Monday, August 20, 2012

Chanthakkaree- Exhibiting Exuberance, Enterprise and Entrepreneurial spirit!

When my close friend Aparna Vinod told me- with her signature excitement- about her exhibition 'Chanthakkaree' in Calicut, I wasn't too sure what was on show. But the fact remained that she'd spent months putting together this dream-project of hers; visualising, networking, collaborating, coordinating- and enjoying it all. And our five years of a friendship of its kind, I knew for sure, that if she was into something, it would be nothing short of phenomenal.

This is but a gross understatement.

As I rushed in a good two hours late, I could feel the pulse. The fuschia poster at the entrance of the Chamber of Commerce building was ample proof of Chanthakkaree's unconventional, unabashedly genuine and in-your-face character.

The diva dazzled in a purple saree whose vibrance was no match for her radiant energy. She was poise personified, acknowledging her guests, helping out the media-folks, explaining the nuances of a lesser-known tribal printing art now, issuing orders in staccato Tamil onto her cell-phone the next instant... Undoubtedly, Chanthakkaree was here. For real. For more. 

My gaze rested on the first table laden with clay jewellery of various shapes. Manjusha and Satish bent over their ethereally earthy treasures with almost parental affection and care. The wares were indeed unique in design, shape and texture.Ear-drops, pendants and neck-strings were more likely to have appeared from Eden than from an Accessory store. Each of them spoke of a rare connection with nature and was thus a testimony to the ultimate creation. 


Moving on, one couldn't miss the fiery Radha Gomathi with Sangmitra, her magnificent array of cloth bags. Jholas, vanity bags, mobile pouches and drawstring money-bags spread out like a Chiaroscuro rainbow. Sangmitra is an All- Women collective that specialises in crafting cloth bags from tailoring waste. The whole section had a mystical quality about it; at once deep, introspective, rebellious, impulsive, childish, matter-of-factly and spiritual. I had heard so much about Aparna's Radha-chechi ( who , appearance-wise was TV artiste Sona Nair with Michael Jackson's hairdo and personality-wise was more intriguing than the Mona Lisa) and was prepared for her compelling aura. 

All the same, what struck a chord within me was how, she had a story for each of her creation. She had this uncanny ability to size up a person in nano-seconds and fish out just the right bag for him/her alongwith providing a 2-minute account of the bag's character, maintenance tips and value proposition. Whoever had doubts on the Art of Marketing should take a few leaves out of Radha-chechi's book. Move over, Kotler!

Listen to Radha narrating the Sangmitra story below:

Having trouble viewing the video here? Try 

Chip of the old(?) block, little Aravind was precociousness clad in a Fabindia shirt leapfrogging across the hall, calling out to and befriending every visitor on the premises. it was impossible to miss the adorable brat who seemed to be on s a self- appointed endearment strategy interrupted only by Radha-chechi's call to duty: he was mama's Accountant-boy after all! 

This picture was taken towards closing time. "Here's Scrooge!", commented his mom. What say, Aravindo? 

Appu had been enticing me about a Jute Products stall she'd invited over from Erode. “Jute Bole Kauva Kaatey”, I'd ad-libbed to her a couple of times. However, the stall was a moment of Truth. S.K Karthik, representing Bharathi Jute, an Erode-based NGO, patiently explained each and every item on his table. Folders, mobile pouches, gift-bags and trinkets made of paper bristled on the display table like live forms. There was a unique piece of folder with a banana-fibre front flap. Paper trinkets of various hues and shapes spoke of daring experiments  with design.

Rarely have I beheld such natural charm at such affordable rates. Karthik explained the design approach and the types of motifs used on the jute stationery: Madhubani, Kangra and Gujarati prints. He was also something of a bard, he had this sweet and Satwik air about him, almost going into a kind of trance as he spoke about his products. He was also full of reverence and praise for the concept of Chanthakkaree.

 I'm not surprised. 

You can reach Karthik on 098945 10545 or 

Trust, Corporate Social Responsibility and Tata are names that appear in one sentence for most Indians. Throw in two more terms: women and crafts, and you have Okhai. Vivacious printed garments and amazing applique shawls spoke for the lesser-known eponymous Gujarati craft.

The following passage ( ) should do the rest of the talking:

dThe Okhamandal region in Gujarat is a drought prone area. With an average annual rainfall of 8-10 inches, the region is declared a drought zone every third year. With 70% of the village population dependent on agriculture, it becomes imperative that an alternate source of livelihood be promoted to reduce the dependence on agriculture.
Women of Okhamandal are endowed with the talent and traditional skills to make exquisite handicrafts in the typical Okhamandal style.

 The custom of producing traditional handicrafts for ceremonial functions is widely prevalent amongst the tribes like the Ahirs, the Rabari, the Charan, and communities like the Lohana and the Harijan.

Mirror work, patchwork and embroidery are all a vibrant expression of their way of life, their rituals and their legends.

Handicrafts were identified as a promising means of generating livelihood for hundreds of women in the area.

Tata Chemicals Society for Rural Development ( TCSRD)  plays a pioneering role in promoting this art. Self Help Groups (SHGs) have been formed in the villages of Okhamandal and the members of these groups are involved in handicrafts production. At present, 450 rural women are benefiting from this programme. They earn an average monthly income of Rs 500- 2500. The handicrafts are promoted under the brand name ‘Okhai’.

The handicrafts project has made a fundamental difference to the lives of rural women. It not only helps the women become wage earners, but also spreads awareness about the traditional crafts of the region, thus helping us preserve a rich part of our national cultural heritage for generations to come. 

Mrs. Iyer ( that's one of my names for Appu) re-appeared in a salwar-kurta and her delightful babe Ram. Vinod, Her Tower of Strength joined too. The small wonder took in every detail around him in his saucer-eyes. Seemed to have an interest in morphology as he probed, stroked, nibbled and clawed Appa's ears and nose. He in fact left no bit unexplored, tugging even at a stray nylon wire till it yielded.

You can take Aparna away from Apparels but you can never take the Apparels away from Aparna! Chanthakkaree did live up to its brain-mother's reputation in two stalls which would have been any cloheshorse's plunder. Her dazzling range of hand-picked silks and cool cottons would make any passerby gawk. Even buy. Sample this parrot green saree with a dramatic border.

We should've invited Shobana to this expo, I'm sure there are many a piece that she'd fancy”, concurred the two of us.

There was also an impressive collection of Gujarati and Hyderabadi dress materials. A few pieces had intricate embroidery in woolen thread. I've always been fascinated by Kutch and Bandhani designs since Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, and it was a treat for the eyes to see them imposed on well-tailored kurtas and suits. This one was a class apart, what with those dramatic buttons and mirrorwork. I was told that these are Kutch patterns from Gujarat.  This garment reminded me of my pre-adolescent sketches of dress-patterns, many many summers back! 

To cut a long story short, suffice it to say that the stall helped me update my once- impressive knowledge of women's apparel.

While the artist in me had enough to feast my eyes on, there was someone who inspirred the teacher in me. Chembratt Sreedharan Master, with his collection of baskets woven from packing tape, was literally a silent salesman and a hero. After all, he had tamed the hazardous wires and woven them into inexpensive objects of utility and beauty. He also delighted the young ones with his Origami skills, deftly fashioning hand-bags out of newspaper. Sreedharan Master teaches at GMUPS Kondotty and is a n Origami (CCRT) resource-person. Incidentally, is a visitor-turned exhibitor at Chanthakkaree.

Looks like Radha-chechi already has competition?!

Catch Sreedharan Master on 9961224598, 0495 2296606

If sustainability, crafts and lifestyles are here, can wellness be far behind? Dr. Anaz, a history professor presented the Mona Vie range of wellness products ( Apparently bustling with essential energy and nutrients, these products promise good health, longevity, anti-oxidnants, polyphenols and immunity.

Image Courtesy:
The Energy Drink!

Dr Anaz (L) with Mr Radhakrishnan ( My 'Dupe') 

Interested? Reach Dr. Anaz on 94955 39708 or 

I reflected on Chanthakkaree on my homeward train journey. Here was Appu -with sheer grit, passion and her indigenous networking skills- balancing what she loves to do and what she has to do ( family, housekeeping, parenting, boring social commitments...) still coming up with a fresh, classy and somewhat niche effort. I've often wondered where she derives this rare gift of surprising everybody around her with her appetite for adventure. I've known her since her final-year-at- grad- college days, through her MBA sojourn where she started exploring herself; her near-Bohemian exterior ( which made her decision to marry, something of a paradoxical volte face), and her amazing ease as a home-maker and mother. And at a time when we expected her to be nappy-happy, she surprises the world with her Odysseys in search of craft. In her own words, " friends were trying to 'study' MBA, I'm living it! Chanthakkaree taught me what it's like to take risks, how to earn value for money and what customer - not consumer- behaviour is all about ( she has recently worked as a store-salesgirl for a leading Handicrafts emporium out of sheer curiosity for what it feels like). Thanks Appu, for demonstrating what it takes to be a Rebel With a Cause.  

Aparna's absolutely devoted to her fantastic husband Mr Vinod Iyer ( whom I've known and befriended since my Rotary GSE days), who also has a penchant for donning  various hats: Entrepreneur, Motivational Speaker, Professional Trainer, Soccer Player, Compere, loving dad  and much more.  Mohanlal's famous dialogue in Manichithrathazhu should best describe Mr and Mrs. Iyer " ലോകത്തിലെ  ഒരു ഭര്‍ത്താവും ഭാര്യയും  മനസ്സ് കൊണ്ട്  ഇത്ര ആഴത്തില്‍ പരസ്പരം  അറിഞ്ഞു കാണില്ല." ( No other husband and wife in this world would have known each other so well....). Touch Wood. 

The Vinods!

I'd urge every student, teacher and practitioner of Management ( plus Go Green Activists, Event Managers, Entrepreneurs,  Media moghuls, mothers, wives, Gen Y boys and girls .....) to read, understand and assimilate Chanthakkaree as a case of exuberance, energy and enterprise. 

Go Aparna, Go! 


The Deccan Chronicle ( Calicut), 20th Aug '12

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Surya 108: The Sun that never Set!

I had the opportunity of watching 'Surya 108', a spectacular Light and Sound Drama presented by the members of the All India Chinmaya Yuva Kendra ( AICHyK) at Palakkad on Saturday, 11th Aug '12.

The 2 hour production was a multi-sensory treat with a tight script, compelling soundtrack, energetic performers, resplendent costumes and scintillating choreography. The theme of the show was Surya: the belief, the symbolism, the legend, the tradition and the manifestations of the sun. 

The show commenced with Surya Namaskaar where the dancers wnet through the 12 yogic poses of the very potent exercise in benediction to the sun. Surya Namaskaar also pays homage to Brahman, and reflects the 24 hour span, the 12 rashis as well as the balance between the mind and the body. Not to mention that the exercise fortifies the limbs and stimulates the spirit, unleashing creative energy in the practitioner. 

Enter the characters: Arun dev ( has a Bachelor's in Dance, a Master's in Mind Management and a Ph.D in Life), the coach and teacher. He is accompanied by his eight students: Gaya ( never stops asking questions), Ushnik ( “ Just call me Nick”, striking, stylish... and doesn't he know it!!) , Brihat ( has the strength to seek the sun), Anup ( Walking Encyclopedia; he has to know everything), Jagati ( Traditional Girl from a super traditional family), Pankti ( talented, creative, but doesn't seem to believe it), Trishtup ( His head weighs more than him) and Chhaya ( Tour Operator between the past, present and future). Incidentally, the names of the characters are the same as those of the seven green horses that steer the Arka charriot of the sun; the seven horses also representing the seven days of the week.

The tour operator takes the team back in time, where they behold the Rajarishi Vishwamitra in engaged in deep meditation. Vishwamitra is the epitome of bravery, intellect and penance. True to his name, he is compassionate and considerate to the whole world ( Vishwa = world; mitra= friend). Through his intense japa, he invokes the potent Gayatri mantra, the dispeller of ignorance and darkness. Composed using the first words of four vedas, the Gayatri mantra invokes the inherent Truth in the seeker. The play blends this knowledge with humour as the audience gets to see impulsive Ushnik following the 5 senses, to be saved in time by Vishwamitra's disciples who administer the Gayatri Mantra to him, thereby restoring him to his friends. In the meantime, they also entrust him with the task of collecting 108 coins, much to his trepidation!

Chaya takes the team to the story of Hanuman- the symbol of dedication, strength and perseverance, . The son of Marut the wind God, Maruti- as Hanuman is also alluded to- was a favourite of the Gods. When Indra struck him down with the thunderbolt as little Hanuman leapt to swallow the Sun- mistaking it for a fruit-, Marut stopped blowing in protest, stalling all life processes in the three worlds. Indra relents at this. Grown-up Hanuman astounds the Sun God yet again when, in his thirst for knowledge requests the Sun God to be his Guru. Since it was not possible for the Sun God to remain stationary and teach Hanuman, the latter moves with Surya in reverse synchronisation, learning the entire lessons with devotion. Through this episode, Hanuman's endurance, perseverance and resourcefulness get revealed.

Sage Agastya's Aditya-hridaya is a chant that strengthens one to face the battle of life intelligently. The power of the Aditya hridaya was brilliantly captured in the legend of Prince Ram who, bewildered at the demoic splendour of his foe Ravana, is advised by sage Agasyta to invoke the Aditya Hridaya to enable him to strike down the demon. The Aditya Hridaya reinforces man's belief in his own abilities and prepares him to face challenges in the battlefield of the world.

Nick gets punished for being late for practice, by impositioning on him the task of writing the Gayathri Mantra ( Likhita Japa) 108 times. Even when his friends offer to help him by sharing his assignment, the teacher apportions 54 times of the work to Nick and the remaining 54 to his friends! The inquisitive Anuop wants to know the science of 108. Chhaya takes the team back in time to sage Yagnavalkya, son of Viswamitra.

Sage Yagnavalkya, the original astrologer, mathematically proves that the circumfereces of a 108 suns would equal the distance from the earth to the sun. It was easy to visualise the distance from earth to sun as a string upon which 108 beads (each representing the sun) was strung. The 'string theory' holds good for the distance between the earth and the moon as well! Also, the diameter of the sun is 108 times that of the earth. 

Cutting back to the present, the coach reminds the team that they need more synchronisation in performance; by pointing out that they are one, not eight ( pun on the word 'not' intended!) . The perils of Global Warming also is brought out when the team travels into the future 2108 when the major cities of the world get submerged. The team is also accosted by a future earthling in UV- protection gear who snatches the bottle of 'fresh H2O' from Pankti at gunpoint! The virtues of sustainable technology as a guide for human welfare is narrated at this point.

Chhaya points out other cultures where the Sun God is worshipped: as Amaterasu in Japanese Shinto mythology and as 'Ra' in Egyptian legends. 

These episodes were revealed in a very unique choreography of Japanese and Egyptian styles. The Indian example of the Jantar Mantar, the earliest celestial observatory built by king Sawai Jaisingh in 1734 in Jaipur. 

Arun instructs his students to learn more about the sun in other culltures. ( After 'consulting' the audience, the students one by one realise that the sun is worshipped as Helios by the Greeks, 'Sol' by the Europeans ( Summer 'Sol'istic, you see) 'Inti' by the Incas, 'Mitra' by the Persian Zoroasthrians and 'Huitilopochtli' the War God by the Aztecs. By now the entire team is enlightened by their knowledge of the sun. The coach Arun leaves them, after handing over the reins to his promising student Brihat. 

Brihat takes Ushnik to the epic of Karna, the sun of the Sun God who demonstrates selflessness and bravery by handing over his iconic armour to lord Indra.

The traditional 'Sun festivals' of India: Kite flying in Maharashtra and Gujarat during 'Makar Sankranthi', Lohri in Punjab during Pousha ( maga) month and Pongal in Tamil Nadu. This episode was the grand finale of the show with vibrant performers and foot-tapping music.

In retrospect, 'Surya 108' was indeed illuminating: the insightful concept and innovative portrayal spoke volumes of back-stage planning and execution. The simple yet evocative backdrops, the crystal clear sound-recording and the synchronised lighting were proof of the technical precision of the team. Members of the Chennai ChyK led by Mr Kartheesan sparkled throughout the show with their professional performances. Palakkad ChyK team lived up to their reputation for vibrancy and histrionics onstage and efficient management offstage.

It was delightful catching up with the Chinmaya Young'uns after the show: Veeraj, Sumithra, many of the performers and organisers  from Palakkad, RISHIJI, Sandeep, Sanoop, Vimal, Shrikanth... it was a great homecoming of sorts. The ride with Swami Viviktanandaji was also a soothing one- Swamiji exuded so much of warmth and compassion in every sentence He uttered.

The Jubilant Team

 Truly, the sun never set last evening!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Opera 2012: Kalarpana Comes to Town!

The Land of Looms and Lores awoke on a sleepy, sweltering Sunday to the resonance of bells and the strains of rare ragas on 29th April '12. Opera 2012, a dance performance organised by Kalakshetra of Chakkarakkal, Kannur featured none less than the stellar Shobana and her students from Kalarpana.

The 2-hour treat was a mixed repertoire of classical and experimental fare. After a sculpturesque invocation to Lord Nataraja by the artiste, a brief 'Chollu' was presented by her students Vidhya and Anuroopita. While the former exuded poise and powerful abhinaya, the lissome Anuroopita mesmerised the audience with her telltale eyes and resilient moves. The composition was based on the mythological sequence where the six-headed Lord Shanmugha narrates the prowess of Lord Shiva to his companion ( Ganesa?).

Shobana returned to the stage to perform an elaborate Varnam in praise of Lord Shiva. The episode was the penance by young Parvati to woo the ash-smeared mendicant- much to the chagrin of her parents. Snakes, tigers, demons are sent to vanquish Shiva by the king of the land; Shiva effortlessly dons the venomous serpent as an ornament, kills the tiger and drapes its skin around him and dances upon the demon in triumph!The varnam also had a sweet detail of Shiva visiting Parvati in disguise. While the piece was a shining example of Shobana's mastery over Abhinaya, the shringara of the scene came across as subtle and earthy at the same time. It was awe-inspiring to watch the artiste's inexhaustible energy throughout the extended piece, interspersed with some high-speed percussion also. However, there were a few seconds where the rhythm of the mridangam went a bit out of sync with the tempo of the dance(r).

                                                                                       Photo Credit: Sri Radhesh P.T

As Shobana took a much-needed break, her students took over the stage as they moved to a track by Mandolin Sreenivas. The experimental choreography reminded me of Padma Subrahmaniam's Gajendra Moksham tuned to Japanese music. The purely instrumental track was refreshingly well-timed after the richly classical varnam; and the dancers' well- synchronised moves enlivened it all the more! The experimental pieces continued; this time the dancers swayed to a Western symphony ( remember, the occassion is International Dance Day!) , an item I've come across earlier, on Shobana's 'Thanima' video CD. This one was more playful, the light-footed moves redolent of classical ballet.

From the Lasya and Tandava of Shakti-Shiva, the artiste took the audience to the rustic exuberance of Krishna's Gokul. 'Vishamakaara Kannan ( Oothukkadu Venkatasubbaier, Aruna Sairam) unveiled the frivolous aspect of the dancer. It was evident that she enjoyed performing the piece as much as the audience who watched her! The very realistic yet evocative expressions: the exasperated Gopis, the harried Yashoda, the precocious and cheeky Krishna... the characters blossomed effortlessly onstage. At a point, Shobana's abhinaya of the butter-craving blue boy was so palpable, one could perceive her face changing contours and assuming a boyish aspect! This version of Vishamakaara Kannan outdid Shobana's earlier interpretations ( Please check the clip below for version 1.0)

The announcement of the  next item sent a shiver of anticipation through me. “A modern interpretation of the Ras Leela, whose choreography retains the stamp of vintage Jayadeva,...”. While I was very familiar with the screen versions of “Geet Govind' choreographed by Shobana earlier, another part of me ardently hoped that this piece would be different. It had been my deep desire to watch the Ras Leela sequence from Krishna Chronicles, and I waited with bated breath for the forthcoming piece. Could it, could it be...? The hiss of the fog machine answered my question. I exulted , “ This is the Ras- the way I loved and wanted it!” The one from Krishna Chronicles against the ethereal A Jasmine in Twilight track from Pandit Jasraj's Raga Symphony. For those eight minutes, I felt the entire auditorium go empty, leaving me in the embrace of the musical Vrindavan. Shobana's entry in her signature Krishna garb made me leap for joy. For a few insane moments, it seemed she was doing the piece for me and me alone, although the gasps from nearby spectators were hard to miss. Despite the constricted stage-space, the dancers whirled and twirled in flourishes, my Krishna painting the scene in vivid splashes of yellow and blue. As the crescendo unravelled into silken silence, each of us were left with a taste of the divine within. I was too benumbed to scream for an encore.

After a brief interval, the show resumed with a solo Dashavataram. Shobana-resplendent in a white and gold costume with mural motifs- was at her histrionic superlative, crisply recounting each of Vishnu's incarnations with eloquent abhinaya. Her portrayal of the divine Boar (Varahavatara), the odious Hiranyakashipu ( Narasimha-avatara), the egoistic Mahabali ( Vamana), the dilemmatic Sita ( rama) debating how not to incur the disduised Ravana's anger without crossing the Lakshmana Rekha and the sagacious Buddha remained in one's memory long after the performance. She was joined by her students in the next piece, a novel Thillana which combined Bharatnatyam and Mohiniattam. Even while the dancers jostled for space on stage, they retained the fluid manoeuvres of the traditional dance-forms. Seamlessly after the thillana, Shobana resumed her solo 'Mahishasuramardhini' by way of a closing theme. The performance took a meditative character with the tone of the piece and the Shanta Bhava of the performance. The performance concluded with the dancer paying obeisance to the audience and accompanists.

Up, close and Personal:

The Bald and the Beautiful!

This, my fifth opportunity to watch Shobana live, is special for two reasons: One, it was on the occassion of International Dance Day; Two the performance was held at my hometown. I was in readiness: a (somehow stiff but detailed) water-colour sketch of the artiste, my mom and close family friends in tow and a steely resolve to converse with Shobana. We had to wait for a while as the strained yet obliging organisers arranged for the much- awaited backstage tryst. Meanwhile, her industrious students deftly rolled up the heavy linoleum sheets that had been pasted to the stage floor. I also caught a glimpse of a large printed suitcase being moved from sidestage. Shobana was resting in the green-room when we, alongwith another 20 or so fans, thronged inside. Incidentally, another gentleman had brought a pencil sketch of Shobana as a gift. All the jostling and 'Excuse me, exxcuse me, excuuuuse me please...” among the crowd finally paid off when Shobana recognised me and gave a muscial 'Hi....!” ( I was not too sure my tonsured head got in the way of easy recognition). So, you belong to this place?Good. After I introduced mom and her liking of Mitr, My Friend, I extended the painting to her with a peevish, “Akka, I'm afraid it's slightly jaded..”, to which she responded,” No, no, let me see..... It's Beauuutiful,” she hummed, and added, “It's in action. Really Beautiful.” And then came the most memorable lines she ever told me , “ You know, we performed the Ras Leela for you!” Was the room spinning? “ I remember you mailing us for it. I had asked Vidya to reply and, yeah, it was for you” (I 'm not sure if those were the last few words, I was too dazed to respond). A breathless “Thank You” was all I could manage. Ah, my Krishna!

As a blessing, a total stranger ( whom I had found volunteering at the entrance) obliged by clicking a photograph of us- the poor chap had no clue who were my group, but he still managed to capture us in a single frame.

I spent a few seconds chatting with Shobana's students Chithra Nair and Vidhya ( thanks Vidhya for telling me about Raga Symphony!) before joining my folks. Shobana passed by in a rustle of silk and gold and I ran down the stairs with her to point out that my painting was completed on the 18th of April. “ Yeah, I get what you are driving at”, came the sagely remark.


Well, the euphoria's just about ebbing off. I still can't get over the obsession for listening to 'Jasmine' and can't help staring at the framed photos on the wall. I'm grateful to Mr Sunil, Mr Ranjith and his team at kalakshetra for their fortitude in making 'Opera'12' happen. Their efforts enabled a good number of sincere and serious art-lovers from small-town Kannur to witness a stellar performance. Go, guys, GO! It was a pity about the stage and the crowd management though- Gokulam auditorium is light-years away from JTPAC or the Music Academy but still... It was also commendable that the show commenced on time. That the organisers' commitment paid off was evident in the fact that Shobana chose to perform longer than the promised 100 minutes- the show went on for a full 130 minutes!

Well, all that I can now manage to say is, “ENCORE!”

Special Acknowledgement: Sri Radesh P.T for permitting me to use his photographs of Shobana.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Proud Moment for Mazaala Chai

Dear Reader, I'm thrilled as I write this.

You've been kind enough to support Mazaala Chai, my labour of love. The blog began in July 2010 as a dedication to Multi-faceted artist Shobana Chandrakumar. Now, three posts old, I took up an opportunity to introduce Mazaala Chai to its inspiration.

My post "Maya Ravan: Form Meets Substance" was printed out in an attractive booklet by my good friend Sri Mahesh Maroli ( who, as an artist deserves as much blogspace on MC, soon...) so that I could gift a copy to Shobana.

On 20th Jan 2012, after watching 'Krishna Chronicles' Live for the third time, the backstage of JTPAC Auditorium in Thripunithura presented me the historic occassion of gifting the booklet to Shobana herself. A brief conversation later, the artiste graciously posed with a copy of the booklet and also wrote me a note. Known to be temperamental and quick to take offence, Shobana was least expected to be so warm and accommodating to a novice like me. She appreciated my paintings of her and also spoke a bit on her revisions of Krishna Chronicles.

Those who've been following me on Facebook might have witnessed snapshots of my previous nano-second long meetings with Shobana. This, my fourth encounter, really put me on cloud nine in its enduring honesty, intensity and magic despite the brevity.

The first time I met Shobana, I told her ( quite truthfully) that I'd watched Manichitrathazhu over 200 times ( I'm sure those who know me well enough would testify to the fact); and Shobana herself wrote me a note addressing it " To the Record- setter of Manichithrathazhu....". That was in October 2010, three months after my post on the movie marked the beginning of Mazaala Chai.

Today, three posts, three Live shows and two paintings later, the inspiration gets to touch, feel and read my year-long work on Maya Ravan.
I rest this space, reveling in the memory of that divine meeting.

Thanks again, Maheshettan, for making it possible... By popular demand- and my own gratitude- here's Maheshettan's pic:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Maya Ravan: Form meets Substance

Well, how differently can you retell an epic?

Particularly, an epic as profound and deep-seated in belief as the Ramayana? More so, through the unconventional medium of dance? Without diluting the story while retaining an element of surprise? And, most surprisingly, from the antagonist's perspective?

Simple. By being very, very different.

And this is what Maya Ravan is all about.

A 2-hour dance production in the spirit of the Ramayan. A costume drama that spares no detail unexplored; a high-energy, high-involvement entertainer. A sheer visual treat. Replete with popular music, crisp dialogues, powerful delivery and precise gestures. A project startlingly simple; which owes its onstage impact to months of ardurous, dedicated efforts. Of a 40-odd crew. Aged 3 to over 40. Captained by one amazing creative genius. Conceptualiser, costumer, choreographer- Shobana.

I'm yet to watch the live show of Maya Ravan. Probably I'll never make it. But who's complaining? I did watch the spectacular show on DVD; which by itself was quite an experience.

Scene 1: Introduction

“Once far away, lived King Dashrath, who loved his thousand wives one more than the other...”

Thus begins the narrative, with a montage on the life of prince Ram. Set to the background score of 'Shreeramachandra kripalu Bhajuman', the famous bhajan by Tulsidas- of course in a remixed tune- a visual montage unfurls the legend of Prince Ram. In sheer shimmering brilliance, the frames glide from one episode to another: Sage Viswamitra demanding the services of young Ram and Laxman from their bewildered father king Dashrath; Ram's prowess in vanquishing the trouble-mongering demon hordes led by Mareech and Subahu; Ahalya-moksham... the sequence concludes with a (flashback?) scene of Kaikeyi playing with her stepson Ram.

Scene 2: Kaikeyi and Manthara

" Ravana employs his witch Manthara as a spy in Dashrath's palace. Manthara then evokes his
spirit which unfolds a myriad of plots- which is the beginning of this Ramayan” The usually sweet-natured Kaikeyi unfortunately falls prey to the cunning words of her maid Manthara. The crooked-nosed hag poisons Kaikeyi's minds with the temptations of being queen prior, 'not that fat Kausalya'. Manthara forces the confused Kaikeyi to drink a magic potion which makes her delirious. In the process, Ravan's spirit embodies in Kaikeyi- and speaks not only to Manthara, but also to the petite Sita of Mithila, to whom he appears in a nightmare. Ravan's 'possession' of Kaikeyi's body and his extra-sensory conversation with Sita are powerfully depicted in a play of light and shadow. When Sita demands the dark force to show itself, it promises- nay, threatens- to return.

Scene 3: Sita meets Rama

Sita- played by the expressive Anuroopita Sampat- makes a graceful appearance against a temple backdrop, paying obeisance to goddess Kali. She sways to the mellifluous Bhajan 'Kaali Kapalini Mata Bhavani”, personifying the Bhakti- rasa towards the goddess. In one frame, her accompanying dames depict Kali's chariot mounts; in the next, they become Sita's playmates. Into their midst, the impressive brothers Ram and Lakshman enter. Sita is smitten by him and it's love at first sight. The mood is accentuated by A R Rahman's composition in flute as a prelude to 'Narumugaye...”

Scene 4- The Contest at Mithila

King Janaka's Palace. Kings and noblemen are assembled. Sita declares the test for her 'Swayamvara'. Well- built rulers try their hand at lifting Shiva's bow, in vain. King Janaka intervenes, announcing Sage Viswamitra's prediction that 'the man destined to wed my daughter is in this very hall today”. I'M THE MAN DESTINED TO MARRY YOUR DAUGHTER!', thunders a voice , letting in a stately young man of royal bearing. Haughty and irreverent, he introduces himself as Jai; originally from Vaikuntha, presently residing in Lanka. He strides over to the pulpit, heaves up the bow; but misses the target. Enraged by his audacious manner -but cowed by his persona-, king Janaka urges him to identify himself. Suddenly, it is noticed by the assembly that the young man did not give his name at the start of the swayamwara. Sage Viswamitra alerts the audience that the youth is the king of Asuras himself. Enraged, Ravan threatens to kill Janaka on the floor if he were denied his 'just reward' of Sita's hand in marriage.

The righteous Sita agrees to wed him in return for sparing her father's life. Viswamitra the seer intervenes again by announcing to Ravana that while Sita agreed to wed Ravana thinking that he won the contest, the contest is not yet over- since the young princes Ram and Lakshman are yet to try. The latter forfeits his chance in favour of his brother Ram who effortlessly lifts the bow. Ravan demands that he be given the bow, since he can hit the target blindfolded if needed! Rama mocks him and snaps the bow in two, demonstrating the power of right. Ravan's attempts at sorcerous revenge are thwarted by Sage Viswamitra's mystic prowess, forcing Ravana to leave the venue. Sita and her sisters get married, respectively, to Rama and his brothers.

Shobana stands out in the scene for her powerful portrayal of the conceited Ravana. The contemptuous scowl and condescending gait hits the viewer with its sheer histrionic punch. Vidhya as Viswamitra also makes impact in the same scene.

Scene 5- Welcoming the Newly-weds- Rama sent on Exile

In a brilliantly choreographed sequence set to a percussion track ( Taufiq Qureshi?), the dancers portray the scene where the newly-weds are welcomed back to the palace in Ayodhya. Young and old alike exult while they receive the young princes and their new brides. Queen Kaikeyi embraces her stepson Rama and joins in the festivities. The celebrations in fact are a prelude to Rama's coronation to Ayodhya's throne. However, the scheming Manthara- guided by Ravan's spirit- succeeds in poisoning Kaikeyi's mind again. Kaikeyi collapses from the strain, only to wake up possessed by Ravan's spirit. Her husband Dashrath is shell-shocked when she expresses her wishes - that the heir-apparent Rama be banished to the Danadka forests for fourteen years, depriving him of any claim to the Sunwood throne of Ayodhya. Kaikeyi announces these terms to Rama on Dashrath's behalf. The righteous Rama accepts them without protest.

However, Sita dissuades him from having to take up exile to honour his father's blood-oath. Although Rama asserts that there's no way around their predicament and that Sita was free to re-marry if she wanted to, his dutiful wife seeks to accompany him to the forest. The scene unfolds with very expressive gestures and bhava by the artistes. A soothing shahaana “ Chenthaarmizhi...” from the Malayalam film Perumazhakkalam adds to the ambiance. The dancers Anuroopita and Seethalakshmi Vijay ( as Rama) outperformed themselves in this scene; bringing about tenderness for each other and the confusion of impending separation. Rohini's voice as Sita also added to the drama of the sequence.

Here are some vignettes of Shobana's moods and Bhavas from the scene where she portrays Kaikeyi cajoling, commanding and demanding Rama's exile:

Scene 6: The Princes in Exile:

Rama, Sita and Lakshmana- stripped of their royal garb- embark on their historic journey into the jungles. They befriend the tribes of Guha and establish their residence in the forest. The trio seem to adapt rather effortlessly to the ways of the jungle; hacking their ways through the thickets, setting up their hermitage, enduring the extremes, coming to terms with their own emotional turmoils... Rama is composure personified; Sita exudes quiet grace; Lakshmana, occasional outbursts of anger. Dasaratha's death, Bharata's ren

unciation of the throne and Surpanakaha's lust for Rama are depicted against Ganesh-Kumaresh's devotional tune of the Ramadas Kirtanam “ O rama nee namam emi ruchira”. Suma Mani gets into the spotted skin of the feline demoness with practised ease. The Sita- supanakha encounter is brought out in a light vein, but the whole scene changes when Shobana makes her appearance as a disguised Supanakha. Her attempts to seduce Rama are a delight to watch, thanks to her effortless Bhavabhinaya. The re-re-repeated 'Narumugaye' tends to grate a bit, but is made good by the tempo of the situation. Suhasini's voice lends a powerful dimension to Supanakha's character: lustful once, murderous soon after. The sequence ends with Supanakha's mutilation and Rama's admonishment to Lakshmana.

Shobana as Supanakha amuses and amazes- again- with her versatile abhinaya:

Sita's Abduction:

The stage goes ablaze in a flood of red light, with a doodly banyan tree as the sole prop ( if one observed closely, the outline of a form with a pronounced head becomes visible behind it). The 'Thunder and Lightning' track from Monsoon Anuraga ( Kattakayathil Cheriyan Mappila and Sreevalsan Menon;
adds to the Bheebatsa tone of voice as the scene focuses on Sita and Lakshmana's argument over Rama's cries for help. Revathy Kumar comes across as a poweful stage persona in the role of Lakshmana. Her gestures and body language complement Vishal Soni's voice -which again bears an uncanny similarity with that of Sunil Lahiri of Ramanand Sagar's epic teleserial!. Shobana takes over the stage with her grand entry as the ascetic-guised Ravana. “ The Haldi will not grind any further, beti- you use more energy than required...” Naseerudeen Shah's opening lines are delivered just in the right tone of a pretentious godman. The poignant scene translates well through an intelligent blend of choreography, lighting and background score. The unlikely sound of an airplane taking off does not jar with the scene a bit! As for histrionics, Anuroopita seamlessly glides into Sita's many moods of confusion, anger and vulnerability. Shobana- with an eerie, white-smeared face and matted, rastafarian hairdo- crackles and dazzles as a lust-consumed Ravana; her long-legged form enhanced by a red-orange costume reminiscent of late-70s Bollywood.

The expressions of Ravana as the lascivious Sadhu, talking an unsuspecting Sita into abduction:

The Palace of Ravana

The mood and ambience change dramatically. The setting:Ravana's lair in Lanka. The song: 'Mere Dholna" from Bhool Bhulaiya. For once, I was vindicated that I could behold Shobana dancing to that song which, in its celluloid translation, had done little justice to the original, classic " Oru Murai Vanthu Parthaya..." Ravana and an unsuspecting Mandodari dance the amorous number in their pleasure realm, with peacock and deer in full attendance. Amidst the dance, Mandodari's aides divulge to her about the captive in Lanka. Meanwhile, Ravan visits Sita in the illusory tower and, impersonating Rama, tries to brainwash her into staying back at Lanka. Sita- bruised and tired though she is- sees through the guise and resists Ravana's advances. Ravan balances his impeccable demeanour with Sita with the assertive self-righteousness in his arguments with his wife. While convincing Mandodari that Sita was not captured, but was sent by Rama himself to seduce him, Ravana points out to his gullible wife that Dharma can be interpreted by different people differently. He recounts Rama's atrocities towards the Rakshasas and reminds Mandodari that she- being a pious and noble Rakshasi- should not be questioning her husband's acts on the grounds of Dharma.

Anitha V presents the docile Mandodari with conviction. The dialogues stand apart in precision and delivery. Shobana excels yet again in her portrayal of Ravana- the shrewd and manipulative demon-king. Like the fabled ten-headed character whose every face differed from the other, the danseuse's face also evokes myriad Bhavas within the span of one sentence! Ravana continues his sorcery-aided attempts at serenading Sita. Against the tunes of the popular Bollywood Number 'Chinnamma Chilakamma' from Meenaxi, the scene blends humour with pathos while depicting the plight of Sita held captive.

The Armies of Hanuman

Hanuman - animated by the spring-stepped Chithra Nair and voice by Mohanlal ( no, he just doesn't fit) enters, spying on the valorous brothers in exile. He befriends them, ostensibly out of solidarity towards another exiled prince ( true to his allegiance to his own heir-prince Sugriva) but more out of devotion to Sri Ramachandra. He leads them to the ape-men -NOT monkeys!- colony in Kishkindha where Rama and Sugrive seal the pact of friendship and mutual help: the former in retrieving Sugriva's kingdom and wife from his wile brother Vali and the latter, in helping Rama trace Sita.

Here's one scene with some losses in translation; where creative licences
seemed to go a bit overboard. For one, the bold use of a 1958 Tamil rock''n'roll track from the Sivaji-Gemini Ganesan starrer 'Pathi Bhakthi' for the monkey dance spoke of careless choreography and a slip from good taste. Also, Mohanlal's narration for Hanuman seemed to be one of his most callous contributions to date. Maybe Shobana could have retained her own voice for the valiant ape, like I assume she did for her earlier shows. The scene ends with Hanuman resolving to leap across the seas in search of Sita. One cannot miss the adorable little monkey Sakra, Hanuman's step-brother for its antics.

Another peek into Ravana's indulgences. Hoping that his captive would thaw from her icy demeanour, Ravana conjures the ambience of Shringara with his Shringara Rakshasis and sings the hauntingly languid song "Thozhi..." from the Sangam verse Kurundokai No. 319 set to Kamboji raga. The team of resplendent dancers in their Mohiniattam- inspired accoutrements add dazzle to the scene, not to mention Shobana's acrobatics. The sequence ends with Ravana's deluded vision of marrying Sita. This one sequence brings out the passionate, aesthetic and strikingly handsome aspect of Ravana- the lover, the artist, the irresistible.

Hanuman's visit to Lanka- and Back- and Back Again!

Asoka forest, Sita's scene of imprisonment. Hanuman persuades her to return with him to Rama, but Sita refuses. The clash of Dharma surfaces again: Hanuman informs Sita that Rama's Dharma prevented him from coming in person to Lanka; and hence permitted Hanuman, who was bestowed with an ability to 'Leap' to make the trip. Sympathising with Sita, the noble Vanar goads her into returning with him to Rama. Sita replies firmly but politely that Hanuman need not confuse her condition with her decision; but her own Dharma forces her to stay back at Lanka and await Rama's arrival to claim her in dignity and honour. She didn't want history to blame Rama for not being able to claim his own wife.

Hanuman understands, but decides to teach the self-obsessed Ravana ( " Generals, tilt your cups and drain them empty; for they'll be filled with Vanar Blood shortly") and his team a lesson they woudln't forget in a hurry! After wrecking havoc in the pleasure realm, Hanuman kills many powerful Rakshasas, including Akshay, the brave son of Ravana. However, Indrajit succeeds in bringing the ape-man bound and incapable of further damage, to Ravana. While Ravana at first orders Hanuman to be put to death, his stammering, righteous (Vermin, Brahmin) half-brother Vibhishana reminds that the Kshatriya code forbids the killing of a messenger. The conniving Ravana decides to impart cruel justice by burning off Hanuman's tail. Hanuman accedes, but not before setting Lanka ablaze! He flies back to Rama and gives him the reassuring news of Sita's well-being. Rama's troupe assists him in constructing the fabled bridge across Lanka. The staging of the whole scene speaks of good STEM ( Space-Time- Energy- Movement) management; with the temporal and spatial changes presented very subtly with background music and lighting. The building of the bridge, in particular, has been presented with top-notch synchronisation and originality. The only oddity, so to speak, were the Malayalam epithets that Hanuman flings on the Rakshasas ( How does Mohanlal's Podi- patti- Rakshasi sound for the occasion? For me, it brought to mind his caricaturish mimicry of autorickshaws in Manichitrathazhu!)

The War of Lanka

An extended war sequence with Taufiq Qureshi's Tandava track in the background. Apes, bears, beasts and demons lock each other in mortal combat. Many of the fighters either get killed or grievously injured. At one stage, Rama encounters Ravana himself and almost vanquishes him fatally. However, despite Lakshmana's insistence, Rama refuses to kill Ravana while the latter is unarmed. he narrates that countless are Ravana's sins; robbing Rama of the best years of his life- even his wife- but, the Kshatriya code of war forbids the killing of an unarmed foe. He thus grants Ravana a long lease of life.

The Revelation

A scene of pathos and dejection. Ravana- the invincible ruler of all realms, sits in gloom and drunken stupor. A sepulchral tone in the background ( Ganesh Kumaresh, Carnatic Chills) adds to the melancholic ambience. Mandodari enters, shocked to see her lord in a state of despondency and incapacity. Ravana tells her that he's lost his wealth, power, sorcery- everything. While Mandodari finds it incredulous that the invanquishable Lanka had to be lost in the war over Ravana's lust for a mortal woman, Ravana- with a gentleness quite unlike him- points out to his wife that the war was much more than that; it was the war of eternity. He continues that the present state of affairs was just a design, an event; a curse. Time was nigh for him to return, since the one he guarded at Vaikuntha needed him now. So, he could not afford to waste time in proceeding to the battlefield for his final encounter with Rama., for it would not be seemly for him to be late for his appointment with his own death. Mandodari, at her wit's end, is unable to fathom how Ravana could just give up! Ravana looks at her with a variety of expressions displaying affection, gentleness, tenderness, even something approaching love, if it might be called that, overwhelmed by his helplessness in explaining it all to his wife: The truth is too great a burden! While Mandodari demands that he owes it to her- she being his wife; Ravana corrects her,'No, my widow.'

Perhaps the most gripping and enigmatic scene in the whole production, this one takes the cake for its subtle handling of the great truth. In its starkness, this historic episode unravels itself just like the word Iti-hasa ( " This is what happened"). Tabu and Naseeruddin Shah bring alive the tension in the sequence through their well-modulated dialogues. Shobana plays the drunken Ravana to the hilt; there are moments when Naseer's voice seems to be coming from her persona! True moments of histrionic excellence! The black costumes of the duo onstage adds another shade to the overall ignominy.

The Final Encounter

Ravana is back on the battlefield, all set for his tryst with destiny. " You must be happy now, Rama- you finally have me at your disposal" he taunts Rama," You have achieved a great victory; one that will be remembered for millenia. In some future age, you will be worshipped as a Deva!" Rama stands firm, impervious to his opponent's provocations. He maintains his stand of not intending to draw first blood, and demands Ravana to strike first; the demon will in any case not succeed in deceiving him! "Succeed", retorts Ravana ," I've already failed. Do you wish to hear me say it? Lost eveything. My kingdom, my army, my wealth, my power... and now, I am about to lose my life. Ravana has nothing to gain now by lying to you. ... Strike me any time you wish- but when I am gone, care well for the twins of Sita; for they are my legacy to the world- and parting gift to you! I bow to your Dharma, my Lord!" Rama effortlessly fells the demon- finally, fatally.

Mandodari arrives, accompanied by grieving Rakshasis. She proceeds to identify Ravana's

corpse and laments at the grotesque manner in which he was slain, plucking out his heart still full with a secret love! She points out to Rama that her husband didn't fight him; he permitted Rama to slay him! Meanwhile, Sita is brought to the spot by the Vanars. Just as she melts into Rama's arms, Lakshmana cautions Rama whether the woman with him is Sita herself. He indicates that Sita be subjected to the Fire Test in order to prove her chastity; for if she fails, she would be deemed to have committed adultery! Sita willingly takes the test, since she wanted Rama's path to Ayodhya's throne to be untainted and unblemished. She endures the test unscathed; but Mandodari's curse shocks her ,"May your children not know their father- like my unborn child doesnot know his!" The grieving widow sobs uncontrollably over Ravana's body, asking him to wake up and show- that it is all his MAYA!

This scene provides a fitting finale to the Ravana-centric story: where the viewer is made to think twice before applauding Rama's victory. The anti-climax, when Ravana submits to his own death, throws up many a question as to his role in the 'bigger scheme of things' in the whole plot.

As far as execution goes, the sequence suffers from a minor handicap of too many performers onstage; too many events depicted simultaneously. However, the melodrama takes over and seems to make up for the lapse. All the same, the DVD version could have been edited better for Space-time balance.


Kudos to Shobana for this bold and tasteful experiment! I'd have said this even if I hadn't been devoted to the actress - oops- we can't call her just that anymore. I am reminded of her interview on Manorama News Channel ( Nere Chovve) where she clarified that she'd rather be called a 'Combined Creative Effort' than be labelled as a dancer/ actor/ teacher; for these lines would soon blur. During the Maya Ravan press meet in the Middle East, Shobana stated that working on the production has let her don many hats: teacher, choreographer and performer. The multi-tasker has delivered BIGTIME through this creative piece of literally epic proportions!

The rigorous rehearsals are evident in the performers' sense of timing, dexterity and body language- irrespective of age/ role. The crew just seemed to bit in like pieces of jigsaw- almost seamlessly. Stage props by Rajeevan are simple yet elegant. Efficient lighting by Murugan adds a surreal touch to all the stage sequences; the blend of various shades as fluid like water -olour washes! Ganesh-Kumaresh spell brilliance in their masterly background score; the mellifluous violin strains seem to tell a tale by themselves! Judicious use of A.R Rahman's and Sreevalsan Menon's tracks provide just the right embellishments, though the inclusion of 'Chinnamma' seemed to impart a Kitchen Orchestra effect to the plot. But then, given the timing of the song, it helped keep the pace when the narrative tended to flag a bit. Special mention to be made of the painstakingly detailed costumes and accessories: notably Ravana's Cleopatra-like headgears for one. The cut and drapes of the various fabrics added to the physical allure of the performers. Even the masks of some of the Rakshasas - who appear for a few seconds onstage- are so detailed and perfect. During her Ravana scenes, Shobana sports the steely talon-like fingernails usually seen on traditional Kathakali dancers- an interesting detail.


Like every masterpiece, Maya Ravan relies greatly on a tight script. The inspiration from Ashok Banker's Ramayana is evident in the crisp dialogues and even in characterisation ( A minor detail in the scene of the Exiled princes, when Lakshmana makes an attempt to catch fish from a lake, has been cleverly choreographed to make up for stage-space. Most of Ravana's dialogues have been lifted verbatim from Banker's six volumes. Well, who's complaining? Shobana was candid enough to admit that it was solely on account of the script that many of the Who's Who of Indian Film Industry lent their voices to the production ( "...Not that I enjoy so much goodwill in the industry!", she adds.)



The epic doesn't end here... the avatar continues with 'Krishna Chronicles'... Watch this space!