Sunday, 27 January 2013

Vilasini Natyam: Salvaging a Fading Dance Form

I guess very few people would have heard the name of this dance form Vilasini Natyam. First time,  I heard about this dance form in India International Centre in Delhi. They have organised a three days Vilasini festival. I attended the festival on Vilasini Natyan by maestro Swapnasundari where she has given a mind blowing performance.  With curiosity, I started searching the roots of this unknown dance form.

A Dance form of Vilasini Natyam
 Vilasini natyam (which means “hereditary dance tradition”) is the name given to the sensual dance-form of the bhogam-sannis, women consecrated by the temple deity in Andhra Pradesh. Called “devadasis” in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, these women passed on their training exclusively to their daughters. Unfortunately this tradition came to an abrupt end when when the devadasi practice was abolished in 1988 by the national government. Social pressures also threatened vilasini natyam. “The dancers took an oath never to perform again. Nor would they teach the dance to their daughters.
Vilasini Natyam is a tradition followed by Kalavantalus. In its glorious period, the Kings used to invite Kalvantalus to perform when there were guests at the court. This was to impress the guests with the art form. Vilasini Natyam is a demanding art form. The dancers of Vilasini Natyam have to sing on stage while performing, regardless of whether they have a good voice or not.

Swapnaundari- Prominent Dancer of Vilasini Natyam

One of the prominent dancer of Vilasini Natyam  Swapna-sundari Rao-Prakash has written a well-researched book “Vilasini Natyam Bharatam of Telugu Temple and Court Dancers”  on this dance form. According to book, vilasini natyam as an ancient tradition that existed only in the temples, before moving into the royal courts. It gives an account of its origin, rise, decline and renaissance into the form Vilasini Natyam.
Though Vilasini Natyam movements appear quintessentially feminine, its hundred-odd Adavus (dance-units) include the Tandava (vigorous) and Lasya (soft) aspects. Vilasini Natyam's complex Abhinaya is widely admired. Its extensive repertoire comprises Temple dances, Court dances and Dance operas of the hereditary female singer-dancers of Telugu origin.
Our Country is so rich in culture and tradition and if we can do little bit of effort from our side, we can easily save these vanishing traditions.

Source:Wikipedia,Hindu, Times of India

Thursday, 19 July 2012

"See"-ing the past...

The clouds were parting, letting some rays of sunshine touch the streets of Aberdeen, Port Blair, as our car pulled up at the top of the hill.

“The sunshine through the clouds is a beautiful sight, Seema. If only in those olden days, the people who were here had that little sunshine in their life,” I told her as she gently got out.

“I still can’t imagine how you can say your most favorite place is a jail, Ruchi,” she told me, managing a wan smile.

“This isn’t just any jail; this is the most infamous one in Indian history. Right now, we’re standing at the main gate to Kala Paani.”

I could tell she recognized the name. My otherwise calm friend gave a sudden shudder.

Cellular Jail, Port Blair (Andaman & Nicobar Islands)

“Through these wrought iron gates, between two majestic towers, we are walking free today. When we fought for our freedom a hundred years back, Indians were pushed in, handcuffed,” I told her, as we entered. I held her hand, and I could feel that she was shaking. I felt the same way whenever I came.
It was a beautiful compound with lush green lawns that housed the big old prison building. The garden did little to soothe our fast beating hearts, but the little that it did helped us.

Garden Inside the Jail
One of the Wings of Cellular Jail

We went toward one of the seven buildings there. On black marble, outside it, was the history very few would know.

“Why are you silent?” she asked, once we had passed it, and we were walking toward a massive central tower. “What’s the matter?”
“To silence our cries for freedom, contain our struggle against the British, they built this massive prison. They made us build it. Two hundred of our freedom fighters made this high security jail to hold even more of us. Nearly seven hundred cells are there here, spread across seven buildings. Each one of them could be monitored by one person standing right here,” I told her as we stood at the top of the tower. The whole compound could be seen, and the city as well. “Those poor souls, no one to talk to either… look out the cell gate, and see the wall of the other wing, not your comrades’ faces…”
I saw her looking down from the tower, and wondered if she could picture it. Her face was pale, and we went back down.

“In these courtyards, our freedom fighters toiled in the sun. When they didn’t work hard, they were punished, whipped in front of the others, made an example of,” I told Seema as we entered one of the wings. We entered one of the cells, and it was very small. “Barely enough for a tall man to lie down properly on a mat on the floor,” I spoke out loud. I looked up at the ceiling. “How the hell did they breathe? There’s only a small opening there. This was torture. Even now you feel suffocated.”  

Cells in Cellular Jail

“These two pots here... near your feet. From one they ate their food, and in the other, they peed and shat. They cleaned it themselves every morning. I can't even tell the two apart. They slept in this hell with the stench of their own blood, sweat and tears as they plotted useless schemes to escape.” I felt her shift from where she stood.

As we were leaving, Seema’s fingers touched the wrought iron grill of the cell, and she stood still for a moment, her face expressionless. “I see them, Ruchi. Those prisoners, their fingers wrapped around this grill, trying to break it open and escape. I can see their hands being hit at with a baton, and blood dripping on to this floor,” she said, a tear in her eye, which I wiped off gently. 

Corridors of Jail

A photo hung in the next cell that we entered, the one of the great Vir Savarkar. As we stood there, an elderly couple entered the room. They were emotional when they saw the photo, and requested me to take a photo as they stood next to it. As Seema walked near the walls, feeling its soul, I talked with them.

“Thank you,” the man said, as I gave his camera back. “I can’t imagine how Baba would’ve stayed here so long.”

Seema stopped in her tracks, and looked toward his voice. “Yes, my father was a freedom fighter. He was imprisoned here for four years for transporting arms to the revolutionaries in Bengal,” he said.

“Can we meet him?”

He shook his head sadly. “Alas, he passed away in 1991.” He thanked us again and we went along with them, heavy hearted but proud for meeting the family of a freedom fighter. We went to the museum in the compound, where pictures of the freedom fighters, whatever could be found, hung. Uncle proudly went toward one picture and pointed. “That’s my father,” and that got tears to our eyes. “No one had an easy life here, but no one surrendered to the pain that was meted out. Their bodies gave in, but not their spirit.”

“Can you tell us more?” we asked him, and he nodded.
As we walked around the compound, he talked. His voice was grieving but remained steady.

“Those who were put here were tortured one way or another; not by them but by the hands of their own countrymen. The British didn’t want to get their hands dirty by touching our filthy bodies. The prisoners were strapped to a frame and whipped, so there was no escape, no ease in the pain.”

Punishments Given to the Prisoners

He was tearful suddenly, and we didn’t ask him to continue further.

“We better leave now. We’ve to go a long way. Perhaps we shall meet some other day, young friends,” he said, and gave a small smile. When they left, we headed toward a light and sound show that narrated the life of the prisoners. Its power brought to life the struggle, the inhuman conditions of the prison in those days, and the hunger strike of the prisoners in protest against that. The show bore testimony to the songs of the prisoners in their struggle for freedom. It showed that hope, the one thing the prisoners hung on to, was the most powerful emotion in life.

It was with heavy steps and heart that we walked toward the car in the evening.

“Ruchi…” she called, and we stopped under the majestic archway entrance.

“Thank you for bringing me here. The narrative at the end, the show… it wasn’t needed. I could see it all as I walked with you today. It will remain in my mind forever.”

“But how could you see?”

“I didn’t need my eyes to imagine the events. I may be blind, but your words touched my heart, and I could feel every moment of it. After today, I’ll walk with hope, imagining a day when I might be able to see your face again, and come back to ‘see’ this place again. Will you get me back here?”

I just nodded, my words lost once again, this time to the hopeful struggle of my dear friend.


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Andaman Island's Rajan: Ocean-Swimming Elephant

Sometime things are so unimaginable that till the time you don’t see them from your eyes, you don’t believe them. Such case happened with me last year, when I heard about Rajan from my parents who are staying in Andaman Islands. Dad told me that Rajan is the only elephant left in entire Indian sub-continent who swims in the sea. I was surprised that how come an elephant can swim. Dad told me to visit Havelock Islands and see it from your own eyes. Without wasting any time, I booked the cruise for coming weekend from Port blair to Havlock. Havlock Island has its own charm but I was more interested in Rajan.  As Dad said, I went to the Barefoot – Havelock Resort to meet this unusual elephant. 

Rajan - The Swimming Elephant
What I saw was totally outside of the norm. An elephant, swimming, snorkelling! Rajan, the permanent elephant resident of Barefoot at Havelock Resort, knows the water well. At 59 years of age a simple morning or afternoon ritual is a plunge in to the waves along the beach. Using his trunk as a snorkel, he finds his way along the seabed to deeper water, enjoying every moment floating.

Rajan Playing in Ocean
Rajan mahout' or elephant driver told me his tragic story:
Unlike a lot of logging elephants at the time, Rajan was born in captivity in mainland India around 1950. Initially trained using very cruel methods to log the islands of the Andamans, he was forced to swim with massive loads. He was trained on the mainland and bought by a Karen Businessman to work in the Timber Industry in the Andaman Islands. He arrived in the Andaman’s in his twenties & worked in Little Andaman, until about 2002.
But in 2002, logging was banned in the islands and most of the 200 elephants were sent back to the Indian mainland. However, Rajan was kept on by a wealthy owner who had no desire to see him leave Havelock Island, and enjoyed a blissful existence eating bananas and swimming in the crystal clear water.

Rajan with his driver

Rajan- Only Elephant who knows how to swim in Ocean
Five years ago a Kerala temple offered £40,000 for the elephant and Rajan almost had to leave, before a tourist lodge launched a campaign to raise the funds to keep him. Since then Rajan and Nasru have become something of an attraction. At 60 years he is the last of the group to survive. Now retired, he spends his time with his caretaker and now enjoys swimming and walking through the forests he once logged. He is truly the last of his kind.

People at Barefoot Resorts have taken it upon themselves to raise the money required to free Rajan. This amounts to nearly 70 000 USD. It is a mountainous sum of money, and in order to collect it they  undertook merchandising methods, selling Rajan T-shirts, or even offering people the once in a blue moon, exquisite opportunity to swim or dive with an elephant, with Rajan.

Rajan Playing in Ocean
When swimming with Rajan you are almost certain he is aware he is being photographed. Rajan is very friendly elephant. He is like a dog paddling when he swims and his mahout swims alongside him and never loses track of him. They are almost inseparable. It was a magical moment to observe – this majestic beast paddling effortlessly through the water.

Rajan in Havlock Island Beach

Rajan at 61 has only few more years to enjoy his life
I was fortunate that I had this chance to do a few dives with him and it is for sure an amazing experience. Very often, when people ask me what is the biggest creature that I have seen underwater, I say – Rajan!

How to Reach Havlock Island:
  1. Ferries are the major way on or off the island. 2-3 arrive daily from Port Blair (2-4 hours) and one from Rangat, one of which comes via Neil Island. Schedules vary according to day and season, so enquiry locally.
  2. There is also an air-conditioned catamaran ferry from Port Blair to Havelock. Tickets are 700, 800 or 1100 (which gets you a leather seat and your own tv). As the ferry is more expensive it is less likely to be full, and its schedule meets incoming flights. Tickets can be booked from a dedicated ticket booking window at Port Blair, thus avoiding the queue barging.
  3. The other option is to fly in. Pawan Hans (+91-3192-233601), which until 2011 operated sporadic helicopter flights to Havelock, now flies an amphibious 8-seater Cessna seaplane from Port Blair to Havelock and back every day except Sunday, covering the distance in about an hour. The standard price is a steep 4100 rupees one-way, but discounts may be available.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ganjifa Cards: Ancient India's Favorite Game

Few days back, I got the chance to visit an exhibition in Pragati Maidain in Delhi. It was an all states art and craft fair where people from different states were exhibiting their art forms. While roaming, I saw some beautiful miniature paintings in the Orissa stall. When I enquired about the painting he told “Madam, these are Ganjifa playing cards”. He explained me that Ganjifa is actually a very old art form of paintings and playing cards. Further told me how some of the families in Orissa and Maharashtra are trying to revive this dying ancient Indian game.

Ganjifa Cards

Painting in Ganjifa Card

Ganjifa’ is the name given to an ancient Indian card game which originated in Persia (modern Iran) and became popular in India under the Mogul emperors in the 16th century. The first known reference is in the diary of Emperor Babur in 1527. The game used to be the favorite pastimes of ancient India, it first became popular at court, in the form of lavish sets of precious stone – inlaid ivory or tortoise shell.  It later spread to the general public, whereupon cheaper sets would be made from materials such as wood, palm leaf, or pasteboard.

Technique to Prepare Cards:
The techniques, processing, designing of ganjifa cards varied from user to user. Artists involved in making Cards for the rich and wealthy used expensive materials. They used to craft on lac wafers, tortoise shells, ivory, engraved brass discs, mother of pearl and decorated with precious stones and metals.

Artists Preparing Ganjifa Cards

Detailed Work on Ganjifa Cards
Common people made the cards using leather, paper, stylographed palm leaves, fish scales and paper machete. Colors were made by hand and they were rich in natural minerals and vegetable dyes. The artists grinded and mixed these natural colors by hand themselves. They used fine brushes including the squirrel hair brushes suitable to the Ganjifa painting technique to paint the cards.

Perception Behind the games:
In Maharashtra and Orissa, Ganjifa was a favorite pastime for Brahmins. Old people are still seen playing Dashavatara Ganjifa near Puri Temples, mainly with 16-suited 192 card decks. The main purpose of the game was to teach, learn and tell stories from our ancient scriptures and holy books. Style was set to stories and shlokas from the Hindu Puranas, stories from the Ramayana, the chapters from Mahabharata and many more scriptures. One of the greatest benefits was that besides a memory test, the game provided a good retention of traditional knowledge.

How to Play with Ganjifa Cards:
Ganjifa cards were circular and traditionally hand-made by local artisans. The standard playing cards of India are usually a set each of 96 cards of Mughal Ganjifa and of 120 or 144 cards of Dashavatara Ganjifa.  The structure and the rules of both the games are the same except that in Dashavatara, the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu are depicted.

Mughal Ganjifa:. The present game of Mughal Ganjifa was introduced by Akbar. The Mughal ganjifa carried eight suited ganjifa pack and had 96 beautiful cards in eight suits of 12 cards each. The twelve cards in each suit comprised of two court or figure cards and 10 numeral or pip cards.

Mughal Ganjifa Cards

Dashavatara Ganjifa :The Hindu Dashavatara (10 incarnations) were different in their composition and construction. In the first order the number of suits and cards were more which made the game complicated . The figures and the suit signs were common to the Hindu players. Each pack of ganjifa carried 10 suits, which displayed one of the incarnations of Vishnu.
Dashavatara Ganjifa Cards

For example in the Mughal Ganjifa set Taj, Safed, Samsher and Ghulam are strong suits while Chang, Surkh, Barat and Qimash are weak suits.  The sequence of each suit is arranged as Raja, Pradhan and serial number ace to ten for strong suits and ten to ace for weak suits.  Each time the trick is to win the round by placing the highest denomination.  Therefore it is beneficial for a player to remember all the symbols and cards played.  By the end of the game, which is played in anti-clock-wise direction, the player who amasses the maximum number of cards is the winner.  Similarly the game can be played with the Dashavatar set, Ashtadikpala, Ramayana and Navagraha. 

Ganjifa Cards
Unlike Chess or Parchisi (Dice), Ganjifa is now close to extinction. Few people know how to play the game and fewer are the artists who make them Orissa is one of the last remaining pockets of this diminishing community.

Image Via

Monday, 21 May 2012

Roopkund: Glacial Lake of Skeleton

A good mystery is loved by everyone but for some, unraveling mystery is everything. Roopkund lake is one of the most beguile and enthralling exemplar of mysterious places getting unraveled. The Roopkund lake cuddles in the isolated wombs of the majestic Himalayas at a height of 5029 meters above sea level. This lake is also popularly known as Skeleton Lake. The lake is nestled in a valley with steep sides and no one can inhabit in this area, even passing through the area can prove fatal for normal human beings. Roopkund has an inscrutability and vagueness that has decepted multiple generations of fortune tellers.

Roopkund - Glacial Lake

Roopkund lake is a mystery in itself. This frozen lake which glorifies the beauty of the Himalayas with a mystery is really hard to decipher. Apart from this there is a lot to this side of the story. The Roopkund lake has a lot of traditional myths intact in it and the Pandora's box could only be opened once you visit it.
For long months this shallow lake is frozen. It is beautiful but there is also some menacing feel in this nearly lifeless place. In the summer, as the Sun melts the ice around the lake, there opens dreadful sight - bones and skulls of people and horses lying around the lake.

Glacial Lake of Skeleton

Skeletons of Roopkund
It is not fully clear whether local people knew about these in earlier times or not - but first written reports appear in 1898. In 1942, a British forest guard in Roopkund, India made an alarming discovery. Some 16,000 feet above sea level, at the bottom of a small valley, was a frozen lake absolutely full of skeletons. That summer, the ice melting revealed even more skeletal remains, floating in the water and lying haphazardly around the lake's edges. Something horrible had happened here.
The instantaneous assumption (it being war time) was that these were the remains of Japanese soldiers who had died of exposure while sneaking through India. The British government, anxious of a Japanese land invasion, sent a team of investigators to determine if this was true. However upon examination they realized these bones were not from Japanese soldiers—they weren't fresh enough.
It was evident that the bones were quite old indeed. Low temperature, rarified and clean air helped to preserve the bodies of deceased better than it would happen elsewhere. Flesh, hair, and the bones themselves had been preserved by the dry, cold air, but no one could properly determine exactly when they were from. More than that, they had no idea what had killed over 200 people in this small valley. Many theories were put forth including an epidemic, landslide, and ritual suicide. For decades, no one was able to shed light on the mystery of Skeleton Lake.
Skeleton in RoopKund

Through carbon dating tests, it has been experimentally estimated that these skeletons belong to anytime between 12th and 15th century. It is primarily believed that the deaths were caused by some kind of natural disaster like a blizzard, landslide or any bacterial disease. However, this topic still remains controversial among the residents, anthropologists and paleontologists of modern times.

More recently in 2004, a team of European and Indian scientists sent by The National Geographic Channel visited Roopkund to carry on with the probe. Their research has unearthed interesting hints and information. Part of their findings includes anthropological treasures like well-preserved corpses, jewelry, bones and skulls belonging to the dead. Further analysis shows that there were rather diverse people. DNA analysis hints at specific mutations observed in people living in Maharashtra (at Roopkund were found family members of Kokanastha Bramins) as well as few local people. There were found children, women. Analysis shows that these people for weeks were walking without proper food.
All the bodies had died in a similar way, from blows to the head. However, the short deep cracks in the skulls appeared to be the result not of weapons, but rather of something rounded. The bodies also only had wounds on their heads, and shoulders as if the blows had all come from directly above. What had killed them all, porter and pilgrim alike?

Skulls in Roopkund
Local legends have the following explanation
A king of Kannauj (ancient land south from Gharval Himalaya) Jasdhawal was on an important pilgrimage to praise the Goddess Nanda Devi. Somehow he disregarded advice of religious counsellors and behaved in an arrogant way.
King took all his entourage with him including numerous dancer girls, musicians, servants. Also his pregnant wife was with him. As they reached Roopkund lake, queen delivered a child in a cave near the lake (Wondermondo: interesting - could it serve as a shelter for few people during the hailstorm?). Goddess Nanda Devi disliked the fact that dancers and musicians entered her sacred land - local customs strictly forbade it. But the worst violation was childbirth on sacred land: according to local customs newborn and their mothers are considered to be unclean for certain period of time. Thus Goddess sent a terrible storm on poor piligrims and they all were killed on spot.
This legend is well known in Himalaya and there is even traditional song mentioning this event - this song mentions exactly hailstones "hard as iron" raining on the heads of sinners.
Piligrims in Roopkund
The complete mystery is still to be unfolded. The questions related to the origin and cause of death needs more satisfying answers. Geographical location of Roopkund and adverse climatic conditions also making it difficult for research scholars to go for the search of truth. Whatever may be the case the conclusion remains undrawn and this lake is not ready to demystify its existence. But nobody knows when and how we can explore something known out of the unknown. Therefore, a trip to this alluring Roopkund lake is a must.

How to Reach Roopkund
There are different routes for a trek to Roopkund. However, most of the trekkers and adventure travelers travel to Lohajung or Wan by road. From there they reach Ran ki dhar by climbing a hillock at Wan. So, the way is Kathgodam - Ranikhet - Garur- Gwaldam - Debal (1220 m) - Bagrigad (1890 m) - Mundoli village - Lohajung pass - Wan village (2590 m) - Bedni Bugyal (3660 m) - Baghubasa - Kalu Vinayak - Roopkund
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