The Beauty of Ordinary Things

lockWhy should a lock be shaped like a lady? Perfect to every last detail—the braid at the back, the holes in the ears and nose for ornaments, the necklace, the drape of the dress. Every feature sharp and defined.

Did someone commission the craftsman, saying ‘I want a very unusual lock. Shaped like a lady.’ Or did the craftsman himself decide to create something original, a break from his routine, a need to speak to his buyers and to the future about his skills, his imagination? And if he did, did he show it off to lots of people? Did the owner show it off, or since it was a lock, was it hidden away somewhere, fastened on a secret cabinet or door? What drove the artist to take so much trouble and pour in so much of his energy and love into this?

 

 

 

chuna spreader

Even more mundane, a chuna-spreader (used by paanwallahs to spread lime on betel leaves). Was it a particularly quirky shopkeeper who commissioned this? Or a nawab or zamindaar addicted to paan, who wanted to add a touch of beauty to the ritual of making his beedas? Or was it just the artist indulging himself?

 

The two preceding objects were probably custom-made or made in small numbers. The first is about 200 years old, and the second may be from the turn of the last century.

 

 

bird

 

But this whistle, available at Rs. 20 in many melas today, is contemporary. A potter’s piece, this is shaped like a bird. But even more fascinating, it sings like a bird! Fill it to the halfway mark with water and blow into it, an unsuspecting guest will think that a melodious bird co-habits the house with you. Who dreamt this up?

 

I just picked three random objects from my house. The beauty and aesthetic of Indian crafts! But sadly, much of what is produced today in the name of craft displays neither the aesthetic nor the pride of craftsmanship. How is lost pride brought back?

–Meena

Beyond ME!

It’s Women’s Day, and as the media reminds us, a time to celebrate the ME! A time to indulge oneself, pamper oneself and assert oneself, with all the accompIMG_20190308_102230.jpganying gloss and glamour.

But is “all about me” really the formula for happiness? Consider this:

“Someone once asked me what I regarded as the three most important requirements for happiness.

My answer was: A feeling that you have been honest with yourself and those around you; a feeling that you have done the best you could have in your personal life and in your work; the ability to love others. Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product. Paradoxically, the one sure way not to be happy is deliberately to map out a way of life in which one would please oneself completely and exclusively. After a short time, a very short time, there would be little that one really enjoyed. For what keeps our interest in life and makes us look forward to tomorrow is giving pleasure to other people.

It is easy to slip into self-absorption and it is equally fatal. When one becomes absorbed in himself, in his health, in his personal problems, or in the small details of daily living, he is, at the same time losing interest in other people; worse, he is losing his ties to life”.

Words of wisdom from Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt who was the President of the United States during the Great Depression and World War II. Eleanor was more than First Lady, she went on to play a leading role as a diplomat in the United Nations, and was one of the most loved and influential women of the 20th century. At the age of 76, she compiled her thoughts and experiences into a simple guide to living a fuller life based on her own philosophy on living, and informed by her personal experiences as a daughter, wife, parent, and diplomat. Titled You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, this is a simple but powerful reminder of enduring common sense ideas and heartfelt values that resonate even 60 years after the book was first published.

A good day to share her words, and remind ourselves how enriching and invigorating it is to be able go beyond the ME! Let us celebrate the power of caring and sharing!

–Mamata

Ant Man

The other day my grand-nephew, not quite nine months old and just starting to discover the world around him, was crawling towards a line of ants on the veranda. Immediately there was a chorus of calls from the vigilant adults around him. “Be careful, the ants will bite him”. “Be alert that he doesn’t put a few in his mouth!” “Mind the ants don’t get into his clothes.” The little boy was picked up and taken away many times, and just as many times he determinedly crawled right back to the tiny creatures that were neatly marching away on their own business.

The ants took me back to my early days as an environmental educator. One of the first publications of CEE was a simple 8-pager called Ant. I was fascinated at how much one could write about creatures that were either not noticed, or when noticed, decried as pests! Further down the line I ended up putting together an entire teaching-learning manual on Insects. Besides opening up a whole new world this also led me to EO Wilson whose writings became a great inspiration, not just for what he studied, but equally for how wonderfully he shared his thoughts.

Edward Osborne Wilson is not just the world’s foremost authority on the study of ants (a myrmecologist!) but one of the founding fathers of, and leading expert in, biodiversity. His autobiography titled Naturalist traces his evolution as a scientist. Young Wilson knew early that he wanted to be scientist. A childhood accident left him with weak eyesight and hearing, so instead of focussing on animals and birds he concentrated on studying the miniature creatures. Thus the dreamy child turned into the focused scientist. Naturalist also reveals how these steps from daydream to determined endeavour involved a mix of random encounter, enthusiasm and opportunism.

My little nephew’s first explorations reminded me of EO Wilson’s words. “Why do I tell you this little boy’s story of medusa rays, and sea monsters nearly sixty years after the fact? Because it illustrates, I think, how a naturalist is created. A child comes to the edge of deep water with a mind prepared for wonder. He is like a primitive adult of long ago, an acquisitive Homo arriving at the shore of Lake Malawi, say, or the Mozambique Channel….The child is ready to grasp this archetype, to explore and learn, but he has few words to describe his guiding emotions. Instead he is given a compelling image that will serve in later life as a talisman, transmitting a powerful energy that directs the growth of experience and knowledge. But the core image stays intact. When an adult he will find it curious, if he is at all reflective, that he has the urge to travel all day to fish or to watch sunsets on the ocean horizon.”

In the current age of over-protective parenting, and educational systems that feel that rote learning is the key to science, EO Wilson’s words hold truer than ever: “Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.” 

–Mamata

 

Cook-up in India

There are few inventions and innovations which are ‘Made in India, For India’.  We either reverse engineer, adapt, copy or adjust!

BBE8D84D-41D4-4E22-9002-0996A7ACFA45So from that perspective, I think the Coimbatore Wet Grinder is a marvel. The need for batters on an everyday basis is Indian. How can households run without a steady supply of idli batter, dosa batter, vada batter, adai batter, pesarattu batter, appam batter, paniyaram batter etc., etc.? While these dishes are all South Indian, they are extremely popular across India too.

In the days of yore, women used to grind these batters in a stone device. Frail-looking mamis turned into Karnam Malleswaris and Kunjarani Devis, wielding huge stone pestles with nonchalance! It took an hour or more of this heavy duty work to grind the breakfast batter for a large family and clean out the device.

Then came electric mixer-grinders. But always the refrain: ‘Oh, so small a jar. I have to do so many rounds for the quantity I need.’ Or ‘The motor heats up the batter as it grinds. Dosas never taste the same.’ Or ‘Uff, so much time it takes, I have to stand holding the lid.’ Because the mixer-grinders were not really conceived for our needs.

And then came WET GRINDERS! Magic! Small enough to fit in a corner of the kitchen but fairly good capacity; using the familiar stone-on-stone approach, thereby making mamis fully comfortable; no heating while grinding; and pretty easy to clean too!

An amazing individual called P. Sabapathy developed the wet grinder in Coimbatore in 1955, after much trial and error. Sabapathy introduced the grinders to other cities such as Chennai and Madurai. From the basic model, others innovated the tilting wet grinder, the table top grinder etc.

Coimbatore developed as the center for the manufacture of wet grinders. This was helped along by the fact that granite was available nearby. Also, as Coimbatore is anyway an industrial hub, manufacturing equipment, electrical motors etc. were all available within the same area. The city contributes to about 75% of the 1 lakh total monthly output of wet grinders in India. And apparently, there are 40 types of wet grinders today, from domestic to commercial.  In 2007, Tamilnadu Government opened a center for manufacturing raw materials for wet grinders and a research center here.

Historian CR Elangovan has written the history of Coimbatore wet grinders ‘Automatic Aataangal: Kovaiyin Seetanam. Alas, I cannot read Tamil. But I shall search to check if there is an English translation.

It is said that Mr. Sabapathy invented the wet grinder to save his wife labour. In the process, he has saved lakhs of women-hours. But who even knows his name? Shouldn’t he be in textbooks, as a supporter of women’s emancipation and a designer-inventor-entrepreneur of the highest order? We may even classify him as a social entrepreneur in today’s jargon! Shouldn’t he have got the Padmashri?

And coming back to one of my recent-favourite topics, the Coimbatore Wet-Grinder is GI (certified for Geographical Indicator).

–Meena

PS: This one is for my Mother in Law

Living in a Louis Kahn

A tribute to the architect on his birthday (Louis Kahn: Born 20 Feb, 1901)

When did it really strike me that I was living somewhere very special? Well, when one of my architect colleagues introduced me to his sister—another architect—as follows:

‘Meet Meena. She lives in a Louis Kahn.’

Wow! That’s the nearest I ever got to being a brand person! No one is going to ever accuse me of ‘wearing a Satya Paul’ or ‘carrying a Prada’. But this felt good!

I lived on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad, as a faculty-spouse for over 15 years. On an everyday basis, living in the IIM houses was/is about: ‘Oh God! The wall is seeping again’. Or ‘Why are these rooms so cold?’ or ‘This red brick is completely impractical for Ahmadabad. Look how they pit’.  I suppose it needs an outsider’s perspective and a bit of distance to help us appreciate things we take for granted or actively crib about!

Living on the IIM-A campus is something special—it’s being part of history and a special vision. A vision forged by the founders of the institution, and given physical shape primarily by the architect (because, frankly, there is no landscaping to talk about!!).

Some things about the campus never cease to surprise, for instance: How is that there are so many students around, but it’s still such a quiet and serene place? How is it that the lives of the families living on campus and the lives of students almost never intersect? The only time you see students is if you go to the bank or decide to walk the path going between the dorms to reach the main gate. The only time you hear students is when they do a particularly loud ‘Tempo’ shout. Considering it’s not a very large campus, how does this work?

The arrangement of houses is again something special. There is such a respect for personal space. At an everyday level, that translates to ‘You simply don’t have to ever see your neighbours unless you want to!’ But at the same time, there is the comforting feeling that the community is there when you need them!

IIM houses, are to say the least, quirky! Anyone who has lived in different ‘regular’ houses (and believe me, we have!) would know that it is not possible to take it for granted that door and window curtains are transferrable from one house to another. Why do measurements differ from house to house? No one I know has an answer! And the door from the drawing room to the rest of the house! Some houses have wooden doors, some glass; the position is a bit different in each house. That ‘below the staircase’ storage space bang opposite that door and how to screen it visually has perplexed one and all!

And the completely non-uniform lawns! We’ve lived in a house with the most luxurious 3-sided lawn; one which had decent-sized lawns on both the back and front; and one which had a shamefully tiny odd-sized strip in the front, and a lovely one at the back!

Nature is very much a part of life on campus! Butterflies, dragonflies, birds nesting in the bushes, bats mucking up the verandahs! On and off, monkeys were an active presence in our lives—they would jump on the cars, topple over the scooters and kick over the dustbins. It was as if all these had been set up as a gym for them to use! And the famous campus crow, which has been much studied by Prof. Venkat Rao, and which took a malevolent pleasure in messing up his scooter. We always had lots of vultures. But what with the general decline of the species, they almost disappeared from the campus. Hopefully now, with the banning of the drug implicated in the decline, the campus too is seeing a revival.

I’ve written only about the physical aspects of the campus. But I believe that this actually governs to a large extent the other aspects, and is what makes the IIM campus what it is, and defines the community. Detached but supportive. Making one feel a part of something larger, a grand vision. Quirky and individualistic. And just a bit impractical!

–Meena

This is about the old campus only. I don’t relate to the new campus, having left the campus by the mid-naughts.

The Coucals are Calling

 

The Coucals are calling at the break of day,P1020594.JPG

Wooing and courting, a-hooping away.

 

The starlings have arrived from far far away,

They chirp and they chatter in a chorus all day.

 

Sometimes balmy, often chilly, that capricious breeze,

Raising billows of dust, and rustling through the leaves.

 

The sun plays hide and seek with wispy clouds,

The koels stridently shriek out loud.

 

Fresh blossoms bloom on some trees

While leaves are shed from other trees.

 

It’s Spring!

Celebrating Basant Panchami

 

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–Mamata

 

 

I Wonder

While I soak in the sunshine on a pleasantly cool Ahmedabad winter day I read that the big Arctic chill has hit North America and Europe. It’s cold, cold, cold! News reports show how the blanket of snow has brought life to a standstill, and people are being interviewed to share how they are coping.

I remember a poem that wonders how the Snow itself must feel.

SNOW PILE

Snow on top
must feel chilly
the cold moonlight piercing it.

 Snow on the bottom
must feel burdened
by the hundreds who tread on it.

 Snow in the middle
must feel lonely
with neither earth nor sky to look at.

The poem was written in the 1920s by a young Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. “Teru” as she was called, was born in 1903 in a family of booksellers in a small fishing village in western Japan.  The book-loving child was encouraged to study by her mother and grandmother, and she stayed in school until she was 18, a rare achievement for Japanese girls at the time. She began writing poetry at age 20, and signed her work “Misuzu”, in an allusion to classical Japanese literature meaning “where the bamboo is reaped.”

In her poetry, Misuzu would share her sense of curiosity and wonder–What does snow feel in a drift?  Where does day end and night begin?  Why don’t adults ask the questions children do?   “To Misuzu, everything was alive and had its own feelings—plants, rocks, even telephone poles! She felt the loneliness of whale calves orphaned after a hunt. She felt the night-time chill of cicadas who had shed their old shells. And she felt the tearful sadness of a flower wet with dew.”

Sadly her personal life was tragic and she committed suicide when she was only 27 years old. Kaneko and her work were forgotten for the next 50 years. The only known copy of her poems had been destroyed during the bombing of Tokyo in WWII. The bookstore where she once worked was long gone. No one seemed to know if she had any surviving family. It is only in the 1980s that another Japanese poet Setsuo Yazaki, recovered her poetry manuscripts and these were published.

Today, almost a 100 years later, Kaneko’s poems remain as fresh and moving with their innocent sense of wonder.

I wonder why
the rain that falls from black clouds
shines like silver.


I wonder why
the silkworm that eats green mulberry leaves
is so white.


I wonder why
the moonflower that no one tends
blooms on its own.


I wonder why
everyone I ask
about these things
laughs and says, “That’s just how it is.”

If only we could all retain that magical sense of wonder rather than simply accepting “That’s just how it is.”

–Mamata

 

A Celebration of Solitude

I was introduced to Ruskin Bond over 30 years ago by Uncle Ken and Rusty. These were the characters in the first books that I translated. I so enjoyed the madcap adventures of the eccentric Uncle Ken and the restless school boy Rusty, not just for the stories but for the simple style of writing and the lovely use of language. As a translator it was a challenge to try to retain the spirit and the form in another language.

Following this introduction I continued to follow Ruskin Bond on his wanderings and meanderings through his essays and columns. Here was someone who was not only sensitive to, and entranced by every minute detail of nature, but one who could share this evocatively through words.

When Ruskin Bond’s autobiography was published just over a year ago, I was curious and eager to fill in the blanks and to know more about Ruskin the person. I recently read the book called Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography.  In it saw how many parts of his own life have been woven in his writings. Ruskin’s story is simply told and flows gently through eight decades, capturing flavours of the life of the angrez and the Anglo-Indians from the colonial times, through the Second World War, India’s partition and the birth and development of the new republic.

Ruskin writes about family and friends, travels and travails, painting word pictures that make one feel as if one is leafing through a real photo album. As he wrote “That’s what life is really like—episodic, full of highs and lows and some fairly dull troughs in between. Life is not a novel, it does not have the organisation of a novel. People are not characters in a play; they refuse to conform to the exigencies of a plot or a set of scenes. Some people become an integral part of our lives; others are ships that pass in the night. Short stories, in fact.”

For me there were “Eureka” moments when one recognized the people who became memorable characters in many of his stories. I marveled at the memory that could conjure up images from sixty-seventy years ago, but I also learnt the value of keeping a journal, something that Ruskin has done since his school days.

Above all, what the book reiterated was the celebration of solitude.  Ruskin Bond is not a recluse nor one who shuns human contact. As a boy he writes that he was lonely, “loneliness that was not of my seeking. The solitude I sought. And found.” This solitude he found in nature, nature is the companion that has sustained and energized him over eighty years, and with it, the magic of the words to share the joy with others.

“I’m like a lone fox dancingIMG_20190126_102042 (2).jpg

In the morning dew.”

–Mamata

 

 

Art Mart

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A dramatic 6’x4’ acrylic on canvas by Mahadeva Shetty

The first Sunday of January is marked down in every Bangalorean’s calendar as Chitra Santhe Day, the day when the busy Kumara Krupa Road is taken over by artists exhibiting and selling their works.

20190106_111151The Sunday just gone by was the 16th edition of the Chitra Santhe. About 1500 artists from 16 states of India were there, and 400,000 people visited!

As a regular visitor to the Santhe, it is something I look forward to. More than the art even, the festive atmosphere, people taking the time to look at paintings and talk about them, mothers and fathers discussing art with their children….

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Grateful to the organizers and the city for this opportunity. And since it is about art, less words and some pics this time!

–Meena

Cleaning up the Abode of Gods

Lessons on Sustainable Tourism: Sudha Priscilla, continues..

Yuksom currently serves as the gateway to many of India’s most beautiful and difficult treks. Recognised as the ancient capital of Sikkim, the town is of historical importance as the first Chogyal (king) of Sikkim was crowned here in 1642 AD.

IMG_20181101_154529On our drive to Yuksom from the airport, I noticed a garbage bag provided in the taxi. This gave us our first insight into their environmentally conscious mind-set. Despite the invasion of visitors, Yuksom has retained an abundance of green spaces and public spaces are all remarkably clean. Every street is equipped with a well-placed litter bin.

Through my travel, I tried to find out more, and here is some of what I learnt. Truly inspiring

In order to thwart degradation of the fragile ecosystem caused by increased tourism, the community formed the Khanchendzonga Conservation Committee in the ‘90s. KCC played an instrumental role in banning the use of firewood previously used for cooking, heating and camp-fires. They also run a garbage management centre that segregates garbage collected on the trekking trails and recycles it.

IMG_20181102_122801The local gram panchayat has also formed an informal association of shopkeepers known as the ‘Bazaar Association’. One of the activities they undertake is sending a family member each week to collect trash from the streets of Yuksom.

During the off-season, members of the Yuksom Tourism Development Committee comprising of stakeholders from the tourism industry, trudge back along various trek routes to collect trash that may have been left behind by travellers. Most of the collected waste is then recycled, thereby reducing pollution.

Additionally, most reputable tour agencies offer clients portable pop-up toilet tents that act as pit latrines. The tent and toilet seat is pitched on a flat surface and placed over a shallow pit with a hump of mud outside. The pit is then used by the client who in turn covers it with mud ensuring that the waste seeps into the ground.  This prevents trekkers from defecating near water bodies.

The town is truly at the helm of the movement promoting sustainable tourism.