Tag Archives: Chennai

13-Year-Old Abhimanyu Sukhdial’s Novel Sparks Climate Change Dialogues

“Stillwater is a great place to raise a family,” is the common refrain I heard from several Indian aunties at the small Holi dinner party I attended the year I moved to Oklahoma. I had gotten married just a few months earlier at a memorable wedding in Delhi, and with great anticipation, I left the familiar surroundings of the San Francisco Bay Area I had called home for almost 30 years to start a new life in a new state, in a small university town nestled in the middle of wide-open fields and country farms.   

Within a year, my husband, a marketing professor at Oklahoma State University, and I welcomed our first son, Abhimanyu (Abhi).  My parents flew out from the Bay Area for the blessed occasion. As I watched my parents cradle and cuddle their new grandchild, I thought of how they took care of me as a child in Tamil Nadu, how they instilled in me the values of hard work and a good education, and most importantly, how they effortlessly bridged two cultures to educate and raise two daughters in this country.  “What kind of mother will I be?” I wondered.

I once read, “We all can dance when we find music we love.”  

And for Abhi, that love was for words.  You know those magnetic A-Z letters kids put on the fridge? During our annual summer vacations in Meerut (a bustling city outside of Delhi where my in-laws live), Abhi spent hours moving, rotating, and repositioning those letters on the special dhurrie Dadi ma had laid out for him, making a lot of nonsense words and a few real ones. Soon, he started reading, and then, writing his first stories. School programs like the National PTA Reflections Arts-in-Education competition fueled his creative ambitions; starting in 2nd grade, he wrote and submitted a short story every year, advancing through local and state rounds of competition.  They were mostly fantastical adventure stories, not unlike the Enid Blyton stories I had read growing up.  

When Abhi learned that a fellow student had made a short film for the competition and that it had won at the national level, Abhi was adamant he could do the same. During that summer in India, he taught himself iMovie and figured out how to program a cute robot called Sphero so he could shoot his first five-minute film featuring a “robot detective” called Monsieur Sphero (a mischievous take on Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth, Monsieur Poirot). He was thrilled when his movie was selected for a national award.  

When Abhi was 11, we discovered Stone Soup Magazine, a literary magazine for kids 14 years and under, that offers both a monthly print edition as well as an online blog section.  Over the next two years, he became a regular blogger, writing book and movie reviews. The countless hours he spent debating his younger brother about the pros and cons of Star Wars helped shape the analytical skills and power of persuasion he needed to structure and write the reviews.  

Book, Three Days Till EOC.

In 2019, Stone Soup announced their first annual book competition, and Abhi decided to go for it. He wanted to write a sci-fi story and started coming up with ideas, determined to write the book during our summer vacation in Meerut. In India, he saw a segment on cable news about the severe drought in Chennai and it piqued his interest. Why not combine science fiction and climate change in a unique way? 

That was the spark for his 70-page novella set in the year 2100 called Three Days Till EOC.  It is a story of climate scientist Graham Alison, who literally has three days to save civilization before a catastrophic cyclone threatens to destroy the planet.  It is also a story about how small choices can lead to big changes – how a positive action we take today to stop climate change can result in a better world for our children, our children’s children, and generations after. We liked the idea, encouraged him to write the first draft, and then gave him feedback so he could continue to revise and improve his story over the next two months. Finally, he submitted it and was surprised and ecstatic when he learned that his book had won 1st place and would be published in September 2020. Since the book’s publication, Abhi has participated in various TV/newspaper interviews and made presentations to youth in the local Indian American community.

Abhi will turn 13 this month, and in a blink of an eye, he will soon be leaving for college.  Like all parents, we wonder if we are doing enough to prepare our kids for this increasingly complex, fast-changing world.  We hope that by giving them the freedom to play with and pursue their creative passions from a young age, that they will grow up to be hard-working, resilient, confident individuals who will contribute their talents in some way to make this world a better place.   As a parent, there’s no greater legacy I can think of leaving behind.

Three Days Till EOC is the Young Adult Fiction Honoree for the 2021 Green Earth Book Award.


Anu Sukhdial is Abhimanyu Sukhdial’s mother. She is a Bay Area transplant living in Oklahoma.


 

My Grandmother’s Gold Bangles & Vegetable Pulao

A Lasting Legacy

During the pandemic my daughters and I have been spending a lot of time in the kitchen cooking up a storm. One day we set out to cook a family favorite dish, vegetable pulao. I tell them we’ll be making it from my grandmother’s recipe. 

“How come you don’t talk more about her?” my daughters ask. That began my journey to piece together the story of a remarkable woman. 

As with most things I began with my mom. 

“Tell me about patti (grandmother).” 

My mother says, “Amma could whip up the most delicious pulao and raita. The badi elaichi left a lingering taste.” 

It’s not easy to get my octogenarian mother to talk about her childhood years. “I was eleven when my mother died,” she says. 

“She must have been 40?” I ask. My mother nods silently. Losing a mother at such a young age must have been a crippling blow. On one of the few occasions she’s spoken of it, my mother rued, “…at least I have some memories of my mother but your aunt was just a baby.”

I learned that patti was married at 13 to a 20-year-old law student studying in Madras. My grandfather went on to become an accountant general in the British India government. This meant they moved every few years. My grandmother had to set up households in cities across north India such as Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Simla. Many of my grandfather’s colleagues were Englishmen and patti was expected to interact with their wives. 

How did a shy thirteen-year old girl from Thanjavur hold her own in an unfamiliar world? It wasn’t just a matter of stepping into a new environment but getting comfortable, and even being adept at playing hostess in social events that my grandfather’s job required them to host. This even while she had seven children of her own to raise. 

The family album shows patti as a doe-eyed woman with a gentle expression. Understandably my mother’s memories of her mom are somewhat fragmented. Yet several incidents from her mother’s life have stayed with her, such as her explaining “how to make murukkus in her broken English to the wives of my father’s colleagues.” 

My grandmother got comfortable enough to play tennis in her six-yards saree with these women, even while conforming to the conservative practices of her in-laws. 

“She would change into a nine yards sari in the train before disembarking in Chennai!” my mother chuckles.

It wasn’t just her recipes that got handed down. “Amma would shoo us children out of the living room when the announcement for the music program came on the radio,” says my mother. “She’d ask us to come back once the music began so that we could guess the name of the raga being played!”  My grandmother was a die-hard fan of Carnatic music, a love she passed on to her children and leading to my own career as a classical musician. 

Even as my mother recounts her memories, I can sense some of what’s unsaid – the challenges of being a woman raising multiple children, even while juggling conservative in-laws in a patriarchal and colonial society. So taking a break or falling ill was not an option. Which is why when she caught tuberculosis, it affected the entire family. Long periods of staying at a sanatorium ensued as she recuperated. Despite seeming improvement, patti never fully recovered. 

“Streptomycin became available a few months after her death,” my mother’s voice breaks. “It was too late for her.” 

I sense it’s her 11-year old self speaking. We are both silent. I reflect on a young girl’s journey from a southern city of India and the legacy she left behind for future generations of women. While we celebrate women across the world as role models, I wonder if we look hard enough in our own backyards for inspiration?

“Ma, what do I do now?” my daughter’s voice draws me to the present. “Give the rice and veggies one last swirl and let it cook covered.” 

As my daughter turns the pulao with a wooden ladle, I notice the thin gold bangles on her hand. It’s a gift from my mother.

‘Were they my grandmother’s?’ I wonder. Tracing the rim of those bangles, I find myself whispering, “This is like the armor of a warrior.”  

My patti’s name was Meenakshi.


Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic musician based in Boston
images: paintings by S. Elayaraja

 

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 3

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing the last in a 3 part series on Chennai’s restoration of its marshlands. Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story! 

(Featured Image: Mylapore Tank holds water even during the dry season, but only because its bottom has been paved over.)

Temple tanks

As in most Indian cities, Chennai’s piped water supply is available for just a few hours a day. And many parts of the city have no water connection at all. So many people pump groundwater, either on their own property or from government wells on the street. Others hire tanker trucks to fill their cisterns with water that has also been extracted from underground. “A huge quantity, almost 200 MLD [million liters daily] of water, is being shipped every day,” a water utility official told me. But surface and groundwater are not separate sources; they are linked by gravity and hydraulic pressure. So when people pump groundwater, they are ultimately depleting surface water as well, and near the coast, they are turning their water salty. 

With little monitoring and few restrictions, the city’s groundwater table is dropping by some 10 to 20 centimeters (4 to 8 inches) every year. That’s why finding creative ways to recharge groundwater within the dense, paved city is a critical step toward having enough water for people and for nature. And that’s where many small projects come into play. Recharge wells are becoming more common around neighborhoods in Chennai, their round perforated covers, a little larger than manholes, pocking city streets and sidewalks. Those covers lead to wells averaging 4.5 meters (15 feet) deep that simply give water a path into the permeable subsurface, and eventually into the aquifer. 

Through water as leverage, Madras Terrace, a local architecture firm, has proposed another approach to getting water into the ground across the city: temple tanks, a remnant of the eris system. In the past, “you cannot find a village without a temple, and you cannot find a temple without a water body,” says KK. Lots of those villages and temples have now been subsumed by the city.

One bright, blue-sky day, just before I leave India, I meet with Sudhee NK, an engineer and financial planner with Madras Terrace. We rendezvous in charming, bustling Mylapore, a neighborhood centered around Kapaleeswarar Temple, marked by a 37-meter-high (120-foot-high), pyramidal tower intricately carved and painted with some of Hinduism’s more than 3,000 gods. Vendors sell flower offerings, clay cups meant to be broken after drinking, and small deities. One of Chennai’s most notable tanks, occupying a city block, sits alongside the temple. With its top at street level, an inverted, stepped pyramid descends into the ground so people can continue to access water as the table falls.

Sudhee explains that, historically, the tank bottoms were unpaved so that groundwater replenished the tank from below, and rain and runoff from above helped to recharge the water table. Temple tanks were connected to larger eris systems and also served ritual purposes. Today the Kapaleeswarar tank holds water—ducks swim along the side and turtles bask in the sun—but only because the bottom was paved about 10 years ago to retain water for religious ceremonies. This water is effectively a mirage, says Sudhee.

To show me the true status of the water table here, he leads me across the street to another temple tank, Chitrakulam Pond, believed to be more than 2,000 years old and not cemented. Its bottom is carpeted with a mat of fresh grass, sprouted from recent rains, but the water has descended deep underground. “This is the real situation,” says Sudhee. Too much pavement and too many borewells are to blame for water levels more than 18 meters (60 feet) below the surface, he says.

Tanks that have not been paved over reveal the true state of Chennai’s water table, which, during the dry season, often lies dozens of feet below ground.

Sudhee and colleagues want to restore temple tanks across Chennai to their natural, unpaved state, to move water underground. The city government, Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), is connecting stormwater drains to temple tanks wherever possible to allow for groundwater recharge. And Sudhee’s team is also helping to raise the water table by collecting rainwater from buildings via vegetated ditches, called bioswales, placed strategically along streets, on hotel properties, in backyards, and in schoolyards. The Mylapore project is expected to provide on average 4 million liters (1 million gallons) of water per day. Replicating the project across 53 other temple tanks in Chennai could result in 60 million liters (16 million gallons) per day of recharge, according to the Water as Leverage team’s projections.

Reconnecting with culture

Despite stated government support for these slow water projects, getting utility engineers to embrace green solutions is difficult, says Balaji Narasimhan, the hydrologic engineer who is also involved in the Dutch-local partnership. That’s in part because the systems are more complex than concrete-lined drainage channels, levees, and dams. Slow water projects usually have a biological component, such as plants that may require soil amendments to achieve the chemistry or filtration they need. Silt traps must be cleaned. Also, because such projects tend to cover a larger area than concrete solutions, the public is more likely to come in contact with them, so project managers need to cultivate community support. But that requirement can be a benefit, says Narasimhan, reconnecting people with their water. 

KK tells me, “Even 200 years ago, people used to worship rivers as goddesses. Because of that, we were preserving water. Now we’ve lost those cultural values; we forgot.” When water “magically” arrived via centralized distribution, people stopped caring for their water bodies. In North Chennai, parts of which remain somewhat rural, Jayaraman, the activist, has witnessed that loss in a single generation. “Among the older people, there is a far more intimate knowledge of hydrology, of seasons,” he says. “Among the younger people, that is eroding quite quickly. It erodes with the landscape. Your culture goes with the landscape.”

But the reverse may also be true. As government agencies and NGOs hold and reclaim space to reestablish slow water, and as people harvest some of their personal water from local supplies, Narasimhan says he hopes they will become newly motivated to keep them clean and replenished. 

One project is directly targeting the next generation. On a warm, partially overcast day in early December, I grab an autorickshaw to Tholkappia Poonga Eco-Park, a 24-hectare (58-acre) green oasis in the heart of the city, near the mouth of the Adyar River, which bisects Chennai. Separated from the beeping traffic outside by concrete walls, the tree canopy is thick here, and the peaceful walking paths and the air above are bustling with butterflies, beetles, blue-and-yellow grasshoppers, crane flies, lizards, lorikeets, and other birds. 

Despite the significant loss of wetland habitat, an astounding array of native biodiversity clings to life in and around Chennai.

Years ago, an area creek feeding the river was filled in for development and this place became a dump, piled high with garbage and human waste and used for illegal activities. To counteract pollution and biodiversity loss, local NGO Pitchandilkulam Forest Consultants and city agency Chennai River Restoration Trust began restoring the area’s former river and estuary habitats 12 years ago. 

My guide during this visit is K. Ilangovan, an ecologist and wetlands specialist who has overseen this project from the beginning and has himself planted thousands of trees, including mangroves and 250 other species of plants. Since forest restoration here began, he’s observed snakes, mongooses, mice, and even jackals that feed on crabs and fishes. “We didn’t introduce anything here,” he says. After the replantings, “everything came.”  

People from nearby neighborhoods were involved in the planning and planting so that they would better understand the area’s purpose, and some still have jobs here taking care of the plants. During the monsoon, the whole park becomes flooded, storing water, says Ilangovan, and the surrounding neighborhoods have seen higher water levels in wells and reduced flooding, including during 2015, when they were spared the worst of the flood. The microclimate has also changed, keeping it a little cooler than the concrete jungle elsewhere in the city. The third phase of restoration is now underway; ultimately 145 hectares (358 acres) will be restored. 

Aside from offering homes to a variety of creatures in the middle of the city and mitigating water problems, the Eco-Park is a favorite field trip destination for school children, who come here and are blown away, says Ilangovan. Living in the city with little exposure to nature, “They are so happy to touch and feel the plants. You can see the brightness in their faces.” That outreach is critical to changing the direction of society, he says. “We can’t go and change the people with 40 or 50 years’ age,” he says. “So I focus more on the kids.”

Amidst growing environmental awareness of the general public and the government, four of the seven projects proposed by the Dutch-local partnership are moving forward, says Jayshree Vencatesan, including the Mylapore tank and Muttukadu Backwaters. Separately, her nomination of Pallikaranai as a Ramsar site, a wetland of international importance, is under consideration by the central government in Delhi. But development pressure remains intense. “We as a country are trying to become more of a wealthy nation,” says Vencatesan. “And if we assume that people don’t want that, we are wrong.” 

Back at Pallikaranai Marsh, walking down a muddy path at the edge of shallow open water, we pass trees planted by Care Earth Trust, trunks wrapped in cuttings of an unpalatable plant to deter nibbling cattle. Bee-eaters and kingfishers whiz by, and a fan-throated lizard darts under a rock. The sun glints off an iridescent green jewel beetle with black spots, bumpily navigating stems and leaves. Antennae waving about, it suddenly flips, revealing a bright orange undercarriage. There’s still plenty to amaze here.

Educating people about the value of water systems and biodiversity is a long-term process, says Vencatesan, one that she’s been working toward with her characteristic persistence for decades. Near the spot where I was stuck in the minivan, she is planning to reroute traffic away from the marsh and build a pedestrian “ribbon walk,” where people can interface with nature. “They should see a value in it,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s not going to last.”

Go back and read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story!


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 2

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. Find Part 1 here!

The Eris System

The people of Chennai don’t have to look far for inspiration on how to work with nature to finesse water cycles. Starting at least 2,000 years ago, ancient Tamil people ensured that they had water year-round by building a series of connected ponds on a slope from the Eastern Ghats (“mountains” in Hindi) east to the Bay of Bengal. These eris, the Tamil word for tanks, are open on the higher side to catch water flowing downhill, while the lower side is closed with an earthen wall called a bund. An overflow divet in the top of the bund gives excess water a path to continue on to the next eri downhill. “System eris” were built off of rivers and creeks to capture their peak flows, while “non-system eris” were dug in areas without natural waterways to capture rainfall in a series of connected depressions. Eris were described in early Tamil literature and temple engravings, says Krishnakumar TK, an amateur historian and local travel writer who works in information technology and goes by the name KK.

The eris system is the opposite of modern development’s tendency to move water off the land as fast as possible. The early Tamils understood that, by slowing water’s flow, the eris reduced flood peaks and prevented soil erosion. They gave water time to seep underground, filtering it and keeping the water table within reach of wells. The eris also served as visual indicators of water availability because they were connected to the water table, says Vencatesan. Seeing the water level in a pond signaled to farmers when to sow their crops. Cultural rituals dictated system maintenance and water sharing. Tanks were also part of every temple complex, bringing water into the heart of religion and culture.

And because many eris were connected to creeks, rivers, coastal wetlands and freshwater marshes, they provided natural waterways their due along the way. Even eris not directly connected to rivers helped to feed the local hydrology because underground aquifers are extensive, so water absorbed in one place could feed a river some distance away. The words “lake,” “tank,” and “water body” are interchangeable here because, after so many generations, no one remembers whether a particular water body is natural or human-made. 

British engineers in the 19th century were amazed by the scale of the eris system—reportedly more than 53,000 bodies of water across southern India—and the deep knowledge of topography and hydrology required to build it. Alas, British respect had limits. Their centralized management supplanted the traditional system by which villages managed their local eris themselves, removing accumulated silt each year and using it to fertilize fields. The British neglected this maintenance and the eris fell into disrepair, making it easier to justify filling them in and building on top of them—a pattern that continued after independence.

As they built roads, the British obliterated the flow pathways that had linked water bodies, says KK, giving the rainwater nowhere to go. “They did not understand our system,” he says. Today, many famous city landmarks and neighborhoods—Loyola College, Central Chennai Rail Station, T. Nagar, Nungambakken—sit atop former tanks and lakes, says KK. Street names such as Spur Tank Road and Lake View Road commemorate ghost water bodies that once sustained and protected their neighborhoods. Fewer than one-third of the 650 water bodies that KK has documented in and around Chennai remain. The surface area of water decreased from 13 square kilometers (5 square miles) in 1893 to less than 3 kilometers (1.1 square miles) today, so in heavy rains, water floods into city streets, homes, and businesses.

Ironically, given KK’s passion for finding and documenting historic water bodies, the IT company he works for is in a special economic zone built atop Pallikaranai Marsh and the neighboring Perumbakkam wetland. He chuckles ruefully, showing me the area on a map. “We used to have hundreds of thousands of migratory birds visiting this marshland some 20 years ago. I have seen [it] getting destroyed in front of my eyes.” With just 10 percent of the marsh area remaining, “Even I can’t [see] the water from my workstation, and I’m on the fourth floor.” But as the title of Krupa Ge’s book invokes, Rivers Remember. This area hasn’t forgotten it is a marsh. During the 2015 monsoon, it flooded to the second floor.

Kids bird watching at the Marsh.

Wetlands = wastelands

Another British legacy that facilitated the destruction of wetlands was their official designation as wastelands. To Jayshree Vencatesan, the notion of wetlands as wastelands is anathema. “I grew up in the hinterlands, where this notion of waste doesn’t exist,” she says. “To us, nothing is a waste.” That attitude was once widely shared across southern India. Many areas the British saw as “waste” were shared-use commons, called poromboke in Tamil and dating back to medieval times. The ethic surrounding the use of the commons is even older, says Vencatesan, rooted in Tamil scriptures, which described the resources that wetlands provide—fish, seasonal agriculture, fodder for animals, medicinal plants—as well as the requirement to protect them, including penalties for those who didn’t. People understood and accepted that wetlands and other ecosystems were multifunctional habitats, supporting not just humans but other organisms as well. As a common property resource, water was subject to rules regarding how it was allowed to overflow from one water body or wetland to another. “This is essentially upstream-downstream equity, you know?” she says.

As she learned more about wetlands throughout her career, in part by working with Indigenous people who continue to live close to the land and water, Vencatesan internalized those values of multipurpose landscapes. She also learned that it’s critical to allow certain wetlands to follow their natural rhythm and go dry part of the year, to support the natural life cycles of animals and plants, including crops. “All of our melons and gourds and stuff like that used to be grown when the moisture is retained, but the surface flow is not there.”

In contrast, the British viewed land as property, so the commons, which could not be bought, sold, or built upon, “presented a very peculiar problem for them,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, who goes by Nity. A local community activist with a collective called Vettiver Koottamaippu, he works in North Chennai, where industrial facilities like coal plants are displacing fishing communities. “From a revenue point of view, it was wasteland.” As surrounding lands were developed, tension mounted over these two sets of competing values. “Of course, the old values lost,” he concludes. “And what we have is a disaster called Chennai.” 

The lost values are arguably as significant as the declines in sustainable subsistence and healthy, functioning ecosystems. People’s identities are entwined with their place. When development annihilates a place’s natural heritage, people also suffer cultural loss—loss of identity. For example, Pallikaranai Marsh is home to neithal (Nelumbo sp.), an endemic, striking, blue-violet water lily, one of the earliest flowers described in Tamil literature, says Vencatesan. Other beloved creatures of the swamp include the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and, perhaps surprisingly, the hump-nosed viper (Hypnale hypnale), one of India’s four venomous snakes. “Snakes are revered in Tamil Nadu,” says Vencatesan, who grew up in a neighboring state. “They think it’s a god, so, yeah, they have no problem with snakes.”

Today Chennai’s wetlands are still officially classified as wastelands, which has made Care Earth Trust’s progress thus far, conserving 620 hectares of Pallikaranai Marsh, all the more remarkable. The organization is also working to restore numerous other “wastelands” that are, or were, connected via water pathways to Pallikaranai. On a visit to a few of these sites with Care Earth staff, I see candle flower (Senna alata), a medicinal plant whose flowers exude a milk that soothes skin injuries, as well as bronze-winged jacanas (Metopidius indicus), fish eagles (Icthyophaga humilis), black bazas (Aviceda leuphotes), northern shovelers (Spatula clypeata), and many other native species.

At Thalambur Lake, we walk along a new levee that they pushed up with a bulldozer to keep water in the lake longer so that fish can lay eggs once again. The levee is pocked with young saplings of peepal and native bamboo. Looking down into the lowland, I can see the small islands they built and planted with trees to serve as nesting sites for birds.

At another spot just off of Mahabs Highway is a dock where you can rent paddle boats to explore Muttukadu Backwater, south of Pallikaranai. Dozens of pelicans sit on the water, bobbing on its calm surface. Here and in other neighborhoods near the ocean, excessive groundwater use has allowed seawater to push in, turning aquifers salty. Muttukadu has grown too salty for some of its native fish, and water levels have dropped. In response, Care Earth Trust has begun educating local people, petitioning the government to regulate water extraction, and restoring pathways to allow fresh water to flow into the wetland and replenish it. They’ve also started replanting mangroves to improve breeding habitat for fish.

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Chennai Ran Out of Water: Part 1

India Currents, in collaboration with bioGraphic and the California Academy of Sciences, is publishing a 3 part series on Chennai’s relationship with water. To reduce flooding and bridge droughts, India’s southern coastal metropolis is using ancient knowledge, community action, and wetlands restoration to better harness its monsoon rains.

Half the story

From a minivan on the shoulder of Old Mahabalipuram Road on the south side of Chennai, hemmed in by honking trucks and autorickshaws, we watch a painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala) move with studied dignity through the long grasses of Pallikaranai Marsh. With each step, knee flexing toward the rear, the webbed foot closes, then spreads open again to find purchase on the soft land. As it tips toward a fish, striped white-and-black tail feathers spread, flashing a surprising red whoosh. Nearby an endangered spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) swirls in for a landing, green-backed herons (Butorides striata) fish, and gray-headed swamphens (Porphyrio poliocephalus) tend to young among cattails and sedges—just a few of the 349 species of flora and fauna found here. We are watching from the vehicle because, with the traffic hurtling by, it’s not safe to get out. It’s a claustrophobic feeling—for myself, but more so for this delicate ecosystem. Just across the marsh, not far away, a network of power lines, buildings, and roads stretch beyond view.

In the last 50 years, this marsh has been literally decimated, losing 90 percent of its area to malls, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and information technology firms. It’s part of a global problem. Over the past three centuries, 85 percent of the world’s marshes, sloughs, swamps, fens, and bogs have been drained, filled in, and built or planted upon. The relatively new IT corridor here is an echo of California’s Silicon Valley, where Google and Facebook squat on filled-in marsh. Over the past few decades, Chennai has sprawled into India’s fourth-largest city, from 48 square kilometers (18.5 square miles) in 1980 to more than 426 square kilometers (165 square miles) today.

And that development has not just harmed Pallikaranai Marsh. The natural landscape on which Chennai was built is particularly rich in water. Pallikaranai is linked hydrologically with a complex system of rivers, backwaters, coastal estuaries, mangrove forests, and ancient human-built lakes in a mosaic of movement—freshwater, brackish, salt—that once covered 186 square kilometers (72 square miles). But an assessment by a local NGO, Care Earth Trust, found that Chennai lost 62 percent of its wetlands between 1980 and 2010. That destruction has depleted habitat for wildlife and spawned dueling water problems for the people of Chennai.

In summer 2019, Chennai grabbed international headlines when it ran out of water. Government trucks made deliveries to roadside tanks, where people queued with vessels and occasionally brawled, resulting in at least one death. When I visited in mid-November, water trucks still plied the streets. But 2019 wasn’t an anomaly. Over the past two decades, Chennai has regularly run out of water during summer months. That’s because paved surfaces throughout the city prevent rain from being absorbed and replenishing groundwater that could be used during the dry season, says Balaji Narasimhan, a professor of engineering who specializes in hydrology at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. The simple fact is, Chennai shouldn’t be running out of water at all. During its few months of monsoon, the city actually receives 1.5 times more rainfall than it consumes annually. But today’s water managers do their best to rush rain away in stormwater drains and canals, moving it rapidly out to sea. When they need water later, they turn to dwindling groundwater, distant supplies, and desalination plants.

During monsoon rains, water often floods vast swaths of the city. Among Chennai residents, more emotionally and politically jarring than routine water scarcity was the 2015 flood that killed at least 470 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and left many stranded in their homes for weeks. Ironically, it was likely the local mindset of water scarcity that made the flood more deadly. As writer Krupa Ge documents in her book about the flood, Rivers Remember, reservoir managers were reluctant to release stored water ahead of the monsoon rains; when they finally recognized the threat, they discharged too much, too fast.

In addition to poorly planned development, climate change is also exacerbating these water swings. The city has seen increasingly frequent and intense cycles of both flooding and drought over the past two decades. As moderate rain fell early last December and streets began to flood, one local aptly captured Chennai’s dysfunctional relationship with water in a tweet: “till last week, the residents were booking water tankers and from today they will book rescue boats. What a city!”

These bifurcated water disasters are all the more tragic because early Tamil people, whose cultural and linguistic heritage continues proudly in today’s residents, developed an elegant system for capturing the precipitation that fell during monsoons, saving it for the dry season. Their method also replenished groundwater and minimized erosion from heavy rains. And it supported rather than devastated wetland habitats. 

Back to the future?

Beneath the peepal (Ficus religiosa) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica) trees, amongst the flower stalls and idli restaurants, greater Chennai’s 11 million people go about their business as cows and dogs wander and nap at will, and jungle crows (Corvus culminatus), Oriental magpie-robins (Copsychus saularis), and dragonflies swirl above the fray. Chennai is more chill than the northern megalopolises Delhi and Mumbai, but it shares that quintessentially Indian sheen of chaos that, upon longer observation, reveals an innate order. An unspoken dialogue of push and pull among countless beings following their individual paths somehow manages to keep the whole in a constant state of flow.

Image of Oriental Magpie in Chennai by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Non-human lives, though, have less and less space to exist across India, where 1.4 billion—with a “b”—people jostle to survive and thrive in a land area one-third the size of the United States. Even so, solutions to this inherent tension don’t have to be an either/or. Reclaiming some of the ancient ways, restoring flow paths and space for water on the land, could provide greater water resiliency for humans and other organisms alike. Today a loose team of people in government, academia, and NGOs are working toward that vision.

The 2015 flood forced the city to acknowledge that poor development planning played a role in amplifying its water disasters. The Dutch office of International Water Affairs advised officials on flood recovery, underscoring that message. The following year, it offered them the opportunity to participate in a multi-year design and development program, called Water as Leverage, in partnership with local water experts and communities. Together they produced two reports that linked existing projects and laid out new ones that would conserve and restore natural and human-built water systems across the entire watershed. The aim was to harness nature, because protecting and restoring natural ecosystems and organisms is a way to also provide resources that people need. 

This concept is part of a “slow water” movement that’s beginning to take hold around the world. Generally speaking, modern humans have forgotten that water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, expanding and retreating in an eternal dance upon the land. In our many attempts to control nature, we’ve sped up water, channeled it, and rushed it away. We’ve forgotten the fact that when we give water a chance to linger on the landscape, floods are softened, water is stored, and natural systems are sustained. Champions of the slow water movement think that the key to greater resilience, particularly in the face of climate change, is a kind of de-engineering that reclaims space for water to pause on land, supporting natural and human-made communities. 

Although it may seem like an unimaginable challenge to restore space for water within a densely inhabited city, many experts think it’s possible. It requires thinking differently. Unlike standard gray infrastructure—dams, levees, stormwater tanks—slow water approaches typically involve many small projects scattered across a landscape that each absorb and hold some water. This dispersed approach is similar to the way that solar panels on every house can add up to a significant amount of electricity generation. 

That any natural water arteries still remain in Chennai is thanks in significant part to Jayshree Vencatesan, a 50-something biologist who founded the NGO Care Earth Trust in 2001 to protect Pallikaranai Marsh and other bodies of water around Chennai. When she began, “people said it was the stupidest thing anyone could do,” she says. “But if people challenge me, saying you cannot do a bit of work, I will take it up.” Based on her years of accumulated knowledge, in 2014 Vencatesan documented the cascading system of 61 wetlands and ancient human-built water bodies across the watershed that drain into Pallikaranai and later juxtaposed them with time-series maps showing what’s been lost. Catalyzing public awareness, her findings were the basis for a ruling by the Honorable High Court of Madras to prohibit further encroachment on wetlands by development, and to implement a state plan to restore some of these ecosystems.

Vencatesan and Care Earth Trust have been heavily involved with the Dutch-local Water as Leverage initiative. Initially, she says, “the government was amused” by the groups’ presentations, given the officials’ general bias in favor of the more typical development approaches of desalination plants, dikes, and filling in wetlands to “reclaim” land. But “when they looked at the final proposal, they were taken by … the in-depth understanding about the city and its hydrology,” she says. This initiative, the court ruling, and other recent events have put the city on course for change. “Until now, nature has been treated in Chennai as an externality, never factored into urban planning.” As this revolutionary shift takes shape, she predicts that sand dunes, marshes and other wetlands, and remnant patches of dry forest will once again become “the natural buffers to the city’s shocks.”

To be continued next week…


Erica Gies is an independent journalist who covers science and the environment from Victoria, British Columbia, and San Francisco, California. Her work appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, Nature, Ensia, The Economist, bioGraphic, National Geographic, and other outlets.

Photographs by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

A Memory, 2020

My best memory from 2020 isn’t necessarily my happiest. This year I felt no simple, one-note emotions. And so my best memory is one that encompasses the complexity of a harrowing year, glutted with loss. 

I returned to India at the end of December 2019 after a ten-year absence. On New Years Day I was in Chennai, after the drive from my family’s home in Pondicherry. I brought my three children along for this trip, now pre-teens and teenagers. They were toddlers on our last visit. 

Sunset in Pondicherry - Image taken by Author
Sunset in Pondicherry – Image taken by Author

As we drove from Pondy to Chennai, I devoured every scene of this country I’d missed for nearly a decade. The thatched huts, the overloaded lorries, a family standing in impossibly green grass, flanked by their taciturn cow. A woman posing for a selfie on the side of the road while balancing a great steel pot atop her head. Coconut groves, rice paddies, pilgrims wearing red saris that matched the blazing flowers on the nearby Poinciana trees. 

I went to the temple on New Year’s Day. Our driver guided us through a maze of people, thousands of them, a fact I can hardly contemplate now. That profusion of humanity is something I love and miss about India, and it’s one of the cruelest aspects of this pandemic—the inherent peril of India’s ubiquitous crowds. 

But at the beginning of this year, I could relish the throngs. What a different world it was.

Past the entrance of the temple, people waited in line to see the various deities. They pushed and complained, or fanned themselves with folded newspapers. Our driver presented an inscrutable, flimsy paper enabling us to advance in the queue. 

I stood at the front of the line, ready to receive my blessing, when an old woman, no higher than my elbow, strong-armed her way through the clot of people, shoving me aside. I let her pass. She was cracked and broken-earth old. And beautiful—in India such advanced age deserves reverence. 

In creative writing classes, instructors often advise us to “tell it slant”, a concept denoting the odd and intriguing detail that makes a story memorable. On this trip to India—my last real trip of 2020–the entire visit felt “slant”. From my uncle’s hilarious stories to the old woman at the temple, to the rickety stand on Marina beach selling dubious curry shrimp pizzas. 

Our prayers finished, I made my way back to my shoes, left outside the temple entrance. It had rained, and puddles collected on the uneven pavement, slimy on my bare feet. An old woman implored me to buy a garland of jasmine flowers. Another hawked damp, battered children’s books. 

As I exited the temple and approached our car, oblivious to what awaited us all just a few weeks away, I noticed a tiny, emaciated stray kitten, shivering as it crawled to one of the puddles. It lapped up the fresh rain. I wished I could hold the kitten in my hands. I doubt it survived more than a few more days.

But the image of that forlorn creature stays with me, slant indeed, and painful. In this year, so thick with loss and missing, I feel a kinship with that poor animal, stumbling forward, searching. When this is over I will have lost three semesters’ worth of connections with my students, along with the birthday parties, dinners, and the celebratory plans I had for my debut novel’s publication. 

And then, just weeks ago, the worst news of all. I lost my beloved uncle—the one I’d just visited in India for New Year’s. None of us could say goodbye to him. He could not even die in his hometown because the ICUs in Pondicherry were full. 

I often think the world provides me with poignant images that have little meaning for me in the present, but are planted in me to decipher later for some future lesson. And indeed, throughout this year my mind has returned to that kitten—now gone, I’m sure—because I feel so much like that creature these days. Stumbling forward, relentlessly aware of my fragility, but still grateful for whatever reprieve life offers. And sometimes, that reprieve is memory itself—of a time when life was easier and less freighted by loss. 

The pandemic will be over, and hopefully soon. I will return to India. My uncle will be gone, his flat in our family house empty, and I will be consoled instead by the palm trees and mangroves, frangipani flowers, bougainvillea, and other Pondicherry flora in which my Botanist uncle delighted.  And I will think back on that kitten, that New Year’s Day, when fragility belonged to something else, and not to me, or us.


Samantha Rajaram is the author of the novel THE COMPANY DAUGHTERS and lives in the Bay Area. 

Vinod Krishnan Mixes R&B with Carnatic Music

Minnesota-based artist, Vinod Krishnan, is well known for his creative work and collaborations with IndianRaga, an arts education startup founded at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This Chennai rooted artist’s dream has always been to take Carnatic music to the world and to bring world music together. Krishnan describes his work to be inspiring, refreshing, disruptive, and culturally relevant.

Krishnan collaborated with a wide range of artists from IndianRaga fellow, Mahesh Raghavan to India’s leading musicians Vijay Prakash and Shankar Mahadevan in recent years. He enjoys experimentation in music – from connecting Carnatic elements to a famous pop cover like Shape of You, to composing breezy Tamil melodies such as his original Kaalai Pozhudil

Krishnan’s Recent Release: Kandapadi Kaadhali 

Inspired by Krishnan’s love for A.R Rahman’s melodies like Rehna Tu and Nenje Ezhu, his new release Kandapadi Kaadhali talks to those in love and encourages to cherish love in its raw, non-judgemental form. “I adore the seamless chord progressions and a refreshing choice of sounds in most ARR hits, which inspired the approach to this song,” says Krishnan, who has a strong passion for connecting with the sound, arrangement, and emotion in all his productions.

“This song lets me step out of my comfort zone and play with R&B,” adds Krishnan. “It’s liberating how you can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. Growing up with ARR’s music, genres no longer seemed mutually exclusive. I believe one needn’t have to pick just one particular genre all the time.”  

 

Krishnan’s Background in Carnatic Music 

Trained in Carnatic music, he spent most of his life as an ardent learner. In 2011, Krishnan started singing for local concerts and Bharatanatyam productions in the US. He also showed a keen eye towards composing, arranging, and producing music – the skills he put to use when he first joined the IndianRaga fellowship in 2016. From then, he made 35 videos both with IndianRaga and independently and garnered a collective viewership of more than 10 million views for his digital music content.

Influence of Chennai Roots on his Music 

“Chennai is like an electron – held back strongly by a nucleus that is culture,” says Krishnan, when asked how he describes his traditional roots. The culture and the traditional embrace of external influences that he was brought up with, help him understand the identity of his origin, that’s a mix of sincerity, modernization, pride, and vibrant culture. 

His culture and background made him realize that one can be rooted in timeless cultural values, and yet be globally relevant and enterprising, and to be all of this needn’t be conflicting. “Another aspect is I’ve always felt Chennai would only be personified to be a culturally-rooted and elegant human being. At some level, that has been the kind of person I’ve sought to be,” says Krishnan. 

Sruthi Dhulipala is a San Francisco-based Communications professional and writer,  She has been priorly published in an International Anthology “Lakdikapul II,” through an Indian poet’s association. She is passionate about music and her goal in life to promote music to the benefit of the people, through music therapy. A passionate dreamer and a self-professed book dragon, she is also a philosophical person who believes that everything happens for a reason in life.

I Dance, Hence, I Am

Aug 25 Festival to Bring Immersive Experience to BharataNatyam Lovers.

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

Navia Natrajan

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

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

Shweta Prachande

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anwesha Das

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

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

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

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

Christopher Gurusamy

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

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

 

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

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

Indra Nooyi Resigns as Pepsi CEO

“Today is a day of mixed emotions for me. has been my life for 24 years & part of my heart will always remain here. I’m proud of what we’ve done & excited for the future. I believe PepsiCo’s best days are yet to come.” With these words, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo for the past 12 years announced her resignation. She will relinquish her post to Ramon Laguarta on October 3rd.

Nooyi continued by saying, “Growing up in India, I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to lead an extraordinary company like . Leading this company has been the honor of my lifetime. We’ve made more meaningful impact in people’s lives than I ever dreamed possible. I’m incredibly proud of all we’ve done over the past 12 years to advance the interests of our stakeholders in the communities we serve. What I admire about our global team is an incredible drive to compete – to be the best, to remain the best.”

As the New York Times reported, “She presided over a significant expansion of PepsiCo’s business, with revenue growing to $63.5 billion last year, from $35 billion in 2006, while the company’s share price nearly doubled in that time.” She is also credited with shifting the focus of the company from sugary drinks to other healthy offerings.

 

Vidhya Subramanian’s Still I Rise, a Premiere

Vidhya Subramanian, the acclaimed Bharatnatyam dancer, will premiere her latest piece “Still I Rise” in Palo Alto on May 18th, 2018.

Subramanian is part of the shining mecca of Indian classicalism here in the Bay, where a vastrange of artists and teachers are shaping Northern California’s arts culture, and producing an accomplished next generation of classical dancers and musicians.

She is also part of a rising movement of trans-national artists, spending half of the year in the Bay Area and the other half in Chennai.

“Still I Rise” is a dance-theatre piece. The title is inspired by Maya Angelou’s scintillating 1978 poem. Speckled with dance, spoken word, poetry, and music, in five languages, Subramanian’s piece gives voice to the controversial mythological figure of Draupadi.

“I will not be retelling her story,” says Subramanian, in describing her piece. Rather, this will be an attempt to “reshape” a mythological story and channel its deep relevance to our life and times today.

Subramanian’s performance style poses crucial questions towards the fight for gender justice. “I want to underline that nothing has changed since Draupadi”, she insists. “And, that she is not a forgotten myth, or worse, a myth placed on a pedestal, but is as current and relevant to today.”

“Still I Rise” will feature recorded music by Chennai-based composer Rajkumar Bharati, and a script co-written by Priya Das, creative director at Sangam Arts, and Vidhya herself. The evening will be presented by Narika, a non-for profit, Berkeley-based organization that actively works against domestic violence in the South Asian American community.

In collaborating with Narika, Subramanian felt a deep alignment with the organization’s mission and purposes. Last year alone, Narika advocates fielded over 1500 calls to their toll-free helpline, servicing the greater Bay Area. Research shows that 41% of South Asian women in America report experiencing domestic violence at least once in their lifetimes, compared to about 25% of women in the general United States population.

But beyond the statistics of the issue, Subramanian claims that it is the “individual stories” of domestic violence which are more haunting for her.

“There is a Draupadi in all of us,” notes Subramanian. With her work, she aims to appeal to every woman in the audience, to assure them that they are not alone in the fight for gender justice.

“Still I Rise” tackles a complex and rampant issue facing our communities through the medium of dance, music and poetry. The sound and music production has been done by Sai Shravanam, costuming by Sandhya Raman, and lighting design by Kaveri Seth.

“Still I Rise” presented by Narika at the Cubberley Theatre, Palo Alto on May 18th, 2018. Tickets $35 for General Admission and $50 for VIP. For tickets and information, please visit: https://narika.brownpapertickets.com/

 

The F16s – Music that Carries You On

Sheer astonishment is the sentiment that comes to mind when you hear the F16s. How can an Indian band based in Chennai sound so Rock, from the vocals to the guitaring and keys to the lyrics.

Incredibly, they won the 2013 Jack Daniel’s Annual Rock Award for Best Emerging Act. Incredibly, they were winners in the Converse Road to Rubber Tracks contest which had them recording two numbers in Brooklyn, New York.19

And incredibly, again, they are not musically trained. “None of us have any musical education whatsoever we sort of just picked up our instruments and found each other,” says Josh who does the vocals and guitars.

The band already has a seven track album called Kaleidoscope out. Their new album is in stealth mode, will have ten tracks, and is to be launched in September this year.

The F16s go by their first or nicknames; the others in the band are Vikram- the drummer, Shank on bass, Harshan on keys, and Abhinav aka Booby (“he was tubby as a child”) on the guitar. When asked how it all started, Josh says, “Chennai is a small city so everybody knows everybody, Vikram, Booby and I went to the same college and Shank and Harshan were mutual friends so we’d hang out with each other often. We decided to meet up one summer and just grab our gear and write some music.”

In 2014, Converse, the sports gear and apparel company, held a contest spanning different regions worldwide that would grant the winners studio time at the Rubber Tracks Studio in Brooklyn. The F16s were growing tired of competitions, this seemed like a “what’s-the-worst-that-could-happen” scenario. They got shortlisted, played the finals, won the contest. Late 2014, at the Brooklyn studio, they recorded two singles: “Blackboard” and “Jacuzzi.” When asked if it was tough deciding on which tracks Josh remembers, “We honestly didn’t give that a lot of thought, apart from the occasional back and forth at practice. The two songs we decided to go with were confirmed right outside the walls of the Rubber Tracks Studio. Those two songs seemed to fit perfectly with the space, the studio, the recording process. ”

The new album promises to be dissimilar to the previous releases and talks to universal themes such as romance, morality, selfishness and contempt. Josh describes further, “With a city like Chennai, melancholia comes easy but in spurts which can be easily heard through the record. I think with this album we find our selves forcefully complexed.”

A great example of this are the lyrics to “Digital Dead,” an upcoming track:

Digital men with a digital smile,
Since I’ve been running in a
circle …    
Cause I’ve been waiting a while
Who do they want us to be?

Try again, But dont start as yet.

No sudden moves, just sudden death.

So what comes first, the lyrics or the tune? “It almost always starts with a hook that would click this little knob in our brains that would trigger something that feels like we always knew what to play. We start with a tune and then I sort of spread/spill lyrics over it, cause I want the music to carry the lyrics and not the other way around,” opines Josh.

The Brooklyn-studio-recorded songs have a passive aggressive feel, conveying a rebellion by wholly embracing the “melancholia.” “Blackboard” begins on the upbeat, superb guitaring and keys introducing us to the lyrics which say, “… jumping to the river, but the river wouldn’t carry you on….looking to the mirror but the mirror wasn’t looking at you.” The music lifts you up to counter the lyrics, which are brutally honest. “Jacuzzi” on the other hand, has suspenseful music in tune with the lyrics that start off  “As I’m walking on broken glass…”

If living in Chennai and living off of its vibe has literally driven the F16s to music, then their New York experience will prove to be one of the defining moments of their musical caliber. As Josh says, “New York is the originator, the place where innovations in musical styles begin.”

Check out the F16s on their facebook page online. Kaleidoscope is avalailable on iTunes. (Warning: Some numbers have explicit content.)

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Bollywood Hums to New Zealander’s Tunes

 Surprising fact: a New Zealander created the music for the Bollywood movies Margarita with a Straw and Bombay Velvet. He won “Best Composer” at the 2015 Asian Film Awards for the former. His name is Mikey McCleary.

musicmcl

McCleary was born in Chennai to New Zealander parents, but then moved out of India. When you listen to his music, it feels like 1970s-80s Bollywood music on steroids. His website, mikeymccleary.com has a sampling of his work, including Quick Gun Murugan, many well known commercials (Lakme, Cinthol, TVS Scooty), and a couple of his own albums. All of his work has a distinct, smooth sound that blends western and Indian influences.

How does a New Zealander “get” Bollywood? McCleary is not sure how that came to be, saying “Perhaps my family’s connection with India has helped me adapt. I’ve always enjoyed doing many different styles of music and I like the challenge of trying to understand Indian music and incorporate elements in my work.”

McCleary was re-introduced to India when he was working for a studio in London, focusing on Western music. He got lucky, literally, when he met Lucky Ali and started making music for his albums. That collaboration spurred him into attending Indian music concerts and working with other music directors such as A.R. Rahman.

The following interview Mikey McCleary attempts to score his career.

When and why did you decide to move to Bombay?
I moved about seven years ago. I had this feeling of ‘I must try living in India sometime’ building up inside me. I came here because it’s such a fascinating place and full of interesting music opportunities.

Which was your first TV commercial and first film?
It was a Lakme TV ad sung by Anushka Manchanda. First film was Aao Wish Karein.

What made you think up “Bartender,” the stage name for your own albums? Could you expand on that, share that moment of epiphany?
Well, it was a combination of things. When I started playing around with old songs and re-inventing them, I was making “smoky late night bar” type versions of these songs. The name Bartender seemed to suit the mood. Also Bartenders mix up concoctions much like I mix up music.

Specifically about Margarita with a Straw: How did that come about?
I met the director, Shonali Bose, after Shaad Ali recommended me to her. We started work on this film more than two years ago. Despite it being stretched out, the process always remained fresh and captivating. The last song (“Choone Chali Aasman”) was the toughest to finish. Even though the composition came really fast we couldn’t find the right voice to sing the song. After trying seven different voices out, we came back to the first singer Rachel Varghese. Often, first instincts are best. Winning the best composer award at Asian Film Awards was a huge bonus, particularly as I was getting married in New Zealand at the time of the award ceremony.

Did you get to see rushes of the movie while you were working on it, or just the plot, or …
First, I read the script and then worked on a few songs which were needed pre-shoot. After that, I saw many different edits as the film was fine-tuned. During that period, I did most of my composition for the other songs and the music score.

You are a music man. How do you craft your videos, which have an edgy vibe of their own?
Last year I made eight music videos. Many had interesting stories. I think the simplest and best one is
“The little things you do” featuring Anushka Manchanda. It was just Anushka, my director of photography and I who went off to Goa and made this video with very little budget and no production help. Somehow, it turned out nice.

In another one called “Aaj ki Raat” I created a film noir mystery story which involved romance, betrayal and murder in the bath tub. This was a huge challenge because we had many actors, it was technically very difficult in terms of lighting and set design, plus I tried to fit the plot of a full feature film into a three minute video.
(Both of these videos can be watched at mikeymccleary.com)

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz, and other genres.