaped eyes and placed a big pottu on her forehead. She strung the jasmine which grew in her garden and adorned her hair with it. She wore the saree with grace, and since it was woven short she could show off her pretty anklets. Her blouse was made from the thin printed calico that was in vogue those days. She matched it with the colours from the saree which had yarn dyed in natural colours when the alchemy of synthetic dyes hadn’t stormed the bastion of dye workshops.
Her mother, aunts and grandmother only wore pattu sarees woven in simple designs, with motifs of hamsas, rudrakshams and vel darri. Often they were korvai sarees with solid contrast borders and pallus. The sarees were washed immediately after they were worn for a full day. They had lines strung in the back yard, and the pattu sarees were washed with punga kottai, which was a kind of soap nut, soaked in water and lather coaxed by hand. The soap nut was kind to the sarees and gave them a becoming sheen. With every wash, the saree became soft and clinging and felt so good next to the skin. The saris were dried without too much of wringing, and hung with the borders facing downwards, and if there was space, singly in a horizontal manner. Andal would smooth out the wrinkles while the saree was still wet so that when you took it out, it looked well laundered.
And when cotton sarees were washed, they were immersed in rice conjee diluted, and placed in a bucket, and strung singly on the line so that the saree did not stick to the next layer. The saree had to be very lightly starched, if at all. All sarees were dried in the shade, and carefully folded and placed under the pillow or under the mattress if you slept on one.
Andal like all young women liked to think of herself as progressive. She would keep smoothing the crinkles that were invariably present. She decided one day to use a brass pot with hot water and apply it to the saree and lo and behold it looked so wondrous and perfectly smooth. When she wore sarees people whispered behind her back that she knew some magic to make her sarees so exquisitely smooth. No one dared to ask Andal, but an urchin who looked through her bedroom window one afternoon, watched her iron her sarees painstakingly, wearing out all the wrinkles as she pressed. Of course it went round the village, and most women looked smug as they sported nicely ironed sarees.
The grand sarees worn for weddings were preserved differently. Andal’s mother used to wrap each saree in a soft mulmul waishti. She placed dried neem leaves in the folds of the waishti to ward off insects. Andal’s Ammamma a wise old lady told her never to keep a silk saree unwashed however expensive. She explained to Andal that the perspiration ruined a saree, and the starch with the weavers spread on the yarn, eventually would eat away the saree. And sarees should always be dried in the shade.
Andal passed on the wisdom of caring for sarees to her children and grandchildren. She told them that she would sneak some jasmine into the folds of the saree, so that the smell lingered for months. Of course you had to make sure that the jasmine did not let out any liquid and spoil the silk.
She taught her grandchildren as they grew up that the saree is the most graceful garment in the world, and no other new fangled fashion could ever replace the saree, a rich gift from the Gods themselves. Those children whose mothers and grandmothers told them these stories are all saree wearers and many of them are members of the Kai Thari group today.
Andal is a fictitious character, but everything written about her is true and taken from life. Sarees should be stacked and not hung, though we are all guilty of doing that. Sarees not worn for sometime should be taken out and aired otherwise they split at the folds.
Image courtesy Internet

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

OHH MIGOD!


If you look carefully round my home you will find maybe a hundred Ganeshas, in different mediums..he might be hidden under a leaf, behind a lamp, on the puja shelf, on my office desk, a doodle on my sketch pad, wherever. He is my ishta deivam,  my favourite among the pantheon of gods. Everything about him is lovable, his pot belly girded with a snake, the elephant head, with his flapping ears, the broken tusk….but the only thing which gives me a little shiver is his inseparable vahanam the mouse.
He is venerated  by most of us every year about this time, and we make his favourite kozhakattais and sundal in the south, the modaks in the north. Why then… (we have asked ourselves this question hundreds of times) do we buy a new Ganapathi only to sink him into the water? There is a touch of sadness, and we have asked seers and pundits who have not given us the right answer. There is only one explanation, according to me. Dust unto dust, a symbol of accepting the path we will all follow. But then, it is not the end, Ganapathi rises like the phoenix out of the ashes he was consigned to year after year when we rejoice and welcome him into our homes once again.
I have decided not to go through this practice. Every year my terracotta puliyar gifted by cousin Ganga sits decorated with flowers and jewelry and as tenderly he is placed back. What I do however, is fashion a stylised form of Ganesh in turmeric bearing a vermillion dot, which is discarded after the puja is over.

Every year I make kozhakattais, sundal, vadai, payasam, promising myself that next year I would do away with rituals knowing that Lord Ganesha will always bless me for my fervour and love for him even if I just pray to him with fruit and flowers. I know he will continue to remove obstacles from my path.  Then Ganesh Chaturti approaches, I see the twinkle in his eyes, and I fall for it, and I am perspiring over making the goodies for him….Will we Indians ever change!!!???

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

HANGING BY A THREAD


If Manu the ancient lawgiver could have forseen the effect of devising a mangalsutra as a symbol of wedded bliss, he might have revised his prescription. It is to his credit that the custom has sustained through 15 centuries according to ancient manuscripts which proclaim the origin to 6th Century A.D. In Sanksrit, mangala means “holy or auspicious” and sutra is thread.
India being a land of diversity there are are various mangalsutras.   The Lakshmi thali worn by the Telegus, the Ela Thali by the Malayalis, the kumbha thali worn by the Tamil Kshatriyas, the  diamond pendant on black beads by some North Indians, and the Maharashtrians, wear a pendant of two vati ornaments. Originally in South India only the yellow thread was worn, but given up due to impracticality and fashion trends in the chain designs.
Adi Sankara in his Soundarya Laheri  emphasised on the significance of the mangal sutra  presumably worn for the long life of the husband. Hindu women led by religious custom and social expectations would never remove the thali, even on dressy occasions when other heavy necklets were worn. Of course the other symbols of a married woman, a sumangali were the toe rings, the kumkum or bindi, and glass bangles.
The woman was shorn of all these symbols when her husband died. In the old days it was this  custom which branded a woman a widow, so no man went near her, and devoid  of these beautiful adornments she looked “less attractive”, to men who would otherwise give an unattached woman the glad eye. In some communities the head of the widow is shaved and she wears widows weeds  which loudly proclaim her status. White in India is also associated with widowhood, all of these cruel customs which need to be dispensed with.
Feminists today question the significance of the mangalsutra, and, recently spotlighted in the news was “unequal power play” between the married couple, describing the thali round the woman’s neck as merely shackles, and controlled by a man who “owned” her.  We all recall the big hooha that went on followed by debates, in the media which is quick to grab unusual stories.  Some women went to the extent of removing the thali and throwing it off in the presence of a smiling husband, and it was certainly a show of emancipation and that too in conservative South Indian society.
Society is indeed dynamic and cultural traditions were cast for certain reasons which were valid for that period of time.  One needs to bow down to the wheels of change, to a very modern society which does not recognise the need for all these symbols. Why then do we go through the rituals of marriage? Is it a drama, a spectacle endured for the benefit of a large audience?  Why stretch it to five days, including traditions which might not be really ours like mehndhi, sangeeth and so on? 
For some of us, the thali is a comfort jewel, when we as young brides  valued and honoured it.  It becomes so much a part of daily dressing that, the occasional absence when it needs to be redone, or during hospital stays, one feels lost and deprived. Not so the next gen I thought, so it surprised us no end when our Bengali daughter-in-law, so thali driven wears it all the time!! To me, it is a security symbol, and I am so conditioned to it, that bereft of this chain, I don’t feel fully dressed.
A  symbol of marriage be it a wedding ring, or a chain, or just the yellow thread, does seem important at the time of the wedding ceremony, and there are only a handful of women and men who would sign at the registrars office without a sentimental symbol of being married, irrespective of religion. caste or creed.
I have to share this about an aunt in her younger days, who would hang her thali over a peg on the coatstand every night before she went to bed, wearing it only after her bath in the morning. She did this surreptiously, covering the chain with a towel, knowing it would incite a great deal of criticism from elders in the household, not to mention having to face the horror writ large on the face of the maids! One fine day, thanks to a memory lapse she forgot to wear it.  As she was stirring her curry, she remembered, and reached the coatstand in a flash only to find  the thali  gone.
Unable to publicise her loss she went about in asking her children and her husband in whispers whether they had seen the four sovereigns thali . The immediate family was amused, as they watched her pull out the drawers in a frenzy and diving into the clothes cupboard in a futile hunt.  Aunty dare not ask the maids, knowing she would be reprimanded , and she was nervous to incur the wrath of her in-laws. Happily, her husband produced the chain, which he had safely put away, and couldn’t resist lecturing her on carelessness. On his part he couldn’t care a whit whether she wore it or not.
68 years of Independence and are our women independent or not and are they hung up on age old customs or is it plain conditioning? Would you rather not wear a thali or is it part of your skin? These are questions I would love to hear the answers to!!



Friday, July 24, 2015

RIGHT PLACE AT THE  RIGHT TIME

I am allergic to ants… red ants. Just looking at the little troopers travelling army like, gives me goose bumps! No joking… if I am bitten and no action is taken, I will have to be carried out on a stretcher. I’ve realised quite late in life that you can develop allergies that you never had before. One sunny, beautiful day in Bangalore we were standing outside my cousin’s place in Indira Nagar, waiting for her to answer the doorbell and a sea of ants lying comfortably under granite slabs wedged between grass patches decided to converge on an unsuspecting victim.  By the time we went inside I had broken into hives and could hardly breathe. A terrified cousin pushed me into the car and on to the first hospital she spied. A  quiet unoccupied place with no activity. As they helped me in, the doctor happened to walk in to pick up his bag which he had forgotten when he left for lunch. He took one look at me, wheeled me into Emergency, and gave me a Betnasol shot or was it Avil? I had to be given oxygen and after a couple of hours we left.
I was in the right place at the right time. My cousin fortunately knew driving. She had no clue about any hospital in the area, but drove there by instinct.  The doctor luckily for me forgot his bag. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been alive to tell you this story  as I was heading for anaphylactic shock.  He told me how to cope with it, carry a vial of injection, in my handbag, keep anti allergic pills at all times, carry a repellent and above all not to scratch, for that releases more histamine.  Soon after it happened, I remember how I used to spray my feet liberally with  “Off” whenever we sat on the lawns of the Club. Though I still carry my my emergency pouch I am not paranoid as I was and have learnt to cope, and recognise the symptoms.
As far as doctors are concerned, select one whom you feel are comfortable with, and one you can talk to, not necessarily the one at the top of the profession. With due respect to them,  they might not be persons who are on the same plane as you. Some of us tend to be so overawed that we neither take cognisance of what the good doctor is saying, nor forget to ask whatever you thought of asking. You come home feeling pretty foolish and at the same time hesitate to call the doctor for clarification.
On one occasion just before an international holiday, a lady in the family, went in for a casual check up as was usual with her.  The doctor, a leading cardiologist made the perfunctionary examination, and intuitively good at diagnosis,  advised her to cancel her holiday. After investigations she had a pacemaker fitted in place of the much planned holiday with the family.  It was a life saving visit to the doctor and his insight.
Another young man well known to us, was forced by his family to go for a check up which he avoided like the plague, being a high flying executive with “no time”. While he waited for the concerned technicians he suddenly decided to go in for an executive check up, which had an extra test which was PSA, generally not necessary for men younger than 50. To his utter shock the levels were very high and he needed surgery immediately. Again by the grace of God he  is completely well and leads an active life.
To be at the right place at the right time,  we would be greatly blessed if we have a doctor who has good handwriting. At one point or the other we have come home to read unintelligible squiggles which form part of the prescription. While it is all explained to us, and we nod our heads knowledgeably in the consulting room, our minds draw a blank once we are out it, and we gaze at the doctors writing in trepidation. Learn to make little notes while you are there, even if you are laughed at! Some hospitals have the protocol of typing out the prescriptions before we leave but often enough their interpretations of the writing have gone awry, and this has to be pointed out.  You cannot be too careful, and while the doctors have the best of intentions, remember how busy they are, and you need to participate and ask the questions, nothing in life is ever handed out on  a platter.
While most of us are so critical of doctors, I often wonder if we realise the pressures of their daily lives especially the surgeons. No wonder then that some of the surgeons outside of India, organise music in the operating theatres. The tradition of playing music during medical procedures goes way back to ancient times, when the Greeks regarded Apollo as the God of healing and music.
Apart from calming frayed nerves of the operating team,  music had a way of distracting the patient from the dread of the situation. To quote music therapist Melanie Kwan of the Association for Music Therapy, Singapore, who addressed  the American Psychological Association, "When their acute pain symptoms were relieved, patients were finally able to rest." It is believed that “active music engagement allowed the patients to reconnect with the healthy parts of themselves, even in the face of a debilitating condition or disease-related suffering."

When driving with the music system is on is considered a distraction, I wonder if the surgeons operating to music do not feel like swaying to the music, rather than give 100% to their work which requires so much of intense concentration….but on the contrary I believe it eases their tensions making them operate better.    I remember reading a newspaper report on surgeons operating with music in India, but we have to check that one out. If the patient is given options where you fill up a form and one line asks, “choice of music during surgery”  I would opt for Beethoven, Mozart or classical flute by Shashank rather than a Martin Garrix or new age composers, or even Elvis from our generation!!


THE #100 SAREE PACT


Something’s abuzz in the city. the #100 sari pact. People are talking about it, yes both men and women. What is this sari pact? Does it have political overtones?  I thought I would demystify this phenomena !  The pact to craft activists like me is like  manna from heaven.  I have intensely regretted the fact that the sari is veering towards oblivion, regardless of the fact that the saree shops enjoy peaking sales during festivals and marriage seasons. I have been using any platform that I get to shout myself hoarse that the younger set should wear saris at least once in a way.
No one wants to wear saris anymore. Not just the next gen, but ammas and pattis. Inconvenient, they say to wear at home. Who wants to wear the flapping 6 yards with the inner trappings of an underskirt and a well fitted blouse?  So comfy to slip into that loose caftan, often termed nightie, or get into a beautiful salwar kameez. No worry about maintenance, starching and ironing if you happen to be a rigid cotton person like me…. I too am guilty of falling into the same trap, opting for comfort at home. The difference is that whenever I go out, I make it a point to wear a sarees, as I am making a statement.
Take a look around and you will find that most  maids come dressed in salwar kameezes.  Take a walk in the morning, and you see young women emerging  from slums wearing frilly nighties, with a babies  perched on their hips, or pumping water into buckets with gusto,  the wetness seeping right above their hemlines! I have made it a rule though, that  no maid of mine will report to work in a “nightie” as none of us lounge in these.
The pact began when two friends, Anju Maudgal Kadam and Ally Mathan were discussing the need to wear saris to save it from extinction. A casual conversation which morphed into a movement.  They made a pact to wear sarees at least a 100 times before the end of the year 2015. It didn’t matter what saree it was, or if it was the same saree worn a multiple times. They influenced their friends in other cities to join the pact as only young people can. That was the birth of the #100 saree pact which went viral, even international! The media was quick to pick it up, and the #100 saree pact was reported in the print media, radio and television.
This apart, the founders have saree dates, where like minded women, (even if they are not the saree wearing kind) meet at coffee shops or restaurants, wearing sarees of course. I was invited to the saree date meeting at Amethyst, and it was, for me an eye opener to feel the enthusiasm of the group of 15 or more. Each narrated a saree story, and it didn’t matter what saree, as long as it was one. Saree dates were organised all over the country, as well as in the UK and US! Getting the youth to start wearing this fabulous unstitched garment was to me a big step in keeping our traditions alive. I prayed this might not be a flash in the pan kind of thing.
I grabbed the opportunity to push this pact a little more, to widen its concept. Why not make a pact to wear handlooms? At least  60 times out of the 100?  I talked about the way the weavers laboured to hand weave one saree, and afterwards to locate a market when tradition collapsed in favour of bling. The response was very encouraging, and I promised to send them historical notes and point them in the direction of  where such gorgeous saris could be acquired. And yes even deliver a little talk with a power point presentation to drive home the point!
When did the saree actually arrive? This is a nebulous area, and one can only base it on conjecture. It could date back several centuries, when an old statue of a priest was unearthed from the Indus Valley Civilization where he is wearing a garment draped like a saree. It could be that the dhothi which is the oldest known garment that was draped marked the beginning of the saree.
There was this primordial  belief among ancient Hindus that the unstitched garment indicated purity. In fact even needles going through the fabric was considered  inauspicious. The ancient sculptures of goddesses indicated a nivvi or the pallu as we know it today. It was tied at the waist, covered the legs and spread out fan like in front as a decorative drape.
Author Soha Parekh who wrote a book on the saree, shares a folk tale with a charming poetical observation…which suggests that the sari was born on the loom of the weaver, who dreamt of a beautiful woman, and as he wove, “he captured the shimmer of her tears, the drape of her tumbling hair, the colours of her many moods and the softness of her touch and her exquisite grace…” He kept on working on the loom till the saree evolved.
Our country has such diverse cultures be it textiles, food or sarees. Every state has its own speciality, and has a heritage stamp of its own.
One question I have often been asked is, will the sari go into the annals of history as an obsolete, once favoured national garment like the kimono? A few years back I couldn’t answer the question.
Today with the saree pact going round, more youngsters are not just joining the pact but are an integral part of it, interested in knowing the history, the varieties, and filled with determination to bring about a great revival of this wondrous garment. I can now say with impunity, the saree is here to stay.
And to stretch it further, why not have a handloom saree day at our Club on one of the festival celebrations? That would ensure that with everyone, young or old wearing a saree are part of the #100 saree pact!


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The craft of Sanjhi

Have you ever tried folding a paper into a square, folding it again and snipping off the corners? Open it and you find  pretty patterns of holes throughout the paper.
Sanjhi craft is somewhat like this, except stencils are used to make definite designs on paper and the cutting is done with special scissors. Primarily these stencils were made to draw rangoli patterns on the floor. They  are placed on flat surfaces, or water, where the rangoli has to be drawn. Dry colors are then sifted onto the surface. Placing the colours evenly over  the stencils is a work of art and lifting the stencil off the surface also requires skill. Peacocks, bullock carts, horses, cows, butterflies and trees are some of the common motifs used. The intricate craftsmanship reflects the artist’s devotion and the intimate love for Lord Krishna. An elaborate Sanjhi design could take anywhere between an hour and a month to produce.
 Primarily the art of sanjhi making whether it is a folk or temple tradition are directed towards worship. Goddess Sanjhi is venerated, and prayer offered to her. It is a labour of love, when after the worship, one sanjhi is effaced and another one created. The term Sanjhi is derived from the Hindi word sandhya, the period of dusk with which the art form is typically associated.  It was Radhe, who it is said, made  Sanjhi rangolis using natural colors, to impress Krishna. Sanjhi has been popular ever since, and during the Mughal period, contemporary themes were introduced for greater perspective.
Sanjhi making is prominent in Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, both in homes and the temples, and the designs related to Sri Krishna’s life. The peak period is in September and October when pilgrims flock from all over India, to particular sites, of the Krishna Temples, and the Sanjhi creations are placed in specific places in the temples. One traditional sanjhi at Goverdhan is the image of Sri Krishna lifting the mountain with his finger, and another of him playing with the gopikas. Once the rituals are over, the papers and material are thrown into the river.
The art of cutting paper using stencils, is also taken up by unmarried girls in the hope of getting a good husband, a temple tradition of the 17th Century, and apart from being practised in Vrindavan it is also done in a single temple in Barsana, Radha’s village.
A languishing craft, it was revived by the Delhi Crafts Council, when the remaining few artistes were traced, and a newer set of people were trained in the craft. Sanjhi craft was shifted from the traditional to the contemporary mode, where it is converted into framed pictures, coasters, lampshades etc, so that a new market is thrown open.



Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pattamadai Mats



In the old days, every home in Tamil Nadu had one or two pais or mats made out of reeds. People slept on these mats, welcomed guests to sit on them, and for toddlers to sit down on them and play. After their use, the mats were rolled up and kept in a corner. We have lost the grace of sitting on the floor, not realising that it is a form of exercise and good for your lower limbs! There were mats of various dimensions, and the long, narrow ones called bandhi pais were used for sitting down in a row on the floor and eating. They were woven for weddings and gifted to the bride and groom often with their names woven into them.

Soft and pliable silk mats are produced in a village called Pattamadai, in the Thiruneveli District of Tamil Nadu. They are different from the common pais or mats which are commonly available.. The mats are made of kora grass which grows in river beds and other marshy lands, and harvested in the months of  September/October or February/March.

What makes the pattu pais special and different to others?  It entails a complicated weaving process, which is  unique to this region. The grass is cut when it is still tender and green, and dried in the sun, boiled and dried again. The strips are first washed in running water, then  immersed in water for a whole week sometimes. The grass swells, and when it dries completely, it is taken for weaving after it is dyed in the colours preferred. Natural dyes were the only colours used, but later for the sake of convenience synthetic dyes were introduced. Red, green and black were commonly used, but today there are a whole range of colours and designs to choose from and some even have zari borders. After weaving the mats are polished.

The fine silk mats are woven with reeds which have their outer skins shaved off, and split into  very fine strands, which are used for the weft in weaving. The warp is cotton, and water is sprinkled throughout the process of weaving. They are called pattu pais because they are so delicately woven  and so soft that they feel like silk, and can go into a box or even a handbag. The  mat weaving is a closely guarded trade secret among the Muslim Community of Pathamadai from ages.

Coarser mats are also woven and today they are made into runners, place mats, shopping bags, file cases etc which throws the market wide open.  With modern design intervention and reintroducing natural dyes, this handicraft has had new direction and will  hopefully be kept alive both in the local and international market for generations to come.




A valuable craft the Pattamadai mats were presented to celebrities like the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.




Monday, March 2, 2015

SONS AND DAUGHTERS


This column is addressed to the sons and daughters  who live with or without their parents. To the children who wish they could do more for them, but cannot due to “circumstances beyond their control”. To those who are assailed with guilt for living their own lives.
We’ve been there, ourselves, so we know what it’s like, to be helpless.  As newly weds, we lived in Bhopal for 5 years, before the Union Carbide tragedy. We would often sit in the verandah of our little home, musing on the old folks back home, wondering if they were in good health and cheer. We had no telephone at home, and no mobiles for constant communication. We had to be content to make the occasional call, and send letters by snail mail which would take a week to reach Chennai or Bangalore, and another week to get a reply if they wrote back immediately. My resourceful grandfather gave me a pack of postcards, with his address, to write at least every three days. He would send us parcels of dried curry leaves which were not available here, and my mother would add on rasam powder and balls of vadagam!
We fervently wished we could be there for our parents, even though they were blessed with good health. The trajectory of change comes in with passing time. Families went nuclear, and we encouraged our children to seek greener pastures, to better their lifestyles, with a “we’ll look after ourselves, we are fine” attitude masking cleverly any physical ailment we may have. Our sons and daughters go away with the images of parents who are young looking, invincible and definitely “alright”.  When they make their brief visits for a couple of weeks at the most, which are divided between visiting two sets of parents, cousins, friends and what have you, they only see the best front that you put out for them. Can they be blamed for something they do not see? They are besides, nurtured in a Western world with a different value systems and a radical approach to old age.
Westerners  nudge the children out of the nest when they are young adults, to live on their own, and the older people would rather die than live with their children. The West however is geared to offer comfort for their elderly, right from user friendly pavements, public transport, safety audits at home, and streamlined communication systems to hospices and medical care. We are the sandwich generation of Indians, watching life streams changing, elders trying to be independent of their children, not knowing what to do when they are old and infirm, and systems not in place for staving off their loneliness, nor support for coping with age related illnesses.
The sons and daughters do not “see” what their parents are going through, nor understand that the smallest of jobs seem so difficult, even the ones they executed with ease a couple of years ago. With domestic help on the decrease, and becoming prohibitively expensive day to day living becomes a challenge.  You meet children, who assuage their feelings of guilt by presenting their parents with expensive gifts, laptops or ipads that they don’t know how to use. Smart phones leave them bewildered.  How many of them have the time in their turbo charged lives to actually sit down with the parents to explain the working of these gizmos?
Thanks to the innumerable interviews I have had with the young and the old I am able to understand the problems of both sides without being judgemental.  Take the case of one daughter-in-law I know.   She is the most darling of women with compassion and an altruistic zeal to be there for her in-laws. An outgoing girl, pre-marriage, she is submissive, casting  her dreams aside to be next to her ageing mother- in- law to do her bidding, whatever. In return she receives the love and support of her husband and his family.
The other kind are children who do not want their parents to quit the family house, despite their inability to cope with a sprawling home in the autumnal years of their lives. There are some weird ideas of sentiment, of memories of growing up which they want to hold on to. Why don’t they come back and live in the home that they profess to love, for God’s sake? Of course they can’t, they have their careers, their lives, their children. One solution is retirement homes. Not easy, first the shift which is hard to accept. Secondly few have the blessings of their children for whom consigning the parents to a home leaves a bruised ego.
We have to trade our possessions and  property, for  a peace which is so invaluable. Some children do not allow the parents  to sell any property, and they just abide by their children’s decisions.
A daughter whom I know, used to visit her parents very regularly even though she lived abroad, and it was not just  a “naam ke vaste “visit”. I don’t know how she managed it, but her time management was wonderful. On every visit she and her husband would try to understand parental needs, look at the home again with new eyes to make it user friendly, put in a stair lift if necessary, hand rails for steps leading to the house, grab rails in the bathroom  etc. If the home needed painting it was done during their visits despite protests from the older people. They were encouraged to make their life simpler, sell whatever property they could not manage to keep. They also looked for support systems within close family and friends who could tackle emergencies, and be of solace to them whenever needed.

There are caring, considerate sons and daughters, by the legion, and parents who make life tough for younger people, complaining, demanding and obstinate. Every swallow does not a summer make, so it is difficult to generalise.  Both generations need to have a balanced perspective, and  understanding of each others difficulties, if they wish to have a good relationship. Solutions lie in each of us, if we care to find them.

Monday, February 2, 2015

TRIBAL SHAWLS OF NAGALAND

As in every form of weaving, the making of the Naga Shawl has a close connection to the rituals and beliefs of the people. Nagaland is in North East of India and the Nagas are divided into sixteen tribes. The Nagas are Indo-Tibetian people who were probably migrants, into India. They were headhunters, and wore the heads of their enemies as trophies, and were rewarded for their acts of “valour” by gifts of adornments, like shawls, hornbill feathers, cowries and necklaces. There were special shawls called warrior shawls, where  motifs of spears were woven.
The Naga Shawls are bright red and black which are the main colours, and sometimes yellow and a bit of blue are also used. The red in the shawl signified the blood of the enemy. The blue was derived from leaves which were taken off plants grown in a bit of land cleared and kept for this purpose in the outskirts of the village. The Nagas believed that their enemies could be warded off with their own brand of magic spells.
Throughout India, weaving is considered the man’s occupation, as it is hard work, sitting at the loom for hours.  The women of the household did smaller jobs which would assist in the weaving of cloth. In Nagaland, however, weaving was very much a woman’s activity. Every Naga woman learnt to weave cloth for herself and her family. This was done on a simple backstrap loom, and the warp fixed to a wall in the house. The loom was strapped to the small of her back.
The designs were woven into the cloth in different colours through the warp or through the weft threads, using a stick of bamboo, or even porcupine quills. Because of the nature of the loom, the designs were always linear and geometric. Sometimes the shawl was woven in three different pieces, and joined together. Weaving as we all know is a laborious process, and each piece could take about ten hours for a practised weaver.
If you were a tribal wearing a shawl, the Nagas could gauge the status in society by just looking at it, because certain designs were reserved only for chieftains or for powerful clans within the tribe. There were other restrictions for the weaver women,  like a pregnant woman could not weave. When one was weaving a warrior shawl, the weaver could not eat or drink in anyone’s home.
Sometimes painting was done on the shawls, and the pigment taken from a tree, blended with rice beer!  This painting was done only by an old man who told stories of his life as he painted. Originally the shawls were in cotton, but wool did come in later. The special shawls were not worn everyday but for an occasion.
NOTE:   Cloth is woven when the warp is intertwined with the weft. Warp is made up of threads going across, horizontally. Weft threads are vertical, and both woven together makes the cloth.

  

GIFT OF THE NEEDLE

Gujerat is a state which is known for its various crafts, textiles and embroideries. The rural women in Gujerat are excellent women expressing themselves with needle and thread right from the time they toddle.  As soon as they can hold a needle, they sit by their mother or grandmother and start stitching with coloured thread on square pieces of cloth. As they grew older they progressed with different kinds of stitches, and learnt to sew, and embroidering on ghaghras, pillow cases, bags, shawls, cholis and anything that required embellishments. Much of the embroidery has mirrors worked into it. This is what we call oral tradition, that is, a craft skill which is passed on from mother to daughter over many generations.
Everyday, after tending to their cattle and field work, plus house work, the women set aside an hour or two to their embroidery.  All the embroidered goods that she does, is given to the girl as trousseau during her wedding. Being handcrafted, every piece is a valuable possession.
As with every craft, royal patronage helped the craft to blossom. The Mughals were chief patrons, and during their rule, the quality of craft and textiles rose to a peak. Emperor Aurangazeb particularly commissioned embroidered textiles for wall hangings,  for his palace, for his nobility, and for the animals.  Even tents and palanquins were richly embroidered and used during travelling and camping. Marco Polo who travelled to India during the 13th century marvelled at these beautiful embroideries inlaid with gold and silver threads, proclaiming them to be the most beautiful in the world. Ahmedabad became one of the largest centres, for the embroideries of Gujerat and even today you can see the rural folk exhibiting their work on the streets.
After the Mughals, the East India Company owned by the British carried on a flourishing trade with Gujerat embroidered fabrics.
Every village in Gujerat has its own style of embroidery, and it is easy to find out which village the embroidery is done judging by the stitches.  Bhuj is a place where exquisite embroidery is done, and fine embroidery is done in Banni north of Bhuj near the Pakistan border. The needle craft is done on woollen shawls, and is one of the most popular items as the work is one of great beauty and skill.
The wealth of a particular tribe is judged by the number of items embroidered and the quality of the work. Quilts are part of every family, and however poor they be, living in huts, the quilts are their proud possessions which indicate their social status.
Beadwork is also a form of embroidery for wall hangings, and worked around solid utilitarian objects in the home. They could be two dimensional and was developed in the late 19th century.

Embroidery is done on shoes and handbags and find appreciation in the worldwide market. The cultural heritage of Gujerat lies in its textiles and handicrafts, and next time you see an exhibition of Gujerat craft advertised in the newspapers, be sure to attend!

THE PEN THIEF

The phone rings with urgency.  I pick up the receiver, it is someone, wanting a phone number. I am the renowned storer of phone numbers, addresses and email IDs and  not just for the family.
“Have you heard of Just Dial? Ask them?”
“I prefer to ask you.  Its QuickRrrrrrrr”
“Thanks”  I go through the pages of my “hard copy” of the telephone directory, dependable at all times.”Here it is.  Note it down. Ready?”
“Wait, let me get a pen and note paper.”  I wait. 
“Oh God, I can’t find the pen.  Hey,  Alamelu, why did you take my pen?”
Voice in the background…”Why should I take your pen, Amma? Ask your children.”
“Dash it, nothing stays in place in this house.  Ah, I found another one. Give me the number please.” I rattle off the number a trifle bugged at being kept waiting.
“Sorry, this pen doesn’t write, just a minute.” My patience is wearing thin.
“Ah, I found a pencil, shoot.” I do feel like shooting her. I shoot, not once but twice or thrice thanks to some disturbance on the phone. Her voice sounds feeble. “Thanks”.
The phone rings again. In all probability, the scrap of paper on which she jotted the number must have been blown off by the breeze, and she is calling again. Yes, it is her number, I can see the callers ID.
Terribly disgruntled, I pick up the phone  and say”Hello” in the sternest tone possible.
“Sorry, I forgot to tell you, we have a meeting on Thursday, at 4 pm in the office.”
This is one of the disadvantages of being “efficient”, “patient???”  and wearing the mask of being available any time, anywhere, any place without exhibiting the slightest irritation.
“Okay, okay…” I bang the phone down.
Where was I? Making the list of dos for the day. Time management,and organising, you know. I believe in jotting it all down in a diary. Not for me the sticky notes and the computer menu pages.   Hell, where’s that pen? I search my desk all over, look into the drawers. Not a single pen. I rush to the dining room. The sideboard in our dining room  has a drawer for pens,  a pad for writing the lists for the market etc. My dear mother makes sure there are pens in the drawer. I pull it open. Not a single pen. I make a beeline for the bedroom. I keep a pad and pen next to my bed, to scrawl ideas, for stories, columns, letters lest the ideas vanish as fast as they come.  No pen. I dare not peep into my husband’s desk. I usually dump all the pens which don’t write on his desk, and the unwritten law is that he makes them writeable and transfers them  back to my desk.
My late grandfather had a terrific idea. He used to use thin twine to tie the pens to a corner of his desk, also the stapler, for we grandchildren would not think twice borrowing his pens, staplers, gem clips, punching machine and cellotape and scissors and not returning them. Each of these precious possessions would be carefully fixed to remain in place, and while we were at liberty to use them, we had to move to his desk to get our job done. He did this for our telephone table, so we could take messages with the pen tethered for safety. We found this extremely useful, till one day we found the string snapped and the pen removed, and after a slight tap on his forehead, Thatha washed his hands off the security issue, and said we could use ingenious methods to keep the pen in place as he had no use for the phone anyway…
When we were schooling we had a lesson in our English textbook. It was titled Mr. Nobody. He came into our own lives rather forcefully. When the school bag was missing,  it was Mr. Nobody who misplaced it. Where had the socks disappeared? One was in the shoe, but the other? Of course Mr. Nobody was the one who hid the wretched thing. So also pens, pencils, erasers, handkerchiefs, notebooks, timetables were all seized by Mr. Nobody.
Then we hit upon a brilliant idea. There was a chest of drawers in my mother’s room, and one drawer was kept for us. I christened it the “kacham bucham” drawer.  If we couldn’t find something, we would blame it on Mr Nobody, and then get reprimanded by our parents who told us to search in the KB drawer. Funny how the name stuck right through our growing years.  If you searched hard enough wading through shoe laces, pencils, pens, scraps of papers, in all probability you would find what you were looking for.
I firmly resolved not to provide a KB drawer for my children and decided everything would go into the right slot. Except pens which had a miraculous way of just walking away from one room to the other till they disappeared altogether. My prized possessions given by dear ones, who understand my penchant for collecting pens ( I am a writer, remember?) like the Sheaffers, the Cross and the Parker are all under lock and key. Each has a story. The gold Cross pen was presented to me by my Hindi school teacher, who decided to give it to me when we met a couple of years ago.  “To my prize student,” he wrote on the box. He recently passed away, but the pen is a precious acquisition.
Deciding last week to clear out my handbag, I found an assortment of pens, more than half a dozen of every size and colour and some which I forgot I possessed. A few looked like aliens, and luckily they were the write and throw ones. I blushed as I arranged them on the tray.  A voice at the back chanted,  “So now we know who is the pen thief!”


Monday, January 12, 2015

The Essence of Time

This is a recent article published in The Hindu, about my book, Quick Cook.

If you’re waging a battle with the clock while preparing food every day, then this cookbook is for you

Master of Menus: Sabita Radhakrishna. Photo: M. Karunakaran
Sabita Radhakrishna is used to starting trends. She pioneered the boutique concept in Chennai with Amrapali. Then she went from being a gifted home cook to cookbook author in what she calls, a “happy mistake that I never meant to make.” Now she’s launched her latest cookbook, The Quick Cook.
It all starts with the basics. “Pre-preparation is the backbone of quick cooking,” Sabita writes. She says, “I’ve provided recipes for basic masala powders in this book. Make it ahead and refrigerate it — you never know when it’ll come in handy.”
Sketched out as a series of menus, the book is all about preparing a meal within 60 minutes. “It’s the ultimate lesson on time management, targeted towards the younger, working audience who don’t have time to make a balanced meal,” she says.
While each menu promises a balanced, nutritious meal in just an hour or less, the menus also contain standalone dishes. If you doubt your ability to cook a 60-minute meal don’t worry: it has been tried and tested. “My niece became a quick cook after I wrote this book because for every recipe, we would go into the kitchen and set the alarm. Sixty minutes exactly, with only a recipe in hand. It was a pleasant surprise when some of them took even less time!”
Then again, not every recipe can live up to the claim, and Sabita knows it. “None of the desserts have time estimations. Baking is an exact science, and my desserts are no different.”
Ladling out a spinach-and-corn tart for us to try gives an idea of what the book holds. Sabita showcases some continental delights but doesn’t neglect the home favourites like rava dosai and Kancheepuram idli.
And for the strict vegetarians there are substitutions. Helpful hints pepper the end of many menus; notes that Sabita has taken while preparing the meals herself.
So what’s in the works next? Another cookbook of course. “I don’t mean to write any of them. They happen by chance... Just when I think I’m done, another request comes. And I love food too much to say no.”
The Quick Cook is priced at Rs. 399.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Wedding Belles





As kids we had an abhorrence of weddings.  True to form our parents trotted us through every ceremony till we knew the rituals by heart …mercifully the family tree was not in such abundance so the number of weddings were limited.
The only attraction was meeting our cousins,  nieces and nephews, some of them who were much older than me, and some first cousins  old enough to be my mother.  One nephew in particular, took churlish delight in introducing me amidst gasps as his aunt, a habit which he has not given up!. We were strictly told not to “play” with each other but sit primly watching the goings on. No wandering about even accompanied by strong looking male cousins as we would be easily kidnapped what with the jewellery we wore.
The best event was the wedding reception. The bridal couple relinquished the comfort of the sofa to shake hands with well wishers, trying to balance the flow of gifts . They would finally abandon all hopes of sitting till the long queue eased off. The plastic smiles they wore slowly morphed into grimaces.  The most entertaining event was the kucheri. No one bothered to listen to the singers warbling, the women were most engrossed in sizing up each other’s clothes and jewellery and viewing eligible young “girls and boys” who were paraded at weddings. The mridangam player and the nadhaswaram artiste would engage in the funniest of facial contortions, and we would imitate them and convulse into laughter till we were ticked off severely by an adult at this show of deep disrespect.
Weddings stretched to three days and if you were closely related you attended every single one of them. I thought that with the passage of time,  rituals would coalesce into a single window, and a one day wedding. On the contrary wedding celebrations have ballooned into a display of wealth, and aesthetics at a price. It does not matter that you are South Indian. You have a mehndi ceremony for “close women friends and relatives”, the sangeeth, the mappillai azhaippu, muhurtam and wedding reception, making it a five-day wedding.
Out comes the jewellery from the bank and preparations are afoot as every invitee likes to look her best. The men have it easy, or so I think. The pandal d├ęcor could cost anywhere between 2 to 5 lakhs depending on how much you want to spend and you could extend it further. You have event managers who supervise the flow, and in some cases are assigned the task of welcoming!
The best part of the wedding according to me is where every guest is accorded warmth and made to feel that his or her presence added to the wedding something which the family takes on, not strangers. On one occasion there was neither the event managing team nor the bridal couples’ relatives as we entered the mantapam. A smiling stranger insisted we go straight for breakfast, and we headed in the direction he pointed and enjoyed all the delicacies. Lo and behold there were no familiar faces, and as we stepped out we realised we had stumbled on to the wrong dining hall, and hastily beat a retreat to the wedding on a different floor.
“The food prepared is enough to feed an army” said a young nephew fired with idealism of youth and determined to get married under the trees or on the beach when his time came. To prove his point that anyone could partake of the wedding feast, he along with two other bright young men, all of them still in college, and suffering hunger pangs, spruced themselves up and walked in. The girls at the reception giggled and sprinkled rose water on them and offered them buttonholes  and kalkand. As they walked to the dining area, interested relatives ogled at these eligible boys wondering whether they belonged to the groom’s  side or the bride’s  and made a mental note to find out who they were. The boys scooted as soon as they  had their meal, and after several namaskarams to the men who fed them.
Whatever food is left over could be distributed to homes where the poor and needy could have a feast.. The illai saapad has its disadvantages, as much of food served is often left uneaten. Gifting  is another debatable and difficult issue. You cannot really gift something to a couple blessed with everything. Money in envelopes could get lost in the mela. Flowers, even expensive bouquets are tossed out as no one has the time to arrange flowers. And yet, can we  attend a wedding without taking something?
According to me, one  good idea is the gifting of a book, if you know what kind of persons they are. Books on marriage, cookbooks, self help books..there are plenty to choose from . Gift coupons from popular stores work well. The nicest idea we encountered was a little line in a simple wedding invitation. It requested  persons who wanted to gift the couple something  to make a cheque however small in favour of a charity  they were supporting. The envelopes were dropped into a box kept for the occasion after you wished the couple, and there was no surfeit of unwanted gifts.
When we ape the west so much why don’t we think of having a bridal shower?  The bridal couple provides a list of what they propose to buy, and the invitees discuss among themselves what they want to give them. It goes against our Indian way of thinking but I think it is so so practical without spending money on stuff which they would find useless..
One of the best weddings we have attended is on the beach, with just a select crowd of 100 people. Of course the only concession was hiring a white steed, for the groom, who, being a German enjoyed carrying off his precious love after the ceremony.  A priest solemnised the wedding in English  for the benefit of the groom and his family. The thali was tied amongst the strains of soft nadaswaram recorded music. The guests were taken to a restaurant booked for the occasion and we all came back happy.

I just keep wondering whether we will retract from these kind of social customs which have become a way of life, or will weddings stretch longer or whether we will come back again full cycle…it remains to be seen.