From App Newbies To Creators And Winners

Despite growing up in the Silicon Valley, an area known for harboring some of the world’s largest technology companies, we had never really been exposed to the behind-the-scenes aspect of technology – specifically coding, app design and software development. So joining the Technovation Club at our school during freshman year was simply an act born out of curiosity for the three of us: perhaps borne out of a momentary desire to make new friends, or it was an effort to investigate what exactly was so alluring about the computer science field. Whatever the actual reason was, we – Harini Arumugam, Ria Doshi, and Eesha Ramkumar – sophomores at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino – joined forces to venture into our growing interest for technology through Technovation.

Technovation is the world’s largest entrepreneurship program for girls from ages 10-18. It encourages young women around the world to solve a problem in their community of their own choice by creating an app and launching a startup. (For more information, visit http://www.technovationchallenge.org)

When we decided to participate in this program, we had little to no knowledge of writing computer programs or establishing a company. We also had no clue about what topic we were going to choose for our project. With some help from our club officers, we started off by brainstorming issues that truly impact our world, such as natural disasters and world hunger. However, after further discussion, we decided that these problems were too vast and could not be easily resolved with an application. So we decided to take a closer look at our community: specifically, within our own high school.

A unique characteristic of our school district is that it has one of the largest special education systems in the Bay Area. We personally knew so many people with special needs, some of whom we studied with on a regular basis. And because this affects not only students in our school, but millions of individuals around the world, we decided this was a topic we felt strongly about and something we could base our project on. After further research, we discovered that autism is a common disorder individuals have in our community. We were aware that many students with autism struggled within their classrooms, and they were sometimes negatively perceived because of these very struggles; we decided that we wanted to do something to help these individuals.

Now that we had completed the task of choosing an idea, we needed to get a better grasp of what autism was. We understood, from reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and online articles about autism, that it was a cognitive disorder which caused challenges for people in terms of communication, social interaction, anxiety, and behavior. However, we wanted to take our research a step further by directly communicating with people with autism and their families to get a firsthand perspective of what having autism was like. So we sent out a survey to over 50 autism centers around the U.S. While analyzing responses, we noticed how almost every respondent mentioned that they or their loved ones with autism struggled regularly with communication and anxiety issues. We decided to build our app’s features, Interaction and Relaxation, around these topics.

Having begun our Technovation journey around the month of October 2017, we spent the next four to five months developing our user interface. We decided to use MIT App Inventor, a blocks language for Android devices which was especially suitable for beginners like us, to build our application. We learned the very basics of computer programming – thanks to App Inventor’s easy-to-use platform – and after watching hours of YouTube tutorials, we began to construct our app – Alleviate.

We soon ran into a stumbling block. None of us were convinced that our app was indeed unique. We realized that Alleviate’s content was already available online. Why were users going to download our app when they could do a simple Internet search for the same information?

Passionate in our belief in Alleviate’s potential, we decided to take a risk: we scrapped our entire app and restarted. The project submission date was in April, so we only had a little more than two months to recreate our app. We went back to our research phase, analyzing each and every survey response once more as well as consulting our mentor for guidance.

After a myriad of brainstorming sessions, we wondered – what if users could literally communicate with the app? That’s when we came up with the idea of using speech recognition in our Interaction feature to allow the user to talk to the app. With this discovery, we began to speed through the reconstruction of Alleviate.

We personalized Alleviate’s Interaction feature to whether users were verbal or non-verbal, based on the information we collect from when the user first creates an account. This feature includes a game where the device displays an image and verbally asks a question to the user about that image. Non-verbal users, or users who cannot use their voice, are prompted to click the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ buttons in response to the question. Verbal users can respond to the question by recording their voice using the microphone button. A variety of topics are available, such as emotions, manners, actions and more.

As for Alleviate’s Relaxation feature, it offers a variety of calming music tracks and breathing exercises for the user to listen to. It also includes a customizable breathing simulator: an animation that expands and contracts to allow the user to practice inhaling and exhaling accordingly. (For a video demonstration of Alleviate’s features, visit https://youtu.be/ZYEP7C-qAAU)

Now that we had created our app, we decided to test it out on the special education community at our school. After contacting the special education director, Elinor Yamauchi, we set up a meeting with the students. It was amazing to see the impact that our hard work had on these kids! Both students and volunteers were so enthusiastic about Alleviate. “The kids really enjoyed it. They liked being able to customize the color with the breathing [simulator],” said Yamauchi.

The last few weeks before the due date for the competition were spent cleaning up our app, completing other elements of the project (e.g. business plan) and working on our presentation for our Regional live pitch, which was to take place in May of 2018. The submission process was stressful, as we kept having last-minute bugs pop up when we ran our code, but we were able to pull through and complete the challenge.

All of our hard work and presentation practice paid off, as we were selected as the first place winner in our region! But our work didn’t stop there. Over the summer, we continued to improve Alleviate, coding it in Swift so it would be available not only on Android devices but on iOS devices as well.

When the 2018 Technovation Season Results came out, we were stunned – our team had qualified as a senior division finalist team! With over 2,000 app submissions from over 20,000 girls around the world, we had been selected as one of the 6 top senior teams. It was an honor for us, and a huge milestone in FemStem’s journey.

This experience can only be described as a rollercoaster of events – from knowing nothing about coding in the very beginning to becoming Technovation Global Finalists in the end. We learned so much about not only hands-on skills, such as coding and writing a business plan, but we also learnt important life skills, such as teamwork, perseverance and the importance of passion and belief in our work. We are so grateful to Technovation for giving us the opportunity to discover our potential, and to learn that we really can make a difference.

               ************

However, we are still aware that there are millions of young women around the world who are not as lucky as us to receive the same opportunities in the field of technology that we enjoy. Why? This is because gender stereotypes unfortunately still exist today. Women constantly face discrimination when attempting to pursue a STEM career, simply because of their identity as females.

It’s our duty to eliminate the stigma associated with women in STEM and to empower females around the world. Freedom of education is a birthright, regardless of gender. We must ensure equal opportunities are provided for everyone in order for progress to be made in our society, and until then, we must keep fighting.

After all, as Pakistani women rights activist, Malala Yousafzai, once said, “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”

A special thanks to Sarah Sullivan, our mentor, who guided us each step of the way, the special education community at our school, as well as all the Technovation club officers at Monta Vista High School for their tremendous support.

For more information about FemStem, visit http://www.teamfemstem.weebly.com.

 

The Thieves Who Did Not Steal

On every visit back to India, my grandparents shower me with the stories of old, served hot with a little bit of spice to taste. Usually, the stories follow a predictable pattern, trying to teach us a lesson about our own morality.

My patti (grandmother) begins, “In those days, in the town of my patti, and my patti’s patti, people lived god-fearing lives. They adhered to the rules laid out for them in Hindu scripture and rarely deviated from their entrenched value systems.”

“One day, my patti (your great great grandmother) received a letter in the mail. Inside was a slightly faded yellow parchment:

‘Next week, at dusk before the new moon, we will come to rob your house.’

In those days, honesty was a rule that no one dared cross. Even the thieves would go about their trade honestly. As paradoxical as it seems, they too would try to abide by the principles set forth in Hindu law.”

Patti continued, with a look of wonderment in her eyes, “In those days, people were very intelligent. Even though they often did not have a formal education, they knew how to use the rules of dharma strategically. So, the night before the new moon, my patti spent the whole evening cooking up a storm. She sweated and stirred until she was satisfied. She lined  traditional delicacies out row by row, the colors glistening with oil and ghee. Scripture had taught her to treat her guests akin to God. In the night, she sat waiting, honoring her role as a host, even to the thieves.”

“That night, the robbers crept in. There were three imposing men, with menacing faces and sharpened knives. They were fully equipped to rob my grandparents. Slowly, they jumped through the gate and made their way into the house. Famished, they were unable to resist the aromas of oil, spice, and sugar that welcomed  them. So they sat and ate, licking every last drop of my patti’s special payasam (sweet delicacy). But now, they could not rob the house. The Vedas say that no one can bite the hand that has fed them. So they went away, thanked my patti, and never returned. She was left unharmed.”

“The next month, Pongal (a South Indian harvest festival) was around the corner. Patti went about her way, preparing for the holiday: cooking, cleaning, and praying in honor of the auspicious event. As she received the mail for the day, she saw a curious-looking green envelope, stamped from the bank. It was a receipt for mail-ordered cash, sent alongside a fond note:

‘Akka, please accept my humble gift to you this Pongal. I hope to reciprocate your unparalleled kindness.’

“The note was unsigned, but Patti knew that the handwriting matched the letter she had received from the thief the first time. Regardless of what we perceive people to be, living a life of dharma will only ever be rewarded. Follow your values, and your life will be filled with supreme meaning.”

As I reflect on this story, I don’t marvel at the irony of the outcome. I don’t speculate about the tale’s reality, which for the purposes of this exercise, doesn’t really matter. What is called into question is the very composition of our own value systems, where they stem from, and how we choose to execute them.

In a society that prioritizes liberty and independence, there seems to be no role for a life of duty and obeisance. A Western progressive emphasis on equality is at odds with the karmic argument that we deserve our relative positions in the world. A secular structure does not see the merits of ritual practices, prayer, and worship. Reconciling where each one of us stands on these issues, what constitutes our personal value system, poses a challenge that acts on each one of our daily interactions. When push comes to shove, can we always abide by the set of rules we have adopted?

Sitting outside Valluvar Kottam, a monument in Chennai, I was presented with the spitting image of irony. The monument is dedicated to the poet who composed the Thirukkural, a treatise that describes the moral codes relevant to all human beings through all of time, summarizing the essence of the Vedas. Each granite block in the monument was inscribed with a Hindu rule of righteousness. The architecture was devoted to propagating the instructions for a life ruled by a code of values. And yet, the edges of the walls were stained with urine. The eyes of the construction workers renovating the monument lingered on me for an uncomfortably long time. The outside of the monument was a gathering spot for corrupt politicians delivering empty lies to a charged public. Although these ancient rules for living had a utopic societal system in mind, they produce an insurmountable chasm between the few who live a life of values and the many who spit in the face of the rules.

I haven’t called into question my own values in quite a long time, but I know I live in hypocrisy. I demand honesty though I can slide through lies like a hot knife through butter. I care about my family, though I deem it impossible to make the kinds of sacrifices that I have seen my relatives make to care for each other. I believe in progress, but sometimes I don’t know if a system really needs the kind of change I prescribe for it. My own values are loose, unrefined, and malleable. While I criticize the rigidity and ostentatious moral purity of the Indian system, I don’t have the fortitude to lead my life by commandment, nor to derive happiness from that.

Our world might objectively function better if we each stuck to a set of values. But agreeing on what makes up those rules is a challenge that millennia of war and discussion have not been able to reconcile. But what we can do is ask ourselves what types of lives we want to lead and what value systems matter to us. And though we don’t realize it, personal values are difficult to articulate and even more challenging to truly execute.

As we prepare for a new year with resolutions, introspection, and evaluation, it makes sense to come back to the big picture. Who are we, what do we care about, and how are we going to define our own morality?

Swathi Ramprasad is a sophomore at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.

Date/Time Event
Oct 18, 2018 - Jan 21, 2019
All Day
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Nov 29, 2018 - Feb 16, 2019
11:00 am - 7:00 pm
Events Across the Globe
An Indo-U.S. Cultural Saga
DAG, Mumbai Maharashtra
Jan 19, 2019
7:30 am - 6:00 pm
Thaipoosa Walk
Thaipoosa Walk
San Ramon Central Park, San Ramon CA
Jan 19, 2019 - Jan 20, 2019
6:00 pm - 7:00 pm
*US West Coast
Beginner's Mind - a level 2 course.
ZenVidhya, San Jose CA

A Firebrand Poet: Subramania Bharathi

May 27, 1996.

The Indian Parliament is hotly discussing a no-confidence motion. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Prime Minister as well as a poet, rises in defense of the government and waxes poetic about his vision for Mother India:

Thirty crore faces hath She, yet

    She hath only one body and soul.

Eighteen spoken languages hath She, yet

    She hath only one thought.

A glorious poem, to be sure. But it isn’t his poem, (as he himself acknowledges); it is that of a Tamil poet who lived about a hundred years earlier. The poem doesn’t help Vajpayee stay in power – he resigns after just 13 days in office. And the numbers in the poem are wrong for modern India — we have added a few more faces to the thirty crore since the poet’s days and a few more languages to the list of recognized languages, but these details  do not detract from the grandeur and relevance of Subramania Bharati’s vision for a united India. Like all visionaries, he dreamed big, unfettered by reality and by our frailties. His dream, elusive then, is elusive now too.

For a mere mortal to try to do justice to a giant’s glory is naïve at best, but this mere mortal (aka the author) happened to study in the same school that this giant did — M. D. T. Hindu College School, as it was called then, in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, and walked on the hallowed ground this great one had blessed by his presence. So, he has an irrepressible urge to celebrate his revered idol’s glory which blinds him to his limitations, hence this vain essay to sing his praise. Certainly, the easiest way to destroy fine poetry is to translate it, but he will do it anyway, for the poet’s immortal words are seared deep in his brain.

********

Bharati was born as Subramanian in a humble Brahmin family in Ettayapuram near Tirunelveli on December 11, 1881. When he was just 11, the Ettayapuram king at that time recognized Goddess Saraswati dancing on Subramanian’s  silver tongue and bestowed on him the title “Bharati,” a title that was destined to become his name itself. Bharati studied in Tirunelveli, and, after his parents’ death, he continued studies in Varanasi where he gained a broader outlook. Back in Madras Presidency as an adult, he wielded his mighty pen, both as a poet and as an editor of various magazines, arousing patriotism and resistance to the British rule. When he was about to be arrested by the British, he fled to the French-ruled city of Pondicherry and continued his mission from there. He associated with freedom fighters like Gokhale and Lajpat Rai. After establishing himself as an undisputed poetic genius, he departed this world while he was back in Madras at the young age of 39.  following an unfortunate attack by a temple elephant.

A roaring flame was thus extinguished prematurely. Sad indeed.

********

As a poet, Bharati was as diverse as he was prolific, treading multiple landscapes with ease: nationalism, bhakti, nature, women’s amelioration, and his vision for a casteless society. Stylistically, he was a Hemingway among poets; he revolutionized poetry by employing simple Tamil, thus making it accessible to the masses. We’ll try to sample his glory along three dimensions: patriotism, his revolutionary spirit, and bhakti.

Bharati’s patriotism is set in the context of colonial India.  Of Winston Churchill’s rousing, patriotic speeches to his nation during WWII, Edward R. Murrow famously said that he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle. Bharati did much the same, employing Tamil against the British. In his poem “vandE mAtaram,” he asks:

A thousand may be the castes we have, still

    A foreigner to rule us, is that just?

Those born from the same mother’s womb,

    Even if they quarrel, siblings are they not?

Bharati’s artillery of rhetorical questions (especially when read in Tamil) never fails to arouse an intense feeling.  

But, if Bharati’s criticism of the British rule was scathing, his disapproval of his own brethren for their disunity and petty squabbles was scorching. In his famous poem “nenju porukkudilaiyE,” (My heart can’t take it), he laments:

“It’s a five-headed snake,” the father would say, but

    “It’s six-headed,” should the son say,

Their hearts will part ways, and then

    For long they’ll remain foes.

Behind the façade of an amusing analogy lurks a searing pain in the poet’s heart, intense and unmistakable.

Bharati never allowed himself to be circumscribed by regional boundaries. In his poem “Bharata Desam,” in the verse “sindu nadiyin misai,” which is set to a delightful movie melody, he says:

On the Indus river, under a (lovely) moon,

Surrounded by (pretty) young women from Kerala,

Singing songs (heartily) in beautiful Telugu,

We will row the boats and play (in joyous merriment).

The river chosen is from the far northwest of pre-partition India, the women are from Kerala, the language of the songs is Telugu, and the poet is Tamil. Is there an iota of parochialism in this divine poet?

********

In his revolutionary spirit, Bharati was way ahead of his times.  He denounced casteism with full throated fervor. In “vandE mAtaram,” he says of the so-called low castes:

“Lowly” pariahs they may be, but

    Do they not live amongst us?

Does it make them Chinese? Or,

    Harm us, do they, like those foreign?

Another volley of uncomfortable rhetorical questions leaves us squirming with shame! (The “Chinese” here is just a proxy for someone from an alien culture.)

Bharati championed women’s upliftment tirelessly. His “pudumai peN,” or modern woman, retains the best of our culture while discarding her shackles. In his “peNgaL viDudalai kummi,” or, a dandiya raas dance celebrating women’s liberation, the women sing:

To talk about chastity they’ve come, but

    It’s common to both parties, we’ll insist.

In a land where the monogamous hero of the Ramayana is venerated, requiring chastity exclusively of one gender  is a clear abomination but society had legitimized it, and Bharati’s pudumai peN would not take it lying down. In “pAnchAli sabadam,” or “Draupadi’s Vow,” Bharati’s rendition of a portion of Mahabharata, this pudumai peN dons the mantle of Draupadi. When she is dragged to the royal court after she had been gambled away as property and lost, she demands to know what right Yudhishthira had, to gamble her away after he had lost himself. When the illustrious pitamaha, Bhishma, dolefully responds that the shastras do allow it, Bharati’s Draupadi drips with sarcasm and says (in section 27):

Speak well did thou, Sir, of dharma.

Back when Ravana, with deceit, abducted,

And imprisoned Lady Sita in Ashoka Garden,

And called his counsel and connoisseurs of shastras,

And apprised them of the tidings of Sri Devi’s capture,

“Thou did well, Sire; with dharma, this act

Fully conforms,” did rejoice these connoisseurs!

When ghouls rule, shastras will recommend a diet of cadavers, (won’t they?)!

If words could kill, this last line of Bharati’s Draupadi would have incinerated that entire court, including the guilt-ridden Yudhishthira.

********

Finally, Bharati’s bhakti is tender, uplifting, and imaginative. His “kaNNan pATTu,” a collection of songs about Krishna, is legendary and extends the imagination of the Azhvar saints of South India, who had already viewed Kannan (Krishna) as their own child (Periyazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in Yashodha-bhAvam) or as their beau while imagining themselves to be a woman (Nammazhvar and Tirumangai Azhvar in nAyika-bhAvam). This latter view is often seen as the longing of the individual soul for the Supreme Soul. To these traditional views, Bharati adds several more: Kannan is his belle (how dare he?) with a name of Kannamma, his servant (o, what chutzpah!), his friend, his mother, his father, his king, his sishya, and his guru. It is indeed  Bharati’s imagination and revolutionary spirit to view Kannan in these non-traditional ways, but regardless of the particular view, he always expresses quintessential bhakti. In “Asai mugam marandu pochchE” (Alas, His face is gone from my memory), the pining damsel conveys a haunting anguish about being unable to recall her separated lover Kannan’s face vividly. A musical rendition of this poem conveys that heart-rending heartache through its sublime melody (though one must be willing to overlook the singer’s annoying mispronunciation of the first word of the poem). In “kaNNan en sEvagan” (Kannan, My Servant), the poet voices his frustration about the previous servants he’s had:

“Why a no-show yesterday, pray tell?” – Should I ask,

“That scorpion in the pot bit me with its very teeth, Sire,” – they’d say

“The wife was possessed by a demon, Sire” – they’d say

“’Twas the 12th day of my grandmother’s passing, Sire” – they’d say

Always a lie they’d tell; If I tell them one thing, they’ll do another.

While we’re still picturing with amusement that Guinness-eligible scorpion that is blessed with shark-like teeth, the poet is already describing the bliss that Kannan brings him as his servant:

A friend, a counsel, a good teacher – He’s all.

In character, a God; in looks, a servant;

He came from God-knows-where; “a cowherd, Sire,” announced He,

To be blessed with Him here, O, what penance have I done!

As the poet holds forth on the glory of his divine servant, our heart brims with unspeakable gratitude at His love and caring, and we get ready to prostrate at this servant’s feet.

Finally, in “KaNNammA en kAdali – 6” (Kannamma, my sweetheart), the poet describes how complementary he and Kannamma are to each other (Sudha Raghunathan’s rendering here):

A star, You are to me; the cool moon, I am to You;

Bravery, You are to me; triumph, I am to You;

All the bliss in this world and heaven,

Blend so well into your form, O, my sweet nectar!

Isn’t that how all relationships with the significant other ought to be?

We conclude with Bharati’s prayer to Siva Shakti, or Goddess Shakti. Bharati saw the human being, including himself, as the ultimate in divine creation. In “nalladOr veeNai seidE”  (Priya Sisters soulful rendering here), he uses the metaphor of a finely crafted veena to refer to himself. For the Mother Goddess to let him waste his life is tantamount to Her throwing that exquisite veena in trash. So, he says:

Will you not bless me with the ability

    To live so this land gains from me?

Tell me, O, Shiva Shakti,

    Will you rather let me live as a burden on this land?

What a noble aspiration! So, here’s hoping that we, those metaphorical veenas, forever fill the air with the sublime melody of usefulness to others, the melody that She intended for us to create! The poet’s immortal spirit will brook nothing less from us.

Hamsanandi (real name: Vijay Pitchumani) is an engineer living in Fremont, California, with his wife, Sheela. Together they run an effort called Heritage-of-India classes, which currently teaches the Divya Prabandham online. They can be reached at the gmail id of hoiclasses.

 

Top Ten Bollywood Movies of 2018

Women shone in Hindi cinema in 2018, the Khans sobered down, solid scripts made their mark, and character actors rocked big along with stunning lead performances.

HAMIDA’S TOP TEN COUNTDOWN

Here are my top ten, chosen mainly for their content, uniqueness, and repeat value, not necessarily indicative of box office results.

10-6. Hard-hitting Mukkabaaz (#10) What’s Mukkabaaz? It was Anurag Kashyap’s first release in January 2018, starring Vineet Kumar Singh. Trust me, it’s a little gem you do want to discoverHorror comedy Stree (#9), fiery and racy Pataakha (#8), breezy Veere Di Wedding (#7), love spectacle Manmarziyaan (#6) were all winners.

5. Sanju: If it wasn’t for Ranbir Kapoor’s maverick performance, Rajkumar Hirani’s white-washed portrayal of Sanjay Dutt might not have made it. It looked like Hirani wasn’t able to get over his love for Sanjay and make an honest movie. Ranbir is flawless as Sanju though… missing out on the magnificence of his genius would be a crime.

4. Badhaai Ho: What sheer brilliance of finding comedy in the mundane. Amit Sharma executes pure entertainment on screen with the material that writers Shanatanu Srivastava, Akshat Ghildial and Jyoti Kapoor deliver on paper. Neena Gupta excels as a mother who finds herself pregnant in a mature age and decides to keep the baby, blaming husband Gajraj Rao for the predicament. People react to the news in hilarious ways. Son Ayushmann Khurrana is highly embarrassed. A fresh perspective on the vagaries of life. Do not miss.

3. October: Writer Juhi Chaturvedi’s tale about a man’s journey of unconditional love was the most remarkable movie of 2018. Director Shoojit Sircar tiptoes his way around her beautiful writing with an ultra-sensitive touch. Varun Dhawan is a revelation. In the crazy hustle bustle of life, this one way track of quiet love is sure to survive the test of selfish times. It’s an experience worth living.

2. Raazi: Director Meghana Gulzar delivers one of the highest-grossing Indian films featuring a female protagonist at ₹194.06 crore. What an inspiration that her story is based on a real events from the life of a female spy. Alia Bhatt’s turned in a fantastic performance. In her sixth film, Meghana gets the balance right between commercial and critical, making it a clear winner. Watch it.

1. Andhadhun: What’s not to love about this complex web of deceit and black humor? Ayushmann Khurrana and Tabu are top notch, not one scene where either of them are slacking off. The piano playing, the rabbit, Anil Dhawan, the sleeping crab, the blindness, the actors, the props. Five writers, Sriram Raghavan, Arijit Biswas, Pooja Ladha Surti, Yogesh Chandekar, Hemanth Rao, and yet they don’t spoil this innovative sleuth broth. Director Shriram Raghavan is perfection personified. Ignore at your own risk.

andhadhun

BOX OFFICE RANKINGS

Returning to mainstream with a solid presence, women made ample use of significant screen time devoted to them. Six movies with female-driven plots made it to top ten performers at the box office including Padmaavat (#2)Hichki (#6)Badhaai Ho (#7)Pad Man (#8)Raazi (#9) and Stree (#10). Be it lead or supporting roles, they left their stamp. (Source: Wikipedia)

Alia Bhatt got to play a female spy with Raazi, Deepika Padukone and Aditi Rao Hydari stood strong against Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat, Rani Mukherjee excelled as a teacher with Tourette syndrome in Hichki, Neena Gupta was most graceful as a pregnant woman at 59 years, and Surekha Sikhri was the pluckiest grandma in Badhaai Ho.

Tabu was in fantastic form, sinking her artistic teeth into quirky Missing and Andhadhun. Radhika Apte had an interesting year with distinctive parts in Pad ManBazaarLust Stories and Andhadhun. Anushka Sharma explored supernatural realms with Pari while Kajol found her groove as a single mom in Helicopter Eela. Nandita Das dabbled with the greys of troubled writer Manto, who sought dignity and voice for women in his writing. Stree pulled the safety net off men, throwing them to danger against the ghost of a woman.

There were also those who balanced entertainment with social critique beautifully. Manmarziyaan, written by Kanika Dhillon, was director Anurag Kashyap’s sobering foray into a woman’s heart and dilemma. Veere Di Wedding registered itself as the first movie on female friendships with foursome Kareena Kapoor, Swara Bhasker, Sonam Kapoor, and Shikha Talsania; and notched its first female masturbation scene in Hindi cinema. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Pataakha unleashed female anger and energy with gusto.

manmarziyaan

The Khans appeared shaky with mediocre films but still pulled in the audiences. Salman’s Race 3 (#3) and Aamir’s Thugs of Hindostan (#4) raked in respectable sums at ₹303 crore and ₹262.97 crore. Shah Rukh’s  flight of ingenious fancy Zero opened to mixed responses, cruising along a decent ₹59.07 crore in the first 3 days. The daring Saif Ali Khan superbly experimented with black comedy Kaalakandi and a shaded role in commercial flick Bazaar.

His daughter with Amrita Singh, Sara Ali Khan, made a spirited debut with Kedarnath. Iconic female actor Sridevi, who died in an accident earlier this year on February 24th, missed her daughter Janhvi’s sparkling debut in Dhadak by five months.

Tiger Shroff scored again with his mindless masala franchise Baaghi 2 (#5). Ranveer Singh had a thundering turn in Padmaavat as Alahuddin Khilji. His Simmba with director Rohit Shetty looks like a sure-shot box office winner. Ranbir Kapoor clawed his way back to success with an ace performance in Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (#1), the year’s top grosser with ₹586.85 crore.

Supporting actors made a big impact: Gajraj Rao in Badhaai Ho, Abhishek Banerjee and Pankaj Tripathi in Stree, Jim Sarbh in Padmaavat, Vicky Kaushal in Raazi and Sanju. His crazed lover performance as second lead in Manmarziyaan was simply superb, he also starred in Love Per Square Foot and Lust Stories. Rajkummar Rao had a few releases, his Stree with Shraddha Kapoor (whose Batti Gul Meter Chalu with Shahid Kapoor tanked) was a sleeper hit with ₹180.76 crore.

The dark horse of the year turned out to be Ayushmann Khurrana, with two movies, Andhadhun(₹111 crores) and Badhaai Ho (₹221.48 crores), ringing loudly at the ticket windows.

Th-th-th-that’s it, folks! Happy watching! See you in 2019!

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

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.

 

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Unsung Heroine: Bridging Generations And Continents

 

Today, I lost my guru. And today, along with her, the world lost a deivam.

Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan was more than a guru to me. She was a caretaker and a soldier, a giver and a fighter, a pillar in the fortress of Carnatic music.

As a disciple of the legendary Karaikkudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer, her name stood tall. But as a musician herself? Her name remained cloaked, known to a select few. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. What happened?

She would lovingly tell me stories of how she first started learning veena. As a particularly rambunctious child, she was constantly getting into trouble. Her parents, exasperated and not knowing what to do, took her to the legend himself, Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer. He lived nearby, and they believed he would give her something to focus her energies on besides causing trouble.

Ranganayaki Paatti’s eyes sparkled as the not-so-fond memory came back to her. The first meeting with him was nothing short of disaster. Sambasiva Iyer, in a deep depression after the death of his brother, Subbarama Iyer, apparently did not want to teach anyone music. After much coaxing, however, from “Veena Periamma” (as Ranganayaki Paatti referred to Sambasiva Iyer’s wife), Sambasiva Iyer agreed to let the little girl try learning from him.

Shortly after teaching her the saralivarisai, he asked her to sing it back. She was a three year old at the time. She stared blankly for a minute, then attempted something. Finding her maiden attempt not to his satisfaction, he promptly took the little girl and angrily dumped her in a freezing-cold tub of water at the back of the house. Veena Periamma fished her out and dried her off.

Apparently, this traumatic experience, which she recollected even 80+ years after the fact with stunning detail, didn’t stop little Ranganayaki Paatti from doing more veshamam (trouble). Her parents were so desperate that they tried again with Sambasiva Iyer – this time, he was slightly less moody. With much coaxing, he said “yes” to becoming her guru.

This did not come without a price, for all parties concerned. This was full-on gurukulavasam, with no loose ends. Little Ranganayaki would not be able to see her parents again; even when they came to check on her progress, he would shut her away from them. She needed to believe that Sambasiva Iyer was her family, and indeed, he did eventually become family – her own “Veena Periappa.” But, as with all family members, duty came first, and in this case, that duty was the role of a guru. I would listen in rapt attention as Paatti described the years of intense training with Sambasiva Iyer in exquisite detail:

For the first few years, they didn’t even touch the instrument. Everything was done through vocal music, since Paatti was so tiny. She learned her saralivarisai, jantavarisai, alankArams and other basic exercises in an unusual manner. Sambasiva Iyer would use his angavastram (upper waist cloth) to tether Ranganayaki paatti to his own waist, making sure she didn’t run away. He would even take her into the bathroom, closing the curtain and tying the angavastram to a nearby pole. This system was implemented with great discipline, since she had escaped bolting down the road laughing after the first time he attempted to teach her.

He would also do things like sing alapana phrases for her to decode into swarams (from behind the bathroom curtain, sometimes), and teach her to put two taalams simultaneously. She didn’t understand what the fuss was all about when people came over and marveled at the six year old putting simultaneous taalams nonchalantly – at least, not until she was much older.

Then came the initiation onto the veena itself. This was the most intense part – she would wake up at four and practice till seven, bathe and eat some idlis, then practice for another three hours until 1 in the afternoon, when lunch would happen. A four-hour nightly learning session would also take place, after which she would go to bed. There was no time for learning anything else – she lived and breathed music.

Sambasiva Iyer would make her practice each line of everything 100 times, even when she was learning the sarali varisai. If on the 99th time she made a mistake, he would make her start again, maybe even involve a perambu (bamboo stick) to do the talking! She told me, her eyes winking, that she would purposefully make mistakes on the 99th time just to anger him. What a woman! She would also have to put thoppukaranam (ukki) in three speeds, chanting “nAn thappu paNNa mATTEn” (“I will not make mistakes”). I like to think that this drilled layam (sense of rhythm) into her body. Not once in any of her concerts or classes did I ever see her lift her head to look at where she was in the taalam cycle. At this pace, she learned over 400 songs from him, with songs taking as long as a month each to complete.

He even taught her all of his chittaswarams. These contain extremely fast gamakas and are notoriously difficult to play, composed seemingly with the goal to mess vainikas up!  Before she taught me the chittaswaram in Kalyani raagam, she chuckled and said, “you know how many times I got sharp raps on the fingers for making mistakes in this chittaswaram?” Needless to say, we spent a lot of time together that day.

Her first performance was shortly after her sixth birthday. Scared to death, she ran off stage, only to be greeted by an irate Sambasiva Iyer who scooped her up and put her back onto the stage. He must have had a guilty conscience, because after every time he berated her, he’d lift her up and say to her, “You know why I did that, right? I want you to play well, that’s all.” And then he’d pamper her with balloons, chocolates, lush silk skirts, and everything else a child could want. This performance was followed by many more, with her performing alongside him everywhere he went, with nothing but rave reviews coming her way.

By the time she was thirteen, she was married and moved off to Chennai, but that didn’t stop Sambasiva Iyer from traveling to her home every time she had All India Radio solo concerts. She’d come back home and he used to shower her with praise and gifts. He was so proud of her.

Family duties, however, took over as the years progressed. And thus started a slow fade into oblivion for all but the most knowledgable of musicians. With children and grandchildren by the time she was in her early thirties, and with the death of Sambasiva Iyer, my guru was so busy with family duties, that music became less of a focus for her. She went on a few tours and played numerous recordings for All India Radio, but other than that, her name faded. Eventually, health issues took over, and before I came to her, she had all but stopped playing.

Again, I am so very thankful that my mother learned from this stalwart, because if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have had the bhagyam (good fortune) of doing so myself. I had learned from my mother, who was a student of hers, for around 4 years. When we approached Ranganayaki Paatti for classes, she declined initially, citing her various ailments. My grandfather eventually played a recording of my first concert to her, and she said “Wait, is this me? It sounds like me, but it’s not me. Who is this?” That’s the highest praise I could have gotten from her. And she agreed to teach me that day!

And what a condition – at that point, she was on a walker, barely getting up from her bed. As the years passed, she was eventually bedridden. The Parkinson’s took its toll, as her jaw and hands wavered uncontrollably even when sitting idly. Even then, despite the difficulties of her everyday life, she agreed to teach me. The pure joy I felt when she agreed to teach me, and the pure joy I got every day with her afterward, is bittersweet now.

On the first day, we went, lifted her up to a sitting position and then handed her a veena from her closet, untouched for years on end. She assigned one veena for me too. After cleaning the two, I started learning my first song from her – Padavini. But in the middle, she stopped, and asked to try again the next day. The first year was hard, as she was unsure if she could continue to teach me. But by the end of that summer, in 2007, she told me to come back from America the following year.

From then on, it seemed that I would be fated to have a completely different training style from her – where she had  taken months to master a song, I would learn a couple of songs every day. And, of course, I made mistakes, Whereas she had received physical reinforcement in the form of raps on her wrist when she made mistakes, I received a “Mm?” And a sweet, toothless smile. How I miss that smile today.

None of us spoke about it openly, but every year was a race against time, to soak up everything she had before the inevitable happened. In between those intense summers of lessons in Chennai, I listened to her old recordings, trying to imbibe her style. Some things struck me

Every note and every line of every song in every recording rings true – that’s her mark. Purity of sound, “Gundu” (fat) notes in every strum, pure music. A bani focused on quality over everything, even at the highest of speeds; veena at its finest. And the thanam – oh, what a thanam! At 86, with Parkinson’s, tumors in her stomach, bedridden, with stiff legs, uncontrollably shaking hands, her fingers would still dish out the most amazing thanam! Pure magic!

I miss everything about her. I remember the stiffness of her legs, her quivering mouth, her shaking hands, her long, bony, beautiful, yet uncontrolled finger movements, her every sigh, and her quiet chuckle. I owe her so much and it’s impossible to put into words what I have received from her.

This is but a sliver of the story I have crafted with her, and it’s sad that the story could not have been longer. Had I started earlier, had she continued playing, this story could have been much different. But stories are written in Indian ink, not pencil. They are as permanent as the inevitable itself, and I have to live with that.

As her student, and as a student of her student, I hold a responsibility to her – my guru – and her bani to see to it that the slow decline of the veena is turned around; to make it my life’s work to be a torchbearer for the incredible blessing that is my musical training, the instillation of the Karaikkudi bani in me.

I will do it for her – she who gave me everything when her body and mind didn’t cooperate, she who affectionately made a student into a musician, a mere boy into something more. I am indebted to her, as is the world for her music. I will always remember her as the kindest, gentlest soul to have graced the earth with her presence.

I love you, Ranganayaki paatti. I always will.

Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (3 May 1932-20 September 2018).

Guhan Venkataraman, a second year Ph.D. student at Stanford University, USA, is a vainika of the Karaikudi parampara. He started learning veena from his mother Smt. Lakshmi Venkataraman at age 8, and continued his discipleship under Kalaimamani Smt. Ranganayaki Rajagopalan (herself a direct disciple of the legendary Karaikudi Sri. Sambasiva Iyer). He continues to enlarge and refine his scholarship and repertoire under the tutelage of Sri R. K. Shriramkumar and Delhi Sri P. Sunder Rajan.

On A Flight To A Land Without Borders

I boarded the flight at the end of what seemed like a long week. I was going away for a few days, and the preceding weeks had been hectic and frenzied. It felt good to finally stretch one’s legs (as much as an economy seat would allow anyway), relax one’s senses, and stretch one’s mind.

The flight felt strangely beautiful. In the evening, and as the plane took off, we left behind a sparkling firework of lights. The vast, urban sprawling city and its surrounding areas looked kindlier from above. The freeways glowed like veins, throbbing with cars as they crammed their way home for the weekend along packed highways. I have watched ants with interest as they scurried around accomplishing tasks. Looking at the cars along the highways, I felt that we must look like ants, if someone were to be observing us from afar. I wondered if scientists who were in charge of monitoring satellites felt this way from time to time. At night, the bay area looked beautiful from an airplane, though all sense of ethereal beauty is lost when one is down below navigating along its crowded highways.

I fell into an uneasy slumber once we passed the populated areas of the bay area. I looked out of the window hours later, and was pleasantly surprised by the beauty that greeted me. The plane was gently reverberating with the satisfied sighs of sleep from passengers around me. A few were watching brightly glowing screens. I peered out of the window, at first unable to see clearly, since it took me some time to adjust to the sudden lack of light. Once I did though, it was marvelous.

I have always loved gazing at the moon while traveling. The feeling of us moving in tandem, with our beautiful cosmic neighbor has always been surreal.

I could not see the moon just yet, but I recognized the belt of Orion. We were flying alongside the big hunter as he made his way in his pursuit of the seven sisters across the skies. It was  a strange feeling to watch the stars and a familiar constellation accompany us on the trip while we journeyed through the stars.

The Pale Blue Dot, as Carl Sagan so beautifully christened our lovely, if sometimes crazy planet, seems wonderful from high above. It helps us forget how judgmental, critical, harsh and war-mongering a species we are. While up there, borders and countries seem like a strange concept, like a tiger marking its territory. Can the tiger determine where life can flourish, where the weeds grow, or how many gusts of wind may swish through the bamboo groves? Our borders mean much the same especially when surveyed from the stratosphere; meaningless asks from an arbitrary marking.

Musings from the wonderful book, Lands of Lost Borders by Kate Harris, took me to an uneasy land of half slumber in which strange dreams accompanied unknown stars through a flight that even a 150 years ago would have been nothing but a flight of fancy.

Kate Harris’s work is one for every traveler’s soul. The author writes of her journey across the oldest and possibly most famous road in the world, The Silk Route. Wanting to lose herself in a unique experience, she finds herself on one of the oldest roads known to civilization.

Along with her friend Mel, the two women cycle through Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, the stan-countries after Russia’s disintegration (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyztan, Uzbekistan), China, Tibet, Nepal and finally India – camping by roadsides, accepting the kind hospitality of friends and strangers along the way, navigating border authorities, paper work and visa restrictions. As the author and her friend cycle through lands fractured by war, torn apart by hardship, and held apart by rigid, if frail fences of barbed wire, it begs us to evaluate the meaning of borders.

There were many instances when I nodded along emphatically with the sentiment she expresses, like how the only borders that mean anything to her are the natural ones:

“Mountains and lakes and rivers are the oldest kinds of borders, and maybe the only sort I fully respect.”

The true voice of an explorer, her clear heart blurs borders while sizing up people.

I may not get on a biking trip to travel the Silk Road myself, but I am grateful to my father who took us traveling to far off lands as much as his budget and salary as a school teacher would allow. “Travel is a form of education,” he would say in his deep voice with conviction.

So, what does travel teach me? It gives me an appreciation for the place I call “home” for sure, but more importantly, travel allows me the luxury of contemplating an alternate mode of life: a what-if angle to life – what if I had been born elsewhere, what if my circumstances had been different, what if my religion were different, what if I had not been born female, what if I had been born in a different era – the list of “what-ifs” were endless.

A sense of empathy and compassion comes from interacting with people vastly different from us, and yet are the same in innumerable ways. The warmth of a smile, the contours of worry, the pangs of hunger, the exhaustion and exhilaration of sharing the same planet unite us in as many ways as they divide us.

Now, I appreciate more fully Mark Twain’s quote on travel:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I stirred from my corner of the airplane seat to see how far we had come.  The skies were brightening welcoming dawn, and the moon was looking slightly alarmed at still being up and about when the sun was rising. The pink, and orange skies twinkled benignly upon the clouds below, and all the world was still full of promise. The blush of joys unknown.

How To Incorporate Music To Heal

Greg Kaufman manages the Music Program at Stanford Hospital. He recalls being stopped in the hallway by a patient who was going to be discharged. “Aren’t you the music man?” the patient asked Greg.  “Yes,” Greg replied. “There are a lot of great doctors here who cured my body,” the patient continued, “but the music cured my soul!” Greg and his colleagues understand how music can trigger emotional responses in people. Combining their musical skills with training in music therapy, they can stimulate patients or help them relax.  They help them recover from their illnesses to heal faster.

Spurred by several research studies, a number of hospitals have added music therapy to their toolbox of options to ease stress and anxiety in patients and help the healing process. In an article published in the Harvard Health Blog, Beverly Merz remembers how a string quartet playing outside the doors of the breast imaging center shifted her mind away from her anxiety as she waited for her mammogram. “By the time my name was called,” she says, “I had almost forgotten why I was there.”

Amy Novotney describes research on premature babies conducted at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, in which appropriately chosen music could slow a baby’s heart rate, increase the time the infant stayed quiet and alert or sometimes help them sleep longer. In the process, the baby’s positive reactions lowered the parents’ stress.

If you are a science aficionado, pick up a copy of Daniel J. Levitin’s 2006 bestseller This Is Your Brain on Music, and learn about the cognitive neuroscience of music. A professor of neuroscience and music at McGill University, Dr. Levitin and his research colleagues showed that music improves the body’s immune system and reduces stress by increasing production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and cells that attack invading viruses. At the same time, it also reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

You don’t have to be ill to benefit from the healing powers of music.  A growing body of research highlights the various benefits of listening to music that we like. Doing so makes you happier and more relaxed, reduces stress levels, helps you sleep better, and wards off depression.  It also helps you improve memory function and stay sharper with better brain health as you age.

Here are five different ways to incorporate music into your daily routine. (1) Sing in the shower! (2) If you are one of those who turns on the TV in the morning, don’t! Instead, listen to Nikhil Banerjee playing a morning raga on the sitar, your favorite bhajan or the latest from a rock band. (3) if you commute back and forth to work, keep your eyes on the road and your mind on your favorite music playing on your phone or music system. (4) add music to whatever mode of exercise you prefer – and if you don’t exercise regularly, you should! (5) Before you go to bed at night, turn off the lights and listen to 15 minutes of soft, calming music. When I feel down or depressed, I put on my walking shoes don my Bluetooth headphones, head for the park and listen to Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon’s Soul Call.  By the time I get home my heart is singing.  Yours will be too!

Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.  

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community.  Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://sukham.org , or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com  

A Museum All About Ice Cream?

A picture is worth a thousand words. The Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco proves it. With hardly any words to describe ice cream, its history, chemical composition or any other facts one would expect from a building called a museum, this attaction is a genius masterpiece of Instagramable locations. Visitors can take their pictures against backdrops with various props and suck on sugar as they do so. A potent combination it seems because this museum is sold-out most days.

After a long and expensive wait we entered the museum on a Thursday, which was their solo night or the night when the first 350 people are allowed in at no charge. After a two-hour wait, as I moved into the museum, a sense of elation at having made it formed a euphoric cloud around me. Bubblegum pink trees tinseled and sparkled, forming a magical forest. From Nov. 23 to Jan. 6, the museum is transformed into a winter wonderland.

A young Berkeley graduate called Cool Whip invited us, a group of about 10, to give ourselves ice cream names. No one recognized the name I chose, Cassata. Around me my group members called themselves Oreo cookies and strawberry pops. Cassata, an ice cream I had always coveted growing up in India, was too exotic for the 25-to 30-years old around. I felt special.

Cool whip then proceeded to scoop out ice cream to each of us. We slurped our way to the room where we were invited to write messages on lids of ice cream containers and hang them as ornaments on the pink Christmas trees. An inane worthless exercise as by the end of the day all our messages would be trashed and place made for a fresh group of visitors. I read the messages on the lids fluttering from the pink trees. The messages indeed needed to be trashed. Nothing of consequence was written on them. Brains addled with sugar were too busy taking selfies against props.

The pool of sprinkles which holds more than 100 million custom-designed sprinkles was next. We sank our feet into a pool of multicolored rubber vermicelli. I was so relieved to sit down after the long wait that this was definitely my favorite attraction. The soft sprinkles cushioned me. I cracked a smile into my phone.

Room after room covered in multicolored disco wallpaper followed, each with props: a carousel horse, two giant pink cherries, upside down trees, tunnel of lights, mirrored walls, pink wall telephones, white unicorns and more to take pictures with. In every room we were plied with sugar: ice-cream bars, mochi balls, hot chocolate, and candy floss. We emerged into a shop that had more props to take pictures with.

The visit took about an hour and half. We were always with a group leader. Entrance is $38; free for children 2 and younger. Groups of 10 or more can buy tickets at the discounted rate of $29 per ticket. The ticket is only valid on the date of the ticket.

I bid adieu to the sparkling pink forest, with the unicorn, the pink cherries and the disco walls. Will I come back for its new avatar post on Jan. 6? I think not. Even with a free entry, the so-called museum was not for me. However pictures shared on Facebook got a rave reaction. Everyone who saw a picture from the museum wanted to immediately jump into it. Perhaps that explains why what started as an exhibit in Fall 2017 has found a permanent home in San Francisco. It outlasted its sister locations in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. What does that say for San Francisco? That $38 for Instagram-worthy pictures is chump chain for the wealthy denizens of Silicon Valley?

The museum is at 1 Grant Ave., San Francisco. 855-258-0719


Ritu Marwah is an award winning author, chef, debate coach, and mother of two boys. She lives in the Bay Area and has deep experience as a senior executive in Silicon Valley start-ups as well as with large corporations.

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