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A Winter’s Tale

Shakespeare’s comedies and romances are known for their magical elements and fantasy locations, and The Winter’s Tale is no exception. Livermore Shakespeare Festival is producing the play at Wente Vineyards Estate Winery and Tasting Room, July 12th through July 29th. Faced with the challenge of creating a world for “Bohemia” artistic director Lisa Tromovitch and costume designer Jennifer Barker-Gatze chose a meta-theatrical approach.  Since Shakespeare’s Bohemia is not an accurate representation of the real Bohemia of the time, theater makers are afforded the opportunity to create a new world through costumes, movement, music and scenery. 

Artistic Director Lisa Tromovitch states “Shakespeare’s Bohemia is a made-up place. He sets it on a seacoast, yet Bohemia at that time was land-locked. At Shakespeare’s time, Bohemia, a part of central Europe, included a people the French called ‘gypsies’ because they believed they came from Egypt, though scholars suspect their actual place of origin was India. They spoke a different language, and gypsy life appeared carefree and romantic, perfect for one of Shakespeare’s later romances.”

During the casting and design phase, Tromovitch met Avanthika Srinivasan, an MFA Candidate at American Conservatory Theater, who was auditioning for the role of Perdita, the Princess. “Her resume listed her training and her skills in traditional Indian music. Since we needed a ‘Dance of the Shepherds and Shepherdesses’ in the part of play that takes place in Bohemia, I asked her if she’d be willing to collaborate with us and choreograph the dance, as well as provide the music through singing. Avanthika expressed a keen desire to share her Indian culture, which then inspired the costume designer, Jennifer Barker, to lean our imaginary world toward Indian culture. The clothing, the saris and tunics are so beautiful, that imagining our Bohemia as adjacent to India, and sharing culture with India was a great opportunity to feature not only the song and dance, but the costuming as well,” adds Tromovitch.

Said Srinivasan, “When Lisa approached me about collaborating on the dance in The Winter’s Tale and suggested that we use India as an inspiration for the world of Bohemia, I eagerly agreed as I saw it as an opportunity to combine my passion for theater and love for Indian music and dance. I have been learning Indian Carnatic music for the past 20 years and have given concerts in Singapore, India, and the U.S. My mom is also an Indian classical dancer and runs a dance school where she teaches both Kathak and Bharatanatyam. “

Srinivasan continued “This particular dance is called Kolattam, and it originated in Southern India where people would dance at spring harvest festivals and celebrate love, prosperity, and nature. It is also important to add that in this show, Bohemia does not actually represent India, nor are the actors pretending to be Indian, therefore putting on accents etc. The world of Bohemia, along with the costume design, is influenced by Indian culture and is simply a celebration of its heritage, but in no way tries to imitate the actual place during that time period.“

Livermore Shakes costume designer, Jennifer Barker did research within the Indian community in Stockton and conferred with the proprietors of Indian wedding stores in order to design the look that would mirror what one would see at an Indian wedding. In the wedding scene, the character of Florizell (played by William Hoeschler) appears in an authentic wedding tunic and turban, an appropriate attire for the bridegroom, regardless of his ethnicity!

As is typical for Livermore Shakespeare Festival shows, The Winter’s Tale features a diverse cast. Tromovitch states “In the theater industry in recent years, the term “color blind casting” has been replaced by “diverse casting”. We are not asking anyone to pretend their character is an ethnicity different from their own. We are creating fictional worlds in the Shakespeare plays, and the worlds we are choosing to create are ethnically diverse. Some plays treat race specifically, and those plays are cast accordingly, but the new tradition in Shakespeare is to cast diversely, and allow ourselves to experience these integrated communities.”

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. July 14th – July 29th, 7:30 PM.. Wente Vineyards Estate Winery & Tasting Room, 5565 Tesla Road, Livermore, CA 94550Tickets: $25-$58.  (925) 443-BARD or www.LivermoreShakes.org

 

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Secular India?

 

Recently, I was tasked to explore a topic of interest in the modern world for my history class. Immediately, I was drawn to the Indian independence movement. India is so incredibly diverse. It is home to a myriad of languages, dialects, cultures, and regions. I wanted to explore how such a people could come together to form a cohesive and unified nation. I realized that the region that is now known as India was only unified under British occupation seven decades ago. Eventually, religion became a key defining characteristic for carving out a nationalistic identity, but like so many other aspects of Indian society, India is also religiously diverse. India claimed (and continues to claim) that it is a home of inclusiveness, cohesion, and peace, yet this is not so. There has and continues to be a clear preference for the Hindu majority both subtly and overtly, all while continuing to champion secularity.

Religious based nationalism only arose following the failure of the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion. As India inched towards Independence, religious division only cut deeper with each group struggling to mold what would become the Indian state. The necessity to include partition in the Indian independence movement indicated that India could not be a homeland for all.  If Muslims were to be in Pakistan and Hindus in India, then India was very clearly not a nation for all. Unfortunately, partition did not quell such hostility based on religion, as India continued to be plagued by such division and violence throughout its history, the repercussions of which are evident to this day.

A non-inclusive national identity is dangerous. A Hindu based identity overtly disregards the status and claims of Indian nationals of Islamic, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi and many other faiths, whose only fault  is that they are not Hindu. Indian culture has become homologous to Hinduism; to the outside world, they are portrayed as being one and the same. Numerous portrayals of Hindu customs and celebrations are often wrongfully labelled as simply Indian. Diwali is a Hindu celebration, not an Indian one. Such claims only further the narrative of a Hindu India. By labelling Hindu customs as Indian customs furthers the assumption that all Indians are Hindus, omitting non-Hindu Indian culture. This makes it appear as if true Indians are Hindu and non-Hindu Indians are less so. This may seem like a small technicality but it continues to perpetuate the notion of a Hindu India and creates a climate of exclusivity.

The very existence of the BJP party is a testament to the toxicity of a narrow-minded national identity. The cow slaughter laws are an outright indication of India’s Hindu affinity and preferential treatment. Such laws do not impact  the Hindu population as most already abstain from it, but directly impact religious minorities who tend to consume beef. Islam forbids the consumption of pork and yet pork has not been banned. Similarly, Jains abstain from all meat and root vegetables. Why are only Hindu dietary restrictions legislated? The façade of a secular India continues to negatively impact the non -Hindu population of India. By allowing the BJP and the Prime Minister to engage in blatant favoritism by the masses is dangerous; they repeatedly instigate Hindu- Muslim conflict. The rape of the eight year old in Kashmir is a part of this narrative. Her only “crime” was being a non-Hindu Indian. The rapists were able to justify their vile actions under religious grounds. Enough is enough.

Division sabotaged Indian unity in 1947, and continues to threaten the stability of the Indian nation. India is truly a beautifully diverse country and Indians should be celebrating their differences, not using them for division and categorization. The beauty of India will only shine when there is acknowledgement that an Indian is made of many shapes and colors but nonetheless is still Indian. Non Hindu Indians have and continue to be an integral part of Indian society. Let them be a part of the narrative.

Rachel is a rising junior at UC Berkeley where she studies Political Economy. She has always been politically aware and active and currently interns with a state senator. In her free time Rachel enjoys reading, watching and listening to musicals and dragging her friends to Zumba.

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Jul 1, 2018 - Aug 19, 2018
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The House Imaginary
San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose CA
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Jul 21, 2018
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Unveiling Infinity with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
San Jose Convention Center, San Jose

write4joy – Hooked on Writing!

A little girl stands in the balcony of her home, watching the world come alive slowly around her.  Flocks of bright green parrots take flight as one from the mango trees. Rabari tribeswomen in their brightly hued clothing spill onto the street below her. The sounds of their voices… the rainbow hues of their skirts… each image tells stories and the visuals etch themselves firmly on her impressionable mind.

Many years later, the girl, now a woman, walks into a store. She sees an amazing rainbow coat and wants it for her own!  The coat is made a quilt of many hues, worked over with care. To her, it feels like the many parts within her that make her whole. She buys the coat and travels back in time to that long ago colorful memory on her balcony.  This is the story of her passion.

Jyoti Yelagalawadi – Lekha Ink. Corp

“We all have a story inside of us. We only have to want to tell it”, says Jyoti YelagalawadiExec. Director of Lekha Ink Corp.  Jyoti has traveled miles since she was that little girl standing  on a balcony. She feels that Lekha’s story began one such morning, when she started to write down her impressions of her world. “I was always a bookworm…and then I found writing”, she admits with a laugh!

Her love of books took her to New York City, where she studied Creative writing at Lehman College. Along the way, she fashioned a career as a technical writer, managing the publication department in a software company. And as it often happens, she found her path circling around to the beginning – and to her twin passions – writing for pleasure, and working with children.

In 2001 Jyoti was searching for a name to fit her business model – a small, independent publishing house. The standard advice she received was that she should stick with names that fit the tried and tested ‘feel.’  Eventually she settled on the name ‘Lekha’ – a Sanskrit term which means ‘to write’ .“Saraswati – is my favorite goddess. The embodiment of knowledge,” she says. For a person who considers words, and writing as ‘sacred,’ it felt like the perfect fit.

Lekha Ink, Corp started as an independent publishing company in 2002, with the intention of publishing books written BY and FOR children.  Jyoti’s work as a mentor to middle and high school students gave her great pleasure. She led the Write On program through YMCA Citizen school for the middle school level. When a friend asked her to guide her daughter in the art of writing, the germ of another idea took hold.  In 2006, she began Lekha Writing Center as a summer experiment, and ended up running it as a subsidiary of the publishing house. The workshop was a success eventually growing into after-school classes, and seasonal camps. 
Lekha initially offered Creative Writing classes through enrichment camps and after-school programs. With growing demand, academic writing classes also came to be a part of the Lekha Writing Center. Lekha classes are being offered through schools, public library spaces and also through city community centers as well as some independent locations, in different cities in the Bay Area.

Today, Lekha offers seasonal as well as year-round camps through several cities in the S. F Bay Area. Enrollments are either through the cities’ Parks & Recreation website, or directly through the Lekha website. “Over the years we have seen a positive response from various communities when it comes to Creative Writing,” says Jyoti. Class enrollments have grown and the number of book titles published under the Lekha banner. 

Until date, over 10,000 childrens’ stories, poem and essays have been published in the Lekha Anthologies. Several Lekha writers have won prestigious awards and left their mark in the publishing world. Many have also published their own solo work.

The Lekha Way:

Lekha’s mission is to ‘create the next generation of Young Wordsmiths’. Lekha Writing Center is committed to developing a generation of children who think beyond the book. “Our emphasis is on creative writing using tools that develops their imagination,” says Jyoti.

Lekha instructors receive specific training in writing instruction – The Lekha Way – which places great value on teaching different modes of writing, in addition to standard conventional methods. Students demonstrate their knowledge through creative work like poetry, stories, essays etc. which the instructors believe already resides within their minds. They are encouraged to use their own personal experiences, education and knowledge to shape their writing. While making sure the traditional tenets of writing are maintained, Lekha instructors guide and facilitate the students in polishing their own work by reworking their pieces. The result is a more expressive style of writing.

Sometimes young writers might develop fears about their writing which is quite common. Using visualization and verbalization techniques, illustration, creative play etc,  Lekha instructors help them overcome such fears or writers’ block.

Providing a fun and nonthreatening learning environment helps foster their passion for writing that builds over time. 

Lekha student Aashka Pandya has published a novella titled ‘The Price of being Ashley Rich’. Aashka is currently enrolled at U.C Santa Barbara with a double major in Communications and Film. She credits her Lekha experience with nurturing her love of creative writing and building her confidence. Aashka writes original stories and screenplay for short films. Her story for the film ‘(in)dependent Spouse’ has been awarded ‘Best Original Story’ award from TopShorts film festival in June 2018. She has set her sights on being a professional screenplay writer for TV shows in the future! 

Aashka’s mother Deepal Pandya discovered Lekha through an online search for creative writing classes. I have no words to describe how much I appreciate Lekha’s supportive role in grooming my daughter, Aashka’s interest in creative writing. Lekha will always have a special place in my heart for the amazing positive contribution it has made in my daughter’s life”, says Deepal. 

Bridging the digital divide: write4joy App

“Most great ideas start as dreams”, says Jyoti.  She had a dream in 2015 which featured a child sitting in the back of a car playing, singing and writing using his mother’s phone.  That was the germ of the idea for the Lekha App. Workshops were underway, the writing center was functioning as planned, and she felt that it was time to think in a different direction. “A portable Lekha option was important, and felt right”, she says. 

Although the publishing wing of Lekha is still cost effective for authors looking for small independent publishers, many might prefer to self publish. That comes with considerable investment in terms of finances and commitment, and can be intimidating to writers. The publishing world has changed immensely with technology, internet and social media platforms bringing a digital revolution to readers of every age range. Jyoti and her Lekha team felt that they would be able to take their mission of helping children cultivate pride in their writing, by adding on another dimension to their arsenal.

What emerged was write4joy – the Best Mobile App Award for 2018!  While still in the BETA stage, write4joy was awarded the prestigious Gold in the Best Educational App category.

Currently available for iPads, write4joy will be made available for Android and desktop environments in the next phase. The app educates and provides prompts, tips, examples and activities to help writers understand the creative writing process. It also helps formulate writing strategies, drafts, revisions and formatting the stories. Experienced and trained instructors help guide and review the project using the in-built message board. Once completed, the writer has the option of publishing the work online, or in print.

Lekha instructor Sara Mithra shared the enthusiastic response to the write4joy App when she introduced it to her class, “Confident in the power of their own words, students zeroed in on the profit-making potential when they realized that they would have a contract with a real publisher. They began fantasizing about how their covers would look.

Instructor Julianne Daniell credits the App for bringing the right mix of original imagination and technology into the writing process.Students love using the write4joy App.  It motivates them to create their own writing projects, while providing them with technology that makes the process interesting and fun.  It gives them the ability to create stories and add technological details, including pictures, backgrounds, and textures. Most importantly, the app is easy and fun for students to use, whether they are in the classroom or at home.”  

Jyoti is excited to offer this option to writers,  “The write4joy App is possibly the cheapest way anyone can publish! And it shows you that Anyone Can Publish! Whether you are 7 or 70 years old, if you have an idea ready, you can publish using the app!”. Through write4joy, Lekha hopes to inspire young authors to create stories using their imaginative original artwork. The App makes it easy to share their published work on social media sites like Facebook etc.  Lekha’s in-house editors are available to the young authors for help during the writing process. Once finalized, they can choose to publish online through the Apple Bookstore or Amazon etc. Should they prefer to publish their work as a Lekha publication, they are free to do so.

In 2018, Lekha decided to revive its Young Wordsmiths platform as a quarterly online magazine, which will feature both archived as well as newly published works from their young authors. Material submitted via the write4joy app will be considered for publication as well in the magazine.

“Storytelling is a joy! Each of us has the innate ability to tell our story from the heart. There is no right or wrong!”, Jyoti is proud of the fact that write4joy is the crowning glory of the four parts of Lekha Ink Corp. 

A fitting feather in the cap for the little girl who managed to turn her passion for books and writing into a reality!


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.

 

 

 

 

Sanju: Flawed and Zany, But Not a Terrorist

I love Sanjay Dutt. The cool Indian rockstar superstar with heart. An impossibly flawed hero who has failed many times, and repeatedly mustered up the strength to pick himself up, and face his demons.

No doubt the actor has been wed to trouble all his life. Yet he also showed up, every single time, bigger and better with rock-solid performances. After a confidently tentative debut in Rocky (1981) and the grounding comeback with Naam (1986), his graph has been consistent through the years with Saajan (1991), Sadak (1991), Khalnaayak (1993), Dushman (1998), Vaastav (1999), Mission Kashmir (2000), Kaante (2002), Munnabhai MBBS (2003), Parineeta (2005), Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) and PK (2014).

He is the king of bad personal choices, has worn his faults openly, like badges almost, and carelessly. Quite amazingly, he, or rather his wife Manyata, have now convinced an A-list director to tell his story, and an A-list actor to play him.

No mean feat this, specially since Rajkumar (Raju) Hirani is known for being discerning in his work, questioning the paradoxes in the social fabric of our society. No one else but Ranbir Kapoor could have played Sanjay Dutt. He is so flawless that I had to remind myself this is Ranbir, and not Sanjay in some of the scenes. Mannerisms, walk, tone of voice, unhinged addiction, emotions, awkward bait, the wild spirit… he absorbs all of it.

I couldn’t help but smile at the Nargis and Raj Kapoor connection. Her son and his grandson, decades after, creating magic in a different way. Genes in full glory to perfection, with hard work and practice thrown in for good measure. Ranbir rehearsed for six months, watched Sanjay’s videos, and called him before some important scenes to understand his exact emotion.

There is also the reality that unlike the reticent Salman Khan, who had a similar journey and went into ‘fix-it’ mode with good films and social work, Sanjay has been publicly emotional, vocal, and explicit about most details. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you can access the whole story, which is well-documented and easily available. Sanjay’s legacy is complicated by celebrity parents, with his pampering mother Nargis, who adored him, and a strict father Sunil Dutt, who took him to task. How he was affected by her cancer, Rocky’s debut and instant stardom, drugs, rehabilitation, second comeback, success, superstar status, losing it again with the AK-56 possession, spiraling life, criminal history, court case, sentences, jail visits and returns, struggles, love affairs, marriages, friendships, family, feuds… all of it is there.

No doubt Sanju is heavily tilted towards the controversial actor’s perspective of not being a terrorist. At the same time, Raju unreservedly portrays his flaws. They appear twice as magnified on screen, despite the countless number of print and online pages devoted to him. Any director would have probably made five sequels off those. There’s just so much of the actor, and person. His survival story is unique, incredible and mind-boggling: a mammoth job to capture in words, or on screen.

Co-writer Abhijat Joshi and writer-editor-director Raju cleverly focus on Sanjay’s emotional state of mind, and his relationship with his father Sunil Dutt (Paresh Rawal, at his most poignant) and friend Kamlesh Kanhaiyalal Kapasi (Vicky Kaushal, first-rate), during two prominent, ugly phases – his drug addiction and gun possession. They chart Sanjay’s story from a biographer’s point of view (Winnie Diaz, sincerely played by Anushka Sharma) – directly addressing questions many of us have around those events. In that sense, the movie is revealing and relevant for both his fans, as well as others.

Where Sanju misses the mark is on the gun track. It rushes into completion – almost as if the duo didn’t want to delve into it. Perhaps he acquired the guns as impulsively as he did the drugs. It leaves out some relevant, crucial aspects, like his first foray in jail, camaraderie with inmates, and court appearances. Blame is placed on external factors such as the drug peddler Zubin Mistry (Jim Sarbh), incessant media hounding and the underworld pressure a tad too conveniently, which rankled. The sexist judgment of a woman’s morality, not cool. The drugs phase, failing relationship, and mother’s cancer degeneration parts were excellently portrayed and sad to watch. The father-son song games were warm and fuzzy – especially the last one.

Jim aces it but please, can someone cast him in a romantic role and do justice to those sexy eyes? Diya Mirza, who played Manyata was effective but miscast. (Perhaps Kangana Ranaut would have captured her fire and zing better?) The voyeur in me also felt cheated on the details of his colorful love life: understandably that doesn’t relate to the film’s narrative. The tiny appearances, of Ruby (Sonam Kapoor, superb and spot on) and Pinky (Karishma Tanna, charming), did whet some of that appetite. We all know Ruby, I am still trying to crack who the Pinky character is. Hmmm.

The songs are d… d… dazzling, with varied composers. Main Badhiya Tu Bhi Badhiya, voiced fabulously by duo Sonu Nigam and Sunidhi Chauhan, is all kinds of fun visually, with Ranbir’s version of crazy and Rohan-Rohan’s vintage music. Vikram Montrose creates the inspirational Kar Har Maidan Fateh (Sukhwinder Singh, Shreya Ghoshal) and fun surprise package Baba Bolta Hai Bas Ho Gaya (guess who appears in end credits, tap dancing with Ranbir). A. R. Rahman breezes in to work his musical magic with the richly evocative Ruby Ruby (Shaswat Singh, Poorvi Koutish) and seductively haunting Mujhe Chaand Pe Le Chalo (Nikhita Gandhi, awesomely come-hither).

Ravi Varman’s cinematography, which brings this emotional spectacle together, is superbly aesthetic; intimate, lively, and visually stunning.

Watching Sanjay Dutt’s life is moving in parts. The spotlight is on redemption, without an attempt to hide his faults. The movie entertains, but falls short on awesomeness.

So what’s the verdict? It’s definitely worth a trip to the cinema, especially for the Ranbir experience. Watching him in Sanju is a double treat. Two actors come alive on screen, and it is hard to tell who is better. Check, and double check.

Score: 4 out of 5

Sanju (2018). Director: Rajkumar Hirani. Writers: Abhijat Joshi, Rajkumar Hirani. Players: Ranbir Kapoor, Diya Mirza, Vicky Kaushal, Paresh Rawal, Sonam Kapoor, Karishma Tanna. Music: AR Rahman, Rohan-Rohan and Vikram Montrose. Theatrical release: Vinod Chopra Films, Rajkumar Hirani Films.

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.

 

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Monsoon Special – Newsprint Peanuts!

“Pitter patter, sprinkle and pour

Flash and dazzle, rumble and roar!”

That sums up Monsoons in India.  As I prepare for my annual visit this summer, I find myself sharing monsoon stories with my child. No other rainy day experience has quite the charm or the nostalgia quotient, for those of us who grew up in India. 

The heavens opened like clockwork every afternoon, and the ensuing deluge washed away the heat and dust of the day, leaving the world cool and sparkling as it eased into dusk. The distinctive fragrance of the parched soil as it absorbed the first rain drops remains the stuff of my dreams! I have never been able to experience that fragrance anywhere else in the world – if I could bottle it up, I would!  

The Monsoon features boldly in every facet of life in India, inspiring classical ragas, movie plots (rain dance sequences), poetry and naturally – food.  There are recipe books of specific foods that can be prepared to enhance the mood around the rainy season. The summer rains hold such a special place in our cultural fabric, that new born infants and kids are often taken outdoors to be soaked in the first rain showers of the season. I remember dancing with my friends, sticking out my tongue to drink in the fat drops as the warm rain pelted down at the end of the day. It was our favorite form of entertainment. No T.V show or gadget could have given us such bountiful joy! 

Treks to school were especially fun during the monsoon. Khaki raincoats provided some protection, but we were drenched to the skin nevertheless! The collapsible umbrella was a relatively expensive commodity when I was in middle school. But it was the one thing we would make sure we carried in our bags to school. The day would dawn bright and the barometer would soon rise from warm to sweltering. It would stay that way through morning recess, midday lunch and afternoon recess… right up until 10 minutes or so before the gong sounded to signal day’s end. As we exited chattering away, we would notice the grey clouds gathering overhead. And out came the plethora of umbrellas.  A vivid spread of colors and patterns, interspersed with the ubiquitous black ‘old fashioned’ kinds, would sail through the school grounds and down the streets; some to the bus stop, some to waiting cars and two wheelers, while I walked back home with a kid sister in tow. 

Being the older one, I was expected to be responsible and mature. Amma would berate us if we did not use our umbrellas or raincoats, coming home soaked to the skin. The lack of washers and dryers meant she had to hang dry and iron the sodden clothes for school the next day.  But I must admit; while I tried to keep my active sister from puddle jumping, trying very hard to be stoic about it, I did give up and engage in it myself once in a  while.  Peppa Pig had nothing on us when it came to “jumping up and down in muddy puddles!” We would laugh about it and figure out ways to get around Amma’s inevitable scolding. 

Some memories stand out brighter than visual snapshots – and they are associated with my nose. The wizened old woman sitting outside the school gates, selling salted peanuts, steamed or roasted over coals, was a regular fixture. She came everyday and sat sheltering under her patched-up black umbrella, squatting on her haunches, chewing tobacco. The kids gathered around her braving the tobacco spittle spraying out at them from in between her missing teeth. But her twinkling eyes and smile ensured her a faithful clientele! 

At the end of the school day,  my poor rumbling stomach was tortured by the fragrant little newspaper cones she sold! My parents were not partial to the practice of handing out pocket money. We lived close enough to the school and walked back and forth. They did not understand why we might need money for ‘accidental’ spending. There were strictly to be no ‘accidents’ of any nature between school and home – and there ended the matter, should we dare to discuss it. 

So every day, the aroma of gently steaming peanuts wafted into the moist humid air as I desperately sheltered under my umbrella; trying to assuage my overactive taste buds with a stern lecture about the perils of ingesting the newsprint that formed the cone packaging. My sister was less disciplined about this matter. Her friend bought some every day and generously shared it with her! It made me crave the little 50.paisa treat all the more! 

Finally, tortured to the point of distraction, I made bold and asked Amma if I could buy some the next day.  I must have made a good case, citing the health benefits of peanuts or some such, I don’t exactly recall. But as luck would have it, she agreed. I went to school pleased as punch about the fortuitous change in my finances! One might think I’d won the lottery! Such was my excitement!

The monotonous school day dragged on as it usually did, with one class flowing into the next. And as the hour of departure loomed, my anxiety mounted with it. My mind plotted the quickest exit from the classroom the second the gong sounded, so I could beat the hordes milling about my much anticipated prize. There was no way I would miss out on getting myself some warm, salty, steamed peanuts – newsprint be damned! 

As usual, the clouds gathered for their seasonal duty.  Securely tucked under my umbrella, I tried to wade through the melee holding tightly to my sister’s hand. All the pushing, shoving and navigating got us to the other side of the swarm successfully enough.  But when we got there – there was no aroma of peanuts! My poor nose, diverted by the anxious chatter in my brain – failed to alert me to the absence of the old woman and her basket of coals! Utter disaster! Of all the days she could pick, she seemed to have chosen to absent herself from her station – on the very day my tastebuds had launched into overdrive! There was no disappointment keener than the one I experienced that day.

What else was to be done, but to walk home trying to console ourselves with puddles, while avoiding cow patties, clinging to the hope that the next day would bring with it a warm peanut promise! 

Ah! The simple joys of the monsoon! 

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Masala Peanuts, Bangalore style!! 

(Anjalina Chugani’s Soul Spices Indian Cooking Blog)

Ingredients

  • 2 cups red skin peanuts
  • 1/4 cup onions, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh coriander, roughly chopped, (stems and all)
  • 1-2 tablespoons red chilli powder ( optional)
  • salt to taste
  • freshly squeezed lemon juice, to taste

Instructions

  1. In a medium non stick pan, dry roast your peanuts to release the aromas. (You could add a teaspoon of oil)
  2. Add a little salt and then add the onions. Allow them to soften and then turn off the heat.
  3. Add the coriander, Chilli powder and more salt at this stage. Stir to combine and then add the lemon juice. Taste to check seasoning.
  4. Serve warm with chilled glasses of beer!

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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. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.

 

International Yoga Day a Culmination of a Surge in Yoga Culture

The number of US yoga practitioners has increased exponentially to more than 36 million in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012, as per a study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. Yoga has surged in popularity and its impact is everywhere: in movies, television, advertising, and schools. Americans have witnessed an increase in yoga studios, meditation centers and vegetarian restaurants, all of which have roots in India. Meditation was originally a huge part of yoga. Now, yoga is marketed as a series of asanas (postures) that makes one fit and helps in weight loss. Many Americans have incorporated yoga routines as an essential part of their workout regimen.

International Day of Yoga

In 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming June 21 as ‘International Day of Yoga’. The resolution introduced by India’s ambassador to the UN was a follow up of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call during his address to the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2014, asking world leaders to adopt an international Yoga day, as “Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being.”

The first International Day of Yoga was observed all over the world on June 21, 2015. In New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi, a large number of dignitaries from 84 nations, and a record number of 35,985 people performed 21 yoga asanas (postures) on Rajpath for 35 minutes. At the UN Headquarters, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and India’s  External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj spoke at the inaugural function which also featured a yoga demonstration. The UN General Assembly President Sam Kutesa attended the event along with more than one hundred people, including diplomats and UN staff. The event was webcast to thousands who took part in an all-day yoga event at Times Square.

The Indian Embassy in Washington D.C. organized many curtain-raiser yoga events featuring Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, among others, during the months of May-June 2015. Indian ambassador Arun K Singh attended the event on June 21, along with several dignitaries. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii delivered a congressional resolution commemorating the day. Now, the Indian Embassy in D.C. is organizing a celebration of the 4th International Day of Yoga on June 16, 2018. All Indian consulates in USA are also organizing similar events and inviting members of the Indian community to participate.    

Yoga Comes to America – Yoga Luminaries

Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to Americans. He came to the USA in 1893 to address the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. During his stay of about four years in America, he lectured at major universities and retreats. He started the Vedantic centre in New York in 1896 and taught Raja Yoga classes. In 1920, Paramahansa Yogananda came as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Leaders in Boston. He established The Self-Realization Fellowship (SRF) in Los Angeles. Today, there are seven SRF centers in California where Yogananda’s meditation and Kriya yoga techniques are taught.  Maharishi Mahesh Yogi introduced Transcendental Meditation (TM ) to Americans in 1959. The TM technique involves the use of mantra and regular practice offers reduction of stress and fatigue. Yoga continued to proliferate in a limited way as the focus has been on the religious aspect of yoga, which dealt with how to use meditation to come closer to God.

Indra Devi

Indra Devi was the first to teach and propagate nonreligious yoga for the American mainstream, with an emphasis on its physical benefits. She opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947 with emphasis on the physical benefits of yoga. She was born Eugenie Peterson in Latvia on May 12, 1899 and went to India in 1927 for three months. She was not happy coming back and returned to India where she became a rising star as a dancer and actress in Indian films. In 1930, she married Jan Strakaty, the commercial attaché to the Czechoslovak Consulate in Bombay. She started learning yoga in 1937 from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. She became the first Western woman and the first woman chela (pupil) of an Indian yoga teacher. In 1938, her husband was transferred to China. At the urging of her teacher Krishnamacharya, Indra opened a yoga school in Shanghai in 1939. Many Americans and Russians joined the school to learn yoga. There, she became known as Mata Ji, which means mother. She wrote her first book “Yoga, the Technique of Health and Happiness (1948). It was believed to be the first book on yoga written by a Westerner to be published in India. In 1947, a year after her husband passed away, she moved to California. In an effort to publicize and spread yoga for health and wellness, she cultivated movie stars like Gloria Swanson and other famous people like Yehudi Menuhin to come to her Hollywood yoga studio. She promoted yoga to Americans as a system of physical exercise, consisting of a series of poses, postures and positions. She reached thousands of people through her books on yoga, two, Forever Young, Forever Healthy (1953) and Renew Your Life by Practicing Yoga (1977) were best sellers.

Yogi Bhajan started teaching “Kundalini Yoga, the Yoga of Awareness” in 1968. His version of Kundalini Yoga has continued to grow in influence and popularity largely in the Americas, Europe, South Africa, Togo, Australia, and East Asia. He was an inspiring teacher and trained thousands of teachers. Many of his followers opened their yoga studios in various parts of the world, popularizing yoga for health and fitness.  

B. K. S. Iyengar, considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world, was the founder of  “Iyengar Yoga”. He learned yoga from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the same teacher who taught Indra Devi. In 1954, Yehudi Menuhin invited Iyengar to Switzerland. From then on, Iyengar visited the west regularly to teach his system of yoga. He made his first visit to the United States in 1956 and gave several lecture-demonstrations. He published his first book, Light on Yoga (1966), which became known as “the bible of yoga” and has been the source book for yoga students. He was the author of many books on yoga practice and was often referred to as “the father of modern yoga”.  Iyengar started hundreds of yoga centers, teaching Iyengar yoga which focuses on the correct alignment of the body within each yoga pose, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures. He was awarded the Padma Shri  in 1991, the Padma Bhushan in 2002 and the  Padma Vibhushan in 2014.

B. K. S. Iyengar

 

Bikram Choudhary emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and founded yoga studios in California and Hawaii. He earned fame and fortune by teaching yoga to Americans by opening heated yoga studios. His style of yoga is practiced in a room that has been preheated to a temperature of 105 degree F. Bikram Yoga is the 26 postures sequence selected and developed from Hatha Yoga.  In the 1990s, Bikram began offering nine-week teacher certification courses and trained thousands of certified instructors who opened Bikram Yoga studios all over the world. For the last several years, Bikram has been involved in lawsuits due to his sexual transgressions.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar established the International Art of Living Foundation in 1981, which is operating in 154 countries. He has been promoting the Sudarshan Kriya, a rhythmic breathing yoga exercise that incorporates specific natural rhythms of the breath, harmonizing the body, mind and emotions. It is claimed that regular practice of Sudarshan Kriya “eliminates stress, fatigue and negative emotions.” In 1986, Sri Sri came to California to conduct the first course to be held in North America. Since then, he has been frequenting America to spread his brand of yoga.

Swami Ramdev is the most celebrated yoga teacher and has a following which runs into millions. He has revolutionized  people’s thinking about yoga exercises. In 2003, India-based Aastha TV began featuring him in its morning yoga slot. Within a few years, he attained immense popularity and developed a huge following. His yoga camps are attended by a large number of people in India and abroad. His Pranayam exercises – a set of breathing exercises – are promoted to bring about balance between the body and mind. Regular practitioners claim numerous benefits. Zee TV in USA gives a one hour program daily featuring Ramdev’s yoga asanas.  Ramdev has attained commercial success of his physical fitness yoga, with no parallel in India or the western world.

Embracing Yoga

America is now dotted with yoga gyms and studios providing easy access to everyone, including business executives and Hollywood celebrities. There are also many yoga professionals and teachers who have gained prominence in this growing industry and are available for expert guidance. Several studies have shown that yoga reduces blood pressure, back pain, relieves stress and improves overall health. Several doctors recommend yoga to their cancer patients during and after treatment. Many Americans are drawn to yoga for physical fitness, others are attracted as yoga provides relief from stress while many others practice yoga for weight management.  

Several entrepreneurs are flourishing in this $30 billion industry. They publish yoga magazines, yoga books, produce TV shows, make DVDs, video games and apps, manufacture yoga clothes, yoga artifacts, yoga furniture and furnishings, yoga foods, yoga tea, yoga energy bars, and hundreds of products and services. The proliferation of yoga products, DVDs, and Internet websites has made yoga accessible by one and all. These yoga websites have all kind of information about yoga, from health and wellness to spirituality and show simple to complex poses. Several New Age gurus, who travel across the globe, have contributed to yoga’s popularity. In the United States, best-selling author Deepak Chopra has significantly contributed to Indian meditation philosophy and yoga going mainstream.  

Yoga has gone through several ups and downs during the last sixty years but now has earned well deserved respect and recognition. At its core, yoga is both a physical and spiritual practice. But for most Americans, yoga is a workout system that consists of a series of stretches, poses, and postures to tone and shape one’s body.

Inder Singh regularly writes on Indian Diaspora. He is the author of The Gadar Heroics – life sketches of over 50 Gadar heroes. He is Executive Trustee of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) Foundation. He was chairman of GOPIO from 2009-2016, president from 2004-2009, president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached at indersingh-usa@hotmail.com

Everything You Need to Know about Traveling to Rishikesh

Located in the foothills of the Himalayas and on the banks of the river Ganga where she enters the plains after taking form in the mountains, Rishikesh presents an unforgettable blend of pervasive spirituality, ritualistic Hinduism, ubiquitous yoga studios, timeless natural beauty, and modern tourist ambience all enveloped in a small-town atmosphere typical of the region. A visit to Rishikesh is usually paired with a trip to neighboring Haridwar, and the airport closest to it is the Jolly Grant in Dehradun, which is in fact named after the town where it is located in and not after an Englishman.

While the Beatles put Rishikesh on the international map in 1968 by visiting it in pursuit of peace and transcendental meditation, I found myself there fifty years later with a group of friends to learn and explore Vedantic philosophy and imbibe the ambience of the region. Simplicity rules daily life and commerce here, where the highest denomination of rupee notes dispensed by ATMs is ₹100, and saffron-clad renunciates, male and female, are an abundantly common sight. As part of its universal charm, Rishikesh attracts serious seekers of ancient truths, followers of popular more-modern philosophies, international practitioners of yoga, and more recently, adventure thrill seekers who explore the river and mountains according to their appetites. The residents of the area form a stable bedrock that supports this flow of humanity and appear to take all in stride and absorb it without a ripple.

Our days started with an early morning visit to the river Ganga. The river unfurled itself before us as the sun melted the fog away and the morning brightened, in tune with the energy of morning chants and conch notes emanating from the temple. A cement walkway extends along the gurgling water for about 3 miles, and a brisk walk is more comfortable in the chill of a February morning compared to  sitting on the benches and steps which line the river. A good cup of tea and a hot breakfast later, we were geared for philosophical discussions with seekers hailing from all corners of India and other countries, and then we also ventured out to explore the town. Time here may be spent introspectively or gregariously, depending on personal preference. Walking along the narrow winding roads is arguably the best mode of transportation, and if this is a viable option, a comfortable pair of shoes is highly recommended. Various ashrams and yoga spas and studios offer talks, pujas, and other programs, and some require prior communication for participation while others are accessible to all. Rishikesh is rich in historical locations of varied interest. To name just a couple: Sivananda Ashram where Swami Chinmayananda’s vision for a modern renaissance in Indian philosophy had its inception, and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Ashram where the Beatles had a productive period – they reportedly wrote a record-setting 48 songs in two months – creativity presumably fueled by a vegetarian diet, meditation, and yoga. One major draw of the area is the access to the life-giving holy waters of the Ganga which inspires fervent religious sentiments for Hindus, and the town’s proximity to Haridwar.

Our first attempt to visit Haridwar was thwarted by an accident which caused complete standstill in traffic and made us truly appreciate our local taxi driver’s prowess and his familiarity with the other roads in the town.  We set out again the next day and had a pleasant drive along the newly built dam, while avoiding the highway for the most part. We visited the cave temples in the Sivalik range, a southern chain of the Himalayas. This complex of temples is honed out of the rock caves within the mountains, and the main temples are dedicated to Mansa Devi and Chandi Devi, although I was pleasantly surprised to see a smaller temple dedicated to Anjani and baby Hanuman. These temples are perched high on the mountains and can be reached only by cable cars operated from the base, providing a bonus of spectacular views of the valley, and the towns of  Haridwar and Rishikesh. We had planned a second day trip to visit Devaprayag which is the site of the confluence of the rivers Alakananda and Bhagirathi, which once they joined flow together as the Ganga towards the plains, but unfortunately, time constraints relegated this proposed visit to my next trip.

As expected, the Ganga is central to the life of Rishikesh, and the two pedestrian suspension walkways that traverse it are the Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula. Predictably, one finds oneself jostling with two-wheeled vehicles being wheeled across these narrow walkways along with the occasional animal, while the river flows and swirls twenty feet below. Flanking the walkways on both banks are scores of shops which offer a plethora of items for purchase ranging from stainless steel cups and plates, spatikam (a purely transparent and colorless quartz crystal) and Rudraksha beads, handloom cottons and wools from India and Tibet, fine woolen and silk scarves and shawls, incense, astrological beads and gems of all hues and qualities, large ceremonial conch shells, and other artifacts, religious and otherwise. The market area near Lakshman Jhula is more vibrant in size and variety, and includes shops which proffer hand-made paper, and remarkably fine wool and silk fabrics from Nepal which support handicapped and women’s self-help groups. A large section of this market is arrayed along the natural slope, and each step down a curving stone stairway opens up to shops on either side, some small and others large with interconnected rooms, displaying wares of incredible variety and color. In addition, the prominent and highly respected Gita Press and ashrams such as the Swarg Ashram and Sivananda Ashram are within easy reach of the walkways.

The confluence of several nationalities, world-views and aspirations leads to interesting conversations, and humming cafés are grouped around Lakshman Jhula where vigorous cross-pollination of ideas are fueled by locally grown food fashioned into Eastern and Western recipes. Advice on local events, meetings, places to stay, and hangouts are also exchanged here, while backpackers plan their next destination.

My visit to Rishikesh lasted only ten days, but it is not uncommon for visitors to stay for months or even years depending on their particular and individual goals, and the time they can invest in it. Interesting, and sometimes unexpected, friendships and acquaintances may be struck up, some of which remain rewarding for months or even years, after.

A scientist by training, the author has lived and worked in America and India. She enjoys imbibing diverse cultures and venues, and reads voraciously to vicariously experience those yet to be explored.

 

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