June 28, 2011

Sunday Lunch

Kolkata. 2009.

The school caretaker holds out two polythene bags to his wife at the doorway of his residence located to one corner of the school courtyard. His cat follows him to the door, out of habit and purpose, equally.

One bag holds tomatoes and greens, and the other, fish. The courtyard is swept clean and quiet. The platforms in the shade are empty of students.

Later he basks in the winter Sun with the cat at his feet. It is Sunday morning and they both have time on their hands, and paws, to pause with the Sun and reflect with the shadows while awaiting lunch.

June 16, 2011

M.F. Husain, Grahak Panchayat, And A Rainy Day

A little under two years ago, on a rainy day similar to those buffeting Mumbai for over a week now, I stepped out of the office with my colleagues for a meeting with office bearers of the Life Insurance Corporation of India (L.I.C) in Worli.

Grey skies had blanketed the city and the rain fell intermittently. While there was respite from the skies between spells of rain, there was no respite from the pall of windswept grey and black umbrellas deftly negotiating other umbrellas passing them by, the black adding to the overall gloom, with the occasional colour floating about in the street failing to break the impasse.

After the pounding through the year, roads clung on to puddles of water, seeking relief from the humidity of a long summer. Commuters exercised caution in choosing the puddles to leap over and the puddles to walk through, often choosing the latter to avoid leaping over a puddle only to land in another with a splash.

The much trumpeted Bandra – Worli Sea Link had opened to traffic a little over a week ago, connecting Bandra to Worli across the Mahim Bay. At over five kilometers the cable-stayed bridge over the Arabian Sea had attracted joy riders soon after it was thrown open to the public, with thousands lining up for a drive in the hope they would experience the roiling sea under them from the safety of the sea bridge.

But Mumbai being Mumbai, priorities soon rearranged themselves, with matters of urgency and compulsion taking over the need for joy rides between Worli and Bandra, with the exception of those with time on hand.

As we huddled into the office transport, matters of work took a backseat in the time leading up to the moment the car lined up with the bridge over a violent sea. Rivulets streamed down the windshield, glazing over the yellows of Traffic Policemen posted on the bridge into images brushed over with effects in image software. With windows rolled up we rolled onto the bridge in a cocoon of silence save the occasional banter, the pattering of raindrops and the whooshing of rearing waves muted to the ear even as the eye sought to recreate it.

Shortly we sped over seemingly innumerable spans supported on piers before approaching the massive central tower rising into the sky, the cables descended at angles, turning the cable-stayed portions on either side of the approach into a pleasing geometry.

A few quick turns negotiating the traffic barricades and we were on the home stretch before exiting the bridge on the Worli side in quick time. I was disappointed over passing it so quickly, and I hadn’t even got a good, long, hard look at the sea as we passed over it. For a moment I doubted if it was over five kilometers long before my colleagues laid my doubts to rest. It was 5.6 kms. long.

Upon entering the main concourse of L.I.C.’s office building I was struck by how high the ceiling was. With Worli home to large corporations, private and public, the L.I.C building was in keeping in the style of buildings fashioned in Worli in the decades before modernity and transparent open spaces sectioned along temporary lines and reflecting facades came to influence architectural space in newer constructions elsewhere in Mumbai. This looked, felt, and even smelt like Babu space except for a large painting nearly rising to the ceiling behind the receptionist. It was a 1963 Husain.

Not that I needed confirmation to the fact. The lines, the colours, the figures, even if a mystery to those not well informed about the Mumbai art scene, like yours truly, pointed to Maqbool Fida Husain, or M.F. Husain as he is better known in India, or rather was known in India before his passing away in exile in faraway London a little over a week ago, just as the monsoons rumbled into Mumbai ahead of time early this month.

The Gods must have conspired in bridging the two events with a common element, the Mumbai monsoon.

The only paintings I’ve admired of M.F. Husain’s are those of the horses he painted, the lines, the strength in the lines, and the mood made for an arresting pause. Of the rest of his paintings, limited to those I’ve seen exhibited in galleries and in print, I rarely found any that distinguished itself to a layman eye, more likely ordinary than not, contrary to what many others might feel. In time I came around to believing that their value lay more in the construction of the M.F. Husain brand than any inherent elevating characteristics.

I turned my gaze at the M.F. Husain on the wall.

Dulled by inclement weather outside, the lighting struggled to reveal the painting from where I sat on the sofa with my colleagues, waiting to be summoned to the meeting.

Curious, I got up from the seat and walked up to the painting. A form rising above the masses before him revealed itself holding up what appeared to be the Sun while looking to his right at musicians playing musical instruments.

In the foreground, probably seeking a face to the faceless masses in a throng, he shows a family. For a moment I stand there, attempting to make sense of M.F. Husain’s painting from the early 1960s. I make no headway except for returning my eye to the hordes or masses populating the scene.

If the musical instrument in the scene, most likely a Tanpura or maybe a Sitar, held in the classic pose of an accompaniment in a Hindustani music recital, is meant to lend a religious significance to the gathering of the masses at the feet of the one holding up the Sun or a ball of light, I wouldn’t know for certain. My guess is as good as yours.

Whether he meant for the imposing figure holding up the ball of flame to be a leader of sorts, I cannot be sure but wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be holding light to the masses, showing them the way out or a way forward. I could only imagine the intent.

The only certainty, if I can lay claim to it, is the gathering of the masses, and to an extent the notion of a leader rallying the masses about him, either to lead them on, or give them an audience.

And before the day was out, additional elements I happened upon in the landing by the stairway before we got called to the meeting, soon knotted themselves into a narrative around the masses, and a leader. It was as unlikely a coincidence as it was an unlikely analogy. Ah! The dots one will connect when waiting to be called to work!

Where the concourse opened into the landing leading to the staircase, several writing/display boards were stacked up against a wooden cabin fashioned in the space below the staircase, each writing board belonging to a pressure group organized as an employee union, and serving as notice boards for union demands, appeals, and announcements laid in chalk, with the exception of Grahak Chalval. Grahak is Hindi for customer while Chalval is Marathi for movement. Customer Movement.

The announcement in chalk read:

*Happy News* *Happy News*

For L.I.C. Employees

By Courtsey of Grahak Chalval

Montex Wrist Watch Offer

On Purchase of One Wrist Watch
Get Another Wrist Watch Free*

Leather Belt Rs. 250/-
Metal Belt Rs. 300/-

Offer Date: 13 July – 17 July
Time: Between 12 pm – 3 pm

While I had read about Grahak Chalval before I was surprised to find its presence prominently announced in a Govt. institution. No other Govt. office I had visited before bore Grahak Panchayat’s presence as prominently as at the L.I.C. office that day, in fact there was no visible presence.

Grahak Chalval is a consumer co-operative movement that emerged in the unlikely event of angry residents in Pune burning down a warehouse suspected of hoarding essential household commodities, inconveniencing consumers by creating artificial shortages aimed at hiking prices. The year was 1974, and Bindu Madhav Joshi was witness to the frustrated mob running amok.

Bindu Madhav Joshi, hailing from Pune’s Brahmin community distinguished by its stellar contribution to the Arts, the Academia, Administration, and Social movements, combined with other young social-movement minded Brahmin youth, including Sudhir Phadke and Pu La Deshpande, to raise in consumers an awareness about their rights and help check their exploitation by traders, eventually founding Grahak Panchayat to achieve his objectives.

He mobilized ‘Buying Groups’ comprising members who bought commodities on behalf of consumers before distributing them at their doorsteps on a ‘No Loss – No Profit’ basis, ensuring the benefits of collective buying power while putting a check on trading malpractices formerly visited upon individual consumers. Families benefited from the discounts the ‘Buying Groups’ managed on their behalf, easing financial constraints in the process. It was a rather unique co-operative movement.

Bindu Madhav Joshi’s movement eventually expanded its scope to safeguard consumer interests in a variety of matters affecting consumers, showing them the pitfalls to avoid, the rights to exercise, and the way forward.

As we prepared to take the lift, I couldn’t help notice the parallel between my interpretation of M.F. Husain’s rendition on canvas in the reception and the genesis of Grahak Chalval, the canvas of a painter converging with the reality of a social activist rendered in the consumer movement serving the masses.

In the video below, hear Bindu Madhav Joshi inform and caution consumers of the pitfalls to avoid when buying goods in the marketplace, even advising them to bargain at the counter, reminding them that the Consumer Is King.

Further Reading:

1. Mumbai Grahak Panchayat Website.
2. How The Consumer Movement Started, Outlook Money, 1998.
3. Grahak Chalval, A Unique Co-operative Movement, The Hindu, 1999.
4. Customer’s King Turns 80, Loksatta, 2010.

June 06, 2011

Beauty Is In The Mind Of The Beholden

It did not take me long, once I was hooked to the road, to realize that while destinations offer a closure to a journey, it takes a journey to open up the destination.

It was at that moment of realization that individual moments of discovery on the road strung themselves together to create a landscape of sustained beauty, encompassing culture, tradition, places, and people.

In travelling out of the comfort zone the first time, one is tempted to let the anticipation of the destination take over, engaged as the mind is in running over beautiful picture postcard images of the destination that goaded one into embarking on the trip. Then there’re logistical issues to deal with – hotel reservations, local transportation, railway reservations, and scouring of eating places among other things, aspects of travel likely to overwhelm the traveller, dulling their receptivity to moments of beauty inherent in the mundane of everyday life different from their own, and the place different from where they come from.

Yet, it takes more than one journey and more than several goof-ups to begin to widen the perspective about life on the road and beyond it. And once that happens, as it happened to me, and as it must happen to many a wandering feet, the unexpected is no longer a constraint to be gotten through, but that to be admired for the inherent beauty of the experience, the promise of the moment, and its relevance to the traveller’s own association with the land of his ancestors.

And soon it’s no longer only the landscapes that awe with their beauty, or settings that astonish with their sophistication. It begins to include everyday moments with ‘everyday people’, and everyday places with ‘everyday experiences’, mundane to the resident but revealing to the visiting traveler, tapping the subconscious into embracing the newly conscious – a singular reason why the beauty of travel transcends expectations every single time.

And I’ve had my share of encounters with people and places that’ve taken kindly to my enquiring eye, encouraged even, even as they’ve been benevolent with their time in humouring my curiosity, possibly amused as I delighted in the acquaintance made, promising to mail in the pictures made with them and return someday before waving out as I left them behind on my way eleswhere, like when I left Appu Kuttan folding his straw mat on a platform outside the ancient Mookambika temple in Kollur on my backpacking trip along Karnataka’s coast.

He had turned out to be an Ex-British India Army soldier pre-Independence. At 83, he remembered the key details.

“I did not swing guns on the battlefield,” Appu Kuttan recalled. “I served in the 37 Field Ambulance Unit on the frontlines. We took our lunch in the trenches, sheltering from Japanese planes on bombing runs.” At this juncture he raises his hands, imitating the Japanese planes swooping down to drop their loads behind British lines. Allied troops were battling to keep China’s overland supply route through Burma open while Japan sought to cut it off. The Burma campaign began disastrously for the British in the December of 1941, with thousands of Indian soldiers in the British India army losing their lives to the Japanese and disease, malaria being rife in the swamps. By mid 1945 the tide had turned, and the Japanese were in full retreat.

“We took many Japanese prisoners in Rangoon,” Appu Kuttan said, a smile breaking on his lips at the memory as he exhaled after drawing deep on his beedi. “Japanese Officers were made to sweep. They would ask us for Goodbye cigarettes,” he said. “Eighteen of us in the Army company did not smoke, so we gave the prisoners our stock of Goodbye cigarettes.”

Appu Kuttan offered to share his beedi with me. It took much effort on my part to politely decline his act of kindness, an offering as valuable as any among his meagre possessions that sustained his life as a sadhu since his discharge from the army after independence from British rule. [For more on Appu Kuttan, click to read my account here].

Reflecting on the way back, basking in the humanity experienced with strangers, indebted to the warmth with which I was received, it was inevitable that I would, in time, expand Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder to include Beauty is in the mind of the beholden.

Upon this realization, the road was no longer the same again, turning journeys into destinations, and vice versa. It ceased to merely connect the beginning and end, instead becoming the connection, seamless, and continuous in the way that riding it becomes imperative if one is to make sense of the place one is headed to, and the people who inhabit it. The stops on the road or the street or an alley became equally compelling, and encounters as enlightening as they were memorable.

And nowhere more so as with the chance meeting with Ramkrishna Bhagwan Maukar on a platform built into the enclosure of a 18th century stone temple in Panchavati, the place made sacred by Lord Ram’s presence during his exile from Ayodhya.

To this day pilgrims stream in their thousands to offer prayers in the waters of the Godavari where Lord Ram bathed, and to sate their curiosity in the winding tunnels of Sita Gufa where Sita lived before she was whisked away by Ravana, stirring to life among the greatest epics of all time, aided ably by Lord Hanuman whose presence now permeates Panchavati.

Ramkrishna Bhagwan Maukar had come visiting Panchavati with fellow pilgrims bussed in from Yavatmal, soon finding himself in the temple that Naroshankar Raje Bahadur, a Jahgirdar in the reign of Peshwas, built in the Maya style.

Hanging over the entrance was a bronze bell, a token of victory over the Portuguese in Vasai presented to Naroshankar Raje Bahadur by the Peshwas in recognition of his bravery in the battle.

Soon, local tour guides sheltering on the platform from the Sun while awaiting pilgrims desirous of guides to take them around Panchavati convinced Ramkrishna Maukar in no time into lending tunes to the afternoon. Ramkrishna had carried his flute along. But before he played his flute, he sang in a sometimes shaky voice punctuated by a reluctant throat and racking coughs.

The next thirty minutes he transformed the temple courtyard into a rural landscape, replete with the fragrance of the earth stirred by his soulful rendition of lyrics that told of emotions, and sentiments about the everyday, moments that revealed the beauty of a simplicity that urban travelers will sometimes go seeking.

In between he apologized for his throat acting up as he raised his rendition a notch above. We told him he did fine nevertheless. As he strained, I told him it was okay with us if he chose to stop, considering he was old, and it was hot outside. But he would have none of it, brushing aside my suggestion and promptly singing another Marathi song, and we were only to happy to listen to him.

Eventually he expressed surprise at our interest, prompting one of the tour guides listening along into telling him that if it wasn’t for the fact we were interested we wouldn’t have sat through his singing. That seemed to please him and allay his apprehensions before bringing a smile to his weary face that must rank among the most beautiful smiles I’ve been graced with.

Then he took up the flute, and the afternoon soon rung to faraway images of an ancient land, elevating the everyday of an appreciative audience with the unexpected tenor of an unscheduled meeting with an old man from the hinterland.

Play the video below to share in the experience of listening to an impromptu session with Ramkrishna Maukar that summer day in the courtyard of an old stone temple, with idle tour guides and flower sellers in attendance.

The unexpected, if one is receptive to experiencing, is as much a beauty to behold and experience as say a river flowing through a valley in a mountain range, rivaling in equal measure with an elderly sadhu offering to share the only beedi in his possession, not to speak of being regaled with songs sung heartily from the heart.

Beauty exists in many forms, sustaining life, giving it meaning, while motivating living, even as it encourages reaching out, repeating the cycle all over again and making for a fulfilling life.

It exists as much in the faith of another as it does in the faith in another.

This post is an entry to the Indiblogger / Dove / Yahoo! India contest on the theme "What does real beauty mean to you?".