Month: April 2020

The Eternal Traveller

I am a traveller. I travel forward and backwards, to the future and the past, while I try to grapple the present. Yes, I live in the present too, very much so, embracing it, trying to make sense of it at times. From my present, I take nostalgic trips to my past, for my past made my present. My present wanders into the future, at times dreamily, at times with trepidations, for one day the present will melt into the future. And what will that future be? What will that future hold?

The eternal traveller in me, living in the present, is sometimes torn between the past and the future. Don’t get me wrong, I am as excited about the future as anyone else, a future where technology has merged all boundaries, a future that promises trips to the outer space. Exhilarated times we live in that is marching forward so fast, with the so much conviction. Looking ahead with my head held high, as I stride into the glorious possibilities, my past somehow slipped away. The journeys to the days gone by became rarer and rarer, a distant memory that seemed to have been lived by another me, a different me!

Probably, in all of us, there’s an eternal traveller like me. A traveller who has been so blinded by the prospects that the future may hold, that the limitations were completely forgotten and overlooked. The cost that we have been paying seemed but a small price as we willingly, happily let our present melt into the future, away from the past. So engrossed were we with the marvels of AI that we forgot the charm of a good conversation. The virtual world seemed so enticing that we took the real world for granted.

Most of all, we forgot those songs that we sang under the mango tree, as we swayed on a makeshift swing made out an old tyre, on her enduring branches.  We forgot the Bakul tree with her fragrant flowers next to the gate that was mercilessly chopped to make room for the new house. We moved away from nature, cleared forests and endangered the wild, our factories pollute the air with harmful gases. For we want fancy cars, hi-tech phones and flashy clothes more than clean air to breathe in. Our concrete jungle feels safer than the cool shadow of the forest. We arrogantly believed that the world has been created just for us and we could do what we please, kill and chop, make and break to clear the way for our march to the future.

Of course, we talked about climate change. So much money has been spent on those climate change conferences, world leaders deliberated upon the grave issue but did little. Nature hit back in her fury to put the puny humans in their place. There were tsunamis, forests fires, volcanos and earthquakes that killed many, damaged and ravaged our properties, our land. Yet, we refused to learn.

Then came a tiny virus that brought our lives to a standstill. The march to the future came to a sudden halt. We were kept locked up in our homes like wild animals we keep in the zoo. There’s uncertainty and confusion all around as we try to figure ways to counter this virus. Of course, technology has come to our aid. Social media and the virtual world have us helped stay connected in these unusual times. Limitations of the technology also glare at us now, as we long for the human touch.

As we stay locked in, nature has heals. The air is clean, the grass is green, the sky is blue and the rivers flow merrily into the sea. When I look up at the starlit sky at night, I remember the girl sitting on her terrace trying to catch the falling stars.

All it took was for a virus to endanger humans, for the world and all the other life forms in it to flourish!

As we halt, with nowhere to go, it’s time for us to ponder, to look back, to introspect, learn lessons from our past before we rush ahead. Will this virus change us for good? Will we finally learn to care for our planet and nurture the environment in which we thrive? Only time will tell.

Mandi House Complex by Chandana Dutta

The resounding clash of the cymbals competes powerfully with the chaotic flutter of flaming orange across the stage. The darkened hall does not betray its audience, mesmerised and silent. This is the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi, one of the city’s most popular proscenium spaces. The ongoing dance-drama in Manipuri, directed by the renowned Ratan Thiyam, is about to conclude.

Doordarshan Bhawan. Photo courtesy Amar Ujala

This is just another day in the environs of what is popularly known as the Mandi House Circle. It takes its name from the building that houses what was once India’s only television network, the state-owned Doordarshan. Easily one of the busiest traffic roundabouts in the heart of New Delhi, its hustle and bustle comes not only from the continuous flow of traffic and humanity that passes through its seven radials but also from the intense enriching activity that the several pioneering cultural institutions housed along its wide tree-lined avenues engage in. In fact, it derives its unique character from the masses of hungry readers, writers, artists, students, connoisseurs and the like who participate in and contribute to this very vibrant artistic and cultural macrocosm of India.

The Mandi House area was specifically earmarked as a socio-cultural space when the initial master plan was being designed for a new capital of India. It has lived up to the expectations of its planners by promoting our unique national essence in the constant research, dialogue and exchange that take place between our languages, literatures, art forms and practitioners.

Sahitya Akademi.
Photo courtesy LBB

The three national akademies – the Sahitya, the Sangeet Natak and the Lalit Kala – each actively engaged in the preservation and promotion of our letters and literatures, the visual arts, and dance, drama and music, are housed in the Rabindra Bhawan complex that flanks Mandi House on one side. The architecture of the building was undertaken under the personal attention of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who engaged Habib Rahman with a detailed brief of what the complex should look like in order to reflect what it intended to do, that is to be a premier symbol of the culture of new India. Today, the Rabindra Bhawan is considered by many as one of the finest examples of Indian Modernism while the Akademies have established a model reputation with their archives, audio-visual libraries, publishing programmes, exhibition spaces, auditoria, bookshops, and the much talked about Awards which do sterling work in recognizing and felicitating work being done as much in genres and languages which are established and popular, as in those which need recognition and support.

Kamani Auditorium. Photo courtesy

Adjacent to the Rabindra Bhawan are three other cultural institutions – the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, the Kamani Auditorium and the Little Theatre Group Auditorium. The Kendra, which began as an exclusive sponsoring body soon became an established college of dance and music with a permanent dance-drama group and a repertoire which focuses on the best representation of Indian religion, mythology and folklore. The Kendra’s imperative is to not only prevent these forms from extinction but to reinvent and rejuvenate them constantly. The Ramlila, a Kendra staple presentation which excites the young and old alike year after year, is an example of the success of this college. The Kendra Trust also manages the Kamani Auditorium which has hosted continuous theatrical and other performances from across the world since its inception.  

On the other side of the Mandi House building is the National School of Drama. Set up in 1959 as a constituent unit of the SNA, it became an autonomous body in 1975 and has today the status of one of the finest theatre training institutions in the world. Nestled in the beautiful sprawling bungalow that is the Bahawalpur House, its enviable list of eminent theatre personalities who form the faculty, train students in every aspect of theatre, its theory, nuances and performance. The NSD has kept the spirit of India alive by actively encouraging its students – who come from even its remotest corners – to adopt as their own the several tongues that India speaks. Its little theatre spaces and practice halls reverberate with a mix of languages and silences, with history and topicality, where debate on social subjects competes with individual and political concerns. In fact, this continuous engagement with causes and effects, that takes place within its boundaries, spills over outside onto the pavements and chai stalls that dot its outside boundary walls. The Bahawalpur house also hosts the venerable Kathak Kendra, a national dance institute of international repute dedicated solely to the preservation and spread of Kathak, a classical dance form which has its roots grounded in Indian history and indeed epitomises the growth of its culture.

Across the circle from the National School of Drama is the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts, another of New Delhi’s coveted auditorium spaces as well as a Centre conceived to dedicate itself to the enjoyment and celebration of the artistic experience of the performing arts. Over the decades the Centre has opened its spaces not only to experimental theatre practices but to a consistent course development to expose young children to several ways of understanding theatre in India.

On a parallel road from the Shri Ram Centre is the Triveni Kala Sangam, equally well known for its architecture by Joseph Stein that allows for easy access between its numerous halls and niches as for its courses in painting, dance, music, pottery and photography. The Triveni Kala Sangam has at least six different gallery spaces with one dedicated to works in glass, ceramics and terracotta and another that brings the garden into the spirit of the works on display. Equally popular, perhaps more so, is the lovely terrace cafeteria which sees a constant flow of artists and like-minded folks, a space that symbolises the name Triveni, the dynamic confluence between the arts and its practitioners.

The Sangeet Bharati, the FICCI Auditorium and the National Museum of Natural History, housed further along the circle bring the design and work of this premier cultural space of New Delhi to a beautiful close.

So when you are done dipping into those fascinating books and feasting on the bold canvases, your eyes still dancing to the puppeteer’s tunes, you will hear the tinkle of anklets fade at the Kathak Kendra, bringing to an end another strenuous practice session. Now, the lawns of the National School of Drama will awake to the twitter of eager participants waiting to savour the newest offering on signs and silences presented by its Repertoire Company. You can surely return home proud and reassured that the nascent conversations will continue in the times to come.

Maulana Azad perhaps best summed up the need and nature of this cultural radius in his inaugural speech for the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953: “India’s precious heritage of music, drama and dance is one which we must cherish and develop. We must do so not only for our own sake but also as our contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind.”

This indeed epitomises the glory that is the Mandi House Complex.

Chandana Dutta holds a PhD in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University and has been Editor of Indian Horizons, a quarterly journal on art and culture published by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, New Delhi. She set up the publishing outfit Indialog of which she was the Chief Editor and has worked as Assistant Director for the publishing wing of Katha, a pioneering non-profit venture in the field of translations. She has translated various works from Bengali and Hindi into English.

A novel twist to the desi New Years

It’s New Year time, I mean time for desi New Year Celebrations. Be it Baisakhi in Punjab, Bihu in Assam, Noboborsho in Bengal or Vishu in Kerala, most regions in India usher in New Year mid-April, sometime between 13th to 15th April. These days are significant for each community marked with new purchases, feasting and cultural celebrations. People visit their places of worship, layout traditional feasts, visit each other, there are so many social dos.

This year, however, it was different. Locked in to tackle a novel virus we did not have much to celebrate for. With social distancing becoming the new norm, any kind of function or social visits were out of the question. Some of us did manage to dish out feasts at home with whatever ingredients one could manage. Picture of homecooked delicacies on social media and WhatsApp groups did bring me some cheer. We wished each other in our virtual world while the real world wore a deserted look. We prayed in the solace of our home wishing for our old world to be back soon.

Photo courtesy Abhishek Rana

Nature, on the other hand, had a different story to tell. There were celebrations all around. As I went to my balcony at night in my good noboborsho pyjamas, after a plateful of special Maggi for dinner, a glowing Venus greeted me in all her glory followed by her friends twinkling with joy in a clear night sky. The plants in my small balcony garden have never looked greener, blooming periwinkles are such delight to my eyes. Ganga water has become fit for drinking and Yamuna has never been this clean before. Dolphins have been seen on Mumbai beach, peacocks and deer are out in the road. The most polluted cities of India are filled with Oxygen. The story is the same world over. Nature is revelling as we humans are locked in!

My blooming garden

We vain humans. For all our successes, our march to progress, we forgot that we are but a small cog in the grand scheme of things. We forgot that we once worshipped and celebrated nature, and not destroyed her mindlessly. Indian New Years, that usually fall in the fag-end of spring, mark the beginning of harvest season, celebrates Mother nature before sowing new seeds. Nature has been an inherent part of our culture. Epitomized as Prakriti, a fertile woman or a mother, who conjoins with Purusha, the man, to create and nurture the world – the world that consists of all things living, not just humans. 

Spring Sky. Courtesy Riti Chakraborty

Other civilizations across the globe, have their own lore’s of nature, of man’s oneness with nature. Gods and Goddesses in both Hindu and Greek mythology symbolize many forces of nature. Noah’s ark that saved his family from the great Biblical flood also sheltered thousands of species of animals. In fact, God commanded him to do so.

But for us, the educated urbane lot, these are just mythological tales, mere lore that the novel virus has thrown back on our face, rather mercilessly. Yes, a rude jolt was what we needed, but it remains to be seen how long we stay awake!

The Human Touch

Routine, I so miss my routine. I never thought I would say this about my dull boring routine. Pulling myself out of bed every morning, rushing through the morning chores – glancing through the newspaper over a cup of tea, watering plants, hurriedly deciding what to wear, gulping down some breakfast and then scurrying off to work. Hurrying back home after a tiring day, hoping to catch up with reading or do some writing but ending up watching TV or Netflix, going to bed with a guilty feeling of not having done enough, and then blaming the dull routine for sapping my creative juices. I have so often wished I could break free of this routine to focus on more creative pursuits or things that I considered more productive intellectually and emotionally.

Just loitering with Poonam & Joy

But now with the routine missing I am like a fish out of water, gasping for breath at times. I realize for the first time how much of my routine I have taken for granted – friendly faces of my colleagues greeting me every morning, chit chats over a cup of coffee, catching up with a friend in the evening, if I wished to. I have never been very social; you can call me selectively social at best. I have often chosen my company over a crowd. I have stayed at home over the weekend watching TV, reading a book or doing nothing. Though, over the years, I have made some good friends, developed deep bonds.

Selfie time with Sanchita

So, when the lockdown was announced, I didn’t think I would miss not having people around. A few weeks on my own, would give me time to do so much more, I optimistically thought. I am locked out alone, my family is in different cities, friends all over NCR. And yes, we are working from home, so I am connected with colleagues over Microsoft Teams, regular calls. I chat with family and friends every day over the phone or over a WhatsApp video call. That would suffice for a while, I had thought, but alas it’s so woefully lacking!

The social media that we have been so hooked to is getting on my nerves now. The endless posts on the virus, the lockdown, the efficacy of our political leaders. The social media pundits are pasting the walls with their advice or opinions, so keen to run the world from their laptops or handsets. The silly challenges that FB comes up with seem refreshing in comparison. The only good thing are the occasional humourous posts that make me laugh.

Hanging out with Chandana & Ray

The routine or choosing to follow the routine.  This lockdown has made it clear how much of that choice we have taken for granted. The human touch that came with the choice, be it a friendly nod or a deep conversation over a cup of coffee. For this lockdown has shown us nothing can replace the joy of being with another human being. No social media, or virtual platforms can replace the warmth of physical proximity. Social distancing, unavoidable though it is, comes with a heavy prize.

I do hope we remember this once this crisis is over, put our phones away when we are talking to somebody, take our minds of social media while we are having dinner with our family. For, being with the ones’ we love and care, is priceless!!

Colours of life!

There’s a reason why we hail spring, why it’s so widely celebrated, odes written about its youthful exuberance. Spring is the season of hope, it’s all about celebrating rebirth or rejuvenation. Spring celebrates life. The fresh green leaves shooting out of branch browned by harsh winter, the colourful flowers blooming all over, the singing birds – the world seems to have awakened from the winter hibernation. Song of Spring is a colourful melody expressed so beautifully by none other than John Keats: 

And O and O,/ The daisies blow, / And the primroses are wakened;/ And the violets white/ Sit in silver light,/ And in the green buds are long in the spike end.

No wonder then Spring is blithely followed by lovingly playful Cupid. First, comes visiting Saint Valentine from the far West and we Indians paint the town red and pink to welcome him. Though many may not know who Saint Valentine is, Valentine’s Day has become the most important day on desi lovers’ calendar. It’s all about red roses and pink hearts or rather pink heart-shaped pastries and chocolates and trinkets and gifts followed by expensive dinners. Those already in love take a lot of pain to make their cherished one feel special. Those yearning for love, hope to find that special someone on Valentine’s day. While the florists and the bakers make hay, we are or imagine ourselves to be Cupid struck! Naysayers may cynically nod their head, but I feel great about dedicating a day to love. After all, love does make the world go around! 

Image courtesy Deccan Chronicle

Then comes our very own Holi that encapsulates the fun and frolic of Lord Krishna with his beloved Radha and his favourite Gopis. Though Holi also signifies the victory of good over evil, the triumph of Prahlada over the evil king Hiranyakashipu, it is the image of fair Radha playing with colours of love and passion with her dark mischievous lover Krishna in Braj Bhoomi (Vrindavan) that captures the popular imagination. Holi celebrates the many colours of love, the divine love of Radha Krishna – love of Krishna for his married distant relative Radha that is considered to be the epitome of love and adoration. Ironically, our society that frowns upon love that doesn’t fit into its narrow norm of caste, creed and morality, celebrates and embraces the divine love of Radha Krishna.

Even today, Holi in Vrindavan reflects the amorous love of Radha Krishna. It could be the Raslila’s being performed in every corner, the songs celebrating the Divine Love or gulal in so many colours, Vrindavan’s Holi does create an aura of mischievous, defiant love. Red, yellow, pink, purple and green gulal floating in the air create their magic. For Holi is all about celebrating love, the many colours of love and the many hues of life, shades that often leave us confounded. We so often witness during Holi red, yellow, green and purple coming together to create a hue that flouts all definition. Holi, the Spring festival, the festival of colours celebrates these varied defiant shades of love and life!