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I Dance, Hence, I Am

Aug 25 Festival to Bring Immersive Experience to BharataNatyam Lovers.

On Sunday, August 25th, Bay Area will experience a whole day’s worth of BharataNatyam – Lec-dems, a panel discussion, expert talks, and of course, performances by visiting and US-based artists – at the IDIA event, a festival of BharataNatyam. I got a chance to catch up with the performers. (For more details on the whole program, visit: (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/idia-i-dance-hence-i-am-2019-tickets-64541376996)

Navia Natrajan

I asked Chennai-based Navia Natarajan who will perform in the evening, when it was that she first knew she wanted to dance; what was it that drew her in. She said, “Joy. That is what I remember about watching my first performance – and all others since, actually – the joy. How much the dancer enjoyed the dance. I always want to get into that space.” Indeed, her goal for her solo debut/ arangetram in her teens was not, perfect technique and not forgetting a step; but rather, to get to a point where she could feel the joy.

We get to experience her joy in a piece that was an exploratory journey for her mentor the revered Bragha Bessel too. Turns out, Bessel had been on the lookout for a specific piece Pichaiku vandiro, a lovingly derisive piece on Lord Shiva, and was in the process of choreographing it. “I got to see Bragha-akka chiseling the piece; I got to, sort of, be a part of her process, watch her develop it for the the first time.”

Shweta Prachande

That piece is in contrast to the varnam/ main item Natarajan will present, where she has interpreted Swami ninne kori nanura through the emotions of a maturing nayika. As a child, she’s enthralled by Lord Shiva, graduating to a crush; then an all-pervading love to finally, an acceptance of the supreme and steadfast one-ness.

Bangalore-based Praveen Kumar will anchor the second evening presentation. For him too, dance was related to happiness. “I was working with a Chartered Accountant, shuttling between work & dance (watching and performing)…There comes a time for everyone, when you decide how to proceed with life & for me it was Dance.” Kumar chose dance also, to stay connected with people in all walks of life. According to him, dance is a representation of Life and it helps him evolve every day.

This reflective side of him will be presented to us in Maate malayadwaja, speaking of the Goddess protecting not only the outer world but also the inner world. Kumar likens it to the realities of living in current times, “every human being is constantly trying to keep up with the pace with the outer world & their homes (inner world). [Only] when there is  a balance in both places, can one find serenity within oneself.”

Kumar portrays male characters every chance he gets, he believes them to be a vehicle for personal as well artistic exploration. It will be interesting to watch his javali, will his Krishna succeed in wooing back a sulking lover?

The nuances of expression are what drew Shweta Prachande, acclaimed artist-Priyadarshini Govind’s student, to the art-form. She says, “The way someone smiles, the way they turn their head, the way they say NO, the way they laugh, the way they express anger, all of these, when presented through expression/abhinaya help create a character.” We can look forward to her presentation of a strong willed and feisty woman through a Padam.

Like Kumar, Prachande too, sees dance as an interplay with life. According to her, “…the outside world is changing so quickly and society is perpetually in a state of flux…dance helps me look deeper to find a balance, to be resilient, to be more compassionate.” This centeredness, is what she brings to her performances, even when rapid footwork and precision technique are called for, such as in the Mishra Chapu Alaripu she will present on August 25th.

IDIA will present another male artist, Chennai-resident Christopher Guruswamy, who literally learnt BharataNatyam from the womb: His mother danced through her pregnancy and would take him to class after he was born. His awakening to the fact that he couldn’t possibly be anything but a BharataNatyam dancer came after he’d applied to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (Gurusamy grew up in Australia) to learn ballet. In an interview, he’s said, “It was in this audition while doing ballet bare work that I realized how much I really hated ballet, loved BharataNatyam and wanted to go to Kalakshetra. So, I asked the panel to not accept me into the course which would let me go to India and study (something I only told my mum YEARS later).”

Anwesha Das

Gurusamy will present what he calls a happy varnam. “Many people consider Manavi to be a simple piece, but to me, it represents innocent, pure, stupid love. I see the nayika as this confident young girl…she could be Miss India, you know?…she just doesn’t understand why the Lord will not respond, there is after all, no reason for him to be so angry.”

Anwesha Das is the on-shore artist at IDIA. A Seattle resident, Anwesha’s dance journey began when her family lived in Chennai when she was a child, it so happened, close to the famed Urmila Sathyanarayanan’s classes. She remembers being enthralled by Sathyanarayanan’s Panchali Shapatham then.

Angayyar Kanni is the varnam through which Das hopes to bring out the beauty of Bharatanatyam, saying, “I enjoy presenting this piece because it portrays the nine emotions or Navarasas. I am in awe of the musicality & lyrics, as they give me ample scope to delineate small episodes of Devi in her different forms – Angayarkanni, Mahakali, Dakshashayani, Umai and so on.”

In Aduvvum Solluval, Das will portray a heroine animatedly talking about the rags to riches story of her rival while also dismissing her rival’s taunts.

Christopher Gurusamy

Natarajan, Kumar, Prachande, Gurusamy, and Das, each will allow us to coinhabit a joyous, connected space along with them. This feeling of community was what IDIA co-founders Kavita Thirumalai and Ganesh Vasudeva are striving to achieve. In a facebook post, Vasudeva says, “We have a dream/vision where Bay Area is one of the best centers for Bharatanatyam. We want Bay Area to produce our own Mythili Prakash. Not just one, but many. We want SF Bay Area to be inspired by quality and strive to attain that quality. We want dancers, and dance students to think critically and produce works that in turn makes audience think.”

Thirumalai is emphatic about the experience: “The mission of IDIA is to spark an immersive environment for aspiring artists, students, and lovers of BharataNatyam. IDIA was our way of creating vibrancy and currency to an otherwise rushed experience of learning and watching this beautiful art-form. IDIA is a whole day of immersion into the why, how, and what of BharataNatyam.”

 

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/idia-i-dance-hence-i-am-2019-tickets-64541376996

More info: https://www.facebook.com/IDANCEhenceIAM/

Arrey, Do You Want To Be a Failure? 

Night One: All test centers open at 7:45 a.m. and doors close at 8 a.m., unless otherwise noted on your admission ticket. You cannot be admitted once testing has started.

    The metal doors of the auditorium opened like the jaws of a beast, its four-walled stomach digesting the students trickling within. He was strangely dizzy. It was as though the metal levers on his wristwatch (chosen, of course, for this occasion alone) had suddenly slowed, as though the usual glow of the fluorescent light panels had abruptly turned into a stinging glare. 8:00. Damn it, he thought. I really need a Red Bull.  He had been checking that very wristwatch for the fourth time, not searching for the minute hand but rather for a confirmation that yes, he could still read. It was at 8:00 that the beast turned silent. Doors clicked shut, cell phones turned to airplane mode, whispers died. All life begins, at some point or another, in the stomach. He knew that. But it was the womb of the local high school’s auditorium, when the SAT scantron fluttered in his hands, that changed life completely.

Night Two: In the Reading Test, students will encounter questions like those asked in a lively, thoughtful, evidence-based discussion.

    Five sentences. Five sentences into the passage, and he still had absolutely no clue what anything meant. Read the sentence again, a voice inside him muttered. And so he did exactly that, inaudibly mouthing the metaphor in hopes that his tongue would decipher the passage better than he did. Nothing. Then underline it. Five weeks of SAT bootcamp practice over a generally depressing summer break had taught him the importance of underlining. Even if the mind was blank, there was the small consolation that at least the paper was not. He continued reading, registering absolutely nothing. It was an unfortunate winter afternoon that his mother had seen the advertisement for the bootcamp Scotch-taped to the window of an Indian grocery store. The “T” in “SAT” was blurred with a bright yellow turmeric stain, but the phone number at the bottom read perfectly. Then it was settled, all of his protests drowned by the single reminder that his distant cousin Raju got a 1600 last year. “Arrey, do you want to be a failure?” his mother demanded.

Night Three: The SAT Writing and Language Test asks you to be an editor and improve passages that were written especially for the test—and that include deliberate errors.

    Failure. “The preceding sentence should not be included because it fails to address the main topic of the passage.” This answer is almost always right, he thought, his pencil tapping against the Scantron. And even if it wasn’t, there were three more passages to complete in the next twenty minutes. He began his usual, dark blotch of a bubble on the Scantron sheet until a shiver ran down his spine. What was the line number? Were there any lines on this thing? Numbers etched in black ink began clawing at his eyes, his vision swirling in inexplicable panic. 32, 33, 34, 35… the order of the passage-based questions yielded no answer to his lost mistake. The unfilled Scantron bubbles turned into small foaming mouths, each gaping ravenously. He screamed. And yet no bewildered student looked up from their own exam, no perplexed proctor rushed to his aid. He was alone, all alone with the ticking of the ever-dutiful stopwatch twelve seats away.

Night Four: The SAT Math Test covers a range of math practices, with an emphasis on problem solving, modeling, using tools strategically, and using algebraic structure.

4x+3y = 12, 8x+6y = 24… From kindergarten to sixth grade, math had been fairly innocuous, and then its untimely marriage to the alphabet changed everything. “x” and “y” ruthlessly plagued his pencil until the sheet was covered in more eraser marks than answers. He charlied out, (the unique practice of marking the choice c in a multiple choice format) unwilling to lock horns with advanced algebra again. “Brenda is walking to the convenience store…,” he read. It’s another stupid word problem, I’m never going to finish. “She stops by the bazaar to buy three kilos of aloo and five packets of masala chai.” Wait. What? When did the SAT get so globalized? “Assuming that Brenda did not make other stops during her journey, how long is it going to take for her to realize that she’s missing the final season of Sasural Simar Ka?” Mom? How did she follow me to the SAT? When in doubt, skip a question.

The timer went off, quiet and yet obnoxious. Distraught, he waited for the beeping to slowly die, for a proctor to half-scream at him to put his pencil down, but there was nothing. He looked up, and realized the timer was gone and in its place was a laughing Raju, snickering at his failure of a cousin. He blinked. The noise had turned into nine Bollywood songs playing at the same time. Head in his hands, he lucidly tried to fathom the unfathomable until all sound was replaced by the guttural yawn of the beast, a booming echo: “Arrey, do you want to be a failure?

It’s About the Real World. To answer some questions you’ll need to use several steps—because in the real world a single calculation is rarely enough to get the job done.

    He awoke to the feeling of morning daylight spilling into his eyes like seeds of grain. The pillow, wet with nervous sweat, remained the sole evidence of his silent torment. Dreams. The sheer clarity of the images etched into his mind nearly stopped him from registering the comfort of his own bedroom walls. 8:00. His eyes settled on the “1600 Guaranteed” prep textbook beneath a vibrating alarm clock. Somewhere, between those pages, was a comfort that had been lost, a gnawing insecurity that evaded his better judgement. The stench of standardized testing had worked its way into the bottom of his subconscious, where it could not be fought nor ignored. He drowsily flipped through the prep book, its hollow promises an echo of his dreams and a reminder of a (perhaps) much more terrifying reality.

Kanchan Naik is a rising junior (right in the middle of SAT prep) at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. When she’s not having her own nightmares about standardized testing, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

 

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    Pulling Passion’s Strings: The Life of a Master Puppeteer

    Some things are hardwired into our DNA no matter where we might travel across the globe. Language and vocabulary feature right at the top of the list. The words ‘Karnataka’ and ‘handcrafted puppetry jumped out at me from my email inbox one morning. I was intrigued and soon found myself driving up winding California hillsides to a home in Los Altos hills for a lecture demonstration on traditional wood puppetry of Karnataka. Hosted by Bay Area art & cultural organization SACHI, the event featured Anupama Hoskere, a familiar name I had heard during my visits to India.

    Together with her husband Vidyashankar Hoskere, Anupama founded “Dhaatu” an organization dedicated to all things puppetry related – the first of its kind, in Bengaluru. In Sanskrit the word Dhaatu means the root, the soul, the essence of everything. The Hoskeres established this non-profit organization with the aim of imparting traditional wisdoms that today’s world can benefit from. Annually, Dhaatu is also the venue of the famous Navratra Mahotsava – the pageant of dolls – depicting upwards of 5000 dolls displaying various scenes from Hindu mythology!  It was one of those ‘must see’ items on my list that had slipped through the cracks over the years, and now here Anupama was in my backyard! Serendipity or what?!

    On a small stage in an intimate home theater, a single chair sat occupied by a brightly clad puppet. She was outfitted in elaborately fashioned jewelry and draped in a beautiful sari, her large kajal-laden eyes taking in the gathered audience, as we sat eagerly awaiting the evening’s program. Even in stillness she seemed to fill the space with her presence. It made you wonder what she might be like when animated.

    Walking onto the stage Anupama’s presence was just as magnetic, the passion for her life’s work, evident in every word she uttered. Over the next hour we were initiated into the elements of puppetry, mythology, and a behind-the-scenes peek into this fascinating world! Currently on a 20 city tour of the U.S, Anupama and her Dhaatu team is raising funds for the ‘Support a Child’ program. They are showcasing a novel concept with their production of “Malavikagnimitram” – a romance set in the second century BCE, which plays out in the court of King Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty. The lecture concluded with the enactment of a scene from the production featuring the puppet on stage, who was joined by Anupama’s daughter Divya Hoskere – an established Bharatanatyam dancer. 

    Anupama graciously consented to an interview with India Currents in the midst of hopping across timezones on their hectic 20 city tour. 

    P.K:   Thank you for speaking with me Anupama! The lecture demonstration was a wonderful experience. We would love to know more about the cause you are supporting with your tour of the U.S.

    A.H:   At Dhaatu, we like to involve ourselves with causes like “Support a Child USA” – an organization doing creditable work that needs our help and support. They came to us with the idea of sponsoring a puppetry production on a tour of the U.S, and the idea was both challenging and exciting!  It also enabled Dhaatu to make a creative contribution to an already valuable cause. No questions asked when such an offer comes our way!

    P .K:   Indian mythology offers a plethora of subject matter. Why choose this particular story for your production?

    A.H:  Malavikagnimitram is a romantic comedy; an elaborate, many-layered story. It was originally a Sanskrit play written by the famous Kalidasa. It lends itself beautifully to a sophisticated production. And it also makes for great entertainment! It lets us showcase the exciting advancements in the field of puppetry that is being practiced today. Set in the 2nd century BCE, in Vidisha, in the court of King Agnimitra, the plot details the highly evolved artistic and cultural scene of the time period. The Indo-Greek war is mentioned – the war with the ‘Yavanas’! Details like a ‘Dolotsava’ ceremonial procession in a temple is depicted in great depth. It is a richly vivid portrayal of so many aspects of life of that period in history. Great material for a production! 

    P.K:   Our life path takes us to interesting places. Yours has been more than just ‘interesting’ in every sense of the word! How do you go from a Masters degree in Engineering, a job and life in the U.S, to a totally divergent life hand crafting puppets?

    A.H:   Passion! That is the one ingredient that makes such a shift possible! I was on what was widely accepted as the ‘path of success’ in a competitive world. And I was doing very well. But I didn’t really know quite how I got there! A day came when I realized that the enrichment I received in my childhood, had ultimately led to my being where I was. Then the question I was faced with was, “how can I give back what I received to the next generation”? This was what helped make my choice to return to what I loved most. 

    P.K:   And what was the enrichment in your childhood like? We would love to know more about it.

    A.H:   I was blessed to have grown up with my grandmother who told wonderful stories! Not just stories like Panchatantra etc that was common, but she also narrated scenes from Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays. She was very well read, and passionate about sharing her knowledge. Nowadays children have many more options if they want to familiarize themselves with mythological stories. Our choices were limited. That’s why my grandmother’s oral storytelling was precious to me! We also had traditional Yakshagana troupes perform near where we lived. Watching those plays, we saw old storylines being depicted in new ways all the time! Creativity was boundless. That sort of learning and enrichment is priceless!

    P.K:   Your audience is often comprised of children. How do you see their involvement in your shows?

    A.H:   The impact of real time entertainment in puppetry is very different from virtual entertainment and engagement. And children especially, they get involved in a very deep way! Puppets  become more real to them than the people around them! Communication happens in a beautiful manner. Their minds open up differently and it creates a huge potential for self exploration with something they might go on to create by themselves. It is like opening a door to lifelong exploration! 

    P.K:   What is their reaction when they connect with the characters?

    A.H:   Different age groups express in different ways. But all of them engage 100%! It is fun to watch them get into the scene and characters! When we staged Bhakta Prahlada, after the final scene, the puppet Prahlada was garlanded! No one else was given this honor! It just goes to show that if the right setting is provided for a puppet show, audience – no matter their age – can engage in a wonderful way!

    P.K:   Each of your puppets is created with such attention to detail! Where do you draw your resources for costuming, era appropriate jewelry etc?

    A.H:  All our puppets are handcrafted to the tiniest detail! We design them and use a lighter wood to allow better handling. There are various resources to research and collect information. Ajanta-Ellora paintings, research by scholars on various dynasties, the staff at the Mysore palace for example. And there is the internet of course. But because historical authenticity is very important to us at Dhaatu, we take extra care and go in search of verified information. Many of the Puranas and epic poems have historical details and visual imagery given in great detail. You just have to know where to find it. But it is available. And it is a treasure trove for us when we start creating our own puppets. 

    P.K:   You have been involved with puppetry on the global scene. How do you see the art form showcased in Czech Republic or Indonesia? How does it compare to the way it is received in India?

    A.H:   I went to Europe as part of a scholarship. Then I realized that there is a division between art for children and adults. That is how it is perceived. Puppetry was mainly developed as an entertainment for children. There was a rebel movement which also developed alongside mainstream practices. Both thrived. Tourism is key to the survival of such artforms in Europe and Indonesia. In North India puppeteers had access to western and Japanese styles of the artform. So their styles became more contemporary. In South India we were untouched by such western influences and retained traditional styles. But with time, urbanization took away patronage for this artform. Without patronage puppetry cannot survive! Our numbers started dwindling. Today there is a new revival, a new energy on the puppetry scene. More traditional practices are being showcased and accepted once more.

    P.K:   Under lining your comment from the lecture demonstration, I would like you to address the reasoning behind your choice of basing a majority of your productions on mythology as opposed to current social issues.

    A.H:   It is my conviction that mythology is always a best seller! No matter what the storyline, and however repetitive, the manner in which you treat it will set you apart. South India’s Yakshagana is a great example of this! Yakshagana artistes depict so many subtle layers of the Puranas. Knowledge is important. And since mythology involves the use of all this knowledge, investing in this particular dimension of mythology stimulates the storyline.

    Socially relevant subject matter needs financing and patronage. Also there is a limited timeline in terms of relevancy for many such topics. The Government of India has used puppeteers to implement their political agendas. If the government changes, their policies become irrelevant. And the patronage disappears! Puppeteers who invest considerable time and resources in the creation of specific puppets have no protection to weather such situations! It is a short-lived blip that leaves us high and dry! Mythology on the other hand, always endures and comes out on top!

    P.K:   With your current production Malavikagnimitram, you have an interesting concept of combining live actors and dancers with puppets. Highly engaging, as we saw from the scene enacted during the lecture. Challenging as well I am sure? 

    A.H:   Oh sure! It is like putting the puppets to a litmus test when a live dancer/actor shares the stage with them. My main concern was whether the audience would ‘see’ the puppet at all?! Or would the actor/dancer upstage the puppets? The current concept was built up slowly over two or three productions. We are still working on polishing it further, that process never ends. But in the end we realized that the puppets could hold their own!  The interaction between a live dancer and a puppet is magical! A great example of this type of interaction can be seen in our production Vijayanagara Vybhava”. You will see what I mean by puppets managing to shine on their own merit! Yes, there are challenges, of course. Stage design is the obvious challenge. The Proscenium theater design means there is limited space for dancers when sharing it with puppets. So we had to redesign the stage and the placement of characters over several iterations to make sure we could create this magic!

    P.K:   Does India have guilds or cooperatives of puppeteers? And how difficult is it to procure funding for productions?

    A.H:   No, there is no such thing as a guild for puppeteers as yet. State level academies and a Government entity –  Sangeet Natak Academy, do exist. And yes, it is a challenge to get funding. Private patronage what we have at the moment.

    P.K:   What types of workshops does Dhaatu offer?

    A.H:   Dhaatu offers workshops for all ages – starting at age 3 to adults! Puppetry and puppet making teaches aesthetics in a way that lego & robotics etc do not. They certainly have their positive points. But puppetry is multi faceted. Besides aesthetics, it also involves aspects of engineering and requires fine motor skills both in making and handling puppets. There is the aspect of movement with puppetry that needs to be mastered. When you are able to control a puppets subtle movements, it is a thrilling experience! 

    P.K:   Your personal journey with puppetry started with a ‘leap of faith’. And you just found out you are the recipient of a prestigious award!   

    A.H:   Yes! My phone was inundated with congratulatory messages since early this morning and that is how I discovered I had been awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! It is a great feeling of satisfaction that a Nation has accepted this artform! My Bharatanatyam guru, the late Smt. Narmada received this award from the hands of the late President Abdul Kalam in 2007. For me to receive the same award is a great honor! I am overwhelmed!  All the growing pains and potholes that I have experienced with Dhaatu’s journey is validated by this acknowledgement and ultimate reward! It inspires us to do more and reach greater heights – in making magic with our puppets for the generations to come.

    P.K:   What are your plans upon your return to Bengaluru?

    A.H:   Maybe one day of rest and then it is back to work again! The festival season will start soon. During Dussera, Dhaatu opens it doors to showcase our incredible collection of dolls with ‘Dhaatu Navaratra Mahotsava’. We will have over 5000 dolls on display, depicting scenes from mythology. It is an annual event and we have been doing this for a decade now. There’s no resting until that is done! 

    Anupama’s enthusiasm gives new meaning to the term ‘pulling strings’! Her passion and that of her team at Dhaatu is definitely award worthy. Dhaatu’s workshops and productions bear the hallmark of true creativity while contributing a treasure trove of traditional & cultural knowledge to children and adults alike.  

    India Currents congratulates Anupama on the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! 

    =====================================

    Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

     

     

    A Lesson in Mindfulness at Yale University

    A Toast to your Good Health

    Some sixty people gathered at the Yale University Art Gallery on a summer afternoon to mindfully gaze at a single painting. It was the only one in the vast space. They stared and stared at a James Turrell print – the white, rectangular coffin-like box at the center of the frame was engulfed by varying shades of grey and black. It was bleak, and I wasn’t connecting with the artist. 

    But then, standing by were Anne Dutton, teacher of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at the Yale Stress Center, and Danielle Casioppo, a Health Educator for Being Well at Yale. Turrell’s ‘Shanta’ is the culmination of a five-week, drop-in session of mindfulness in art. 

    Extensive research has established a strong link between meditation and neuroplasticity – the ability of our brain to change in response to something that we do and experience. In a 2008 paper titled Buddha Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation, authors Richard J. Davidson and Antoine Lutz point to several studies, including one which registered a stronger activation in regions of the brain of expert meditators – with an average of 19,000 hours of practice – compared to beginners.  

    Intimidating data like this can leave many of us staring with longing and trepidation at the summit from base camp. But here’s some astoundingly good news: Harvard researchers in 2011 discovered a staggering link between short-term mindfulness practice and a change in brain physiology. The researchers took magnetic resonance images of 16 newbies before and after they enrolled in an eight-week MBSR program. The result? An increase in grey matter within the left hippocampus, compared to the control group of 17 individuals. After just eight weeks of practice, the brains of MBSR participants underwent a positive change in regions involved with learning and memory, the regulation of emotion, and perspective taking. 

    Here I was, staring at a Turrell. 

    “My work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing. I’m also interested in the sense of presence of space; that is space where you feel a presence, almost an entity — that physical feeling and power that space can give,” Turrell states on his website.

    Are there techniques to help broaden one’s perception? I was about to find out. 

    The group’s goal was to apply mindfulness methods to heighten awareness, to pay attention in a particular way, and to be undistracted by all other stimuli. 

    To achieve this, we began with a body scan led by Danielle. From the toes to the head, you direct your awareness to specific parts of your body to identify tightness or discomfort. You mentally relax the area and somewhere along the way, you start to relax. Anne then had everyone focus on the breath – the sensation of the in-breath and out-breath.   

    At the end of this exercise, we were ready to view the art again. Some reactions from the participants:

    • The box looked less like a coffin.
    • The art itself had gained awareness – it was reaching out to the viewer from the frame.
    • The participants reflected in the glass had become a part of the work.
    • After meditation there is a feeling of being unconfined. The little white box was now quite lovely.

    There are so many ways of looking at art. At experiences. At life. At each other. At ourselves.  

    “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are,” Anais Nin reportedly said. 

    My afternoon at Yale culminated with my seeing the box not solely as a coffin, but as a drawer jutting out from the grey wall. A space opening up for me to fill with color – possibly kites, possibly scarves, injecting joy to the image. 

    Both formal and informal mindfulness practice have three components, Anne told me.

    • Attention
    • Intention
    • Attitude – acceptance of an experience. You don’t have to like the experience – resisting it creates stress. It’s a bit like me becoming more open to the Turrell piece. 

    I then asked Danielle if she could give you a simple, daily mindfulness practice that will fit into your busy life. She came up with this – but first, she offers some guidelines.

    • Do one task and one task only. For example, listen to the sound of water as you pour yourself some tea. Feel the warm cup in your hands. Be aware of these simple sounds and sensations. That means no texting while drinking tea, for instance. Don’t put your mind on autopilot all the time. 
    • Be aware of what you are thinking. “You don’t have to believe everything you think. You don’t have to act on everything you think if you don’t want to,” she says. 

    And now, the practice. 

    • Start with one minute of observing your breath, once a day. In-breath. Out-breath. You can do this sitting or lying down. When the mind wanders, “gently, kindly, bring it back to the breath,” Danielle advises. 
    • After a week, increase your practice to two times a day, one minute each in the morning and before bedtime.
    • During the third week, you could do two minutes two times a day, or three minutes once a day. 

    “You are giving yourself permission to pause and just be with your breath, your body, your cup of tea, your spouse, your child, your friend, nature – be fully present with that other entity. Allow the time to mono-task. Doing that is so good for our brains, our emotional self,” Danielle says. “That’s how we get so much more out of life.”  

    Today’s toast comes hot off the stove

    Sujata Srinivasan is an award-winning Connecticut-based journalist with the nonprofit Connecticut Health Investigative Team. Web: www.sujatasrinivasan.com. Twitter @SujataSrini

     

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    The Soulful Singing Of Begum Akthar

    I remember the first time when I heard her voice. I was in my teens, the ghazal: Ai mohabbat tere anjaam pe rona aaya used to play at our home often. I used to wait for my dad to look away and change the player to Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak hotel, ABBA or Connie Frances. Dad would return and switch the player to: Woh jo hum me tum me quarar tha I would soon walk out in a huff because although her voice was soulful, I did not understand the nuances associated with Urdu poetry or how the delicate tingling of notes between classical raga Darbari and raga Jonpuri conjured up a different feeling.  Looking back, even though the King of Rock’s dreamy blue eyes and high cheek bones were cool and it was an eternal mystery as to how the lipstick got onto that white collar, I am happy that the music entered my being subconsciously at a young age. Now I often raise a toast to my dear father and admire the beautifully crafted verses of poets like Ghalib, Momin and Faiz rendered in the haunting voice of Akhtari Bai. (Read my article on Ghalib here.)

    Begum Akhtar – Google Doodle

    Begum Akhtar or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, (7 October 1914 – 30 October 1974) was a well-known singer of ghazal, dadra, and thumri genres of Hindustani classical music. A living legend, she rose to fame at a young age and entertained millions of listeners of many generations.  Exponents like Mehdi Hasan, Pt. Jasraj, Bismillah Khan and Pt. Ravi Shankar were her avid admirers as was my father. She received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for vocal music, a  Padma Shri and later went on to win the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Indian government.  She is phenomenal for her contribution to pieces sung in a light classical music style, which were deeply anchored in pure classical Hindustani music. 

    ***********

    Begum Akhtar’s ancestral home is in the historic city of Faizabad on the banks of river Sarayu in Uttar Pradesh. Her father, Asghar Hussain was a civil judge in Lucknow, who fell in love with her mother Mushtari, a courtesan and made her his second wife. Mushtari Bai’s singing was not accepted by her husband’s family, and soon after the birth of twin daughters, the marriage fell apart. Akhtari’s twin sister Zohra died of eating tainted sweets. With the severance of her relationship with her father and the death of her twin sister, she developed deep separation anxiety and was glued to her mother. 

     

    Her life mirrors the personal tragedies in Ghalib’s life (an 18th century poet) which he depicted in his ghazals.  (which Begum Akhtar sang a lot) like: 

    Hazaro khaaishein aisi

    Yeh Na Thi Hamari Kismet.

    Koi umeed bhar nahi aati.

    Phir Mujhe Deeda-E-Tar Yaad Aaya

    Rahiye Ab Aisi Jagah Chalkar Jahan Koi Na Ho

    Mushtari did not want her daughter to go through the same hardships in life, and wanted her to enjoy a proper education and a respectable married life. But Bibbi Akhtari was adamant – singing constantly and she disliked the confines of school. Her maternal uncle convinced Mushtari Bai to train her as a classical singer, seeing her talent in memorizing songs so quickly. Her training started under various gurus who tried to mold her naturally gifted voice. After early training under Ustad Imdad Khan of Patna, a famous sarangi player who chose to initiate her with raga Kamod, Bibbi found the raga difficult to cope with, as she was attracted to folk tunes. So she discontinued her lessons and they went to Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Khan of Gaya.  

    The family came back to Faizabad in 1923. She trained for four years under Ustad Atta Mohammad Khan of Patiala. The Ustad made her practice in the lower octave (Kharaj Bharan). Initially Bibbi was again on the verge of giving up her lessons, until one day she heard her Ustad elaborate the nostalgic Raga Gunkali and this experience transformed her completely, and she started to take her musical education earnestly. She practiced for hours on end, and her Ustad urged her to sing more soulfully. In 1927, the mother-daughter duo and the guru came to Calcutta, the music capital of India in those days. Despite her rigorous training in music; a tumultuous childhood cloaked the soul of the young singer in pathos. She flung open the window and stood transfixed and legend has it that from that day Bibbi literally opened her soul! She let her song soar through the abandoned corridors of memory. Her voice acquired a piercing ache that penetrated every lonely heart. 

    Her rendition of Mere hamnafas mere humnawaan 

    mere dost banke dagaa na de by Shakeel Badayuni was on many lips. 

    Aap kehte hain rone se na badlenge naseeb… 

    Rone wallon se kaho ke unka bhi rona ro lein

    Jinko majbooriye haalaat ne  rone na diyabrought her listeners to tears.

    In the big city most of their possessions were sold and the few public performances she gave were not enough to make ends meet. She was coaxed to record her voice but the innocent spirit that she was, she said that If the recording machine sucked her life into the box along with her voice, her poor mother would be left alone, so she declined.

    But her hard work and devotion bore fruit when her music was revealed to a wider audience by serendipity at a concert for the victims of the 1934 Nepal–Bihar earthquake. The famous poet Sarojini Naidu heard her sing there and appreciated her talent.  After this she cut her first disc for the Megaphone Record Company, at that time. Akhtar’s first recording was a combination of ghazals and dadras for the HMV( His Master’s Voice) label and the ghazal : Woh Asire-Daam-e-Bala became popular.

    Her mother Mushtari took her to a faith healer or Pirji in Bareilly and he opened her song book and put his hand: on Behzad Lakhanavi’s ghazal: Dīvāna banānā hai to dīvāna banā de 

    varna kahīñ taqdīr tamāsha na banā de 

    ai dekhne vaalo mujhe hañs hañs ke na dekho 

    tum ko bhī mohabbat kahīñ mujh sā na banā de 

    maiñ Dhūñdh rahā huuñ merī vo shama kahāñ hai 

    jo bazm kī har cheez ko parvāna banā de 

    The Pir asked her to begin her next performance with this ghazal, and so she did and in that fortuitous moment she cast a spell on the nation by this effervescent rendition!  The ghazal was recorded – it became a mega success, running into platinum disc! This turning point in her life showered her with wealth, fame and luxuries.  She was amongst the early band of female singers to give public concerts, and break away from singing in mehfils (private recitals), and in time she came to be known as Mallika-e-Ghazal (Queen of Ghazal). Begum Akhtar’s good looks and distinctive voice made her well suited for a film career in talkies. She acted in a few Hindi movies East India Film Company’s Ek Din Ka Badshah and Nal Damayanti. She acquired fame and a carefree lifestyle but she was still uneasy. Begum had a certain verve and charisma, a glamorous identity with a dash of bold red lipstick and finely embroidered georgette saris. But behind the dazzling smile and glimmering wizardry of her performance, the vulnerable lonely little girl was still ever apparent. I think this is what endeared her to her audience.

    Yeh bahaar ka zamaana 

    Yeh hasin gulon ke saye…

    Jise dekhni ho jannat 

    Mere saath saath aaye..

    Later Begum Akhtar moved back to Lucknow and stayed there for three years where she was approached by the famous producer-director Mehboob Khan, to act in Roti (a socialist theme) with Sheikh Mukhtar and Sitara Devi which was released in 1942 where the music was composed by the maestro Anil Biswas.  This film is available on Youtube in excellent condition, but her six songs were removed because of some contractual issues with the Megaphone Record Company. The audio portions were released later. She played a cameo role of a classical singer in Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), which turned out to be her last film appearance.

    She was a chain smoker, she was constantly searching for something deeper, more meaningful, and more perfect, perhaps a happy childhood that was never hers.  Begum Akhtar’s voice had a nasal twang, reminiscent of the film actress Meena Kumari, whose period movie Pakeezah (about the life of a courtesan) she watched six times because she had to take smoking breaks and was unable to watch the film to the end in one go. Once on a train journey she confiscated the accoutrements of the guard at a small railway station till he sourced cigarettes for her.  She was a quite a handful but as a student of music, she was very humble, giving her gurus great respect. 

    In 1945, Akhtari Bai married a barrister, Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi, who was a connoisseur of Urdu poetry. She became Begum Akhtar. After marriage, she did not sing in concerts for five years. She was devoted to her role as a loving wife and took her domestic duties with as much sincerity as her singing (she did not even hum a hymn) but when her mother died, she fell very ill. A return to music was prescribed to heal her broken heart, and in 1949 she returned to the recording studios weeping tears of joy![ She sang three ghazals and a dadra at Lucknow All India Radio station. She wept afterwards and returned to singing in concerts, which she continued to do until her death. It was as though she finally broke through the self-imposed shackles of society and broke free to just come face to face with her identity, defined by her voice! She devoted her life to bringing the genre of ghazal singing from salons through the radio stations to homes. Her diction and pronunciation were excellent, and her comprehension of music vast! She chose ghazal, thumri, daadra for her musical expression, because these forms gave her the opportunity to explore the words and sentiments of poets with unique empathy. Her voice acquired a versatile richness and depth, and she sang deeply anguished songs with a serene face as if they were made for her.

    Ulti ho gayi sab tadbire
    Raat ko ro ro Subah Kota aur subho ko jyon tyun sham kiys

    Tabiyat in dino begana-e-gham hoti jati hai

    A stage comes when one becomes immune to pain.

    there is no bitterness or complaint. 

    Ab to yahi hain dil se duaayein bhoolane wale bhool hi jaayein

    When the lover who has moved away, it is time to move on.  

    The best one can do is to wish that he completely forgets.

    Woh Jo Hum Mein Tum Mein Qarar Tha Tumhe Yaad Ho ke Na Yaad Ho
    Wohi Yaani Waada Nibah Tha Tumhe Yaad Ho Ke Na Yaad Ho

    Woh Jo Lutf Mujh Pe The Beshtar Woh Karam ke Tha Mere Haal Par
    Mujh Sab Hai Yaad zara zara Tumhe Yaad Ho Ke Na Yaad Ho

    The steadfast love we had between us, you might remember or you might not. The promise of staying together, you might remember or you might not…

    When she sang these beautiful lyrics, every one in the audience felt she was singing personally for them. My dad used to drop everything and sit still as listened to her sing and laugh as she sang Hori Kaisee ye dhoom machaee  in a very difficult raga Zila Kafi.… 

    Later he tried hard to emulate her. His sweet singing profile with rainbow colors of Holi in the background is etched my heart! 

    Begum Akhtar has nearly four hundred songs to her credit. Her timeless training in khayals and ragas especially taught by Ustad Wahid Khan sahib of Lahore, made her singing multi-dimensional as she could sing thumris, dadras and ghazals in different ragas on different occasions. Her repertoire included ragas Kalawati, Deshkar, Chandrakauns, Kalingda, Kaunshi kanhada, chayanat, Des, and Narayani.  She effortlessly served a blend of Punjab and Poorabang thumris of which she became a leading exponent. She is also remembered for the Bengali classic Jochona Koreche Aar. Her diction and charming stage presence were superlative! She remained eternally indebted to the opportunity of learning classical music in India and she once said: “I was so silly as a child as I didn’t pay heed to vocal exercises taught by my Ustad, but today my heart overflows with gratitude for him, who so patiently molded my voice to make it so pliant.”  She suffered her third heart attack during a concert in Ahmedabad on 26 October 1974. She died on 30 October 1974 in the arms of Nilam Gamadia, her friend. For her final performance she poured all her emotions into her signature ghazal composed by Shakeel Badayuni

    Aye Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aaya
    Jaane Kyon Aaj Tere Naam Pe Rona Aaya

    Yun Toh Har Shaam Ummido Mein Guzar Jaati Hai
    Aaj Kuch Baat Hai Jo Shaam Pe Rona Aaya


    Kabhi Taqdeer Ka Matam Kabhi Duniya Ka Gila
    Manzil-e-Ishq Mein Har Gam Pe Rona Aaya


    Jab Hua Zikr Zamane Mein Mohabbat Ka ‘Shakeel’
    Mujh Ko Apane Dil-e-Nakaam Pe Rona Aaya

    Oh love, your destiny has brought me to tears today
    I wonder why, the mention of your name brought me to tears today

    Most evenings were spent living in hope
    Something is different today, the evening brought me to tears today

    Sometimes mourning over fate, sometimes complaining about the world
    In the arduous journey of love, every step  I took brought me to tears

    The mere mention of love in this world, Shakeel (name of poet)
    The unsuccessful attempts of my heart has brought me to tears today

    This was her final siren song to the Divine. Bibbi was one with her beloved! 

    She was buried alongside her mother in her home in Thakurganj, Lucknow. Her tomb was in a mango orchard. Over the years, the garden has been engulfed by the growing city, and the tomb has fallen into disrepair but she lives in the hearts of her disciples in every city and her fans all over the world.

    Aaye kuchh abr kuchh sharaab aaye, lyrics Faiz Ahmad ‘Faiz’

    Let the clouds come, after that let the wine come.

     Thereafter, who cares if misfortunes come

    Begum Akhtar liked the poet Faiz loved a glass of wine. 

    As the light of a street lamp twinkles through the evening drizzle, I am transported through the dazzling light of her nose stud to another evening or perhaps it’s just a soul-stirring dream. Regardless I am in camera with Begum Akhtar as she sings live n concert: 

    Hamri atariya pe aao sanvariya 

    Dekha dekhi balam hoi jaye

    Hamri atariya pe aao sanvariya… 

    Come to my balcony, oh my dark beloved(Krishna)
    We could gaze into each others’ eyes… 

    She is singing late into the night, a smile on her soft cheeks, her voice reverberating n the old haveli (mansion). 

    Chha rahi kaali ghaa jiya mora lahraaye hai
    Chha rahi kaali ghaa jiya mora lahraaye hai
    Chha rahi kaali ghaa
    Sun ri koyal baanwari tu
    Sun ri koyal baanwari tu kyoon malhaar gaaye hai
    Chha rahi kaali ghaa jiya mora lahraaye hai

    Rainclouds are darkening the sky, filling my heart with foolish whims
    Rainclouds are darkening the sky, filling my heart with foolish whims
    clouds are darkening the sky
    Why on earth, Oh dark cuckoo…
    Why on earth, Oh dark cuckoo, are you singing a song of joy?
    Rainclouds are darkening the sky, filling my heart with foolish whims

    Her fans cheer her on. Her voice has a familiar poignancy. A tear rolls down my dad’s eye. I tighten my grip on his hand. We are both spellbound by her wizardry. In that inimitable moment her voice cracks softly making the classic rendition immortal and inseparable from the name of the great Mallika of Ghazal

    **********

    Acknowledgements

    Zikr Us Parivash Ka. Documentary by Nirmal Chander  

    Begum Akhtar: The Story of My Ammi. Biography by Shanti Hiranand 

    Hai Akhtari. Documentary by S. Kalidas 

    Concerning Begum Akhtar: Queen of Ghazal by Robert Charles Ollikkala  

    Tradition of Hindustani Music. M. L. Ahuja 

    Eminent Indians: Musicians. Rupa Publications

    Begum Akhtar The Queen of Ghazal. Rupa & Company

    Rekhta

    Online contributions by friends, fans and admirers of Begum Akhtar

    Monita Soni is a pathologist and helps diagnose cancer. Her writing style weaves Eastern and Western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”

    Arrey, Do You Want To Be a Failure? 

    Night One: All test centers open at 7:45 a.m. and doors close at 8 a.m., unless otherwise noted on your admission ticket. You cannot be admitted once testing has started.

        The metal doors of the auditorium opened like the jaws of a beast, its four-walled stomach digesting the students trickling within. He was strangely dizzy. It was as though the metal levers on his wristwatch (chosen, of course, for this occasion alone) had suddenly slowed, as though the usual glow of the fluorescent light panels had abruptly turned into a stinging glare. 8:00. Damn it, he thought. I really need a Red Bull.  He had been checking that very wristwatch for the fourth time, not searching for the minute hand but rather for a confirmation that yes, he could still read. It was at 8:00 that the beast turned silent. Doors clicked shut, cell phones turned to airplane mode, whispers died. All life begins, at some point or another, in the stomach. He knew that. But it was the womb of the local high school’s auditorium, when the SAT scantron fluttered in his hands, that changed life completely.

    Night Two: In the Reading Test, students will encounter questions like those asked in a lively, thoughtful, evidence-based discussion.

        Five sentences. Five sentences into the passage, and he still had absolutely no clue what anything meant. Read the sentence again, a voice inside him muttered. And so he did exactly that, inaudibly mouthing the metaphor in hopes that his tongue would decipher the passage better than he did. Nothing. Then underline it. Five weeks of SAT bootcamp practice over a generally depressing summer break had taught him the importance of underlining. Even if the mind was blank, there was the small consolation that at least the paper was not. He continued reading, registering absolutely nothing. It was an unfortunate winter afternoon that his mother had seen the advertisement for the bootcamp Scotch-taped to the window of an Indian grocery store. The “T” in “SAT” was blurred with a bright yellow turmeric stain, but the phone number at the bottom read perfectly. Then it was settled, all of his protests drowned by the single reminder that his distant cousin Raju got a 1600 last year. “Arrey, do you want to be a failure?” his mother demanded.

    Night Three: The SAT Writing and Language Test asks you to be an editor and improve passages that were written especially for the test—and that include deliberate errors.

        Failure. “The preceding sentence should not be included because it fails to address the main topic of the passage.” This answer is almost always right, he thought, his pencil tapping against the Scantron. And even if it wasn’t, there were three more passages to complete in the next twenty minutes. He began his usual, dark blotch of a bubble on the Scantron sheet until a shiver ran down his spine. What was the line number? Were there any lines on this thing? Numbers etched in black ink began clawing at his eyes, his vision swirling in inexplicable panic. 32, 33, 34, 35… the order of the passage-based questions yielded no answer to his lost mistake. The unfilled Scantron bubbles turned into small foaming mouths, each gaping ravenously. He screamed. And yet no bewildered student looked up from their own exam, no perplexed proctor rushed to his aid. He was alone, all alone with the ticking of the ever-dutiful stopwatch twelve seats away.

    Night Four: The SAT Math Test covers a range of math practices, with an emphasis on problem solving, modeling, using tools strategically, and using algebraic structure.

    4x+3y = 12, 8x+6y = 24… From kindergarten to sixth grade, math had been fairly innocuous, and then its untimely marriage to the alphabet changed everything. “x” and “y” ruthlessly plagued his pencil until the sheet was covered in more eraser marks than answers. He charlied out, (the unique practice of marking the choice c in a multiple choice format) unwilling to lock horns with advanced algebra again. “Brenda is walking to the convenience store…,” he read. It’s another stupid word problem, I’m never going to finish. “She stops by the bazaar to buy three kilos of aloo and five packets of masala chai.” Wait. What? When did the SAT get so globalized? “Assuming that Brenda did not make other stops during her journey, how long is it going to take for her to realize that she’s missing the final season of Sasural Simar Ka?” Mom? How did she follow me to the SAT? When in doubt, skip a question.

    The timer went off, quiet and yet obnoxious. Distraught, he waited for the beeping to slowly die, for a proctor to half-scream at him to put his pencil down, but there was nothing. He looked up, and realized the timer was gone and in its place was a laughing Raju, snickering at his failure of a cousin. He blinked. The noise had turned into nine Bollywood songs playing at the same time. Head in his hands, he lucidly tried to fathom the unfathomable until all sound was replaced by the guttural yawn of the beast, a booming echo: “Arrey, do you want to be a failure?

    It’s About the Real World. To answer some questions you’ll need to use several steps—because in the real world a single calculation is rarely enough to get the job done.

        He awoke to the feeling of morning daylight spilling into his eyes like seeds of grain. The pillow, wet with nervous sweat, remained the sole evidence of his silent torment. Dreams. The sheer clarity of the images etched into his mind nearly stopped him from registering the comfort of his own bedroom walls. 8:00. His eyes settled on the “1600 Guaranteed” prep textbook beneath a vibrating alarm clock. Somewhere, between those pages, was a comfort that had been lost, a gnawing insecurity that evaded his better judgement. The stench of standardized testing had worked its way into the bottom of his subconscious, where it could not be fought nor ignored. He drowsily flipped through the prep book, its hollow promises an echo of his dreams and a reminder of a (perhaps) much more terrifying reality.

    Kanchan Naik is a rising junior (right in the middle of SAT prep) at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. When she’s not having her own nightmares about standardized testing, she is most likely untangling her earphones or looking for something that happens to be — much like herself — lost.

     

    Colon Cancer – Why you should get tested

    The Consulate General of India in New York, in association with Northwell Health, recently hosted an information session on the importance of colon cancer screening and prevention for the Indian American community.  The incidence of colon cancer among Indian Americans living in the US is estimated at 15 cases per 100,000 individuals according to a study by the International Journal of Epidemiology and is higher than in those residing in India.

    So, awareness of the importance of colonoscopies is critical. The two-hour event – Colon Cancer Screening: An Indian Perspective – featured Lenox Hill gastroenterologists Aakash Aggarwal, MDArun Swaminath, MD, Director of the inflammatory bowel disease program at Lenox and moderator Patrick Okolo, MD, chief of the division of gastroenterology at Lenox Hill and professor of medicine at Northwell’s Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra.

    According to the World Cancer Research Fund, colorectal cancer (which includes both colon and rectal cancers) is the third most common cancer worldwide, for both men and women, with 1.8 million new cases reported in 2018. Colorectal cancer is expected to cause about 51,020 deaths during 2019 and the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends (USPSTF) recommends that adults aged 50–75 should have a colonoscopy every 10 years.

    Most colorectal cancers typically start as small abnormal growths (called polyps) that form in the inner lining of the large intestine. Over time, some polyps can become cancerous and grow into the wall of the colon or rectum.

    Colon cancer is usually treated with surgery, often in combination with chemotherapy.The good news is that routine colon screenings lets doctors find and remove colorectal polyps before they turn malignant or identify cancerous cell clusters earlier when the disease is easier to treat.

    The USPSTF also recommends several less invasive tests for low-risk people aged 50 to 74, who have no prior history, family history, genetic disposition or symptoms to the disease. These include virtual colonoscopies, like the one President Obama had in 2010, a test that uses special X-ray machines to examine the colon. Other options include sigmoidoscopy, which uses a lighted tube and camera to examine just the lower portion of the colon and rectum, or home stool tests such as fecal occult blood tests.

    Healthier lifestyles and advancements in treatment over the last few decades have reduced the overall death rate for colorectal cancer; there are now more than one million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.

    Getting tested in any variety of ways is a good thing.

    Lenox Hill Hospital has a national reputation for outstanding patient care and innovative medical and surgical treatments.Its highly rated gastroenterology department performs more than 4,500 colonoscopies annually. To make an appointment with a Lenox Hill Hospital gastroenterologist call 212-434-5596 or go to www.lenoxhillhospital.org. for more information.

    Meera Kymal is a Contributing Editor at India Currents.

     

    Pulling Passion’s Strings: The Life of a Master Puppeteer

    Some things are hardwired into our DNA no matter where we might travel across the globe. Language and vocabulary feature right at the top of the list. The words ‘Karnataka’ and ‘handcrafted puppetry jumped out at me from my email inbox one morning. I was intrigued and soon found myself driving up winding California hillsides to a home in Los Altos hills for a lecture demonstration on traditional wood puppetry of Karnataka. Hosted by Bay Area art & cultural organization SACHI, the event featured Anupama Hoskere, a familiar name I had heard during my visits to India.

    Together with her husband Vidyashankar Hoskere, Anupama founded “Dhaatu” an organization dedicated to all things puppetry related – the first of its kind, in Bengaluru. In Sanskrit the word Dhaatu means the root, the soul, the essence of everything. The Hoskeres established this non-profit organization with the aim of imparting traditional wisdoms that today’s world can benefit from. Annually, Dhaatu is also the venue of the famous Navratra Mahotsava – the pageant of dolls – depicting upwards of 5000 dolls displaying various scenes from Hindu mythology!  It was one of those ‘must see’ items on my list that had slipped through the cracks over the years, and now here Anupama was in my backyard! Serendipity or what?!

    On a small stage in an intimate home theater, a single chair sat occupied by a brightly clad puppet. She was outfitted in elaborately fashioned jewelry and draped in a beautiful sari, her large kajal-laden eyes taking in the gathered audience, as we sat eagerly awaiting the evening’s program. Even in stillness she seemed to fill the space with her presence. It made you wonder what she might be like when animated.

    Walking onto the stage Anupama’s presence was just as magnetic, the passion for her life’s work, evident in every word she uttered. Over the next hour we were initiated into the elements of puppetry, mythology, and a behind-the-scenes peek into this fascinating world! Currently on a 20 city tour of the U.S, Anupama and her Dhaatu team is raising funds for the ‘Support a Child’ program. They are showcasing a novel concept with their production of “Malavikagnimitram” – a romance set in the second century BCE, which plays out in the court of King Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty. The lecture concluded with the enactment of a scene from the production featuring the puppet on stage, who was joined by Anupama’s daughter Divya Hoskere – an established Bharatanatyam dancer. 

    Anupama graciously consented to an interview with India Currents in the midst of hopping across timezones on their hectic 20 city tour. 

    P.K:   Thank you for speaking with me Anupama! The lecture demonstration was a wonderful experience. We would love to know more about the cause you are supporting with your tour of the U.S.

    A.H:   At Dhaatu, we like to involve ourselves with causes like “Support a Child USA” – an organization doing creditable work that needs our help and support. They came to us with the idea of sponsoring a puppetry production on a tour of the U.S, and the idea was both challenging and exciting!  It also enabled Dhaatu to make a creative contribution to an already valuable cause. No questions asked when such an offer comes our way!

    P .K:   Indian mythology offers a plethora of subject matter. Why choose this particular story for your production?

    A.H:  Malavikagnimitram is a romantic comedy; an elaborate, many-layered story. It was originally a Sanskrit play written by the famous Kalidasa. It lends itself beautifully to a sophisticated production. And it also makes for great entertainment! It lets us showcase the exciting advancements in the field of puppetry that is being practiced today. Set in the 2nd century BCE, in Vidisha, in the court of King Agnimitra, the plot details the highly evolved artistic and cultural scene of the time period. The Indo-Greek war is mentioned – the war with the ‘Yavanas’! Details like a ‘Dolotsava’ ceremonial procession in a temple is depicted in great depth. It is a richly vivid portrayal of so many aspects of life of that period in history. Great material for a production! 

    P.K:   Our life path takes us to interesting places. Yours has been more than just ‘interesting’ in every sense of the word! How do you go from a Masters degree in Engineering, a job and life in the U.S, to a totally divergent life hand crafting puppets?

    A.H:   Passion! That is the one ingredient that makes such a shift possible! I was on what was widely accepted as the ‘path of success’ in a competitive world. And I was doing very well. But I didn’t really know quite how I got there! A day came when I realized that the enrichment I received in my childhood, had ultimately led to my being where I was. Then the question I was faced with was, “how can I give back what I received to the next generation”? This was what helped make my choice to return to what I loved most. 

    P.K:   And what was the enrichment in your childhood like? We would love to know more about it.

    A.H:   I was blessed to have grown up with my grandmother who told wonderful stories! Not just stories like Panchatantra etc that was common, but she also narrated scenes from Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays. She was very well read, and passionate about sharing her knowledge. Nowadays children have many more options if they want to familiarize themselves with mythological stories. Our choices were limited. That’s why my grandmother’s oral storytelling was precious to me! We also had traditional Yakshagana troupes perform near where we lived. Watching those plays, we saw old storylines being depicted in new ways all the time! Creativity was boundless. That sort of learning and enrichment is priceless!

    P.K:   Your audience is often comprised of children. How do you see their involvement in your shows?

    A.H:   The impact of real time entertainment in puppetry is very different from virtual entertainment and engagement. And children especially, they get involved in a very deep way! Puppets  become more real to them than the people around them! Communication happens in a beautiful manner. Their minds open up differently and it creates a huge potential for self exploration with something they might go on to create by themselves. It is like opening a door to lifelong exploration! 

    P.K:   What is their reaction when they connect with the characters?

    A.H:   Different age groups express in different ways. But all of them engage 100%! It is fun to watch them get into the scene and characters! When we staged Bhakta Prahlada, after the final scene, the puppet Prahlada was garlanded! No one else was given this honor! It just goes to show that if the right setting is provided for a puppet show, audience – no matter their age – can engage in a wonderful way!

    P.K:   Each of your puppets is created with such attention to detail! Where do you draw your resources for costuming, era appropriate jewelry etc?

    A.H:  All our puppets are handcrafted to the tiniest detail! We design them and use a lighter wood to allow better handling. There are various resources to research and collect information. Ajanta-Ellora paintings, research by scholars on various dynasties, the staff at the Mysore palace for example. And there is the internet of course. But because historical authenticity is very important to us at Dhaatu, we take extra care and go in search of verified information. Many of the Puranas and epic poems have historical details and visual imagery given in great detail. You just have to know where to find it. But it is available. And it is a treasure trove for us when we start creating our own puppets. 

    P.K:   You have been involved with puppetry on the global scene. How do you see the art form showcased in Czech Republic or Indonesia? How does it compare to the way it is received in India?

    A.H:   I went to Europe as part of a scholarship. Then I realized that there is a division between art for children and adults. That is how it is perceived. Puppetry was mainly developed as an entertainment for children. There was a rebel movement which also developed alongside mainstream practices. Both thrived. Tourism is key to the survival of such artforms in Europe and Indonesia. In North India puppeteers had access to western and Japanese styles of the artform. So their styles became more contemporary. In South India we were untouched by such western influences and retained traditional styles. But with time, urbanization took away patronage for this artform. Without patronage puppetry cannot survive! Our numbers started dwindling. Today there is a new revival, a new energy on the puppetry scene. More traditional practices are being showcased and accepted once more.

    P.K:   Under lining your comment from the lecture demonstration, I would like you to address the reasoning behind your choice of basing a majority of your productions on mythology as opposed to current social issues.

    A.H:   It is my conviction that mythology is always a best seller! No matter what the storyline, and however repetitive, the manner in which you treat it will set you apart. South India’s Yakshagana is a great example of this! Yakshagana artistes depict so many subtle layers of the Puranas. Knowledge is important. And since mythology involves the use of all this knowledge, investing in this particular dimension of mythology stimulates the storyline.

    Socially relevant subject matter needs financing and patronage. Also there is a limited timeline in terms of relevancy for many such topics. The Government of India has used puppeteers to implement their political agendas. If the government changes, their policies become irrelevant. And the patronage disappears! Puppeteers who invest considerable time and resources in the creation of specific puppets have no protection to weather such situations! It is a short-lived blip that leaves us high and dry! Mythology on the other hand, always endures and comes out on top!

    P.K:   With your current production Malavikagnimitram, you have an interesting concept of combining live actors and dancers with puppets. Highly engaging, as we saw from the scene enacted during the lecture. Challenging as well I am sure? 

    A.H:   Oh sure! It is like putting the puppets to a litmus test when a live dancer/actor shares the stage with them. My main concern was whether the audience would ‘see’ the puppet at all?! Or would the actor/dancer upstage the puppets? The current concept was built up slowly over two or three productions. We are still working on polishing it further, that process never ends. But in the end we realized that the puppets could hold their own!  The interaction between a live dancer and a puppet is magical! A great example of this type of interaction can be seen in our production Vijayanagara Vybhava”. You will see what I mean by puppets managing to shine on their own merit! Yes, there are challenges, of course. Stage design is the obvious challenge. The Proscenium theater design means there is limited space for dancers when sharing it with puppets. So we had to redesign the stage and the placement of characters over several iterations to make sure we could create this magic!

    P.K:   Does India have guilds or cooperatives of puppeteers? And how difficult is it to procure funding for productions?

    A.H:   No, there is no such thing as a guild for puppeteers as yet. State level academies and a Government entity –  Sangeet Natak Academy, do exist. And yes, it is a challenge to get funding. Private patronage what we have at the moment.

    P.K:   What types of workshops does Dhaatu offer?

    A.H:   Dhaatu offers workshops for all ages – starting at age 3 to adults! Puppetry and puppet making teaches aesthetics in a way that lego & robotics etc do not. They certainly have their positive points. But puppetry is multi faceted. Besides aesthetics, it also involves aspects of engineering and requires fine motor skills both in making and handling puppets. There is the aspect of movement with puppetry that needs to be mastered. When you are able to control a puppets subtle movements, it is a thrilling experience! 

    P.K:   Your personal journey with puppetry started with a ‘leap of faith’. And you just found out you are the recipient of a prestigious award!   

    A.H:   Yes! My phone was inundated with congratulatory messages since early this morning and that is how I discovered I had been awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! It is a great feeling of satisfaction that a Nation has accepted this artform! My Bharatanatyam guru, the late Smt. Narmada received this award from the hands of the late President Abdul Kalam in 2007. For me to receive the same award is a great honor! I am overwhelmed!  All the growing pains and potholes that I have experienced with Dhaatu’s journey is validated by this acknowledgement and ultimate reward! It inspires us to do more and reach greater heights – in making magic with our puppets for the generations to come.

    P.K:   What are your plans upon your return to Bengaluru?

    A.H:   Maybe one day of rest and then it is back to work again! The festival season will start soon. During Dussera, Dhaatu opens it doors to showcase our incredible collection of dolls with ‘Dhaatu Navaratra Mahotsava’. We will have over 5000 dolls on display, depicting scenes from mythology. It is an annual event and we have been doing this for a decade now. There’s no resting until that is done! 

    Anupama’s enthusiasm gives new meaning to the term ‘pulling strings’! Her passion and that of her team at Dhaatu is definitely award worthy. Dhaatu’s workshops and productions bear the hallmark of true creativity while contributing a treasure trove of traditional & cultural knowledge to children and adults alike.  

    India Currents congratulates Anupama on the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! 

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    Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

     

     

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