Sunday, July 22, 2012

Belle et rebelle

(Did a slightly shorter version of this for The Hindu)
Facing me is a white wooden door with graffiti sprayed across it. As I pass through it and walk down a flight of cemented stairs, the light fades and the temperature drops sharply. My phone beeps that it has no signal.
I am several meters underground in a bunker that was a German air raid shelter during World War II. And for a moment, the world I know seems very distant.
Then lights flicker on, lighting up the concrete- and metal-lined corridors of the Musée Rochelais de la Dernière Guerre or the La Rochelle Museum of the Last War. Almost simultaneously, Jean-Luc Labour’s vibrant voice fills the space, as he starts talking about how he acquired the bunker in the early 1980s and turned it into a museum that tells the story of La Rochelle and France during World War II.
A beautiful town of 80,000 on France’s Atlantic coast, about 450 kilometres South West of Paris, La Rochelle was one of five German submarine bases in occupied-France during the Second World War. During the War, the Germans constructed several air raid shelters in the town, including one for the commander of the submarine base. And it is this underground bunker, on a quiet street off La Rochelle’s main market, that houses the museum. What makes the privately-owned museum special is that it has been painstakingly put together by Labour, a history buff and former tourism director of the town.
A good part of the museum’s motley collection of guns, uniforms, clothes, photographs, flags, maps, documents and other memorabilia has been acquired either in or from around La Rochelle. Opening a rather battered suitcase, Labour shows how its false bottom concealed a wireless transmitter and weapons. The case belonged to a British secret agent smuggled into France to help the French resistance movement, he says.   
Labour is such a smashing storyteller that for a little over an hour I am transported to wartime France. I guess it also helps that he allows me to handle several vintage guns including a Luger pistol and a Schmeisser MP-41 sub-machine gun.
Equally adept time machines are the three towers that stand watch over the entry to La Rochelle’s old port. Perhaps the most recognised and photographed features of the town, the Saint Nicholas, ‘Chaine’ and ‘Lanterne’ towers once regulated entry into the town’s port and also served as watch towers, military barracks, prisons and navigational aids. Today, they are tourist magnets that offer visitors glimpses of La Rochelle’s past and also its celebrated ‘rebel spirit’.
For being different is, it seems, a part of La Rochelle’s DNA. By the middle of the 12th Century, the town was granted a ‘Charter of commune’ by the Duke of Aquitaine, who ruled the area. The charter allowed the town a degree of political and economic freedom available to few of its contemporaries. It was, for instance, allowed several tax and customs privileges including exemption from some taxes levied by the Crown. And in 1199, La Rochelle firmly signalled its autonomy by electing its first mayor, perhaps the first French town to do so.
Over the next few centuries it flourished as an important port on the Atlantic, especially for the trade in salt and wine. In keeping with its penchant for being different, the town embraced the values of the Reformation — the movement for reform that split Christianity in Western Europe into the Catholic and Protestant churches. And by the middle of the 16th Century La Rochelle was a Protestant stronghold in Catholic France. 
However, the town’s privileged existence came to a rather sorry end in the 17th Century after the Great Siege of 1627-28. France, under Louis XIII and his Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu, brought La Rochelle firmly under royal control. The ‘rebel town’ was forced to surrender and was stripped of the economic and political privileges it enjoyed.
By the end of the 17th Century though, La Rochelle bounced back, becoming the nucleus of trade between France, Africa and the West Indies and Canada in the ‘new world’. Much of La Rochelle’s past lives on in some of its museums including the Orbigny Bernon Museum, the Museum of the New World and the Museum of Protestant History.
However, La Rochelle is not only about the past, but also has its eyes firmly set on the present and the future. Not very surprising for a town that celebrates its difference with the slogan ‘La Rochelle, belle et rebelle’ translated as ‘La Rochelle, beautiful and rebellious’.  As Christophe Marchais, Director, Office of Tourism, La Rochelle tells me: “La Rochelle is not just a historic city, but also a very contemporary city.”
Among the more important of La Rochelle’s relatively contemporary attractions is its International Film Festival. Though not as well known as the one in Cannes, La Rochelle’s International Film Festival is France’s second largest film event and is celebrating its 40th edition this year, says Marchais. Other interesting events on the town’s cultural calendar include the annual Francofolies music festival and two smaller jazz festivals, besides theatre, documentary and dance festivals.
As a town whose fortunes have been shaped by the sea, La Rochelle is big on water sports. Its marina, located in the Minimes neighbourhood is so packed with yachts and boats that at times it seems I’m trapped in a forest of masts. The marina is currently being expanded and will soon be able to accommodate 4,500-plus pleasure craft, making it the biggest in Europe, Marchais declares.
The best part of the La Rochelle experience though, especially on a fine evening, is to do what many of its residents do — head to the old port. As I stroll along the waterfront and then linger over a drink at one of the many cafes that flank the old port, it’s hard to escape the incessant clanking of halyards whipping against yacht masts in the wind. An aural reminder, perhaps, that La Rochelle is still a bit of a rebel. 
(The pic used here is a low-res version of one that appears with the piece in The Hindu)

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Museums on my mind

The entrance to La Rochelle's Natural History Museum
I’ve had museums on my mind these past few days.
What got me thinking, again, about museums is the number there are in La Rochelle, France. Now La Rochelle is not a very large city. It has about 80,000 residents, whose numbers are buoyed by the several million tourists who visit every year.
Yet for a city of its size, La Rochelle has about 10 museums. There could be more, but I’ve been able to count 10 so far. Some are public museums and others are private ones; a couple are large and others are tiny. The museums are on all domains under the sun – natural history, modern art, the ‘new’ world, maritime history, World War II, scale models. And all of them seem to draw in a good number of visitors – at least in spring and summer. And all of them add a zing to the city.
All of which had me thinking about Trivandrum, the city I consider my home town. It is larger than La Rochelle both in area and population. And yet, it has only four museums that I can think of. One privately-run and three run by the government. And yes, it may soon have a fifth one.
For a city with a million or so residents, and one that draws several million tourists every year four, and indeed five, museums is just not enough. We need simply need more of them for the many worlds they open up.
The most obvious candidate for a new museum is the treasure that has been unearthedfrom the city’s Padmanabhaswamy temple. There simply must be a museum that showcases some, if not all, that has been discovered from the temple’s vaults. Such a museum is needed to tell the story of Trivandrum and southern Kerala.
Equally possible are several other smaller museums underpinned by private collections. There are people in Trivandrum with interesting collections of objects ranging from antiques and art to coins and LP records. Why can’t these collections be turned into museums? For nowhere is it said that a museum has to be a huge building with a vast collection. These private collections could even be temporary exhibitions in an existing museum.
The possibilities are many and should be explored. Of course, even as we open new museums we need to ensure that they are interesting, accessible and well maintained – all crucial challenges in India as I wrote a few months ago. 
What we need, perhaps, in Trivandrum – and elsewhere in India – is some sort of a partnership between the public and private spheres to ensure that museums of all sorts are part of our vision of development, part of the social infrastructure we are building.
I know that for India museums may not be a priority. But they are an investment in our past and our future. For in various ways they tell our story, just as the many museums of La Rochelle tell the story of this beautiful city and of France.
And when all else is gone, it’s the stories that remain.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The battle

The snake gods keep watch from a roadside shrine as the procession with the Velakali dancers makes its way towards the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
Thiruvananthapuram’s Padmanabhaswamy temple was not just one of the anchors of spiritual life in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. It was also a patron of a number of arangams or art forms, some performed inside the temple and others outside.
Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore writes in Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple that 99 arangams are believed to have enjoyed the temple’s patronage, though details are now available of only around 55 of them. 

The cameras start clicking as the performers go through their opening moves.
Among the arangams associated with the temple is Velakali, a martial dance traditionally performed by a sub-group of the Nair community. The dance was generally performed during the temple’s annual Painkuni utsavam, one of its two major festivals. Staged on the eastern approach to the temple, the dance is believed to recreate the Kurukshetra war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.
Only a handful of the Velakali performers are men; 
the rest are boys.
Now, much about the Padmanabhaswamy temple changed over one suspense-filled week last June. For that’s when a committee appointed by India’s Supreme Court to inspect the temple’s vaults reportedly discovered tonnes of gold, silver, precious stones and jewellery in the vaults. And in the blink of an eye, the Padmanabhaswamy temple went from being one of India’s important Vishnu temples to, arguably, the world’s wealthiest religious institution.
In the weeks since then, change has swept across the temple precincts: new security measures have been introduced, shops around the temple have been relocated, long term plans for managing the vaults are being drawn up and the contents of the vaults are quietly and methodically being inventoried.
The young warriors are all set for battle.
Meanwhile, the temple’s spiritual routines, including its festivals, continue pretty much as they have for decades if not centuries. As I wrote a couple of years ago, in March/April every year imposing figures of the five Pandavas are erected in front of the temple’s eastern entrance for the duration of the 10-day Painkuni utsavam or festival. Once made of wood, the fibreglass figures are an integral part of Painkuni utsavam.
Boredom writ across his face, a young performer waits for the final segment of the Velakali to start.
Gouri Lakshmi Bayi writes in Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple that the figures of the Pandavas are erected to ward off rain during the festival. The belief, she adds, is that the figure of Arjuna, supposed to be the son of the rain god Indra, is especially useful to keep rain away. Which is why the Painkuni utsavam is also called the pancha Pandava utsavam or the festival of the five Pandavas.
Every performer wears a breastplate of golden beads 
and carries a tiny wooden shield and cane.
Back in the early 1970s, the Velakali performance during the Painkuni utsavam was scrapped, possibly due to financial challenges. Over the years, there were some attempts to revive the Velakali tradition, but none of them worked.
During the final stages of the performance, the dancers are at the foot of the steps that lead to the temple’s eastern entrance.
Last year though, people who live around the temple chipped-in to raise the money required to revive the Velakali during the Painkuni utsavam. So last April, after 40-odd years, the Kauravas once again got to fight the Pandavas in Thiruvananthapuram.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see that battle. So when the date for this year’s Velakali was announced, I was determined to be there. As were a couple of thousand other people and a small army of photographers and television cameras.
Residents of one of the temple’s outbuildings keep an eye on things, as does a security camera.
One hundred dancers took part in the Velakali performance at the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Armed with small wooden shields and canes, the dancers are believed to represent the hundred Kaurava brothers. The performance, accompanied by music, ends with the defeat of the dancers who pretend to flee in disorder.
And as the Kauravas lost yet again and dusk crept in, a new cohort of armed guards quietly slipped into place to keep watch over the Lord’s treasure. 
One of the armed police patrols that guard the temple.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kerala Tourism: The fluff diaries

If there’s no news, manufacture some. That seems to capture Kerala Tourism’s newfound approach to creating a buzz.
What other rationale could account for the press release that presumably fuelled newspaper reports that talk about how British celebrities who visited Kerala have used Twitter to create excitement about going to Kerala. For more go here, here and here.
While Kerala may, perhaps, trend on Twitter occasionally, I’m not so sure if two British ‘celebrities’ Tweeting about Kerala qualifies as a celebration of God’s Own Country’s charms. Especially as both Sadie Frost’s and Preeya Kalidas’ tweets are from almost a year ago — March and April 2011 to be exact.
So it is rather strange that these ‘celebrity’ Tweets and visits, and a bunch of others, are being tom-tommed now, several months after they happened. Intriguing too that Claudia and Gerhard Mueller are on the list of celebrity visitors to Kerala courtesy their footballer son Thomas; filial fame is transferable I guess.
Now the UK has, for years, accounted for the largest chunk of foreign tourists visiting Kerala. So it would have been pretty meaningful and, perhaps, interesting if Kerala Tourism had told a story connecting these celebrity visits and tweets with the real leg-up they gave Kerala’s tourism sector. If they had been able to say something like: ‘OK, these celebrities from Britain visited Kerala in March last year and spoke about the great time they had here. Based on those endorsements these other folks have actually visited Kerala.’
For example, Sadie Frost sent this tweet to three of her Twitter followers/friends suggesting that they holiday in Kerala. Let’s assume that at least one of them actually took her advice and visited Kerala. What a powerful story it would have been if Kerala Tourism had tracked the response that this particular tweet evoked and had been able to say: ‘Sadie Frost’s endorsement worked because “so and so” visited Kerala on her advice.’ A real life story like that would have added so much more to the Kerala Tourism brand.
Instead you have communication that seems more vapour than water. And that’s a pity for a brand that has always done things differently.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The slow life

Yesterday, I saw a man multi-tasking. Nothing out of the ordinary there. What caught my attention though was that he was jabbering on his mobile phone while standing in front of a temple’s sanctum sanctorum and, presumably, trying to pray. Of course, he might just have been calling God.
It was an image that was good for a laugh. But there was also something faintly disturbing about it. Have our lives become so frenetic that we need to multi-task even when seeking to commune with the divine.
So it was serendipity — or design — that soon afterwards, I found this essay by Pico Iyer on the need to slow down. As he acknowledges, there is, perhaps, nothing very new in what he writes: “The urgency of slowing down - to find the time and space to think - is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context.” But the perspective he offers does reinforce the need to slow down and de-clutter our minds.
Pace, though, is the spirit of the age; the faster the better. I mean, how many of us want a slow car, a slow Internet connection or a ticket on a slow train for that matter. And more important, how easy is it in practice to slow down, especially without having to make some sweeping choices — economic and, consequently, lifestyle-related?
Since we live in a ‘flat world’, where our workdays bleed into our nights and holidays, how feasible is it to slow down? Especially since for many of us, the sliver of economic security we enjoy hinges on being available 24x7 to our customers and companies.
And what about the millions who live on the margins in a country like India. Is there any sense in talking about slowing down, when existence itself is a question they confront every day? There are no easy answers.
I was bouncing these thoughts off Joseph at First Discipline, whose take is that slowing down is about reflecting — what he calls the “r phase” — which is essential for quality, completeness and learning. “By itself, slowing down has no intrinsic value unless we slow down to see what happens around us,” he believes.
In other words, it is only by slowing down, and reflecting on the world around and within, that we can surge ahead; provided, of course, that the reflection leads to action. The key question though is how do those of us who live in countries such as India slow down, without having to make drastic economic and lifestyle choices.
In some cases, the organisations we work for will themselves help us slow down. As Iyer writes, companies such as Intel have begun experimenting with ‘quiet periods’ for employees. In time, perhaps, these ‘quiet periods’ may lengthen and also spread to other organisations driven, at the very least, by the desire to spur breakthrough ideas.
For most of us though, the short-term solution may be to create regular pockets of quiet time: periods when we shut out the world, even if only for a few minutes.
The beauty is that such pockets of quiet time are easy to create irrespective of how frenzied our lives may be. Even those of us on call 24x7 can, without too much struggle, carve out regular but short quiet periods to reflect.
And as we get used to these quiet moments and start enjoying them, we will begin to slow down, even if it is just a little bit. But even that bit can make a big difference.