Monday, May 31, 2010

Summer’s end

Summer’s over; at least in Kerala. The South West Monsoon officially arrived in Kerala today, holding out the promise of several months of slushy roads; damp clothes, mouldy leather shoes and life-giving rain.
Though it has been raining in this part of the world for the past week or so, it’s only this morning that India’s Met Office declared the onset of the monsoon over Kerala. Three criteria need to be met for the Met Office to agree that the monsoon has arrived in Kerala — its first port of call on the Indian mainland.
I won’t try explaining those criteria here — I’ll leave that to the weathermen. Quite simply, the Met Office declares the monsoon has set in over Kerala if there has been widespread rainfall of at least 2.5 mm across Kerala for a couple of days and if winds — the Westerlies — start blowing up to heights of around 4 kilometres and at specific strengths.
And that’s what was confirmed today. Which is why the Indian Met Office says:
“Southwest monsoon has further advanced into most parts of south Arabian Sea, entire Kerala, south Tamilnadu and some more parts of southwest Bay of Bengal today the 31st May 2010…

Conditions are favourable for further advance monsoon into some parts of central Arabian Sea, coastal & south interior Karnataka and Goa during next 48 hours. Further advance of monsoon will depend upon the intensity and direction of movement of the low pressure area currently lying over central Arabian Sea at 0830 hours IST of today.”
If the weathermen are to be believed, this will be a ‘normal’ monsoon year with bountiful rains. However, that is something that only time can confirm. For the moment, India will be watching the monsoon’s progress with unbridled hope.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vision in white

It’s rather hard to miss the St Joseph’s Metropolitan Cathedral when you pass through the Palayam neighbourhood in Thiruvananthapuram. The church’s bell tower, which looms benignly over the area, can be seen from some distance away.
For many years, the Cathedral was clad in red livery — a distinctive, red-brick-like finish. And the statue of Jesus, at the very top of the tower, was enveloped in robes of silver.
Popularly known as the Palayam palli or church, the 137-year-old St Joseph’s Metropolitan Cathedral was on Pope John Paul II’s itinerary when he visited the city in 1986.
Earlier this month, the Cathedral reopened its doors to worshippers after extensive restoration. Painted a dazzling white, with the statue of Jesus clad in robes of gold, the church is a beacon of light, especially at night.
Though the church’s new livery is striking, it does feel a little strange not to see the familiar brick-red finish when you pass through Palayam. But, it seems, that the original colour of the church was white and the brick-like finish was apparently painted on in the late 1920s, say these stories in The Hindu and the New Indian Express.
Whatever its colour though, the Cathedral along with its neighbouring places of worship — the Palayam Juma Masjid and the Palayam Ganesha temple add to the area’s spiritual energy.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Vampire tales

A Raktharakshas poster

A few weeks ago I attended my first Malayalam theatre performance in a really long time. It was a modernised version of Kalanilayam Drama Vision’s popular production Raktharakshas.
Roughly translated as vampire, Raktharakshas exemplifies popular Malayalam theatre from a couple of decades ago — over emoting actors, pancake-like make up and slapstick dialogues that ooze sexual innuendo. And while the play appears to have been souped-up and shortened to suit the tastes of present-day audiences, it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its original qualities; the dialogues, for example, are still laden with lots of nudge-nudge, wink-wink.
Early this April, the play — directed by Krishnan Nair, the founder of Kalanilayam Drama Vision and written by Jagathy N. K. Achary — returned to Trivandrum after a couple of decades. It, perhaps, has pole position in the company’s repertoire, which includes popular production such as Kadamattathu Kathanar, Kayamkulam Kochunni, Sri Guruvayurappan and Naradan Keralathil.
Waiting for the curtain to go up

As a story, Raktharakshas is ho-hum at best. Where it really stands out though is for its stagecraft, which must have been pretty revolutionary back when it was first performed. Devices like a revolving stage — that made it possible to use real cars as props and also eliminate the time lag between scenes — or a ‘trolley shot’ for extra effect were arguably trailblazers in Malayalam theatre.
In its new run, Raktharakshas retains these touches, but also features a re-worked soundtrack and “dynamic visual effects” as this piece in The Hindu says. And though some visual effects seem a trifle rudimentary, I suspect that even today Raktharakshas is pretty innovative in its use of technology, at least in the Malayalam theatre world.
While it may no longer give people sleepless nights with its brand of horror, Raktharakshas still seems to be able to draw them in. On a weekday night in late-April, the show I attended was about 80 per cent full and there were long queues waiting to enter the makeshift theatre for the second show. And weekend shows were pretty much a sell out I gather. I guess, more than anything else, what Raktharakshas’ apparently good run in Trivandrum shows is that there’s still a place for old-fashioned theatre in the rich spread of entertainment options that exist today.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Waltzing with the unions

Moving house can be fun. It can also be stress-filled and exhausting and can chew up large chunks of time without you even realising it. And, as a bonus, it can even help you shed a few kilos. I’m sure my friend Sumi over at Musings, who moved house a couple of months ago, will agree.
I imagine that in most parts of the world, when you are set to move, you get a couple of relocation companies to give you some quotes and then zero in on one where the price-value equation makes sense. The movers roll in, pack all your stuff, cart it off to your new home and, perhaps, even unpack your belongings and set it all up. At least that’s the way it happens if you can afford the prices that movers charge. And if you can’t afford movers, I guess you cart all your stuff to your new home with some help from friends and family.
In Kerala though, moving house is a bit like being part of a velichapad or temple oracle’s performance ritual. Just as you are never quite sure of what the velichapad will say or do when possessed by the deity, so too are you never sure of just how Kerala’s unique headload workers’ unions will behave.
In most parts of India, if you bring something in a truck to your house or shop or office, you can pay people to unload the stuff for you. In Kerala, such work is the exclusive preserve of members of the headload workers’ unions; and each locality in the State has its own complement of headload workers’ unions.
What that means is that you — personally — can unload your belongings from a truck, but cannot employ just anyone to do it for you. Instead, you have to employ members of the various unions to do it for you. No complications so far. Where this practice really gets interesting is that the charges for unloading your stuff are usually decided by the unions.
Things get even more interesting when you have to load or unload very heavy objects or things that require the skills of specially trained workers. In such cases, the union members do not do the work; instead they watch the work being done and are paid ‘nokku kooli’ or a wage for the privilege of viewing the work. Nokku kooli, even the unions officially agree, is illegal, but it happens.
There are, of course, ‘officially fixed’ rates for unloading various things; a price list of sorts. Most often though, what you pay for unloading your stuff depends on your negotiation skills and, more important, on the whims and fancies of the union reps in your locality. So if you get them during the ‘happy hours’ you may be socked with a whopper of a bill and then again, you may not. It’s all very unpredictable.
Which is why unloading stuff from a truck and, some times, loading it on to one, in Kerala is very similar in spirit to the velichapad’s whirls, swirls and mumbles when he is in the deity’s thrall. A dance with a blend of choreographed and spontaneous moves.