On the narrow, crowded Balepet Main Road in the heart of south Bangalore, I walked through an old wooden door with peeling blue paint, a door so imperceptibly squeezed in between two small shops that I almost missed it at first. My walk had brought me to the historic but largely unknown Sugreeva temple. A temple dedicated to Sugreeva is rare anywhere in India, but to come upon its quiet existence in the heart of Bangalore’s commercial district astonished me.

The city’s rich and ancient temple heritage mirrors the story of the forgotten Sugreeva Venkateshwara Temple. Pockets of history, legend and folklore are hidden in the midst of a city eager to rush ahead; among people in a hurry to reach some place else. I had been a true-blue “Bengaluru hudugi” (girl) all my life, but I realized how little I knew of this heritage. I was determined to remedy this.

Poornima Dasharathi, writer and founder of Unhurried, who conducts heritage walks in south India, says Bangalore’s history would be as well-known as Mumbai’s or Kolkata’s but much of it has been lost in the frantic march of development. Some of this history has managed to survive in small, forgotten temples, which I had decided to see and explore.

In Nagarathpet, just 1km from Balepet, lies a shrine as rare as that of Sugreeva. This is a temple dedicated to the Pandavas and Draupadi (who is worshipped as Adi Shakti). The Dharmaraya Swamy Temple’s prangana (courtyard) is large and empty. The sanctum sanctorum is full of people. Apart from the idols of the five Pandavas and Draupadi, there are also portraits of Krishna and Adi Shakti. The Dharmaraya temple is also the starting point of the annual Karaga festival, a 500-year-old mythical tribute that is a nod to syncretism. Every year around April, a man dressed as a woman carries the karaga (a 3ft-tall pot symbolizing Draupadi) on his head and parades through these old parts, followed by a procession of devotees. After the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharat, Draupadi donned the form of Adi Shakti and created an army of soldiers to kill the demon Tripurasura. When the soldiers asked her to stay back with them, she promised to come back every year—the Karaga festival celebrates this event. Over the years, the festival has transcended caste and religious barriers—a fact largely unknown to Bangaloreans outside this small world. One of the first stops the Karaga makes is at the Hazrat Tawakkal Mastan dargah in Balepet.

Lokesh, the man who will bear the karaga this year, narrates to me the legend associated with this particular stop. “Mastan saab, a Muslim saint, was once hurt in the melee of the crowds during the Karaga procession. The priests who saw him injured applied kumkum on his wounds, which then healed miraculously. A grateful Mastan requested that the procession also stop at his grave after his death. Even today, the karaga stops at his dargah.” Historian and author Suresh Moona says there are more than 30 temples in Bangalore that are at least 100 years old and have rich histories of their own. He tells me to “at least not miss the small patch of Hampi”, just metres away from the spanking new Metro station of Ulsoor. I set out to see the Someshwara Temple, said to have been built by Bangalore’s founder Kempe Gowda I. Legend has it that an exhausted Kempe Gowda slept under a tree after a fruitless hunting expedition. Lord Someshwara is said to have appeared in a dream and instructed him to dig at that spot for treasure and use it to build a temple right there. Built in the classical style of the Vijayanagara temples, this temple is magnificently carved; without an inch of space on its outer walls and pillars. Elephants, lions, horses, musicians, gods, goddesses, chariots, dancers, all come together in happy companionship. All around it is Ulsoor showing off the trappings of a modern city that it has acquired over the years—huge billboards, a curving flyover, snail-paced traffic and, of course, the Metro station.

Moona also asked me not to miss the Kadu Malleswara Temple that gave its name to Malleswaram, one of Bangalore’s oldest neighbourhoods. Built by Ekoji, the brother of Maratha leader Shivaji, the temple’s serene garden is full of old peepal, Ashoka, guava and other trees, amid which are several small idols of Nagas. Moona tells me that when the temple was originally built, the entire area was a thick jungle, hence the name Kadu (forest) Malleswara. Right opposite is the 400-year-old Dakshina Mukha Nandi Teertha Kalyani temple. “The structure of this temple, where everything converges to an open centre, is unusual. Rare too is its peculiar architecture, where a pond teeming with tortoises and fish is in front of the black granite idols and Nandi is placed above Shiv, so that water from its mouth continuously falls on the idol,” Moona explains. Curiously, this entire structure was discovered buried, almost intact, on this busy road in Malleswaram in 1997, when workers began digging the site to construct a building.

My final stop was the ninth century Gavi Gangadhareshwara cave temple. The temple inside a natural cave in Gavipuram is most famous for its tryst with the sun every year during the Makara Sankranthi festival. At around 5pm, the sun’s rays pass through Nandi’s horns and fall on the linga inside the cave. One of the few temples in India to have a sculpture dedicated to Agni, the temple has many unusual features, including two huge rock-cut discs placed parallel to each other in the front yard. The outer shrine is said to have been built in the 17th century by Kempe Gowda after he was released from imprisonment by a neighbouring chieftain, Rama Raya. Legend has it that a secret underground tunnel (now blocked) connects this temple to Shivaganga on Bangalore’s outskirts. Some even believe there is another tunnel that leads all the way to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. No matter what its history or legend, I am excited to crouch through a dark cave and sit quietly in a rocky corner when the big city outside is rushing by.

Unexpected beauty and quirky surprises like this continue to persist not just here, but in temples across Bangalore. I had always thought Bangalore is accursed to bear the cross of clichéd sobriquets. The “pensioner’s paradise” and “Garden City” of my childhood years became the IT City, pub city and Silicon Valley of India of recent years—the city has been steadily collecting these media medals like a never-say-die general. But none of these epithets do justice to the whiff of history mixed with camphor, incense and jasmine that waft through its old, quiet temples.

Published in Mint-Wall Street Journal on 26.01.2013. Find it here: http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/La1lVqWl76MigOQzx3wVXM/Neighbourhoods--Inside-Bangalores-secret-temples.html
Sugreeva idol
Sancto Sanctorum of the Dharmaraya Swamy Temple
One of the rock-cut discs outside the Gavi Gangadhareshwara temple
Late last year, crowds were thronging the large field beside the ancient Shiva temple in Basavanagudi, one of the oldest parts of Bangalore. The makeshift stage, though inordinately tacky, looked ready for the star performer of the evening. The hastily set-up food court, just a few yards away, was seeing brisk business, perhaps the best of the season. Suddenly, the buzz intensified and the next instant, Sonu Nigam was on stage to loud cheers and much thumping, scraping and pulling of metal chairs. The rockstar was here and the show had finally begun.

Like in the movies, if you imagine a scratchy video cassette rewinding a few decades, the scene would have been no different. Crowds would have thronged the same large field beside the ancient temple – only Basavanagudi wouldn’t be old Bangalore, not yet. The stage would have been certainly makeshift; instead of a food court, there would have been pakoda, groundnut and corn vendors and they too would have seen brisk business. The buzz would have intensified as suddenly and the next instant, a rockstar would have appeared on stage to loud cheers and much thumping. And he would have been a storyteller.

Harikatha artistes were the original rockstars of South India who created their own version of ‘Swinging Sixties’ and ‘Sensational seventies’. But in the decades that followed, they saw the kind of sweeping, sudden decline that Greek tragedies would be proud to narrate about. Almost relegated to Bangalore’s growing stockpile of ignored history, Harikatha, that open-air, pandal-happy, Bollywood-before-Bollywood, singing-dancing-narrating-advising-philosophising single-performer act, got trampled and buried under its many imitators and improvisers.

What Bangaloreans once considered three hours (sometimes more) of ‘full timepass-u’ and thus high on the must-do list, was being laughed at as religious mumbo-jumbo fit for bored ‘Basavanagudi oldies’. The artistes either gave up out of sheer penury and frustration or moved on to other creative fields. Meanwhile, their art, which conjured up arrogant kings, repentant demons, love-struck Gandharas, curse-eager rishis, beauteous Apsaras and selfish gods just by the sheer power of dramatic narration, was fading and fading fast.

Retired sociology professor T K Ramachandra, son of one such illustrious Harikatha exponent of Bangalore, T Karigiri Achar, narrates how this ancient tradition grew out of the Bhakti Movement and took firm roots in large parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. But much like the gods and demons it recites about, ‘Harikatha’ or ‘the story of God’ assumed different avatars in different parts of India, changing its garb and altering its form to suit local cultures and beliefs.

During its glory days in Bangalore and many other towns of Karnataka, the art form looked upon itself both as a solemn keeper of traditions and friendly neighbourhood rescuer from ennui. Ramachandra recalls how when his father and uncles held fortnight-long Harikatha sessions during the ‘high season’, life used to come to a virtual standstill in the neighbourhood in the evenings as people thronged the pandals to hear the tales they had heard a hundred times before – the charm was in hearing it being narrated so magically that the ears became eyes. “I was a starstruck teenager who fidgeted if a single session was missed; we were as addicted to Harikatha narrations then as youngsters today are perhaps to a gripping television drama – there’s really nothing like the delicious wait to hear what happened next.”

Ramachandra’s forefathers, in fact, are some of the many unsung pioneers of this remarkable art. His grandfather Venkanna Das, whom Ramachandra describes as a strikingly handsome and tall man with aquiline features, came to Bangalore on a whim and began utilising his natural talent in oration and music to earn a living. Soon, his fame spread and his storytelling sessions that lasted entire nights became the talk of the town. Venkanna Das’ strapping physical beauty and baritone that had no need of a mike, is part of Bangalore’s Harikatha folklore.  His four sons learnt the art from their charmer of a father and tweaked it a bit to suit ‘modern’ attention spans and sensibilities.

“Orthodox Harikatha artistes used a particularly bland form of narration with no voice intonations, minimal music and much didacticism. Venkanna Das was already fighting against this. But his sons went a step further; they were brave enough to adopt a sing-song narrative style. Theyalso trimmed the preaching, sprinkled a dash of soul advice and a topped it off with a huge dollop of wit.”

The result was magical, to say the least. The brothers used to be sometimes so overbooked that they were forced to narrate live at one session while a recorded version would be played at another location.

But Harikatha’s dark days were just round the corner. Plays, music and movies were fast gaining currency and their vivid colour and multi-dimensional nature were big threats to be tackled single-handedly by the lone performer. Ramachandra’s father and uncles perhaps read the writing on the wall much earlier than the rest. They got together to establish ‘Prabhat Kalavidaru’, a dance-drama and theatre company. Needless to say, their Harikatha experience meant they were enormously successful in their new venture.

Indeed, the art also became virtually extinct not just because of competition but also because of a distinct lack of nurture. The foremost reason was the very nature of Harikatha, which asked a lot from its practitioner. It expected him to understand music and have a singing voice; be able to dance occasionally, comprehend poetry, indulge in histrionics, be an arresting orator and have a sense of humour. Little wonder then, let alone training apprentices, merely finding them was proving to be increasingly difficult.

Which is why, a few months ago, when Sharath Prabhath, all of 22, strode on to the stage in full saffron splendour, lustily crooning a 14th century Bhakti saint’s song and dancing to the rhythm of the ‘ektara’ he himself was strumming, it ceased to be just a tribute to his grandfather and Harikatha exponent Jayasimha Das, perfect though it was.  It felt instead like a clarion call of resurgence of an art that had suddenly rediscovered itself. The spellbound audience who cheered and clapped through his nearly two-hour performance were certainly in agreement.

Sharath is just one of many youngsters in Bangalore who are part of a growing band of enthusiastic and young Harikatha performers, who whether through their sheer gusto or through genuine talent, have brought about a happy revival of interest in the art form in Bangalore.

Dancer and former Kannada film actress Hema Panchmukhi along with T K Ramachandra have in fact formed a group ‘Kathakeerthana’ under which they not only conduct a four-week training programme for children between the ages of 6 and 20, but also insist that the trainees give a public performance at the end of the course. Surprisingly, these performances have been very well received and not just by adoring parents.

Twenty-year-old Varshini Vijay, who is part of this group and who also has begun to give solo performances, says learning Harikatha was “the best thing that happened to her ever.” She says she has gained in confidence, her interest in music and dance has spiked and her knowledge of her ancestral traditions is only growing. Varshini often narrates just like how she speaks to her friends in college – in casual ‘Kanglish’ with a few Sanskrit verses thrown in.

Ramachandra explains that to ensure Harikatha’s survival and get more youngsters interested, it is important to give them freedom to experiment and evolve. Further, to tackle the problem of multi-talents that Harikatha demands, he has hit upon a ‘relay race’ solution.

So in a ‘Kathakeerthana’ programme, the Harikatha no longer remains a one-man show but becomes a collective rendition. Children as young as six sing a few lines and pass on the baton; the story gets woven more densely by older and more experienced performers while those keen on playing instruments or singing the chorus are allowed to do just that.

Elsewhere, in further evidence of this revival, a 12-day Harikatha festival was held in several cities of Andhra Pradesh this March while Chennai-based artiste Vishaka Hari’s YouTube videos garner thousands of hits. Vishaka’s combination of Carnatic music with Harikatha narration in English has worked like magic and today, she gives regular national as well as international performances. In Bangalore too, Harikatha performers, who mostly hail from families that have traditionally practiced the art, are seeing a renewed demand. Mention must be made here of Shobha Gururajulu Naidu, daughter of renowned Harikatha exponent Gururajulu Naidu. Shobha, like Vishaka, is amongst the few women who are keeping alive an art traditionally performed by men and has been doing so since she was 12. In Chennai, organisations such as Narada Gana Sabha and Chennai Fine Arts regularly come together to organise Harikatha performances; the festival organised last year to celebrate the birth centenary of Banni Bai, another renowned female performer, garnered much positive press. While stalwarts like Kalyanapuram Aravamudachariyar and Bhadragiri Achuthadas continue to give performances to packed houses all over South India, what has been unique about its resurrection in Bangalore is that it is being done by and through children.   

“Harikatha runs in my blood and training children in this art gives me more satisfaction than anything I have ever done,” says Ramachandra who not only directs the performances but also works on the scripts. Hema Panchmukhi, who handles the dance direction, says their ambition is to get more schools to participate and explore thematic variations – a little removed from Harikatha’s strong mythological roots. Varshini pipes up, “why not a performance on universal brotherhood using bits of reggae, jazz and lounge music?”

Why not, indeed. If they had heard her suggestion, the rockstars of Basavanagudi, who were quite happy to jazz up the art form during their heydays, would have certainly clapped in delight.

Published in the July issue of Avantika, a magazine on the world of performing Arts. Find its website here: www.avantikamagazine.com

Small-town Wales is the last place I expected to face a barrage of questions about Kathak from a Pole, a German, a Kenyan and an Egyptian, their keen faces turned towards mine, the journey of mystification they had just been through reflecting in their eyes. “But you said it was an Indian dance form! So you should know!”

I should perhaps. But I was in a state of suspense myself; confused, stunned, enthralled and spellbound – no state really to explain how Kathak, which I was supposedly familiar with, tossed me mercilessly into an alien world, beautiful yet distressing, where shadows and light created havoc with memories, where there was no escape from a cold wind that ripped through senses, evoking, despite myself, a visceral sense of delight in agony. I was grappling with established notions of gravity, of rootedness and what might happen when they are snatched away without warning.  

We had just been witness to a befuddling yet spectacular performance of ‘Vertical Road’ at the Welsh town of Swansea by Akram Khan, one of Britain’s most feted dancer-choreographers, hailed as a shining ambassador for ‘new Kathak’. My inability to provide an ‘Indian’ context and explanation for a performance that was billed as ‘contemporary Kathak’ left me wondering whether Kathak today is indeed on its way to achieving the impossible – becoming the perfect bridge between the old and the new, acquiring a global cloak that flows sinuously around its traditional Indian form.

It could be argued that Kathak, with its history of temple and Mughal court influences and its open-hearted embrace of Sufi and Persian elements, is a form that naturally lends itself to experimentation. Nevertheless, practitioners of traditional art forms are always faced with this eternal dilemma – how do you make your art relevant to a modern, younger and perhaps more demanding audience without losing the essence of your art or worse, without succumbing to the temptation of merely showcasing a ‘museum piece’?

Whether it is because of the very fluidity of Kathak itself or because its new-age exponents have decided to tackle this dilemma head-on, there has been a happy resurgence of interest in the form and an explosion of new ideas and creative Kathak-inspired renditions on both the Indian and the international stage in the past few years. Some astonishing talents from Britain deserve a special mention here. Birmingham-based Sonia Sabri is much lauded for the emotive quality of her contemporary spin on Kathak. Pakistan-born Britisher Nahad Siddiqui too has been more than successful in bridging the cultural divide between her home and adopted countries with ambitious fusion productions like 'My Motherland'.  

But it is the movement vocabulary of Akram Khan, trained in classical Kathak as well as contemporary dance, that is often credited to be the break-out effort for ‘contemporary Kathak’, a label rejected by most of its practitioners. His unique brand of Kathak-infused contemporary productions, be it the transformative ‘Vertical Road’ or his new solo ‘Desh’, which abstracts the ancient rhythms of the dance form to go on a journey into the past, Akram’s work has puzzled some but fascinated most. Though not the first artiste to combine classical influences with contemporary movements, even his strongest critics do not deny the liquid, throbbing intensity he brings to his performances. I ask him whether it is Kathak that brings about this power of expression or it is a deliberate attempt to merge, fuse and evolve. “I never set out to modernise the classical form – being trained in two art forms, I started out with confusion rather than fusion. It is this confusion I have embraced. For me, Kathak is like water – both formless and with form. It is for me a starting point and I gradually let in other influences, almost ritualistically,” he tells me.  

Indian exponents are not too far behind either. Kathak-duo Nirupama and Rajendra, gradually gaining recognition for their sustained efforts to “entertain their audience with their creativity” as they put it, take pains to explain to me the difference between their attempts at contemporisation of Kathak as compared to say an Akram Khan or a Sonia Sabri production. “Akram’s work stems from a Western sensibility; it is contemporary dance with a dash of Kathak but what we are attempting is exactly the opposite. We aim to present classical Kathak with a dash of modernisation. His work is undoubtedly brilliant but nevertheless, I feel his productions expect the audience to come armed with a certain level of art education,” says Nirupama, who along with Rajendra, runs the Bangalore-based Abhinava Dance Company. Their innovative interpretations of Kathak, be it the jesty ‘Ta-dha’ choreographed by their guru Kumudini Lakhia and set to Indo-Afro percussion rhythms by Praveen D Rao, or the ‘Ram Katha Vismaya’, a Disneyesque interpretation of Ramayana,  has brought them considerable fame in the region. Is she referring to the much-debated theory of the artiste’s arrogance versus reaching out to the audience? “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it artiste’s arrogance. That would be presumptuous of me. I will only say that as performers, we believe that the purpose of Indian art is to connect with the audience, to evoke an emotion and transport him to a different world at that very instant. The creator’s ego is no doubt a force within every artiste but at the same time, he or she should also recognise that the ultimate responsibility of a performer is to entertain the audience through art and not just showcase talent.”

It is this itch to make the audience go ‘a-ha’, even if it is just for a moment, that has always ensured that they look at Kathak differently, says Nirupama.

“It is not that we set out to infuse novelty in Kathak…for us, the kick is in being creative,” adds Rajendra.  “Even way back in 1995 when our solo production ‘Parampurush’, which looked at masculinity as a creative, preserving as well as a destroying force, was premiered to mixed reactions, we were undeterred. Critics questioned us even then whether we indeed were performing Kathak or it was merely a ‘show’ that employed stage, costume and light effects. We were never interested in a demonstrative performance of Kathak where the dancer spends 55 minutes of a 90-minute performance displaying her footwork to the accompaniment of a tabla and a harmonium! We always wanted to employ the skill the dance form taught us to entertain and make audiences think – not just showcase our mastery over the technique,” he explains.

The response to their latest Kathak-based production ‘Kathakitathom’ has convinced the dancer couple that they are on the right track. The neo-classical production explores the two aspects of 'Katha' (story) and Kitathom (the rhythm) through two basic human emotions of love and valour. It has entertainment written all over it. It is fun, it is young and it is interactive. Unafraid to depict on stage what can be loosely termed a Bollywoodian concept of love as infectious happiness or valour as soul-stirring enthusiasm, the production is a splash of colour and light, enhanced many folds by the foot-tapping gypsy and jazz-based music interludes. "If audiences can sing along in a rock concert, we don't see why they shouldn't clap along with us when we say our bols," says Nirupama.

Aditi Mangaldas, incidentally the Kathak artiste Akram Khan told me is one of his favourites, agrees wholeheartedly. "Kathak for me is not something that pulls me back but is a form that sets me free. It is a dynamic form which I look through the prism of modern sensibilities. This is not to say that it must be uprooted from its origins. Instead we have to tend to its roots by pouring water from different wells, thus allowing it to grow beyond and explore the wide space outside," says Aditi poetically.

She passionately detests being called a 'contemporary Kathak' dancer. "Kathak has always been contemporary," she argues. "It is one form where change has been constant, right from its inception. What some of us are trying to do now is merely imbibing it with 21st century nuances instead of recreating the ambience of the old." Aditi believes no matter how hard one tries to recreate the atmosphere and ambience of the Mughal courts or the temples where Kathak originated, the result will not match up. "My approach to contemporary Kathak, for lack of a better terminology, is simply this – why try to imitate when the form gives you so much freedom to create?" Which is why, she believes, in a production like ‘Timeless’, she used Kathak as a means to an end. A critic calls it 'using Kathak as a springboard' to jump to a different realm and Aditi doesn’t disagree.

I wonder whether these attempts at reaching out or contemporisation of the form, laudable they well might be, irk purists and whether they face accusations of dumbing down. Akram Khan dismisses such criticism outright. Perhaps with his stature he can afford to do so but what about budding performers? “To me, dance is pure. I am not enthused by dancers, budding or otherwise, who imitate their gurus; I am keen on dancers who are willing to use their training to discover new truths within themselves. Nobody said this is easy but this is what is essential for growth.” Aditi believes if new energy isn’t infused in a dance form, the performer cannot hope to take his art to a varied global audience. “I am not claiming that there are no takers for a strictly-coded performance. There surely are but there are several others out there who would like to connect with you and your talent. You simply lose out on an opportunity.” Rajendra vehemently denies that they are ‘simplifying’ to entertain. For him and Nirupama, he says, dance has always been about honesty. "Even the traditionally stiff-lipped audience in Chennai has loved our contemporary Kathak performances. We have observed that true connoisseurs have applauded us and so has the unbiased man in the hall. It is the mediocre in-betweeners who are the problem," Nirupama says wryly.

But mediocre in-betweeners have never really been able to create a chink in the creative armour. While Akram Khan is dreaming of sailing back to his roots and “reveal the rhythm of the people in Bangladesh, the colours of their country, the smell of their chaos, and the unshaken sense of hope against all odds”, Aditi is hoping to journey into the unknown with a new creation that she wants to be tight-lipped about. Rajendra and Nirupama’s biggest ambition is to take Kathak to Broadway.

If Kathak, whether in its traditional or contemporary avatar, is inspiring at least a few of its exponents to conjure up such creative visions, something is reassuringly right even if in the process it ceases to be ‘Indian’ and ends up mystifying a few. For Kathak, perhaps the journey of discovery has begun all over again.

Published in the July issue of Avantika, a magazine on the world of performing Arts. Find its website here: www.avantikamagazine.com

A couple of weeks ago, in Star Plus’s popular soap Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon?, a bone-tired but determined Arnav, played by television’s latest heartthrob Barun Sobti, takes on the goons who have kidnapped him, fighting them off relentlessly, even while he is blindfolded and his hands are tied behind.

The camera clearly knows what it should focus on and it does so in style — it caresses Sobti’s bulging biceps, sweeps over his dishevelled locks and zooms in on his smouldering eyes in what is clearly soapland’s very own seeti maro moment.

But the real whistle is being blown by Bollywood for television stars like Barun and several others — the new and, dare we say, lucky recruits, for whom seeking out new pastures does not necessarily mean abandoning their old abodes. These are the brave new trendsetters who are successfully straddling both the television and film worlds — a feat unthinkable a few years ago.

Be it Barun, who continues to play Arnav while simultaneously shooting for his new movie, or Ram Kapoor, who is playing the lead in Sony’s Bade Acche Lagte Hain as well as happily managing significant roles, most recently in Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, or the ageless Ronit Roy, who appears every weekend as the upright lawyer in Sony’s Adaalat and certainly has busy weekdays, what with him working in not one but three films, or the cutie pie Mohit Sehgal, rumoured to have bagged a plum role recently, TV actors are hacking their way inside the ‘big bad wood’, even if it means working double shifts and persuading production houses to change storylines.

The surprise success of Vicky Donor, starring Ayushmann Khurrana, another familiar face on television, and the appreciation Khurana has garnered, seems to be working as a big shot-in-the-arm for other aspiring TV stars. The women aren’t too far behind either. Ragini Khanna (of the recently concluded Sasural Genda Phool), Shweta Tiwari (currently acting in Sony’s heartwarming Parvarrish) and Gurdeep Kohli (of Sanjivani fame) have all tried their luck in Bollywood with moderate success and more importantly, continue to pursue their television careers.

For television stars, who earn very well nowadays, it is no longer pay cheques that attract them to the big screen. Rather, it is the challenge of that longer, meatier role and the temptation to break out of the nerve-racking daily grind of television that demands 12-13 hours of work every day for all 30 days of the month.

But in the past few years, TV actors have become stars in their own right, enjoying their fair share of adulation and exposure. So much so that when the news of Barun being signed as one of the leads for a movie came out, there was an uproar amongst his fans, who feared they wouldn’t be able to see their beloved Arnav Singh Raizada on the small screen anymore. Barun had to go on a clarifying spree to assure his fans that he wasn’t quitting television — plainly demonstrating why abandoning television for films isn’t such a hot idea anymore.

When Sushant Singh Rajput (of Pavitra Rishta fame) quit the long-running serial to work as one of the leads in Kai Po Che!, Abhishek Kapoor’s adaptation of Chetan Bhagat’s The 3 Mistakes Of My Life, fans were left disheartened but were consoled by a more-than-able replacement in Hiten Tejwani. Sushant has said in many interviews that he is well aware of the risks he is taking and he isn’t afraid of failure.

Brave words indeed, but many others before him, who have taken the big leap, have had to, sadly, eat them. Take the case of Karan Singh Grover, one-time favourite lover-boy who stole many girls’ hearts with his performance in Star One’s Dill Mill Gayye.

He abruptly quit the show in 2009 with big dreams in his luminous eyes after being offered the lead role in a Vikram Bhatt movie. But the movie got shelved and Karan was forced to return to his old role. But the charm had gone out of the soap and it was soon wrapped up, leaving Karan high and dry. Stories of Amar Upadhyay and Aman Varma’s sputter-stop Bollywood journeys are now part of television folklore.

At a time when film stars are descending on television in hordes and the small screen’s reach as well as impact is only getting wider and deeper, those who quit one medium in lure of the other are in great risk of losing a foothold in both. If television is ruthless, Bollywood is even more so. Getting lost in its wilderness is easy and quick.

This new breed of actors seemed to have grasped this reality well. Hearteningly, they also appear to have the full backing of television production houses, which have to juggle budgets, TRPs and actors’ crazy schedules, but seem to be doing so willingly — for, in television, when opportunities come knocking, accommodation is the name of the game.

Which is why, while Barun Sobti wraps up the shooting of his new film, his screen persona Arnav Singh Raizada conveniently gets kidnapped. A case of television being filmy, very filmy!

Published in Sunday Herald on 24.06.2012. Find it here: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/259121/film-forward.html

Barun Sobti playing the kidnapped Arnav Singh Raizada
Articulation is what Aditi Mangaldas does best. Be it conveying power through her intricate footwork or grace through her fluttering hands or yearning through her wide almond eyes, Kathak dancer and choreographer Aditi excels at it all.

Little wonder then that she is equally articulate when she speaks about her passion and her art.

In a freewheeling interview with Sunday Herald, the artistic director of Drishtikon Dance Foundation spoke lucidly about the roots of her creativity, what it means to be a classical dancer in India today, her approach to experimentation and how imagination and innovation must go hand in hand for traditional dance forms to survive.

Despite her extensive training in the classical form under leading exponents like Kumudini Lakhia and Birju Maharaj, Aditi is better known for infusing contemporary idiom into traditional Kathak and using her artistry and technique to break some boundaries and build new bridges.

But mention the phrase ‘contemporary Kathak’ and Aditi’s hackles go up. “The phrase ‘contemporary Kathak’ has never sat well with me. We use it only because of a lack of terminology. Kathak is a form that has imbibed several influences from the time of its genesis… it has travelled from temples to Mughal courts to the present-day stage.

In that sense, Kathak has always been a contemporary art form; what I or others are doing now is imbibing it with newer nuances to make it relevant to the 21st century and globalise its essence,” she explains.

Her passion for what she does makes me curious about what Kathak really means to her. “I think of Kathak as a huge, revered, ancient tree with branches spread miles wide and roots embedded deep in the earth.

I think of myself as one of several gardeners who is nourishing this tree with water from different lands, thus providing it with new energies. I have watered it with yoga and Kalaripayattu and tried to give it a thoroughly modern rigour.”

She denies that such experimentation is a conscious decision and reiterates that an artiste cannot experiment for the sake of novelty. “An artiste is not being true to her self if she sits down one day and decides to ‘experiment’. The fakery will then show up clearly on stage.”

But when Aditi is on stage, it is not fakery but genuine skill and technique that is clearly visible. But Aditi is very clear about her goals regarding her art and emphasises that she was never satisfied with merely learning the technique of Kathak and showcasing her much-lauded footwork.

“I have always wanted to explore, use the skills I learnt to paint a larger image, fill it with colours and ultimately transform my thoughts into movement. I look at experimentation as sitting in a room with five windows surrounding me and letting the wind, the rain, the light, myriad fragrances and unheard voices in.”

I wonder whether such a free run of the imagination will hinder or help a structured project.

Does it ever happen that she is forced to rein in her ideas? “Yes, once a concept is formed, creativity has to be fine-tuned and narrowed down. For instance, in my production ‘Uncharted Seas’, we began with the idea of unfettered exploration but the final product encompassed a whole range of ideas quite removed from the original; it portrayed the search for the unknown and fused it with the search for God, touched upon the search to find love and search for freedom, to mention just a few,” she says.

Shifting the topic slightly, I ask her how her contemporaries react to her experimental works. Laughingly, Aditi says that while some genuinely appreciate her work, there are others who show their admiration by imitation!

What Aditi is passionate about though is not so much her contemporaries’ reaction as her audience’s. “To be frank, when we perform abroad, the ‘exotic quality’ of India takes us a long way. But that is not to take away from the sincere appreciation we get from international audiences who are undoubtedly ready to accept and embrace Indian dance forms in their modern avatars.”

She believes that if dancers ignore the short attention span and the wide variety of choices today’s audiences have, and fail to evolve, they will be collectively responsible for “the death of a beautiful, flexible form that was always ready to adapt whenever its practitioners wanted it to.”

Aditi firmly believes the only way to evolve is to consider every performance as a journey into the unknown. “If you don’t, even the most creative of art can become a mundane, mechanical exercise.”

Published in Sunday Herald on 03.06.2012. Find it here: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/253984/spirit-exploration.html
A still from Aditi's production 'Uncharted seas'
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the 21st century human being in possession of all modern comforts must be in want of stress relievers. 

The wilful butchering of Jane Austen’s iconic line apart, many modern men (and women), even if blessed with the good fortune mentioned in the original quotation, will nod their head in mute agreement. Stress has become a shadow that follows most of us, if not all of us, like a curse; stress at the workplace, stress about managing finances, stress of coping with relationship woes, stress about parent management…it seems as if the shadow lengthens or shortens depending on the time of the day. Stress is often compared to a poltergeist – devious, underhand and able to sneak in unobtrusively; before you realise, the damage is done. 

Little surprise then, that several ailments and lifestyle diseases that affect us today and make our shoulders sag further are blindly attributed to stress.  The internet and the media too are full of stories (this one included) about what stress is, how to combat it and how not to fall prey to it – the information overload indeed stresses you further!

Relax. The best way to lead longer, happier lives is to fine-tune your awareness of your own mind and body and not get sucked into a well of conflicting data.

For this purpose, we decided to tackle head-on 10 common lifestyle diseases that are prevalent today and get experts to demystify the role of stress in each one of them.

1.     Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

One of the most common endocrine disorders in women, affecting up to 10 per cent of women of reproductive age worldwide, PCOS is often believed to be caused by erratic lifestyles, heavy workload and poor diet. Patiala-based Dr Sonali Gupta, Consultant Gynaecologist, believes the link between stress and PCOS is rather direct due to a hormone called Pregnenolone. “This hormone is produced when one is stressed for long periods of time to enable the body and mind to cope with the after-effects of such pressure. This causes a chain reaction in the hormone levels; the production of other hormones such as estrogen is lowered as the pathways used by the hormones get overcrowded. This hormonal imbalance plays havoc with the menstrual cycle leading to some of the symptoms of PCOS including ovarian cysts, erratic or no periods and the release of androgens which can cause acne and facial hair.” She also cautions that though stress is a big contributing factor in PCOS, many other genetic and lifestyle aspects are also responsible. Nevertheless, reducing stress levels go a long way in shrinking of the ovarian cysts and triggering a reversal of PCOS.

2.     Common headaches

Though headaches are considered to be the most common symptoms of stress, both acute and chronic, it is not true that all headaches are due to stress. Neurosurgeon Dr Arvind Malhotra of Columbia Asia Hospital, Bangalore, says the myth about stress being responsible for all headaches is perpetrated because ‘tension’ headaches are the most common among adults. Stress busting activities like deep breathing, long walks, meditation or simply doing the things one really loves, often makes such headaches vanish in a jiffy. “But it is important to remember that headaches are not just a result of stress, though stress may aggravate the symptoms. Headaches are also caused by poor posture, inadequate rest, depression, hunger and other factors. If headaches persist for more than a week, don’t attribute it to stress and dismiss it,” he warns.

3.     Hair fall/Hair problems

It is not without reason that people say stress makes them want to pull out their hair. If information out there is to be believed, that won’t be necessary. Get stressed and hair will fall by itself! But is it really true that stress is a major cause of hair fall and related hair problems such as scalp infections, dandruff, brittle hair and dryness? Doctors clarify that it is not mild stress like the ones experienced with jobs or relationships that leads to hair fall. Usually, it is only high emotional stress or stress triggered by other causes like diabetes, thyroid disorders and certain types of medications that leads to hair fall. Sometimes stress triggered by life events like pregnancy, childbirth and surgery can also have depressing effects on the hair.

The good news though, according to Mysore-based practitioner Dr Rajgopal, is that stress-related hair loss is often reversible. He has a word of warning though. The more you worry about hair loss, the more hair you will lose! So the first advice you should give yourself in this case is really to stop stressing – most likely, the hair will be back.

4.     Diabetes

Diabetes may be a minefield littered with myths but you will not find many disputing the effect of stress on blood sugar levels. Doctors often use the ‘fight or flight’ analogy to explain how stress increases the risk in diabetics. To put it simply, when you are stressed, the blood sugar levels rise. This is because the body releases stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine because it feels you need more energy to combat with the stress. This is the ‘fight’ response; you cannot fight if your energy is low, so the body is helping you meet the challenge. But you can also use the same hormones for ‘flight’ because they enhance your ability to flee. The assumption is that the balance will be restored, regardless of whether you chose to fight or flee because you will use up those hormones to perform that action. But for people with diabetes, there isn’t enough insulin to take the load of these hormones and hence, blood sugar levels do not come down naturally. The only way to tackle such an increase, according to Internal Medicine consultant Dr Latha Muthanna of Columbia Asia, is to directly reduce the stress-causing hormones like adrenaline and corticosteroids or indirectly combat them with diet and lifestyle changes.

5.     Sexual dysfunctions

That stress causes sexual dysfunctions is a well-known fact. But what is often ignored is that stress causes sexual problems not just in men as it is widely believed but also in women. Delhi-based gynaecologist Dr Chetna Jain warns that while stress may be the direct cause of erectile dysfunction in men, in women, the effects of stress on sexual functions is much harder to discern. It may show up in poor arousal, lack of orgasm and sometimes, painfully dry intercourse. "Often, it is also a result of related ailments like diabetes and depression," she adds.

Interestingly, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley recently claimed that they found exactly how stress causes sexual dysfunction and infertility. According to this research, stress increases the levels of a reproductive hormone in the brain and this in turn hinders reproduction by inhibiting another hormone in what the researchers’ term as a 'double whammy' for reproduction.

6.     Depression

Dr Arvind has an interesting take on stress and depression, often projected to be a cause-and-effect relation. He says stress could be either good or bad for you and it is "lazy" to blame everything on stress. Stress goes some way in keeping us alert, motivated and primed to respond to danger. "And yet, when that invisible line is crossed, it is this very motivating factor that leads to depression. Remember that even seemingly positive events like marriage, a new job or a child birth can be stressful and lead to an episode of major depression." This, he clarifies, does not mean that stress is the only cause of depression. "About 10 per cent of depression cases are caused without stress triggers -- the reasons could vary vastly."

What has to be remembered is of course stress is different for different people. What is stressful for one person might be simply adrenaline rush for another.

7.     Obesity

It is often stress that makes you reach out for the second cookie or make you forget that New Year resolution and head to the chocolate section in the supermarket. It is a proven fact that eating habits are the first casualty of stress. As Dr Rajgopal says, it is a vicious cycle. "Stressed out people eat inappropriately. This causes weight gain and that aggravates stress all over again." He also warns that excess consumption of carbohydrates increases the presence of a chemical called serotonin in the body. No doubt this makes one feel good but it again works in circles -- it encourages cravings for sugary and fatty foods, thus contributing to obesity.

8.     Hypertension

Undoubtedly, stress can lead to heart-related ailments as well as hypertension and high stress levels indeed are like a precursor to contracting hypertension. But Delhi-based Internal Medicine specialist Dr Satish Koul clarifies that though being in a stressful situation can temporarily increase one's blood pressure; science has not yet proven that stress is the cause of hypertension. Some scientists have noted a relation between coronary heart disease risk and stress in an individual's life, health patterns and socio-economic status, but again a host of subjective factors such as unhealthy diet habits, lack of physical activity, excess consumption of alcohol, smoking and intake of drugs may have a stronger effect than mere everyday stress.

9.     Skin diseases

It would come as a surprise to many that the inexplicable skin breakouts they suffer sometimes could be a direct effect of stress in the mind. Current research makes it pretty clear that stress activates immune cells in the skin, causing such inflammatory skin diseases like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis. But what researchers are yet to figure out is exactly how stress increases the frequency and intensity of these skin diseases. As Dr Koul emphasises, stress can lead to many psychosomatic disorders and can overwhelm you before you can figure out the reasons.

10.  Cancer

A new study published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation shows that stress hormones may increase the risk of contracting cancer by indirectly weakening the immune system and by encouraging tumour growth and spread. Bangalore-based cancer survivors and wellness practitioner couple Vijay and Nilima Bhat believe that to be the precise view advocated in the science of Psychoneuroimmunology. "Any stress will lead to some physical or psychological ailment because it supresses immunity, thus exposing the person's health to unknown breakdowns. Cancer is no different," says Nilima.

Ultimately, Nilima believes, from a holistic health perspective, the body is self-healing and the immune system, our inner healer, is its most powerful medicine. The biggest enemy of this immune system is stress. Once the stressors are identified and resolved, the immune system quietly goes back to its job. As a cancer survivor, she should know!

Published in the May 2012 issue of Smart Life, a health and lifestyle magazine published by the Malayala Manorama Group. (www.manoramaonline.com)

Native Americans revere the dragonfly for its fluttering swiftness. The Japanese see it as a symbol of courage and happy creativity. And for the Navajo tribe of America, the winged insect represents purity and fluidity. When Akram Khan’s on stage, it seems everything the dragonfly embodies, seamlessly fuses into his pulsating soul — only to set it free.

To say that it is an astonishing experience to watch him twirl and flutter with razor-sharp precision, reach high and low in the blink of an eye, twist in agony and float in happiness, is to state the obvious.

His most stringent critics cannot deny the magnetic pull of his performances; nor can they question his prodigious talent. His admirers, of course, haven’t stopped praising him from the time he burst onto the international scene when he toured the world with Peter Brook’s Mahabharata in the late 1980s. He was 14 then.

Today, the Bangladeshi-origin British dancer-choreographer is quite the poster-boy of contemporary Kathak. Much feted in Britain and worldwide, Akram Khan’s patented style of melding fluid, sensuous contemporary moves with the footwork, whirls and spins of classical Kathak has made his cross-cultural productions a study in movement. Speaking to Sunday Herald, Akram says he never consciously set out to ‘contemporise Kathak’.

“As I was trained in both classical and contemporary, I was bound to get confused. It is this sense of confusion that I have embraced; but Kathak essentially remains the starting point for most things that I do.” Elaborating further, he says, though he did not set out to modernise the classical form, his dance vocabulary has evolved because of Kathak’s very fluidity. “It is formless and yet has form; Kathak, to put it simply, is like water.”
It is this sense of constant volatility and throbbing movement that haunts you when you watch ‘Vertical Road’, his most ambitious production till date. The choreography draws you inside a screeching vortex where everything, including the dancers themselves, seems to be just wisps of a life-weary imagination.

The haunting feeling of long-forgotten pain and raw memory is accentuated by Nitin Sawhney’s potent music that alternates brilliantly between the chill of the desert night and the searing heat of its day. Khan says his inspiration was a poem about transformation by Persian poet Rumi, which he stumbled upon. “ ‘Vertical Road’ started out as an exploration around the theme of angels and verticality but ended up touching on the notions of transformation — as a journey with no beginning and certainly no end.”

I wonder how difficult or easy it is to give physical form to such abstract thoughts. “I don’t believe anything is ‘abstract’ in art. Artistes are storytellers and it is how artistes tell their story that fascinates me,” he says. He believes it is this compulsion to tell a story that inspired him to conceptualise his latest production that is making waves across the dance world. 

In ‘Desh’, Akram not only journeys back to his roots but also presents his own life journey. A full-length solo after many ensemble productions, ‘Desh’ ostensibly is to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan but for Akram, it is also an idea held close to his heart for several years. “I have been getting more and more curious about my roots…but returning to my roots was not how I look at the journey I made to Bangladesh.

One can never return to somewhere, because that place does not exist anymore, except in our memory. But we can move forward towards a place that seems familiar, yet new. That’s what I felt when I visited my parents’ birthplace — it was familiar, yet new.”

‘Desh’ is Akram sharing with the world the physical as well as the metaphorical journey he undertook and a showcase of the people he met along the way — a fisherman, a political journalist, a student, his father, and finally, himself.

“I wanted to explore the notion of parallel journeys, a journey where we all collide somehow, where our paths cross either momentarily or over years... And by default, reveal the rhythm of the people of Bangladesh, the colours of their country, the smell of their chaos, and their unshaken sense of hope against all odds.”
His sense of conviction in his work is too strong to raise doubts about and yet, I ask him whether he has ever quailed when purists accuse artistes like him of meddling too much with classical forms. “To me, no dance form is pure. Take classical Kathak for instance. The form demands my weight and centre to sit more on the back of my feet, on my heels.

It requires enormous accuracy, much like classical ballet. When I dance modern, my weight has to shift to the front of my feet as if I’m always falling forward or being torn off my axis. Here, I have greater physical freedom to express myself… in the sense of almost losing control. But that does not make it purer than Kathak and neither does Kathak become holier simply because it believes in exactness!”

It is perhaps because he is so comfortable straddling such different worlds that when you see him on stage, it appears as if he is assuredly juggling with ideas, discovering what it is to be real and at the same instant, recognising the lightning that imagination really is.

He does all this silently while his body talks. It gets tossed into the air as effortlessly as it gets churned into deepening circles. The chains break and finally, he flaps out into nothingness. The mind once again conjures up the dragonfly.

Published in Sunday Herald on 06.05.2012. Find it here: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/247171/poetry-motion.html
A still from 'Vertical Road'
A still from 'Desh'
It was the third time I had done it and that was when I decided enough was enough. Out on an errand, I stopped in my tracks to drink in the beauty of the delicate lilac blooms on the Jacaranda tree near my house, noticing how utterly ephemeral their lives were — singing to the sky one instant and the very next, swishing to the ground, already withering.

Such a surreal moment and all I wanted to do was whip out my phone and update my Facebook status. I almost did; (Hey! First blooms of Jacaranda out people!) Thankfully, my saner self raised its sleepy head just in time and chided me for my genius in transforming potential poetry into dull prose.

I pinged a friend to ask whether it happens to her too. Does her brain also automatically start formulating status updates whenever there is an ‘aha’ moment in her real life? She not only said a feverish yes but also reacted with violent affection, confirming my worst fears, telling me that I was her ‘soulmate’ and she was ‘so glad’ to not be the only one suffering from this disease.

I strode home and in a rare burst of energy, logged on to my Facebook account, zealously searched for the deactivation button and pressed enter with a flourish — only for Facebook to go all puppy-eyed and plead with me not to go away. It told me tearfully that my friends will miss me, I will miss their activity, I will not be able to see their uploads... you get the picture. It made me feel all guilty, flustered and nervy. The temptation to simply activate again was immense but, I resolutely closed the browser.
It ought to have felt like a release. All I felt instead was withdrawal symptoms. Every morning, when I logged on to the internet, my hands would itch to type f-a-c-e-b-o-o-k. I actually used to open my inbox every day and religiously read the reassuring post-deactivation message, which told me kindly that I could revive my account any time and I would instantly get back everything!

Being a net junkie, I had no qualms about. My guilt pangs were all for the amount of time I wasted on social media — reading tweets of strangers, looking for weird hashtags, following up on responses to others’ tweets, stalking my favourite singers and film stars, not to mention my gallivanting cousins. There were even times when I spent entire afternoons obsessively refreshing my home page, reading and re-reading inane status updates of ‘friends’, distant family and acquaintances — people I would be hard-pressed to recognise if they marched past me in real life and once even navigating to the grihapravesh photo album of a friend’s colleague’s sister AND spending two hours browsing through photographs of strangers happy in their new house.

But I hadn’t deactivated for nothing and despite curious messages from friends and worried ‘is everything ok?’ looks from family members (and wildly enthusiastic Facebookers), I persisted in staying away. Slowly, the withdrawal symptoms wore out; I no longer opened my inbox and read that much-read mail. My brain began to register that it need not start thinking up clever sentences after every happy/angsty moment; and my sensory organs too felt happier that their pleasure is no longer curtailed by the urgency to share a piece of music or a video clip with the world.

Suddenly, it felt as if the internet was a huge candy store where there were gourmet chocolates to be had for free while for reasons unknown, I was stuck at the sugar confectionery counter. My virtual horizons began to expand; I found websites that actually entertained and didn’t addle the brain; I rediscovered the joy of online serendipity and was greatly bemused by my forays into small pockets of virtual worlds populated by online retards and chronic fanatics. I also stumbled upon forums where sane, intelligent discussions were possible; my FB-dulled eye began to look again at my immediate surroundings, which happened to be full of books — real wrist-hurting ones, some smelly, some dog-eared and many untouched. I went back to reading.

The de-addiction also had another curious effect. Like the teenage crush you get over and feel thoroughly silly about, I felt flush with embarrassment — the entire Facebook set-up had finally got to me. The posturing, the careful cultivation of an online image, the building up of the sexy persona-brand, the I-liked-your-status-and-you-better-like-mine fakery, the mindless jokes, the utter compulsion to surrender your privacy and worst of all, the false sense of confidence when the number of ‘likes’ to your pearls of wisdom went beyond 30 — everything had begun to grate. From itching to get back to Facebook, I had reached a stage where I itched to stay away. But there was more to come.

I stayed away for more than a month, during which time every second conversation I had with friends and family began and ended with my ‘disapparation’ from the holy land. Keeping in touch took a little effort and friends often wrote to me in a tone of mild complaint that they were being forced by my absence to go the extra mile to send separate emails to me instead of a common Facebook message. Consequently, I found myself constantly explaining about my grand exit. Though my offline life had improved greatly, my heart did a little jig every time somebody wrote about Facebook.

A new kind of addiction was taking over me insidiously. I often found myself wondering whether my 357 friends yearned for my presence, what they felt about me and whether I was actually missing out on vital stuff by staying away; I also read scholarly articles on Facebook addiction, the psychology of social connectivity, the pervasiveness of networking and such. It not only improved my general knowledge but also pushed me further on the road of the reformed addict’s new addiction. But this time, I was alert enough to recognise the signs. I wasn’t going to fall into another addiction trap. No, not so soon. I had hit upon the perfect solution. It was time to return.

With trembling fingers, I re-activated my account. It felt like a triumphant return journey. My homepage looked like home and my friends had not vanished away into nothingness. I confess I was terribly curious. What earth-shaking events had I missed? Turned out, nothing much. Just a few YouTube videos, some photographs of vacationing colleagues and updates about concerts and festivals. I commented on some, informed some close friends of my return, answered a few messages and logged out. It took me all of 10 minutes.

Finally, I had been cured. The unnatural urge to spend entire days refreshing the homepage and the distasteful curiosity for others’ online lives had vanished. The knowledge that I could stay away from Facebook and survive was like a torch held high up on my head — it revealed with great clarity the message on the wall — I could always step out and smell the roses (or lilac blooms) without the fear of a status update.

Published in Sunday Herald on 18.03.2012. Find it here http://www.deccanherald.com/content/235192/candid-confessions.html
This kind of ‘murderous rage’ is hardly new to any self-respecting South Indian cinema goer’s ear; an ear that is pickled from childhood in many forms of ‘pa pa pa paan’ percussions brought to life on screen by heroes who have fine-tuned the art of knotting the dhoti and breaking into a jig at the precise moment when the nadaswara strain is overtaken by the skin drum. Which is probably why many of this particular species are wondering more than singing ‘why this Kolaveri Di’.

Make no mistake.  The song is a rage down south as much as it is in Japan and Pakistan and its mind-numbing success has meant that many South Indians, especially Tamilians, will brook no criticism about the song anymore, whatever misgivings they might have had about it earlier. Pride, you see. But there is undeniable puzzlement at the extent of frenzy it has generated. This jaw drop is often accompanied by the wry smile of the underdog – it is as if the aforementioned self-respecting chap always knew that one day, the world would wake up to the joys of Dravidian rhythms. It seems like Dhanush himself can relate to this feeling. At a recent do, embarrassed by the adulation, he pleaded with the world to treat ‘Kolaveri’ as ‘just another silly, small song that you listen to and forget about’. That is often the sentiment reflected in blogs and status updates of south Indians who are questioning its runaway success. ‘You come here and we will make you hear better ones’ is essentially what they are saying. Precisely why, most of them openly laughed at Javed Akhtar’s derision. (Akhtar compared liking the song to praising the robes of the naked emperor). They knew he simply ‘didn’t get it’.

What clicks, clicks. Fuming about its quality is a futile exercise and most south Indians have a healthy respect for the mysteries that lie behind sensations. After all, they have grown up on films that routinely defy logic but appeal greatly. The snorts and titters that you hear from down south are directed more towards the addicted rather than the addiction.

Published in the February 2012 issue of Avantika, a magazine on the world of performing arts.
Find the magazine's website here www.avantikamagazine.com.

A day after Diwali, some breathless teenagers, equally breathless homemakers (along with their husbands quite resigned to their fate), and a considerable number of working women, breathless again, waited just like Khushi, her breath locked in her throat, for the kiss that never came. Her passionate adversary, Arnav, came tantalisingly close but lost his nerve at the last moment. If somebody had bothered to listen, they would have heard many elaborate sighs and ‘awwws’ that night.

What they were all watching, some on the telly, some on their phone (serious!) and many on YouTube was no Shah Rukh Khan starrer but a Star Plus soap. Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon, a sizzling love story in the established tradition of Mills & Boon novels, narrates the love-hate relationship of a hot-looking angry tycoon with a dark past and a beautiful, sassy heroine from the hinterlands who has the temerity to stand up to his domineering ways.

The soap has caught the imagination of a whole new generation of telly soap watchers, so much so that some YouTube videos of scenes from the daily serial have notched up views of more than a lakh and busy executives are sneaking out time to provide live updates of the serial on online
forums to those who cannot watch it at the appointed hour!

Gone are the days when those younger than 40 used to snigger at Hindi television soaps and talk disdainfully about ‘those serials’ full of kitchen politics and saas-bahu bickering. It seems Hindi television entertainment, which was fast losing its way just a few years ago, appealed to Cupid for help. The plea apparently hasn’t been in vain and the cherub’s arrow has found its mark. A random Google search of Iss Pyaar Ko throws up many forums where people are eagerly discussing the story, earnestly analysing the symbolisms depicted in it, writing their own fiction and arguing passionately about its inconsistencies. And this is not an isolated case. In fact, it looks like Cupid went on an overdrive.

Love abounds on television at primetime. Star Plus, with a clear understanding of the needs of its women audience and flawless marketing, leads the brigade with four love stories on air at last count. If Iss Pyaar Ko works because of the undeniable chemistry of the lead pair, there is Diya Aur Bati Hum, where shy, old-world love is blooming between a halwai husband and his ambitious wife — he is ‘panchvi-pass’ and she is dreaming of becoming an IPS officer.

The third is another new serial, Ek Hazaaron Mein Meri Behena Hain, which despite its yawn-inducing title, is actually a story of two chalk-and-cheese sisters falling for two brothers. The fourth, Navya, is a straightforward college caper.

Sony is snapping at Star Plus’s heels with its own bombaat love stories. Bade Acche Lagte Hain from the Ekta Kapoor stable (yes, she too has abandoned saas-bahus) is a funny, warm and mature love story between a couple in their early ‘40s. A bona fide love story of a middle-aged couple is a remarkable step forward for Indian television and the show’s popularity is a sure-fire indicator of what its changing audience are demanding to see.

Sony’s second offering, Kuch Toh Log Kahenge, is a remake of the once hugely popular Pakistani drama, Dhoop Kinare, whose video cassettes were hot property in India in the 1990s. The Pakistani drama was a delicate narration of the inevitable pull of love between an older man and a younger woman and was an absolute delight to watch.

Kuch Toh has been unable to match up to the original but for those who haven’t seen the Pakistani
version, the soap is good timepass. Undoubtedly, all these serials come with excellent production values, decent acting and good looking faces. But, what’s really ticking is their determination not to ape each other. Each soap has its own USP and is working hard at maintaining it. This is a far cry from the days when every serial wanted to look and feel like a Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi or a Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki.

Love on the small screen is working big time also because the audience is being transported every night to a gentler era where adoration is about ardent eye-locks, stolen glances, accidental touches and timid courtship — providing relief from the unarticulated nausea on the big screen, induced by brash Munnis, high-strung Sheilas, in-your-face Chamelis and bodyguards who wobble muscles to express their ardour.

Unfortunately, Colors seems to be still stuck in a time warp with truly regressive serials and bizarre storylines — the kind that Ripley will be proud to showcase. Its long-running yawn, Uttaran, for instance, has seen so many affairs and husband switches that even its silver-haired matron is not keeping count anymore. The other day, I caught a teaser of a serial that promised to reveal why the colour of the heroine’s sindhoor would change her destiny. A round of barf bags to everyone please!

But light seem to have dawned on the creative directors of Colors as well, at least going by their latest, Na Bole Tum Na Maine Kuch Kaha. As the teaser reveals, a man in his mid-20s, fumbling with his phone and heaving his luggage, knocks at the door of a quaint house. The door is opened by two kids who call for their mother to attend to the guest. A calm woman with a gentle look of enquiry comes to the door, the portrait of her dead husband clearly visible behind her. The youngster fumbles a bit more while the single mother of two grows calmer. Cupid is obviously in no mood to rest.

Published in Deccan Herald on 05.02.2012. Find it here
A still from the soap Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon on Star Plus.