Saturday, July 28, 2018

Basant Kumari Ghildiyal

Basant Kumari Ghildiyal
29 July 1918 - 10 February 2016

Twenty Ninth July 2018 would have been Nani’s hundredth birthday. She passed away a year and a half ago. ‘Almost a century’ is a long time, but till the last few years of her life, Nani was mentally as sharp as ever, and physically as active as she could be.

Perhaps this was because she was a woman of few words for most of her life, and concentrated her energy on doing things rather than speaking about them. That did not mean that she couldn’t express herself with vigour or volume!

I remember a winter that she spent with us in Janakpuri in Delhi. We’d always stayed in cantonments, and it was daunting for my mother to be transplanted to a civilian colony in a new city, with two school-going children—and in a house that had a reputation for being broken into. Nani, sallied forth to bear us company in this strangely designed dwelling. The living room (in the front) and the bedrooms (at the back) were separated by a tiny courtyard, with an open invitation to potential burglars in the form of a ridiculously low wall next to an un-built plot. One night, we were woken up by loud clanging sounds from the backyard. My mother, my brother and I were petrified into silence, but Nani immediately let out a resounding bellow: “Nar Bahadur, Khukri nikalo’! This was followed by some blood-curdling yells and thumps from above, barely recognisable as emanating from Nar Bahadur, our batman, who slept on the terrace. He leapt around to the accompaniment of Gorkha war-cries, till we were convinced that any burglar would have probably collapsed of heart failure.

We never found out if the intruder was a stray cat or a cat-burglar. Nani’s vocal chords and her presence of mind, were reassurance enough for us to face the prospect of any such future incident, and we stayed there with equanimity till we were finally assigned accommodation in the Delhi Cantonment.

In fact, her regal and fearless presence made one forget how physically diminutive Nani was. I’ve wondered how she would have looked alongside my grandfather, who I’d heard was unusually tall. He passed away when his own children were very young, and for all of us, it was Nani who was the undisputed head of the household. She always wore white and light-coloured cotton or silk sarees, though some of my mother’s cousins would talk of how she was wont to be clad in chiffons and pearls during my grandfather’s time. After she was widowed, she brought up seven children, finished her graduation and post-graduation, taught Hindi and Sanskrit at St. Thomas’s High School, managed the Bhubaneshwari Devi Trust instituted by her father, Pandit Haridutt Shastri, and did much more. All this I gleaned from elsewhere, since she was never one to dwell on her work or her troubles.

 When we were very young, it was in the summer holidays that we spent time with her and the rest of our uncles, aunts and cousins in the house they lived in at Dehra Dun. A game that we played with our cousins unfailingly every night was hide-and-seek in a dark room. Nani was apprehensive that someone would get hurt, and would repeatedly tell us not to play ‘Dark Room’, explaining why we shouldn’t do so. We’d nod in unison, but find it impossible not to resume the game as soon as she left us to go to another part of the house. Back she’d come to check after a little while, and again firmly switch on the lights, tell us to play something else, and explain why we must do so. This routine would go on practically every night that we were there, and I don’t remember that she ever lost her temper at us or raised her voice at us, reputed as she was to be a disciplinarian. It was always with a hint of disbelief that I received news of this reputation of hers, such as the time at an army dinner at Jaislamer, when a young officer introduced himself to her, recalling his awe of her as a student at St. Thomas.

Achieving the difficult balance of being firm without being fearsome, she also combined her great sense of responsibility and independence with a love for travel. So, just as she came to us when were living alone in Delhi, she would go to any of her children wherever they were, even after they were grown up, if she felt they needed her. She told me how she refused to budge from the gate of Scindia Girls’ School in Gwalior, where she had rushed to, on hearing that her eldest daughter, there on her first teaching assignment, had developed stomach ulcers. The guards, who initially did not agree to let her in without a valid entry pass, had to capitulate and the management did not merely allow her to meet mausi, but let her stay on to look after her!

Later, when she came visiting my parents on their postings all over the country, it was in Nani’s company that I visited many spectacular places, since my parents were generally busy with official duties. One memory that is etched in my mind is of both of us at a magnificent evening arati composed entirely of bells and drums, one glorious sunset in a temple atop Chittorgarh Fort. In her later years, she was happiest when I would ask her about the town of Tehri, which she left as a small child of ten. She would speak of the Shivalaya near the house of her father, the Rajguru of the Tehri King; of her haughty eldest Bua, used to routinely entering the King’s palace with its many courtyards reached through ramps; of the Ghanta–ghar, the tall clock tower below the palace; of the Ganga flowing at the foot of the town, where she was taken to bathe; of the animal-sacrifices on Durga puja which were stopped by Manmantji; of the goddess fashioned in mud and laden with jewels given by women devotees; of the seven-pulse sprouted prashad. Those days, she said, now seemed like a dream.

Nani saw many generations of her family pass away and a world that, as she said, slipped away like a dream. But, that only rarely made her depressed or despondent. She was a remarkable lady. Eager, curious and interested, she would not just quote Sanskrit shlokas to me in telephone conversations, but often fill me in on current affairs and news of the world. She saw much in her long life, and combined a host of distinctive qualities in her person. She passed these on, in some measure, to her children and grandchildren. Though none of us can claim to have even a fraction of her indomitable will, we are fortunate enough to have shared in Nani’s life. And one of her great-grandchildren is fortunate enough to share her birthday, giving us one more reason to celebrate and remember Nani on her hundredth birthday.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

A Palette of Urban Palates

Understanding a city’s form though its food. That’s what we did with Vernika Awal one humid day this summer, on the food-walk she customised for us in Mumbai.

Our requests for ‘no chillies, only vegetarian food, small servings, and architecturally interesting destinations’ may have seemed a trifle restrictive for a walk devoted to food. Vernika (who, among other things writes a blog which really lives up to its name, didn’t just take these in her stride, but made them the ingredients for a hugely enjoyable culinary and cultural experience. 

And so, we ended up sampling a very eclectic mix of fare and places, beginning with a rendezvous in close proximity to the quite-literally ‘Regal’ Cinema. On our own, it is unlikely that we would have noticed the outwardly modest street-fronted café, though it is obviously popular. Its mosaic-tiled interior was redolent with a menu teeming with non-vegetarian dishes, a motley crew of diners, taciturn waiters, cast-iron columns, vintage fans and sepia photographs of the Taj Mahal Hotel. As we registered these details, Vernika filled us in with the history of the place, its specialities, and her favourite snack of Bun-muska & Akoori —and apparently that of a legion of St. Xavier’s students.

Our next destination was a short distance away, and a world apart. A small and no-nonsense eatery, it served Marathi and Gujarati vegetarian food amidst scrupulously clean, business-like tiled floors bustling with diners. We were introduced to a new sort of drink, neither lassi nor chaas, in the familiar company of old faithfuls like Sabudana khichdi and kotmeel vadi. We spent some time in conversation about cameras and cooking, and given that the weather was sultry and we had a car at our disposal (thanks to Vernika’s friend and colleague, a camera/car/cooking buff), drove part of the way to our next stop.

This was a quaint single-storey bakery sitting plum in the middle of taller concrete buildings. Reputed to be the oldest bakery in Mumbai, it led into an all-in-one space dominated by steel trusses and nonchalant waiters, with a brief menu chalked in with specialities like Mawa-cake and fiery ginger biscuits. And finally, we were driven to a family restaurant presided over by a benignly smiling manager, with a grand finale of elegant spinach samosas (not drowned in oil), aamras-puri, fried karela fritters, sugarcane juice and other seasonal dishes, served amidst a view of a magnificent 18th century Shiva temple.

The walk was not just about stuffing ourselves silly with food—which was quite delicious, and covered a varied trajectory. The food-breaks were like interludes, perfect for our small appetites, like pauses for reflection (while chewing!) in between moving. It helped that Vernika is as much addicted to books as to food. So, our conversation was not just about trading information on the best places to eat in Kolkata vs Mumbai vs Delhi, opinions about the relative merits of kotmeel vadi from different sweet-shops, where it is safe to drink sugar-cane juice, where do you get the freshest idlis and dosas, but also about the best bookshops in town, favourite books and films, photography, Satyajit Ray. Since most of the destinations that provided a background to these interludes were situated within a few kilometres of each other, in Mumbai’s distinctive Art-Deco and Victorian Gothic precincts, it more than fulfilled our architectural orientation.

It was fascinating for us as architects, otherwise consumed by the form, detail and planning of buildings, to see these precincts from the lens of the varied sort of food available here. Everything Vernika chose for us to eat was peppered with several stories, including tracing the provenance of an eating place through its name and ownership. So, why are cafes Irani and not Parsi? Why are Irani cafes often situated at the corner of roads and streets? How is this related to the sequence of immigration from Persia and Iran, and Vastu-shastra? Why can seasonal food customs of Gujaratis be sampled only in one particular Gujarati restaurant, in a city filled with Gujaratis? How and why do certain urban spaces transform in the early mornings and evenings because of the schedules of offices determined by the city’s spread? And what time should you show up there if you want to taste the wholesome spread that caters for this schedule!? Some of these questions hadn’t even occurred to us. Others we thought we’d already got the answers to.

The astonishing variety and price, catering to so many sorts of pockets, and the people who provide or patronise these food-options, added a very different dynamic to the architectural facades and spaces. It helped us to appreciate, yet again, what the Dutch architect and educator John Habraken means when he writes of: ‘an environment that is never seen as a whole as we see it when we look at the map, but always partial, in sequence, dependent on one’s movement in it’.[1]

If professional planners did not see cities merely at the scale of plans and maps, our cities would be less impoverished—both in terms of their ability to generate incomes as well as initiatives and innovations. Ordinary people have the potential to transform problems into possibilities not just for earning money, but in contributing to the richness of urban-experience. The form and planning of architecture can greatly help or hinder such human activity. That is why the continuous stretches of buildings lining the street and roads of Mumbai allow far safer and more interactive areas, than Delhi’s roads and streets separated and punctuated with isolated facades and isolating boundary walls.

Habraken sums it up like this: ‘We experience an urban environment somewhat like we experience the inside of a building; finding spaces connected to one another through which we can move.’ [2] These connections need to be both physical and emotional and experiential. And to see these connections, designers, architects and planners need to come down from the vantage point of scaled maps and drawings where people are invisible. The best way to annihilate our arrogance and ignorance, and to put ourselves in the shoes of those whom we design for, is to walk through a city. And to be provided with more than food for thought, the best way is, to structure food-breaks as you walk – just as we did.

As I wrote this, I suddenly remembered Kamu Iyer’s book Boombay, From Precinct to Sprawl, where he leads us through the spaces and history of Bombay as experienced by him from childhood to his professional interventions as an architect. Charles Correa, in his foreword to the book, describes it as ‘a leisurely stroll through the city, sometimes in a tram or bus but most often on foot’. Iyer is deeply perceptive about his city—a circumstance that owes as much to his great familiarity with it as to his training as an architect. He is able to see possibilities gleaned through his own primary experience of walking though the city, as when he writes:
For me, the wide footpaths around King’s Circle (now called Maheshwari Udyan), the plaza outside the railway station and Ruia College, the Indian Gymkhana and Napoo Garden were special. Around King’s Circle, the front setbacks of buildings were merged with the footpath, making it a wide urban spaces where people stroll, vendors sell newspapers, magazines and used books, and stray hawkers try and make quick sales. This is also the place where people meet while waiting for a table in restaurants. It struck me a simple and effortless way of making an urban space.[3]

Here’s hoping more of us find the time to take leisurely strolls through our cities, and to fashion and experience a palette of urban spaces that cater for several palates. Because finally, a city is only as interesting and memorable as its people – and its food!

Photo Credits: Anisha Shekhar Mukherji/ Snehanshu Mukherjee

[1] The Appearance of the Form, ‘Sharing’, N. J. Habraken, p. 26, Awater Press, Cambridge, Masssachusetts, 1988.
[2] Ibid. p.32.
[3] ‘Growing up in a planned neighbourhood’, p.27, Popular Prakashan Limited, Mumbai, 2014.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Atman – Odissi Nritya Puran, History, Techniques and Aesthetics of Odissi Dance

Atman – Odissi Nritya Puran, History, Techniques and Aesthetics of Odissi Dance.
Guru Surendra Nath Jena.
English translation by Swati Chattopadhyay.
Nrityashilp Guru Surendra Nath Jena Odissi Dance Foundation, Delhi 2017,
ISBN 978-93-5281-589-02000, pages 189.

Atman – Odissi Nritya Puran is both a poetic history and a dance manual.  The basis for the book is the Odiya text in verse composed by Guru Surendra Nath Jena, from which the book’s title takes its name. Encapsulated in this poetry is his knowledge of the Odissi dance form. As narrated by Guruji, the history of the dance form is inextricably linked with the history of Odisha and India.

This is no pedantic or dry history, but one that is vivid and alive. In its content, as well as in its narration, it closely weaves personal experiences, myth, spiritualism, architecture, art, and music with dance. The development and techniques of Odissi are thus, not confined to an enumeration of simply the dance steps or norms, but are presented as firmly rooted in the life and customs of the Odiya people. In its departure from conventional ways of writing history today—which generally follow the modernist world-view and fragment knowledge into separate, artificial compartments inhabited by separate disciplines—the book mirrors Guru Jena’s own life, which defied conventional categories of so-called folk versus classical, or rural versus urban. By explaining the context and the activities pervading the precincts in and around temples and their deities, it also adds another dimension to the understanding of historical architecture, which is generally taught merely as a development of styles.

Though composed in simple words, the text written in verse by Guruji in Odiya, is a complex conception in its constant interplay between history, theory and practice. This is printed in Roman script for the purpose of the book, which is useful for readers with some knowledge of the Odiya language. In some pages, it is also reproduced in the Odiya script, which helps to add an additional layer to the information in the book, and in visualising the connection between the aesthetics of the language and the dance, that Guruji speaks of. The original text which is a continuous poem, has been structured into smaller segments with sub-headings and brief explanatory lines in the contents page, for easier assimilation. The English translation runs parallel with the Odiya text.

The book is put together by Guru Pratibha Jena Singh, Guru Surendra Nath Jena’s disciple and daughter, herself a dancer of much repute and experience. The English translation in free verse is by Swati Chattopadhyay, Guru Pratibha Jena Singh’s disciple. Thus, the practice of dance constantly informs the interpretation of the text, which is illustrated by evocative and handsome images of the places, sculptures and monuments, as well as of the different mudras and dance positions described by Guruji. Towards the end, there are brief descriptions of musical notes and rhythms, followed by the specific dance pieces composed by Guruji.

The book is inspirational in many ways. It reaffirms not just an integrated philosophy of dance, but also that of the entire world-view of Indian philosophy. Guru Jena’s life and work as well as the content and structure of his writing, personify this world-view whose ideal is of everything in the cosmos being interlinked. This has formed the basis of a linked system of aesthetics guided by ethics, one of whose characteristic expressions in the Indian civilization has been the absence of a strict division between architecture, craft and art; between theoreticians and practitioners; and between the vernacular and the classical.[1] The book describes Guru Jena’s experience in Jatras, which he actively performed for three decades; of rural life and the presence of a multiplicity of gods and goddesses in its physical and mental landscape; of animated sculpture and architecture; and of the various sources for the present form of Odissi. The connection between the vernacular and the classical, that he discovered through his own experience, is presented and shared with great feeling and humility through Atman – Odissi Nritya Puran. The very title, which links Atman with dance, expresses what he saw as the ultimate objective of dance, as a way to liberate the soul, and achieve transcendent bliss.

The book, through Guruji’s life story also exposes the often fallacious reading of tradition as static and restrictive of individuality. Talent and dedication guided by tradition but never overwhelmed by its burden, helps to both express one’s individuality, as well as add to the evolution and innovation of knowledge. This scope for individual creativity even within a strong structure of form, is a distinctive attribute of Indian tradition seen in other arts as well. For instance instead of centralised control, where everything down to the smallest dimension is fixed or ‘frozen’, texts on vastushastra show that even the canonical Indian approach did not merely allow, but actually fostered, improvisation at every level.
Indeed, the development of Guru Jena’s distinctive style of Odissi, is ample demonstration that excellence is not a result of confining oneself within strict limits, but of immersing oneself in multi-faceted multiple levels of knowledge—of which tradition is such an important component. This is, thus, a comprehensive book that covers all aspects of Guru Surendra Nath Jena’s style of dance, which will be of value and guidance not just to students of dance, but also of art, history, music and architecture.

[1] The expression of Indian philosophy in terms of architecture and design is explained in my forthcoming book, Attributing Design Identities; Identifying Design Attributes The Indian Way