Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Modern Mystics

Delhi is always full of unexpected events. Last weekend, there was a wonderful two-day celebration of the newly founded Sufi Qawwali society, by the founder-members (well known qawwal families of Delhi). They had decided it was time to come together as a group and had organized a concert to mark the beginning of this endeavour. We managed to sneak in without invitation passes and found ourselves in an auditorium filled with qawwals, diplomatic hoi polloi, expats and some regular people like us. The singers poured their hearts and souls out through their music. The final performance was by one my favourite qawwals from Hyderabad - the Warsi brothers, who are very classical in style and sing some wonderful old mystic verses.

After being saturated with Sufi songs, today I attended a film screening by the Dalai Lama Foundation, which periodically shows spiritual and other related films from different regions. Today's film was on the modern mystic, Mumtaz Ali or M (as he is called). It was an intriguing film that barely skimmed the surface of the life and experiences of Sri M. It left one with some answers and many questions. I felt that the nicest part of the experience was knowing that the film was not about someone ancient, mythical or long gone from this world. Sri M is still alive and seems to be leading a fairly full life in a small town in Andhra Pradesh.

Sri M was born into a well to do Muslim family in Kerala. He briefly met his spiritual teacher at the age of nine under a jackfruit tree in his back garden and then again, ten years later, when he left home and travelled to the Himalayas (he eventually walked from the foothills up to Badrinath, coolly contemplating suicide if he didn't find what he was searching for). He was initiated into a certain kind of spiritualism (Natha yoga and Kriya yoga) that was suitable for him. His teacher then instructed him to go back and lead a "normal" life so he could relate to and help people around him who had ordinary, everyday problems. He reluctantly obeyed.

He has a charming wife, two children and spends his time running two schools, writing, travelling and lecturing- though on occasion he "runs off" to take a short break from normal life!

The film, 'The Modern Mystic - Sri M of Madanapalle', by Raja Choudhury, was sensitively made. Sri M speaks clearly and easily on diverse subjects - Vedic scriptures, the Upanishads, Richard Dawkins, early Indian philosophy and more. The film has certainly made me curious enough to try and read his autobiography, titled 'Apprenticed To A Himalayan Master - A Yogi's Autobiography'.

The trailer to the film can be viewed on youtube at:

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hockey Flicks and Flickers

As I write this, news has already come in that the Indian women's hockey team is out of the Olympics selection. We watched them a couple of days ago, defeating Italy 1-0 and entering the finals.

The stadium was not very full and we happened to be in the brawny rowdy section, the kind which thinks it is cool to stand up each time the ball reaches the D, so that no one behind them can see a thing. Well, thank goodness for the large screens and the fact that hockey is such a fast game that by the time the men (yes, they were all men!) managed to sit down, the ball was already elsewhere and visible.

There was a fingernail of a moon against the clear night sky and a bracing breeze. And we wondered why the tickets had been priced so high and why no discounts could be given, at least for school children. The prices were a little higher than what one would pay for a film (and actually, if one watched all six matches on a day, it was a good deal, but that was hardly practical). All the same, it was Friday evening in Delhi and - surely a few more people could have come to cheer India in the semi-finals.

There were predominantly Punjabis in the audience and, if India hadn't been such a large country, there would also have been a significant number of Coorgis. Hockey runs in the families of these two communities, one high up in the north and one nestled deep south.

This was the first time I heard the Italian and Polish anthems, and it was a very interesting contrast of music - the Indian, haunting as ever, describing the beauty of the land, the Italian, almost operatic and the Polish - spirited. Then we got down to the serious business of match viewing.

The Indian women's team certainly deserved to win as they managed to keep control of the ball most of the time. Unfortunately (and this is true of both the men and women's teams), we are unable to convert ball control into goals. The penalty corner rules skew things even more - it's much easier to score a goal through these means (especially when compared to games like football) than through the regular game, thus scores can change very rapidly. Well, we did win - just about.

The men's game was much swifter and surer and India won more convincingly. The fiery drag flicker Sandeep Singh scored 2 of the 4 goals (Indian defeated Poland 4-2). Sandeep Singh is much in the news, for being a penalty corner specialist and scoring 11 goals in the tournament so far. Michael Nobbs, the Australian coach, seems to have done the team a world of good. He has always maintained that France is the dark horse of this set of teams. The knockout finals happen this evening (India vs France), let's hope we manage to sustain our performance!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Indian Hockey - up in the air

The Olympic hockey qualifiers are currently going on in Delhi. And Indian hockey, despite hopes and dreams, remains mired in dark, deep unfathomable politics. The men's team has defeated some of the low ranking teams (Singapore 15-1, Italy 8-1) but the real matches are yet to come.

A well laid out Major Dhyan Chand Stadium lies fairly empty while Hockey India (the selection board for the Olympics team) seems unperturbed. Several top players have been excluded and they, in turn, have decided to play the hockey league matches next month. The league matches are exactly at the time of the London hockey games camp (scheduled by Hockey India). This is probably just the tip of the strange hockey story.

The Women's team so far has drawn with Ukraine (1-1) and beaten Canada (4-1).

Anyway, this is always a nice game to watch even though it gets much less publicity and money than cricket. I am in Delhi now and hope to see some of the matches. On the way in, flying Air India, we were shown the film 'Chak De India'. Quite an unusual selection for the airline, but I was glad, for this remains one of my favourite films. It is a very un-Bollywood film on how a disgraced captain of the men's national hockey team chooses to coach the women's hockey team ("an army of demons") and the mayhem that follows. It is remarkably perceptive about all kinds of issues - sports in India, religious undercurrents, gender bias, social perceptions and more. It also succeeds in steering clear of gooey romances.

The title song "Chak de" (Lift it up) is often heard at Indian matches, more than the official sports anthems. I paste below a link to the song, which shows the women's team running all over Delhi and practicing for a match they may never get a chance to play. Interestingly, most of the women selected were neither professional players nor actors but they seemed to have been remarkably competent in both fields!

The film is motivating and one hopes that real life Indian hockey manages to swim through the murky undercurrents and rise to the occasion during the Olympics.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bangalore Summer

Winter has fled, Bangalore style, leaving no real spring but a sudden burst of pre-summer heat. Everything around has responded accordingly - bare, dried branches sprout buds overnight, butterflies re-emerge from nowhere and squirrels go crazy, shrieking and rushing up and down trees.

The trees themselves look greener but drier, as if trying to accomodate all the changes that have taken place almost overnight in the earth and air. They burst with birds and bird song. A pair of parent kites sit by the empty nest on a fig tree and screech while the sky is filled with their babies precariously catching the air currents and making wobbly circling motions, learning to fly.

Mauve jacaranda and scarlet silk cottons cover the roads. The tamarind hangs high up on the trees, slowly ripening. Football like elephant apples grow in size, hidden away amongst leafy branches.

In the garden, lilies are budding and blossoming.

It's time for pruning, turning the soil, watering and watching - a small respite before the summer blazes its way in.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sarees From Bangladesh

Called Dhakais, though many are not woven in Dhaka, these are very special, gossamer thin sarees, woven from fine cotton or silk yarn. So when the Bangladeshi saree sellers appeared this year, I invited them home and asked a few friends to come and take a look at their collection.

I am now well acquainted with this particular saree seller and he says has kept a few sarees in mind for me (good salesmanship - but I am also happy to support weavers as saree weaving is a highly threatened industry today). The man comes home, as always refusing to drink anything until he finishes showing us the sarees. I enquire about his family - his sister who had an operation recently, his four year old daughter who is always upset when he leaves home, his elderly mother who still weaves sarees. He tells me that he is now raising money to build a house, which costs a lot and, in turn, asks about my relatives - potential customers in different towns and about my husband, who has an eagle eye for woven materials.

Then we proceed to the task at hand. Friends come by, settle themselves. The floor is covered with sheets on which the large bags are placed. Sarees are lifted out, stacked up and opened one by one. Each saree is opened, left for a while and then perfectly refolded. The materials are shown in increasig order of quality (and price) and the room is filled with colour and comments. Off whites (a traditional background colour) with small and large weaves, shimmering pastels, bright wedding reds, a few party blacks, cheery blues, cool greens, earthy yellows - there is a lot to choose from in terms of colours, patterns, weaves, materials.

Several of my friends are unfamiliar with Dhakais and the amount of work that goes into creating each saree - each textile is hand woven and takes a few months (upto a year for a very fine piece). I like introducing people to weavers so they may get an idea of what a hard and exacting task it is and just how beautiful the final products are (many of these cannot be easily found in shops). Saree wearing is on a decline in Indian cities, this is unfortunate because there are few outfits as beautiful as a well draped saree. The transparency of the Dhakais discourages some, but actually this just provides lightness and elegance along with the coolness that is needed in Indian summers. It is hard to explain theoretically that this flimsy looking saree is actually a wondrous creation!

Finally, sarees are short listed, prices discussed. We make frequent trips to view ourselves in full length mirrors, to drape sarees and make a final selection. This year I bought three - a cheery white saree with litte blue mangoes for everyday wear, an off white with grassy green motifs for miscellaneous occasions and an off white with large, flowing pink and green flowery patterns for more dressy moments.

Finally, the sarees were bundled back, refreshments served and happy goodbyes said - until next time!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Last Few Days Of The Yoga Class

Our Yoga class is slowly winding down, the teacher is moving to Mysore where a fresh batch of students await him. After studying with him for almost ten years (the first six involving three hour classes from Monday to Saturday, beginning at 6 a.m. sharp) there is a little tug of separation. Try as we might to emulate paths laid down by the yogis, feelings intervene at times.

The class is almost empty now, just my husband and I and the teacher. We spend the last few days asking questions of all kinds, moving as always, towards understanding the asanas (postures) and pranayama (breath control) within our limitations. It is a time of change.

The yoga teacher discusses teaching styles and ways to correct students. Having gone down this path for so long, we have decided to finally teach, but the details are still unclear.

We stretch, lift, inhale, relax - and occasionally collapse - some things don't seem to change! The yoga teacher is trying to convey the very essence of the practice to each of us, it seems to me. My husband is shown ways to correct difficult movements and I am reminded of the key components of the practice - focussing on the joints, breath and mind.

The joints of the limbs (shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, ankle) are all to be relaxed in each posture. A Herculean task! Along with this, the breath must flow smoothly and uniformly. It doesn't - and the body feels heavy, stiff. I try and see whether the stiffness precedes the block in breathing or whether lack of proper breathing makes me feel heavy. Much of the time it is the latter. The breath seems much more sensitive to little bumps and knots inside and it seems to stop at times when we cannot perceive any block. Then, after a moment we feel the stiffening of the knee perhaps or a shift of weight in the hip joint and know that we are stuck and to unstick ourselves we need to resume breathing.

The mind is the hardest to deal with. To disregard its tendencies to flit about and to remain focussed on the breathing and movements is a big challenge for me. To be able to do this on my own each day - the thought is daunting but exciting as well. For this is the only way to go deeper into the practice.

But no matter what we do (or don't do), some essence of the practice always remains within us, ready to express itself at any moment we choose.

#Header1_headerimg { margin: 0px auto }