Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lit fest hub?

Could Trivandrum be on its way to becoming India’s hot new Lit Fest hub? Over the next two months, the city will host two festivals of literature — the Kovalam Literary Festival and the Hay Festival in Kerala.
First, the Kovalam Literary Festival: The festival’s third edition will be held in the city this coming weekend — October 2 and 3.
The festival’s organisers have finally seen the light and moved it from Kovalam, in Trivandrum’s suburbs, to the heart of the city. Those who know Trivandrum would have told them that they should’ve done this from the very beginning.
While Kovalam is quite the exotic beach destination, it is — in the Trivandrum scheme of things — some way away from the city. And though the festival’s organisers had arranged for a couple of coaches to ferry people from the city to Kovalam, residents of the city had to make a conscious decision to attend the Kovalam Lit Fest. There was no question of popping in for an interesting session, then slipping out and returning later for another interesting session or two; something you can do with relative ease at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
Faced with having to make a choice to either spend an entire day, or at least a large part of the day, at the festival or skip it altogether, most residents of the city choose to give the Kovalam Lit Fest a miss in its first two years. Which, for an event that should be inclusive and welcoming is not a very good sign.
I remember, in 2008, attending a session by Gulzar at the festival. There were at best about 50 people in the room, of whom about 35 had something to do with the festival — they were either authors reading there, publishers, festival organisers or support staff. While the sparse attendance made it a very intimate afternoon, it was a pity that so many people missed out on a wonderful opportunity to listen to one of India’s finest writers.
So it was good to hear a few days ago that the Kovalam Lit Fest will be held in the city this year. The organisers themselves admit that “local participation” in the festival has been poor and that the change in venue is part of an effort to “improve local participation.”
Kanakakunnu Palace, where the festival is to be held this year, was once the banquet hall of the erstwhile rulers of Travancore. Located bang in the heart of Trivandrum, it’s very accessible and a popular venue for many events; some cultural and others not quite cultural. It’s a welcoming sort of space and little effort is required to get there.
With entry free and a reasonable programming mix, this year’s Kovalam Lit Fest should see more people attending. Of course, it’s still too early to say that the festival is out of the woods, especially with the Hay Festival set to roll into Trivandrum in mid November. And according to whispers on the grapevine, it is also going to be held in the Kanakakunnu Palace.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Remembering Aubrey Menen

In 1980s-Trivandrum, Aubrey Menen stood out like a sore thumb.
By then into the last years of his life, Menen looked quite like the quintessential Biblical prophet, a slightly impish prophet: serene face, flowing white beard and long-ish white hair. Of course, notions of prophecy were slightly dispelled by the tan shorts and sun hat that he often wore while pottering around Trivandrum’s central Statue and Pulimood neighbourhoods.
I think I was around 12 years old when I first saw Menen either in or outside Trivandrum’s British Library. More than the Biblical mien, it was his name that snagged my attention — Aubrey, I could understand, but Menen? Did he have anything to do with the cosmetics company Mennen, I wondered?
In the 1980s, Trivandrum — it had not yet become Thiruvananthapuram — was still the sort of place where everyone just about knew everyone else or at least knew of everyone else! So with little effort, I discovered that ‘Menen’ was a variant of the more familiar ‘Menon’; familiar to Malayalis that is. Aubrey Menen, I learnt, had an Irish mother and a Malayali father. I also learnt that he was a writer who had retired to Trivandrum.
Most often, I’d come across Menen in or near the British Library. Sometimes, I’d also see him making his way home, to his rooms in Lukes Lane just off the city’s arterial M G Road. On some of these jaunts he’d be accompanied by Graham Hall, his companion.
I never actually spoke to him. Nor did I read any of his work then, though I have faint memories of a couple of his books gracing the shelves of the British Library.
And then one day in 1989, I read in the papers that Menen had died. Hall, about whom I knew very little, continued in Trivandrum and I often used to spot him in the British Library. In the late 1990s though, I left Trivandrum and when I returned some years later, there was no sign of Hall. Memories of both Menen and Hall receded into the corners of my mind.
But it all came rushing back to me a few days ago when I found Classic Aubrey Menen, a new Penguin anthology of his work. In an interesting coincidence, Jai Arjun Singh over at Jabberwock has also written about Penguin’s Menen anthology. 
I’ve since discovered that Menen wore many hats — radio person, ad type, essayist, satirist, travel writer, drama critic and theatre director among others. Over the years, he wrote some 20-odd works of fiction and non-fiction including Rama Retold, an interpretation of the Ramayana.
Menen’s Ramayana, it seems, irked Indian sensibilities and was banned in the country for some years. And I’m not surprised. For the little I’ve seen of his work reveals that Menen’s humour is subtle yet biting.
He pulls no punches when it comes to making fun of holy cows. Whether it is India’s caste system and Brahmin notions of superiority in A Conspiracy of Women or cardinals and politicians in The Fig Tree — all of them get the Menen treatment. Yet, his is not the ‘a laugh every other line’ sort of humour. It is multi-layered, quirky and not always apparent at first glance. 
Consider, for instance, this gem that appeared in the 1987 edition of the Mar Ivanios College magazine. Asked, during the course of an interview, whether writers are born or made, Menen responded: “All writers are made writers, but in fact they are born. Journalists can be made, but not creative writers.” 
As Menen’s New York Times obit says: 
“Asked to give advice to writers, Mr. Menen, who was admired as a satirist, told the publication Contemporary Authors that '’the aspiring writer should perform a daily physical exercise. He should sit on his bottom in front of a table equipped with writing materials,' he said. 'If his top end fails him, at least his nether end won't.'”
Humour like that, though cutting, is priceless not in the least for its ability to make us laugh at ourselves, at least once in a while. As Menen himself reportedly said: “There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. Since the first two pass our comprehension, we must do what we can with the third.”
While satire was, perhaps, his forte, Menen was also a bit of a visionary it seems. In the Mar Ivanios College magazine interview, he observed: “The West will turn to the Indian mind for the solution of its problems.” I wonder if he had outsourcing in mind when he said this.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Your Moment is Waiting

I’ve seen Your Moment is Waiting thrice. And what do I say? So I’ll let the goose bumps on my arms do the talking for a moment or two.
Sensuous, exhilarating, earthy, outstanding, surreal, haunting — Kerala Tourism’s new ad film is all these. But it is so much more, much of it indescribable. To borrow from a section introduction in Bearings, a collection of poems by Karthika Nair: “The attempt to capture the kinetic in words is somewhat like freezing a raindrop in mid-air. Before it changes shape. Before it merges with the earth.”
And that is precisely what I feel as I struggle to capture in words the emotions that Your Moment is Waiting arouses.
Stark Communications has always been ahead of the curve on tourism communication. But with this film Stark and Prakash Varma have outdone themselves and taken Kerala Tourism’s brand communication to an entirely new level.
A fitting tribute to God’s Own Country.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Your moment awaits

God’s Own Country is set to stun the world, again. Your Moment is Waiting, Kerala Tourism’s new ad film will premiere in London next week and going by track records, the film should be exceptional and enchanting, subtle and sensuous.
Travel is about experiences and transformations, and Your Moment is Waiting — it seems — taps into this belief. The film talks about the transformational experiences that people from across the world go through in Kerala.
The premiere in London on Tuesday next (September 21) is expected to be a star-studded event at a hip venue. London, I guess, is a pretty obvious place for the premiere, not in the least because it is Kerala’s largest international inbound market. Following the premiere, Your Moment is Waiting will debut on the big screen during the launch of the film Eat, Pray, Love and will then start airing on television channels around the world.
Developed by the Thiruvananthapuram-based Stark Communications and directed by Prakash Varma of Nirvana Films, Your Moment is Waiting is in keeping with Kerala Tourism’s tradition of staying ahead of the curve. Kerala Tourism is, for instance, India’s first State Tourism Board to do a television commercial — the spectacular Watercolours by God, in 2000. This was followed, in 2004-05 by the more understated Life in a New Light. Both films were directed by Santosh Sivan.
What makes Your Moment is Waiting — shot in Thekkady, Kumarakom, Munnar, Thalassery and Kannur on a budget of about Rs 1 crore — especially interesting is that it has been directed by Prakash Varma who’s especially feted for the Zoo-Zoo ad films he did for Vodafone. I suspect though, that Varma will soon be equally feted for Your Moment is Waiting. Equally interesting is that music for the film has been composed and performed by Senegal’s Baaba Maal.
All in all, I can’t wait to experience Your Moment is Waiting and the outstanding campaign that, I expect, will accompany it.
Picture courtesy Kerala Tourism

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Numbers of note

Kerala Tourism finally let the cat out of the bag a few days ago.
After keeping uncharacteristically quiet about its 2009 numbers for over 8 months, Kerala Tourism has now revealed that there was a decline in the number of foreign tourists who visited the State in 2009. Nothing unexpected in that, as I wrote back in March. What is mildly surprising is that total tourist arrivals to Kerala in 2009 actually appear to have gone up by 3.42 per cent. Domestic tourists, it seems, have saved the day for Kerala.
According to this report in The Hindu, Kerala’s Tourism Minister says that approximately 5.57 lakh foreign tourists visited the State last year, down by about 6.96 per cent from 2008’s 5.98 lakh international arrivals. Domestic tourist arrivals, however, grew from 75.91 lakh in 2008 to 79.13 lakh in 2009, the Minister says. And it’s these 320,000-odd domestic tourists who, perhaps, helped Kerala’s tourism industry survive the recession; at the very least, these additional domestic tourists helped the State’s tourism numbers look respectable in a recession year.
What’s intriguing about these figures though, is that in February this year The Hindu quoted the Tourism Minister as saying that Kerala had clocked a 17 per cent growth in tourist arrivals in 2009. While I understand that those were probably preliminary estimates, I am rather puzzled how — in about 7 months — a 17 per cent increase in tourist arrivals has been watered down to 3.42 per cent; a 13 percentage point variation.
Notwithstanding such number-crunching mysteries, the 2009 figures indicate that Kerala Tourism’s decision to focus on the Indian market seems to have helped. What interests me though is just how the rise in domestic tourists has affected Kerala’s tourism revenues. Has, for instance, the revenue generated by the increased inflow of domestic tourists offset the likely drop in revenue from the fall in foreign tourist arrivals?
This aspect though has really not been covered in The Hindu piece. It does say that “Total income of the State's tourism sector in 2009 was Rs 13,231 crore.” This income figure is about Rs 100 crore more than the Rs 13,130 crore Kerala earned from tourism in 2008. And as the 2009 tourism stats still do not seem to have been published — at least not on the Kerala Tourism Web site — it’s a little difficult to obtain any real insights.
The bottomline, I guess, is that we should be grateful the State’s tourism sector weathered the choppy waters of 2009. And, perhaps, we should turn to celebrating accolades such as the ‘best holiday destination in Asia’. Or rejoice at the 13.9 per cent growth in foreign tourist arrivals in the first half of this year, rather than fuss over pesky little details like tourism revenues and how it will influence the sector’s future.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Farmers’ tales

It was one of those random little things that happen every day.
My friend over at First Discipline posted a link on FaceBook. The link led to a video on You Tube; a video of the Director of the Kerala Government’s Agriculture Department wishing farmers a happy Onam. Nothing unusual in that. What is unusual is the medium used — a video on You Tube!
Intrigued, I rummaged around and discovered the Kissan Kerala channel on You Tube. A trove of some 150 videos on things agricultural — from paddy cultivation in Kerala to rearing rabbits and pigeons, from organic prawn cultivation to creating roof-top gardens.
Now, Kissan Kerala is one of a clutch of e-Governance projects that have been commissioned by the Government of Kerala. As its name indicates, Kissan Kerala focuses on agriculture; more specifically it is designed to be an agriculture information system for Kerala.
I have not been able to go through all the videos on the Kissan Kerala channel, but from what I’ve seen they seem to be well produced. All appear to be informative and some are inspiring — like the one on the octogenarian lady farmer. And, most important, the videos all seem to be in Malayalam, which is Kerala’s language.
The channel’s been on You Tube for almost three years now and has got a shade under 600 subscribers, and the comments it has received mostly seem to be positive. According to You Tube’s stats, there have been some 155,575 ‘channel views’ and 881,361 ‘upload views’ — I guess that means a fair number of people have taken a look at the videos.
Overall, I’d say it’s been a pretty good show so far. One that has lessons for other government departments, but also one that can be improved so it reaches out to more people. A FaceBook page for Kissan Kerala, perhaps?
Picture used courtesy Kerala Tourism