Concord Temple Yatra: Unique Feat

Walking to a temple to celebrate devotional fervor is a well-understood facet of Hinduism in India. This very devotion drove over 6000 Indian-Americans to walk together to celebrate the festival of thaipoosam with great fervor. Thai is the Tamil name for the month that extends between January 16th to February 15th each year, while poosam is the name of the star poosam in the astrological chart. Bay Area devotees undertook a walk from San Ramon to the Shiva Murugan temple at Concord. The walk has grown exponentially since its start in 2011.

Says Solai Alagappan, the founder-organizer, “In 2011, I participated in a kavadi walk in Singapore, and that was the primary inspiration. With the help of a few friends, we found the trail (Iron Horse regional trail) by biking throughout to make sure that we could navigate the way from San Ramon to Concord without hitting highways or crowded roads. About 150 of us walked in 2011, and this year, we had over 6000 people participating.”

Since last year, I have been volunteering to serve refreshments at one of the snack stations that are set up en route. I helped serve rose milk and sukkumalli coffee (dry ginger coriander coffee) a unique Tamilian recipe for coffee. At our station, we also had small oranges which devotees could eat to restore their energy. From 8.30 am onwards, there was a steady flow of devotees. Some of them stopped at our station to rub vaseline on their feet to avoid sores, others adjusted the multiple layers of socks to fit just right, and all of them refilled their water bottles to continue their trek. Some preferred the cool rose milk, while others made a beeline for the coffee. Either way, what emanated was a sense of camaraderie and a shared sense of community and well-being. Many families had young children with them; some parents were even pushing their youngest in strollers as they walked.

Excellent arrangements through the tireless work of volunteers helped support the devotees. Over 100 volunteers had signed up for various tasks to support the 20+mile walk. There was a bike patrol, car parking patrol, and several volunteers who helped serve breakfast, lunch snacks and water along the way. Breakfast was served in San Ramon. After walking eleven miles, at Las Lomas high school in Walnut Creek, a traditional hot lunch was served on banana leaves and plates to over 2500 people. The lines were orderly and were kept moving smoothly thanks to the volunteers who worked tirelessly. When they reached the temple, the devotees received darshan of Lord Muruga, and shuttles ferried them back to their original parking spots after a long day.

Given the growth of the walk and the enthusiastic support of Indian-Americans, a non profit (http://pathayathirai.org/) has been set up to run the activities every year.

A wonderful yatra to keep alive the devotional fervor, community spirit and the spirit of volunteerism within the community.

Nitupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advice I shouldn’t have to give you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This essay was first published in December 2017.

 

Date/Time Event
Feb 17, 2019 - Feb 24, 2019
5:00 am - 5:00 pm
Yoga Retreats In Rishikesh
Yoga Retreats In Rishikesh
Rishikesh Yog sansthan, Rishikesh Uttarakhand
Feb 19, 2019 - Feb 22, 2019
All Day
IHGF Delhi Fair Spring 2019
IHGF Delhi Fair Spring 2019
India Exposition Mart Ltd, Knowledge Park – II Gautam Budh Nagar Greater Noida Uttar Pradesh
Feb 22, 2019
12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
Understanding The Asian Century
Understanding The Asian Century
Taube Family Auditorium, San Francisco CA
Feb 23, 2019
3:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Parampara 2019
Parampara 2019
Harbeson Hall, Pasedena City College, Pasedena CA

“My mother was the greatest source of inspiration in my life.” Kamala Harris

“My mother was the greatest source of inspiration in my life. She taught me that I had a responsibility to fight for justice.” – Kamala Harris on Twitter. Senator Kamala Harris launched her campaign for President in Oakland, California. Given below is the text of her speech launching her campaign.

I am so proud to be a daughter of Oakland, California. And as most of you know, I was born just up the road at Kaiser Hospital. And it was just a few miles away my parents first met as graduate students at UC Berkeley where they were active in the civil rights movement.They were born half a world apart from each other. My father, Donald, came from Jamaica to study economics. My mother, Shyamala, came from India to study the science of fighting disease.

They came here in pursuit of more than just knowledge.  Like so many others, they came in pursuit of a dream. And that dream was a dream for themselves, for me and for my sister Maya.

Pic: Kamala Harris as a baby with her mother Shyamala Gopalan

As children growing up here in the East Bay, we were raised by a community with a deep belief in the promise of our country – and, a deep understanding of the parts of that promise that still remain unfulfilled. We were raised in a community where we were taught to see a world, beyond just ourselves. To be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people. We were raised to believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is everyone’s responsibility.In fact, my mother used to say “don’t sit around and complain about things, do something.” Basically I think she was saying. You’ve got to get up and stand up and don’t give up the fight!

And it is this deep-rooted belief that inspired me to become a lawyer and a prosecutor.

It was just a couple blocks from this very spot that nearly 30 years ago as a young district attorney I walked into the courtroom for the very first time and said the five words that would guide my life’s work:

“Kamala Harris, for the people.”

Now, I knew our criminal justice system was deeply flawed.  

But I also knew the profound impact law enforcement has on people’s lives, and it’s responsibility to give them safety and dignity.

I knew I wanted to protect people. And I knew that the people in our society who are most often targeted by predators are also most often the voiceless and vulnerable. And I believed then as I do now, that no one should be left to fight alone. You see, in our system of justice, we believe that a harm against any one of us is a har against all of us. That’s why when we file a case, it’s not filed in the name of the victim.  It reads, “The People.”

This is a point I have often explained to console and counsel survivors of crime, people who faced great harm. Often at the hands of someone they trust – be it a relative or a bank or a big corporation. I would remind them. You are not invisible. We all stand together.

That’s the power of the people.

My whole life, I’ve only had one client: the people.

Fighting for the people meant fighting on behalf of survivors of sexual assault – a fight not just against predators but a fight against silence and stigma.  

For the people meant fighting for a more fair criminal justice system.

At a time when prevention and redemption were not in the vocabulary or mindset of most district attorneys, we created an initiative to get skills and job training instead of jail time for young people arrested for drugs.

For the people meant fighting for middle class families who had been defrauded by banks and were losing their homes by the millions in the Great Recession.  

And I’ll tell you, sitting across the table from the big banks, I witnessed the arrogance of power. Wealthy bankers accusing innocent homeowners of fault, as if Wall Street’s mess was of the people’s making.

So we went after the five biggest banks in the United States. We won 20 billion dollars for California homeowners and together we passed the strongest anti-foreclosure law in the United States of America. We did that together.

For the people meant fighting transnational gangs who traffic in drugs and guns and human beings. And I saw their sophistication, their persistence and their ruthlessness.

And folks, on the subject of transnational gangs, let’s be perfectly clear: the President’s medieval vanity project is not going to stop them.

And in the fight for the people to hold this administration accountable, I have seen the amazing spirit of the American people.

During the health care fight, I saw parents and children with grave illnesses walk the halls of the United States Congress, families who had travelled across the country at incredible sacrifice.

They came to our nation’s capital believing that if their stories were heard, and if they were seen, their leaders would do the right thing.  

I saw the same thing with our Dreamers. They came by the thousands. By plane, train and automobile. I’m sure they were sleeping ten-deep on someone’s living room floor.  

They came because they believe in our democracy and the only country they’ve ever known as home.  

I met survivors who shared their deepest, most painful personal experiences – who told stories they had never before revealed, even to their closest loved ones – because they believed that if they were seen, that their leaders would do the right thing and protect the highest court in our land.

Together we took on these battles.

To be sure we’ve won and we’ve lost, but we’ve never stopped fighting.

And that’s why we are here today.

We are here because we have another battle ahead.

We are here knowing that we are at an inflection point in the history of our world.

We are at an inflection point in in the history of our nation.

We are here because the American Dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before.

We are here at this moment in time because we must answer a fundamental question.

Who are we? Who are we as Americans?

So, let’s answer that question. To the world. And each other. Right here. And, right now.

America, we are better than this.

When we have leaders who lie and bully and attack a free press and undermine our democratic institutions that’s not our America.  

When white supremacists march and murder in Charlottesville or massacre innocent worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue that’s not our America.  

When we have children in cages crying for their mothers and fathers, don’t you dare call it border security, that’s a human rights abuse and that’s not our America.

When we have leaders who attack public schools and vilify public school teachers that’s not our America.

When bankers who crashed our economy get bonuses but workers who brought our country back can’t even get a raise that’s not our America.

And when American families are barely living paycheck to paycheck, what is this administration’s response?

Their response is to try to take away health care from millions of families.

Their response is to give away a trillion dollars to the biggest corporations in this country.

And their response is to blame immigrants as the source of all our problems.

And guys lets understand what is happening here: People in power are trying to convince us that the villain in our American story is each other.

But that is not our story. That is not who we are. That’s not our America.  

Our United States of America is not about us versus them. It’s about We the people!

And in this moment, we must all speak truth about what’s happening.

Seek truth, speak truth and fight for the truth.

So let’s speak some truth. Shall we?

Let’s speak truth about our economy. Our economy today is not working for working people.

The cost of living is going up, but paychecks aren’t keeping up.  

For so many Americans, a decent retirement feels out of reach and the American Dream feels out of touch.  

The truth, is our people are drowning in debt.

Record student loan debt. Car loan debt. Credit card debt. Resorting to payday lenders because you can’t keep up with the bills.

People are drowning in America.

We have a whole generation of Americans living with the sinking fear that they won’t do as well as their parents.

Let’s speak another truth about our economy. Women are paid on average 80 cents on the dollar. Black women, 63 cents. Latinas, 53 cents.

And here’s the thing. When we lift up the women of our country, we lift up the children of our country. We lift up the families of our country. And the whole of society benefits.

Let’s speak another truth. Big pharmaceutical companies have unleashed an opioid crisis from the California coast to the mountains of West Virginia. And people once and for all we have got to call drug addiction for what it is: a national public health emergency. And we don’t need another War on Drugs.

Let’s speak truth. Climate change is real and it is happening now. From wildfires In the west to hurricanes in the east, to floods and droughts in the heartland, we’re not gonna buy the lie. We’re gonna act, based on science fact, not science fiction.

And let’s speak an uncomfortable but honest truth with one another: racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia are real in this country. They are age-old forms of hate with new fuel. And we need to speak that truth so we can deal with it.Let’s speak the truth that too many unarmed black men and women are killed in America. Too many black and brown Americans are locked up. From mass incarceration to cash bail to policing, our criminal justice system needs drastic repair. Let’s speak that truth. Let’s speak truth. Under this administration, America’s position in the world has never been weaker. Democratic values are under attack around the globe. When authoritarianism is on the march. When nuclear proliferation is on the rise. We have foreign powers infecting the White House like malware. Let us speak truth about these clear and present dangers.

And let’s speak the biggest truth, the biggest truth of all: In the face of powerful forces trying to sow hate and division among us, the truth is that as Americans we have much more in common than what separates us. Let’s speak that truth.

So, let’s not buy into that stuff that they are trying to peddle. Let’s never forget, that on the fundamental issues, we all have so much more in common than what separates us. 

You know, some say we need to search to find that common ground. Here’s what I say, I say we need to recognize that we are already standing on common ground.

I say we will rise together or we will fall together as one nation, indivisible.

And I want to be perfectly clear: I’m not talking about unity for the sake of unity. Hear me out. I’m not talking about unity for the sake of unity.

I’m not talking about some façade of unity.

And I believe we must acknowledge that the word unity has often been used to shut people up or to preserve the status quo.

After all let’s remember: when women fought for suffrage, those in power said they were dividing the sexes and disturbing the peace.

Let’s remember: when abolitionists spoke out and civil rights workers marched, their oppressors said they were dividing the races and violating the word of God.

But Fredrick Douglass said it best and Harriet Tubman and Dr. King knew.

To love the religion of Jesus is to hate the religion of the slave master.

When we have true unity, no one will be subjugated for others. It’s about fighting for a country with equal treatment, collective purpose and freedom for all.

That’s who we are.

And so, I stand before you today, clear-eyed about the fight ahead and what has to be done—with faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother. I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.

I’m running for president because I love my country. I love my country.

I’m running to be president, of the people, by the people, and for all people.

I’m running to fight for an America where the economy works for working people.

For an America where you only have to work one job to pay the bills, where hard work is rewarded and where any worker can join a union.

I am running to declare, once and for all, that health care is a fundamental right, and we will deliver that right with Medicare for All!

I am running to declare education is a fundamental right, and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-k and debt free college!

I am running to guarantee working and middle class families an overdue pay increase. We will deliver the largest working and middle-class tax cut in a generation. Up to $500 a month to help America’s families make ends meet.

And we’ll pay for it by reversing this administration’s give aways to big corporations and the top one percent.

I’m running to fight for an America where our democracy and its institutions are protected against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Which is why I will defend this nation against all threats to our cybersecurity.

We will secure our elections and our critical infrastructure to protect our democracy.

And we will honor our service members and veterans – so no one who has served this country has to wait in line for weeks and months to get what they are owed when they return home on first day.

I’m running to fight for an America where no mother or father has to teach their young son that people may stop him, arrest him, chase him, or kill him, because of his race.

An America where every parent can send their children to school without being haunted by the horror of another killing spree.

Where we treat attacks on voting rights and civil rights and women’s rights and immigrant rights as attacks on our country itself.

An America where we welcome refugees and bring people out of the shadows, and provide a pathway to citizenship.  

An America where our daughters, where our sisters, where our mothers and grandmothers are respected where they live and where they work.

Where reproductive rights are not just protected by the Constitution of the United States but guaranteed in every state.  

I’ll fight for an America where we keep our word and where we honor our promises.

Because that’s our America.

That’s the America I believe in.

That’s the America I know we believe in.

And as we embark on this campaign, I will tell you this: I am not perfect. Lord knows, I am not perfect. But I will always speak with decency and moral clarity and treat all people with dignity and respect. I will lead with integrity. And I will speak the truth.

And of course, we know this is not going to be easy guys. It’s not going to be easy.

We know what the doubters will say.

It’s the same thing they’ve always said. They’ll say it’s not your time. They’ll say wait your turn. They’ll say the odds are long. They’ll say it can’t be done.

But America’s story has always been written by people who can see what can be unburdened by what has been. That is our story. That is our story.

As Robert Kennedy many years ago said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

He also said, “I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President, but these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election.” He said, “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet.”

So today I say to you my friends, these are not ordinary times. And this will not be an ordinary election. But this is our America.

And here’s the thing. It’s up to us.

It’s up to us. Each and every one of us.

So let’s remember in this fight we have the power of the people.

We can achieve the dreams of our parents and grandparents.

We can heal our nation.

We can give our children the future they deserve.

We can reclaim the American Dream for every single person in our country.

We can restore America’s moral leadership on this planet.

So let’s do this.

And let’s do it together.

And let’s start now.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Two Sitas, Two Deepikas, and One Cross-Dresser

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

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

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

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

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

Annasaheb Salunke played female roles in Dadasahab Phalke’s films

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

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

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

DEVOTIONALS

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

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

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

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

THE TWO DEEPIKAS

Source: IMDb

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

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

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

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

Padmaavat

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

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

 

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

Photo credits (unless otherwise noted): Wikipedia

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Vasundhara Gupta: From Kolkata To Boston

 

We’ve all heard the saying – music is truly universal. But, how many musicians can truly claim to “know” and “feel” the truth of this statement? Meet Vasundhara Gupta, young musician and sound designer from the Berklee School of Music in Boston – “ Every class that I took at Berklee had 9 out of 10 musicians drawn from different parts of the world,” she said in wonderment. She used that exposure and has moved forward in ways that truly demonstrate confidence and artistic leadership.

Growing up in Kolkata in a large joint family with cousins, uncles, and aunts, the musical influences in her life were varied and started when she was very young; some relatives listened to Western classical music, her father listened to the Beatles, her brother to Bryan Adams and her mother to Hindustani music. From this musical amalgam, emerged a keen student of Hindustani music groomed under the watchful eyes of her mother and grandmother. Both of them played the Hawaiian slide guitar and even when she went on vacations to her maternal grandmother;s house in Varanasi, lessons continued through the hot, summer months. This early discipline nurtured the young girl and soon she was singing and practicing on her own with true love and dedication.

In high school, unsure of what to do next, a friend’s suggestion to apply to the Berklee School of Music changed her life. She first went to Mumbai for 3 rounds of interviews with music professors from Berklee. The fact that her in-person interview with two professors turned out to be an impromptu jam session must have guaranteed her admission to the highly selective institution, I surmise, as she talks of how her mind opened to global musical influences on arrival in Boston. Sound producer, sound engineer, music orchestrator – when she heard these various paths to making and producing music, her first reaction as a student was to exclaim – “My God – you can do so much in music! “I was amazed that all of these pursuits originated from that same place within – a deep love for music,” she said with visible excitement.  

Apart from these various career paths that opened up in front of her, her musical sense resonated with an understanding of history, migration and acculturation. For instance, she was able to examine Indian music, the music that she was most familiar with, “in a different way.” The Middle Eastern Berklee ensembles, bore the same root as forms of Indian music since they originated in Persia centuries ago, she realized.  She described the Berklee environment as “an explosion” of music from all over the world that stimulated her fertile artistic mind in myriad ways.

As part of the Indian ensemble at Berklee, she took on leadership roles, and helped produce mega shows that involved multiple moving parts in terms of sound design, production and performance. “I gained a lot of confidence as a musician as well, since I was encouraged to sing solo sharing the stage with eminent musicians like Vijay Prakash.” AR Rahman, Shankar Mahadevan and Shreya Ghoshal were the other artists who worked with the students through their work with the Indian ensemble.

Given these multicultural musical influences, it is no surprise that her first collaboration in college was a multicultural one with Olivie Perez, a Spanish pianist.  “We didn’t know each other’s capabilities and slowly we learnt a lot about listening, and through musical sensitivity developed a piece together.” Here’s a clip of their performance together.

Live Performance of ‘Together’ at Berklee Performance Centre in 2015:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGGH5ZlYKoU

Song from an EP released in Dec. 2017:

http://vasundharagupta.bandcamp.com/track/goburine-song

The name she chose for her first EP – One – reveals the coming together of this growing international musical sensibility within her.  Fittingly, the journey for this EP started in Spain, moved to Kolkata and then came together at Boston. All the music was composed, produced, mixed and recorded by her. Using her ear for music, she has also been working in all aspects related to sound post-production at Slick Sounds in Southern California under David F. Van Slyke, a formidable name in the music business.

Talking of her dream of bringing artists on various paths – dancers, visual artists, writers and musicians within one physical space to create art, Vasundhara seems poised, confident of her unique musical abilities while articulating her vision – something that only artistic leaders can do at such a young age!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine.

Rendezvous With A Renunciant: Conversation With Monk Om Swami

 

Om Swami is not your typical monk. Be it the flowing elegant robes, the crisp answers to questions – mundane or mystical, the sharp sense of humor that leaves you in splits, Om Swami undeniably makes spirituality look suave. But more importantly, he makes it all seem accessible and the elusive goal of enlightenment seem achievable.  

From renouncing a multi-million dollar global business (including a slick top-model Porsche) to spending months in solitude in the Himalayas to encountering the divine first-hand, Swami’s journey is indeed unique. It is a story of human fortitude and reminds us of the power that lies within each of us waiting to be unearthed. Below is a candid conversation with this contemporary mystic.

Q: The world has given you many labels. They call you a non-traditional monk, a renunciant, the monk who sold his Porsche. Who are you in your own eyes?

Om Swami : My official introduction is this. I’m a simple monk in a complex world. If I were to introduce myself, I won’t say who I am, I will say what I am. I am just the sum total of the values I am committed to in my life.

Q: What are those values?

Om Swami: Compassion, kindness, and truth. Foremost is truth, alongside this is compassion. But between truth and compassion I’ll still choose compassion. That’s really the core value.

Q:In your memoir – If Truth Be Told: A Monk’s Memoiryou speak of a very strong yearning for the divine from your childhood. Why then did you choose to enter the corporate world? What drew you in that direction?

 Om Swami: Couple of things. First, was the dream of my parents that I do something meaningful according to what the world calls “meaningful.” Secondly, it’s important to fulfill your desire to rise above it, as opposed to thinking constantly –  I wish I’d done that. Because, if you don’t succeed in one area, you are not going to succeed in the other either. The same principles of tenacity, of self-discipline, and of passion apply in all fields.

Secondly, since my childhood, I was so used to wealth and I’ve been financially independent since I was 12. And, the corporate world can also be spiritual. The greatest spirituality is to live in the world and be truthful at the same time. If I’m sitting in a cave, I’m not really dealing with anybody other than my own thoughts, so I don’t have any opportunity to lie or speak the truth. Where is the test? The test of any man is when it’s stretched to see how quickly he snaps.

Q: You had great success in your business. What lessons from this phase of your life fueled your growth, if any? Also, how did you carry these lessons with you when you renounced to walk the spiritual path full-time?

Om Swami: Persistence is something that stayed with me. And knowing that you are pretty much on your own because in the business world nobody is anybody’s friend. Two journeys are always done on your own, the journey to your death and the journey to enlightenment, nobody’s with you through these journeys. Lord Krishna says – “you are your own greatest friend and your own worst enemy.” We just have to conquer ourselves. Like playing golf, you’re not competing with others, you’re only competing with yourself.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of your life as a seeker?

Om Swami: Lack of guidance is what I faced. I had to figure out my own path. Living a life of hardships, whether it was sleeping on the floor or having a wild boar hitting against my rundown hut or hearing the roar of tigers outside – these were tiny challenges compared to the inner challenge. I was ready to die for what I set out for. Not having amenities was not even on my radar. I was really driven by what I wanted to do. Like a soldier who goes out into the battlefield with only a few choices – either they withdraw or they conquer or they die.

One thing I said to Mother Divine (the divine feminine principle that Swami sought to manifest), if I get convinced that you don’t exist, I will go to all the corners of this world and tell people – “don’t waste your time, there is no God.” But my realization of God was very different. The way I see God now is that heat in fire, that coolness in ice, that thirst quenching ability of water. All things of beauty.

Q:Can you put enlightenment in terms that can be easily grasped so that you can fuel the average individual to walk the path?

Om Swami: First of all, I read somewhere a long time ago and I fully agree now that , enlightenment by itself can be overrated. Many people have been using it just for their own agenda, promising things that are not real. If you look at some of the most famous movements in the last 100 years, how many followers of those movements have actually emerged enlightened?

Simply put, enlightenment is a state where you really don’t develop any negative feelings about any creature. Even if you want, you cannot feel any hatred for anybody in that pristine consciousness. You become increasingly aware of your own thoughts, feelings, actions and you overflow with compassion. If you were to squeeze an orange what will come out? It depends on the quality of the orange. When people are squeezed because of situations, what comes out? Imagine if you were in a state where only love and goodness comes out because that’s what you’re filled with. Really that’s enlightenment. Your behavior remains unaffected by the behavior of other people. You don’t react, you act thoughtfully.

Q:There have been many masters before you and each has had their own way of imparting this ancient wisdom. What is your way?

Om Swami: My way is to teach or speak only from experience. I don’t branch out to areas where I don’t have firsthand experience. My premise is very simple. If you do what I did, the way I did, for the duration I did, you will also get what I got. I don’t believe that you need to chant mantras or meditate, to be enlightened.

I think a mother working in a company and coming home to take care of her family, a son taking care of his parents or a nurse working with the intention of helping patients, I think all this is nothing short of enlightenment. It depends on the intention and what skill they develop to fulfill that intention. Skill has to be learned. Nobody is born with any skill except maybe crying. Crying comes naturally to human beings, every other skill we have to learn.

Q: There are two schools of thought on the need for a master on the spiritual path. On the path to freedom what if one’s reliance on a master becomes the biggest fetter? How do you differentiate between being devoted and becoming dependent?

Om Swami: I think that is where a master’s sincerity comes into play. If the master is good, he or she will not encourage the disciples to become dependent on him or her. That’s really where the key is. Because a good disciple has surrendered already. Surrender is necessary when we need help, but surrender does not mean that we let go of our own faculties of thought or consciousness. Or that we say – “now that I have a master/guru my job is done.” In fact, it has just started. So that’s where a master has to help the disciple.

But from my personal experience, it’s usually of little help. I keep telling people they need to be independent. They think I’m trying to push them away. If I tell people I’ve given you the truth, now go work it out yourself, they feel hurt. Dependency is, please master if you leave me, what will become of me?  I don’t care what you’re teaching, I need you. Devotion is, I would like to be like my master. In devotion, you have an ideal, in dependency, you have an idol.

To know more about Om Swami  please visit omswami.com

Surabhi Kaushik is an Indian writer, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Her works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and parenting essays have been published in various websites such as yourstoryclub, halfbakedbeans, herviewfromhome and India Currents. She is closely associated with “Write Like You Mean It,” a writer’s group in the Main library, Charlotte. She also leads a monthly Fiction Writing workshop and conducts writing workshops at various libraries across Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The Skinny on a Low-Carb High-Fat Diet

There is an urban legend that the Indian diet is rich in fat. When you think of desi cuisine it brings up images of deep-fried pooris and sautéed vegetables floating in oil. It is further assumed that this fat-rich diet contributes to the high prevalence of heart disease among Indians. On the contrary, my own observation is that in most Indian-American households today only a small amount of vegetable oil, and almost no ghee, butter, or cream is consumed. Also, in my Ayurveda practice I usually evaluate people’s diets and find that most consume less than 30 grams of fat a day. Instead, rice, wheat, dals, breakfast cereals, low-fat milk and yogurt, fruits, potatoes, and other vegetables are listed most commonly in their food logs. The truth is this is a diet rich in carbohydrates, not fats.

ghee

This was not the case some 60 years ago. Until the 1950s ghee and freshly churned butter were the preferred fats in the Indian diet. People consumed whole milk. They were also more physically active.

Controversial Hypothesis

Then in 1953 an American scientist named Ancel Keys proposed a hypothesis that dietary fat and cholesterol were responsible for heart disease. Although Keys’s research methods were flawed, the theory caught the interest of some bureaucrats and politicians who advanced it to inform new dietary guidelines for Americans. Low fat became the mantra for a healthy diet, which spread worldwide and remains the conventional wisdom even today.

These dietary guidelines have led to several unfortunate consequences. Following the recommendations of their doctors, people switched from ghee to Dalda, and from butter to margarine, thus consuming trans fats which have since been studied and shown to be linked to heart disease. Many have cut down fat intake to a bare minimum, replacing it with more grains, fruits, and sugary snacks as their main sources of calories and energy. Processed foods laden with refined and enriched flours, trans fats, and high fructose corn syrup, yet labeled “low fat” and “heart healthy” have gained favor. Meanwhile, we are witnessing a pandemic of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dementia, and other chronic diseases.

According to ayurveda, while less fat is beneficial for some people of kapha constitution, or suffering from a kapha ailment, it is not recommended for all. Most people who restrict dietary fat increase their risk of imbalance of vata dosha leading to vata disorders like constipation, arthritis, and sensory and neurological dysfunction.

Snigdham ashniyat (eat unctuous food), recommends Charaka Samhita, an ancient text on Ayurveda. This advice is for healthy people to maintain their good health. The fat enhances the taste of the food and bolsters agni (the digestive fire). Thus, it speeds up digestion and helps with absorption of nutrients. It also aids the downward movement of vata (peristalsis), nourishes and strengthens the body, improves sensory function, and promotes clarity of skin complexion.

Choices of Healthy Fats

The fat most highly recommended in ayurveda is ghee, or clarified butter. It is a tonic for memory, intellect, and the eyes. Ghee has a high smoke point (500 degrees F) and so is especially suitable for tadka, or high temperature tempering of spices. You can also add organic butter, cream or whole milk to your diet. Healthy choices of oils include extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and sesame oil. Among fruits avocadoes, coconuts, and olives are good sources of healthy oils. So are tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, and brazil nuts. Cold water fish like salmon contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to be beneficial for heart health. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax seeds are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

How much fat can you include in your diet? Listen to your body and it will tell you. Too much dietary fat makes you feel heavy and nauseous. So, most people are unlikely to binge on fat. Even so, you may want to increase it by only one tablespoon (14 grams) at first in each of your main meals and see how you feel. At the same time, reduce your consumption of sugar (and other sweeteners, desserts, sodas, fruit juices) and starchy foods (rice, wheat, other grains, potatoes) by at least twice as much.

What to Expect

You will probably find that with more fat in your meals you feel satiated with smaller portions. Also, fats and oils keep you satiated for a longer time, and there is less craving for snacks between meals. You will also be training your body to burn fat for energy and not rely as much on glucose. If you had sugar cravings before, they will subside in a few weeks and you will experience an even supply of energy throughout the day.

Oil, being the best remedy for vata imbalance, will help to relieve symptoms of vata like body ache, joint pain, numbness, stiffness, and constipation.

If you simultaneously reduce your carbohydrate intake to less than 100 grams a day, your blood sugars will probably decrease and become more stable. Triglycerides will also drop. You can also expect gradual and sustained weight loss. Contrary to popular belief, it is not dietary fat that makes you fat, it is excessive consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods.
Here are a couple of recipes for reducing carbohydrates and adding healthy oils to your diet.

Salad Dressing
The oil, herbs, and spices in a dressing not only add to the taste, they also help in easier digestion and more complete absorption of the phytonutrients in a green salad. Many commercial dressings contain vegetable oils processed with heat or chemicals. So it’s best to make small batches of dressing at home with the healthiest oils. Choose extra virgin, cold pressed, unrefined olive oil or macadamia nut oil.

Ingredients:
12 tablespoons (3/4 cup):olive oil, extra virgin, cold pressed, unrefined
4 tablespoons (1/4  cup): juice of one lemon                    1 teaspoon: pepper, coarsely ground black ½ teaspoon : salt or Himalayan pink salt
Mix all the ingredients in a dressing mixer or a small glass bottle. Shake well before dispensing.

Almond-Chickpea Roti

If roti or some kind of flat bread is your comfort food, try various kinds of flour and you may find a mix that satisfies your taste buds without elevating your blood sugar too much. Chickpea flour has only half the carbohydrates as wheat, and more dietary fiber and protein. Almond meal and coconut flour are very low in carbohydrates, but by themselves they don’t bind well and are difficult to roll into flat bread. My mother tried various mixes and came up with this delicious recipe that is gluten-free, low in carbs, and has a substantial amount of protein.

Ingredients:
almond meal: ¼ cup
chickpea flour (besan): ¼ cup
Himalayan pink salt: ¼ teaspoon
water: as needed to knead the dough

Mix all the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add water in small amounts to knead into dough of medium to stiff consistency. Roll into thick flat breads. Roast on a tava or cast iron griddle. Makes 2 small rotis.

The ideas and opinions expressed here are for educational purpose only. They are not intended to replace the advice of a physician or medical practitioner. Before beginning any diet program including any recommendations discussed here, it is recommended that you seek your physician’s advice.

Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S., is a graduate of Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar, and practices ayurveda in San Jose, Calif. www.classical-ayurveda.com.

First published in October 2015

Kolam: Heritage On The Doorstep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the editor of India Currents magazine.  

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