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

Friday, September 30, 2016

I am Back...

1. Just before Independence Day, something curious happened in Cochin; a long forgotten (well, not quite forgotten but definitely marginalized) leader suddenly resurfaced on posters announcing a mass gathering being organized by the Congress party with brotherhood and secularism as theme.

At least among the elders, many were impressed. "Its about time someone remembered him!", "can't remember seeing him on any political poster in the last 40 years!" ... I heard them say…

The denouement: the political meeting barely caused a ripple. That the initiative had no immediate effect on the fading fortunes of the Congress is much less of a concern than that its face failed to connect with the so-called NewGen.

2. I recently executed my first ever commercial project – writing English subtitles for a documentary on the pulikkali (literally “tiger dance”) show, famously held in Trichur during every Onam. The film interviewed some of the (several hundred) of potbellied dancers who would paint up as tigers and jump around to the beat of chenda drums and cymbals. Some of them narrated stories about how the dance came into being:

“Two centuries ago, the heart of Trichur was a jungle (a historic fact but not sure if this wooded area was part of any extensive forest belt) and tigers prowled in the area (doubtful); there was this brave (in a rather qualified way, as per History) king called Shaktan Thampuran who cleared up the place (true, mostly) and it is believed he had to fight and kill tigers himself (pure fantasy, almost certainly). Our dance commemorates this thrilling episode”.

Sakthan and co might have killed leopards rather than tigers. The Malayalam word 'puli' is ambiguous about whether it refers to tigers or the considerably smaller and far more widespread leopard. But the present day dancers paint up as striped tigers - very few become spotted leopards.

Malayalam has a more curious word ‘nari’ (the ‘a’ is short) which could mean either a tiger or a fox (or a leopard). Till very recently, villagers in Karnataka would gang up and conduct ritual fox hunts (much to the chagrin of environmentalists). Perhaps something on similar lines used to happen in the thickets in and around Trichur when it was but a village and a ‘narikkali’ (fox dance) might have been occasionally staged - the ambiguity of ‘nari’ might have turned it into a full blown 'tiger dance' over a few generations. Incidentally, this same ambiguity appears to have tripped up the author of Khasak too! The character Kuttappu-Nari, trapper of naris (from the context in the novel, what he trapped were most probably foxes or at most leopards), became 'Kuttappu the tiger' in the English translation done by Vijayan himself.

And here is how an Elder recalls Pulikkali of the mid 1950s: “One skinny fellow had put on yellow paint and stripes, there was exactly one chenda player and another chap held up a placard with the name of the sponsor – ‘Bata Shoes’. And the tiger and the placard fellow would carry on a bit of dialog – it used to be in Tamil, since the performers were probably impoverished immigrants from Tam country hired for a meal or a drink - on these lines: “Hey, where you goin?!” – “To get a pair of shoes!” – “O, really? And what brand, may I know?!” – “Bata, only Bata!”. And that was about it!".

2. The dwindling sparrow population is a serious concern among Kerala nature lovers (sparrow means not the glamorous weaver bird but the formerly ubiquitous 'house sparrow'). But all is certainly not lost yet; the other day evening, I saw dozens of these sprightly avians chirpily congregating on a small tree on the Marine Drive waterfront. Curiously, none were to be seen anywhere else in the area.

3. Till recently, I could count only three books of over 1000 pages that I have read cover to cover - Collected Travel Writing of Pottekkat, John Toland's biography of Hitler (not a particularly great work) and 'War and Peace'. I had read them all while at school - and before TV arrived. Now, a generation later, a fourth name has been added - Kathasaritsagaram. More on it later!

4. On a recent visit to Kollam, I saw a roadside shrine with a big hooded cobra on its roof. The serpent was but a guardian figure - and there were more of them at the other corners. But its rather realistic (viewed from a distance) curves made a creepy first impression. Religious kitsch with a spot of creativity...

5. A recent discovery has been Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Pakistani artist. My first encounter with his work was via a print of this painting that hangs (of all places!) in a Kalyana Mandapam near Cochin:

The influence of Abanindranath and Nandalal Bose is visible in Chughtai's style but the dreamlike feel is uniquely his. And his colors are always striking - several examples are online.

It is said that the great Hindustani vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan decided to leave Pakistan when his singing a composition dedicated to Krishna at a concert elicited sharp rebukes from authorities there. Does that also explain the absence of a peacock feather in the turban worn by Chughtai's dark-skinned lover?

Whoever the dream lover is, the swooning girl's complexion perfectly matches a very Keralan metaphor - "Wayanadan manjal arachapole" (just the color of turmeric paste)! Well, to be precise, the Mal metaphor is not about somebody's complexion actually matching the color of turmeric paste but of acquiring a golden tinge by regular application of that paste. But Chughtai has gone the distance! And I just heard a grad student exclaim on seeing the painting - "I want that skirt and that pretty blue blouse!"

5. I have had to really struggle to rustle up this post. One fears the problem is more irreversible decline than temporary writer's block - but right now is the time to soak in the profound relief of having gotten something done