Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Here's another short story by me, published by New Asian Writing (

Absentminded Majoni


People thought she was not like this as a young girl. It afflicted her only after she became a ‘professor’. But I, who have almost been her shadow in our years of growing up together, always knew that absentmindedness was like a stamp of Majoni’s being.

We grew up together at the Oil India Limited (OIL) campus at Noonmati, a beautiful little OIL township in the outskirts of Guwahati city. There was a bus stop right in front of the club at the township centre from where we took Bus No. 4 for seven years to Holy Child School. In fact, both of us were in the same class and shared the same bench. After school, we came back in the same bus and walked from the club bus stop to our homes that were in the same lane, opposite to one another. Half an hour later, we would be together again either playing with the other kids or lazing around at the lawns in front of the club, or walking the narrow lanes of the campus in circles talking about crushes, heartaches and dreams.

The OIL campus was very vibrant. Something or the other would always keep happening. The Bhogali Bihufestival in January, for instance, when our mothers prepared for the pitha competition a month in advance or theRongali Bihu festival in April, when the college going girls would choreograph and train us to dance the Bihu on stage and sing choruses as well. The boys were also a part of it and it was great fun. Then there was Saraswati Puja on the campus when girls – from the tiny tots to the older ones – would dress up in lovely mekhela chadarsand flock at the Puja pandal for blessings and the bhog. There were other festivals and celebrations too during Eid, Diwali, Christmas, New Year’s, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, Shankardeva’s Tithi, Sports Day, Cultural Nights with some renowned artist being invited to perform throughout the night.

During one such festival, a few of us were gathered to prepare a chorus. The obese college going girl Uma was our trainer. She had picked a Jyoti Sangeet and started month long rehearsals with us. Uma had a pretty face but her ever expanding body attracted more attention. We called her ‘Gaj Gamini’ – the one with elephantine grace and laughed at her as much as we liked her. We blamed her mother for her state. Her mother, for us, was the Mother Gaj Gamini who cooked mouth watering food and stuffed herself and her child to the point of obesity. Weighing more than her daughter, the woman almost confined herself to the house, which was on the third floor, as walking up and down those stairs was a mammoth task given her bulk.

Once, at the rehearsals, as we stopped for a break, Gaj Gamini took us to her house for some tea. Mother Gaj Gamini was happy to see all of us and in a matter of some minutes, laid out a platter of food. There were potato chops stuffed with meat, luci with aloo bhaji, and a baked dish of potatoes and fish. All of us got excited about the spread of potato dishes and steered the conversation to food at the dining table. We revealed our glee through many expressions.

“Oh, Aunty! I just love aloo (potato). Look at what all you can do with it!”

“Yes, Aunty. She is right. Aloo is perhaps the only vegetable that goes with everything and can be had any time.”

“Aunty, how did you make this aloo chop? Which meat have you used for the stuffing?” 

“Know what Aunty? Aloois a favourite with my entire family. There are times when we only have boiled rice and aloo pitika. Yummmm. Thinking of it makes my mouth water!”

Thus, the conversation continued and the subject hovered upon the aloo. After all of us were satisfied and it was time to leave, Mother Gaj Gamini showed us to the main door. We took turns to say good bye and thanked her for the wonderful food. Everybody had something good to say about the food. But when it was Majoni’s turn, what blurt out from her lovely mouth stunned us all. She looked earnestly into Mother Gaj Gamini’s eyes and said, “Thank you, Aloo.” That was it. Gaj Gamini dropped Majoni from the chorus with an excuse that there were more girls than required and since Majoni was quite tall, she had to go! Apparently, her height would be a visual distraction on stage for the audience! As for Majoni, for the next six years, she tried to convince us that what she meant was “Thank you, Aunty.” But well, all of us heard what was uttered, even if that was not intentional. At that time, though I had not realized it, it was my first brush with Majoni’s absentmindedness.

Soon after, we got busy with our final examinations. The day our Math paper got over, I met Majoni outside the school gate and she was all upset. Not that she was ever good at the subject, but by the look of her face, this time she had fared particularly bad. We didn’t speak much to each other and silently got on Bus No. 4 that came to fetch us. The whole journey, Majoni kept brooding over something. Finally our bus stop at the OIL township arrived and we made our way to the exit to disembark. Just then, a voice cried out from the back of the bus, 

“Majoni!” Both of us turned to look back and saw a young man waving at Majoni. She recognized him and smiled.

“Coming back from school?” he called out.

“Yes,” she nodded and turned to look at the fast approaching bus stop.

“I believe your exams are on. Had a paper today?” She craned her neck once more and said “Yes” before quickly turning back to look at the bus stop as the bus slowed its pace.

“How did your paper go?” he cried out again. By this time, the bus had come to a stop and Majoni looked at him one last time, said “yes” with a charming smile and quickly got off the bus. The Math disaster must have made her respond like that, I thought as I walked home by her side laughing to myself.

As the days passed, I began noticing how absentminded Majoni was. She would forget little things, as well as important issues. Like the first day of our matriculate examinations. Her father drove us to our examination centre. I was a little nervous but Majoni was panicky. She kept on uttering weird concerns – “Oh I hope I know answers to all the questions”, “What if I can’t complete the paper?”, “What if we are late?”, “What if I make silly mistakes”, etc.etc. We reached the centre an hour early, with enough time for our nerves to soothe and to seek out our respective seating arrangements. Majoni found her room was on the ground floor while mine was on the second floor. I quickly settled into my seat, exchanged best wishes with those around me and patiently waited for the question paper. At the same time, there was a commotion on at the ground floor. Majoni had forgotten her Hall Admit Card. She was trying hard to convince the invigilators that she was honest and that she forgot the admit card by mistake and that she should be allowed to take the exam.

The invigilators, on the other hand, insisted that she call up home and ask someone to fetch the card while she waited at the entrance. She, of course, would not be allowed inside the premises without it. Thus, Majoni was already under spells of fainting when she called up home from the centre office and told her mother to send her father back with the admit card as soon as he reached home. It was soon time for the examination to begin and a clerk escorted Majoni out of the premises. She cried in terror as she waited a whole forty minutes at the entrance before her father arrived. He looked like he had flown on the Guwahati streets full of traffic and like he could kill her. But for the sake of his daughter’s mental balance, he said nothing. Majoni grabbed the card and rushed back to the room. By the time she took the question paper in hand, she noticed that those around her were already asking for extra sheets. Her heart beat wildly and she started shaking. Every time she picked up the pen, it would fall off her shaking hand. She just couldn’t get a grip. “Ma’am! Ma’am! I can’t hold the pen!” she cried out and the invigilator turned to the sight of a girl shaking like one possessed. Majoni was immediately transferred to the Sick Room, where a nurse attended to her, trying to calm her with water and some pill. It was after good fifteen minutes that she could hold the pen and finally write her answers. For being in the Sick Room, they granted her half an hour extra. And that was how Majoni acquired the passing marks.

By the time we reached college, Majoni’s affliction had worsened. Also, around that time, our fathers had retired and we shifted to our respective houses outside the campus. Our houses were now at the two ends of the city; which meant we got to see less of each other. I went to Cotton College for higher studies while Majoni found herself a place at Handique College. Both the colleges were close to each other, but our classes and after class tuitions kept us so busy that we could somehow manage to meet only once or twice in a month. Once, Majoni and I were coming out of a restaurant when a car came and stopped in front of us. A good looking young man spoke from the driver’s seat, “Halo! Where to?” Majoni gave him a cold look and royally walked away.  The young man’s friend sitting next to him laughed and said, “Aren’t you past that age to tease girls?” The good looking man replied, as if in a state of shock, “She’s my cousin!” And that is when I could recall where I had seen him. I had attended his wedding three years ago at Majoni’s invitation! As I rushed my steps to catch up with Majoni, I almost shouted at her, “Didn’t you recognize your cousin?” “What cousin!” she retorted, “I would know my cousin anywhere.” It was only when we met again for coffee a month later that she admitted that it was indeed her cousin, who came to their house that very evening to give her a sound piece of his mind for embarrassing him like that in public. She was upset how she could not recognize him. “Know what? Maybe I was thinking of something else when he stopped his car by us.” I simply nodded at her proposition, but in sincerity, I was bewildered because many a time, she was beginning to see through even me in public places.

I haven’t been in touch with Majoni for years now. The last time we met was when, obviously by God’s bountiful grace, Majoni had cleared the medical entrance exam and found a place in the waiting list. Both of us had gone to the Kamakhya temple at Neelachal Hills to pray for her. A miracle did happen and she became an MBBS student at one of the medical colleges in Guwahati. Around the same time, I left for Delhi for higher studies. After nine years, armed with a doctorate degree, I let for Germany for a post-doctorate course. It took Majoni exactly the same time, instead of the usual five years, to earn an MBBS degree. What I heard from people in the medical fraternity in Guwahati is that the Dean, who was sympathetic to Majoni for her quiet and amiable nature, called her to his room, arranged all medical equipments on a tray, put the tray in front of her and made her pledge that even though she would be allowed to pass her exams this time yet she would never touch these equipments ever in her life. So that is how, after graduating from the medical college, Majoni found herself a job at a primary school close to her home.

The doctor in her surfaced one unfortunate afternoon when a student fainted under the glaring sun during the assembly. She rushed to his side, took his pulse and delivered some twenty hard knocks with her knuckles on his forehead. The school principal thought that was a way bit too much but said nothing thinking of the MBBS degree held by her. It turned out that the summer heat had made the boy faint but the hard knocks by Majoni rendered him unconscious for the next two months. The school came under the boy’s relatives’ attack and soon protest marches against it were taken out on the streets by various organizations. The media wasn’t behind either. It drew up a caricature of Majoni’s medical expertise by publishing her failure reports year after year. And as if that was not enough, the circumstances under which she finally got her degree were also disclosed and mocked at. Finally, the school principal requested Majoni to resign.

These days, Majoni is at home and as a therapy, her parents coerced her into painting – a task she really was good at as a child. It isn’t surprising that within months she turned out great stuff and soon her talent became widely recognized. Now, almost every two months some organization or the other requests her paintings for exhibitions. Besides, she has opened a therapy school for the mentally disturbed or anguished at her parents’ house and has a fast growing clientele. Her clients address her as ‘Professor’ and she has failed all attempts in telling them that she is not one. Now she doesn’t care anymore. A professor or not, that’s not going to make a difference to the work she is doing. Major Assamese newspapers are now profiling her work and she has become quite a celebrated artist and therapist. But just in case you are wondering if she has got herself rid of her absentmindedness, then in all probability it is unlikely because people, they tell me, often call her the ‘absentminded professor’ behind her back.

Pitha: Traditional Assamese sweet dishes
Bhogali Bihu, Rongali Bihu: Festivals in Assam
Bihu: A traditional Assamese dance
Saraswati Puja: Festival dedicated to the Goddess of Learning
Mekhela chadar: Traditional Assamese dress worn by women
Pandal: Canopy
Bhog: Feast
Shankardeva’s TithiShankardeva was the greatest social reformer of Assam. Tithi refers to anniversary.
Jyoti Sangeet: Songs composed by Assamese cultural giant Jyoti Prasad Agarwala
Luci with aloo bhaji: Soft breads with potato sabji
Aloo pitikaMashed potatoes
Kamakhya temple: Famous Mother Goddess temple in Guwahati, Assam

Juanita Kakoty, 33 years old, is a freelance writer and journalist. She has written on the arts, cultures, travel, food, etc. for publications like The Deccan Herald, The Thumb Print, India Today Woman, The Assam Tribune, etc. She is from Assam, a northeastern state of India, and holds an M.Phil. degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having taught at two Indian universities, she is now taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation. Her published work is available at her blog

Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)

Friday, 19 April 2013

My first ever short story published! All thanks to New Asian Writing (


The flowery chiffon dress left a soft warm sensation every time it touched him. He pulled her close to him, his strong hands around her soft stomach, cheek against cheek, breathing in the sweet smell of her hair; of her perfume. Then twirling her around, as she turned to face him, he gave her a hug, whispered something in her ears and both of them laughed. Rishu loved the way Mandakini’s beautiful face glowed with affection every time they were together. He held her tightly; he wouldn’t want to let go of this woman ever. She brought so much beauty to people’s lives.

As the Ali Farka Toure blues number playing loudly on the speakers gave way to a popular Hindi film song, the rest of the people took on the floor as well and followed Rishu and Mandakini’s moves. Those dancing as well as those watching were enjoying themselves. Pragya, sitting in one of the corners with the wife of somebody who was busy clicking pictures of the firang crowd, clapped her hands in rhythm, a smile perpetually on her face. “Come, dance!” someone called out to her in a high octave voice. She merely shook her head to indicate that she would shortly. She had been in Delhi for the last eight years, yet, she did not understand the city’s logic of night parties at someone’s house; flooded with people more than half of whom the host was not acquainted with. She looked around and saw that of about the fifty people present in the room, the host must know only about ten personally. The rest came along with the guests the host had invited. This wasn’t anything like the parties she was used to at home in Jorhat, a vibrant town in upper Assam. There, the parties began by five or six in the evening; it meant helping the hosts with the food in the kitchen, eating it by 8 – 9 p.m., singing songs and dancing the Bihu together and going back home not later than 10 p.m. Food was the stuff parties revolved around. But in Delhi, parties began after 10 p.m. and there’s no saying till what time they would last. And parties meant, mostly, meeting new people and flirting in the name of ‘networking’.  No one cared about the food. There is no lack in preparing or arranging the food. But people hardly ate.

That day too, there was a lot of food in the house. Cheese from Europe collected by the host during one of his recent trips. Kebabs and chicken tikkas from Karim’s in Old Delhi for snacks; chicken biryani home-delivered from one of the most popular places at Okhla in South Delhi; mutton rogan josh prepared in the authentic style by a Kashmiri friend; shahi paneer, dal makhni and paranthas cooked at home lay on the table invitingly. And chilled ‘phirni’ picked from Nizamudin for dessert. Everything was niche. After all, it was a South Delhi party at one of the most posh locations in one of India’s foremost TV journalists’ house. Yet everybody was busy dancing, drinking or smoking and the food was turning cold.

Pragya was really hungry. She had eaten very less throughout the day. There was a lot of work at the office which left hardly any time for eating or to entertain any thoughts of having a sumptuous meal. She looked around her. Nobody seemed interested in eating. A firang woman, who was in her early forties but looked and acted like in late teens, was gyrating her flat belly to the Hindi film song ‘Munni badnam huyi darling tere liye’. There was a crowd around her, men mostly, and the Indians among them were furiously clicking away pictures of the attractive dancer.

Just then Pragya overheard two women talking. One of them was perhaps an East European going by the accent. “Karen is just so strange! She likes to behave like an artist at times, and then all of a sudden there are days when she is this normal everyday girl!” The Indian, at least she ‘looked’ Indian though her accent made it difficult to place her identity, remarked, “Exactly. She is a fake. She wants to be cool like us artists, yet at the same time she aspires for a stable life! Hypocrite! Have you seen how she has put on weight of late? Good lord, she looks like this lump of fat vibrating when she dances. Eeeks!”

Pragya sat restless in her seat. It was way past midnight, the food was turning cold on the table, and her stomach was now making weird embarrassing noises. Thank God for the blaring speakers for once! She quietly made her way to the table, bumping into Rishu on the way. He flew a kiss at her; she smiled a forlorn smile and inched towards the food. By the time she had eaten, relishing her platter, the party had almost deserted the dance floor and huddled together over some dope and analyses of how much truth was behind America’s claim to have ‘pooh-poohed’ Osama Bin Laden finally.

Then some ate and some still didn’t. And it was time to go home. Rishu and Pragya got into their second-hand Maruti 800. Pragya was a little worried, like always when he was drunk, as Rishu got behind the wheels.

“You know I love you,” said Rishu as he planted a sloppy kiss at the nape of her neck. She murmured a soft ‘yes’ and stretched her tired legs, thinking of when they would finally reach home. When both Rishu and Praya would go to their sides of the bed and fall dead asleep.

Firang- A local word for foreigners
Bihu- Assamese dance

Juanita Kakoty, 33 years old, is a freelance writer and journalist. She has written on the arts, cultures, travel, food, etc. for publications like The Deccan Herald, The Thumb Print, India Today Woman, The Assam Tribune, etc. She is from Assam, a northeastern state of India, and holds an M.Phil. degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Having taught at two Indian universities, she is now taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation. Her published work is available at her blog

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Okhla Bird Sanctuary

Having recently shifted to Shaheen Bagh, a neighborhood in the end of South Delhi, I am constantly fascinated by the physical and cultural spaces it provides. One such space is the Okhla Bird Sanctuary, a stone's throw from the neighborhood.  I haven't written about it yet for any publication. But just thought that I might share a couple of pictures I took of the lovely place from a recent visit (My photographs, by the way, are in natural light and not touched upon since I don't know how to Photoshop).

The best thing is, one can hire bicycles at this sanctuary. You can make the most of your time at the sanctuary and double your joy if you know how to cycle, the way I did ;)

1. We enter the sanctuary

2. The birds welcome us :)

3. Nature at its best

4. We cycled through these roads as trees provided us shade

5. Perfect spot to just sit and be

6. lovely birds, lovely place

7. Birds regale visitors

8. There are many spots like this to sit and meditate 

9. The Siberian cranes

10. Cycling away to glory with the husband. Husband carries our daughter kangaroo-style :)

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

on the lost art of Rafoogari (Deccan Herald, April 2013)

Rafoogari: Art of darning

Juanita Kakoty
April 14, 2013
“A rafoogar (darner) is a healer of damaged cloth,” reflects Delhi-based textile artist, designer and researcher Priya Ravish Mehra, as we sit in her backyard, soaking in the warm sun, discussing her current project.

“Rafoogari is more than mere restoring a cloth. It happens because of some historical or emotional association with the cloth. It is akin to mending relationships, to connecting the past with the present.”

This centuries’ old skill is magical, Priya tells me. “The darning has to be so beautiful that it has to merge with the cloth, the damage becoming invisible.” It is perfection not visible, she says, which makes the work itself invisible. “Besides, darning is like magic. It makes a flaw disappear. So this magical act is a best kept secret; if the worker revealed how this magic happened, the magic would go.” All of this, Priya says, over centuries, has contributed to making rafoogari and the rafoogar invisible.

Shame is another element that she considers. “Nobody likes to talk about wearing a mended piece of cloth. It is shame that has also kept the rafoogars and their work hidden.” But that doesn’t mean that their work is not important. “A Kashmiri Pashmina shawl is a status symbol. There is a sense of pride in possessing it, so no one minds wearing a mended one, or buying a restored one. Rafoogari has rescued priceless Pashmina shawls from destruction. Yet there has not been much documentation of rafoogari or the rafoogars; though there has been some mention for them in the Mughal texts.”

Talking to Priya, I realise just how blind we are to darning. Cloth correction, she tells me, starts right from the loom. Then off the loom, the cloth undergoes some more correction; and even before and after it reaches the market, the cloth goes through more rafoogari. “It is high time recognition came to the darners. They should be brought out of their isolated work spaces and connected at a larger level.

Some mend silk cloth, some woollen, some cotton, etc. They should be connected to each other (so that an exchange of skills can take place) and to institutions that restore and conserve.” And to this she adds, “It is also important for the darners to value their own skills and work. That is how the art will survive.” This dual motive is what Priya has been working on through her project, Making the Invisible Visible.

Priya’s current project has stemmed from a life-long connection with rafoogars and their work. “Growing up in the 1960s, summer vacations were spent at our ancestral home in Najibabad (Uttar Pradesh) — a hub of the Kani shawl trade and highly skilled rafoogars — where we would spend our time looking at exquisite shawls brought in by the rafoogars. My parents were graduates from Shantineketan, where art, craft and appreciating heritage is a part of living. This got reflected in our homes too.” Later, Priya herself went on to graduate in Textiles from Shantineketan, before pursuing further courses at the Royal College of Arts, London and the West Dean College, Sussex.

The best darners in India are the Kashmiris, she tells me, though they have passed on their skills to artisans in other parts of the country. This is a skill that has been traditionally practiced by a few families. But over the years, Priya has observed how the social fabric of the darners is changing. “I started working with a family associated with us from our grandfather’s days. Earlier, they were happy to call themselves rafoogars, but now they prefer being called shawlwallahs or shawl merchants.” 

The art form is fast losing its sheen as youngsters are moving into other professions. But not all is lost as, Priya says, many from non-traditional background are now getting into this skill. 

Sharing her thoughts, Priya raises a very pertinent question: Do people of a town really know the value of rafoogars or any other artisan community living with them in the same town? She had conducted a workshop at Najibabad with Khoj International, where she made the rafoogars of the town make a naksha of the town through rafoogari. “The idea was to make the town dwellers and the rafoogars aware of the cultural history of Najibabad, and in the process, highlight the historical significance of the darning community for all to acknowledge.”

Having worked with darners from North India, Priya now wants to expand her initiative to the South. “I would like to explore the meaning of darning there and bring it to a public forum.” Priya believes that reaching out to people can make the art of restoring a piece of cloth visible.

“In my presentations abroad, I have had positive feedback about rafoogari. The task now is to empower them as a community here in India.” She dreams of a time, not far ahead in the future, when the rafoogars of India will be mending textiles from all over the world.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Nigella's new food show (Deccan Herald, April 2013)

Italian food for soul

Juanita Kakoty, April 14, 2013
Though Nigella Lawson has never trained to be a  cook,  she has inspired cooks in kitchens around the world. She is now all set to host a new Italian food show called ‘Nigellissima’, writes Juanita Kakoty  

It’s time for Nigella Lawson’s fans to rejoice as TLC presents her new show Nigellissima on weekdays at 10 pm from April 15 onwards. This show is all about Italian cooking, its simplicity and delectableness. Nigella brings out the essence of Italian food and claims that the show is a kind of personal journey for her. 

“I went to Italy to live there in my gap year, between school and university, and I’ve been back pretty much every year since. For me, the show is a way of looking at how I can bring the Italian spirit and feel and taste into my own kitchen. So it’s really about attitude, about certain spices, about certain herbs and flavourings.” To this she adds, “It is also about trying to explain how very simple and straightforward Italian food can be.” Nigella points out that some of the recipes she brings to the show are traditionally Italian while some of them have been inspired by certain key ingredients or pairing of flavours.

Simply Italian

“The best thing about Italian food,” Nigella says, “Is the exuberance that’s behind it. However simply a dish is cooked, and I do actually appreciate the simplicity of Italian food, somehow there is this feeling that you can actually detect the secret behind it and the passion for a particular ingredient or a way of putting certain spices together.”

She mentions that there are many different sorts of Italian cooking and that “strictly speaking, there isn’t anything like Italian cooking.” It’s a collection of regions, she says, and that it’s hard to lump them all together “because some forms of Italian cooking are what you call the cucina povora, which is about ingredients that need a long time to cook and an awful lot done to them. The other way is based on a lot of stove side last minute quick fire type of cooking and I suppose that’s what I have dwelt on more for this series, not least because it lends itself so seamlessly to the contemporary cook.”

Nigella Lawson is a household name around the world with many successful TV series and bestselling books to her credit. She has inspired cooks in several kitchens around the world; but she never trained to become a cook. “I’m sure there are plenty of chefs who are full of outrage that I’m doing this,” she says.

“But the point is, real cooking is something that people do in their homes, and this is something that’s been going on for centuries.” And then she reflects, “I love chefs. Great chefs get me, because great chefs are not threatened. But I can see that those who haven’t got the confidence that comes with great talent might feel very threatened by someone who hasn’t got any qualifications.” She maintains that cooking is not the preserve of experts and it has no right to be held ransom by professionals. 

“If you needed a qualification to go into the kitchen, human beings would have fallen out of the evolutionary loop a long time ago.”

Making wrongs right

Nigella is natural and connects well with her followers because of her methods. “When I write a recipe or present it on TV, I might say to people look don’t worry if everything looks runny at this stage, because by the time it’s finished cooking it will have thickened up and it will be the right consistency. 

If I was blessed with more training, I would never worry in the first place, because I would know that. So I feel my concerns as I cook, and perhaps echo the concerns of my readers or viewers as well. And when I make a mistake, I have to make it right somehow. That’s my way of cooking and presenting it to the world. So I suppose the context in which I cook is not so different from that of my readers and viewers.”

Nigella is an ardent learner. “The most pleasurable part of cooking is reading about food, learning how to cook different recipes. I always encourage people to post recipes on my website And I’m always incredibly grateful to them.” About cook books, this is what she has to say, “I think it’s something about life. 

Everyone is looking for answers. And that’s why books appear to be the medium that provide them those answers. I think food books, as long as people know that the primary person to trust is oneself, the person cooking, can help or inspire. What I do is I try and write honestly about the food I cook at home; and show people how it’s not that difficult.

If one wishes to make it complicated, there are ways of doing that; but I’m not good at that part.” Nigella concludes, “For me, what is important is to tell people what they can do with the tools available in their kitchens other than making people feel that a recipe is a gospel or something that’s etched into stone.”

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Hauz Khas Archaeological Park, Delhi (The Thumb Print, April 2013)

TRAVEL - 2013-04-05

Reliving History

Juanita Kakoty walks through Hauz Khas Archaeological Complex and discovers the wonders of the site

Walking through the narrow lanes of the upscale Hauz Khas village in New Delhi, past the niche restaurants and boutiques that offer antiques, designer clothes and old Hindi cinema posters, I stumbled upon the Hauz Khas archaeological complex. A huge complex, it used to be a part of Siri - the second medieval city of the Delhi Sultanate during the Khilji Dynasty (1296 – 1316). The site houses a water tank, an Islamic seminary, a mosque, a tomb, and pavilions that were built around the 13th century. It was a delight to chance upon the remains of these medieval structures hidden somewhere within the busy city but standing tall against the surrounding urbane landscape.

“The Hauz Khas village came up in the medieval times around the reservoir that was first built by Alauddin Khilji (1296 – 1316) to provide water for the inhabitants of Siri”, informs Nadeem Shah, who teaches Medieval History at Delhi University. “Alauddin was the second ruler of the Khilji Dynasty in India. ‘Hauz’, in Urdu, means a ‘water tank’ or ‘lake’ while ‘Khas’ stands for ‘royal’. The Hauz Khas or ‘Royal Tank’ was initially called ‘Hauz-e-Alai’ (the ‘reservoir of Alauddin’) and had a huge storage capacity to harvest water during the Monsoons.” It originally spread over 123.6 acres; was 1,968.5 ft in width, 2,296.6 ft in length and 13.1 ft deep.
“Later on, the reservoir was de-silted and cleared of clogged inlet channels by Feroze Shah Tughlaq (1351 – 1388) of the Tughlaq Dynasty.” As I took a tour of the archaeological complex, I overheard a tourist guide addressing his group, “The tank was supposed to be so huge that a written record by Timur, the Central Asian conqueror (a terror who razed major cities of the world to the ground and subjected Delhi to a similar fate in 1398) speaks of it as so large that an arrow cannot be shot from one side to the other. The tank that exists today, however, has been re-built by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and is almost a quarter of its original size.” Recent restorations and upkeep of the reservoir has been undertaken by DDA and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

“It was Feroze Shah Tughlaq who built the Islamic seminary (madrasa), the small mosque, his own tomb, and the six domed pavilions along the eastern and northern side of the reservoir. The madrasa was established in 1352 and was considered the largest and best equipped Islamic seminary in the whole wide world. It attracted teachers and students from all across the world and was a significant centre of learning.”

The madrasa building is laid out in an L-shape and its chambers are decorated with latticed windows, painted ceilings, lotus motifs, medallions in stucco and hanging balconies (jharokha).Staircases go down from each floor of the madrasa to the reservoir. The tourist guide says that the independent building to the south-west is assumed to be the principal’s residence; and Sayyid Yusuf, the principal during Feroze Shah Tughlaq’s times is buried in the courtyard of the seminary. There are the remains of single-cell compartments in the lower storey of the madrasa building, which is where probably, according to scholars, the students resided.
Towards the south of the seminary, there is a garden with six domed pavilions. These pavilions (rectangular, octagonal and hexagonal in shape) are actually graves with foliated motifs on the drums and kalasa motifs on top of the domes. The pavilions, raised on plinths and supported by square-shaped wide columns, have beams with projecting canopies.

There is a small mosque to the northern end of the seminary and the qibla(the direction of Kaaba)is projected towards the reservoir. A striking feature of this mosque is that the obligatory mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque that points at the direction of Mecca) is pierced by arched windows.

“Feroze Shah, the third ruler of the Tughlaq Dynasty who carried out a large number of far-sighted public works projects for his subjects (especially in irrigation), built his tomb during his lifetime at the Hauz Khas precincts”, tells me Nadeem Shah. The tomb is located where the two arms of the L–shapedmadrasa building meet. It is a square chamber made of local quartzite rubble with surface plaster finish. Grey quartzite was used for the door, pillars and lintels while red sandstone was used for the carvings of the parapets. Shah adds, “The tomb is in sync with the typical Tughlaq stylistic trends of simplicity and solidity, but a unique architectural element here is the presence of stone railings at the entrance from the south. The tomb was repaired, centuries later, during the reign of Sikander Lodhi (Lodhi Dynasty) in 1507.”

The Hauz Khas Tughlaq remains is now a major tourist attraction. It is frequented by photography and art enthusiasts, young lovers, or those looking for a quiet corner to spend a lazy day. Also, there comes along the occasional group of connoisseurs doing the regular tour of Delhi’s majestic heritage, as well as the likes of me who just happen to stumble upon such magnificence and come back feeling blessed.   

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Manipuri dance and Guru Rajkumar Singhajit Singh (Deccan Herald, Sep 2012)

Dance as worship

Sep 23, 2012, DHNS
Manipuri dance is all about worship. The effort is to please god with beautiful dance and music. Juanita Kakoty learns this after an interaction with Guru Rajkumarji and Charuji, who have dedicated their whole lives to this dance form. 
If grace had a face, it would be his, I thought, as Guru Rajkumar Singhajit Singh ushered me into the living room. His wife Charu Sija Mathur, elegant in a Manipuri phanek, joined us as Guruji spoke on a topic close to his heart — Manipuri dance. 

“Most classical dance forms in India have had temple connections, though the application and performance was not always identical. Manipuri dance, which is one of the classical dance forms, has been an important aspect of worship. Before Hinduism came to the land, dance and music was how worship was done. So, in our psyche and whole mental make-up, dance and music has always been revered.”

“Manipuri dance has never been about entertainment. Hence, it is very subtle. The effort is to please god by producing the most beautiful form that the mind and body can produce. Which is why, unlike many parts in India where dance and music was taboo, where dance was associated with women of bad repute, in Manipur, dance was and still is very spiritual,” Guruji said. Charuji expressed, “Our abhinaya is very subdued; body movements very subtle. We believe in whole body expression and keep our facial expressions natural.”

Guru Rajkumarji and Charuji have dedicated their whole lives to Manipuri dance. For his contribution to the art, Guruji has been conferred with the title of Padma Shri besides a host of other prestigious awards in India and abroad. Charuji has been the recipient of Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and the Delhi Sahitya Kala Parishad Samman. They have not only enriched the dance form with their compositions but have also created a huge body of research and documentation through their work.

“Hinduism came to Manipur in the 15–16th century,” continued Guruji, “We took to Vaishnavaite Hinduism because of the bhakti and shringara inherent in it: the two factors intrinsic to our pre-Hindu worship.” With this evolved more elements in their dance worship. Raslila, Guruji said, is one of the oldest living religious dance dramas in the world and is a contribution of Vaishnavism. So is Sankirtana. “But even before Raslila and Sankirtana, Manipuri dance had existed in the form of Lai Haraoba.”

Variety in style
“In technique,” Guruji pronounced, “The pre-Hindu and Hindu dances have slightly different styles and repertoire. Raslila and Lai Haraoba both are jagoi (a style of classical Manipuri dance distinct from the other style, cholum); but Lai Haraoba is pre-Hindu jagoi.” 
In Charuji’s words, “Lai Haraoba is very ancient. It is perhaps the oldest living dance drama in the world. The core of its performance is how the world came into being. It is performed to please pre-Hindu deities like the forest gods. There is a lot of caution involved as people are afraid to anger these deities and thereby invite misfortune to the village.” In this dance ritual, “the maibis are the high priestesses who get possessed and utter predictions.”

The exponents tell me that the rasa (aesthetics) repertoire of classical Manipuri dance comes from Raslila. “Raslila tells the story of Krishna; but it is a feminine jagoi where the performance is by females. Krishna too is played by a girl.” Charuji remembered how, years ago, when she went for a SPICMACAY programme at Varanasi and played Krishna, the organisers were stupefied. “They had never before seen a woman play Krishna in a Raslila!”

“In Manipur,” Guruji reflected, “it is prestigious for parents if their daughters played Krishna in Raslila. Parents and grandparents shed tears of joy when they see their little girls essay the role of Krishna. In such shared moments of ecstasy lie the essence of Manipuri dance.”

Gosthalila is another Krishna lila, Guruji told me, but a masculine jagoi. The performance is by males only and starts at the temple, shifts to the open fields for go-charan (cow grazing) and then comes back to the temple. Thus, these lilas or acts take hours to perform. And there is a set time as to when they can be performed. For instance, Guruji spoke of how “Raslila cannot be performed during the day because Krishna and gopis danced only in the night. Then there are some lilas that can be performed only during full moon.” But with time, all that is changing. “We have started editing the lilas for the modern stage, where the temple dance can’t be transplanted in its entire length. Raslila, for example, is performed all through the night. But the modern stage will not accommodate that. Besides, insurgency is bringing a lot of change within Manipur. It has put an end to activities in the night, which is why we are now losing the tradition of dance worship through the night.”

Listening to Guruji on Manipuri dance was like undertaking a spiritual journey. But this is just a prelude. The real thing is in experiencing the dance ritual in a proper temple setting; or maybe, to an extent, at the stage in what Guruji calls the “times of loudspeakers and speed.”

Antonioni (Deccan Herald, Jan 2013)

Antonioni: The master storyteller

Juanita Kakoty

The year 2012 was the 100th birth anniversary year of Michelangelo Antonioni, the master filmmaker who redefined filmmaking with novel cinematic narration and characterisation.Paying tribute to him, filmmaker Rajeev Srivastava organised a film festival at Siri Fort, New Delhi from 3 — 9 December 2012, showcasing the best of his films and documentaries. “Antonioni’s films are mostly about people who are not able to communicate or express themselves,” says Rajeev. “With his first few films, he shocked people with unusual characters who are beautiful yet ugly, who are protagonists but not heroes, relationships that are not compatible and perfect, characters which are very complex and starkly real.” And the hallmark of his films, reveals Rajeev, is what they progress to become.

“He redefined cinema in terms of how he dealt with the complexities of love, relationships, sexuality and other emotions like jealousy, lust, guilt, etc.,” reflects Rajeev.
“The complexity of treatment was always there from his first film Cronaca di un amore (1950) and blossomed in L’avventura (1960). But what is remarkable is that his films are never judgmental, nor do they ever preach.”

Storytelling, realism and drama moved away from traditional approaches in Antonioni’s films, which also boast of complex camerawork. As we walked out of the auditorium after the screening of Red Desert, which happens to be Antonioni’s first colour film, Rajeev tells me, “Did you notice how the landscape blends with the theme of the film — alienation of the modern world, of people from people?” The film is set in an industrial landscape and the architectural compositions substantiate the emotional and moral dissolution the protagonist (a woman) faces in a failing marriage and a burgeoning affair. Most of his films, in fact, address the issue of alienation and this comes from the fact that Antonioni was a post-World War II narrator, who explored the ambiguities of an alienated and dislocated Italy. He explored the ever-changing internal landscape through architecture, urban spaces, objects, shapes and emotions. And in his films, silence is as loud as noise, absence as vivid as presence, and the negative space as prominent as the positive.

The prodigious filmmaker was born in Ferrara (north-east Italy) on September 29, 1912. After high school, he graduated in Economics from the University of Bologna, where he began writing about films and criticised the famous Italian comedies of the 1930s. He even attempted to make a documentary in a lunatic asylum, but could not complete it as the inmates would be terrorised when the lights for camera went on. In 1940, he went to Rome to study direction at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He then worked as a scriptwriter, collaborating with directors like Roberto Rossellini and Enrico Fulchignoni.
During 1943-47, he directed his first documentary, Gente del Po, which was followed by several other documentaries like N.U. and La Ville dei Mostri. Reviews on these works were encouraging; and his minimalist style, absence of structure in storytelling, and the way he observed reality in cinema were heralded as the beginning of a new trend in Italian cinema.

I learn some interesting bits during my conversation with Rajeev — Indira Gandhi had invited Antonioni for the film festival in New Delhi in January 1977. During that visit, he went to Agra to see the Taj and also to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, where he shot on a small camera. Ten years later, in 1987, he released a documentary on Allahabad  Monica Vitti came to be referred as ‘the ubiquitous Monica Vitti’ because she featured in most of his films. Mark Frechette, who played the lead role in Zabriskie Point, carried much of the tortured soul he played in the 1970 Antonioni film into his private life, to the extent of getting involved in a real-life bank robbery. A contemporary of Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray, Antonioni and Bergman died the same day in 2007.

“L’avventura (1960) was his first international success,” narrates Rajeev. “Antonioni had signed a deal with producer Carlo Ponti for three films in English to be released by MGM. The first, Blowup (1966), set in London, was a major international success. The second film was Zabriskie Point (1970), his first film set in America with a counterculture theme. 

The soundtrack of the film carried music by the likes of Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. The film, sadly, was a commercial disaster. The third film was The Passenger (1975), which received critical praise but, again, did poorly at the box-office.”

Antonioni has left behind a legacy of unstructured cinematic expression, a freedom in storytelling that was never seen before. He explored the emotional as well as the material circumstances that have a bearing on one’s life. And his films talk of life as it is —  never simple. Thanks to Rajeev and the Italian Cultural Centre for the DVDs, it was a great one week of fantastic Antonioni experience.

Portraits from India's economic boom (Deccan Herald, Dec 2012)

A different take...

Juanita Kakoty, Dec 16, 2012:
In a unique attempt of sorts, the Seven Percent opened at the Chashama Gallery in New York this October, depicting the story of those who have benefitted from India’s “booming economy”. 

The project is a series of 15 profiles of India’s affluent, says Annalisa Merelli, one of the three artists to have contributed to this project, “Each comprising a portrait of the subject, a still life of their finished dinner plate and an interview and bio.”

The work is the result of a month-long journey and collaboration between three artists: New York-based portrait photographer and FABRICA fellow Reed Young, New York-based still life photographer Michael de Pasquale, and Italian writer and FABRICA alumna Annalisa Merelli. “Reed and Mike originally thought of the idea,” continues Annalisa, “They had been reading a lot about India’s economic boom, and being photographers, they were interested in its visual representation. So, the project was conceptualised with the aim of giving a face to the story of India’s economic growth, one that’s often talked about in the international press but hardly represented in pictures.”

“I interviewed the subjects to know more about where they came from and what were their ideas on India — its present, its future — and the kind of role the upper class plays in the country,” informs Annalisa. “The interviews happened before we went on with the photographic parts of the project. Reed took the portraits and Mike worked on the still lifes.”

The Seven Percent covers businessmen, professionals, and ex-nobility; and features three kinds of portraiture. There is the classic portrait of the subject in his or her comfort zone: home, office, or car; a still life with the subject’s finished dinner plate since the artists believe that nourishment is one of life’s fundamental acts, and its accompanying rituals and etiquette symbolise a lifestyle; and finally, a video and written interview that allows the subjects to tell their stories in their own words about where they come from, how they view their society, and what role they play in shaping it.

Reflecting on their month-long endeavour, Mike and Reed share a word about the challenges they faced, “At the beginning, we had a very difficult time getting people who were willing to speak about their wealth. 

We realised early on that there’s a stigma attached to claiming that one is wealthy in India. We had to extend our trip from two weeks to a month; but once we started to meet a few people, they were all very helpful in putting us in touch with other possible subjects.” Annalisa adds, “It was a great experience. Our subjects were very open.

They welcomed us into their homes and really took time to tell us their stories. As the project developed, it became all the more interesting. And although most of the times we were meeting people from similar backgrounds, they sometimes had surprisingly different values and points of view on India and life.”

Citing a few individuals who they covered, Annalisa mentions Gaj Singh, the son of the last nobleman of Alsisar, Rajasthan. He owns three hotels in Rajasthan, two of which are his family residences converted into heritage accommodations. 

He lives in Alsisar Haveli, his hotel in Jaipur, and was in the army before launching his hotel business. Annalisa quotes him — “We had so many people working around us… but gradually it faded and by the time I was passing out of school in 1976, we didn’t have many people working for us, but again, with this present business… the bygone era has come back.” 

Then there is Tegvir Singh Sibia, son of former minister of state Gurbaksh Singh Sibia. Singh is an agriculturist and owner of a mechanised farm. Annalisa quotes him — “We were pioneers in whatever we did, in agriculture especially, we started the first seed business in India and we were very happy with that... We drove ourselves to do it and it was a time of change, and if we didn’t change, primitive farming was not going to pay, so we had to change.”

Talking of the project, Annalisa says, “We’d love to go back and extend the project to different areas of the country — we only touched four cities in the centre and north, and it would be really interesting to look at the south. It would also be interesting to interview a few people in Bombay, especially as a term of comparison with Delhi.”

Coming back to the opening, Mike and Reed offer, “We had an excellent turnout in New York. At least 550 people came in the two weeks the show was up. Those who were from India especially appreciated the project. They said it was refreshing to see a bit of affluence represented when most people only focus on the problems that face India.” Signing off, they tell me, this is “mission accomplished.”

Rebecca Gibney/Julie Rafter (Deccan Herald, Dec 2012)

Favourite mom

Juanita Kakoty
Dec 23, 2012 :
The Rafters, Australia’s favourite family, made its appearance on Indian television recently, with the launch of the family drama series, Packed to the Rafters, on Star World.

A light-hearted comedy, the series revolves around the Rafter family: Dave and Julie Rafter, and their four children —  Rachel, Ben, Nathan and Ruby. It is about their life, work pressures, relationships etc, which find a subtle interweaving with social issues of the time. This award winning series can be viewed from Monday to Friday, at 9 pm.

Rebecca Gibney, who has been a recipient of the Golden Logie in 2009 and 2010 for her portrayal of Julie Rafter, says, “I’ve loved every minute of the last six years of my association with Packed to the Rafters. 

We are all very close and the Rafters family has become my second family. I love my co-stars in the show. I have developed a real mom role with the actors that play my children, so much so that they call me Mom Two. And Erik Thomson, who plays my husband, is a good mate; we laugh a lot and it’s almost like we have been married for 30 years.” 

Besides Rebecca, the other main characters of the series have been played by Erik Thomson (Dave Rafter), Jessica Marais (Rachel Rafter), Angus McLaren (Nathan Rafter) and Hugh Sheridan (Benjamin ‘Ben’ Rafter).

“The producers have done such a great job of constantly doing story lines that it keeps the show fresh and current. I guess, that’s why we have been going for six years,” offers Rebecca, adding, “Hopefully, the Indian audiences will enjoy the show as much as we loved making it.

I think our show has very universal themes to which audiences from all over the world will be able to relate. At the end of the day, it’s a show about a family and all the drama, love and laughs that go along with that.”

Talking of the character that she plays, Rebecca reflects, “Julie Rafter was a gift of a role and it’s almost like we have morphed together; we are so alike. I’m probably not as fiery as Julie and she often puts her foot in her mouth. So I hope I’m not as tactless. I am a bit of a mother hen though, so in that sense, we are incredibly alike.”

Rebecca Gibney is a New Zealand-born Australian actress whose breakthrough came with her role in the children’s programme, The Zoo Family. She is an acclaimed TV, film and theatre artiste; much loved in Australia; has won several awards; and to her credit, the character of Doctor Jane Halifax for the crime series Halifax f.p, was written especially for her. Halifax f.p has been sold to more than 60 countries worldwide. 

Commenting on how challenging it has been to act in an emotional drama series, Rebecca says, “I’ve been acting for almost 30 years now; so I have gotten quite good at leaving work at work. I do sometimes come home pretty tired, particularly if we have been shooting emotional scenes. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband.” Rebecca is married to production designer Richard Bell.

Packed to the Rafters premiered on Australian television in August 2008. Season one begins on the eve of Julie and Dave’s 25th wedding anniversary. The couple think that they are finally about to have the house to themselves. But unseen problems loom and the house gets ‘packed to the rafters’ with Julie’s father, who suffers a panic attack, coming to stay; son Nathan and daughter-in-law Sammy visiting because they need a place to stay; daughter Rachel moving in as she leaves her abusive boyfriend Daniel; and son Ben moving next door but dropping in every now and then.

The series was renewed for a fifth season, which premiered in April 2012 and Channel Seven announced that the show will return for a sixth season in 2013. An extremely popular series in Australia, The Age’s Jim Schembri calls Rafters a “superbly sculpted series about suburban class warfare”, noting that it was “one of the most enjoyable, finely honed locally produced TV dramas we’ve seen in ages” with dialogues that “crackle with wit and energy”. The show was nominated for 27 Logie awards in 2009, and it won 13 of the awards.

Season one of Packed to the Rafters proved to be the number one show on Australian television in 2008. The second season was ranked number two for the year 2009. The drama series gained such popularity that it has been sold to networks in South Africa, Belgium, The Netherlands, several Scandinavian countries and Italy. With its launch on Indian television, the Australian family and social life now comes closer home.

Let's talk gold on Discovery TV (Deccan Herald, Jan 2013)

Let’s talk gold

Juanita Kakoty, Jan 27, 2013
“Were we successful in finding enough gold?” reflects George Wright, as he talks about his pursuits in the jungles of Ghana. “We’ll simply say this, Rome was not built in a day, and Scott and I have a long way to go before we’ve obtained all of our financial goals in the gold mining industry in West Africa.

But we’re confident that we’ll get there, because we’ll never give up.” It is this steadfast spirit that one can catch in the new reality series Jungle Gold on Discovery Channel, every night at 10 pm.

It is believed that millions of dollars’ worth of gold lies buried beneath Ghana’s dense jungles. Determined miners from all over the world land up in these jungles hoping to claim some. Americans George White and Scott Lomu, both ex-property moguls bankrupted in the recession, are amongst them. 

They lost everything in the 2008 US property crash that sparked off the worldwide recession. With their houses and families’ futures suddenly on the line, George and Scott made a life changing decision, and headed for the jungles of Ghana, hoping to make good of the vast reserves of gold-rich ground. Discovery Channel heard of this and decided to cover their story.

“There’s a pretty popular show on Discovery Channel called Gold Rush, and my brother kept calling me while I was in Africa asking if I have seen this show. I had not even heard of it. And he said, well, it’s about these guys in Alaska who are doing gold mining and that we should contact Discovery Channel and tell them about what we are doing, because, according to him, what we are doing is much more interesting.

I said no, I didn’t want to do it; and my brother took it upon himself to contact the production company,” says Scott. “He wrote them a letter and told them what we are doing. The production company contacted us and said that they would come out and see what we are up to.”

As compared to Gold Rush in Alaska, it was easier to find the gold in Ghana; the difficult part was keeping hold of it. George says, “We don’t want to spoil anything for any of the viewers in India, but there’s some pretty heated moments that people are going to see this season of Jungle Gold; and a lot of times it came to just having to run or having to fight. But we didn’t carry any guns with us. 

Though there were times we wished that we had weapons to protect ourselves. But I can say this, for the most part, people in Ghana are very peaceful. But just like it is in every country, there are a few that will try and take advantage of the wheat. There were times when people tried to take advantage of us and sometimes they were met with force, and other times we had to bow our heads and be taken advantage of.”

“I think both Scott and I realise that we went to Ghana to do gold; so that we could change our futures financially,” continues George. “But when we arrived in Ghana, we saw that our financial problems are very small in comparison to the type of financial problems the people of Africa are facing. And it’s actually been a very interesting learning experience on that side of it, learning of this wonderful culture in Ghana and also being able to realise that there are people out there who are going through even worse times than us.”

In George and Scott’s words, “A lot of bad has happened, but from all that has happened, we’ve been able to find ourselves a little bit; find that we are resilient.” And the most important moment for them, they say, “Was that, in Ghana, in the course of trying to take care of our families, we realised that we could take care of hundreds of other families.”

Kathak as a dance form (Deccan Herald, Dec 2012)

Relating stories

Juanita Kakoty, Dec 9, 2012 :
Bollywood might have etched kathak as a dance form of the courtesans in cinematic memory, but this appropriation of the Indian classical dance form is like a speck from a huge repertoire.

The purpose of kathak is to tell a story and it traces its origin to north India, going back to the kathaks or professional storytellers of the nomadic bands who wandered from village to village narrating stories from the sacred literatures and folklore. There was a lot of music, gestures, mime and movements in their storytelling; and the dance form evolved, danseuse Ruchika Sharma tells me, “As a way to narrate stories through expressions, mostly mythological.”

“The dance form grew from being performed at temples and festivals to a courtly form, especially during the times of the Mughals and their successors. That’s why we have many mythological characters being played out and represented as a part of a kathak performance. And with increasing Central Asian influences, kathak synthesised previous features along with newer developments.”

“A kathak performance,” continues Ruchika, “usually comprises of an entrance, namaskar or salaami (greeting the audience or patron), technical footwork, bol (verses) based on taal (cyclical rhythm), gat bhav (stylised walk with various gestures), tarana (a fast-paced string of words on which one performs technical kathak) and kavith (a poem narrating stories of different mythological figures and incidents related to them). 

“Stories of Krishna, especially the ones related to Radha, form a very important theme. Shiva, Ganesha, etc., are also represented, but Krishna as a motif remains a favourite with his childhood stories, raas-leela and other Krishna-Radha stories — all of which are very dramatically used in kathak performances.”

Cultural encounters

Kathak, thus, evolved with the passage of time, incorporating traits from cultural encounters in history. Today, it has come to assume stylistic nuances that could be attributed to one gharana or the other.

“The two gharanas — Jaipur and Lucknow — are historically differentiated by their styles. Jaipur Gharana is famous for rigorous footwork (laya-kaari), multiple spins, and at times by emphasis on the Pakhawaj bol. Lucknow Gharana, on the other hand, was developed under the patronage of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh.

He not only encouraged the dance form, but also wrote beautiful thumris, thus highlighting the sringar (delicate union of beauty and grace) and abhinaya (interpretation of words through gestures and movements) aspects of kathak. That’s what Lucknow Gharana came to be famous for — its beautiful hastak (hand gestures) and graceful poise amongst other things. There is also the Banaras Gharana, which is often seen as a confluence of the two, with some of its own features like taking a spin from both sides, something that we do not see in the other two gharanas,” informs Ruchika. 

Stalwarts of the Lucknow Gharana include the likes of Birju Maharaj, Saswati Sen and Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak, who was known for singularly sustaining the tradition of the dance form in Pakistan. Famous exponents from the Jaipur Gharana include Chiranji Lal, Kundan Lal and Durga Lal; while Gopi Krishna was one of the foremost exponents of the Banaras Gharana style.

Based on emotions

Talking about her own style, Ruchika says, “I began learning under Guru Madanlal Ganganiji, who followed the traditions of Jaipur Gharana. The footwork and spin-based bols (chakkardar bols) of this gharana continue to spell their charm on me. I am now learning from Guru Nayanika Ghosh, who follows the Lucknow Gharana, which is extremely bhav-pradhan or based on emotions and their expressions.”

“Kathak as a dance form is said to be very similar to flamenco; and at times also jazz (especially the spins),” maintains Ruchika. But unlike most Indian classical dance forms where experimentations are happening, she says that, “Apart from some dancers like Aditi Mangaldas, there are not many who have attempted experimentations. There are times when you see something new being attempted, like by Kumudini Lakhia, but they mostly remain confined to the basics, not questioning it ever.”

Veering attention towards the elegant costumes, Ruchika says, “Before the Persian influence, sari or lehenga was worn by the dancers. The Lucknow Gharana is famous for its angrakhas. Dancers of the Jaipur Gharana usually wear the lehenga while those of the Lucknow Gharana mostly adorn the angrakha. But as a dancer, I have often used the costumes interchangeably; when the performance demands that the technical footwork be visible, I wear the angrakha and for thumri or other abhinaya-based pieces I prefer the lehenga.”

As I note Ruchika’s words, I think of the times when I watched kathak dancers on stage and came back stunned by the beauty of their movements and grace. Images that made imprints long ago come back to me, of beautiful swirling angrakhas and lehengas as dancers gracefully spin to the rythm of the taals while rendering a katha (story) to the mesmerised audience.

My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...