March 09, 2013

Prayer Time At Delhi’s Jama Masjid

As the clock struck 4, a barely perceptible crackle over the public address system soon turned into a mellifluous call to prayer at Delhi's Jama Masjid.

I sat on a raised platform facing the historic masjid in old Delhi. The platform ran east-west along the length of the quadrangle enclosing a large courtyard where visitors milled about and joyous children scattered hundreds of feeding pigeons into the sky to watch them circle overhead before settling down once again among the grains an old Muslim man in a skull cap had spread in the middle of the courtyard.

Click Play to listen to the muezzin at prayer time in Delhi's Jama Masjid 

Visitors continued to stream in through the towering southern entrance. I let the muezzin’s magic work over me. After hours on foot through Delhi’s crowded gallis here was a voice that made space I could meander in without leaving my seat on the platform.

Behind me, framed in ornamented arches that looked out to the Red Fort in the distance two Muslim women in burqa sat cross-legged on the stone floor offering prayers from their holy book. The Urdu letters were visible from where I sat several feet away. Not once did they look up from the book in the time I was there.

The soft afternoon Sun slanted across the platform, echoing the warmth the muezzin's call to prayer lent the vanishing day.

March 03, 2013

David Rocco’s Dolce India Swings By ITC Grand Central, Mumbai

I learned of David Rocco’s Mumbai visit to film his new series in India centred on food only recently. Scheduled to be broadcast on FOX Traveller, his India episodes are said to be along the lines of his charming Dolce Vita episodes in Italy, exploring kitchens and restaurants, and people and places. A quick swing by ITC Grand Central and I’d have gotten a glimpse of his team at work only that I couldn’t get time off from office, so couldn't attend.

But I knew of someone who did and the account that follows is in K’s own words of the wine evening David Rocco hosted on ITC’s rooftop lounge recently.    

Until the kindly gentleman with a beatific smile said his name softly I had taken to addressing him as Mr. Bean after hearing his colleagues do the same.

“I’m Jay Bajaj,” the kindly man corrected me, his smile rarely leaving his face in the minutes we made acquaintance. He was settled on a sofa in ITC Grand Central’s split-level rooftop lounge - Point Of View on the 30th floor.

The lounge connected the open air gazebo on both wings, each home to a pavilion raised on a platform.

Behind him a row of high stools stood against the counter where smartly dressed bar tenders catered to guests. Gleaming bottles of spirits shone on racks in the warm light that suffused the cozy lounge equipped with a library and a boardroom. Large windows opened to the city outside. 

Visitors were seated at tables conversing in low tones, their bags on the floor resting against their chairs.

Jay Bajaj crossed his legs and stretched his arm along the back of the sofa, a sign he was relieved to be back somewhere warm, hospitable and retiring.

David Rocco’s production team was in Mumbai wrapping up filming in the metropolis for their show Dolce India scheduled to air on Fox Traveller starting September later this year.

Jay Bajaj was taking a well deserved pause while his colleagues were setting up cameras and other equipment while scouting the ITC Grand Central for footage and vantage points as the evening gradually wound upstairs to the rooftop lounge where David Rocco was scheduled to host a wine tasting event for select invitees.

I reached the ITC Grand Central located on a busy road in Parel, early, and it was just as well for, while the evening was to culminate in a wine tasting event with David Rocco, I was equally interested if not more in seeing his production team plan a shoot for his new television series David Rocco’s Dolce India exploring India on the lines of David Rocco’s Dolce Vita that’s made Season Four, a sign of its appeal and success.

India however is alien to David Rocco, an experiment, a challenge. I’ll only know if he’s made the cut once the cameras stop rolling and the promos hit the airwaves ahead of its broadcast.

For now I was curious to see what transpires in the making of a TV series episode given the success the celebrity TV host has had with his charming escapades in Italy stringing viewers along on his jaunts through Italy’s cultural and culinary landscapes. It didn’t really matter that the evening atop ITC Grand Central’s rooftop lounge might probably find only a passing reference and look-in when David’s team sits down to see the rushes with digital scissors at hand.

I was there for the experience of seeing and meeting with the show’s host and carry back memories of his production team working to make the India series happen. 

The setting at ITC Grand Central’s rooftop lounge the perfect antidote to the rush of the Mumbai street outside, contributing just the right setting to the evening even if the gathering was smaller than I expected.     

The ITC Grand Central where part of the footage was planned on the Mumbai leg of his four-city dash around India was an apt setting for a wine tasting evening given the views its split-level rooftop lounge Point Of View affords its guests gathered under the Mumbai sky to meet with David holding his fort with Indian wines.

In the open air gazebo, workers were busy preparing the pavilion for the evening, beautifying it with flowers.

The late afternoon Sun cast its glow around. David’s production team was up and about testing their equipment and looking for spots to best film the event.

A cameraman stood by the parapet and took in the view of Mumbai, high rises interspersing with low rise residential apartment blocks, together forming waves that rode for a long way out.  

The wind was beginning to pick up. It would grow stronger as the evening progressed.

He would later tell me that it was only a couple of days ago that he’d learned India makes its own wines; the surprise was equally evident on his twitter feed drawing a wry comment from a quip gently chiding David not to “undermine India” before smiley-ingly asserting “we can make quite a few things”. He probably meant “underestimate”, not “undermine”. To which David responded he didn’t ‘undermine India’ before implying he was in India ‘to find out just what things we make here,’ starting with Chennai down south.

The stops – Chennai, Mumbai, Jaipur, and New Delhi.


The team had just flown into Mumbai from Chennai to shoot on locations around the city in the days ahead. A quick trip to Nashik for a tour of Fratelli Winery was to culminate in an evening with wine, Indian wine in particular; Fratelli to be specific.

Leave alone the rest of the world, Nashik is not as well known around India either with the exception of Maharashtrians and those who know their Ramayana well. And knowledge of vineyards operating out of Nashik is an even longer shot outside of wine aficionados, some of whom wear Italian hats.  

It was in Nashik that Sita was abducted by Ravana while Lord Ram was on exile from Ayodhya.

If you’re visiting Nashik in the winter, few sights on Nashik’s streets overwhelm the visitor as much as basket loads of grapes being sold off the street.

Nashik grapes inveigle the visitor the moment they step out the railway station.

Take a bus out of Nashik proper for Trimbakeshwar and the countryside is host to sights of farmers selling their produce roadside in the backdrop of their vineyards.

But I suspect David’s experiences with India as a wine making destination is going to come up against those from his Dolce Vita episodes with Italian wine making traditions. No guesses to who’d win that.

If anything, more people than before will begin to associate India with wines once his India series goes on air. Not a bad beginning.

Speaking with him later that evening he said he was initially under the impression that Indians drink beer and that if Indians made wine it probably wasn’t that good.

Then there were the regulars from down South - “I liked the dosas, the chutneys, and the people. The people are amazing,” he said sharing his general impression, adding that he didn’t have a good experience at the fish market. The inedible smells grounded him.

Indians can find it difficult to beat the stench of open toilets in the summer, let alone someone whose TV series Dolce Vita promos paint vividly how to live the good life in Italy.

It’d be too much to expect David to wind through local Indian markets and not try his hand at bargaining with the vendors.

“They asked for a cauliflower, 40 rupees. I brought it down to 25. Then he brought me up to 30, and then I threw in a couple of chillies. That was a good deal.”

Who wouldn't smile through the day after bargaining a good deal? I would. And I do it as well with the local vendors.

His TV series David Rocco’s Dolce Vita has made four seasons and has aired in over 150 countries and counting, taking viewers on a vicarious tour of Italy exploring its cities and countryside for social, cultural and culinary encounters where, as David says on his website, “As always, the starting point is food,” before elaborating with “The show is also about how food brings friends and family together.”

Even if I hadn’t seen the section “My Italy” on David’s website that he begins with “Hey! This is my guide to my favourite country in the world,” it took me only a few minutes of conversation with him to realise that while he’s left Italy to visit India, he’s never really left Italy. This was notwithstanding the impression the man in maroon down south in Chennai made on him as he raised him arm holding a vessel with coffee as high as it could go while the other arm holding a second vessel descended low before letting the coffee cascade like a waterfall from the height he’d mustered with his right hand.

The smiling South Indian proudly displaying his coffee making skills is featured prominently on David’s site even if not everything about Chennai enamoured him.

One impression does not make an entire experience. And India is no Italy. It was not meant to be.

To know what I mean you only have to watch Dolce Vita’s Season Three trailer set in Italy.   

The Legwork Behind Making Dolce Vita - India

Where diversity, of the kind India is home to, entices, it equally challenges, more so given David has little to no experience with India personally, probably does not speak any Indian language, relying entirely on India hands to scout locales to capture India’s essence in the show’s format – food, markets, people, places, and cuisine, daring failure in attempting a fusion of Indian and Italian dishes.

While his site announced his Dolce Vita road show as “our guide to all things Italian,” before adding, “This is a great resource if you're planning a trip to Italy. I've recommended some of my favourite places to eat and sleep, in some of my favourite cities and areas in Italy. Some are fancy, some are simple, some just family run establishments, and all are worth visiting!

To pull this off with his Indian series would need local knowledge.

It’s here that Jay Bajaj stepped in to smooth over hassles common to locating people and locales to shoot street-side episodes for travel shows. Speaking with Jay as we waited for David to kick start the evening gave a peek behind the ‘finished work’ eventually broadcast on TV.  

Jay elaborated on the challenge he faced with the team in exploring India for locations to shoot, people to feature. Four Indian cities, each different from the other, can present different challenges even if the show format driving the content is the same.

Jay spoke of how he wasn’t entirely sure of which story would eventually work even though he had nine stories to work with.

“We had to change one of the stories yesterday because one of the people wasn’t there,” Jay offered as example of how scripts even when bound can come unglued. “We were thinking of doing a story,” he continued, referring to another story planned, “But now we’re in a hurry, so it’s constantly changing. Tomorrow, David’ll be doing PR while I’ll be out looking for people and places.”

Apparently, the idea for the India series was first broached to Jay by David last April after David phoned Jay to sound him out for the series. Initially Jay wasn’t too enamoured by the thought of getting involved in “all that food series” but David prevailed over Jay.

To know why Jay wasn’t exactly thrilled at first of a series involving food one doesn’t have to go further than Jay’s own 72-minute documentary feature Qawwali – A Musical Journey that he wrote, directed and produced in 2003 for his own banner – Bajaj Films.

The documentary film was a musical journey through his own childhood memories, Jay accompanied Hayat Nizami - whose family has been performing Qawaali for five generations - and his group of Qawaals through Delhi, the capital of India, as they go in for a recording session, talk about their music and share its importance in their lives, and sing at different historical locations around the city. The film paints a vivid picture in sound and sight of the music, its history, and its home.

Later, I listened to a Qawaali from Jay’s film Qawwali – A Musical Journey. The haunting invocation stayed with me long after the voice had gone silent.

After speaking with David, Jay realised it’d be fun doing the India TV series Dolce India though he admitted that he wasn’t entirely sure at first if David could pull it off, likely for the obvious reasons of land and language and the baggage that comes with it.

Once the ball got rolling and Jay found himself in the thick of things, the logistical legwork well and truly began, starting with identifying sponsors, ITC among them, scouting for locations and locales, story ideas, people, permissions and the whole works.

“I’ve been here (India) since September 18,” Jay said. The fact that he remembers the date is an indication that it’s been anything but a smooth sailing. “A good 5-6 months.”

David’s team is scheduled to be filming its episodes until April before leaving India and beginning work on post-production that’s expected to carry on until September, just shy of the dates they expect the series to go on air.

“13 episodes in all,” Jay lets on.

Talking of the editing process and the time it takes, he makes mention of Kunal Vijaykar’s show and of how they shoot for four hours in a day but take close to five days editing the footage.

Switching back to the work ahead of his team, he tells of how they shoot their episodes, each involving extensive shoots across locations over a minimum of three days before beginning post-production, all in all a lengthy process.

“We submit all 13 episodes to the broadcaster and they set up a date to begin broadcasting the episodes. In the West, National Geographic will broadcast our show, while elsewhere, Fox Traveller will carry it,” Jay concluded just as David finished meeting his team gathered in the lounge, exchanging courtesies with a few invites, posing for pictures, before everyone followed him to the open terrace of the Point Of View rooftop lounge to commence the evening event everyone had come together for.

By then the equipment was in place, boom mikes at the ready, and racks of wine bottles and glasses held centre stage.

The sun had slipped down the horizon save the last flames licking the skies over the Grand Central in gentle colours.

Starters had made their appearance: a variety of cheeses, and hummus shared space with cold cuts.

After rolling with the production team preparing for the shoot earlier that evening, I cast my lot with the crowd for the last act of the evening – David weaving his way about, sips of wine punctuating the banter, navigating looping smiles under the city sky, not unlike the style he’s adopted for his Dolce Vita series.

Raageshwari Loomba, formerly a singer and actress made an appearance with Farzana Contractor, the Editor of Uppercrust, India’s Food, Wine & the Good Life magazine.

The gathering gravitated toward the spread for the evening, asparagus, pita bread, artichokes, olives, salmon, cheeses and wines.

The Point Of View lounge as the name suggests offers a tantalising view of the Mumbai skyline for many a mile around in Parel, the Central Mumbai suburb once the hub of Mumbai’s textile mills that had propelled the city to the very forefront of India’s textile industry besides transforming Mumbai from a predominantly port city into an industrial hub.

From Point Of View, the ruins of United India Mills rise in the distance across the Lalbaug flyover. Chawls with their distinctive projecting balconies, once home to mill workers and their families, and now their descendants, are set back from the road. Together they offer the viewer a peep into the past of a city that rose on the strength of its industry, the textile mills.

The textile mills and the culture and traditions they engendered are long gone, only surviving in the large dilapidated structures that remind the viewer of a past that was as transforming as the present is changing their once thriving and throbbing industrial space into commercial and residential high rises. The remnants of mills and chawls in Parel remind of the transition now underway, and the sight from the Point Of View lounge affording these views and realisation is as sobering as it is elevating, more so as the old order giveth to the new.

Bathed in the lights that lit up the Point Of View lounge later that evening, conversations around wine and David Rocco’s upcoming series on India floating on the stiff breeze, I lifted my face to the stiff breeze and was quickly counselled by the warmth of the gathering even as I took in the city lights beyond the parapet, the glowing lights wrapping the cityscape were laid out like a mass of glittering necklaces spread outward like a giant ripple that refuses to peter out with time.

Note: Look out for David Rocco’s India Series on FOX Traveller sometime in September later this year for his on the good life in India.