Dasha Tarangini: Community Of Youth And Their Music

Carnatic Chamber Concerts (CCC) celebrated its tenth anniversary with a musical production – Dasha Tarangini which included sixteen gurus, 204 children and hundred plus volunteers. The event was held on Sunday, January 21st at Santa Clara Convention Center to a packed audience.

Carnatic Chamber Concerts was conceived of and founded by Ms. Padma Mohan in January of 2009 to serve as a hub for musical exchange and learning for children pursuing the learning of Carnatic music here in the United States. Monthly concerts were held in rasikas’ homes, and children presented short musical segments based on their level. The monthly opportunities served to motivate the participating students to practice harder, and while attending the concerts, all the students benefited by listening to and encouraging their peers. Another aspect helped all students grow musically – a student learning vocal music learned to work with instrumental and percussive accompaniment, while those learning instruments got to hone their skills accompanying vocalists. The segments ranged from ten to thirty minutes, allowing all students an opportunity to present songs of varying complexity.

This organization soon grew from its humble roots into a large organization that started presenting monthly concerts at the auditorium at Shirdi Sai Parivar in Milpitas. In spite of is growth, the organization has stuck to its original principle and does not charge for membership; it only requires that students attend the monthly concert series regularly.

For the tenth anniversary event, the 204 students were split into ten groups, with each group focusing on compositions that highlighted something unique about a number from 1 to 10. Veteran gurus Akila Iyer, Arvind Lakshmikanthan, Gopi Lakshminarayan, Hari Devanath, Kasthuri Shivakumar, Natarajan Srinivasan, Rama Thyagarajan, Ravindra Bharathy Sridharan, Saravanapriyan Sriraman, Savita Rao, Sandhya Srinath, Snigdha Venkataramani, Srikanth Chary, Srinath Bala, Shivkumar Bhat, and Vivek Sudararaman worked with the groups of students for over a year, training them to present songs tied to each number. In each group, students were drawn from various schools and there was a lot of coordination involved in having the students perfect the material under the watchful guidance of the lead gurus assigned to each group.

The work done over several months came together beautifully onstage – no detail was overlooked. Vocalists sang the sangathis in unison, percussionists and instrumental accompanists on the violin, veena and the flute served to dovetail in sync with the melody, the beats of the mridangam, ghatam and the ganjira added a delightful rhythmic punch to the songs one after another. In keeping with the theme of rivers, the songs seemed to flow and cascade from these committed youngsters onstage. Coordinated outfits added to the visual neatness and organizational logistics were planned to work seamlessly,, considering that there were over 200 children drawn from multiple music schools.

The theme song at the end – Aananda saagara lahari was penned by Vidwan Shivkumar Bhatt in four languages – Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil. As I walked out of the auditorium, I heard several audience members humming snatches from various songs that were presented. When young voices unite and sing in sincerity and abandon, the songs are sure to make a mark in the hearts of listeners, and that is what I heard in the lobby and beyond. A concert by young students which left a mark on all those who attended!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.

 

 

Advice I shouldn’t have to give you

High school is rough. For freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors, every school year presents new struggles and threats to the state of our mental and physical health. The American school system, to very loosely quote my favorite Prince Ea video, is incredibly archaic. Cars and phones from 150 years ago have been completely revolutionized in the 21st century. While society and it’s needs have changed so much over the past 150 years to cause cars and phones to be completely different, do our schools still look the same? That doesn’t sound right.

Before you actually enter high school, you hear a lot about how it is really hard for many students, but  at the time, it always felt like some distant, far-off concept.

Fast-forward to junior year in which I get 4-6 hours of sleep per night, little to no physical exercise, where my days consist of either school or homework for school; breaks in between consist of time spent commuting to school and back. Add to this mix standardized tests and their implications for the future; worrying about AP tests, studying for the ACT all the while wondering about when I’can take my SAT subject tests. Now I’m not saying that’s all there is in my life––of course I spend time with friends, participate in extracurricular activities, and do community service when I can. But lately, it doesn’t feel like any of that stuff matters. It feels like I always have something school-related on my mind.

I’m not alone in this. Contrary to popular belief, this struggle is very damaging and all-too common for high school students. Pressure from peers and the Silicon Valley mentality of always achieving excellence is a huge influence on high stress levels for students.

You hear a lot about the dreaded “junior year,” how it’s the worst and hardest year of high school, and it also happens to be the year where grades are especially important. We always just take it as it is, and just accept that 11th grade is inevitably going to be tough, that it’s the cross you have to bear to eventually do well in the future. But why should we have to do that? Why do we have to accept that when you’re 14-18 years old, high school will be so tough on you that it will negatively impact your mental health, physical health, and overall happiness? Isn’t that the exact opposite of the purpose for education? Shouldn’t we be taught in school that our own wellbeing needs to come first and that, despite the importance of pursuing excellence in education, that nothing should be more valuable than us?

My point is, I shouldn’t have to tell you, that if you’re staying up late for homework and start to get sleepy, that eating a snack will keep you up for a few more hours. I shouldn’t have to tell you, that too much caffeine is bad but it can also do wonders to keep you awake throughout the week. I shouldn’t have to tell you that it’s easier to cram for a test in the morning than while you’re sleep deprived at night. I shouldn’t have to tell you all this, because you shouldn’t be in a position where you actually need this advice. But we are.

I do recognize that this is not always the case. I understand that while they are in the minority, there are some students who are (somehow) able to manage a full load of AP classes, standardized tests, and extracurriculars all in one school year. But they are, I repeat, the minority. The vast minority.

High school students are constantly being told that despite the fact that we are merely students, we have the ability to spark positive change in our world.

Well here it is. Here is me, asking you, to look up and pay attention to the high school experience that my peers and I have to face in the name of education.  

Isha Trivedi is a high school junior at Notre Dame high school in San Jose, and she interned with India Currents over the summer.

This essay was first published in December 2017.

 

Date/Time Event
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
Events Across the Globe
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Jan 25, 2019 - Jan 27, 2019
All Day
India Quilt Festival
India Quilt Festival
Sri Sankara Hall, Chennai TamilNadu
Jan 26, 2019
2:00 pm - 6:30 pm
Carnatic Concerts
Carnatic Concerts
Community Of Infinite Spirit, San Jose California
Jan 26, 2019
4:00 pm
"Kalpana" - Dancing through the Seasons.
"Kalpana" - Dancing through the Seasons.
Mission City Center of Performing Arts, Santa Clara CA

Black and Desi: A Shared History

In January 28, 1900, Swami Vivekananda looked out at the white audience at the Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, and spoke out against anti-Black racism. “As soon as a man becomes a Mohammedan, the whole of Islam receives him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does … In this country, I have never yet seen a church where the white man and the negro can kneel side by side to pray.

Half a century later, a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

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Gandhi and King

Why would a Hindu monk speak out against anti-Black racism? Why would a gay African American civil rights leader repeatedly face arrest fighting for India’s independence? South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. Our histories are deeply intertwined, even if our communities don’t always know it.

I don’t know if Vivekananda was scared to condemn American anti-Black racism. But I heard fear, or at least a great discomfort, when I talked to a young Desi activist speaking out against anti-Black racism. She wasn’t scared of engaging in civil disobedience, but the thought of talking to her parents left her speechless. “When I act in solidarity with Black people in this movement, I want to call my parents in to the struggle,” she explained. “After an action, when Ma calls and asks if I’ve eaten and if my health is well and how is school, I want to tell her everything … Instead, I say, ‘My health is good, Ma.’ And it breaks my heart.”

South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. If we knew our shared history, would it make the conversations easier?

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The Black Bengalis of Harlem: 1880s-1940s

Growing up in California, many of my South Asian friends were instructed by their parents that they weren’t allowed to marry someone African American—racism cloaked as “tradition.” But over the last several years, historian Vivek Bald has uncovered a history we were never told: when we were new to the United States, we were welcomed by African American communities, to intermarry, and built rich mixed lives together.

Between the 1880s and 1940s, two waves of South Asian men came to the United States, marrying and building new lives in African American, Creole, and Puerto Rican communities. Bald traced the story of these men and their lives in a strange new country in his groundbreaking book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.

The first wave of these immigrants came to the United States from the Hooghly district of Bengal between the 1880s and 1910s. They worked as peddlers across the East Coast and the South, selling embroidered silks and “Oriental” goods from Bengal. These dark-skinned Muslim immigrants found homes in communities of color, with many settling in New Orleans. Bald found records of about two dozen South Asian men in New Orleans who married African American and Creole women.

Moksad and Elizabeth Ali married in 1895, and had six sons and a daughter. In 1900, they were living in a joint family in New Orleans’ Third Ward: Moksad, Elizabeth, their children, Elizabeth’s sister and brother-in-law, and her 80-year-old grandmother, a freed slave from Virginia. The Alis later moved to Mississippi, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Alis had moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where a new Black Bengali community was about to form.

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From World War I to the 1940s, a second wave of working class Bengali ex-seamen was finding their way to New York, often settling in Harlem, the heart of African American New York. Vivek Bald, an intrepid history detective, scoured New York City marriage records to uncover the stories of Harlem Bengalis marrying African American and Puerto Rican women.

The community eventually spread outside Harlem, but the Bengali men, their wives, and their mixed race families would continue to come together to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, and host an annual summer celebration bringing together hundreds of members of the scattered community.

Dreaming of Freedom, Standing Up for Civil Rights: 1920s-1947

From the 1920s onward, Indian and African American freedom fighters started recognizing the links between their struggles against colonial rule and racist oppression. Gerald Horne, Sudarshan Kapur, and others have written extensively about this history, often focusing on African American scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who corresponded with Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, and others.

By 1942, Horace Cayton, Jr. would write “it may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but India and the possibility of the Indians obtaining their freedom from England by any means has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” The NAACP, the prominent African American civil rights group, passed a resolution supporting Indian autonomy that same year, with accompanying statements from major African American artist-activists like Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.

African American poet Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote eloquently about the shared struggle of Indians and African Americans. “It just does not make sense,” he wrote, “for the Allied leaders of the Western world to make beautiful speeches about freedom and liberty and democracy with India still in chains and Negroes still jim-crowed.”

One of Langston Hughes’ several poems about Indian liberation, “How About It, Dixie” connected Indian political prisoners and African American victims of racist police brutality. It reads, in part:

“Show me that you mean / Democracy please— / Cause from Bombay to Georgia / I’m beat to my knees / You can’t lock up Nehru / Club Roland Hayes /  Then make fine speeches / About Freedom’s way.”

Jawaharlal Nehru was devoted to solidarity with African America, connecting both with friends like Paul Robeson, and through intermediaries like Cedric Grover. After India gained independence, solidarity was complicated by the need to maintain good relations with a white-led American government. However, in a secret memo to the first Indian ambassadors to the U.S. and China, Nehru remained clear about India’s position: “our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes.”

How African Americans Created South Asian America: 1950-1960s

We are in the United States today because African American activists organized, bled, and died to overturn the racist laws keeping us out. American laws long restricted immigration from South Asia. While several thousand South Asians had journeyed to the United States by the early 20th century, the Immigration Act of 1917 explicitly barred our immigration. Three decades later, the 1946 Luce-Cellar Act loosened the restrictions—but allowed in only one hundred Indian immigrants per year.

From the 1950s onward, new waves of African American activists took on the policies upholding American racism. Civil rights activists organized in the face of social pressure, mob violence, police brutality, and domestic terror. In Mississippi, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his home. In Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was firebombed. In South Carolina, three students were shot and killed by Highway Patrol officers on a college campus. In Tennessee, Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood in support of local African American union workers. The list goes on.

Some early South Asian immigrants participated in the civil rights movement. For example, in his book Colored Cosmopolitanism, historian Nico Slate describes how in the mid-1960s, two professors in Jackson, Mississippi stood with their African American students to help desegregate the city in the mid-1960s. Hamid Kizilbash (from Pakistan) and Savithri Chattopadhyay (from India), both faculty members at Tougaloo College, challenged racial segregation and terror, taking advantage of their ambiguous racial status. (In one instance, a white mob stopped attacking a bloody Kizilbash after a priest yelled “he’s not Negro, he is Indian.”)

The civil rights movement won one of its biggest victories with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which created South Asian America as we know it today. This law ended the racist restrictive immigration quotas, allowing us to become one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with over 3.5 million South Asians in the United States today.

While the burden of the civil rights movement was carried largely by African Americans, perhaps no group has benefited as much from African American activism as Indian (and particularly upper caste Hindu) Americans. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, the median Indian American household income is over two and a half times higher than that of African Americans, in part because of immigration policies favoring the selective import of skilled foreign workers like my father.

I grew up in the United States, and never questioned my right to be here. But my wife Barnali Ghosh came to the United States as a graduate student; and stayed on as an H-1B worker. Learning the history made a deep impression on her. “I realized that my presence in this country, and the existence of our Desi community, was possible only because African American activists helped overturn anti-Indian immigration laws. How do we repay the deep debt that we owe?”

South Asians for Black Lives: 2014-

Seventy years ago, Bayard Rustin, a gay African American civil rights activist, repeatedly engaged in civil disobedience to support Indian independence. Across the country, South Asians are starting to repay the debt, at a time when African American activists are asking other communities for their support as they organize against racism and police brutality.
In Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was fatally shot, South Asians whose businesses were impacted by protests stood with their African American neighbors and often saw their neighbors stand up for them. Ferguson resident Anil Gopal, president of the St. Louis Asian Indian Business Association, described to India Abroad how “Black people came to help the (Indian) community … Some of them even kept vigil outside the store as long as they could, to protect the stores.”

In New York City, the DRUM (Desis Rising Up And Moving) South Asian Organizing Center brought together over a hundred community members to discuss race and policing in light of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, before starting a march against racism and for immigrant rights.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, South Asians organizing with #Asians4BlackLives have been engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against institutions responsible for killing African Americans.

Across the country, South Asian Americans are divided about how we understand our relationship to African Americans; many community members have never given much thought to the topic. The Queer South Asian National Network developed a free curriculum on confronting anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, which is being used for 1–2 hour workshops in New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and beyond. Little by little, some community members are choosing to repay the debt, continuing the century-long tradition of solidarity.

Growing up, I learned a version of our community’s history where we desis worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, never connecting with other communities of color.

But for over a century, South Asians and African Americans have lived entangled lives—Black-Bengali marriages, Vivekananda speaking out against anti-Black racism, satyagraha in the civil rights movement, Indian Muslims offering Black Muslims a more global perspective, Dalit activists learning about Black Power, long histories of individual friendships, and African American activists who first fought for our independence, and then helped end the barriers to our immigration.

Knowing our history leaves us with a choice. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard some of us openly express anti-Black racism; perhaps this is linked to casteism or colorism, or maybe we’re mimicking what we see and hear around us. Will we ignore our history and give in to some of our worst instincts?  Many community members are choosing a different path, celebrating our shared histories, and helping add a new chapter to one of our best and oldest traditions.

Anirvan Chatterjee is a community historian. He’s one of the curators of the award-winning Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking Tour (BerkeleySouthAsian.org), and the author of the Secret History of South Asian and African American Solidarity (BlackDesiSecretHistory.org). Find him online at www.chatterjee.net and @anirvan.

Cover photo credit: Scott McLeod

First published on the 1st of June, 2015.

Two Sitas, Two Deepikas, and One Cross-Dresser

“Is it true there was cross-dressing in early Indian cinema?”

The question came from a young Texan undergrad, and there was some muffled laughter in the audience. I paused for the room to be quiet.

Raja Harishchandra (1913), India’s first feature film.

It was up to me to provide some cultural context. I had received some photocopied pages for the reading on Indian cinema, and I glanced at them for specific details. 

“Yes, it’s true that Dadasaheb Phalke’s earliest films had men dressed as women. In 1913, Annasaheb Saluke played the role of the queen, Rani Chandramani, in India’s first feature film, Raja Harishchandra.”

Annasaheb Salunke played female roles in Dadasahab Phalke’s films

I elaborated on how Dadasaheb Phalke had been unable to find female actors in the traditional Pune society of 1913. How acting was a morally suspect profession, and chaste Indian women could have nothing to do with it. How Annasaheb Saluke, a Mumbai restaurant worker, played the role not only of Ram but also Sita in Lanka Dahan in 1917.

It was a small footnote of cinema history, but it made me think. Women had been entirely missing in the first Indian film, and when they were allowed in, there were specific roles that they were afforded: of mothers, maidens and mistresses, each with strictly enforced codes.

Perhaps early Indian cinema did continue to exert an influence on the films being made today. Take devotionals and the two Deepikas, for instance.

DEVOTIONALS

The story of how the father of Indian films, Dadasaheb Phalke, was inspired to make devotional films about Hindu religious mythologies such as Raja Harishchandra (1913), Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), and Lanka Dahan (1917) is an interesting one.

In April 1911, Phalke visited the America India Picture Palace, in Girgaon, Mumbai with his family to see a film. As it was Easter, the theatre screened a film about Jesus, The Life of Christ (1906) by the French director Alice Guy-Blaché. While watching Jesus on the screen, Phalke envisioned Hindu deities Rama and Krishna instead and decided to start in the business of “moving pictures”.(Watwe)

The devotional genre was continued by films such as Sant Tukaram (1936) and Jai Santoshi Ma (1975), Shirdi Ke Sai Baba (1977) and then, on a smaller TV screen, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1986) where actress Deepika Chikhalia woodenly played a pious Sita. Devotional films have been immensely popular and more importantly, revered. “People would keep their shoes outside the cinemas before going in to watch Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai (1969) recalled veteran trade analyst Vinod Mirani. 

Film historian Sumita Chakravarty (1993) has suggested that women in Indian cinema have been cast as good wives, good mothers, or conversely, as bad women: vamps and courtesans. In Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1986), actress Deepika Chikhalia played the role of Mother Sita, and was subsequently criticized for any roles thereafter where she had to wear revealing clothes or where she was not an ideal wife or mother.

THE TWO DEEPIKAS

Source: IMDb

Seven decades separated Annasaheb Saluk playing Mother Sita to Deepika Chikhalia playing Mother Sita, but how much had really changed?

Fast forward to contemporary events. For Deepika Padukone, the role of Padmavati came under a similar category of an ideal woman. (In present day India, Hindu Rajput women continue to worship sati mata, the goddess to whom the sacrifice of one’s body is made by widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.)

Taking the role of a mother created an expectation that high standards of morality would be displayed by the Deepikas.

To fully appreciate the Padma(a)vat(i) controversy in 2017, one needs to understand history certainly, but more specifically, South Asian cinema history. The history of devotionals, of audiences throwing coins at the stage as good vanquished evil on-screen. We are to understand the consternation caused at the unseemly sight of Mother Padmavati dancing the ghoomar with her midriff exposed. It was the government, and its censor board, that was tasked with the job of gently covering Mother’s midriff. Bhansali’s film was delayed, and then released, after a name change to Padmaavat, and the Censor Board required edits where Deepika’s offending midriff was covered.

Padmaavat

But for the government to cover a woman’s midriff digitally! That will be in the film history books. Students in the year 2099 might ask — is it true?

And someone, I hope, will provide some cultural context.

 

Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D., is Culture and Media Editor at India Currents.

Photo credits (unless otherwise noted): Wikipedia

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Dasha Tarangini: Community Of Youth And Their Music

Carnatic Chamber Concerts (CCC) celebrated its tenth anniversary with a musical production – Dasha Tarangini which included sixteen gurus, 204 children and hundred plus volunteers. The event was held on Sunday, January 21st at Santa Clara Convention Center to a packed audience.

Carnatic Chamber Concerts was conceived of and founded by Ms. Padma Mohan in January of 2009 to serve as a hub for musical exchange and learning for children pursuing the learning of Carnatic music here in the United States. Monthly concerts were held in rasikas’ homes, and children presented short musical segments based on their level. The monthly opportunities served to motivate the participating students to practice harder, and while attending the concerts, all the students benefited by listening to and encouraging their peers. Another aspect helped all students grow musically – a student learning vocal music learned to work with instrumental and percussive accompaniment, while those learning instruments got to hone their skills accompanying vocalists. The segments ranged from ten to thirty minutes, allowing all students an opportunity to present songs of varying complexity.

This organization soon grew from its humble roots into a large organization that started presenting monthly concerts at the auditorium at Shirdi Sai Parivar in Milpitas. In spite of is growth, the organization has stuck to its original principle and does not charge for membership; it only requires that students attend the monthly concert series regularly.

For the tenth anniversary event, the 204 students were split into ten groups, with each group focusing on compositions that highlighted something unique about a number from 1 to 10. Veteran gurus Akila Iyer, Arvind Lakshmikanthan, Gopi Lakshminarayan, Hari Devanath, Kasthuri Shivakumar, Natarajan Srinivasan, Rama Thyagarajan, Ravindra Bharathy Sridharan, Saravanapriyan Sriraman, Savita Rao, Sandhya Srinath, Snigdha Venkataramani, Srikanth Chary, Srinath Bala, Shivkumar Bhat, and Vivek Sudararaman worked with the groups of students for over a year, training them to present songs tied to each number. In each group, students were drawn from various schools and there was a lot of coordination involved in having the students perfect the material under the watchful guidance of the lead gurus assigned to each group.

The work done over several months came together beautifully onstage – no detail was overlooked. Vocalists sang the sangathis in unison, percussionists and instrumental accompanists on the violin, veena and the flute served to dovetail in sync with the melody, the beats of the mridangam, ghatam and the ganjira added a delightful rhythmic punch to the songs one after another. In keeping with the theme of rivers, the songs seemed to flow and cascade from these committed youngsters onstage. Coordinated outfits added to the visual neatness and organizational logistics were planned to work seamlessly,, considering that there were over 200 children drawn from multiple music schools.

The theme song at the end – Aananda saagara lahari was penned by Vidwan Shivkumar Bhatt in four languages – Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil. As I walked out of the auditorium, I heard several audience members humming snatches from various songs that were presented. When young voices unite and sing in sincerity and abandon, the songs are sure to make a mark in the hearts of listeners, and that is what I heard in the lobby and beyond. A concert by young students which left a mark on all those who attended!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.

 

 

A Decade Passes: On The National Mall When Obama Spoke

 

Jan. 20th 2009: Inauguration of Barack Obama

“Our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers,… shaped by every language and culture

drawn from every end of this earth and we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united….” – apt words delivered with perfection. .

For that one day, most of us set aside our work, our worries, held hands in a celebration that illumined our love for this nation, that validated the democratic principles it stood for.

My ears were still echoing with all the jubilant chants of the millions, of a variety of hues as Obama had talked about, as we were herded en masse towards L ‘Enfant Plaza station only to be reversed to head towards the Smithsonian. The purpose of everyone’s visit had been fulfilled.  It was as if the hundreds of thousands of us were drunk in the moment, still dazed and in an absolute reverie of what we had experienced. No one seemed to mind the wrong directions given earlier by the mounted police and any number of security guards lining Jefferson Drive. People were chatting, laughing and some were still crying. Jumbled music played from roadside stereos. The pavement belonged to feet and the power of limbs, not wheels.

The sun was merciful easing the sting of the brisk wind that we had experienced earlier. Groups of students rested on sidewalks. Steps and ledges were filling up with men, women and kids proudly donning gear emblazoned with the words – Hope or Change. His face was everywhere along with plenty of pictures of the first family. We would all get to our destinations before sundown, but now was no time to hurry.

Eight hours had passed since we had arrived at the National Mall in the early hours before sunrise. My husband Raghu, a dear friend from Canada Kumar, and I strode into the Mall in the early pre-dawn hours, wearing many layers of warm clothes,  and we huddled together along with thousands of others and soon secured a good vantage spot by the first jumbotron to the right of the Capitol.

Our early morning trip to the National Mall had been rehearsed the previous day. With thousands of people descending on Washington D.C., we had left nothing to chance.

*************

Rosslyn Metro was just a few blocks from our hotel and we walked down the previous day,  getting our first taste of the bitter chill. Not since our Michigan days over 20 years ago, had I felt so cold – too frozen to talk, the lips would not comply, even as the mind felt ready to take on  adventure. The snows of Lake Tahoe had definitely not prepared us for this. I was determined to not be daunted by the bone-chilling wind or the silently cold, cruel sky.

We were here for a purpose, to witness history in the making; to be part of that oral and written history felt like a rare privilege. We wanted to relate this experience to our children, family and friends here and in India.  Riding down what seemed like the tallest escalator we soon found warmth five stories down on the Metro train!

A fellow passenger, a cheery young, African-American woman struck up a conversation with me. “You remind me of my children’s doctor,” she said.. When I asked her about where she came from, she replied, “I’m from Miami. You look so much like Dr. Patel, a calm and sweet presence whenever I take my kids to see her.” I felt simple joy at this expression of likeness and remarked, “We’re from California, and originally from India. And, interestingly, I am a pediatrician as well.” Hearing this coincidence, she was obviously delighted.

We got off at the  Smithsonian, and walked on the dry grass and dirt of the Mall. Twilight rolled into darkness and tall giant flood lights lit up the way. Barricades  were set up around us. A television crew with pole cameras and bright lights drew a small group of curious onlookers. We saw the logo of CNN and stamped on one of the cameras. We learnt that the celebrity  was Soledad O’ Brien. We moved on.

We moved to see the seated section for the privileged quarter of a million who had managed to secure tickets. We saw a huge portable caravan with more floodlights with a transparent wall sheeting and a deck inside. Wow, the Keith Olbermann show was being taped live in there! Keith O. was sitting at his desk, teleprompters on monitor screens several feet from him on both sides. A few hundred who had gathered around cheered “Obama” every time the telecamera spanned over the crowd. Oh – I’d almost forgotten – the first celebrity I saw was at the airport when we landed. I had seen Jesse Jackson browsing in a bookstore.

A security  guard told us that the gates would open the next morning at 4 a.m. and asked us about the time we planned to be there. When she heard that we were planning to be there by 7 a.m. she pointed to a spot, halfway close to the Washington Monument – uh, oh, we better get in here real early in the morning, I thought to myself! We rode back to Arlington. Too tired to find a place to eat that night, we ate the delicious, spicy hot idlis our friend had packed for us. There were only  a few hours left for us to get ready and leave again for for the Mall and this time for the real deal! The Great day!

*************

The station was already filled with people around 4:45 when we got in. Obama’s face was everywhere! The skies had not even revealed a trace of light, a crisp chill gnawed at my exposed nose but if it worried me, I was not going to let that show!

Having read the list of prohibited items online, we each took only our waist bag with wallet and ID and a small fold-out zippered shopping bag. But on the Mall when we arrived at 5:30 a.m. there were people with huge blankets, flasks for coffee, hot chocolate, and big flags. I did not see any security guards checking any belongings or people. Yet, it was interesting to see silhouettes of dark figures with rifles in hand atop buildings all around us – I learnt later that they were sharpshooters. Ever so often, a bright-eyed helicopter hovered by, with rays streaming down and out.

We must have stood for about an hour –  having jockeyed for position through the first wave of thousands of people, by which time I felt the piercing sting of cold in my fingers under my ‘warmest’ liner gloves and my ski gloves. Raghu’s toes were going from burning to numb. Wiggling the digits constantly to warmth was in vain. Despair was setting with the mind numbing cold. We saw some folks huddled by an Ingersoll generator – it seemed to be powering up a floodlight above. At its rear it was spewing out some heat and we crossed over the little fence to get close to those snuggled by it. Yes, it was a makeshift warming station! I leaned over, shivering to catch some warmth. A pleasant large black woman put her arms around me and pulled me in – Oh, my God, honey, you seem frozen she said, pushing aside a couple of people and pulled my arms to reach the hot exhaust, the pungent aroma spreading the warmth. Disregarding the noxious fumes, the heat it put out kept us there for a while. My blood flow seemed to respond and my heart warmed up; the woman and I exchanged a happy note and we managed to return to our places.

Music videos from the previous day entertained us and dancing to it kept us warm. The amazing speech announcing his candidacy from Illinois played on the big screen. The acceptance at the Democratic convention to the cheering crowds in Colorado enthralled the eagerly building throngs. The ever-inspiring and emotional, “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King transported us back over 40 years to another historic day. The crowds listened intently and in silence – the power and intense passion of that speech truly transcends time and place, I thought.

The bands of Will.i.am. and Usher played and Bill Bono enlivened his audience with his musical tribute to Obama. Stevie Wonder got thunderous cheers and Beyonce and Seal, and some whose names I was not familiar with (sign of my age!) made beautiful music. Though we had missed the pre-inaugural concerts at the Lincoln Memorial, it seemed live and present on the jumbotron. I thought of how the masses at MLK’s speech must have listened on the speakers, not being able to see the podium on jumbo screens like we did.

***************

The most important hour was soon to be here! Excitement mounted as motorcades streamed live on the screen. The screen images also revealed the astounding crowd of humanity that stretched behind us. It was simply fabulous – black, white, brown, small, big, medium, young and old and in-betweens, all with a single mission, impassioned by the power of the day. All of us waved the American flags passed out earlier by the Girl Scouts. It was great to feel that oneness.

Having emigrated from India, this was a pivotal time in this nation we chose, a land that has fostered immigrants from far and wide for over three centuries. So, when the bards, Seeger and Springsteen sang, “This land is your land, this land is my land…” it was simply exhilarating! They brought tears to my eyes. Oh, I should mention that the words and the lyrics were also shown on the big screen for us to sing along

I recalled the time our son sent us pictures and blogs from when he volunteered in the Iowa caucus in the depths of winter, pondered over the energy of all the youth who worked  on this campaign for change, igniting the absolute faith which enveloped this nation and a good part of the world. I took in the scene we were in and reflected on all that I had thus far learnt about this country.

The congregation stood together, cheered on wildly, but remained quite orderly. Kids were propped up on the shoulders of their dads, moms, grandparents, young girls atop their stronger boy-friends, all poised to capture the vision – the ‘darshan’ as we call it in India. Some were perched as high as possible on leafless tree limbs. I was reminded of the strong baobab tree in Africa, a tree with such character revered by the Kenyans, that Barack talks about in his memoir, – Dreams from my father.

The dignitaries were announced as they began arriving. Ted Kennedy was cheered on loudly. The Clintons were welcomed with applause, President Carter and on and on. Our binoculars brought the scene up close, but was cumbersome to use with the bulky gloves. I resigned to watching the scene unfold on the jumbo screen and took in the joyous uproar each time.

Oh, then the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, tall and beautiful walked up to rousing cheer and love from the people. And then charming Michelle, our first black first lady entered in an almost regal yellow gold dress, so fitting and so reminiscent of a line of powerful and elegant black women, her mother included.

The crowds went wild and ecstatic as Barack walked up in his black suit and red tie, dapper and stately. How utterly proud must his recently departed grandmother feel watching from heaven, I thought; she was the one who had raised him with firm affection. And his grandfather, whose endearing picture carrying his grinning grandson on his shoulders had adorned a thousand magazine pages in the run up to the election.And the free-spirited dreamer of his mom he called as the one constant in his life, the one to whom he felt he owed the best in him.

If those who left this earth would for once reveal their being, there undoubtedly would be loud cries of laughter, tears and “yeahs” uttered by countless people – the African slaves who had endured the punishment they never deserved, their American children deprived of the good lives that they did deserve, the spirit of Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln, of Mahalia Jackson, of the emancipated slaves of the Great Migration – the path paved by them! And, there would also be whites who tirelessly and quietly helped their black neighbors as brothers and sisters.

The quintessential moment came amidst thunderous chants, cheers and joyful tears, the waving of millions of American flags and Barack Obama, the first non-white American President took the most sacred oath in the land. Perfect strangers hugged each other, at the Mall and across the nation. Tears brimmed my lids. Many were sobbing. I could not imagine the joy, the pride, amidst disbelief that those who lived during the civil rights era must have felt of this sweet moment.

The Oath was served, his hand on the very same Bible which President Lincoln used for his great inaugural. The justice mixed up the words slightly which I only learnt later. The reveille of the 21-gun salute, the highest honor in this land ushered in the rule of the first African-American president. Hail to the Chief boomed from the Navy Band.

President Obama began his speech to explosive cheers, and the waving of millions of American flags – it was hard not to feel proud of being American. I held up my cell phone as he spoke the first few lines, to have the recording heard by our kids, my mother and my siblings since they could not be part of the immediate scene. I could not help thinking of how keenly my father, who passed away recently would have enjoyed all this.

His was a humble and inspiring speech, captivating, flawless delivery in a lilting baritone, addressing our whole nation and to some extent the world at large, rightfully praising the “reaffirmation of our enduring spirit and the greatness of our nation……” It was certainly a speech truthful about our troubled times and calling on all the people to work through the burden, to take responsibility and for the government to help and to lead. It showed the humility of a community organizer and revealed the scholarship of a statesman.

Dazzled as we were by the events of the day, the tenets proposed by our President, and most certainly reluctant to leave yet, the benediction of Rev. Lowry came with his poignant speech lively in his gravelly voice. Then when Elizabeth Alexander delivered her poem/lyrical prose of “Praise song for the day,” extolling the hard work of people, of love and of hope, our hearts rejoiced along with the millions. Oh, and we heard the Bush helicopter depart from Washington D.C. flying over the Mall.

We slowly streamed out onto the roads. As we were finally directed to the Federal Center SW Metro, queues for the Orange and Blue lines, there were earfuls of interesting conversations as we waited and inched along. No one was in a hurry. The whole city was in a state of revelry.

The sun almost lulled me into a stupor as I half listened and moved. We were now allowed to go down the escalator to the station and I was sad thinking that the ticket slot would soon eat up the special Obama-printed tickets. I soon realized that the metro rides all across the city were free for the day. We got to keep our Obama tickets!

We boarded the train, nary a sound, but our thoughts in a delighted chatter, and joined the returning masses. Too content in our hearts, we sat almost too absorbed in the festivities for some time. The colonnade of the Mall stretching from The Capitol to the Washington Monument bore witness to the extraordinary Inaugural Day.

Having lived in Philadelphia and visiting the Capital often, I thought of the love one of my sisters felt towards Washington, DC.

I was beginning to feel some of that same giddiness myself!

 

Easy Wintertime Afternoon Snacks

 

When we lived in Coimbatore my mom and our neighbor, who was at least twenty years younger than her, became the best of friends. Many an evening, as I walked home from school, I would see mom and her bestie sitting on the stairs with a cup of coffee and a plate of their innovative snacks, chatting and giggling away like teenagers. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their latest creations.

One lazy afternoon in California, my son walked in saying, “Mom, I wish I could have some animal style fries, right about now.” And I had a quick flashback to Coimbatore and the snacks that my mother whipped up.

I could have picked up my keys, driven to an In-N-Out, stood in line, picked up some fries with the so-called secret sauce, then made a detour to an Indian store, picked up some kachoris and samosas, stood in the next never ending checkout line, irritated with the people who cut into the line, and then driven back home in crazy 4 p.m. commute traffic. But I decided to stay home and be creative, instead.

It’s not as hard as you might think. Here is an animal fries recipe—a healthier version of what you might get at an In-N-Out, which will make your grumpy teen smile from ear to ear. The recipe is for my nieces who can never resist making a pit stop at In-N-Out when they come to visit.

Praba Iyer is a chef instructor who teaches team-building through cooking classes and custom cooking classes in the bay area. She is a consulting chef at Kitchit (www.kitchit.com). You can reach her at praba@rocketbites.com.


Animal Fries with Secret Sauce

Ingredients for the Fries
4 russet potatoes cut into matchsticks.
2-3  tbsps oil
salt to taste
3-4 slices of American cheese
1 large white onion chopped fine

Ingredients for the Secret Sauce
1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup ketchup
2 tbsp dill (chopped) pickles with juice
1 tsp mustard
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
¼ tsp salt
a dash of sugar

Method
Place all the ingredients for the sauce in a bowl and whisk it together. Set aside.
Heat oil in a non stick flat pan and add the chopped onion and saute until it’s completely browned. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 430 degrees along with an empty sheet pan in it. Place the potatoes in  a bowl mix in the oil, and salt. Carefully remove the hot sheet pan from the oven with a mitten. Brush it with oil. Spread the potato matchsticks flat so each stick is separate. Place this  sheet pan with the potato matchsticks in the heated oven.

Cook the fries for 25 to 30 minutes until the bottom of the fries is brown, then flip them and let them roast evenly.

Assembly
Place the fries in a bowl, layer  the American cheese slices on top, sprinkle the browned onion, and finally drizzle the secret sauce.

Variations: Add a little minced garlic and minced fresh basil to the potato matchsticks before roasting them in the oven for some added flavor. You can also make the same with roasted wedge potatoes, tater tots, or even hash brown.

Idli Chaat
This is a crispy crunchy delight that I often crave.  I used the leftover idlis in my fridge to make this recipe.

Ingredients
4-5 idlis sliced into matchsticks oil for brushing on idlis
1 red onion chopped fine
1 small tomato chopped fine
1-2 thai chilies chopped fine
1 sprig of fresh cilantro chopped fine
a dash of chaat masala
a squeeze of a lime

Method
In the same preheated oven at 430 degrees, place the matchstick idlis on the sheet pan and brush it with oil. Brown it evenly by flipping the pieces once they are brown on one side.  It takes about 15-20 minutes each side.

Place the oven fried idlis on a plate, sprinkle the onions, tomato, chilies, cilantro, chaat masala. Squeeze the lime over. Yum! You got the chaat without the fat.

Variations: Sprinkle the idli chaat with sev for an extra crunch.

Bread Upma
This is one of my favorite snacks. It’s crunchy, full of carbs and a perfect match for a hot cup of tea or coffee.

Ingredients
10 slices of any kind of bread
(chopped into cubes)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp mustard
1 tsp urad dal
1 tsp chana dal
¼ cup roasted peanuts or roasted cashews
a pinch of asafoetida
3-4 curry leaves
3-4 green chilies chopped fine
1 red onion chopped fine
1 roma tomato chopped
salt to taste

For the Garnish
¼ cup cilantro leaves
chopped juice of ½ a lime

Method
Heat oil in a pan, add the mustard and let it splutter. Then add the urad dal, chana dal, peanuts, asafoetida, curry leaves, green chilies and red onion.

Saute for a few minutes until the chopped onion pieces are slightly browned.

Add the cubed bread, mix well, and fry until the bread cubes are crisp.

Finally, add the chopped tomato and mix gently without making it soggy.

Remove and garnish with cilantro and lime.

First published in September 2015 under the title, ‘Sunday Afternoon Snacks.’ This article was first published on January 11th 2017.

Kolam: Heritage On The Doorstep

Heritage art, mythological meaning, visual artistry, mathematical calculation, and environmental awareness are all wrapped up into the innocuous kolam that sits on the front steps of any home in southern India.

Dr. Vijaya Nagarajan in her book, “Feeding a Thousand Souls: Women, Ritual and Ecology in India – An Exploration of the Kolam,” elevates this practice of drawing a kolam followed by millions of women into one that is worthy of being studied. Painstaking research over many years traveling through the towns and villages of south India laid the groundwork for the book, which is sincere and extensive at the same time in uncovering the many strands of thinking that bind together to inform the daily practice of drawing the kolam.

I had a fascinating conversation with Dr. Vijaya Nagarajan about the process of research and writing that went into this book. “I came to America when I was five years old and went back to India when I was barely ten, and we stayed in my grandfather’s village home for three months. That’s when I really fell in love with the kolam. To draw a kolam with perfect symmetry can be pretty hard and challenging. At the crack of dawn, I would accompany my grandfather to the fields and  all the women would be coming out of their houses to draw kolams outside their homes. It is believed that the kolam should be drawn before the first ray of sunlight hits the threshold of the house.”

That early fascination with the kolam stayed with her thanks to her mother’s adherence to the same practice wherever they lived from suburban Maryland to New Delhi. She writes in the book, “As a child I watched my mother create kolam patterns in front of the many houses we lived in, from India to America, and back and forth again…The kolam seemed to be one of the few constants in my family’s nomadic, bicultural migratory life, which crisscrossed continents every few years.”

In the 1980s Dr. Nagarajan met Ivan Ilich, an influential philosopher who questioned her about her mother’s daily kolam drawing practice. When asked about it, she replied – “Oh, it’s just something my mother does every day” That reply did not satisfy Ilich who peppered her with questions for hours about the practice. That questioning laid the seed for her own musings on what she had almost taken for granted in more ways than one. In suburban Maryland, her mother would wake up early, wiping the frost-laden steps  to draw the kolam using rice flour and Dr. Nagarajan recalled that the reflexive action was to always sidestep the kolam while stepping into the house. That action was of course related to not spoiling the painstaking work that had gone into drawing it. But, the physical act of sidestepping and overlooking can be interpreted differently too. Physically avoiding stepping on the kolam was similar to what she acknowledges to be the ‘taking for granted’ nature for work done by many who are non-literate. “We have some prejudices against these people. We do not probe to find more about the kinds of knowledge that are embedded in these visual traditions.”

“Ivan Ilich’s questions forced me to ask hard questions that took me to explore so many strands of thinking – medieval Tamil literature, mythology, art – this book has been an incredible journey in so many ways, It has been the key for my return to India on multiple occasions.  The whole book was a task of unraveling a series of puzzles. So many elderly women taught me how the kolam connected to other forms of knowledge and how the visual that we see is a rich repository of all of these arts.”

The life of Andal, the medieval Vaishnavite saint is connected to the ancient practice of ‘paavai nombu” where young girls bathed in the river together and then headed to the temple to pray. Part of their daily ritual was the drawing of the kolam and this tradition took the author to the famous Andal temple at Srivilliputhur. This research also took her to study the choreography of late dancer Chandralekha who spoke passionately thus, “The kolam is at the center of my dance choreographies, and it is a foundational critical reference point in Tamil culture and Indian culture in general.” Her visualization of the body in movement related to the structure of the kolam itself and the many layers that it represented.

Dr. Nagarajan talks effusively about the generosity of countless women who spent time explaining how they saw the kolam in their daily lives. “This book is informed by my interactions with hundreds and hundreds of women,” she states. When asked about why they drew the kolam with unfailing regularity, many of the women stated that it was an act of offering to Bhudevi – Mother Earth – for the burden that human beings caused to her throughout the day. When we build a house, the women told her, “we destroy many small insects and animals that were living there. When we draw the kolam every morning, we feed these souls and think of Mother Earth – Bhudevi.”

Sharing this nugget of knowledge that she gained which forms the title of her book – Feeding a Thousand Souls, the researcher in Dr. Nagarajan remarks, “The modern gaze reduces these rituals to mere art – without looking at so many strands of thinking. The kolam is kind of a testament to 1000 years of visual and aural knowledge.”

**********

Reading this book made me ruminate about my own personal experience with the kolam as well – Why the kolam? Had I spent even a minute thinking about that question when I lived in India? Of course not – it was always there inside the puja room and at the doorstep leading into my home. One summer I learnt to draw kolams from my mother and grandmother and it was one part of growing up that I did not question.

But, once we leave India, not only do we question these practices – our children do as well. Why do we draw the kolam? Why is it done with rice flour? – the very act of migration makes mundane daily acts take on more meaning. Furrowed brows, trying to recreate conversations with grandmothers and aunts from years ago – trying to answer the proverbial “Whys” uttered by second-generation immigrant children is a task that we are all familiar with.

Reading this book will take you across the oceans to understand in its entirety one daily task that dates back hundreds of years – the drawing of the kolam. The book is similar to the subject it aimed to study  – just as the lines of the kolam effortlessly twine in and out creating a tapestry on the floor, the words and the pictures in the book flow effortlessly creating a wonderful tribute to the beautiful kolam.

Step in with wonder to savor this treasure of a book.

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.  

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