Monday, 28 October 2013

Dastangoi at IHC and Studio Safdar (26 and 27 Oct 2013)

When evenings merged with tales, trickery and magic

At about 4:30 pm, a crisis of sorts hit our home as Nadeem got a phone call from his 'Ustaad' Danish Husain. Nadeem and Manu (Manu Sikandar Dhingra) were performing at India Habitat Center (IHC) on Saturday, 26 Oct 2013. The two of them have been 'dastangoi partners' so far, growing as a performing pair with the years. The evening was set for Saturday and everything was going as usual when that phone call tossed up a mild storm (it could very well have been a great storm for Nadeem) as Danish announced that Manu couldn't make it for something urgent had come up. And that, Nadeem will now perform with Danish. I was stumped. Can't say what was going on in Nadeem's mind though. Danish is a giant in the field of theatre and dastangoi, one of the Ustaads along with the revivalist of this art form, Mahmood Farooqui. It's like an amateur been told that she is to play Steffi Graff!

Besides, Nadeem and Danish have never rehearsed together, forget about performing together. The guys had just an hour to go through their lines and determine who would deal with which portions of the text. I was nervous. But once they took the stage, they kept the audience so engrossed! And I knew why masters are masters. Danish was excellent. He kept the audience in splits with his wit; and the short notice could not jolt the performer that he is, although he was supposed to have been partying with friends only a few hours ago before he was called to save the situation. And I must confess, really, that Nadeem was a good support. They gave was two wonderful sessions of storytelling from the magnum opus 'Tilism Hoshruba', the world's first and longest magical fantasy.

It was an evening well spent. The show was organised as part of India Habitat Centre's celebration of Indian languages.     

Nadeem Shah and Danish Husain at IHC, 26 Oct 2013. Photo Credit: Nicky Chandam

Dastangoi at Studio Safdar yesterday (27 Oct 2013) was another experience altogether. Nadeem and Manu did one story, and I was attending their performance after a long time. I realised that they have really come a long way as a pair. Nadeem is finally beginning to do justice to the fact that he performs with a seasoned actor like Manu. There were two other stories that were being performed by Fouzia and Valentina. The young Fouzia is the first female dastango ever and Valentina made her debut yesterday. They were fantastic. I was overwhelmed because two women were performing and they were so good! Their storytelling held such power over their audience that it was empowering for me, and I am sure for many other females in the audience. 

Powerful performance by Fouzia and Valentina. Superb debut by Valentina. Studio Safdar, 27 Oct 2013

Fouzia and Valentina after the performance. Studio Safdar, 27 Oct 2013.

Zaara with Fouzia, the first female dastango.

Nadeem Shah and Manu Sikandar Dhingra. An engrossing performance. Studio Safdar, 27 Oct 2013.

This is how my daughter Zaara kept busy as her father performed. Seen here with another female dastango Poonam (who wasn't performing that day)

Eating samosas :)

"The word Dastangoi refers to the art of storytelling, it is a compound of two Persian words Dastan and goi which means to tell a Dastan. Dastans were epics, often oral in nature, which were recited or read aloud and in essence were like medieval romances everywhere. Telling tales of adventure, magic and warfare, Dastans mapped new worlds and horizons, encountered the unseen and protected the hero through many travails and lovers as he moved on his quest. The hero’s adventures could sometimes parallel the mystic quest, at other times the story narrated a purely profane tale. In the process of telling the story the narrators freely borrowed tropes and themes from other stories, thus it was that Rumi’s Masnavi and Arabian Nights both came to contain many stories from the Panchtantra tradition. While Dastans had many principals and many stories, the story of Hamza began to stand out early on." - Text  by Mahmood Farooqui (Source:  

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

My latest short story published by Writers Asylum (24 Oct 2013)

My latest short story 'Amma and her kothi at Shaheen Bagh' has been published by Writers Asylum. You can read the story at

An excerpt from the short story:

"Amma was killed when she stepped out of the bathroom. It was one sultry June afternoon and her cries, when stabbed by her assailant, cut through the tormenting heat, piercing it with its oppressive shrill. A deathly silence followed for a few brief seconds then another round of cries rung out in the air. Two more people were killed after her. The maid and the cook, who came running at the sound of their mistress’s distress, met a similar ghastly fate. By the time neighbors mustered courage to enter the kothi, the assailant had well disappeared with the weapon of crime.

It has been two years since and even today the mention of that ominous afternoon sends shivers down the spines of Shaheen Bagh residents, more so of those who live inThokar 8 in the vicinity of that kothi which has long been razed to the ground. In its place now stands a building where about ten families live in separate flats, like all those apartments around it, set upon narrow lanes, glued to each other and jostling for space."

Empowering women through sports

This is straight from a sportsperson's mouth (yes, that's me even though I gave up competitive sports in 1997, but the 'sportsperson' spirit in me is still alive and will always be I reckon): It was great to participate at the session 'Harnessing Women's Potential in Sports' in the ongoing TURF 2013, the 5th Global Sports Summit and India Sports Awards, organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). The session got over about an hour ago and I am writing this even while the Awards ceremony is taking place perhaps.

I was excited to see the esteemed speakers: International marathon champion of the 1990s, Sunita Godara; Vice President of Women's Hockey Federation, New Zealand, Penny Simonds; Franz Gastler whose work around girls' development in Jharkhand through football is celebrated news in recent times; and Indu Puri, a former table tennis champion, somebody who was a role model along with the likes of Monalisa Baruah Mehta when we were playing table tennis as girls.
The session took me back to my years as a table tennis player in the 1990s: the heady feeling of  being Assam state champion, winning medals at the national level, being a female sportsperson and all the opportunities and challenges that I faced as a female sportsperson. It made me remember my friends too  (across all levels - district, state, national and international players), especially my female friends, and our course of life somehow influencing the kind of sportsperson and individuals we grew to become. And how the social conditions we grew up in helped us achieve whatever we could in the field of sports. We must confess that we were extremely lucky to have parents who supported us and encouraged us to engage in sports, all kinds. They did not think of it as a waste of their money. Or as a waste of our time.

But most importantly, the session made me reflect, yet again, how sports has immensely contributed to building confidence in me and my friends; has given me skills like concentration, focus, and determination that come handy in all that I do even today; has taught me that hard work can be fun; and has given me friends whom I will always cherish. But then, the picture stops being rosy right there because we all know that India still needs to perform much better in the international scene, has to spruce up its sports infrastructure and institutions, and play the right kind of politics that will do more benefit than harm to the sportsperson and to sports in general. These were some of the issues discussed in today's session. Here, I seek to take up the rest of the narration through a photo-essay.

Sunita Godara, former international marathon champion, said she's 54 years old and still actively involved with sports. She organizes 'runs' and takes great pride in her Taekwondo academy for slum girls. She raised important points like acknowledging and giving recognition to sports so that a mindset favorably disposed towards sports develop in the country. She also spoke of tapping youngsters at the school, district and state levels by highlighting role models, especially local role models whom they would know and identify with. There is also the need to break myths associated with sports, she said, like how girls will become masculine with sports, that they would lose their virginity with hymen rupture, etc. And this, she suggested, could be done only by sensitizing people, sensitizing the parents. She also made a good case for involving women at the top levels of sports administration in the country.

Penny Simonds spoke of sports and women in New Zealand and how India and New Zealand could get into partnership for harnessing potential. It was interesting to hear her speak about how she continues her association with sports, although she no longer plays professional hockey, and how she is like this "duck" (in her words) running around with her kids and their friends trailing behind her. She said, it is important for mothers to stay involved with sports and encourage their daughters to do the same. I liked the point she made about having sportswomen as role models in media other than the actors, because they are definitely more healthy and it would do a lot of good to have them as role models for young girls. Speaking about broadening the base of women involvement in sports, it can be done through sport activities in family, offices, schools, etc., she said, because sports together is great bonding time too. Simonds also talked about having more female coaches, sports administrators, and more all women sports academies.      

It was inspiring to hear Franz Gastler talk about how he has brought together sports and development of the girl child in Jharkhand, a, place, he said, he heard of as notorious for the high instances of child marriage and girl trafficking when he came to India 5 years ago. He spoke of his successful experiment and showed the gathering a video on the work he is doing. On why he chose football as the sport although he never was a football player, rather an ice hockey player, he said: "Football provides a safe space and a large space too for groups". In his words, "Sports program should be a springboard for development and empowerment".  
This is a shot I took of Franz's video. Here we see his girls having fun in the field. It was interesting to hear the girls talk about how empowered they feel and their experiences in general in the video.

Former table tennis champion, Indu Puri spoke of how sports help build confidence; and how it is important to sensitize parents to enable their girl child to go to distant places and play tournaments. She spoke of how sports is empowering and can be seen as a long term engagement because sportspeople, even those who have played only district level, can find employment trough sports quota in government and semi-government offices and organisations.
 Sujit Panigrahi was the moderator of the session.
And here I am, posing at the venue :)

SPECIAL NOTE:Thank you Blogmint (, India’s first and only paid bloggers network and the online media partner for FICCI’s TURF 2013, for having me there for the LIVE Blogging experience at TURF 2013! I had much fun. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Raghu Dixit and his music (Deccan Herald, 20 Oct 2013)

Return to the roots

Oct 20, 2013 :

Folk fixation: Bangalore-based musician Raghu Dixit.

Multi-talented artiste, Raghu Dixit is known for his unconventional music. From composing music for theatre productions to being a crowd-puller at top musical events, the singer speaks to Juanita Kakoty about his journey.Bangalore’s very own quirky musician who is known for his traditionally unorthodox attire (bright-coloured dhotis and shirts) and his folksy tunes, Raghu Dixit needs no introduction. Having composed eclectic songs that transcend genres, Raghu is admired for making music that he truely believes in and harks back to his roots.

Raghu is a singer, songwriter, producer and film score composer. A gold medalist in Microbiology (Master’s) and proficient in Bharatanatyam, Raghu is known more for his musical compositions. He is the founder-front man of his band The Raghu Dixit Project and Antaragni (which disbanded in 2004). As the founder-front man of his bands, Raghu has performed in hundreds of concerts all over India. The Raghu Dixit Project launched its debut album Antaragni: The Fire Within in 2008, which was well received.

Raghu is a self-taught musician. “I started with Indian classical dance,” he says, “And went on to play the guitar after a college-mate of mine placed a bet that I couldn’t learn the guitar in two songs. What started as my attempt to win that bet, became everything for me. I loved the feeling of being able to just sing and make music. From there on, it has been one long roller-coaster journey.”

Language no bar

Speaking about his multi-lingual folk band, Raghu says, “The Raghu Dixit Project is an amalgamation of musicians and artistes that I really want to work with to perform my music live. As any musician or composer will tell you, there is nothing better than performing your music to an audience, and I do that through The Raghu Dixit Project.”

And about creating multi-lingual compositions, Raghu says, “I don’t think I do this consciously. I am comfortable with singing in Kannada, my mother tongue and Hindi, our national language, and I sing in both these languages. Recently, I wrote my first Tamil song, and I love how it has turned out. I would definitely love to write and sing in as many languages as I can. It’s amazing to see audiences around the world respond positively to my music. I have seen people, regardless of age or gender or race or language, enjoy the music the band plays, and I’ve seen this in different corners of the world. I just want to continue making music that I think is the best I can do, and hope the audience continues to love it.”

Raghu confesses, “I have only worked with folk lyrics, stories and ideas. The music is original and composed by me. Even when I work on a classic folk song, I only use the lyrics and the essence of the song, and compose a new melody and musical arrangement for it. My biggest inspiration has been the folk music and tradition of Karnataka, and I have tried a variety of things with it, as you will see in the songs on my upcoming album.”
Apart from his albums and live performances, Raghu has also produced music for contemporary dance and theatre productions like the Indian contemporary dance group Nritarutya and Girish Karnad’s Hayavadana and Black Coffee’s Body Catcher, which brought him critical acclaim as a composer for theatre productions.

On performing live

Speaking about his recent performance at the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, Raghu says, “Bacardi NH7 Weekender is one of the biggest music festivals around today. Not just biggest in scale, but also in terms of quality right from the days they had teething problems to this date as an established professional event.” The Raghu Dixit Project and Lagori performed at the recently concluded Bacardi Weekender event to build awareness and hype for the Bacardi NH7 Weekender 2013 music festival. “Next, we are playing in New Delhi on 13 September,” informs Raghu.

“We have been associated with Bacardi Weekender for the last four years now, ever since it started,” he says, talking about his association with Bacardi NH7 Weekender adding, “And we have played at several venues so far: Pune, Delhi, and this year, they have added another venue — Kolkata. It’s almost like we have become the mascots for the event.”

Referring to the recent performance in Bangalore, Raghu says, “It was a huge collaborative event with musicians from all over Karnataka coming together.” 
On a concluding note, Raghu adds, “I think the folk music scene in India is finally getting a much needed boost. A lot of people have started discovering a wide variety of folk music from India because of the different people who are working with it and interpreting it differently. As Indians, we have always had a soft corner for our folk music, and with so many people working on making it accessible in a contemporary way, I think our folk music is in a really good place now.”

Saturday, 12 October 2013

the air still smells of Durga Puja

The air still smells of Durga Puja, but so much has changed. Every year I wait for October, to smell the fragrance in the air. I wait for it brings back memories from my childhood. And somehow, the magic of Durga Puja seems to have frozen with my memories. Mostly because for about 15 years now, I have been celebrating Durga Puja in Delhi. And celebrations here have never been able to come close to the memories that I hold. I am not too sure how Durga Puja is in Assam these days. A few years back, I was there at home in Guwahati one fortunate October and the scale of Durga Puja struck me and scared me at the same time. But there were still a few wonderful puja pandals - where the throng of people did not suffocate; there was the festive cheer, the balloons, the pistols, and the oh-so-yummy-DurgaPuja-jalebis!!! The puja spirit rung in the air. Not like here in Delhi, where Puja means only CR Park and the rest of the city goes on as usual!!!   

I remember Durga Puja in my grandparents' place in Golaghat, a small town where everybody knew everybody. "Aren't you Bodu's daughter? When did you come?" people would ask me when they saw me walking or cycling on the streets. "Aren't you the spitting image of your father!" they would say and that's how I would know they knew me even if we had never met before. In the evenings, my aunt (whom everybody knew because she was the only lady branch manager of a bank in Assam those days and her interviews had appeared on newspapers) would walk us to the town centre where the Puja celebrations would happen. The whole place used to be full of people, baloons, masks, pistols, and lines of shops on both sides selling fancy clothes, accessories and jalebis! The air smelt of jalebis and crackled with toy pistols. That's Durga Puja for me even today. Jalebis and toy pistols. We never got anywhere near the Goddess though. We saw her only from a distance. Evenings were utter madness around the pandals. People pressed against each other, shouting and screaming at one another yet offering heartfelt prayers to the Goddess, a technique that went hand-in-hand.
Having looked at the magnificent idol of the Goddess and the demon, we would make our way back to the house. On the way, aunt would ask me and my brother to choose some gift for ourselves. I always chose one of those bright absurdly fancy frilled frocks hanging somewhere in the lines of shops around the puja pandal: a Durga Puja Special! Brother would also select some similar absurdly fancy stuff for himself, depicting something that we must have seen our screen heroes and heroines wear in the movies. And then we would buy masks. When I was small, I used to buy masks of animals. But as I grew older, I preferred the pretty face-of-a-woman masks. And in them, I felt that I really was that pretty woman whose face people saw on me. I guess it's nothing to psyche out about, most children that age do things like that :)    

Later, when we shifted to Guwahati, and somehow took to spending our Puja vacations in Guwahati, the puja pandal at Lakhi Mandir close to our home used to be the major attraction. After tea and jalebis at home, we would walk down to the pandal, dad leading the way. During the late 1990s, I am a bit confused when exactly, Beltola puja, right at the mouth of our lane, came up in a big way. We could no longer think about taking our cars out in the evenings then. There used to be a sea of people moving like waves all over! And the focus shifted from just the Goddess and the Demon to the entire architecture of the pandal. So a movement started, and it continues up till today, of fabulous pandal decorations. After Titanic swept people off their feet on screen, they did so on the stage too during Durga Puja. The Goddess that year came on a ship, the titanic to be precise. People went berserk with pandal decoration and that brought in a whole new ecstatic fervor with Durga Puja. Speaking of my generation, innovation started with the Goddess and the demon moving: a movement of the eye, the neck, the limbs etc. with every progressive year. And then innovation graduated to the level of the pandal, lavish wealth spent on creating them. At a time when poverty is discussed and debated, you would wonder why is this wealth being wasted in decorations. That's all fine. It's serving some purpose which is why it is happening perhaps. But to reflect back, I would say, bring back the days of my childhood any day when Durga Puja meant jalebis, toy pistols, masks, new clothes, joy in the air, and walking to the pandal with family, passing by lines of shops selling absurdly fancy stuff. Just that.   

Monday, 7 October 2013

an outsider-turned-insider's perspective: living in a Muslim neighborhood. Part One.

(The Book Review, Volume XXXVII No. 10 - OCTOBER 2013) 

A Human Interest Tale

Juanita Kakoty

I must confess that the sight of a ghetto, particularly one with a Muslim core, used to stir emotions in me not too comfortable stemming from the obvious fear associated with the ‘other’. This fear was difficult to explain because all my life I had never ever been directly confronted by a Muslim; but the fear struck when I would see somebody performing the namaaz, men in beard dressed in white and a skull cap, the sight of black masses beneath which I understood were women. All this evoked a fear that even bordered on irritation.

I, like many, suffered from this inexplicable fear. Just the sight of the burqa, surma in men’s eyes, the black thread with an amulet sticking to the throat etc. roused that fear although I had some closest friends who were Muslims. Somehow they just didn’t seem “Muslim”. I still remember an incident from my graduation days. My close friend Shahida Hussain had got chicken pickle from home and all of us were devouring it. During the feast I said that I had only once before eaten chicken pickle, to which she replied, “At some Muslim’s place undoubtedly!” And quick came the reply from me, “No, at an Assamese’s place.” I still remember the look she gave me and what she said thereafter, “Aren’t Muslims Assamese?” That look and query haunted me for a long time.

I understood this fear as a “social construction” only during my Master’s in the university: A fear constructed by the media, by people who nurture that the good of one’s religion can be best highlighted by maligning the other religion, that the goodness in oneself can be pronounced only by demonizing the “other”. Hence, I value university education a lot. It taught me that fears emerge from creating distances, physically and in the mind too, from those who are not like us. And then, in time, I married a Muslim and with that traces of fear about the “other” even at the sub-conscious level vanished. As I interacted more with my husband’s family and people from his community, I got used to seeing women in the hijab and burqa and it stopped seeming strange any more. Salaam Aleikum, Khuda Hafiz, inshAllah were words that began to feature in my life regularly along with Namaste, Bhagvan etc. and they ceased to terrify me. The “other” became so regular and ordinary for me that I stopped taking notice.

About a year ago, my husband and I acquired an apartment in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area, a Muslim neighborhood close to Jamia Milia Islamia. A few of my non-Muslim friends and family members were apprehensive about this move. But as they frequented us, their perspectives changed and this is what they have to tell me now, “What lovely neighbors you have! Where in the whole of Delhi would you get neighbors so helpful and concerned?” And it’s true. As we moved into the house, with our four month old daughter, my neighbors paid us a visit. They even sent us food. Food, interestingly, is how we bond in this neighborhood. There is a regular flow of food into my house and I send food too to my neighbors; be it Eid or any other day, whenever somebody cooks some special dish, a portion is sent across to the neighbors. There is a great sense of satisfaction and bonhomie in it. My neighbors, like my in-laws, know that I am a Hindu and accept me for who I am, what I am. And I respect them for this.

Some of my neighbors are the early residents of Shaheen Bagh. They preserve the oral history of the neighborhood. I seek, here, to construct the past of the area with the help of their narratives. Shaheen Bagh is a neighborhood along the banks of the river Yamuna at Jamia Nagar, Okhla in South Delhi. On the other side of the Yamuna lies the city of Noida. Rashida Baji, a resident, tells me, “Shaheen Bagh comes under Abul Fazal Enclave Part Two. It stretches from Thokar (lane) No. 6 to Thokar (lane) No. 9. The area is in Delhi but the road by the Yamuna belongs to the government of Uttar Pradesh just like the park at Thokar No. 9.”

Munni Baji (Faizun Nisa), 45 years old, came here in 1996. “There must have been about 50 houses only in the whole of Shaheen Bagh when I came. People used to come here from Jasola to cut grasses. This whole area was used for cultivation,” she tells me. “And at Thokar No. 7, where our house is, there were about 3 – 4 houses in all and lots of water and big grasses all around. Around that time, land rates were very low, at 1.5 lakhs for 150 Gaz. That’s the rate at which we had bought our plot of land.” Today, land is no longer available here and the real estate business is going strong. 

“Shaheen Bagh was much below the water level and was always inundated with floods. We filled our plot with earth up to 7 feet before building the house. Even now we need to fill the plot with about 5 feet of earth more to come up to the street level,” continues Munni Baji as we enter her house from the street and go down a few stairs from the main gate towards her courtyard that has pomegranate and mango trees besides other shrubs.

There are interesting anecdotes to share too. Rashida Baji and Munni Baji, who have grown as thick as sisters over the years, run their tailoring business from a room at one corner of the latter’s courtyard. Sitting there, Munni Baji narrates, “Till 1997, there was no electricity in Shaheen Bagh. My husband and a neighbor got some wire bundles and bamboo poles and set up electricity lines illegally from Abul Fazal Part One till our house. We had to pay a fine of Rs 12,000 for this when a raid happened. It was in 2005-6 that electricity was legalized in this area.”

Times have changed. Today, there are buildings all around and only a very few like Munni Baji have resisted the temptation to cash in on the real estate boom. They still maintain their house the way it was, with the courtyard. But, Munni Baji reminisces, “The earth used to be more fertile those days.”

Rashida Sameer, 36 years old, came to Shaheen Bagh in 2002. She recollects, “There were houses then, no flats. I could then see the Yamuna from my house at the ground floor. Slowly, a second-hand furniture market came up here and the density of population increased. There were many mosquitoes too at that time, because there was no drainage for water. It is since 2009 that facilities like drainage, installation of sewers and converting ‘kuccha’ road to ‘pucca’ road happened.”   

Rasheeda Sameer continues, “Till 2003-4, the Yamuna used to be filled with migratory birds. That changed and the birds suddenly stopped coming. I see a few birds this year again (end of 2012). That’s a good sign.” Shaheen Bagh overlooks the Okhla Bird sanctuary. It pains me to see how a neighborhood by the river, overlooking a bird sanctuary, has the potential to look good but no efforts have been undertaken towards that end.  

I often go to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary and the nearby park at Thokar No. 9 with my female neighbors dressed in the burqa. The burqa is no hindrance to how we connect or how much fun we have when together. They follow their religion and I mine. It’s not religion that binds us. Or maybe it is. Because it is only those most comfortable with their own religion and identity who can respect that of another.

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...