Saturday, May 3, 2008

I can't help blossoming...

The idea of preparing an essay on the given topic for an inter-school competition was rather baffling for a 7th grader. His mother's merciless denial of help however, proved to be a shot in the arm. He toiled and came up with an article on 'science: boon or bane'. Eventually he found writing easier than he thought it was. Soon, participating in essay competitions began to keep his student life preoccupied. But never did he think that he was doing anything "creative" or that he will ever have an audience. He was just an ad hoc writer who enviously admired the real writers. Later, during graduation, that too stopped. As oft seen, enlightenment descends at the most unlikely places and times. It was when doing a technical job in a software company that he returned to the wonderful world of words... That he realized he too can attract readership with his "non- creative" writing..

"I can't help blossoming
Am I not the golden cassia?
Isn't it the Vishu season?
I can't help blossoming"
- Ayyappa Paniker (poet, critic and scholar)

As I conceived the article on Baker, the idea of having a regular column occurred to me. A column was a laborious assignment that I gave to the lazy writer in me- too much of a responsibility. But it was fascinating. At that time, I was smitten by a column in "Samakaalika Malayalam" weekly by S. Gopalakrishnan. What captured my imagination was its variety of the topics, the depth and clarity of the views and the rich culture the author has imbibed. Within the narrow framework of my limited reading and experience, the only things I could think of emulating were the diversity of themes, and the title- "Jalarekhakal" (lines in water). The search for something close to that in impermanence led me to "Writings on Sand". I had in my mind, a dialogue in the movie, "Dil Se..."(Some people are like names on sand, even a whiff can take them away) and a line by poet Balachandran Chullikkad (The sea has washed away thy name that my clumsy fingers scribbled on the sand). After christening, I thought about the possible other aspects the name can have. Till one generation ago, children in Kerala started their writing in sand in the 'Aasaan Pallikkoodam'. I felt like student before a watchful master, heedful of what I think and write. I also hoped, out of unfounded optimism, that these letters will invite a sea of readers as those written on the seashore by kids do...

Not surprisingly, in the past one year, very few entries appeared in this column. Reasons were many, including my deliberate post- September sabbatical. But apart from that, there is a thumb rule I kept about writing, which can be pointed out as the first reason why writers write. The Malayalam writer Kunjunni maash once said, "Don't write when you feel like writing, not even when you desperately want to write. Write only when you can't help writing". The whole process is thus lifted to a new plane- the piece being written driving and leading the writer. Just like the Golden Cassia which can't help blooming, even if it tries to resist. That's how a creation should come out of the writer. Isn't this what Wordsworth meant by "spontaneous overflow"? ONV, another Malayalam poet has gone a step ahead in comparing this helplessness of the writer to that of a fish unable to control the blood gushing out of its hook-struck gills. So I claimed I was waiting for genuine inspiration - situations where I couldn't help writing. Those were rare indeed. Often, my innate laziness and editorial freedom were camouflaged under this excuse. Some readers too told me not sacrifice quality for consistency, to which I gladly agreed. All the pieces you've read, including this one, came into being thanks to what Calvin once described as the right mood- "last minute panic".

True, it's a pain, sometimes compared to that of conceiving, carrying and delivering a baby. Here also the remedy is to "get it out". Until it's out, it nags, engages and distracts from everything else. Once done with, it satisfies like nothing else can. In fact, more than the appreciation from readers it is this relief that is rewarding for a writer. Once I finish writing, I read and re- read it, and then exasperate all my friends by begging them to review, edit and polish, don't know how many times. Then I keep returning to it and look at it with narcissistic pride. It is then the marketing part comes. Some people criticize me for blatantly advertising my writing in every way I can. Actually, the next thing a writer seeks after the self satisfaction is the views from like minds. I believe every writer writes with one reader in mind- one 'like minded' reader...somewhere in the world...waiting for these words...This is the second factor that motivates a writer; one which fills him with responsibility, which assures him that his words won't go unnoticed. Not always does this 'one reader' give bouquets. He might attack ferociously with cudgels. But again, he waits for your next work. It's to this 'one reader' the writer has to be truthful. It is to find out this 'one reader', a writer needs advertisement.

Though I am using first person narrative throughout this article, I believe the feelings I mention are those shared universally by all those who have tried their hand at writing. The third reason behind writing, I should say is the freedom it gives. As the old Sanskrit sloka says (Apaare Kaavya Samsaare Kavireva Prajapathi), the writer is the emperor of that world- he creates, maintains and sometimes destroys it. For me writing is a solace, a safety valve- it is sheer escapism. There, no one is above me. No commands, no fetters, no long list of "don'ts". I can express freely what I feel, with only my conscience to reprimand. Whenever I was detained in the real world, I fled frantically to this "other" world. I loved and treasured it, it was a blessing. In January, after a long break, when I was trying diffidently to start writing again a friend called to enquire what I was doing. I replied, "The thing I enjoy most." True, in those moments, I LIVE...

Almost a year ago, a friend of mine was planning to leave the company. He used to read quite a lot and I wanted to make him write something for Thoolika*. I asked him in a light vein, "How do you plan to leave your mark here? Does the code you write carry your name?" He thought for a moment and replied out of a sad realization, "No, it has the company's name." With the true editorial spirit, I tried to cajole him to write with a hyperbolized pep talk, 'This is the last chance to etch your footprints on the sands of time'. Unfortunately Thoolika could not get an article from him before he left.

I feel lucky and relieved that I was able to scrawl something on the sand...

(*- Thoolika is the Infosys Trivandrum DC newsletter where this column used to appear. The author left Infosys before this article was published in it)

[Thoolika- April 2008]

Monday, March 3, 2008

Oscars 2008- Five movies...

Most critics agreed that there was high competition among Oscar nominees this year. Yet, for some, the list was not flashy enough. True, it didn't have an epic like 'Ben-Hur' or 'Gladiator', an evergreen classic like 'Gone with the Wind' or 'Sound of Music' or a 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Jurassic Park', rich with visual effects. Most of the movies were pure human tales- of love, longing, deceit, jealousy, determination...And they had, arguably, some real good cinematic moments. Many of these may be forgotten in the long and rich history of cinema. But they are sure to inspire some great works in the near future. Here is a look at a few of them...


Atonement, based on Ian McEwan's novel deals with a single mistake and a small lie which changes the lives of the people involved forever. Nominated in 7 categories, this is a film with a vintage air to it. The film follows the structure of the novel and enhances it with a multi- perspective narrative. The performances by the actors are stellar. Yet, despite the portrayal of love, lust, jealousy, lie, revenge and even war in a big canvas, it remains just a good film that fails to break into the "classic" category. The background music is notable with the predominant use of typewriter clacking at the most tense junctures. The typewriter, an integral component of the film- the turning point in the story is a typewritten letter; the protagonist Briony is an author- is thus woven into the music too. Not surprisingly, the only Oscar the film won was for Original Score.

Best Music Written for Motion Pictures - Original Score (Won), Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design

Michael Clayton

The setting of Michael Clayton brings memories of 'Jerry Maguire'. Here too, we find the hero struggling with a conflict between his personal value system and his professional life. The comparison ends there; our hero Michael being a "fixer" with a law firm has to deal with his financial debts, the mental upset of a colleague and the exposure to corruption and deceit by a client company. Directed by debutant Tony Gilroy, well remembered for the screenplay of the Bourne movies, the movie is a crisp crime drama. Top notch acting by Tom Wilkinson and a rather restrained George Clooney are the highlights. But what leaves you spellbound is the stunning Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder, an over ambitious, neurotic (Lady Macbeth without a Macbeth??) chief counsel going evil ways to cover up wrong deeds. If you have any doubts regarding the Oscar she received, just watch her finely detailed act in the climax where Michael comments, "You're so f***ed!!" A film that doesn't preach, yet reminds you to uphold your moral stand even amidst pressures.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Won), Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score

No Country for Old Men

Imagine watching a 2 hour long movie- that too, a gripping cat-and-mouse drama- without the slightest notion that it is completely devoid of background music. Well, that happened to me with "No Country for Old Men", Coen Brothers' attempt to break a long standing convention. What more 'achievement in direction' can they claim than holding you to the edge of the seat sans the screaming violins and fiddles or booming drums in the background? The blood-and-guts story based on the Cormac McCarthy novel follows the gory path of a psychopathic cold blooded serial killer, Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem to Academy award winning perfection). It's about fate, chance and circumstance, incidentally the directors' favorite theme, and how ordinary people become victims of these. The brilliant writing and direction (both receiving awards) is revealed in the depiction of subtle violence - when Chigurh cleans the chicken crates carriage or when he checks the sole of his shoes as he leaves the house towards the climax. So, beware he's still somewhere near, with his cattle gun and asking you to call his coin flip- the world has never been a safe place at all...

Best Director (Won), Best Picture (Won), Best Screenplay- Adapted (Won), Best Supporting Actor (Won), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing


What's common to Jamie Lynn Spears, Sreedevi (of Malayalam film Notebook) and Juno MacGuff? Yeah, you are right- they were the much talked about teen pregnants of 2007-'08!! While little Spears supplied ample Page 3 material in real life, the Malayalam star some pre- release hype and post release disappointment, Juno with her ravishing originality clearly stands apart. The beauty of 'Juno' lies in its artistic honesty and complete lack of superficiality. A mature and authentic performance in a 'not-so-common' role, Ellen Page just missed the Oscar for best actress. The warmth shared in the relationships between the female characters, however brief their meetings are, is really heartwarming. The characters are a far cry from their conventional stereotypes- you see how a seemingly aloof stepmother had taken care of even the little concerns of Juno. Watch out for the pungent sarcasm in dialogues when Juno's friend Leah says the adoption ads are "right next to terriers and iguanas and used fitness equipment" or when Juno says her baby "looks probably like a Sea Monkey right now and we should let it get a little cuter". The much expected winner of the best original screenplay award, it's one of those films which leave you contented at the end.

Best Original Screenplay (Won), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress


What is your idea of "Originality"? Well, whatever it had been, just see "Ratatouille" to get it redefined. Here you see, hear, smell and taste "O-R-I-G-I-N-A-L-I-T-Y". Ok, you can argue that beneath its (rat) skin, it's just the same age old story of ambition and will conquering obstacles to achieve a dream. But tell me- Have you ever thought it could be recycled - and so captivatingly - with a non- human protagonist? Ratatouille talks about Remy, the rat with an irrepressible desire to be a chef and how he manages to become one. Following the Disney- Pixar tradition, the artists have taken utmost care in ensuring the authenticity of every fine detail while animating the characters and objects and here, including the culinary details. Don't frown when I brand the dialogues "profound". Have a look at this: Anton Ego, the food critic writes (in the climax): "In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so." Faithfully, I haven't ever heard something like that on big screen. I feel films like these should be considered for the "Best Picture" award rather than sidelining them to the category of "Best Animated feature".

Best Animated Feature Film (Won), Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

[Thoolika- February 2008]

Monday, September 3, 2007

From Darkness to Light...

The word 'Guru' is one of India's contributions to the English language that has now become quite ubiquitous. Quite often, we come across usages like 'Management-Guru', 'Fashion-Guru' and 'Language-Guru' in the media where the word is used to denote an 'expert' or 'mentor'. The word in Sanskrit has a deeper esoteric meaning though. 'Gu' means 'darkness' and 'Ru' means 'dispel' giving the meaning "one who dispels darkness" to the term. There is a verse:

"Ajnaana Thimiraandhasya
Jnaanaanjana Shalaakayaa
Chakshurunmeelitham Yena
Thasmai Sree Gurave Namah:"

- I offer my salutation to that Guru, who cures the blindness of ignorance with the balm of knowledge

The 'darkness-light' metaphor itself gives a hint to the position that the 'Guru' or teacher occupied in Indian culture, since it has always been a divine duty to say "Let there be light!"

"Gurur Brahma, Gurur Vishnu
Gurur Devo Maheshwara
Gurur sakshaath Parabrahma
Thasmai Sree Gurave Namah:"

- I offer my salutation to the Guru, who is Brahma- the creator, Vishnu- the sustainer, Shiva-the destroyer and the ultimate truth.

The concept of placing the Guru along with God, if not above, and the importance given to the Teacher in society are reflections of a tradition that was knowledge-centric. India was the birthplace of knowledge in every realm conceivable - be it mathematics, science, engineering, medicine, arts, economics or applied sciences. Right from ancient times, Indians gave importance to imparting the light of knowledge to everyone possible. The Vedas and Upanishads proclaim this. Sadly, there have been rather long, dark periods in our history when this light was denied to a large multitude on the grounds of caste.

The basis of the ancient Indian educational system was the closeness or togetherness of the teacher and disciple ('Guru' and 'Sishya'). The following very popular verse from the 'Katopanishad' shows them praying together.

"Sahanavavathu Saha Nau Bhunakthu
Saha Veeryam karvavahai
Tejasvinavadhitam astu.
Ma Vidvishavahai"

- May we both (teacher and disciple) be protected. May we both enjoy the fruits of knowledge, meditation and devotion. May we both have strength. May what we have studied together possess brilliance. May we not hate one another.

Traditionally, teaching took place in the teacher's house itself. In this 'Gurukula' system, the students stayed at the teacher's house and formed a part of his family. The best thing about this system was that there was no discrimination in treatment of the students; be it a prince or a commoner, all were treated alike. They had no servants. They did everything by themselves. They even helped the teacher's wife in the household chores. The Guru imparted to them everything he knew. After the studies were completed, the disciple was bound to give anything that the guru asked for as his fee- 'Guru-Dakshina'. Without the Dakshina, it was believed, the knowledge he gained was futile.

How many stories we find in our scriptures, to depict the different shades of the 'Guru-Sishya' relation!!! Krishna helping Kuchela generously years after they passed out from Sandeepani's gurukula; Aruni guarding the fields of his teacher- Dhaumya, from flood water from the neighbouring fields by lying down and making himself a dam; Uthanka, the disciple of Gauthama who served him till his old age, went and collected the ornaments of a cannibal's wife and got his youth back; Ekalavya sacrificing his thumb as 'Guru Dakshina' to Drona, even though he was never trained by the latter; the poet Sukumara, who gave himself a death sentence out of remorse because he thought of killing his teacher…

Teachers of those days were really "oceans of knowledge". The greater their knowledge, the more modesty and humility they showed. They never claimed to possess all the knowledge that a student required. It was said:

"Aacharyaad Padmaadathe
Paadam Sishya swamedhaya
Paadam Sabrahmacharibhyam
Paadam Kaalakramenathu"

- Only a quarter of the knowledge is obtained from the teacher, the rest a student procures from his own analysis, from his friends and from experiences in life.

The prominence and respect given to the teacher in Indian culture has often led to a misconception that the teacher forced his autocratic power over the students. But the truth was far from it. Even after delivering one of the greatest lessons on crisis management – which he claims is more secret than secrecy itself- Krishna tells Arjuna: "Vimarsedath asheshena Yadhechhasi Thadha Kurum"- Fully ponder over what I said and do as you like.

Buddha's final advice to his disciples echoes the same idea:

Parishya Bhikshuvo Graahyan
Madvajo Na Thu Gauravaath"

- Accept my teachings only after testing them; do not accept them blindly because I am your teacher

This can be considered as the highlight of education in Ancient India – It encouraged the students to think independently, test their knowledge and accept only what matched their convictions.

It is not surprising that India had well organized universities more than a millennium before Oxford and Cambridge. They were the logical extensions of the Gurukula system, but on a huge scale. Nalanda, Takshasila (Taxila), Vikramasila, Kashi and Ajanta were the prominent ones. Takshasila, established during the time of Buddha and Mahavira survived for 1200 years.
In its hey days, it boasted a faculty which included greats like Panini, Charaka and Kautiliya. Unlike Taxila, where the disciples stayed in the teachers’ houses, Nalanda had different colleges. Hsuan–Tsang, the Chinese traveler who visited Nalanda was bowled over by its majesty. Can you imagine a university complex in the 6th century B.C, with 8 separate compounds, 10 temples, meditation halls, classrooms and a nine storied library? Nalanda accommodated over 10000 students and 2000 teachers who came from as far as Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. Foreign invasions destroyed the physical existence of these universities.

Muslim rulers in the 11th century and British in the 19th century started many schools and colleges across the country, thus laying the foundation of modern education in India. But one can find that educational reforms in India were never continuous. Each time a new system comes into existence, its does that by uprooting the former or at least making drastic changes. Even in modern times, educational policies undergo sea changes with changing governments, where often their direct impact on future generations is forgotten. It may not be possible to revive the ancient ‘Gurukula’ system and teaching methods as such. It’s not desired too. What is needed is assimilating the essence of every system and deriving a best one. As the ancient Indian thought goes: "Aano Bhadraa Kruthavo yanthu viswathaa"- Let Noble thoughts come from every side...

[Written for the Teacher's Day special of "The Wonder that is India"- a column on Indian Heritage]

[Thoolika- September 2007]

Friday, August 3, 2007

What's in a name...

Delving into the history of words can be real fun. Words in a language are relics of what a civilization has accumulated over the ages. The beauty of etymology can be seen with full grandeur in Sanskrit - words so condensed, each of them can be a magic hat from which we can take out stories. On top of this, we have those grammarians who split each word in the ways they like and attribute meanings they want.

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Sravanabelgola had never been in my 'Top-10' list of places to visit. I may have wished to visit the place some day. The reason behind this was the innate human admiration for colossal structures. The Gomateshwara statue there is undoubtedly large. Some say, after the Taliban demolished the Bamiyan Budhha statues in Afghanistan, this is the biggest monolithic statue in the world. I had the memories of seeing the "Mahamasthakabhisheka" on TV as a child. Another image associated with the shrine that lingered in my mind was a poster of Girish Karnad's play, 'Bali'- the huge feet covered in saffron.

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'Bhaaratham' was the name used to refer to the Indian subcontinent from ancient times. Indians considered the globe to be divided into 7 'dweeps' (islands). Of that, 'Bhaaratham' is the first country in Jambudweepam- "Bhaaratham Pradhamam Varsham". Some etymologists split the word to "Bhass" and "Ratham" and establish the meaning as "affinity to light". But usually, the origin is attributed to the king Bharatha who ruled the country. Here arises a problem- there is no dearth of king Bharathas in Indian history. The Adiparva of Mahabharatha says the name is after Bharatha, the son of Dushyantha and Shakunthala. He is said to have ruled the country for 27,000 years. Another Bharatha who makes a claim to the name, according to the Bhagavatha, is King Rishabha's son who is said to have ruled the country for 10 million years. Fortunately, a more famous Bharatha, Rama's brother from the Ramayana has been kept out of the scene.

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It was February, 2006. The Mahamasthakabhisheka was going on at Sravanabelgola, after a gap of 12 years. India's 'Who's Who'- the president, the prime minister, union ministers, leaders of national parties- were pouring into this town in Hassan district. The ceremony involved anointing the whole statue with water, panchaamrith, tender coconut water, sugarcane juice, milk, rice flour, turmeric and sandal pastes, herbal liquid, saffron, precious stones and gold and silver flowers. The budget was around 100 crores. Over 30 lakh devotees were expected to visit the place during the season. I was in Mysore at that time and felt it was the best time to visit the place. But, by the time I was able to do so, the Abhisheka had concluded. I was not particular about taking part in the rituals, though. It was a story that drew me to the place...

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The story of Rishabha (Rishabhadev or Rishabhanath, in some places) and Bharatha finds mention in the scriptures of both Hindus and Jains. In Vishnupurana, Rishabha is a mighty king and Bharatha was the eldest of his 100 sons. For Jains, Rishabhadev is the first of the 24 Thirthankaraas, their patron saints. Before attaining this holy position, he was a powerful and influential king. He had a second wife and a son in her- Bahubali. In Jainism, it's this Bahubali who is prominent. I would prefer to go by that version of the story.

Once an Apsara, heavenly nymph, Neelanjana was dancing in Rishabha's court. It so happened that her allocated time on earth ended sometime in the middle of the performance and she had to return to heaven. Lord Indra, so as not to put an abrupt end to the show, made an image of the nymph which continued the dance. Later on, when the king came to know about this, he began to ponder over the impermanence of life. He decided to resign from worldly affairs and go for 'tapas'. He distributed his kingdom among his 101 sons and made Bharatha, the eldest, the king.

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Sravanabelgola is a journey of nearly two hours by bus from Mysore. It was the pilgrimage season and the KSRTC ran buses at frequent intervals. It was a nice journey. The condition of the roads- neatly tarred, with borders marked and signposts in place - was not too surprising as it was the road taken by the most prominent people of India. The statue of Bahubali or Gomateshwara is situated atop a hill called Indragiri (also called Vindhyagiri). The 58 feet high structure is supposed to catch one's eye from a long distance, but all the scaffolds and podiums erected for the ceremony had covered it from view. We were told that devotees were still anointing the image, even though the ceremony had concluded a week back. For that too, the heavily priced tickets were sold out for the next few days.

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Bharatha proved to be a worthy successor to his father. With an array of sacred and deadly weapons in his royal armory, he went on to conquer the neighboring kingdoms. All the monarchs had to ultimately yield to his might and surrender their kingdoms. Still, returning home leading a victorious army, Bharatha felt that his victory was incomplete. His brothers were still ruling their own independent kingdoms. When he decided to wage war against them too, ninety nine of them made a surprising gesture- they gave up their kingdoms and joined their father in his tapas.
Only one brother refused to surrender- it was Bahubali who ruled Paudanapura. When Bharatha decided to lead his army to that kingdom, the elders suggested that it is better to avoid a war and bloodshed. They suggested a duel in three stages- "Drishti Yudhha" (Battle with Eyes), "Jala Yudhha"(Battle with Water) and "Malla Yudhha"(Wrestling)- to settle the dispute between the brothers.

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A flight of over 600 steps cut in granite rock lead to the 470 feet high summit of Vindhyagiri. The temporary roofs covering the stairs were a great relief from the sun. We were part of a long queue of people going up. To our right, there was an equally long queue of people going down after the darsan. The space in between was occupied by nude saints and men carrying devotees on stretchers. Lean men were carrying people many times their weight up the steep slope swiftly. What they charged was surprisingly meager, almost one tenth of what it would have been in, say, a pilgrim spot in Kerala! The police and volunteers were having a tough time controlling the crowd. There was a separate queue leading the devotees to the raised platform above the colossus' head to perform the 'abhisheka'.

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Bahubali defeated his elder brother in "Drishti Yudhha" and "Jala Yudhha" with ease. Then in the final contest of wrestling too, he became victorious. Bharatha couldn't accept his entire possession slipping from his hands. He took his sacred chakra and whirled it towards Bahubali. To everyone's surprise, the chakra reached him and instead of hurting him, went round him and stopped. Bharatha bent his head completely vanquished. At that moment, with the whole empire at his feet, Bahubali began to reflect- how Bharatha, the great son of a great father came down to a position of attempting to kill his brother for a kingdom. Suddenly he felt all these were meaningless. He felt weary of the worldly life.

Bahubali asked Bharatha to keep the kingdom. He had decided to give up everything and perform tapas. Bharatha was taken aback by the sudden change in his younger brother. He was full of remorse. He begged Bahubali to stay back and rule the kingdom. But the latter was unmoved. He went to the forest, gave up even his clothing and started meditation.

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At last, we found ourselves before the huge shrine. After being bathed thoroughly, it didn't show the wear and tear of 1000 odd years. Amidst the crowd, we didn't get enough time to stay and appreciate the beauty of the sculpture. I felt that a festival season is never the right time to visit a place of this kind. If your aims are something apart from religious, you will be disappointed. The experience can never be a personal one- you just blend into the large crowd. Still the moments spent in front of the mammoth structure will be something I'll cherish forever. I felt proud and humbled at the same time- Proud because it is yet another creation of man, humbled at the greatness of the person who won such a splendid tribute from his successors.

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Despite performing severe Tapas with great sincerity, Bahubali didn't achieve 'Kevala Jnana' or enlightenment. Everyone wondered why. Bharatha too was worried about his brother and consulted elders. They explained that Bahubali was suffering from the sorrow that the land on which he is standing belongs to his brother. He was feeling he was still attached to this world. Bharatha went to the forest and told his brother, "The whole world belongs to you. Still why are you worried about the little ground beneath your feet? Please discard that feeling." These words convinced Bahubali. Soon he attained enlightenment.

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The statue at Sravanabelagola depicts the moment Bahubali attained renunciation. The face has a contemplative expression with a faint smile depicting 'inward bliss and sympathy for the suffering world'. The shoulders of the image are very broad and waist small. Below knee, the legs are short and thick. In spite of these morphological flaws, the statue looks majestic. Of course it's not the 'Indian David'. Bahubali's nudity represents not masculine beauty, but complete renunciation. The legs are surrounded by anthills from which serpents emerge. A creeper twines itself around the arms and legs. The pedestal resembles an open lotus. All this gives the impression of man being in complete harmony with nature.

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Why do I feel Bahubali's brother holds the rightful claim to India's name? Because the name stands as a testimonial to one of the greatest sacrifices ever made. Bahubali had become the ruler of this country. Only after he gave up his fortune did Bharatha come into the picture, and we became 'Bharatheeya' instead of 'Bahubaleeya'. Again, what Bahubali did is 'sacrifice' for others. For him, it was recognizing the worthlessness of his possessions and moving towards higher goals.

If we look at Indian history, we can see many such incidents later too. Chandragupta Maurya had an empire which covered almost the entire subcontinent. Yet he renounced his kingdom and became a Jain monk. Incidentally, he spent his last days in Chandragiri, the hill close to Vindhyagiri which has the Bahubali statue. Samraat Ashoka too joined this lineage and adopted Buddhism. A fact to be noticed is that all these people had this realization after the greatest victories in their lives. After attaining the most precious worldly possessions, they understood its worthlessness.

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An interesting thought came to my mind as we were in the premises of the colossus- If one party was ready to give up, could we have prevented the partition? Then I thought of another possibility - What if Bahubali had decided to stay and rule? Perhaps a Pakistan would have formed then itself!!!

The word 'Bahubali' means 'one with strong hands'. But it's not the strength of his hands that made him immortal. Ashoka was one of the most valiant fighters ever. But 'Chandashoka' (evil Ashoka) would never have become 'Ashoka the Great'. In India, greatness was more related to greatness of character, greatness of soul- "Mahatma". In Ramayana, Rama tells Lakshmana, "Conquering the whole world is not great enough if you are not able to conquer your self". Bahubali had realised this. He gave up an empire to achieve greater things. Like the stone edicts that proclaim the glory of Ashoka, the colossus at Sravanabelagola lauds this great victory.

[Thoolika- August 2007]

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

When virtues pour down...

It was Malayalam's favorite writer MT Vasudevan Nair who compared the rains of Midhunam- Karkitakam (June-July, approximately) to Mother. You go out seeing a clear sky, when it darkens all of a sudden and starts to pour. Anyone who has a short-tempered mother (which I guess, is universal), and has been in Kerala during this time of the year would certainly appreciate the appositeness of the comparison.

It's not surprising that the monsoon rains have become the identity of this land. No other place can claim the significance that Kerala has on the Monsoon map of India. This is the place where the monsoon first hits the Indian subcontinent. The meteorological laboratory at Thiruvananthapuram has been bestowed the sacred right to report the onset of monsoon. Alexander Frater had come down to this south Indian city to start his "Chasing the Monsoon", a sojourn which took him across India. No wonder, Anita Nair while compiling the writings about Kerala for Penguin had little doubt in christening the book "Where the Rain is born".

It's amazing to see the way the surroundings change at the onset of the rains- The earth tired by the hot sun of April- May slips into her lush green coat with a sigh of relief. Puddles are formed here and there. The entire atmosphere turns damp. One can't help appreciating the freshness in the atmosphere and the Wodehousian laziness it imparts. Kerala has a tradition of making this month a season of revival- for both body and mind.

Ayurveda finds the monsoon a good time for purification of the body. There are packages for cleansing the whole body and imparting new strength. It ranges from the detailed and sophisticated "sukha chikitsa" (rejuvenation therapy) to the plain and simple "karkitaka kanji" (medicinal rice porridge). While Ayurvedic therapy has always been a buzz-word in tourism circles, in the past few years more and more pharma companies are bringing out 'medicinal kanji' in attractive packages thus trying to make their hay while it rains.

I think the most unique characteristic of Kerala's monsoon 'celebration' is the recital of Thunjathu Ezhuthachhan's 'Adhyatma Ramayanam'. The tradition must have started as a way of pleasing the Gods during the tough times. I don't think there is a similar tradition anywhere else. Nor can you find a single book determining the cultural development of a whole region. 'Adhyatma Ramayanam' written centuries ago with a large majority of Sanskrit and complex Malayalam words is certainly not an easy read. Yet you can see people, may be of the last generation or the one before, knowing most of it by heart. Many of the lines have achieved the status of proverbs and one seldom realizes they are originally from Ramayana.

Ramayana as a literary work has always fascinated me. Written by Valmiki, it is considered to be the first book of verse in India – ‘Aadikaavyam'. If you look at it now, you will find all ingredients of a modern-day masala movie in it - A hero who is the embodiment of all virtues, a villain who is mighty in every sense, love, separation, tears, lots of family drama, the clash of Good and Evil and triumph of the former. Add to this, locations spread across India and abroad, not to mention the scope for extreme makeup and special effects. Though lifestyles have undergone a sea change since, still when we look for a benchmark to compare a contemporary work, we stumble upon this. Lord Brahma told Valmiki, about the Ramayana, "As long as the Himalayas and the great rivers in it exist, your work will remain here." Prophecy or blessing - it has happened. Expressions like 'Timeless Classic' become meaningless here.

One will be amazed at the extent 'Ramayana' has influenced our literature, arts and value system. I choose to ignore the 'Rama- Ayodhya' effect on Indian politics, because I find it so 'un- Ramayana'. Across India, there are art forms with just Ramayana as their theme. A segment of the Soorya festival held annually in Thiruvananthapuram has each 'kaanda' (chapter) of the epic presented through a different art form. It's difficult to assess how much the Ramayana has crept into literary works across Indian languages over the past millenniums. There have been inspirations, adaptations, interpretations, symbolic references - everything...

If there is some other work which has this impact, it is the other Indian epic, Mahabharatha. Here again, Ramayana deserves to be appreciated more as it is so simple and linear as opposed to Mahabharatha's huge canvas and numerous subplots. Just imagine a novelist (Ashok Banker) retelling the old story in its original form and bringing out a series, in the 21st century- surely something unparalleled. (Yeah, Valmiki's copyrights have expired long ago). Also think of this sacred text having a 21st century Hollywood adaptation with such an interesting star- cast including Keanu Reeves, Kevin Costner and our very own Shilpa Shetty. There is also news of the making of 'Hanuman II' which hopes to recreate the whopping success of its first part.

The above examples may be too superficial to explain the impact of 'Ramayana' in Indian art and literature. Recently, I found something quite striking in this regard. It was in 'Omkara', Vishal Bharadwaj's Bollywood adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Othello'. There is a situation where Desdemona (Dolly in Hindi) asks Othello (Omkara) to forgive Cassio (Keshu). The challenge was how to make Omkara yield to this almost impossible request. Vishal did it with the help of a lovely song by Gulzar- 'Jag Ja Re'. In the song, the hero gives the heroine his word and claims it to be as strong as 'Dasrath ka waada'. The phrase got me thinking. Omkara has made a promise which he can't renege at any cost. I wonder whether any character in literature across the world has made a stronger promise than this. This is a luxury an Indian writer gets - one reference to the epics saves pages of explanation!!!

Coming back to Kerala, Karkitakam and 'Adhyatma Ramayanam', as mentioned earlier, the cultural impact is immense. Even before Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaans and Raashtreya Saksharatha Missions, this book used to be a carrier of literacy across the land. It leveled the differences of religion, caste and wealth and connected a whole multitude with a single thread. It reasserts the fact that religion is not a barrier to get access of goodness. 'Ramayana- effect' in Malayalam literature is so pronounced. There is hardly a poet or writer who hasn't been influenced by it. Each line in it has been a treasure trove of new words, emotions and experiences for generations. One direct proof of this is the abundance of works having Ramayana as theme.

What is 'Adhyathma Ramayanam' to me? Certainly I won't like to attach to it solely a religious aspect, though I consider it sacred in many ways. It reminds of me how rich our culture and language is. May be it's the literary beauty that attracts me more- the genius of Ezhuthachhan that combines different words to get the most apt one; the images he creates that are incomparable to those by any artist or film maker; the way he maintains the rhyme and meter within different chapters. It is a true classic, the way we find the story interesting even though we know it completely. As Arundhati Roy said, "You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't... you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again." This 'mystery and magic' gets more charming in the 'Ramayana'. Here the characters themselves know what is going to happen next in the story, but act as if they are totally unaware of it. They switch between their 'know-all' immortal and 'ignorant' mortal identities. A portion that makes me smile each time I read it is when Sita pleads with Rama to take her to the forest. Rama keeps giving excuses. At last, Sita ends the argument saying, "I have heard numerous Ramayanas from poets. In which of them has Rama gone to the forest without Sita? So take me with you."

Once when the people whom we elected to rule us were talking about 'Ramajanmabhoomi' and trying to reoccupy the land which claimed 'the presence of Rama', I used to remember the verses where Rama asks Valmiki where he should stay. Valmiki replies that he should live in the minds of virtuous devotees. It was much later I heard Javed Akhtar's lyrics for "Swades" telling the same thing- "Ram resides in your mind once you have expelled the Ravan from there". I wish to believe the poet hasn't borrowed the idea directly from the verses of Ramayana. I would like to see it as a natural thought that comes to every Indian- the things we inherit irrespective of our religion and education, what links us to a century old civilization.

After many years, this monsoon I spent quite a few days at my native place. I started the 'Ramayana month' with my grandmother. As I stood securely on the neatly tiled floor listening to the muted pitter- patter of rain on the concrete roof, I remembered the days when the rain used to drum down noisily on the PVC sheet roof. We used to keep a lot of small vessels to collect the rain from the leaking roof. All of us children would gather together playing and chatting. I found that though lot of things have changed, some have resisted change- the smell of the soil on first rain; the sour, yet comforting taste of the medicinal kanji; the rhythmic recital of Ramayanam.

A great Malayalam poet has written a verse in praise of 'Adhyathma Ramayanam' which can roughly be translated as:

"The verse so lyrical;
Telling the story of Raghava;
Authored by the wizard at `Thunjathu' (Ezhuthachhan);
Rendered in such a devotional tone-
What else do you need to attain bliss?"

I would add to the list, the rain in Kerala. I see a strange similarity between the monsoons and Ramayana- both of them sweep over the whole of India across barriers.

[Thoolika- July 2007]

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Our Films, Their Songs...

"Tere Bina Beswaadi Beswaadi Ratiyaan, Oh Sajna"

"Without you my nights are tasteless, Oh Darling"- Gurukant Desai was supposed to sing this about his wife, Sujata who had left him following a squabble. Gulzar's words portray the husband's mind explicitly, taking it to the heights of what is called "vipralambha sringaaram" (romance at separation). The earthy touch in A R Rahman's rendering elevates the desperation of the lover. Your hopes would naturally rise when the situation is picturised by a director who is considered, by many, as the best of his clan. But alas, what you see on the screen is just another Bollywood dance sequence (of course, beautifully choreographed, richly lit, elegantly shot and sleekly cut). You search desperately across the frames for the emotion in the song and the poetry in the words. You wonder who transplanted the parted couple to this fairytale castle and from where on earth so many extras came in between them.

I am not accusing Maniratnam of any grave mistake. He hasn't done anything worse than his peers have been doing for years. Nor has he done anything which disagrees with the usual mould in which his films are made. Only, this time he has erred in more calculations, succumbed to more pressures and made more compromises, which qualifies 'Guru' as the worst film in his career. The film received criticisms for weak characterizations and deviations made when adapting a real life personality into reel. But it made me muse over a different aspect- the way songs are being dealt with in our films. I believe 'Guru' represents the nadir of it. Coming from a director many consider as the best in India, it epitomizes the sad plight of the film songs of our times.

I am aware of my ‘dangerously heroic’ and much vulnerable position- that of the kid in the crowd shouting, "The King is naked!!!", since for a generation of film geeks, "Mani Sir" is no less than God. A strange fact I have noticed about Maniratnam is that he has very few admirers. Most of us, including me, are his 'devotees'!! But now, I prefer to move away from that fanatic crowd. I know I will be inviting the wrath of many for my blasphemy- for throwing stones at their idol, and that too for something which he is best known for...

I couldn't appreciate the songs in 'Guru'- neither the places where they were crammed into nor the way they were picturised. The songs 'Barso Re' and 'Jodi Jodi' has nothing to do with the narrative. 'Mayya Mayya' has more obvious and almost vulgar market intentions. The other songs, including the one I mentioned at the beginning, were also poorly shot, I am inclined to say, considering their lyrical beauty and the potential they offered.

Looking back, I find Maniratnam has always followed this pattern for the songs in his movies. (I am talking about post-'Anjali' days) His films have had the greatest hit songs. Their picturisations have been trend-setters in their times- be it in choreography, lighting, locations, art or cinematography. They look fresh even now, because Mani Sir had always been ahead of his times. But when I look at them as a part of the films, to my surprise, I find many of them quite distracting. For instance, Kuchi Kuchi Rakkamma (Bombay) and Snehithane (Alaipayuthey) takes you to different settings that has little to do with the rest of the film which, I think, disrupts the concentration. A notable exception, though are the songs of 'Aayitha Ezhuthu' ('Yuva' in Hindi).

In an interview after the music release of 'Guru', Maniratnam said that for him a song is "a kind of celebration; it is a liberty that a filmmaker gets in a film" and that it "gives you a kind of freedom to be away from being conventional, being logical and dramatic." What he didn't mention was the economic equations behind songs- how he has been using songs as crowd pullers. Years before the whole Indian film industry went for what they call "item numbers", this Jamnalal Bajaj alumnus had made such songs his films' USP. Remember 'September Matham' (Alaipayuthey), 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' (Dil Se), 'Humma Humma' (Bombay), ‘Rukumani’ (Roja)...

All these songs fitted well to the narrative, though. We should agree that they have helped in either underlining the mood of the situation or moving the story ahead. Another thing to note is the impact they make on the viewers and filmmakers. It's a surprising thing- Maniratnam makes films once in 2 years or even less frequently. But it would be this film that remains a benchmark for filmmakers for the following years, maybe till the release of his next film!!! That's what worries me more about 'Guru'. Because what he does is being aped by many, he should have been more careful with his craft.

Maniratnam films were path- breaking in many ways- their sensitivity, social concerns, technical perfection… Most of us were drawn to him because of all these. He always got the best songs one could get in India. But the way he used it- well, I prefer to disagree. "Mani Sir, You are still my Guru. But, thanks, I shall direct the songs myself"

The purpose of this note was not at all Maniratnam bashing. Honestly, I accept the fact that an average Indian viewer may not have found anything wrong in 'Guru' or its songs. He may, perhaps, have appreciated and enjoyed it- because he had been conditioned so- not to think much about art, not to care for the lyrics… Only a few, very few indeed, will find those songs out of place, illogical and underutilized.

Let me make it clear that I am not a hard-core critic of 'mainstream' cinema or an exponent of 'art' cinema. If anything, I am a die-hard fan of film songs. I guess that is why all these are bothering me so much. I feel offended when songs are mishandled by our filmmakers. Songs should not be accessories. A film should have a song only if it is inevitable for the situation. Sadly, nowadays songs are just vehicles for marketing the film. They may be 'value- adding' to the producers, distributors and TV channels, but not to the film.

I always cherish those good old days of film music in India. I have a long list of favorites in black and white and Eastman colour. I haven’t seen most of the films. But the songs tell so much about the story. Most of them are dialogue- based. The protagonists conversed through songs, as in musicals. They were not suddenly transported to alien lands nor encircled by myriads of dancers. They didn’t sport fancy costumes and changed them in every shot.

Even later, there were mainstream directors like the legendary Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who were able to successfully blend songs into their narrative. Of the present day directors, I admire Ashutosh Gowariker, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Kamal Hassan in this regard, for shooting songs realistically. Since songs are so much a part of films, these directors work for their perfection from the composing- writing stage to picturisation, rather than leaving it to assistants or choreographers. This ensures that the songs don’t stand out from the rest of the film. I would sincerely wish to add Sanjay Leela Bhansali in my list, but not doing so because of his unnecessarily lavish ways of dealing with songs. The money he spent on the sets and costumes in the songs of ‘Devdas’ has helped only in reducing the classic to a mushy Bollywood romance. Otherwise too, the good majority of the film songs churned out by the world’s biggest film industry has become just marketing gimmicks. The main reasons for having songs in a film now are the sale of audio rights and the film’s promotion.

One of the set patterns in Indian cinema is making the hero and heroine sing a duet and leave them with a whole troupe of dancers making gawky moves. But the last few years witnessed a number of changing trends. The so- called "item numbers" are not new to Hindi films. But now it has become a norm for every film. The trend has got upgraded to the heroine herself dancing in skimpy outfits, to a hip thrusting number. Nowadays, every other Hindi song happens to be shot in a discotheque, so that if you are watching a music channel, you hardly notice where one song ends and the other begins. There is nothing wrong in showing a dance bar if situation in the story demands it. Sadly, in most cases, it doesn’t.

Another genre of songs involves protagonists who live in modest Indian surroundings, transported to exotic foreign lands for the five minutes of a song. The location can vary from snow clad Europe to Egyptian pyramids or a tour across the world as in Shankar’s ‘Jeans’. These dream sequences signify nothing but the filmmaker’s deficiency of imagination and his lusty eyes on big business. It made sense in the beginning when most of the foreign locations were fresh to Indians. But now, Seychelles is more familiar than Kovalam to them. Still, established directors, even from Malayalam go to foreign locations spending lakhs, while discussions about soaring production costs and lowering returns go on. Many of these songs are shot in front of historic monuments. These magnificent structures form just backdrops for the actors’ pelvic gyrations. But here also, there are beautiful exceptions. When I visited Delhi, I wanted to be at the Qutab Minar, because of the song, 'Dil ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar' from ‘Tere Ghar Ke Samne’ rather than due to any of its historical significance. I wanted to climb those stairs where the handsome Dev Anand and beautiful Nutan shared their private moments despite mischievous stares from passersby. Seeing the monument shut to the public was a great disappointment.

I am disturbed when I hear about mediocre music albums getting translated to full-length films (Aap Ka Suroor) and a whole galaxy of Bollywood stars dancing in a single film song (Om Shanti Om). At the same time, I am relieved to find more people around me who find today’s film songs annoying and who mourn over the lyrics getting filled up wholly with synonyms of ‘love’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘pain’. And I believe, their tribe is increasing. To make my position safer, I shall do a take on how Brutus justifies his stand against Caesar. ‘Not that I love songs less, but that I love cinema more’.

[Thoolika- May 2007]

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Here was a Baker...

Laurie Baker, architect aged 90, died at 7:30 am on April 1, 2007.

I have never written obituaries. Nor am I attempting to write one now. I am not an authority to speak on the person who has passed away. I have never seen him during his rather long lifetime. He has nothing to do with the profession I am in. He hasn’t "influenced" me either, sticking to the literal meaning of the term. Due to this, whatever I write will lack the intensity which is essentially borne out of a personal bonding. Yet, why do I feel like writing about him? The answer is he was one of those people who has really impressed me with his life- a tangible form of many values I admire.

I can see many of my dear readers surprised to find a software engineer being inspired by an architect almost 2 generations older. Though it might sound quite unlikely, as a kid I was obsessed with buildings. I never thought I would become a software engineer, thanks to my persistent headaches- especially after the weekly hour-long computer labs at school. I was keen to become an "engineer who makes buildings". The illustrated architectural journals which reached our rented house, addressed to its former architect tenant might have been a catalyst. Some of my preoccupations were watching buildings being constructed and reading articles on architecture. Those days, the Malayalam newspaper "Mathrubhumi" used to run a series on low-cost architecture, the editions of which I still preserve. Though I had cleared the architecture aptitude test, there was a general opinion that a person with poor drawing skills could never be a good architect, which eventually led me into the large league of youth completing a B.Tech and taking up software jobs. I still have those headaches, though occasionally.

My affinity to architecture was not the sole reason that drew me to Baker. The fact is that he was not just an architect. It would be easier to explain what he was not. In his lifetime, there wouldn’t be any role he hasn’t played- anesthetist, missionary, gardener, cook, farmer, veterinarian, ambulance driver, carpenter, mason, bird- watcher, poet, cartoonist... More importantly, he was a master at all these trades. The only other person I know, who has put his hand to so many things is the great Malayalam writer, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. What I saw in Baker, like in Basheer, was a complete human being.

Laurence Wilfred Baker graduated from the Birmingham School of Architecture in 1937. A chance encounter with Mahatma Gandhi during his 1940s stint in India with the Leprosy mission changed his life. Gandhi was quite impressed by the young man who wore shoes made of pieces of waste cloth. It was the inspiration from Gandhiji that held Baker back in India. Later he married Dr. Elizabeth Chandy, a Keralite. The couple lived for 16 years in the Himalayas- where Baker built factories, educational, medical, social and religious buildings- before moving to Kerala. Here also, Baker began to make his mark especially after the construction of the Centre for Development Studies building in Trivandrum in the early 70’s.

In hindsight, I feel that it was the Gandhi in Baker that attracted me. For my generation, Gandhi was locked up in books. Laurie demonstrated the most beautiful aspect of Gandhism: its pervasiveness in day-to- day life, how practical they are once you have assimilated them.

The basis of Baker’s philosophy is respect for nature. One of the thumb rules Baker always followed was never to meddle with natural features. As The Indian Express mentioned in the title of its obit, for him "home was the extension of land". He acknowledged the geographical features of the land for construction and never tried to alter them. Never has he leveled a hill or filled a low- lying area with alien soil. Instead his buildings accommodated the slope of the land. You can often find a Baker house encircle a tree rather than uprooting it. By this, each of his works became a tribute to the nature surrounding it.

Another trait of his style was the selection of materials. Not many people aside from Baker follow the Gandhian principle that ‘a building should be made from materials available within a 5 mile radius’. If the place had abundance of rock, Baker made the house with rock. As a result, not only was the cost reduced, but the building was also freed from the alien look, as it blended with its surroundings in colour and form. He avoided using cement and glass as much as he could, citing the enormous amount of energy that goes into their production.

Laurie Baker upheld truth in architecture. He believed in having a purpose for everything done in a building. No wonder he could never find out the logic of building a house with bricks, covering it with plaster and then painting bricks over it again!!! Baker’s buildings never deceive you. They don’t hide the material with which they are made of (usually brick, Baker’s favorite). They smile at you with a newborn’s innocence. They show you that plain "brick-red" is not the only colour bricks come in, and that their different colours can be combined to magnificent effect. They withstand nature’s bashings better while their (plastered, painted) neighbors are covered with stains and dirt.

Baker homes were never designed in a studio - in fact he never had one! He always went to the building site, took every geographical and natural detail into consideration, talked extensively with his clients about their eating and sleeping habits, profession and hobbies before drawing the plan. So the house he made for a poet was starkly different from the one he did for a government servant sans any creative preoccupation. Thus cartoonist Abu Abraham’s house becomes unfit for singer Yesudas to live in. Baker was highly inspired by the uniqueness nature shows - how it makes each of its creation different from another one of same kind.

One of the reasons why I frequent the Indian Coffee House at Thampanoor, near Trivandrum’s bus terminal and railway station, is the pleasure of being in a Baker building. (Other reason is their masaladosa with red masala inside) You can’t find another perfect "coffee- house" building in Trivandrum. The spiral building almost 3 storey high made entirely of bricks has no stairs at all!!! The way to the top just winds by the side of the seats- You could get scared by the slope of the winding path, but I don’t think anyone has ever slipped and fallen down. Waiters with stacks of plates in both hands walk up and down the slope at a rapid pace. This is what you call marriage of beauty with precision. I’ve often wondered why the Indian coffee house at Statue junction didn’t have a nice building, despite being much older. It was last week that I learned that once there existed a beautiful coffee house building at the same location; I saw a Baker sketch of the old building too. He was very disappointed at the demolition of that old building for the present pompous multi-stroreyed one.

One of my greatest regrets was not being able to convince my parents to build a Baker house when we thought of having a house of our own. They were skeptical like the majority of Keralites and went for a conventional house with square and rectangular rooms, covered all over with plaster and ‘neatly’ painted. Loads of cement and steel went into its making; still it has cracks all over its walls. It has lot of doors and windows, made of good quality timber. Yet inside, I am sweating. Incidentally, as I am writing this, the repainting is going on here (the third time in ten years). The cost involved would have been enough for Baker to build a small house!!!

I still dream of living in a Baker home- with rat-trap bonded brick walls giving insulation from outside temperature; with brick jaalis (cavities on walls) bringing cool air from outside and roof vents taking out the hot air; with circular and hexagonal rooms; with sunlight caught by the multi-colored (waste!) bottles on walls making kaleidoscopic images on mud- tiled floor- a home that is truly an extension of nature...

Baker has not built any high- rise buildings (except may be, the CDS complex). He never wished his buildings to rise above Kerala’s coconut palm cover. He may not find a place among the elite league of Le Corbusiers or Lutyenses. Yet he towers over any architect as the person who showed thousands of poor that they too can afford a roof over their head. If you see the wonderful buildings at Chenkalchoola- Trivandrum’s slum, you’ll understand that they are not just ‘roofs’.

It is not at all surprising that the Baker way couldn’t attract admirers in large numbers in Kerala. People are too prejudiced and conventional to find the truth in Baker. When Baker model’s popularity was at its peak, there indeed was a joke, "I want a low-cost (Baker model) house, no matter how expensive it is!!!" We are used to following trends blindly, never getting into the soul of things. I often wonder what would have happened if Baker style was able to make a wider footprint in Kerala. There wouldn’t be any of the vulgar opulence we see today. More interestingly, we would have been liberated from all those prime-time paint and cement ads. Come on, can we dream of all this materialising in our consumerist culture?

Baker was a cartoonist and author par excellence. In the good number of articles about him that came after his death nowhere did I find mention of a caricature series titled "Malayaliyude Mundu" (Malayali’s Dhothi). It was serialized in "Mathrubhumi" Weekly (in the ‘80s. I don’t remember exactly when. I found them in the archives of old magazines at my native place). The series had captured the essence of Baker’s style. Those simple lines are testimonials to Baker’s observation skills- how he found uniqueness in each individual. It will be a surprise to find books titled "Rubbish by Baker" and "Baker’s Mud". The former is about waste disposal, while the latter talks virtually everything on mud as a building material. After describing every aspect of construction using mud, with the help of neat detailed drawings, Baker asks, "So, who will build your mud house? If you have the time and inclination you can do it yourself!" How better can you talk about self- sufficiency?

A person of my generation who hasn’t understood Baker has simply denied himself the chance of finding the Gandhi of our times. Indeed, in no personality of recent times could you find the essence of Gandhism with such conviction and clarity. His deeds never deviated from his words. While constructing a house for himself in Thiruvananthapuram, which he named "Hamlet", he practiced the same concepts which he tried to popularize, so that nothing could stop him from saying, "My life is my message".

As the builder and master of "Hamlet", who never had the confusion of "to be or not to be" when it came to his beliefs, passes away I would but echo Shakespeare’s Antony:

"Here was a Baker! When comes such another?"

[Thoolika- April 2007]