Thursday, 7 June 2012

Asatti. Stories with my father.


My father was my first reservoir of stories. Every night a new one, about jungles and dogs, elephants and tailors. Aesop was his favorite guide. When I wouldn't sleep, his stories would be about me and my brother, he'd describe great journeys the two of us would be on together, through fantastic lands, our pet dogs as characters always with us. I could never get enough of them. And when he used to be away from home, on a posting in the mountains (he was in the Army), this would be what I missed of him the most.
Our storytelling has always been out of breath, and we dive into details before the listener has the time to be prepared. Let me take you for a dive then, with my father, through his own written words, we will have to dive in head first, it would take too long for a lesson in details. We can't wait to share the stories. If you don't understand particular words, just keep reading on, you'll get their meaning in the end, you need to hear those words, you see, english simplifies the flavor of the experience too much.

We're watching him as a 4 year old boy now, it's a story about his first sacred space, the place he learnt to write the alphabet in a little town in central Kerala, in the far south of India.
I will try helping you through all the words in parenthesis.
I leave you to him.

Year of the Lord 1953: The start of Formal Education

I learned to read and write at the kalari run by our very revered Asatti at her home. Asatti was always dressed in a spotless white mundu (long waist cloth) and chatta with a kawani (towel on her shoulder). This was the traditional dress of elderly ladies during the time – the same dress that Ammachi, your grandmother, used to wear, and a pair of huge kunukku (huge gold ear rings worn by older women at the time) on her ears. She lived with her brother and family. Not sure if she was married, was a spinster, had lost her husband, or had children – I never enquired.  The kalari basically consisted of a shed next to their house – mud plastered floor, one foot high mud plastered side walls to enable cool breeze to flow in from all sides, it had no windows or doors, just a thatched roof supported on tree trunks cut from the compound – one entrance/exit.

Asatti armed with a small cane used to sit at the entrance on a small wooden stool chewing paan (betel leaf and tobacco). Her chellam (a little box) containing the ingredients for paan and a brass spittoon were the only furniture in the kalari. We students used to sit cross-legged along the side walls on the floor, on small mats we brought from home. Each student had a small pile of fine sand in front for writing the alphabets. When not sitting in the kalari, one could run around and explore the compound giving a wide berth to their dogs – free access to Asatti’s house including kitchen for a sip of water – open urinal – stand any where in the compound and let go – for more serious big-job use the family toilet.

For my initiation to letters, Asatti had come home on the auspicious Vidyarambham day (A day considered astrologically correct for the start of an education) – she was given an offering of paan leaves, arecanut and some money – she made me sit on her lap – some rice was spread evenly on a thali (a copper plate) – she held my right hand index finger and wrote the first letter of Malayalam alphabet in the rice.

The next day onwards Achachan, my father, used to walk an extra 500 yards to drop me off at the kalari on his way to his shop. I used to be hanging on to the little finger of Achachan as we walked to the kalari. My dress consisted of a pair of shorts with cross straps to prevent it from falling off – no socks, no shoes, no chappals, no shirts – not in fashion as it was not required in those days !!! One of the helpers from home used to fetch me back from the kalari in the afternoon. After a few days when Achachan was sure that I knew the way, he would leave me a short distance from the kalari – I used to reassure him that I would manage fine – but in fact I used to be very scared walking alone on the narrow path with overhanging trees and vegetation that led to the kalari - fearful that a booooju (a ghost man who kidnaps little children, my father always built him into our bed time stories) or a bear would jump out to catch me – being all of 4 years and a few months. I was pretty brave though.

Studies at the kalari : The reference material was palm leaves, the writing tool - the index finger of the right hand, the writing medium – fine sand. A heap of sand was always kept at the far corner of the kalari. Each day the moment I entered the kalari, I'd picked up my mat and lay it at my designated seat, then I'd collect a small quantity of sand from the corner and spread it evenly in front of myself – and I'd be ready for the day’s class.

On day 01 you bring a fresh palm leaf – using a pointed iron rod called narayam, Asatti writes the first five alphabets of Malayalam. You take the palm leaf and go to your seat – keep the palm leaf in front of you – and write the first letter in the sand simultaneously shouting out loud the letter you are writing. Asatti comes around to help you, steady the fingers and closely monitors the progress. As soon as Asatti is convinced that you have learned the first five letters, she adds more letters to your palm leaf – and over a period of time you have a heavy bundle of palm leaves to be carried to the kalari and back home. Each day on getting back home from kalari the first question from my elder brothers / sisters was “Ethra eettam kitti?”, meaning.. 'How many upgrades have you gained?'. Each time Asatti added the next set of 5 letters to my palm leaf, it indicated that I had acquired one more upgrade. One could get three to four upgrades each day. To highlight the writing on the palm leaves, we used to rub the inky sap of crushed leaves on them – as taught by my elder brothers / sisters.

Asatti’s cane: One fine day I dozed off while sitting on the mat and writing in the sand. I woke up when the cane landed on my thigh just above the knee, and with Asatti menacingly in front of me. I cried the rest of the day at the kalari. Asatti gave me some home made sweets before I went home that day.

My brother, Josekuttychachan, did not like the idea of going to the kalari every day - there were days when one of the helpers at home used to seat him in a basket and carry the basket on his head all the way to the kalari where Asatti would suitably receive him. My brother, Kunjappachachan, would hide in the bushes at home instead of spending time at the kalari.

1976: The day I got married.
Asatti was invited home on 28 Jun 1976. Just before setting out for the church for the wedding, she was given an offering of paan leaves, arecanut and some money, just like on the day I first met her.
She was my first teacher.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Potato chips and golf


This is a photograph from my first film roll.I had never focussed on taking pictures before design school. I'd never managed to get close to a camera, never summed up the courage to ask to examine one, either.

When I was a child, I once told my mother I'd like to try using a camera, and she shook her head saying it was a hobby for rich people, rolls were expensive, so was developing, I would have to metre out each photograph, it was like taking up playing golf, she said.
I laugh when I think of her explanation now. I never questioned it. We had code words between us since the time we were little, like whenever we were running out of money, she'd ask me to think more before asking her to buy me potato chips when we were out, for some time. When the dry period passed by, she'd get me a packet of potato chips herself, and I'd know I could ask her for them the next time I felt like some.

The camera as an object was strange, all the technicalities aside, I wondered how I would ever manage to convey the tangle of patterns in my head through a single image. It felt like such a responsibility to have to get the colours right. It felt disrespectful to not be true to the light I saw. I didn't want to waste any film.

This picture is from the first assignment, with 'balance' as the subject, the instructors wanted us to focus on lines, on complementary weights in terms of colour and object as opposed to a literal translation of the word. I had just spent 5 years in an engineering college, no one had ever asked me to explore the lateral, the tangents, seep into them, try layering them, ever before. And when you're practicing on images in a country like India, it demands you shoot pictures also respecting the delicate balance people create to go on living.
Sometimes, it does feel like playing golf.



We had travelled to the beach to be away from the routine.

It had been raining, taking the camera was a risk, I'd rather have my hands free, I lugged it with me anyway.. it had been sitting in front of me for days, it tends to develop an eagle eye after awhile.
Maybe I'd find a starfish I told myself, maybe the fishermen would be bringing in their boats..
She was walking way ahead, I started following her because of the whispery sound the hay made as she walked, like a musical anklet. She was just as I had thought when I got ahead of her, carefully put together. Her shoulders smoothed down by the sun, pulled tightly over her bones by the wear, age creeping in from the shadows, glowing from the inside, her chest covered by a cloth knotted to a string which in turn merged with her beads, layers and layers of real coral, and artificial coral, the artificiality not hurting my eye for a change. Her teeth were coral too, tobacco stained coral. Everything connected so seamlessly. May she never lose those safety pins, I thought to myself. I walked away wanting to get my hands on some charcoal, explore for myself how the light and body dipped in and out of each other.

An hour back I had nothing to say, and now I was missing my blank sheets of paper, I laughed to myself and walked ahead. I enjoy living. I can't say it any plainer.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Loud sandstone giggles


I spent the first half hour just running my fingers along the familiar columns of books, breathing in deeply this unique aroma of jute, parchment, film slide sheets and thumbed-through familiar books. I had missed it much. 
I was tracing back the roots of a nomadic tribe I am working with in Rajasthan, I always end up going back to my data mine in Ahmedabad when no one I know can answer my questions. These books talk back to me.
I happened to pick up this book on temple art. Between 950 and 1150, the Chandela dynasty of Khajuraho, erected temples as an ode to transcendental emotions. Young boys, celibates being reared to be men in hermitages were sent here to examine these sculptures so they could contemplate on life, prepare for the world, and their path ahead as householders.
I could hear her giggle out loud in the quiet corridors of the library. The poor boys. How she must have giggled at them. Loud sandstone giggles.

The body's language


A vegetable seller at the Khar mandi, preparing for the day in the wee hours of the morning at his stall, seated in a perfect lotus position.
I am in awe of this inherent, natural body language the people of this land flow into unsuspectingly.

Raju bhai


Three years ago, I was bursting with stories waiting to be told. I laugh when I think about it now.
I talk about it in the past tense because I have just gotten back to my script writing recently (I have been writing for others for the last year) and it has made me trace back paths to all my earlier projects, to reflect, to see where I've come from, and where I am now..
I was just out of film school, just completing the edit of a project I had labored on for more than 7 months and I was filled with the energy from the outcome to tell many more.
You see, it was the first project in which I came face to face with ‘the audience’. The protagonist of my film was Raju bhai. A 42 year old man from a small village in Andhra Pradesh, who found he could dance when he was a child, preferred playing ‘house’ with the girls, and wanted to be an actress when he grew up. When he came face to face with the realities of his environment, he took to dancing instead, on stage, where the audience paid at the entrance to watch.
I met Raju when I was eating an omelette outside my design school, I was laughing with some friends, drained, red-eyed, unslept, and bang in the middle of a project, he was sitting at the next table with the owner of the stall and watching me laugh. It didn’t take us long to start talking, especially after I found he was a dancer. My friend was making a documentary on dance at the time, on the Mughal form of Kathak*, and I had spent many days as part of the crew, listening to the sound of ghungroos**, I had many questions to ask about his form of dance, whether he taught it, where he trained, how it all started. He had a great sense of humour, and I liked his deep throaty laughter, we got on well from the very start.
I visited his home a few days later, in a slum, near the lake in the industrial part of our old city of Ahmedabad. He waited for me at the entrance of the slum, I saw him, when my rickshaw drew to a stop, he looked restless. He hugged me on sight, and quickly guided me through the interconnected pathways of the slum into his house.
It took me some time to discover his world, why it was so secret, why he didn’t want me to be seen with him.
Once we were in his house, in his space, he relaxed and got down to boiling a kettle of tea for me. I met his friends there, other just like him, all dancers, all surprised at my arrival.
I spent days in that dwelling of his, and each time we went through the same drill. He watched, I spoke. I felt like I was going through a series of tests, Raju bhai was gauging me somehow, seeing how I spoke to the others, answering my questions, watching me tie my hair while speaking, he was observing me, and I knew it. I didn't find it uncomfortable, I was wary of people too, I knew how it was to build oneself a cave right in the middle of a community. I stayed. And spoke.
Till one day I was talking about the boy in my life, and love, and he burst out laughing.
That’s when he told me his story, he laughed and drew closer, set himself to braid my wild, unruly hair into a neat plait, and told me his story of love. I heard about his lover, his dancing, the private birthday parties thrown by elitist businessmen, where entertainment meant watching men dance in women’s outfits to film music. I wanted to come and watch, I told him, he laughed, pulling my head straight so he could continue setting my hair,.. and continued talking. He told me the story of his sexuality, and what it meant to be gay in a low income family in India, he told me about friends who had died of AIDS in front of him on that couch in his room right before us, he told me about the meaning of Kathak, the Mujra***, the art of it. And then, he danced for me on the last day.
I made a film on him later. It started from my footage from his first dance for me in his living space.
He trained me for my trade.
Because I had to keep so many of our conversations safe.
But I still had to tell his story.
I had to tell it in the way any person.. old, young, homophobic could understand him and his lost love, the reason why he never let anyone in, why it hurt him that no one recognised him without his show make up, why daylight made him a 42 year old man again in everyone's eyes, and how the nights meant it was daybreak in his other world.
I could not allow my anger to take root in my own storytelling. And that has been the biggest lesson ever. I had to be just the messenger.
And I took on that role, whole heartedly just for him at first.
Today, it feels like every person is an ocean of stories. It felt like that back then as well, but Raju bhai made film making more than just telling a story for me.
This film making process I learnt from him is hard. It needs you to look at the surroundings, look into the context, it speaks in hard uncouth, unfamiliar tongues, makes you fight you your own prejudices, your own suffering, to be able to relate what happened and who's life changed because of the sequence of events through which life plays itself out.
It demands you be truthful, it demands responsibility.
It demands me to trust my instinct. 
And I demand it all of myself, inspite of my failings.
The image up there is the first draft of a poster my friend Jaykrishnan made for me when he saw my film first. He mailed it to me the morning after. It was unexpected, and it filled me with so much emotion. He said he tried capturing Raju bhai’s dance at the end, when he went into endless swirls in time to the music before he drew to a poised breathless stop, in his little home, in a slum in Ahmedabad.

* kathak : It is one of the eight classical Indian dance forms.The name Kathak is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘katha’ meaning story, and ‘katthaka’ in Sanskrit means he who tells a story, or to do with stories.
** ghungroo: A musical anklet tied to the feet of classical Indian dancers
*** mujra: A poetic dance form, with a lot of stress laid on lyrics, the mujra was a cross between art and exotic dance, with the performers often serving as courtesans amongst Mughal royalty or wealthy patrons.