Friday, April 30, 2010


Food and fuel prices are disobedient things. Otherwise why would they not have dropped after a nationwide hartal against their proclivity to rise?
Entire states in India screeched to a halt a few of days ago to very firmly tell food and fuel prices to fall. In Kerala and West Bengal, offices, shops, theatres, schools, colleges and factories were shut and public transport virtually disappeared on April 27 — to drive home to food prices that it was time for them to come down from the commanding heights they'd achieved.
Hartals, of course, come in various sizes. There are the teeny-weeny ones that envelop a specific locality or neighbourhood in their vice-like embrace. And then there are the district- or city-level hartals. And last, but by no means the least, are the state-wide hartals like the one on April 27.
According to the Anti Hartal Front, this recent hartal is the 17th that has been called in Kerala this year. Last year, there were 54 hartals of all hues in Kerala, it adds.
So far though, India’s food and fuel prices have remained unmoved by the stern message that was tweeted to them through the hartal. ‘What does a hartal have to do with us and how is it going to make us climb down,’ they appear to wonder.
And since no one’s explained to those darned prices just how a hartal is expected to bring them down, they’re still high and seem disinclined to come down from their cosy perches up above. They seem comfortable where they are and would, perhaps, even like to climb further.
What next then to teach those disrespectful prices a lesson; one they’ll never forget?
A Tweet-a-thon? A FaceBook status campaign? A dawn-to-dusk mass fast? Another hartal, perhaps?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Snapshot: The model’s last pose

Some time last week, I was driving past The College of Fine Arts-Kerala in Trivandrum when I saw a konna or Golden Shower tree in full bloom. I stopped to take the picture above; a version of which I used in my piece on Vishu.
In the foreground of the picture is the statue of a man — bare-chested, arms locked behind his back, mundu drawn up and tucked around his waist. There’s something very arresting about the sculpture. Perhaps it’s the expression on the statue’s face — faintly proprietorial and confident, yet simultaneously melancholic and stoic.
The sculpture is of Chellappan. One of the many works — sculptures, paintings and clay models — he’s featured in. For Chellappan is, or rather was, a model for students of The College of Fine Arts.
But Chellappan will model no more for he committed suicide on Sunday, as this piece in The New Indian Express says.
Chellappan was, as the Express piece puts it: “…the most sought-after model by the students of the Fine Arts College… There was literally no one who had not made a sculpture, a portrait or a clay model on him.”
A few years ago Francois Daireaux, a French artist who was holidaying in Kerala, stumbled across one of the many statues of Chellappan sprinkled around The College of Fine Arts. And as this piece in The Hindu Metro Plus points out: “He (Daireaux) stopped to take a picture and behold! – into the frame walked the living sculpture himself, the man, the model.” One thing led to another and several months later Daireaux did a Chellappan-focused exhibition at the Centre d’art Abbaye de Maubuisson in France.
What it was that drew art students — and Daireaux — to feature Chellappan in their work is not very clear. Perhaps, it was his craggy face and the droop of his belly. Or perhaps it was because he was easy to work with.
I’ve seen Chellappan in the flesh a couple of times and what always struck me was that he was a caricature waiting to be captured. So much so that if I could draw or sculpt even a bit, I’d have grabbed the opportunity to capture him; that was how striking he was. And perhaps it was this hard-to-pin-down presence that Chellappan exuded that made him a popular model.
Not everyone, however, is impressed by Chellappan. As a senior lecturer at The College of Fine Arts told me this morning, a wry smile on his face, “There are lots of models here, but he (Chellappan) has become a metaphor.” The lecturer believes that Chellappan is more a creation of the media. And with another smile plastered on his face, but in words that oozed a sense of pique, he added: “Lots of big and important exhibitions are held here, but the media hardly mentions them. But him…”
I wonder what Chellappan would have had to say to that. More important, did all the attention, from the media and others, make a qualitative difference to Chellappan’s life. I suppose we’ll never know now.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A new year

Today is Vishu, which is traditionally celebrated as the first day of the Malayalam year. So Malayalees, as people from Kerala are called, celebrate it as New Year’s Day; not just in Kerala, but across the world.
Vishu is usually celebrated in April, on the first day of the Malayalam month of Medam. And though Vishu is observed as the beginning of a new Malayalam year, the month of Chingam (August-September) is considered the first month of the official Malayalam calendar. Vishu’s significance therefore, has more to do with tradition and the system of astrology followed in Kerala.
As a child, Vishu was one of the trio of festivals I looked forward to with great excitement — the other two were Onam and Christmas, though I must add that Easter eggs and chocolate Easter rabbits were also on the list of favourite festive treats. So perhaps I should be saying that it was a quartet of festivals I most enjoyed as a child.
Vishu kani
Vishu’s appeal was twofold: First, the thrill of being woken up by my mother at an ungodly hour, when the world outside was still dark — in reality it was probably around 5 am. And then having her close my eyes with the palm of her hand and slowly walk me to the corner where the family’s altar stood. And then, the thrill of opening my eyes to the alluring radiance of the Vishu kani — a silver tray laden with sparkling-white raw rice; a coconut; green mangoes; a bunch of bananas; a pumpkin; little containers with pinches of turmeric and vermillion; a small mirror; and another tray with gleaming sliver coins and gold in various forms, all laid out on a creamish-white, gold-bordered traditional Kerala mundu; lit by the wavering glow of several oil lamps. And all this benignly presided over by paintings and idols of various deities.
The other, and perhaps bigger, attraction of Vishu was the Vishu kaineetam ritual that came later in the day when my father — and occasionally an uncle, aunt, grandmother or elder sibling — would give me a shiny one rupee coin or a crisp ten rupee note as kaineetam. The sheer thrill of this pocket money was hard to beat, except, perhaps, when I heard tales of friends or cousins who got not just a rupee or ten, but hundred rupee notes or 100 dinar notes; pure anguish for a second or two thinking about all the Hardy Boys books I could’ve bought with that sort of kaineetam!
In our home, as in most other Malayalee homes, Vishu day festivities would be topped-off with a true Kerala feast or sadhya. The sadhya — a multi-course feast with an assortment of aromatic curries, crunchy chips, spicy pickles and heaps of rice rounded off with sweet payasams — is not quite my favourite food, though I do enjoy the milk or pal payasam.
The kani and the kaineetam are central to the very idea of Vishu, which is mostly celebrated by Hindus. The Vishu kani literally means the ‘first sight of Vishu day’ and the belief is that seeing the auspicious kani in the very early hours of Vishu day brings luck and prosperity right through the New Year. Hence, the assortment of ‘auspicious’ things like rice, mangoes, silver coins, gold, bunches of konna flowers and so on.

A golden shower tree or konna
in full bloom on Vishu day
Similarly, the Vishu kaineetam is a ritual intended to bestow prosperity on the recipient. Typically, older members of the family give kaineetam and, sometimes, new clothes to younger members of the family; the amounts given of course vary, but even a one rupee coin will do. Decades ago, in more well-to-do Hindu families, kaineetam would also involve giving money or clothing or both to other members of the household such as the domestic help, people who worked in the family’s fields, tenants and so on.
Like many traditional practices, the ones associated with Vishu also tend to vary from family to family and from one part of Kerala to the other. In some parts of the State, firecrackers are an important part of Vishu proceedings, while in others they don’t figure on the Vishu menu.
However, what does not vary is the conviction that each Vishu will mark the beginning of a better year; one of peace and good fortune.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Summer in Venice

I love Venice. For many years, I was in love with the idea of Venice. Love that was no doubt born out of stories my parents told of their visit to Venice in the 1950s and from the 8mm films they took on that trip, and kindled by the gild-trimmed gondola that resided in our living room for many years.
My parents lived in the UK for a few years in the late 1950s, and in 1958 did a scaled-down version of the Grand Tour. They drove through France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. In Rome, they were blessed by the Pope; driving through Italy, they were stranded on an autostrada till some friendly carabinieri stopped and helped fix their car; and in Venice, they took a gondola ride.
Exactly fifty years on, my wife and I also took a gondola ride; well sort of! We were on a rather limited budget, so €125 gondola rides didn’t figure on our itinerary. Instead, we took a traghetto, the retired gondolas that ferry Venetians across the Grand Canal at certain points.
Gondola jam
True, we had no gondolier to serenade us; the two gondoliers on the traghetto we took were actually busy laughing at us for wanting to do a round trip across the Grand Canal. And yes, the whole trip was done in about five minutes. But we did get to see the Grand Canal from almost water level and, more important, we got the gondola experience — all for €2.
Unlike my folks, we’d taken a more direct route to Venice — easyJet from Charles de GaulleMarco Polo and then a ride on an Alilaguna ferry to the Arsenale stop followed by a short stroll to our hotel in Castello, one of Venice’s six to sestiere or districts.
Castello, it turned out, was a truly inspired choice; at least it was for us. While it is true that we were away from all the action around the Rialto Bridge, we were just a couple of minutes away from Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square, Basilica di San Marco, the Doge’s Palace, the Bridge of Sighs and the refreshing public gardens — the Giardini Pubblici.
The Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge
Tourism is, of course, what keeps Venice ticking. So it’s home to virtually every possible scam that can separate a traveller from his euros. Eating at restaurants, for instance, can be more expensive than you expected. The prices mentioned on the menu boards outside the restaurant are, most often, very different from the ones printed on your bill. And sometimes, a tourist menu with ‘all inclusive’ prices is not as inclusive as it proclaims.
But worry not; for eat well and cheap you can. The rule of thumb seems to be that restaurant prices drop the farther away you are from a major square or street. It also seems that prices generally halve if you eat lunch standing at the counter in a trattoria. Another option, and the one we chose, is to eat on the go.
Spoilt for choice
Most of our meals were either sandwiches or pizza slices bought for a euro or two and eaten as we walked. And on one occasion, we even stopped by at McDonald’s for lunch. Sacrilege! I know.
We also wanted to do a ‘proper’ sit down meal. And one evening, after examining half-a-dozen menus and pondering prices and options, finally chose a restaurant at random. The experience was memorable, though the meal itself was pedestrian and cost a bit more than we’d expected. There was an additional service charge, you see!
When I travel, I tend to obsess about water to drink. And though I’d been told that the tap water in Venice is safe, I made several trips to supermarkets such as Billa and Co-op to buy drinking water. But one mouthful of water from a fountain on Strada Nova and the visits to the supermarkets stopped — the water from the fountain was refreshing and delicious. Equally delicious were the gelatos we bought from a gelateria near Strada Nova.
Breakfasts too were filling and included in the price of our room at the pleasant and functional Ca Formenta on via Garibaldi in Castello. Though we travelled to Venice in end July, at the height of Summer, we’d made our bookings several months ahead and so got a pretty reasonable price on our room.
Pigeons and tourists at St Mark's Square
Staying in Ca Formenta meant that we were just a short walk away from St Mark’s Square — past the famous Bridge of Sighs — with its greedy pigeons. Like many others, we’d feed the pigeons crumbs and they would perch on our hands till the meal was over. But try feeding the pigeons today, and I gather that you’ll be slapped with a rather stiff fine of around €50 or so.
Living in Ca Formenta also meant that we could go to St Mark’s very early in the morning or late in the evening. For those are, perhaps, the best times of the day in Venice. Times when Venice reveals a different visage — more relaxed, intimate and sensuous.
St Mark's Square early on a July morning
As night fell across Venice, we’d find ourselves in St Mark’s Square for some entertainment courtesy the bands that perform at CafĂ© Florian and the other high-end eateries around the square. And entertain, those bands did; even as one ended a peppy, foot-stomping number another would pick up the train and carry on with yet another popular tune. And so it went, a veritable musical chain.
St Mark's on a summer night
While the chairs in front of the cafes are reserved for the patrons who pay — and do they pay — freeloaders like us could stand around the square and enjoy the music, the sights and the ambience at no extra cost.
The Giardini Pubblici
Despite the late nights, we’d be up rather early to catch glimpses of Venice before the crowds came in: tradesmen in punts making deliveries to the hotels; a solitary ambulance boat cruising down a canal; and Venetians going about their business, gossiping over an espresso, striding vigorously along the waterfront or through the Giardini Pubblici or simply sitting on a bollard or bench with a newspaper. And we would do the same and feel for a moment, at least, that we too were Venetians.
Yes, I know this sounds a little too starry-eyed. I know Venice is expensive. And true, I don’t have to live there right through the year, coping with a flooded home, street or square thanks to the acqua alta. Nor do I have to handle the challenges of owning a building that is leisurely sinking into the slush.
Yet for me, Venice is all enchantment and mystery. And I love it.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Good news for Asia-Pacific tourism

Some more numbers. This time from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).
In its Asia-Pacific tourism demand forecast for the next three years, the organisation estimates that international arrivals to the region will increase on an average by 2.7 per cent every year till 2012. The forecast, by PATA’s Executive Board, is quite realistic given the likely pace of global economic growth over the next few years. Actually, it’s pretty much the most sensible estimate of short-term tourism growth that I have seen in recent weeks.
According to the organisation, this year will witness only a 1 per cent increase in international arrivals to Asia-Pacific. This will grow to 4.5 per cent next year, before “stabilising at around 4 per cent in 2012,” it adds. Among all the sub-regions, South Asia is tipped to grow the fastest at 4.9 per cent per year till 2012. Of course, all these estimates could be hit for a six if there are any major economic, social or health-related disasters, PATA cautions. Conversely, better-than-expected economic growth could help push PATA’s estimates upwards and bring cheer to the tourism and travel industry.