Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mexican Food For The Soul And Stomach

Some time ago, I received by registered mail, all the way from Mexico, a giant pictorial cookbook called 'Mexico The Beautiful Cookbook' (recipes by Susanna Palazuelos).  It was sent by a family friend who had visited India and with whom I had several enjoyable conversations on food.  This book is part of a series of 'The Beautiful Cookbooks' that run along the lines of the Time Life food books but they are less academic, more glossy and picture-filled.  This does not mean that they lack content - they are replete with information on the geography and history of a country and how these relate to its culinary trends.

This book contains a range of recipes, classic and contemporary.  It makes for good reading and even better experimenting (inevitably I cannot find several of the ingredients mentioned so I need to periodically substitute or delete some).  The style of narration is relaxed, lively with a touch of humour and the pages are filled with the colours of Mexico - vivid blues, greens, whites, yellows, browns - as much a feast for the eyes and mind as for the stomach!

I quote below some descriptions of Mexican food and drink that are mentioned in the book:

"Atole made from the treasured cacao bean was reserved only for the noblemen of Moctezuma's court, who drank it from special gold ceremonial cups.  The women  were served their atole flavoured with chia and a topping of chile.  Oaxaca is especially famed for its chocolate, which is sold in all of its markets.  It does good to pay heed to the time-proven advice "Ni amor recomenzado ni chocolate recalentado" ("Neither rekindle a love affair nor reheat chocolate")."

"Horchata is another culinary adventure, having its roots in the Arab world, where it was first made from the ground tiger nut.  Brought to the New World by the Spanish, horchata first appeared as a popular drink on the Yucatan  peninsula.  This Oxacan version uses milk instead of water and sometimes includes fruit of a local cactus for a pink colouring or a few almonds for flavour."

"The term "cocktail" is said to have originated in Mexico.  According to a widely accepted story, British naval crew used to gather to fortify themselves at a favourite tavern in Campeche.  While most liquors were drunk straight, at times, the English preferred their tot of rum mixed with other ingredients, which were then stirred with a small wooden spoon.  One day an enterprising waiter, being out of these spoons, used pieces of thin, smooth roots of a plant known as "tail of the cock" because of its peculiar shape.  The name "cock's tail" caught on and by the end of World War I these drinks were the rage of England, Europe and the U.S. nightclub set.  The best known in Mexico is the margarita, first made in a Chihuahua bar."

"Huevos "Rabo de Mestiza" - No one seems to know how it got its name, but "in rags and tatters of the daughter of a Spaniard and an Indian" is the very loose, unliteral meaning given to this hearty dish of poached eggs that dates back to the early days of the Spanish conquest."

"Jicama con Pina - This botana (snack) is a refreshing variation of the traditional Jaliscan pico de gallo ("rooster's beak") made with jicama (yam bean), oranges and chile piquin.  Since jicamas are available in the wintertime, they are a harbinger of the Christmas season.  The smallest, crispest ones are combined with candies, peanuts, tangerines, sugar cane and small toys and stuffed into pinatas."  (A pinata is a jar or pot suspended from the ceiling at festive occasions.  People take turns at being blindfolded and trying to break the pot using a stick).

Thursday, October 25, 2012

To Pickle Green Peppercorns

Many local markets here have one shop selling what can only be termed miscellanea.  These shopkeepers look askew when one asks if they stock the onion-potato kind of vegetables, they refuse to have anything to do with fresh greens and are uninterested in exotic imported vegetables.  Instead, they display an assorted collection of small pickings of the season.  Things like fresh, pale yellow turmeric, new ginger in its wafer-thin skin, green mangoes for pickles, bitter orange, mango-ginger or large red chillies for chutneys.  Shopping at these stalls is tricky for you never find the same selection twice and it's impossible to complain about quality or price for lack of comparison.  But it's also quite a treat see the assorted collection and to be able to buy something unusual; a reminder of things that we have forgotten about in our supermarket-driven shopping.

Last week, I was buying some stems of ginger, translucent and freshly dug out of the ground, when I spotted a cluster of green vines that I had not seen for over a decade.  Instinctively I reached out for them with a satisfied sigh.  A shopper next to me looked curiously and asked the vendor what that stuff was.  "Pepper," he said, picking up handfuls and dropping them on the weighing scale.  The lady turned away as I made an unsuccessful attempt at bargaining.

Green pepper!  Fresh from the hills south of Bangalore - seaweedy-green, zingy and almost alive, still clinging to the tender vines upon which it had grown.  The man spun some story about how he was already giving me a reduced price but it didn't really matter.  For he knew as well as I did that I had succumbed to their fatal attraction.

Green peppercorns are young peppercorns, at the stage before they ripen and turn black.  They have a short life span are therefore not often sold in markets.  These peppercorns lack the depth and fiery heat of the black ones, instead they possess a unique zesty piquancy.  The best way to preserve their flavour is by gently pickling them - without any strong oils, spices or additional flavouring.  I like to place them in a sterilized dry jar, cover them in freshly made and cooled brine mixed with a generous dose of fresh lemon juice.  I arrived at this recipe through a mixture of searches on the internet and by experimenting a little.  The specifics are not too important - the brine should be medium-salty and the lemon juice is added to taste.  The important thing is that all the peppercorns should be completely immersed in this mixture.

The pickle is ready to eat anytime (though it tastes better after a few days) and is stored in the refrigerator.  It's a translucent green in colour, reminding  me of happy sea creatures.  It goes well with most things - Thai curries as well as biscuits and Stilton!  It's something I can't buy anywhere and each time I help myself to a little, I resolve to visit those old miscellanea shops more often.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

India's Grand Old Man In Britain

This, I hope, is the last of my current blogs on East-West encounters as viewed from an eastern perspective.  Each time I put the idea out of my mind, something crops up to remind me of it.  In this instance, it was an editorial article in the Hindu yesterday, titled 'The Grand Old Man and his miscellanea', by Dinyar Patel.

The Grand Old Man refers to Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), a multifaceted man - a Parsi priest, professor, businessman, politician, founder member of the East India Association, founder of the London Indian Society, London Zoroastrian Association and the Indian National Congress.  He travelled to London in 1855 to establish the first Indian company in England and once there, involved himself in trying to get the voice of India heard in Britain.  He was the first to express his views on how Britain was draining India's resources at a time when industrial, legal and civil reforms were essential for the country.  He was the first Asian to become a British Member of Parliament in the House of Commons (1892-1895) and the first Indian to claim self government for his country.

The article reconstructs a segment of his life in Britain based on his correspondence.  The complete article can be viewed at
I quote from it:

"The spring of 1901 was a moment of despair for Dadabhai Naoroji, then in residence in London. While struggling to secure a new constituency from where he could attempt to re-enter the British Parliament, the Grand Old Man had to contend with increasingly retrogressive Tory policies toward India and flagging spirits within the Indian National Congress. But on 24 April, Naoroji received news of a different yet equally troubling variety: his toilet was malfunctioning. “The plumber has done what he can to rectify the defects of the water waste preventer, & we regret that it is not now satisfactory,” FW Ellis, builder and estate agent in Upper Norwood, London, grimly informed him by post...

...Since Naoroji was the senior-most Indian resident in the United Kingdom, he was regularly consulted by his countrymen who travelled to the imperial metropole for study, work, or pleasure. There are literally thousands of letters in the Naoroji Papers from such Indians — documenting incidents of racism, financial trouble, or plain homesickness — and nearly all of them received a prompt and detailed reply from the Grand Old Man. Naoroji functioned as a guardian of sorts for many Indians in Britain. Around 1 am on 2 January 1891, for example, he was awakened by a telegram from a London police constable informing him that a ‘Mr. CK Desai’ was under arrest for public drunkenness and wanted Naoroji to bail him out of jail. Aside from such correspondence, there are reams of letters from concerned parents in India who asked Naoroji to keep tabs on their sons (and, increasingly, daughters), making sure that they were being financially prudent and not consorting with Englishwomen.

The Papers also provide an insight into how Naoroji and his fellow nationalists in London adapted and reacted to life abroad. In addition to collaborating on the formulation of various economic critiques of the Raj, Romesh Chunder Dutt used Naoroji as a character reference for securing his flat in Forest Hill in 1898. While Dutt eventually returned to India in 1903, his fellow Bengali, W.C. Bonnerji, the first president of the Congress, took to London so much that he and his family put down permanent roots there, purchasing a house in Croydon that they christened Kidderpore. The extent of their Anglicisation was evident when Naoroji in January 1893 invited the Bonnerjis to attend, in Indian attire, a function held in Central Finsbury to celebrate his election to the House of Commons. “I am extremely sorry to say that we have not an Indian dress in the house,” a family member responded.

Others dearly missed the staples of Indian life while in England. In January 1906, the radical nationalist Madame Bhikaiji Cama — staying with a family member in North Kensington — invited Naoroji and his grandchildren over for a Sunday ‘Parsee lunch,’ an offer the Grand Old Man must have leapt at given the boiled and bland fare otherwise on offer in London. Some cultural adjustments were easier. Although in his sixties and seventies, Naoroji appears to have taken a fancy to English sports. He was the president of the football club in his parliamentary constituency, Central Finsbury, and the vice-president of a north London cricket club. A tantalising clue about Naoroji’s affinity for the gentleman’s game is offered by his campaign secretary, who in 1895 wrote to Naoroji that, “One would really imagine you to be a God of Cricket.”
But there was one great cultural challenge in Britain that Naoroji had great difficulty in surmounting: people just could not spell his name correctly. In newspapers, posters, and his incoming mail, the Grand Old Man was addressed by creative variants such as Dedabhan Naorji, Devan Novoriji, and Dadabhai Nowraggie. Matters improved slightly once his campaign secretary suggested that he simply go by ‘D. Naoroji.’ After he won election to Parliament by a mere five votes, he was frequently referred to as ‘Dadabhai Narrow-Majority,’ which was presumably easier to remember and spell.
While mastery of English was a challenge to some upwardly-mobile Indians, deciphering one another’s handwriting was a headache shared by all. I have probably done serious damage to my own eyesight by trying to make sense of the scribbles found in the Naoroji Papers. Understanding them was evidently a challenge to the original recipients over a century ago. Naoroji occasionally admonished Behramji Malabari, the prominent Parsi journalist and social reformer, to write neatly. William Wedderburn, one of the British stalwarts in the early Congress, grumbled to Naoroji in August 1891 that he could not read letters from Dinsha Wacha, the longtime Congress general secretary (“But you must not tell him this,” he added). And Allan Octavian Hume, while attempting to go through a draft of Naoroji’s presidential address to the 1893 Lahore Congress, confessed to Naoroji that “your handwriting is rather hard to read.” Perhaps it is appropriate that, toward the end of his life, Naoroji helped fund a bright Maharashtrian inventor, Shankar Abaji Bhise, who was working on new models of typewriters."

Thursday, October 18, 2012

An Indian Mathematician Visits Cambridge

Strangely, as I dwelt on stories of Indians visiting the west in the past few days, I was suddenly re-introduced to a real story by a chance email.  It is a story we know well in India - that of the mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan and his collaboration with the Cambridge mathematicians, Hardy and Littlewood.  But I realized that it is not a story that everyone knows.

Ramanujan, an accounting clerk in Madras (Chennai) began a mathematical correspondence with G.H. Hardy in Cambridge in January 1913.  The result of this exchange was that Ramanujan was invited to visit Cambridge and, after much thought, he sailed westward in 1914.  He spent about four years there, during which he produced unusual and inspired work.  He was elected to the London Mathematical Society in 1917.  Soon after, he became a fellow of the Royal Society and a fellow of Trinity College.  His mathematics continued at a furious and prolific pace despite the war and his own ill health.

The story has no fairy tale endings, but it is a remarkable and enduring one.  A very well made film has been uploaded on youtube, in four small parts, about Ramanujan, his life and experiences.  I am giving the link below.  It puts Ramanujan's work in a social, historical and academic context (through his letters and a series of conversations with people who knew him or his work or environment) in a very interesting manner.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Inspector Ghote Goes To London

Quite by chance, I was reading H.R.F. Keating's 'Inspector Ghote Hunts The Peacock' last week (when I saw the film 'English Vinglish').  In this book (published in 1968), Keating looks deep into the heart and mind of Inspector Ghote during Ghote's first visit to London.  And this is what he discovers:

"...Cautiously he (Inspector Ghote) made his way down to the Tube platform.  The train, when he got into it, was immensely crowded, but the mass of people seemed infinitely more orderly than those of the similar morning rush in Bombay.  Even in the very closest proximity they contrived to ignore each other with magnificent calm.  He felt proud of them.
   It was at about this time that he became fully aware of his first live mini-skirt.  In the preoccupation of making sure he got on the right train going in the right direction he had had eyes for nothing but illuminated notices.  Then he had been too jammed tight to see anything.  But now as the train cleared a little, he found himself looking straight down the long carriage at two girls with skirts showing four long plump stretches of nylon-covered leg above four soft rounded knees.
   For perhaps two minutes he regarded the phenomenon earnestly.  Then he found that his mind was made up.  He did not approve.
   But already the station names were getting dangerously near to the ones immediately before the Bank, where his briefing had told him to alight.  He concentrated his fullest attention on being absolutely ready to jump from the train the moment it reached his destination.
   He made it with colours flying.
   He negotiated the tricky circular exit from the station without a hitch.  Out in the street, he paused long enough to be absolutely sure he had got his bearings and then set off following the directions in his briefing, happily confident that he was not putting a single foot wrong.
   He found each turning exactly where he expected it to appear.  He noted with a comforting feeling that the walk from the Tube to Wood Street was taking not a moment longer than he had thought likely.  He spotted a tall, strikingly modern building that he guessed would be the newly built police station which the briefing had described well before he got to it.  And when he arrived at the broad flight of entrance steps, sure enough they proved to be those of the building itself.
   The only trouble was that he had arrived one hour and twenty seven minutes too early.

Ghote walked hastily round the corner so that no one coming out of the building should spot him as a conference delegate who had made the mistake of turning up so ridiculously long before necessary.  And there he stood and considered.
   For a minute or two he pored over the pages of his newspaper-covered guide.  And, yes, he should be able to do it.  From where he was standing it could not be more than fifteen minutes' walk to the Tower of London...

...The huge black and grey walls rose up massively in front of him.  Beyond them the pinnacled inner towers stood out  against the softly grey sky.  Which one of them was the Bloody Tower, he wondered.  Never mind.  When he made his proper visit he would find out for certain and savour its rich associations to the utmost.
   For a brief moment he caught a glimpse on a high inner gallery of a Beefeater, a sudden richly coloured figure lighting up the sombreness all around.  And, he thought, in due time he would see such figures by the dozen.  And the ancient ravens that haunted the place.  And the very axe under which Queens had bowed their necks.  And the glowing splendour of the Crown Jewels, symbols of the proud and ancient monarchy of this proud and ancient land.
   He gazed and gazed.
   Yet, oddly enough, at the very moment when he got up to go back to Wood Street police-station, leaving himself a decently reasonable time for the return walk, he found suddenly that he was overwhelmed almost to drowning point, it seemed, by a totally unexpected and desperately acute attack of home-sickness.
   It was stupid, but abruptly he wanted to be back in India.  He wanted the brightness, the noise, the easy-goingness.  He wanted, he found to his simple astonishment, to be standing looking at peacocks.
   Peacocks.  Nothing else.  He wanted to see the gaudy plumage, the bright, light-reflecting jewel colours of the proud birds.
   He shook his head angrily.
   What nonsense was this?"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The English Vinglish In My Blog Vlog

The recently released Hindi film,'English Vinglish', about a woman who cannot speak English and her experiences when she reaches America, is proving to be a big hit in India.  This is not surprising for many can relate to it - those who find themselves in a changing world where English is a requirement or those who reach the US and encounter moments of extreme rudeness and unexpected sensitivity.

It is a good attempt to bring these aspects together and one wonders why such movies have not been made earlier.  The characters are well developed and thoughtfully drawn out (especially the ones with smaller roles) and all the actors are very convincing.  Sridevi, of course, is superb (much better than in many of her previous, glamourized roles) and the film really revolves around her.  The plot begins excellently and has tremendous promise but seems to lose course mid-way.  Though the story could have taken many interesting directions, it tends to drift towards overly sentimental, spiel-filled scenes.  This is unfortunate, for several reasons.

The primary reason is that the movie contains more than a grain of truth and a lot of women around the country relate to it.  It would have been good to have seen a little more spirit and activity packed in.  This is especially true of Manhattan (where the film is set), which is an amazing kind of place.  This is a place filled with people from all over the world with different income levels, an area where streets change character rapidly and distinctly as people shuffle in and out.  An Indian, saree clad lady is bound to have adventures of all kinds while walking down the streets of New York.  (How I wish that Paul Gallico or H.R.F. Keating had been in charge of script writing!)

The second reason for wanting more from the film is because learning a new language (especially along with other students) is always an interesting experience.  Languages open new doors and the film could have explored this in a little more detail.

The third reason is that foreign countries are always mysterious - unexpected hurdles come up in the simplest possible forms.  Also, the life style of NRIs (Non Resident Indians) is a curious mix of Indian customs (as they remember them) thrown together with the conveniences and demands of their new surroundings.  In this case, Shashi (Sridevi's character) had much to offer her NRI sister but, unfortunately, this part of the story was not dwelt on in any detail.

Nonetheless, English Vinglish is a film worth watching.  It is a film that stays with you for a bit and offers plenty to think and talk about.

I am attaching below a link to the official trailer (with English subtitles).

I am also attaching a link to one of the songs (with the lyrics).  This is a catchy, lighthearted song in English and Hindi, with incredible words like 'Aflatoon' thrown in.  (Aflatoon is the Persian name for Plato, though it is now used colloquially in different ways.)

And finally - an explanatory note about the manner in which Hindi is spoken (for those unfamiliar with the language).  When the main word is followed by another apparently meaningless rhyming word, it is done to indicate that you are referring to things related with the first word, in a general sort of way.  For example, 'chai shai' would mean not just tea but a little snack and perhaps some gossip.  Similarly, 'English Vinglish' roughly means 'All Those English Things'.  A vague term but one that provides scope for discussing all kinds of things - a language, a way of thinking, a newspaper, an experience and more, as the film indicates.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Bangalore Food Festivals

Buttermilk served in the traditonal way
Popular Gujarati gramflour snacks

A delicious preparation with colacasia leaves
Every Friday, there are lots of restaurant advertisements in the newspapers.  Bangalore is hosting some interesting food festivals these days, many are too expensive for us but occasionally something worth while comes up.  I personally prefer cooking and eating at home but it's interesting to see a different place and to sit back and tuck into some food one would normally not make at home.

We generally prefer buffets because it's easy to try a range of food and we wait  each year for the St. Marks Hotel festivals.  They used to have two or three a year, but now it's reduced to the most popular one - a vegetarian Gujarati and Rajasthani food festival.  These are very different cuisines from distinct (though neighbouring) geographical regions.  Rajasthani food is geared towards a hot, harsh climate, with lots of ghee, chillies, local berries and herbs, solid breads and rich sweets.  Gujarati food is milder, with a hint of sweetness in many preparations, a large variety of pickles, curd based dishes, lots of peanuts, fenugreek leaves and sprouts and, in the summer, aam ras (a thick juice made of fresh mango pulp that is drunk on its own or eaten with poories).  I personally am not very fond of Rajasthani fare and quite like Gujarati food; my friends have different tastes.  So a mix of styles suited everyone.

It was a good spread, with tangy buttermilk to begin and lots of little fried snacks and pickles (in Gujarati style) - arbi (colacasia) leaves, stuffed, rolled up and fried in little spiral wheels, khandvi (steamed gram flour rolls), bowls of different kinds of sprouts.  There were khichris with ghee, spicy chaats and dals (from Rajasthan), Gujarati and Rajasthani kadis (curd thickened with gram flour), undhiya (one of my favourites - a mix of freshly harvested vegetables mixed in a clay pot which is buried in embers and cooked for a long time), all kinds of vegetable dishes with interesting flavours and the typical Rajasthani dal bati churma (very popular but not something I can eat much of!) - solid, unleavened wheat bread rolls served with lentils and a mix of crushed wheat that has been cooked with ghee and sugar and topped with more ghee!  There were also very nice little rotis (breads) made with different flours and the puffed, deep fried poories with aam ras, shreekhand (thick, sweet curd flavoured with cardamom) and plenty of sweets - the honeycomb like ghevar, thin, crisp jalebis, burfis, kheers of thickened milk and more.  A satisfying meal.  The only thing we could have done without was the Gujarat government's promotion tape playing constantly in the background, with Amitabh Bachchan (the Gujarat brand ambassador) humming and telling us of all the tourist destinations we could visit!  This was particularly irritating because both Gujarat and Rajasthan (and especially Rajasthan) have very nice folk music.

Beginning the meal
Sweet pickles, curd in clay bowls
Peanut and sprouted gram salads
Rajasthani Ghevar
Shreekhand (sweet, thickened curd) with saffron, nuts and cardamom
Last week, Citibank announced the second year of its annual 'Restaurant Week', an initiative to promote restaurants in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.  One could sign up for a particular restaurant meal (at some popular and some fancy restaurants) and get a fixed price three-course meal, with a pre-decided menu.  I promptly signed up for it - everything was waitlisted and I thought this was yet another scam!  But, things worked out very smoothly- the waitlist cleared, the hotel called us and last Sunday we found ourselves at a frontier-food restaurant, Baluchi, at the Lalit Ashok hotel.

The menu was divided into three sections, and had sixteen dishes listed.  I assumed that we had to select from each section, but as it turned out, we were served everything!  It was a good menu, though, as generally happens, the vegetarian food was hotter and spicier than the non vegetarian.  This is an inexplicable phenomenon seen in most Indian restaurants.  We were served lots of delicious kebabs, leavened breads, some interesting curries, their special slow-simmered creamy black dal (lentils), a very nice salad and two strange looking but tasty desserts!

An unusual menu
A cold cheese starter
More starters!
Tender kebabs
The main course
Our dinner was made particularly enjoyable by a musical trio, who played and sang old Hindi film songs.  They did this with a certain dash and sense of complete enjoyment that soon spread to the audience.  The singer sang the peppy hits with gusto and the slow songs in a suitably sentimental fashion.  We were hearing these songs after a long time and the evening was not just about food, but one filled with applause, laughter and reminiscences.

Musicians singing our requested songs

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Unexpected Rains

Unexpected rains for a few days have brought out all the birds and insects once more.  The trees are full of huge butterflies and tiny birds, flitting or hopping about.  They come in search of water, and probably, other juicy little insects or flowers.

Orchids have opened and the sweet lime is in flower.

The air is thick with flying ants which head to the nearest light source, falling easy prey to spiders, crows and frogs who patiently at at these spots.  It's a pity these ethereal looking insects are so tasty!

A couple of days ago, a huge rat snake frightened all our downstairs neighbours away.  Probably its home was filled with water and it had briefly stepped out.  I was just grateful and relieved that a few snakes have survived the tremendous concrete-ization of the campus and hope that it manages to survive.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Beautiful Odissi Pictures

A continuation of my previous blog on the Odissi performance I attended a few days ago.  I did not mention in the last blog that as I sat watching the dancers and wondering how best I could capture the experience, I realized quite soon that my tiny camera would not serve the purpose.  I had to preserve the events of this evening in my mind and try and put them onto paper in some way.

As it turned out, quite by chance, there was a man seated next to me, professionally clicking away, and from the angle and timing of the camera clicks, I knew he was getting some good pictures.  Blogging makes one meet and talk to people one might not otherwise.  So, after some thought, I requested him to send a few pictures, if he didn't mind.  He kindly agreed and has, indeed, done so.  These are some very striking pictures of some very talented dancers, taken by Saroj Kumar Mishra during the 'September 2012 Dance Discourse' programme.

I am attaching a link to the set of pictures taken by him.  (If you click twice on the first image, you can see a full screen version of the set).

Monday, October 1, 2012

An Evening Of Odissi

Young Odissi dancers of Bangalore
Yesterday I braved the rain and the crowds to reach a small auditorium for an evening of Odissi dance. Odissi, a relatively newly acknowledged classical dance form (from the south-eastern state of Odisha), is one of my favourite Indian dances.  Though considered one of the oldest Indian dance forms, and initially a secular dance form, Odissi was confined to temples for many centuries and it only stepped out of this enclosure about seventy years ago.  This was largely due to the efforts of a handful of gurus, whose desire to dance to a general audience and to teach this in its pure, classical as well as folk-derived forms, overcame the restrictions that were imposed on who could dance Odissi and where.  Currently, Bangalore, despite its distance (geographically and culturally) from Odisha, has a high density of schools teaching Odissi.

In an attempt to battle the weekend traffic and ensure that I could locate the place, I found I had arrived an hour early and hovered around near the door for quite a while. As I was one of the first to enter, I managed to be seated right next to the stage, which I always enjoy, as one gets to see the musicians and the dancers (especially their feet movements) up close.  One also gets to see the deity (in this case, Lord Jagannath, a form of Vishnu, worshipped in Odisha).

Lord Jagannath, a form of Vishnu worshipped in eastern India

The evening's programme was an overview of some dance schools of Bangalore and began with the youngest - children who were six and older.  They were all good dancers and one got a glimpse of tremendous promise and talent especially from some of the smallest ones.  Odissi is a very exacting style (like most classical dances).  However, it is especially hard for young dancers, I think, because it is largely based on depicting ancient poems, mythology and scenes from the walls of wondrously carved Odisha temples.  To be able to narrate all this requires a certain depth, imagination and maturity apart from training and ability.  Certainly, the children are given simpler sequences, but I could discern a certain confusion in the older (perhaps teenage) dancers, which is not surprising.  I guess they are trying to discover their form and style.  My aim is not to dissect the dances closely and critically; I find it interesting to observe different movements of the dancers and think about how their styles emerge.

The end of a wonderful performance by students
I was able to take a few pictures, but I realized that flash photography was not allowed, so I have no more images of the subsequent programme.  However, pictures would probably not do justice to dance and so I attach older utube videos to illustrate what I felt during and after the programme.

Much of the dancing was done in the style of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra, who had trained a lot of students from outside the state.  His is a slow, soft, sensual style with many stances where the dancer looks as though she might be frozen into or just emerging from the wall of a temple.  Interestingly, Guru Kelucharan's own style was different from that of all his students (whom I have seen).  His own emphasis was largely on narrating a story in as expressive a way as possible.  He sometimes added stories to existing old tales, to incorporate an extra layer of drama or movements, and he easily played more than one role at a time in an inimitable fashion.

Yesterday's programme began, as all dances do, with a Mangalacharan, a prayer to the gods (in Odissi, it would normally begin with mother earth and then proceed to Ganesha or Lord Jagannath (Vishnu), however modern dancers often leave out the earth element, as was done this evening - the cost of stylization and urbanization!).  But it was a nice beginning anyway.  I attach below a picture of the children doing Mangalacharan, followed by an old performance of Mangalacharan by Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and a recent one by his daughter-in-law, Sujata Mohapatra.  Sujata's style is traditional too and it is the style which all his students have imbibed (this video is about eight minutes and you need not watch the entire dance if you are not inclined to; watching about half (unfortunately, it begins with an advertisement) will give you a general feel for the movements and how they differ from Guru Kelucharan's own movements).


The other guru whose presence was felt, in a tremendous solo performance (by one of the organisers, Madhulita Mohapatra) was Guru Deba Prasad Das.  I like his style for its earthiness and emphasis on strong expressions of moods.  In this case, Madhulita depicted a scene from the poem 'Geeta Govinda', an old erotic-mystical composition in the bhakti tradition (where Krishna (a form of Jagannath) is worshipped as a lover).  This will need a section (or a blog) in itself to describe, so I won't get into details here.  This dance was the highlight of the evening and had everyone on edge, watching Madhulita showing an abandoned lover's grief which ended with her sitting disconsolately on the stage, tears flowing down her face.

Just to depict Guru Deba Prasad's style, I add here a link to a dance sequence by another talented Bangalore-based dancer, Sarita Mishra.  In this snippet, she performs the beginning of Geeta Govinda, a description of different avataras of Jagannath as he appears on earth to vanquish arrogance or evil.  As you can probably make out from these performances, Odissi is a dance which has the potential to reach out and touch you - gently, enticingly or passionately, invoking happiness, sorrow, love or awe as the dance proceeds.
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