'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Impressions - Kerala Houseboats

Two months back: Our cheap and functional Sarkari ferry had just moved out of the Aleppey boat jetty onto the open Punnamada lake (Kuttanad, Kerala's lake district, begins here) when I saw the famous houseboats for the first time - swarms of them. All were chunkily built craft. Some were smallish, one room affairs; some, two-storied behemoths up to 30 meters long. All had noisy diesel engines; all had bamboo mat awnings - some decaying and blackened with soot, some freshly painted. Most had firangees and obviously wealthy desis chilling out on the upper decks with mugs of beer.

The boats felt about as authentic a part of the landscape as their occupants. They gave an impression of alien monsters that somehow got washed up into these placid backwaters - and have come to lord over them.

A month back: I call on Gyani at a small homestay resort on the Pampa channel in Kuttanad. The place had decent food and drink and hammocks stretched between coconut palms. My plan for a snooze in one of them failed - mainly due to the 'grr' of houseboats chugging past at the rate of almost one per minute and the none too subtle smell of diesel which never seemed to go away (that the day was sultry did not help). The resort proprietor says wistfully, comtemplating the beasts: "My cousin owns nine houseboats. I too hope to get a couple soon; the best way to make quick money!"

Later that evening, Gyani messages. "It is 8 pm. The houseboat show has mercifully ceased. The river is silent and I just had some 'Kallu'. The place is probably what it used to be and what it really ought to be. Seen Magritte's 'Empire of Light'?"

Today morning: Recovering from a bad cold, I lazily sit and watch the Republic Day parade on the telly. Along comes the float representing Kerala. A near life-size replica of a houseboat, effigies of an assortment of palefaces (probably some desies too) on its deck, looking thru cameras and binocs - no, no beer mugs, we Mallus are a sherief people, aren't we?! The Tamil devotional song 'Alai payuthe' plays in the background. I swear and switch off.

Today afternoon: A houseboat tipped over and sank. Four hapless Tamil tourists died, many more are in the hospital. The state government has ordered an enquiry and issued some threats that if need be, it will amend laws and restrict the house-boat business.

Update (Jan 31at): Heard the Houseboat was adjudged the best R-day float and won a GOLD MEDAL for Kerala. Hooray!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Milkman - and More Fragments

The Original Milkman from Kerala


For most Keralites, Swati Tirunal (1813-46), Maharaja of Travancore, is a bit of an enigma. Everyone has heard he spoke many languages and that he inspired many a classical musician and composed many kritis himself (some experts have stated - without proof - that he only patronised some gifted musicians and was not quite up to making contributions of his own to music(*). Some half-allegations that the king's promotion of Carnatic music led to the eclipse of Kerala's own musical forms have also been aired). Some know he opened the zoo and the observatory in Trivandrum. And that was pretty much about it until in 1987, a very well-made motion picture on his life hit the screens - it showed an idealistic and much too soft-hearted royal misfit getting ground down to an early, sad death as much by the sheer mediocrity of his near and dear ones as by the woes of power. And post that film, many mallus have come to know/believe that Swati had a serious affair with a dancing girl from Thanjavur. That really is it.

Very recently, I came to learn that Swati Tirunal built a palace called Puthenmalika or Kuthiramalika ('Palace of the Horses') near the Padmanabha temple in Trivandrum. On a visit to those parts, I took a look. Wiki has many details and pictures of this substantial (~100 meters long) and curious (it appears to lack inner courtyards, unlike most other Keralan buildings in its class) edifice. Its 122 carved horses were said to symbolize the 122 principal nerves in the human body (the number is said to come from Ayurveda) and so were intended to maintain its occupants in the pink of health. But, old-timers say, despite the horses and everything, the building also violated some basic vastu principles and so Swati died the year after he moved in there; whatever, the (terrified?) Royals, who still own the property, kept the place locked up for (!) a century and a half and then reopened it only as a museum.

Kuthiramalika's structure - the beams, ceilings, supporting struts, doorframes - and its gloomy inner spaces assemble what must be one of the densest collections of carved timber in the world; the earlier palace at Padmanabhapuram, while larger in floor area, is utterly plain in comparison. But I left the place with decidedly mixed feelings - "Swati acted a bit like Shah Jahan there, didn't he? His kingdom was not properous, his subjects were suffering from the misrule of the British Residents and their Desi henchmen and still he built this big palace for himself, with all those little private theatres to stage musical performances and soirees!" - Not the sort of thing a compassionate idealist would have done!

And then, I saw a short article by ex-IAS man and scholar Babu Paul and was stunned to read the following: "Swati Tirunal it was who made allopathic medicine available to the citizens of Travancore for the first time. Moreover, apalled by the diet and nutrition conditions prevalent in the state and having noted that the local breeds of cattle yield very little milk, he arranged for Sindhi cattle and bulls to be shipped in from Karachi and set up dairy farms and cattle breeding stations."

Now I can say with conviction: it really does not matter much whether our man actually composed music or only hummed tunes, whether he spoke 20 languages or only half a dozen, even whether he ought to have built a 3000 sqft bungalow or a humble hovel rather than that horse palace. Babu Paul's info elevates Swati to the ranks of those few of our rulers who had their heart in the right place *and* their brain wired up and ticking. At the very least, he foreran the Milk-man of India (and fellow-Mallu) Varghese Kurian by a century and a quarter!

Rhetoric apart, someone really ought to come up with an analytical and critical biography of Swati. There must be tons and tons of documents and other bits of evidence lying around in the state archives. What I mean is the kind of biography that was written on Saktan Tampuran of Cochin by Puthezhath Raman Menon. An example of the kind of questions such a work ought to address is the harsh treatment pioneering social activist and spiritual seer Ayya Vaikundar allegedly received from Swati's regime.

Kaviyur - Deogarh down South


The Mahadeva temple at Kaviyur has a circular inner sanctum; its walls are thickly paneled with wood and have exceptionally fine carvings of episodes from our myths. Further intricate work is on the ceilings of the Namaskara Mandapam. Nobody appears to have documented this treasure in detail (M.G. Shashibhooshan has made but a start in his 'Keraleeyarude Devathasankalpam'). My outsider's judgement: some of the work at Kaviyur is reminiscent in style (if not in quality) quality of the sandstone reliefs and sculptures at Deogarh.

Mysterious 'Kattilmadam'


A stone building, locally called 'Kattilmadam', stands derelict beside the Pattambi- Kunnankulam highway near Njangattiri. Its existence is quite well-known (Youtube even has a video of it). Kattilmadam must be Kerala's oldest freestanding structural edifice (perhaps dating back a thousand years or more); and it is a very unique structure - there is nothing on similar lines to be seen in these parts (although more such buildings might well be lying undiscovered in our jungles). But despite its possible significance, serious attempts to date it and to locate it in the cultural context of its times have yet to be made. As is fashionable, some have 'generally' said that it was a Buddhist temple. There is nothing particularly Buddhist about it; the building is certainly 'temply' in a general sense (I sense a resemblance between it and some of the monolithic 'ratha's of Mahabalipuram) but has no idol or anything - what looks like a 4-faced figure is carved in relief above one of the entrances. The interior is empty (I could see only a few discarded beer and coke bottles). And a greater mystery than Kattilmadam's origin and function has been its very survival - how and why, despite easy accessibility, it was never razed for its neat granite blocks.

Update (Feb 2013): The lyrical travelog 'Nilayude Theerangaliloode' by Alankode Leelakrishnan quotes a local legend which says the medieval rulers of Valluvanad (the region around river Nila) used to claim descent from the Pallavas of Kanchi (the builders of Mahabalipuram). So the ratha resemblance of Kattilamadam might have some serious factual basis. Leelakrishnan also repeats, with no serious evidence, the Buddhist temple theory on Kattilmadam - an example of a fad very current among Keralan intellectuals: to credit Buddhism with all the impressive ancient achievements and then to wistfully state - without proof - that such a peaceful, egalitarian faith was cruelly stamped out by Hindus (I just don't buy the theory that whatever happened was a one-way massacre of Buddhists).

'Bicycle Thieves'

Having heard a lot about this film over many years, I actually saw it last week. What struck me is the film's effortless simplicity and utter freedom from pretense - nowhere does it feel that director de Sica planned a particular scene or composed a particular shot as if something special was about to happen, that he was crafting a serious work of art. 'Thieves' has nothing like the train or the sweet-seller sequences of 'Panchali' or the scattering pigeons of 'Aparajito' or the final 'dance' of 'Seventh Seal' or the carefully composed deep focus shots of 'Citizen Kane' - the film has a story to tell and does just that. Even in its forgiveness episode (that probably won for the film the approval of Vatican), there is only a robust acceptance of plain reality - no preaching, no melodrama, no symbolism.

No film I saw in recent times got me so utterly involved in the fate of the protagonist. I wanted the story to end in a tense, cliffhanger freeze with the cycle-rider but a yard ahead of the mob chasing him. But I have no complaints that it did not.

Ram Guha's Proposals


A week or so back, Historian, Cricketist and writer, Ramachandra Guha wrote a surprisingly inane piece at cricinfo with a proposal to start a trophy for India-Pak cricket matches and to name it after Tendulkar - whom he described, on very flimsy grounds, as "the man who has defined cricketing ties between the two nations for a generation". The subject being what it is, zillions commented; and that has encouraged Guha to go ahead and and write a still inaner article calling for the trophy to be rechristened the 'Amarnath - Kardar trophy'.

Over many years, Guha's take on most matters, cricket included, has consistently been measured, informed and reasoned. But of late, the graph has begun to show a serious and sustained dip - not a blip. Here is another recent gem: "At my age I have few ambitions left, in cricket or in life in general. Here is one: that I may yet see Kallis play in a Test match in Bangalore."

I hope Guha gets back to form quick; for sure, he is young enough to do that.


(*) a particularly interesting comment on the royal composer was "all our great composers were great vocalists. There is no record of Swati Tirunal even having hummed a tune!".