Saturday, 29 June 2013

Ranjan Engti's art with social messages (Deccan Herald, 30 June 2013)

Art with a message

Juanita Kakoty, June 30, 2013, DHNS:
Positive notes
Extending beyond the canvas, Ranjan Engti’s art acts as a tool of positive social change, writes Juanita Kakoty, after an interaction with the artist who is redefining public conceptions of art

Young and dynamic Karbi artist Ranjan Engti has set a whole new standard for artists, viewers and critics with a range of work that depicts socio-political issues. His work has been exhibited and critically acclaimed at galleries in different parts of India as well as the US, and has been constantly reviewed in various publications. The 28-year-old has been making his presence felt in creative circles in Delhi as well as the northeast with his bold colours and imagery influenced by Warhol and Pop Art.

“My style is very contemporary,” Ranjan tells me. “I believe that art is not just canvas. For people to appreciate art, art installation and ambience are important.” Graduating from Hans Raj College, Delhi University in 2003, he came back to Guwahati in 2010 to change the art scene in the northeast with his reality and abstract paintings. 

In the forefront

“I merged art with popular media. We began with an outdoor exhibition at the Racquet and Billiards Club, where we did an underwater display. This is how I started Metropolis, an art event based around the concepts of urban identity, urban struggle, etc. The idea grew, and with the help of other northeastern friends, I took it to the other northeastern states: Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur. In Metropolis, we mix art with local activities, as well as with the local flavour of a place. In Metropolis 2013 held in Guwahati, for instance, we brought the activities and experiences in the different northeastern states under one roof,” he adds.

Taking art to people

To speak of his latest work, Ranjan is involved in the ‘I am Responsible’ campaign under the Metropolis banner. “My work and art installations have received a good response from people. Everyone, from children to adults, has loved the experience. The Deputy Commissioner, Ashu Agnihotri, loved the concept and said that we should take art to people, combining it with the development of civic sense. That is how the ‘I am Responsible’ campaign was conceptualised. The idea was to emotionally appeal to people.” 

This is an initiative, Ranjan says, of the District Disaster Management Authority (Kamrup Metro), in association with the Directorate of Archaeology. “In this campaign, we are raising awareness about urban floods, landscape, waste disposal, etc. through our art. The next phase will start in 2014 when we hope to begin implementation.” 

For this event, Ranjan and his team have not only sketched heritage sites and buildings of the city, some of which are no longer functional, but have also created a gallery with old photographs to show how Guwahati was a hundred years ago, and how it is now. “As I said, art is not just canvas for me. Its scope is wide.”

The accomplished artist, however, laments the negligence he sees in people for the arts. In fact, as a student, he had to engage with the arts without his family’s knowledge! “I started painting from my childhood. At our school, Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Tejpur, there was an environment facilitating the exchange of artists and art teachers. After high school, I went to Delhi University hoping to do a course in art. But my family vetoed the idea and I took up history. But from my second year onwards, I got involved in our college’s Fine Arts Society. Also, around that time, a few of us formed a group called Curves and Shapes, which still exists today. Of course, my family did not know about any of this!”

Plans for future

Thus, he says, it is his dream to change the perceptions people hold about the arts. “Despite the pool of talent that we have, art over here generally happens in a dull environment, in the corner of a sad gallery. But if the presentation is good and can be taken to people, then art can be appreciated here as well, just as it is in Delhi and Bombay. This is what I am striving for.” He has great plans. “Nagaland has the Hornbill Festival, Shillong has its Music Festival, but Guwahati has no such yearly event. I am trying to establish Metropolis as one such event focused on art.”

It is heartening to listen to the young artist with his ideas and zeal for his work. “I draw inspiration from everything in life,” he says. His art inspires and captivates. His works speak with a voice that reverberates through society and politics. They cannot be ignored.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Dakota Fred Hurt on gold mining and the 3rd season of Gold Rush (Deccan Herald, 16 June 2013)

Striking gold

Jun 16, 2013 :
After two successful runs, the  third season of ‘Gold Rush’ is back. Juanita Kakoty talks to 67-year-old miner Dakota Fred Hurt from Alaska, whose crew will be showcased this season.

Gold fever strikes again, as the reality TV series Gold Rush returns with Season 3 this month, every night at 10 pm, on Discovery Channel. After two years of equipment breakdowns, infighting and battling Mother Nature, in Season 3, four competing gold mining crews have finally made it to the big league.

Sixty-seven-year-old Dakota Fred Hurt, who runs the Porcupine Creek mine in Season 3, shares his experiences about the incredible journey. “I retired when I was 60 years old, 10 years ago, and I went into gold mining immediately. Money was the last thing on my mind when I went into mining.

And I had a son-in-law who wanted to get into gold mining as well, and I said ‘sure, let’s go’.” Dakota Fred confesses that he basically went for the adventure “to do something I wanted to do in life, and also because I had been in construction work all my life.”

Dakota Fred began his construction career in the late sixties, working as a commercial diver in the Gulf of Mexico, where he learned underwater construction, demolition and salvage — skills which went on to be of immense help in gold mining.

A late success
He went through a few unsuccessful seasons of mining at Porcupine and Caribou Creek, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana. In 2008, he returned to Alaska — this time to the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle — to a claim at Little Squaw Lake, where he helped design, build and operate a gold processing plant. He struck gold when in one short season, his five-man team managed to extract over 600 ounces of gold from the frozen ground. 

This is what he has to say about the challenges faced then — “They had a record snowfall in the Haines area where we were mining, right there in Alaska, and normally, when you drive up after it has rained, there is, maybe, a little bit of snow here and there on the side of the road. But when we drove up, there was over four feet of snow still, everywhere, level, and it’s much, much higher. So we had quite a surprise when we showed up.”

The show takes one back to the age of the gold rushes that happened in the 19th century in Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, and the United States, as feverish
 migration of workers took place to areas for the dramatic discovery of gold deposits.

 Although gold mining did not turn profitable for most diggers and mine owners, yet there were a few who made large fortunes. There is a huge body of literature available, where historians have written extensively about the migration, trade, colonisation, and environmental history associated with gold rushes. Hollywood has produced many classics on this theme as well.

So gold mining has always had a charm and dreams of becoming wealthy instantly attached. It might sound quite interesting and make many enthusiastic about the prospects, but there are plenty of hurdles on the way. 

“Mining is not easy,” Dakota Fred says. “I mean it is a heavy duty construction job. I’ve been in the construction business all my life. I worked hard, kept myself in good shape, and I liked that aspect of work. Everybody says, ‘well Fred, you could take it easy, and do a lot easier job’. But I find this work quite satisfying, to get out there and work a good 10-12 hours a day, and have the satisfaction of finding a little treasure at the end of the day.”

On collaboration
On his association with the Discovery reality TV series, Dakota Fred says that the Gold Rush film crew was researching for survival stories for another documentary and posted its topic on an online message board. “We just responded to this post and told them we were starting a gold mine in Alaska. They called us and the rest is history.” 

He continues, “Well, in Season 3, we came across a structure; we worked into the hole that we’ve been working in, we moved over toward the creek a little further and up the creek, and we were absolutely stunned. We did well this year, we did very well. I think all the other crews did well, but we did particularly well. I went out there to have a lot more fun this year. We’re going to try to bring in more people, some more equipment. And hopefully, we won’t have quite as many breakdowns as we did last year. This year we did have breakdowns. But I think anything we break, we fix pretty quick.”

The competition might be tough, but the happily married Dakota Fred with four kids, six grandkids and five great grandkids signs off by saying that the competitors have always helped each other — “Well, the crew in Dawson is absolutely isolated from us; it’s about 350 miles away. But Parker, the Schnabel mine, is right across the creek from us, and we do favours for each other back and forth.”

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

My travel piece on Bharatpur for The Thumbprint (5 June 2013)

Cycling around Keoladeo

JUANITA KAKOTY relishes the natural splendor and the freedom to cycle around at Bharatpur bird sanctuary

The October evening we reached Bharatpur last year there was a little nip in the air. We rested the night at Hotel Sangam, one amidst the rows of affordable and neat hotels near the Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary. “Jats have originated from Bharatpur,” Shiv Singh Sikarwar, owner of Hotel Sangam, told me as I chatted him up after checking in. “This is the Eastern Gateway to Rajasthan and was founded by Maharaja Suraj Mal. His scions still live in the city palace Moti Mahal. The British could never occupy Bharatpur and so it is also known as Lohgarh or the Iron Fort.”

There are many such other legends associated with the place, but what the sleepy town is best known for is of course the Bird Sanctuary, where we planted ourselves early next morning. I was only too happy to see bicycles and cycle rickshaws available for visitors. Booking a cycle each for myself and the husband, I put my seven-month old daughter in the safe hands of my father as he got onto a cycle rickshaw.

The cycle rickshaw puller, who took my father and daughter around, turned out no less than an official guide. He appeared quite the ornithologist too, at least as regards the birds seen in the sanctuary. He told us, “Ninety percent of migratory birds from outside India are ‘vegetarians’ while ninety percent of the local and other Indian migratory birds are ‘non-vegetarians’!”

Ishwar Singh, an official guide since 1987, added, “This sanctuary was earlier called Ghana (Dense) Park, developed for duck shooting by the Jat Maharajas of Bharatpur. In 1956, the forest department renamed it as Ghana Bird Sanctuary and opened it for tourists. It was upgraded into Keoladeo National Park in 1981.” The name “Keoladeo”, as Singh said, came from the Shiva temple discovered at the centre of the Park. “Keoladeo is another name of Lord Shiva.”    

As we cycled through the beautiful Park with water bodies on both sides, trees reflecting themselves on still waters, we spotted quite a few fascinating birds. There were plenty of Painted Storks who, Singh informed, “Come from South India for breeding during January-February. The little ones make a lot of noise. But when they grow up, they lose their voice and become dumb.” There were Black Cormorants too who “also come from South India and have some inherent oil that prevents their wings from getting wet while in water.” We saw many Snake Birds or as Singh said, “The Indian darters whose necks give the impression of snakes while in water; and so the name.” We spotted a couple of White Ibis (Egypt’s national bird) and the Paddy Bird or the Pond Heron that is grey while resting on a perch but turns white in flight.

The Park has three major habitats – woodlands, grasslands (Savanah) and wetlands; the wetlands comprising about half of the ecosystem. It is supposed to be Asia’s largest marshy land. “It is a World Heritage Site, host to several North-to-South migratory birds; most famous for the Siberian migratory birds,” Singh lets us know. “The Siberian birds come with their little ones, showing them the route, teaching them to read the positions of the moon and stars.” And apparently, if one believes what Singh shared, “There is a variety of Siberian crane of which only one pair survives in the whole wide world. They come to Bharatpur.”

“In 1935 the great ornithologist Salim Ali came to Bharatpur and started the process of putting rings on Siberian birds for identification and numbering,” informed Singh as we cycled past the Dr. Salim Ali Interpretation Centre. “This centre was opened in his memory in 2006.” The Park, however, had fallen into a sorry state in the last five-six years. “There was no water and the migratory birds had stopped coming. This had turned the status of the Park precarious. The government finally woke up and is now ensuring unlimited water supply.”   

Besides birds, there are pythons, deers, antelopes and various other reptiles in the Park. It once also had a tiger, briefly though. Singh related this tale to us. “A male tiger escaped from Ranathambore last October and came to Keoladeo. You couldn’t cycle around like this then. After a lot of failed attempts at capturing it, the authorities taped a female tiger’s voice and played it at the Savanah grasslands where it made its home. Hearing the voice, it came out in the open and was finally captured. That is how it was taken back to Ranathambore this February.”     

The whole day went by as we cycled around and halted every now and then to spot some species of an animal, bird, reptile or plant. I was like some Alice in wonderland! Wonderland because all that I saw and experienced was far removed from the kind of existence I otherwise find myself in the city. The high point of course was the natural splendor and the freedom to cycle around, free from traffic and pollution woes.

Juanita Kakoty is a freelance writer and journalist based in New Delhi. She writes regularly on art, culture, travel and people for Deccan Herald. Her stories have also been published in India Today and The Assam Tribune. She holds an M.Phil degree in Sociology from JNU and taught the subject at Gauhati University and Jamia Milia Islamia University before doing projects with the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and a European Union consortium on ICTs for Development. At present, she is taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Bimbavati Devi, Manipuri Dance (Deccan Herald, 2 April 2013)

Manipuri, a forgotten art

Juanita Kakoty, June 2, 2013, DHNS:
Passion for dance
She might have been born and brought up in Kolkata, but Bimbavati Devi’s heart lies in Manipur. Young and extremely talented, taking Manipuri dance to new levels, Bimbavati Devi is the daughter of legends Guru Bipin Singh and Kalavati Devi.

“My father’s work is pioneering because he incorporated movements from Cholom (a style that is graceful and acrobatic at the same time) and drew greatly from the Shastras. He thus added a lot of colour to the dance form, while keeping the traditional aesthetics intact.” Bimbavati Devi is taking his gharana forward as a solo performing artiste of Manipuri Nartanalaya, one of the foremost institutions of Manipuri dance in India, which was founded in 1972 by her parents and the celebrated Jhaveri sisters.

“My father always believed that to be a Manipuri dancer, one should know how to play the Pung (traditional Manipuri hand-beaten drum).” It is not surprising, therefore, that Bimbavati has been groomed to play the Pung and that she has also undergone training in the basics of Thang Ta (Manipuri martial art). An excerpt from the website of Manipuri Nartanalaya reveals, “Never the one to be rigidly guided by the gender divide in Manipuri (dance), which reserves the softer Ras dances for the female performers, while male performers rendered the leaps and jumps and cart wheeling of the Cholom dances, he (Guru Bipin Singh) taught both types of movements to his female disciples. He also made the girls learn how to play the Pung...”

Taking baby steps

Speaking about her initiation into the world of dance and music, Bimbavati Devi says, “It’s almost like I could see the dance happening all around me even when I was in my mother’s womb!” Yet, she admits, she had a very simple upbringing, where dance was treated like an integral aspect of normal existence. And indeed, dance and music are an integral part of the Manipuri way of life, with roots in the religion of the land.

“My father used to pamper me,” Bimbavati Devi reminisces, “But my mother was strict about my classes and training. I am where I am today because of their blessings and the discipline that my mother imposed.” Guru Bipin Singh passed away in 2000, leaving a legacy behind him. Kalavati Devi is in her sixties and still going strong. She is one of the directors of Manipuri Nartanalaya and heads the department of Manipuri Dance at Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata.

With numerous ballets and accolades to her credit, Bimbavati Devi has always tried to experiment with new idioms that expand the vocabulary of movement in Manipuri dance. At the moment, though, she claims, “I am going back to my roots, choreographing ballets very much Meitei in character; and concentrating on compositions by my father, on which not much work has been done.” Like her recent production Leichan (collection of flowers), staged at India International Centre, New Delhi. “It consisted of four different pieces based on the festival dances of Manipur. I have choreographed the pieces along with the rituals associated with the festivals. And the effort, again, has been to engage with the Meitei character.”

Her upcoming production has been titled Devatmayee (The Soul of the Gods), which, she tells me, “is rooted in the Aryan and non-Aryan aspects of Manipuri culture. It is about the ancient Manipuri concept of mother goddess, as contrasted with the mythological Vedic interpretation of the God Mother. It is about how her identification is a matter of speculation — both Vedic and archaic; and how her divinity is derived from the Puranas as well as the local folklores.” She is working on it with young Sanskrit scholar Srijan Chatterjee, who is also a Hindustani classical vocalist; and acclaimed musician N Tiken Singh has composed the music.

Bimbavati Devi says, “When one sees a performance, from top to bottom, it should look Manipuri. Be it the dress or the movements,” and emphasises that “one movement should merge with another, without a break. This is how this dance is different from all other classical dance forms.”

“Luckily,” she says of the place that is home, “in Kolkata, there is a lot of appreciation for Manipuri dance since Rabindranath Tagore was fond of this dance form, and brought it from the temple courtyards of Manipur to the outside world.” But with time, she feels that people are displaying set ideas about it, ignorant about the movements and essence it contains.   

Bimbavati Devi closes the conversation with a sentiment that lingers, “Manipuri dance has its own identity. Awareness about its essence is missing. I am struggling to bring to people the grammar and possibilities within the dance form.”

Saturday, 1 June 2013

My opinion piece on how Delhi treats its women, especially women from the northeast for The Thumbprint, 1 June 2013

The Thumbprint (

Unfriendly City

JUANITA KAKOTY observes a particular unfairness of Delhites towards people of the northeast, especially women

India’s capital city is putting up a very bad case. Reingamphi Awungshi, a 21 year old girl from the Northeast, was found dead in Delhi on May 29 and the police has casually dismissed it as suicide or in case of an assault, the nature of her work responsible. The city’s favorite rhetoric about northeastern women’s dressing sense attracting untoward attention has now been supplemented with an emerging logic – “girls from northeast work in spas and that’s why these incidents happen”.

If that is the case, then what of the young woman pursuing Masters in Jamia Milia Islamia waylaid and molested by a group of school boys while she was returning home from the University in 2009? What of the medical student gang-raped in a moving bus in December 2012? What of the rape and murder of an eight year old tribal girl at Mahipalpur in 2009 or the rape of a five year old in April 2013? Does the city hold these girls responsible as well? There can be no protection of the assailant under the pretext of the victim’s dress or work! A crime is a crime; and it is the crime that has to be addressed not the individual details of the victim with suppositions that the details might have caused the crime in the first place.

When we are talking about violence physically or through words against women, this violence should be seen as a crime. And if Delhi has had a bad track record vis-à-vis crime against women, then it better pull up its socks. Legal affirmative action is required to make the city safer for women, but most of all, the urgency lies in changing mindsets. Society should learn to respect women.

A couple of years ago, as university students, we were asked to conduct field studies in the nearby Munirka village as a part of our coursework. We visited households in groups and noticed that the womenfolk of the house would serve water to the male researchers first then to the men of their family and finally to the women researchers. The primary socialization of those we met appalled us, especially the women researchers who held equal qualifications as their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, India’s capital city does nurture a bias against women even though it can boast of several high-rung female professionals and gender activists who are an inspiration the nation-over. And sadly, in over 15 years in Delhi, I have observed a particular unfairness towards people of the northeast, especially women. And I can only think of apathy as the root of this unfairness.

Only last year, I had accompanied a singer friend of mine, who along with her sisters have brought Naga folk music to a national and international audience, to one of their performances in Delhi. They are beautiful Naga girls doing great music, but I was shocked to see how, in the midst of the appreciating audience, there were a few distinguished souls who exchanged mocking looks at each other. They of course didn’t get the music; but the sad part was, they didn’t even try. It wasn’t mainstream, and therefore, Greek Latin Hebrew etc. to them even though people say music has no language!    

I have often been mistaken for a Malaysian or a Nepalese (and I take that as a compliment because I find them very pretty) but when a woman from Old Delhi at a friend’s place claimed what my staple diet was, her ignorance stunned me. “So you are from Assam?” she said, “Do you eat roti?” “Yes, we do,” I replied, “Not always though.” “Yes yes,” she said, “Like how we have your Chinese noodles and soups once in a while.” But what shocked me further was her sermon on how women from the northeast wear “revealing” clothes and seduce rich north Indian men! It was a different matter that she didn’t marry any of her boyfriends and settled for an arranged match, as my friend later informed, but she had a whole lot to say about how “liberal” northeastern women were.

It turned out Delhi Police did not have a much different perspective. They brought out a booklet in 2007 titled “Security tips for Northeast students/visitors in Delhi”. It is supposed to be in the interest of northeastern women’s safety and includes security tips like “revealing dress to be avoided”, “avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily”, “dress according to sensitivity of the local population”, etc. With such security tips and rapes of minors still happening in the city, you might wonder, where did the police go wrong! The booklet also mentions, “Bamboo shoot, Akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”.

If this is not apathy, then what is? And, to come back to Reingamphi Awungshi, if you think northeastern women working in spas make a good case for assault then you need to be condemned for the respect you lack for a woman seeking her own livelihood.  

Juanita Kakoty is a freelance writer and journalist based in New Delhi. She writes regularly on art, culture, travel and people for Deccan Herald. Her stories have also been published in India Todayand The Assam Tribune. She holds an M.Phil degree in Sociology from JNU and taught the subject at Gauhati University and Jamia Milia Islamia University before doing projects with the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex and a European Union consortium on ICTs for Development. At present, she is taking a break from academics and concentrating on feature stories and photo-documentation.

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...