Bless Us, Ganesha!

C9965879-3514-46E5-950C-07964DC42871Who can have a problem with someone whose mission is to remove obstacles from your path? No wonder then, that Ganesha is a God whom all love. Wise, witty, with a sense of fun, he is quite the favourite.

No wonder then that his birthday celebrations have caught the imagination of people across the country, and they grow larger and larger every year. I love it too, though I have a question. Is his birthday the day he was made by Parvati and given life by her, or the day that Shiva beheaded him and then brought him back to life again, though with an elephant’s head in place of his original human head. Hmm…maybe someone will explain it to me some day.

Elephants have fascinated humans for ever. The Pali Jataka stories, which go back to the period 600 to 321 BC have references to elephants. According to Buddhist stories, the night before Lord Buddha was born, his mother Maya is supposed to have dreamt of a six-tusked white elephant which came to her from heaven, with a white lotus in his trunk. This is why Buddhists consider the rare white elephant the holiest of all animals, and the embodiment of the Buddha.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata have many references to elephants in war and peace. Flourishing cities for example, are those with elephants. The descriptions of elephants in Ramayana are supposed to be detailed and fairly accurate.

Tamil Sangam literature (1st to 3rd century AD), provides a wealth of information about them. An old poetical dictionary from this body of work has 44 names for elephants, four names for female elephants, and five for baby elephants. Each part of the elephant is named.

Kautilya’s Arthashastra treats the study of elephants as a branch of study and prescribes the duties of mahouts, and approaches to management of elephant populations.

Elephants abound in folktales, proverbs, similes etc. As per a popular Indian folk tale, in the days of yore, elephants could fly. Apparently they were pretty playful. One day, a herd of elephants was gambolling in the branches of a banyan tree. A branch broke and fell (why am I not surprised?). And as to be expected, there was a rishi sitting beneath the tree. His worship was disturbed by the falling tree branch, and as was the wont of rishis, he cursed the elephants that never would they ever be able to fly again. And so it was.

Well, flying elephants would be quite a management issue! But will we at least let our elephants walk the earth? With depleting forests, their habitats are ever-shrinking and ever-fragmenting. The lure of crops as an easy source of food near their habitats is another factor that brings them out of the jungles.  And as a result, human-elephant conflicts keep increasing. Train lines, electric lines and roads across their homes have led to several accidents and deaths in recent times. The threat of poaching for ivory (and sometimes meat), never goes away.

Ganesha, the God of Good Luck! We pray to Thee. Bring peace and goodwill on earth—among humans, and between humans and elephants.

–Meena

Verse and ‘Worsifier’

Every time I come across a crossword clue which calls for filling the name of a South American mammal, the first lines that come to mind are:

The one-l lama, he’s a priest.

The two-l llama he’s a beast.

And I will bet

A silk pajama

There isn’t any three-l llama.

One of my favourite verses from one of my favourite poets—Ogden Nash! Frederic Ogden Nash was born on August 19, 1902, in the city of Nashville in America. Nash was a college drop-out who tried his hand at different jobs before joining the marketing department at the publishing house Doubleday. At the age of 29, he received international acclaim with Hard Lines, his first collection of humorous poems published in 1930. Following this, he left his job to concentrate fully on writing. He was a keen observer of American social life, and his writing anti-establishment. His tongue-in-cheek humour, and often irreverent poems caricatured the pretentious middle-class mentality of America in the thirties and forties. He wrote prolifically, over 500 poems including long winding verses, pithy two-liners, and take-offs on sonnets , ballads and limericks with his own inimitable play with, and, on words.

Nash considered himself a “worsifier.” He had a wicked sense of humour, and a clever way with words that always make me chuckle, no matter how many time I read his poems.

To celebrate Ogden Nash, sharing some of my old favourites, on creatures big and small.

The Cow 

The cow is of the bovine ilkIMG_20190820_151218.jpg

One end is moo, the other milk.

 The Germ

A mighty creature is the germ.

Though smaller than the pachyderm.

His customary dwelling place

Is deep within the human race.

His childish pride he often pleases

By giving people strange diseases

Do you my poppet, feel infirm?

You probably contain a germ.

The Ant

The ant has made himself illustrious

Through constant industry industrious.

So what?

Would you be calm and placid

If you were full of formic acid?

 The Fly

God in His wisdom made the fly

And then forgot to tell us why.

The Mules

In the world of mules

There are no rules.

 The Kitten

The trouble with a kitten is

THAT

Eventually it becomes a

CAT.

 The Octopus

Tell me. O Octopus. I begs.

Is those things arms, or is they legs?

I marvel at thee. Octopus;

If I were thou, I’d call me Us.

While his observations on the human race are somewhat lengthier, here are some short and snappy classics!

The Baby 

A bit of talcum

Is always walcum.

 The Parent

Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore

And that’s what parents were created for.

 Birthday on the Beach 

At another year

I would not boggle

Except when I jog

I joggle.

 Crossing the Border

Senescence begins

And middle age ends

The day your descendants

Outnumber your friends.

 Introspective Reflection

I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance

Were it not for making a living, which is rather a nouciance.

Luckily for him, and for us, Ogden Nash could make a living from his insouciance, and his verse delights us even today!

–Mamata

 

 

 

 

The Lacy Brittle: Beawar Til Papad

Indian sweets are yum to the Indian palate. But they don’t lend themselves to hyper-levels of visual appeal enhancements as do cakes and pastries and other sundry desserts, as portrayed in various TV shows.

One traditional sweet which is intrinsically beautiful and delicate is the Til Papad from Beawar. A mono-layer of sesame and thinly sliced pistas and almonds in sugar syrup, each papad is see-through. Just hold it up to the light for a lacy view of the world beyond!

055F6DD4-BC24-4333-B75D-C362216E65A6

At some point in my life, I studied in Mumbai, and it was always an adventure to reach Jodhpur, where my parents were, for the vacations. One such journey must have entailed some portion being done by bus, because I distinctly recall wandering around the Beawar Bus-stop. And that is when my fascination with this sweet began. Several shops were making the til papad. Basically til and nut-slivers were cooked in sugar syrup, which was taken off the heat at just the right moment; balls made of the goo; and highly skilled cooks rolled them out, one til-thick. It was amazing to see them at work, for they had to work with hot goo, and roll it really fast and thin.

A few weeks ago, someone from Rajasthan kindly gifted us a box of til papad, and that brought all the memories back.

Digging a little deeper into Beawar, I found that it was not one of the ancient cities of Rajasthan, the story of whose founding is part-history, part-mythology. Beawar was established by a British officer, Colonel Charles George Dixon, in the 19th century as a military cantonment. Situated as it is at a tri-junction of Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur, it gained and still retains importance as a trading centre.

The people of the area were apparently as brave and war-like as from any other part of Rajasthan, and the British had a healthy respect for them. One source tells me that the name ‘Beawar’ originated from the term ‘Be aware’.

In recent history, Beawar’s claim to fame is its link to the Right to Information (RTI) movement. The RTI movement started with a number of activists demanding  transparency, after conducting investigations into wide-spread corruption at panchayat and block levels. The then-CM of Rajasthan, Mr. Bhairon Singh Shekawat assured them he would bring in RTI. But even after a year, this did not happen. So on April 5, 1996, thousands of citizens and activists congregated in Beawar. The protest took place at a busy traffic roundabout called Chang Gate, and lasted 40 days. This laid the foundation for the RTI being brought in.

So sweet little Beawar is strong too!

–Meena

 

The Worshipful Bull

In Indian mythology, Nandi the bull is both the guardian of Mount Kailash, and the vehicle of Lord Shiva. The worship of Shiva and Nandi goes back to the time of the Indus Valley Civilization. The bull-seals found in Mohenjodaro and Harappa  have led some researchers to conclude that Nandi worship goes back many thousands of years.

A statue of a seated Nandi is often found in front of Shiva temples, facing the God. In metaphysical terms, Nandi represents the individual soul, looking to unite with the universal soul or Shiva. At a mundane level, people often use Nandi as a communication medium, whispering wishes into his ears, so that he may convey them to Shiva, who may listen to him more readily than to us!

Why suddenly this interest in Nandi? Because I was in Orissa this week, and did a three-hour road journey and also visited 5-6 villages.

Still doesn’t explain it?

nandi

Well, it was the number of Nandi statues I saw in this time. Almost every hamlet and village had one. Pretty big and prominent. Sometimes the shrines they were in front of were smaller than the Nandis. And there were also some stand-alone Nandis! They were in all shapes and sizes.  A few small, most medium sized and a few really large. Some smiling, some serious, some with inscrutable expressions. Some puny and under-fed, some healthy. Some in proportion and some not-so.  But Nandi, after Nandi, after Nandi.

I have travelled to several states. I have seen ever-increasing number of stand-alone Hanuman statues; and several Shiva statues. But as far as I can recall, I have not come across so many Nandis. I am not sure why there should be so many in Orissa particularly, because traditionally, large Nandi statues are more prevalent in the South—Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu. But I do not recall that Nandi statues are found so commonly in these states.

The largest bull statue is in the Mahanadiswara Swamy temple in Kurnool, AP. It stands 15ft by 27 ft. This is followed by the bull in the Lepakshi Temple, also in AP. Other prominent Nandis are the ones at Chamundi Hills, Karnataka, Brahadishwara Temple, Tamilnadu, and of course, Banagalore’s own Bull Temple. Orissa does have one of the big 10 Nandis, at Bhanjanagar town.

But I think the state must beat all simply in the number of Nandis dotting the state scape. These are not old—would not think many are over a decade in age. It would indeed be interesting if someone could undertake a study to understand why there is such a proliferation in recent times. Wish it could be me, but sadly, I don’t think I can do it at the moment. So when I go back to Orissa, I will content myself with just looking out for them, counting them and clicking them

–Meena

Happy New Years!

April 6 was Ugadi—Kannada and Telugu New Year. Occasion for an amazing spread at a friend’s place. Puran poli, payasam, and countless dishes served on a banana leaf.

April 14 is Puthandu–Tamil New Year. Occasion for a spread at my place, with its share of special dishes. The most special being the ‘maanga pachadi.’ Made with mangoes, jaggery, neem flowers, salt, chilli and turmeric, it captures all the tastes: sour, sweet, bitter, salty, chilly. To remind us that the year to come will bring joy, sorrow, losses, gains—the gamut. And that we need to be prepared for all of these, and take them in our stride.

The New Year is fairly arbitrary. There is no particular reason it must fall on Jan 1 or April 14 or any other date, for that matter. Indian New Years are often based on regularly recurring celestial occurrences.

The Tamil New Year (as also several other new years not only in India but even in Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand etc.) follows the Spring Equinox. Now that is a bit confusing, since the Spring Equinox falls on March 22nd! But we celebrate New Year on the Sidereal Equinox, April 14nd because we follow the sidereal year, with the Chitra star as the reference point. I am assured by sources that: ‘Sidereal is calculating the movement of the Sun vis-a-vis Earth by noting the position of certain stars. i.e. with respect to fixed positions on the sky and not just the position of the sun. From around April 14, Chitra star is visible. The Sun is in the Aries (Mesham) zodiac constellation. So currently, tropical Equinox is March 22 and sidereal equinox is April 14.’

I kind of get it (I think!), but not well enough to explain it in my words. Hence the quote. Go figure!

At any rate, how wonderful that we celebrate New Year so many times a year! Vishu, Bihu, Navroj, Gudi Padva, Vikram Samvat…call it what you will, it is an occasion to enjoy the company of family and friends, to do up the house, to make and eat goodies. And the more of such, the merrier. (Except maybe the Financial Year which is a scramble to finish activities and budgets and tally accounts and other unpleasant things!)

And of course, if you have ‘forgotten’ to make resolutions, or forgotten the resolutions you have made, there are so many New Years through the year to make/renew them. No excuses!

Wishing you all yet another Happy New Year!

–Meena

Black Magic

I can never forget mum meticulously grinding whole spices using a mortar and pestle and cooking Meen Kuzhambu (fish curry) in rustic looking manchattis (earthenware). Mum loved cooking fish in clay since it retained nutrition and made the dish flavoursome.

As a tribute to the good old days, one of the first things I did as a married woman and novice cook-in-charge of an entire kitchen for the first time, was to purchase a manchatti. I resolved to carry and pass on mum’s traditional ways. This was my favourite piece of cookware until I was introduced to Longpi.

I first read about Longpi in a blog post. What drew my eyes to the article were beautiful pictures of black earthenware with cane trimming. I was intrigued! I quickly dialled the numbers mentioned in the post and got in touch with Ms. Priscilla Presley. As luck would have it, she was in Bangalore at the time and had an exhibition-stall at the famed Chitrakala Parishath. The very next day, I met Priscilla, who enthusiastically introduced me to the history of Longpi stone pottery.

IMG_20190316_165954__01Traditionally called, “Loree Hamlei”, this pottery was historically used exclusively by the royal and noble families of Manipur. The original name is derived from the village of Longpi in Manipur where the Tangkhul Naga tribe specialise in creating this pottery.

The materials used are called weather rock and serpentinite found in abundance along the river banks of Longpi. The two rocks are crushed together and mixed in the ratio of 5:3, using very little water, and are then kneaded and shaped by artisans with bare hands and placed in moulds. This makes it one of the rarest forms of pottery as it does not use the potter’s wheel. Once it is dried and hardened, the mould is placed in a kiln and fired for about 5 to 7 hours till the temperature reaches 9000 C. It is then removed whilst still hot and rubbed with a local leaf known as Machee (Pasania Pachiphylla).

These vessels get better with age and can easily go from cookware to serveware due to their elegant and simple designs. They can also be popped into the oven and microwave provided they do not have the cane accents. Additionally, they can be easily cleaned using a mild soap solution.

Today as my cooking improves (slowly), I beam joyfully whenever guests ask me about the origin of the black beauties laid out before them.

To learn more about Longpi pottery you can contact Priscilla at 9902370318.

–Sudha

PS: Intrigued when I saw her collection of this pottery, I requested my friend Sudha to do a piece. Meena.

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

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

 

Language is More Than Words

2019 has been declared as The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL2019) by UNESCO.  The official launch of IYIL was held on 28 January 2019.  The aim of IYIL is to “draw attention to the critical loss of indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize and promote indigenous languages around the world”.

Of the 6000-7000 languages in the world today, about 97% of the world’s population speaks only 4 % of these languages, while only 3% of the world speak 96% of all remaining languages. A great majority of those languages are spoken mainly by indigenous peoples.

India is one of four countries, along with Nigeria, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, with the largest number of living languages. A mammoth project to conduct a comprehensive survey of Indian languages was launched in 2010. Initiated by Prof. G.N. Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara, and undertaken by a large team of scholars, the project called the People’s Linguistic Survey Of India (PLSI) set out to document and preserve 780 languages which are being spoken in India today. These are being published in the multi-volume People’s Linguistic Survey of India, towards providing an overview of the extant and dying languages of India, as evolved till 2011, and as perceived by their speakers. The volumes chronicle the evolution of these languages in all their socio-political and linguistic dimensions, and encapsulate the worldview of their speakers. PLSI proposes to complete its task of publishing 92 volumes by 2020.

In the last couple of years, I have had the enriching opportunity to learn about some of the indigenous people of the north east of India and a glimpse of not just the incredibly rich traditions of textiles in the region, but equally the close ties between language of the people and the language of their textiles. Not only does every tribe have their own dialect, but each dialect has wonderfully nuanced words to describe every textile that they weave, and even every motif that is woven on these.

Names of textiles of the tribes have references to the history and geography of the tribe, as well as names that literally relate to colour, size, on which part of the body they are worn, as well as referring to age and status of the wearer. There are specific shawls for elder men or women, for those who have special social status (as in the Naga the Feast of Merit shawl), for a new bride to wear to her marital home, and for covering the deceased.

As Ganesh Devy puts it “in every manner without any exception, the language we learn or use is the absolute condition of our narrative of the world and the way we see the world.”

Of the numerous examples of this, is that of a textile of the Bodo Kachari tr

IMG_20190129_103102.jpg
Aronai with Hawjagor pattern

ibe of Assam.The multi-use decorative textile called Aronai is characterised by a zig-zag motif called Hawjagor (hill pattern) in the Bodo dialect. This pattern is inspired by the hills which form an important part of the history as well as the geography of the Bodo people who settled by the foothills, on the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Assam.

It is in the names of motifs that women weave onto the textiles that the symbiosis between life, nature and culture is most evident. The names not just reflect how nature inspires form, but also reveal a keen eye for subtle detail and the richness of language to reflect this.

A common triangular motif on wrap skirts of the women of a small Naga tribe is called impeak bam. The word Impeak translates to ‘stretching out/extending/ spreading out’ and bam means ‘wings’; and the motif symbolises a flying Hornbill. While a similar but smaller triangular motif is named to mean the wings of the bird called a Swift.

Some of the motifs of the Liangmai Naga tribe in Manipur are named literally to represent elements such as fish bone (kakhara thua), cow’s teeth (kabui hu), and ripples in a lake (kazai kapai). There is even a woven line stitch line called matiang kang meaning ‘group of ants.’ These are only the tip of the iceberg of detail, as it were.

One of the traditional shawls of a small Naga tribe of the Manipur Naga Hills has a motif called  inchitatpi that translates to ‘head of a long worm’ found in the woods. Another has a pattern representing cucumber seed called angi thei ru. Getting into even more minute detail, another tribe has a popular motif called aphinamik which literally means the ‘eye of a dove’.

There are patterns representing frog’s feet called sangkang nou ban and grasshoppers’ egg called changkow gum, and even a stitch called kabi n’dui where kabi translates to ‘good’ and ndui translates to ‘egg’, relating to the arrangement of eggs on a paddy plant!

What evocative words and how beautifully they capture richness of life lived in synergy with one’s environment. These are only a tiny sprinkling of the vocabulary of a tiny segment of indigenous people and languages.

Sadly with ‘modernisation’ comes homogenisation. A lot of the local weaving traditions are being replaced with mass-produced machine-made garments, and with it are lost not just the textiles and motifs but also the language that represented these.

According to UNESCO, approximately 600 languages have disappeared in the last century, and they continue to disappear at a rate of one language every two weeks. Up to 90 perccent of the world’s languages are likely to disappear before the end of this century if current trends are allowed to continue.

And Ganesh Devy expresses the Domino Effect that this has—“When a language dies, its speakers decide to migrate. First, they migrate to another language and then they physically start migrating to another region. The second thing that happens is that their traditional livelihood patterns go down. They may have some special skills and that disappears. Thirdly, a unique way of looking at the world disappears.”

–Mamata