Saturday, March 30, 2013

Songs of Ends And Beginnings

At the eve of Easter, it is perhaps appropriate that thoughts turn to peace and healing and - music.  To beginnings and ends.  I find myself thinking today of the Neville Brothers - a group of musicians from New Orleans.

Their music has filled our house and all of New Orleans for over two decades now, bringing to the fore issues of black rights, crime and drugs in ghettos, the fate of many African Americans and also beautiful gospel - songs of peace and courage.

For over twenty years this extremely talented family band has been closing the annual jazz festival in New Orleans and their farewell song is looked upon as a kind of benediction for jazz.  This year onwards they will no longer be performing together.  Aaron Neville (the lead singer) says the stress on his system is far too high for him to be able to cope with continuing as a band and singing his own solos.  New Orleans and many jazz lovers feel that things will never be the same no more.  But all good things do come to an end and from this end arise other good beginnings.  Perhaps this what we need to remember.

How can I describe the Neville brothers' music?  In the early seventies, George Landry made an album with the Mardi Gras Indians that included versions of American Indian chants, vocals by Landry (a.k.a. 'Big Chief Jolly') and other members of his tribe, and instrumentation and harmonies by Landry's nephews, the Neville Brothers.  This was the first time that the Neville Brothers performed together - and there was no looking back.  I am giving a link to one of the songs from this album - 'Meet De Boys On The Battlefront' - to give an idea of the incredible energy and vibrancy, the mix of cultures that created such distinctive and soulful music in New Orleans.

The Neville Brothers went on to make lots more original music and bring out several albums.  Many of their early albums were not very well received - publicity was hard to come by and their work did not fit into an established groove.  But I think they were also finding their own path and their later albums (released in the late 80s and early 90s) show a different (and more mature and unique) kind of music. My personal favourites are Yellow Moon and Brother's Keeper.

The Neville Brothers sang original lyrics that spoke of the pain and bewilderment faced by many innocent black Americans who are caught up in an unequal society, the problem of crime, drugs, guns and more that exist in ghettos, they sang a tribute to Rosa Parks (Sister Rosa, who refused to give up her seat in the coloured section of the bus to a white person, in 1955) and they also sang songs by other well known song writers such as Leonard Cohen (the most famous being Bird On A Wire), Jimmy Cliff (Sitting Here In Limbo).  They are one of the few to have been able to do justice to Bob Dylan's songs (they sang Bob Dylan's song on the impact of wars in history 'With God On Our Side' in a fearfully soul searching way). I give a link to this song just because of its powerful lyrics and singing (this is not a live recording).  I would suggest that you just listen to it without watching the images (that don't really do justice to the artists).  I quote, from one of the stanzas of this song:

'In many a dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side...'

I also give a link to 'Bird On A Wire', to show just how original their interpretation was and how it transformed a sad love song into a song of strength and beauty.

And finally, ending with a haunting hymn - Aaron Neville's version of Amazing Grace, and wishing all a happy Easter.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Thai Food Festival In Town

There's a glut of food festivals in Bangalore these days - the Food Lovers festival, which is to be followed by the Citibank food festival and, in addition, some miscellaneous events scattered around town.  I'm sure that Holi and Easter will also bring some special menus.

The food festival I went to last night, however, is something I found quite enjoyable and so I'm writing to let readers know that it's on until the 31st of March.  This is a Thai food festival at the Raj Pavilion, Windsor Manor.  They have a visiting chef from Thailand, who is making Thai food for their dinner buffet (the buffet also retains some of their usual Indian and Western fare).

Not many five star hotels offer buffet food festivals these days hence I particularly look out for the few that come my way.  Windsor Manor, a relic of the Raj, is a very elegant and peaceful place to dine.  For these reasons, I decided to visit there last night, overlooking the cheaper and more attractive sounding food deals that are going around.

The Thai food menu was thoughtfully planned - there was a range of vegetables and meats (lots of seafood, which I particularly like) cooked in different ways. The only thing noticeably absent were Thai desserts.

The dinner began with a glass of house wine (on the house!) and a couple of interesting starters.

There was a summery, light hot and sour broth into which one could add all kinds of toppings, sprinkle some coriander leaves, squeeze a little lemon - and make one's own soup!

Laid out in a row, in gleaming dishes, were an assortment of vegetables cooked in various ways - with a light lime and pepper sauce, with chillies, with large, dark mushrooms and black beans, with slivers of fried garlic (almost buttery).  There was shrimp fried rice and stir fried flat rice noodles.  There was steamed fish served with thinly sliced carrots, fiery giant prawns with red chillies, chicken in a mild yellow curry and a hot prawn salad with bits of onion, coriander leaves, chillies and peanuts.  (Of course, the selection changes everyday).

I tried it all!!  Washed it down with cupfuls of fragrant jasmine tea and called it a day.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Bevy Of Books

It's summer and a bevy of books has come a visitin'.  They entered without asking and piled themselves up in all the nooks and crannies they could find, waiting for me to pick them up, dust off their travelly cloaks and find suitable places for them! Darn cheek, if you ask me.

The strange thing about books is how they worm themselves into your life and once there, sit and silently multiply.  They don't hesitate to locate the comfiest spot on your bed, they are seen sloppily snoozling in your best chair when guests drop in and horror of horrors- there they are, sloshing about amongst your pots and pans, getting thoroughly splashed and dishevelled when they think you are not looking.

It's stealth they use - one book muttering names of others under its breath (making sure you're around when it does so), another sighing wistfully and saying, "How nice it would be if I had my companion volume next to me," and so on.  They don't care if their sizes and shapes drive you up the wall (literally).  There they lie, looking expectantly, asking to be opened up ("Just a little stretch for my spine, dearie," the older ones cackle).

This summer's stack arrives as a motley collection - associates of old and loved books and some strangers that have drifted in by way of bookstores.  (March brings an excessive number of birthdays and while selecting books for others, I end up buying many more for myself).

By way of Amazon, I have received huge colour cookbooks - China The Beautiful Cookbook (lyrical and truly beautiful) and Mediterranean The Beautiful Cookbook (erudite though very approachable).

I have also received 'The 13 Clocks' (an old fairy tale by James Thurber - about an aggressive Duke who was always cold.  "He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or tear the wings from nightingales.  He was six feet four and forty-six, and even colder than he thought he was.  One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you than the other half."

Finally, and best of all, I have received through Amazon, 'The Midnight Folk' by John Masefield.  This is a magical way to learn about treasures and cats, owls and witches (and other midnight folk), adventurous great grandfathers - and also to brush up on your French:

..."You learn your lessons," she said.  "Never mind about what I think it was."

She left him with "pouvoir".  Kay had a special prejudice against "pouvoir".  It wasn't a good, straightforward word like "aimer."  It was a mean and ugly word, which went into "peux" and "pu."  It didn't seem to have any sense in it.  He wrestled with it with each boot twisted round a leg of his chair, scraping up and down.  Then, looking up, he saw great-grandpapa Harker looking down at him from his portrait over the mantelpiece.

The portrait was one that he had looked at during lessons ever since lessons began.  It was just "great-grandpapa Harker's portrait," though it was labelled Baxter.  When people were shown the schoolroom, the governess always said "That is a Baxter," and then people said, "Really" or "Fancy that" or "How interesting".  It was the full length of a man in old fashioned clothes.  There was a sort of shrubbery behind him and a sort of blueness behind the shrubbery.  It was said to be the only full length Baxter as Baxter only did down to the knees.  But now, as Kay looked, great-grandpapa Harker took a step forward, and as he did so, the wind ruffled the skirt of his coat and shook the shrubs behind him.  A couple of blue butterflies which had been upon the shrubs for seventy odd years, flew out into the room.  Great-grandpapa Harker  took another step forward and smiled.  Now Kay could see into the shrubbery: it was just where Kay's fort now was, but the box trees had grown enormously since then although the bull finches were already there.  Great-grandpapa Harker held out his hand and smiled again.  His face, which had seemed such an old-portrait kind of a face, became alive and full of welcome.  He seemed a fine fellow, not at all old, and very kind and good.

"Well, great-grandson Kay," he said, "ne pouvez vous pas come into the jardin avec moi?"

Kay thought it odd, but it was a perfect excuse for not doing "pouvoir" : "I would have learned it, but great-grandpapa Harker asked me to come into the jardin avec him, so of course I thought you wouldn't mind."  He smiled back at great-grandpapa Harker and said, "Oui, grand-grand pere, thank you; je serai very glad."

Great-grandpapa held out both hands, and Kay jumped onto the table; from there, with a step of run, he leaped onto the top of the fender and caught the mantelpiece.  Great-grandpapa Harker caught him and helped him up into the picture.  Instantly the schoolroom disappeared.  Kay was out of doors, standing beside his great-grandfather, looking at the house as it was in the pencil drawing in the study, with cows in the field close to the house on what was now the lawn, the church, unchanged, beyond, and nearby some standard yellow roses, long since vanished, but now seemingly in full bloom...

Getting back to those books of the present, the ones I bought while searching for gifts are: 'I dreamed of Africa' by Kuki Gallmann (a memoir of bringing up a family in Kenya), 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (a story set in the Channel Isles just after the second world war) and 'Ten Thousand Miles Without A Cloud' by Sun Shuyun (a travelogue and more, of the author's journey from China to India, in search of her beliefs).  Some not complete strangers are 'The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds' by Alexander McCall Smith (a gentle Scottish story about life - and detection) and 'The Winter Queen' by Boris Akunin (beckoning me with its spirited though slightly sad smile, in the way that these Russian tomes do, and featuring the extraordinary detective, Fandorin).

This is my summer reading (and I have already gone through some of it).  Please don't think I am writing out these long lists of my own volition - it's these critters that are askin' me, in fact nudging me to do so, in the hope that they may slip into your rooms as well.  All I can say is - good luck with your summer visitors, they will come a knockin' soon...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Tibetan Centres Near Dharamshala

Monks playing football, Sherabling
I recently visited Kangra, a valley in Himachal Pradesh that abuts the beautiful Dhauladhar mountains and also lies close to the Tibetan settlement in McLeodganj or Dhasa (as Tibetans call this area of Upper Dharamshala or little Lhasa).  This region is an area of tea plantations (mostly established by the British) and also home of the Dalai Lama and many exiled Tibetans.  It has an interesting history (and mix of communities), beginning about 5000 years ago and continuously changing until the present.

In 1849, the British annexed this part of Kangra and set up a cantonment for their troops.  The only structure that then stood on the annexed land was a building that was a shelter or resthouse for pilgrims (these structures are typically called dharamshalas), hence the place was called 'Dharamshala'.  The upper part of this area (McLeodganj) was named after Sir Donald Friell McLeod, the lieutenant governor of Punjab.  ('Ganj' means area or place).

Lord Elgin, the British Viceroy of India (1862-63) built a summer home for himself, a property called Mortimer House, that was acquired by Lala Basheshar Nath (a resident of Lahore (Pakistan)) and later taken over by the Government of India.

A massive earthquake destroyed many buildings in Kangra in 1905 and the area was gradually rebuilt.  In 1960, Mortimer House was given to the 14th Dalai Lama (in exile), by Pandit Nehru, then the Prime Minister of India.  This is now the private residence of the Dalai Lama and the area around serves as a refuge for many Tibetans, who still hope and dream of returning to their original homeland in the future.

It was with some anticipation that I travelled to see this place that I had never visited before.  It is a pretty region, with green valleys and snow capped, forested mountains.  But the villages and towns in between are all rows of concrete (not surprising perhaps, given the population density and increase in tourism).  McCleodganj is a two street town, packed with little shops (many run by Kashmiris who have left Kashmir and Punjabis who have come from the neighbouring state to do 'business'), homestays, restaurants, cafes and a couple of modern Tibetan temples.

By chance, a special prayer meeting was being organized at the time we were visiting their main temple.  We sat in a courtyard filled with people and heard them chanting in tune to prayers that emanated from a loudspeaker.  The chants are not very rhythmic and sometimes harsh sounding; one does not know what they mean or convey unless you are familiar with the language.  Outside, groups of students stood in makeshift stalls, demanding the freeing of Tibet and release of the little boy, Gedhyun Choekyi Nyima, (who is believed to be the Panchen Lama - the highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama, who was spirited away by the Chinese government in 1995, at the age of six).  The prayers continued for over an hour and we left about midway, to walk in the streets below.

Motif from the snow lion flag of Tibet, woodcraft from Norbulingka
There were shops and cafes selling knick knacks - T shirts, silver jewellery, tangka paintings, books.  People (mostly tourists and students) clustered in little cafes, sipping coffee.  One of the nicest things about this large Tibetan area that it seems to have encouraged other centres of Tibetan heritage to flourish around it.  I visited two memorable places.

One was Norbulingka Institute, a centre where people are trained in traditional art and craft of Tibet - wood carving, metal work, Thangka painting and more.  This is based on Norbulingka ('the jewelled park') in Lhasa, traditionally a summer palace and retreat for the Dalai Lamas.  The Indian counterpart is a structure based loosely on the original, with the aim of keeping alive Tibetan culture, values and tradition, and a special focus on expressing these through art.

The Norbulingka Institute - a cluster of buildings

A shrine along the way
This institute comprises a pretty cluster of buildings, set against a backdrop of mountain peaks.  Fish swim in clear pools, prayer wheels rotate along the winding stone paths and prayer flags stretch and flutter between pine trees that line the way.  Though there is a general hum of activity, one doesn't hear (or see) much outside.  Most of the action takes place within the workshops or the monastery.  It feels peaceful and happily productive.

Wood painting

Thangka painting
There is also a small, very creatively designed doll museum that depicts traditional scenes of life in Tibet.  The dolls are beautifully made and dressed in colourful Tibetan finery.

Dolls play out a ceremonial dance

Hand painted map of Tibet in the doll museum
 After walking through and exploring all the rooms, we finally sat down in a half shaded spot in their peaceful (vegetarian) garden cafe, ate some momos and noodle soup and just listened to the wind and the flowing water for awhile.

The second Tibetan centre I enjoyed visiting was a large monastery that was completely off the tourist track.  To reach it, one had to climb a few rocky hills (by car of course!), go past a pretty little village surrounded by mustard fields and then up another slope, at the summit of which lay Sherabling (a wonderful sounding name).

Mustard fields forever
We were greeted by rows and rows of prayer flags - I had never seen so many in my life!  They stood out against the blue sky, sending messages and hopes skyward.

Approaching Sherabling

The Sherabling prayerwheels and shrines
The Sherabling monastery and its surroundings, which house about 800 students and teachers, have a very calming and welcoming air.  We reached in the afternoon, when everything closes for lunch, but there was an acting guide (an apprentice monk) who opened the doors of the magnificent temple and took us around, explained the significance of all the symbols and structures present within.  He allowed (actually, encouraged!) us us to take our time, sit below the huge Buddha statue and meditate or pray.

Inside the temple
For praying and learning
We then walked around, past the large ceremonial hall, the rows of student rooms, the makeshift football and cricket field outside - and back to the visitors' room, where we were offered delicious tea and some fried Tibetan snacks.

Sherabling appears to be a large and active centre for serious learning and is one of the numerous Palpung monasteries (Pal- glorious, Pung - to gather) that originated in China and have spread to different parts of the world.  The senior teachers here are highly experienced Buddhist masters who seem to have a large following internationally.  I didn't know this at the time I visited; I was just impressed with how well it was organized and how genuinely peaceful and well balanced it seemed.

Knowing the truth
We wound up in the cafeteria, where we ate a good lunch of handmade noodles in a hearty broth.  Thus, replete in mind, body and soul, we drove back to the tea estate where we were staying.         

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Food Festival Breezes Into Bangalore

It is spring in many parts of the country (though summer here in Bangalore) and is just the right time for a spell of good food.  Last year it was Citibank and the BBC Good Food magazine and this year it is the Food Lover's Club that has brought a food festival spread throughout the city, lasting 17 days.  This year's festival seems to me the best coordinated so far, with an easily accessible and informative website describing the 31 participating restaurants.

Each of the chefs has designed a set of their specialties that are served at a fixed price.  The prices vary a little, depending on the place and the specific menu (one has an option of 3 or 4 kinds of menus).  They are not very low but not extravagant either; for the kind of gourmet spread on offer, this is really a very good deal.  I particularly enjoy these kinds of festivals because I can visit new places and try a variety of foods that I might normally not be able to do within a fixed budget.  I also like to encourage talented chefs in general!

Last night we visited Jashn, a restaurant serving tandoori and other food from the north west frontier.  It was a very pleasant experience, sitting by the quiet poolside (I had expected a lot of people to come for the festival offer but in fact there were very few occupied tables), sipping a complimentary glass of wine and slowly trying everything the menu offered (we could only do justice to their 2 course menu and not even that - we stopped two thirds of the way as we were so full!).  Each course was a set of multiple dishes and there were various delicious freebies thrown in, like the papads and chutneys (hung curd with mango, hung curd with garlic, green chutney and pineapple chutney), shorba (a light yet creamy soup of lamb and lentils), their kali dal (black lentils), roghan josh (a Kashmiri meat curry) and assorted rotis.

This restaurant was extremely flexible about the menu (as we wanted a mix of vegetarian and meat kebabs) and the portions were generous.  It was a good meal, especially as they were able to make the tandoori food without chillies for us (something we always have trouble getting in most Indian restaurants).

An almost half-moon made an appearance, a balmy breeze blew over the pool as we sipped and savoured each bit leisurely.  Here are pictures of some of our food (plates - and fingers getting messier with each course)!

lamb shorba -tastes better with a squeeze of lime
fish tikka in a green masala, grilled stuffed mushrooms

the ubiquitous naan

chef's special 'dhuandar (smoked) mutton kebab' and sauteed potatoes

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Baijnath - An Old Shiva Temple

Mahashivaratri - the great night of (worshipping) Shiva is just over.  This is apparently Shiva's favourite  night - the night of no moon, in the waning fortnight of Phalgun (around February-March); the night when Shiva performs his tandava - the fearsome primordial dance of destruction (and also creation and preservation).

A week before Shivaratri, I was in the hills of Kangra, and I happened to visit a very old Shiva temple - the temple of Baijnath.  Shiva is worshipped here as Baijnath (Vaidyanath - the Lord of Physicians).

I like old hill temples for their simplicity and accessibility; they often have an earthiness and directness that modern and urban temples lack.  In Baijnath, Shiva is depicted in various forms, by himself or along with his consort Parvati atop Nandi - the mythical bull that he rode.  The temple was built around the 12th century (and was partially destroyed, as was much of Kangra architecture, in an intense earthquake in 1905).

According to mythology, this temple houses the Shiva linga that the king Ravana worshipped and carried with him on his journey to (Sri) Lanka before he was tricked into leaving it behind in India .  Here are a few pictures from the temple niches, of Shiva.  Shiva carries a trident in one hand, a drum (for his tandava) in the other.  A crescent moon adorns his hair and a necklace of skulls lies round his neck.  The river Ganga emerges from his matted locks and flows earthward.  He is the Lord of dance, the Lord of physicians and the prime Yogi.  In these carvings, he looks benign - almost happy.

The last carving is one of Shakti (symbolizing a divine, dynamic feminine creative force, also worshipped as Kali - the slayer of demons).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

My Shawls Breathe Again

Many of my Kashmiri shawls, or rather those of my mother and grandmother, have been locked away for over a decade.  In days of complete ignorance, I stored them with neem leaves and cloves as recommended by some experts and, much to my despair, the shawls got thoroughly chewed on by a variety of insects.  Not knowing what to do, I got them cleaned and put them away as I didn't have the heart to discard them.

Now, thanks to a Kashmiri family friend and his acquaintance, a shawl weaver (who also cleans and repairs carpets), these shawls have got a new lease of life.  They looked old and worn out when I removed them yesterday morning but have considerably perked up since, just lying in the fresh air.

Today, the shawl weaver visited and closely examined each of them, holding them up to the light and telling me about each shawl's history - what kind of embroidery had been done on each, how many times they had been darned, what kind of weaving, dying and cutting had been done.  It was fascinating to see him dig out information in the manner of an archaeologist, going inch by inch over the material - measuring, inspecting and academically discussing the qualities of each piece.

Of course he was distressed by all the damage; it is not a pleasant sight.  But the prognosis was positive.  All the pieces could be used again, with a combination of darning, very fine darning (yes, there are two kinds of darning techniques used - one where you see the stitches and one where the stitches merge with the weave), patchwork (cutting out bits of embroidered motifs and sewing them onto other material and introducing new patterns in the process), cutting damaged pieces off to make stoles and scarves with additional embroidery.

For one of the shawls, I had to select some new material; he had brought with him a shade card, from which I selected the background colour that a plain shawl would be dyed in before the old embroidery was transferred on to it.

Most of the old wool would be salvaged as this kind of wool is no longer available. He explained why, in some detail.  Fibres of wool, which were earlier cleaned by hand are now processed in a machine, which tends to weaken them.  Thus the shawls are less durable and last only a few decades as compared to a few lifetimes.  The kind of embroidery and weaving has also changed considerably over the years so the older kind of shawls are no longer made.

For me, it is largely a question of sentiment, of being able to salvage and use things that my mother and grandmother wore.  Apart from this, the shawls are just so nice to feel and wear - they are soft, warm and coloured in beautiful shades ranging from a natural off white (one on side) and gold (on the other), deep blue, warm mustard-yellow, baby pink and a natural grey filled with embroidered flowers and vines.  Each, of course, has its own name and history.

Repairing these itself is a work of art.  The reversible shawl for instance has to be darned such that the stitches merge with different colours on each side.  The patchwork has to be done in a manner that looks as though the pattern has been embroidered on or is part of a larger, intricate design rather than something that has been cut and pasted.

The shawl weaver described all that he planned to do but said that for some of the shawls he would consult our common friend and also his embroiderers, to work out the designs in more detail.  Then, over cups of tea and sweet carrot halwa, he explained how the shawls should be wrapped and kept airtight while storing them, how they should be aired out at the beginning and end of the winter.

Interestingly, he pointed out that it was neither sun nor chemicals that were required to protect the materials but physically shaking and airing (to ensure that no insects clung to the shawls) followed by storage in an airless environment where the insects could not live.  He also explained how these shawls look and stay better when cleaned in Kashmir (where they are washed in special springs or streams that softens and cleanses the wool) rather than when they are dry cleaned.

He also examined some rugs and instructed us about when we needed to get them cleaned.  Then, after I had written everything down for him in his diary and in my own, we said goodbye.  He left with a bundle containing my shawls and promised to return them well before next winter so I could use them next year.  My shawls are in safe hands and I'm grateful for this unexpected stroke of luck that brought me in contact with this kind looking, soft spoken shawl man.

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