Thursday, August 29, 2013

Gender empowerment in South Asia - a mixed canvas of issues

South Asia-Culture/Lifestyle/Gender

By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

Gender has been a social talking point in South Asia for the last half-a-century in a milieu of greater freedom of expression with the opening up of economies prompted by globalization.

For the last 150 years – or to be precise since the late 19th century – gender inequity has been on the top of the roster of cultural, economic and social benders confronting the Indian subcontinent that was subject to conventional gender regimes for more than 1,000 years, especially with the colonization of South Asia by Muslims and then the British.

However, historians trace a deeper thread to the malaise, putting its genesis of the post-Vedic interpretations of Hinduism. In the early Hindu period, when the Vedas sired “a host of interpretative Purans”, women took on a subsidiary and a more subservient mantle relegated to running the hearths and procreating. Knowledge of the Vedic scriptures – which propounded gender emancipation, empowerment and equality- gradually moved out of the purview of women in Hindu kingdoms of south and southeast  Asia loosely creating the notion of the second sex.

Society grew conservative and rigid as Hinduism morphed into the Bhakti movement – and religion became more complex. Rites like ‘Sati (committing suicide on the husband’s pyre), polygamy and dogmatic widowhood – repression of female sexuality – were declared mandatory, foisted on women by an insecure clergy class. In the 21st century, this bias has taken on macabre forms like gangrape, molestation, domestic violence, abuse, atrocities – both physical and psychological – isolation of ageing women and even killing in India and across the South Asian subcontinent. Rays of hope for a more progressive gender milieu often limited to cosmetic measures, the numerous gender battles notwithstanding.

Last week, a pragmatic yet innovative demand by a group of women activists from across south Asia to do away with the term “widow” and its stigmas – tarnishing the dignity and femininity of women with repressive rites – came as a breather. And surprise.
Here are some snapshots on gender from across the South Asian region.   

 “Not widows, We are Single”

 At a South Asian conclave, “Ageing Women: Critical Challenges and Concern” hosted by Stree Shakti- A Parallel Force and Helpage India, leading Indian gender and social activist Ranjana Kumari said the nation should reject widowhood. “It brings along a social stigma that needs to be broken. The dishonor and the social persecution that a widow has to undergo are beyond our imagination. Why should women be put under the burden of widowhood? The society wants to isolate them, banish them to widow towns like Kashi and Vrindavan, deprive them of their rights and their sexuality is seen as a threat to families within the framework of patriarchal designs. We have to begin a campaign in the media to call them single and rename “Widows Pension Fund” as welfare fund.  

Agreed Rekha Mody, president of  Stree Shakti, “If you study the concept of widowhood in India, you will see it rooted in history. In India, women have been traditionally empowered. They even married several times- but in the last 2000 years, women have been reduced to slaves. In the last 67 years of Independence, the decline has been rapid.”  
Mody pointed out The Indira Gandhi National  Widow Pension Scheme leaves out abandoned women and many women call themselves widow to avail of the scheme. The status of a widow does not make sense in an era when many women are opting to stay single or without steady male partners. A woman who has lost her male partner falls under the single category, technically.

Danseuse  Shobhana Narayan believes that change in social nomenclature will come with change in social mindsets. Widowhood is another form of gender discrimination.  “Can you call an artist a widow”.

Nepal shows the gender way      

The Hindu nation, known for its widespread discrimination against the girl child and women, has scored a small victory in its fight against the “taint” of widowhood. Senior gender activist Lily Thapa has removed five discriminatory policies against widows in the last five years. “In our country, a widow had to be 35 years of age to inherit property, she had to take permission from male family members to sell rights to her husband’s property, young widows who had remarried did not have rights to sell first husband’s property, extra-marital affairs were frowned upon — we have changed all these with sustained and rigorous advocacy,” Thapa told this writer. The Nepal government has revised the term widow to “Ekal Mahila”- single woman to recognize their “independent status” .

In the villages, the “Ekal Mahila Sangathan” are the new catalysts of change, Thapa said. In the last 10 years, most of  the single women have fled the villages because of Maoist insurgency, leaving the aged women and the widows behind. The men have taken to arms or are missing in action. The groups of these single women – older in years- have reversed the gender role in the villages of Nepal doffing the man’s shirt to earn bread, take care of orphans and abandoned kids, old men, secure village turf and sometime run the local administration to keep the rural apparatus ticking. Thapa has mobilized more 10,000 “Ekal Mahila” – single women (widows) in villages and the suburbs. Their acceptance as changemakers has increased in the last five years – giving them political leverage space in the Napalese politics. “All the major political parties come to me before the election for access to the Ekal Mahila Sangathan (Single Women’s Organisations of ‘widows’) in villages. They are a vote bank now and have the power to mobilize,” the activist divulged.

Thapa has been successful in overturning several discriminatory laws against the girl child as well- including a controversial statute in the country’s foreign travel law that a single girl (minor or adult - unmarried) had to seek permission and approval from a male member of the family to apply for a passport.  “We have forced the government to revoke it,” she said. The activist runs “Red Colour Campaign” for widows as well to encourage them to use red as a colour in clothes, accessories and jewellery. Widows traditionally are barred from wearing red in Hindu sects.    

Bleak gender shots from Afghanistan cauldron

Afghanistan freed itself from the shackles of Taliban barely 10 years ago and gender still remains very low on the priority of the new Afghanistan power regime. Violence has not ceased yet – and Taliban guerrillas continue to pound the capital city and the rest of the rugged nation, says one of the foremost women’s activist of the country, Massouda Jalal. The feisty award-winning food, rights and gender activist, the first woman to run for the Presidency in the country, says the status of women in her country continues to be low –especially those of widows and ageing women who have nowhere to go.

“Women have been deprived of their rights, opportunities and employment within the current contexts of Afghanistan. The level of poverty is oppressive and there is lack of security (for women) and poor representation of women in the government. Afghanistan may be the worst place for widows and aged women in the world to spend their twilight years. Welfare schemes are inadequate despite the fact the country has a large number of widows – who have lost their men to violence,” Jalal told this writer.  

The average life expectancy of a woman in Afghanistan is 44 -45 years because of the harsh living conditions and low social standing, she said The activist is seeking support from gender empowerment groups in India to collate data on aged women and widows. “There is no statistics,” she said.

Power at grassroots in Bangladesh

Women in Bangladesh have bettered their lot at the grassroots compared to their peers in the rest of South  Asia, where the gender empowerment movement is still dissipated – scattered in pockets where activists have managed to reach with their awareness modules. The root and the strength of the gender empowerment movement lies at the bottom of the social ladder – in the villages where the micro-credit revolution through the networks of Grameen Bank have benefited women- girls, housewives, widows and ageing alike to form self-help groups for employment and sustenance.  The percentage of literacy among older women in villages has increased together with health consciousness.

“The bottomline, however, is to empower and the change the system from the roots. Discrimination against the widow persist,” says Shegufta Shamim, a young official of Helpage India. The number of widows in the country is high –at nearly 10 per cent of the total disadvantaged women, statistics cite. 

For instance, in the mangrove swamps of the country bordering West Bengal in India, the Tiger Widow Associations are campaigning for self-sustainability with vocational skill modules. The members, whose husbands have been slaughtered by tigers, while working in the swamps as gatherers, are cursed by their kin as “bad luck” omen who bring misfortune on the family. The isolation has brought hundreds of these women under support platforms to break through the social wall. Statistics cite that approximately 200 forest labourers are killed by the Royal Bengal Tigers in Bangladesh every year. Several international organizations helping the women ensure safe drinking water, sanitation, education, protected homes and hone employment skills. The government sadly does not recognize widows as “single women”.

Women waking up freedom edicts in Bhutan

Widows still live in relative seclusion in the Himalayan kingdom which has begun to open door to the notions of gender equality and empowerment – in society, home and at work. A monarchy till a few years ago, the king was free to marry multiple women, who were “essentially royal consorts” revered across the country. The average Bhutanese woman was the hardworking wife and the resilient matron, who bore the hearth on her shoulders. Widows were accommodated within this context. “There are a number of reasons why women fell behind men. Historically more boys went to school and women were kept back at home because they had to travel great distances to school. The country has not seen many female leaders in leadership positions because of the stereotypical  gender ideology that women were not confident and they were weak,” said Lily Wangchuk, Bhutan’s lone woman leader of a political outfit Bhutan Social Democratic Party.

A cancer survivor and a Prime Ministerial aspirant, Wangchuk, who has been mobilizing Bhutanese women – across all social segments – in the grassroots – told this writer that monarchy called upon the women to play a more proactive role in 2008, when the king introduced democracy. 

“I could make an impact as a political worker. I wanted to break the gender barrier (against women) in politics,” Wangchuk said. Bhutan in the last five years has allowed a woman minister in the Cabinet. Activists say the country now can flaunt women filmmakers, rights activists, politicians, scholars, technocrats, hundreds of Buddhist nuns  and a very proactive Queen Mother, who encourages them.   

“It is difficult for a woman to carve out a career in a man’s world, but it has to begin somewhere,” says  Bhutan’s lone woman taxi driver, who drives her SUV like a man everyday for a living.The country is yet to look at its widows as a mobilizing force of single women.  

P.S: In Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Myanmar, widows do not have access to special privileges barring a handful of welfare doles or cover under UN aid programmes. They are neither recognized as ‘single women” nor as “disadvantage groups”. The gender empowerment movement is still a fledgling in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Activists say the movement in Pakistan is still confined to conventional perceptions of feminism – power still lies in the hands of men though greater freedom of expression has seen a diversity of opinions and views being aired on feminism, equal opportunities and religious choices. Recall Benazir Bhutto! So much for guts!                            

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Rupee slide in Delhi Book Fair 2013 – buy 3 books and get one free


Delhi  Book Fair 2013

By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

The ongoing Delhi Book Fair 2013, hosting nearly 200 publishers based out of the national capital, is resonating  with two ominous pointers of the reality confronting the Indian market — the gradual weakening of the rupee  against the dollar in the international money market and its spiraling northward journey of prices across consumption segments triggering rethink on existing book business models.

Books have not been spared of the slide in the value of rupee as well. On August 27 (2013), when the Indian rupee hit a record of Rs 63 against the US dollar , the book fair at the Pragati Maidan in New Delhi went on a frenetic overdrive announcing unheard of bargain deals to push the printed piles out. In the last two months, the prices of books – across categories - have battled a sudden and sharp 20 per cent price hike to tide over the rupee turbulence.  Cost of importing papers and printing have gone up as well as the human overheads, publishers, wholesalers and distributors at the fair complained.    

Bargain is the buzzword at the weeklong book bazaar that opened Aug 23. The deals are throwaway, verging almost on the ludicrous. Big Indian publishers like Om Books International are offering direct bargains of as high as 90 per cent discounts while smaller ones have sought recourse to ingenuous marketing with deals like “3 books for  Rs 100” and “20 books for Rs 600”. The highest selling books with the maximum discounts are children, entertainment and lifestyle titles with some priced at Rs 20.

For a mega capital city like Delhi that is home to the oldest second hand market at Daryaganj, the bargains surprised the odd visitor. “It is such a relief to be able to buy books for Rs 50 and Rs 100,” said Mehak, a class VII student of a public school in Gurgaon  in National Capital Region. `
It is a reflection of a larger trend countrywide in the publishing sector.  

The steady slump of the rupee against the dollar has forced publishers to push up prices of books by at least Rs 100 in the last two months.  Medium and small scale distributors and wholesalers – who throng the Delhi Book Fair every year— have been bearing the onslaught with an array of enticing buyers’ packages.

Pratap Publishing  and Distributors’, a medium local distributor and publisher of education and general books , is selling fiction and children’s books at nearly 80 per cent less than the original MRP. 

 “People have to read books and buy them.  The discounts will lure them to check out the titles. The steep increase in prices of books have forced the younger generations of readers to move to the Internet,” Praveen, the proprietor of Pratap Publishing said.

The dollar is steeper and importing books have become expensive, he explained. “Multinational publishers have increased prices of their titles. A book that cost Rs 199 even a month ago has been revised at Rs 299.  Large publishers are scrambling to stay afloat in this season of crunch. But how do we justify the price hike to buyers,” he said.

Publishers said despite the rising prices. importing books made more sense because they were still cheaper than books printed in the country. Indian publishers often have to import newsprint  which is expensive. given The ban on felling of trees have affected production of quality paper in the country. A large number of Indian publishers offshore their printing orders to China where the cost printing is economical, compared to India.

At the overcrowded counters of Om Books International, which imports foreign bestselling titles and publishes its own books as well, the clearance bargain prices were almost “alarming” to believe. “62 per cent discount”, screamed small flaps on two illustrated collectors’ encyclopedias of Rock and Jazz music.  The hefty volumes with pictures, histories and lyrics were priced at Rs 995, down from its original price of Rs 2,610. A coffee table volume of the complete works of William  Shakespeare was up for sale at Rs 795, nearly 70 per cent less than its original price of Rs 2,610.

“It is unbelievable,” exclaimed a book buff from Delhi University  rummaging through piles of compendiums. However, local publishers  articulated an unaccounted for fear.

The off-shoring of imported  titles— out of fashion on bookshelves in the west —  is eating into the local print market. “It makes more business sense to import cheap foreign titles in bulk now that prices of books printed in India are rising,” said a leading Delhi based wholesaler of books, refusing to be named. The random import of affordable books by Indian stakeholders to keep their distribution and wholesale business afloat have made the country a virtual dumping ground for “discarded” titles from the west- and now even from China and Japan. Wholesalers and distributors channel these books at fairs for a pittance – lending the excitement of bargaining to the instant market - for quick gains.

“The fact that Indians love to bargain for consumer goods makes the job easy,” a leading Delhi-based publisher at the fair said. “In the long term, the bargains don’t pay. People – mature readers – are still willing to pay for good books,” he said.

As a result, the Delhi Book Fair is wearing a festive look- festoons, banners, flaps and posters are screaming discounts of every kind. At the kiosk of Diamond Books, a red and yellow poster screamed, “Buy three books, and get one free” while Har Anand  Publishing offered “10 books for Rs 350” and “20 books for Rs 600”. The publishers are cashing in on children’s books that are more flexi-priced and have a ready market. Children’s books, along with education books, have been sustaining the publishing industry since 2008. Publishers are turning their spotlights to mass fictions to offset losses. 

While children’s books survive on exports and institutional sales, education books sustain with the help of government support, tie-ups, mergers, digital printing and the new media. The growing e-book market is slowly making inroads into the shrinking physical print pie with easy access of readers to electronic readers and computers.    

In India, most books printed indigenously work up maximum print runs of 5,000, which by conservative estimates is “big”. Self-publishing has not really taken off in the country where writers still depend on the nearly 19,000 small or big registered publishers publishing nearly 100,000 titles every year. Unofficial estimates put it at 60,000.  Estimates by the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) say the annual turnover of the Indian publishing industry Rs 10,000 crore.           

At the Delhi Book Fair, Evergreen Publishers, a publisher and distributor of educational books, was selling World Atlases Rs 20 and baby books for Rs 50.  “In the education, discounts work in two ways. We have to promote our books at cheap prices and our books must reach children across every segment of buyers. Discounts on affordable books generate demand and evinces interest in expensive books … We cut costs in house,” B.B. Saxena of Evergreen Publishers explained.  
A buyer, who purchases an expensive book, usually picks up a cheaper one, he said.

Pointing to a general knowledge book for children modeled on “Kaun Banega Crorepati” published by Evergreen,  Saxena said, “the book was being sold at Rs 20 at the fair”. The price (MRP) of the book last year was Rs 185.  The publisher  said “Bollywood and television reality shows was a big draw for children”.  Any publication that uses Bollywood or television shows as imagery to connect  to mass readers “finds a little more market “.

Prince Kohli, the owner of Kohli Book Distributors in the national capital, confessed to being “hit by the rupee slide”. “It has an effect on imported titles and expensive Indian publications. Good books are going out of the reach of common man,” he said.

In the last decade, the mercurial changes in the money markets have been manifest in strange ways in the Indian publishing industry. A  sharp polarization between multinational publishing houses and local publishers has fuelled new debates about pricing and changed the nature of the industry.

While local publishers accuse foreign publishers with India operations “of subverting the publishing market with their deep pockets, multiple imprints, competitive pricing, international support and gobbling up smaller entities with acquisitions and merger deals”, the foreign publishing houses hint at “declining quality  brought about by cheap local publications aimed at the mass market”.

Last year, the local publishing fraternity was alarmed when “Penguin Books and Random House announced a merger” for cross-over books. “The financial vagaries are effecting changes in the industry,” a publisher said.

The spiraling book prices have prompted a quaint trend on Ground Zero.  The trade in used books has become brisk, Ravi Nagpal of General Book Store, one of the largest trader of used imported books in the capital.

At the book fair, he made killing selling imported used “titles” like Ladybird books, some out of print in the market, Enid Blyton as old as 1950, original editions of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, Penguin classics, lifestyle books and popular best-sellers for prices between Rs 30 and Rs 150.

“For the last five years, I have importing used books in bulk and sending them to markets in Calcutta (Kolkata), Chennai and Patna that have large markets for cheap books,” he said. In Delhi, the business in used books has grown in the last three years at the second hand book shops all over the city. “It counters piracy of books . Sale of used books is authentic,” Nagpal said.

Agreed Shreya, a class VIII student from Shalom Hills School in Gurgaon; and her parents, “Every year, we buy loads of used books from the Delhi Book Fair for the family.  After reading the books, we donate them. It does not pinch”.

Prices and intelligent marketing are the bottomlines of any business in developing India. And they are certainly changing the way we look at and read our books”.    

P.S: The Delhi Book Fair is organised by India Trade Promotion Organisation and The Federation of Indian Publishers 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Madhusree's Blog: Romancing the Saxon soul of Germany - a traveller'...

Madhusree's Blog: Romancing the Saxon soul of Germany - a traveller'...: World-Travel/Culture/Lifestyle By Madhusree Chatterjee (Dresden)Saxony/New Delhi      Millions of fleet-footed Indian...

Romancing the Saxon soul of Germany - a traveller's chronicle


By Madhusree Chatterjee
(Dresden)Saxony/New Delhi     

Millions of fleet-footed Indians with a fetish for wanderlust have been flocking to Germany for leisure and business holidays for more than three decades now.  But very few have tried to explore the soul of Germany — Saxony, the cradle of the historic Saxon empire and civilization. Germany is desperate to push Saxony to Indian travellers traditionally nurtured on lebensartjoy de vivre - of Munich, the chic exotica and speed of Stuttgart, the art of Frankfurt, the romance of Heidelberg, the wall of Berlin, the printed history of Gutenberg in idyllic Mainz.
“Saxony is built on history and culture – 700 years of architecture, wine, music, art hand-crafted watches. We want to bring it alive to India,” says Wolfgang Gartner of Saxony Tourism.

Gartner says the strength of modern-day Saxony with its capital city of Dresden sprawled in Florentine grandeur on the banks of Elbe — lies in its regeneration. The free state has risen like a phoenix from the morass and devastation of World War II.

The small impoverished town of Glashutte in the Sachsische Schweiz- Osterzgebirge region of the Ore Mountains (near Dresden) is Germany’s exclusive time-keeper. In the middle of the 19th century, a watchmaker approached the local Saxon government for support to build a watch factory. It brought an economic lifeline to the quaint picturesque town – making way for jobs to the poor residents. Over the decades, the pioneers at “A. Lange & Sohne (1845)” branched out on their own and created their own companies- nearly 10 of them which make luxury mechanical watches.

The industry, scarred by the war, was nationalized post-war under a Communist regime and began to recoup¸ very slowly. After the end of Communist regime – and the crumbling of the Wall – the state owned companies were privatized.  In 1997, A. Lange & Sohne, the flagship watchmaker, was elected as the most important German luxury brand. It is now a component of the Swiss luxury group Richemont.

Lange & Sohne is the foundation of the luxury backbone of Glashutte together with companies like Bruno  Sohnle Uhrenatelier Glashutte, Glashutte Original,  Nautische Instrumente Muhle, NOMOS /Wempe Chronometerwerke and Union Glashutte, which lend the town a maverick position in German’s haute shopping delights. It makes 50 per cent of the country mechanical watches in a digital age.

An old watchmakers’ school, where the time-craftsmen honed their skills, has now been converted to the German Watch Museum chronicling the history of German watch making and the intricacies of time mechanics.  “The town has recovered. It is an amazing post-Communist story,” Gartner told this writer/correspondent.

The other resurrection narrative is that of the wine from the Lippe estate. The Lippe family, one of the oldest noble families in Germany owned one of the largest private estates in Saxony with extensive vineyards. In 1945, the family was dispossessed of its estates without compensation and exiled to the west. The family castle in Proschwitz was used as a medical facility. After reunification, the scion, Georg Prinz zur Lippe returned to Saxony and bought back the vineyards and then the estate that looms on a hill. The Saxon Wine Museum is archive of the 850-year-old history brewing in Saxony— and the breathtaking Saxon Wine trail spans Pirna – south of Dresden – to Diesbar-Seusslitz, north of Miessen in the region. Old world wineries, estates, family homes and wine cafes dot the green undulating countryside.  

Personally, Saxony represents a slice of history that binds across great cultures of the Occident and the Orient —  like Emperor Augustus’ fascination with the last Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who was treated as a local pop star in Saxony and a missionary, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg, a Lutheran clergyman from Pulsnitz (in Saxony), who was the first (Protestant) Pietist missionary to arrive at the Danish colony of Tranquebar in South India in  1706.  Pulsnitz, incidentally, is famous as the German “gingerbread” town as well.  The discerning local populace recalls the bridges with India, which sent the Vedas and Sanskrit through Max Muller to Germany.   

At the historic Green Vault Museum in Dresden, a green and diamond jeweled replica of the court of Aurangzeb in Delhi stands as a riveting testimony to cross-cultural camaraderie. The miniature court commissioned by Augustus the Strong even shows Mughal emperor receiving gifts on his throne. The craftsmanship is exquisite - almost life-like in execution and design.

“There is lot going between India and Germany in the tourism sector. Saxony and the spa town of Baden-Baden which is becoming an arts stop like Frankfurt are two of the new destinations we are trying to open to Indian cultural and leisure tourists. The German cultural showcased of 2011-2012 (it was the 60th anniversary of the Indo-German diplomatic ties and was declared as the year of Infinite Opportunities),” says Romit Theophilus of the German National Tourist Office.    

Germany is positioning itself as a “leisure and incentive destination for young, corporate and the family travelers. The India Pool of the German National Tourist Office (created in 2008) with 18 partners has declared 2013 as the year of “youth travel”.  Keeping in view of the travel theme for Indians to Germany, national tourist office has created “new bed and breakfast properties” across the country in ranges between 15 to 40 Euros for shared accommodation and four star stays for 200-220 Euros.

In India, the profile of outbound travelers to Europe – especially to destinations like Germany, France and Italy is changing. The high end leisure and business visitors have given away to cost-conscious youngsters and FIT category travelers, who prefer offbeat and budget itineraries.

“College and university students, young professionals and single working women – even from tier II and III cities- are travelling to Germany,” Theophilus pointed out. They look for economy deals. Many of them opt for homestays and farmstays in the scenic countryside in the outskirts of the bigger cities that offer traditional comforts of rural German homes and village beer like at ruddy prices.

The incentive groups – large corporate contingents in MICE segment – have been receiving “club class” customized treatment with special lunches and dinners on the German Alps – the country’s pride — which are being corporatized to lure business travelers. Sometime, the mountains and the Alpine trains are lit with corporate logos to give the visitors a sense of involvement.

The Alps is being “increasingly branded”, a German travel agent conducting trips to Zugspitze Peak (in Alps region) laughed. “Everyone thinks Alps belongs to Switzerland, they forget Alps belongs to Germany as well”.

“An incentive (corporate) team from HDFC adopted a town in Germany while on holiday some time ago. The head of the visiting group became the mayor of the town (name withheld on request) for a day and the people of the town came out to welcome the group,” Theophilus said.
The country is making an attempt to make deeper inroads into Indian heartland to reach out to the suburban traveler with large disposable incomes. “They are the future travelers to Germany,” the German tourism representative predicted.      

Official tally cites that Germany logged 560,000 of overnight visitors from India last year. It has been growing at 20 per cent every year.              

Sample this
Plan a trip to Germany- Berlin, Munich, Mainz, Saxony, Rurh, Frankfurt and Baden-Baden. You see a holistic picture of the treasures of Germany. And don’t forget to avail of the shopping (VAT) concessions while in Germany. It works out cheaper.             


Madhusree's Blog: Food is all about memory in cans - nostalgia: Vika...

Madhusree's Blog: Food is all about memory in cans - nostalgia: Vika...: India-Food/Lifestyle/Culture  By Madhusree Chatterjee  New Delhi  Traditional cuisine has much to do with memory. The act ...

Food is all about memory in cans - nostalgia: Vikas Khanna


By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi 

Traditional cuisine has much to do with memory. The act of cooking and eating ethnic food is an exercise in nostalgia – linked to the ritualistic cultures that occupied much of our childhood in countries like India that has a culinary heritage dating back to more than 5,000 years.

Master chef Vikas Khanna, the owner of the niche Indian eatery Junoon  in New York, has captured this essence of nostalgia in his new book, “Everyone Can Cook” — an easy-to-make anthology of recipes that celebrates 200 year old history of canned food across the world. Sponsored by Hindustan Tin Works [foremost maker of cans in India ], the anthology  brings out the importance of food preservation and the “fresh effectiveness” of canned ingredients in the kitchen where cans are often discarded as “stale”. And hence not authentic.

Khanna looks inwards into the man's deepest gastronomic psyche to look for the relevance of tradition in food that the "can" symbolizes. The young chef, known for popularizing “ghar ka khana” (home cooked food)"  and ethnic Indian platter in New York, echoes American journalist, activist and food philosopher Michael Pollan (author of In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto) to capture the essence of memory in food. “This idea of a little woman cooking in a kitchen and the aromas wafting from it – the image is every difficult to let go. Hence is food is more of a memory of an image at the time  when we are watching more food on the television than cooking it in the kitchen,” Khanna told this reporter/writer in the capital.

Michelin chef Khanna’s  first memory of canned food goes back to his first Christmas in America in 2000 when he found “security and comfort in a facility” – the Rescue Mission — in the strange land. As he cooked there, he saw how canned foods touched the lives of the needy. Back then, no one knew about anything about the canning industry barring that “the Canned Food Bank was a succor", the chef recalled.

Several years later, when the book became a reality, Khanna saw the food can as a larger picture of something more profound – an icon of unity that levels divides in the kitchen in an age of changing lifestyles”. The chef has been collecting can art for years – and several of them deck up his culinary space in New York.  The beginning of his collection goes back to a trip to Orissa when “he came across children painting food cans by the road side”. He bought loads of them back to US.

In America, cans are liked to the popular artistic canvas by the Campbell Soup cans immortalized by father of contemporary new wave kitsch art Andy Warhol, who touched up the cans as work of iconic art to forge an instant connect with the average American on the street. The counter-culture of "can art" makes room for a deeper spiritual meaning in Khanna’s opinions of canned food – and the ancient rituals associated with food.

Khanna tries to establish preservation and the traditional cultural resonance in gastronomy with anecdotal recollections.  One of them is about a Kashmiri pundit woman "who came to Khanna at his restaurant in New York". She wanted to know how she would “celebrate” Mahashivratri- if it was possible to celebrate it with pundit cuisine. “The essence of Mahashivratri to her was her traditional cuisine – of a land that she had left long ago”.

Khanna tries to connect her memory of the Shaivite ritual and the flavour of her native cuisine to the “preserved essence of food in a can” that carries more than just the food - but a legacy. “We are living in an age of diaspora- migration and displacement,” he says to explain the significance of rituals in food- and compares it to the food "can". 

“I remember frying poori (traditional Indian fried bread) once at home without ajwain (bishop’s weeds- used in north Indian poori ) for an older aunt.  She was upset because I did not add bishop's weed. I insisted why ajwain (bishop’s weed). She said it was a memory from childhood. Older people biting into the poori would be reminded of their childhood. That was the connection,” Khanna recounted.  

A woman from Canada, who had booked a table at Junoon was moved to tears after “eating Khanna’s ‘aloo bari’- a simple Indian dish of potato cooked with dry lentil cakes baked at home”. “She said this is exactly how my naani (grandmother) made it. She was eating it after 70 years. I had personally made the bari (lentil cakes) with a dehydrator from France. I had never so felt so proud of being an Indian,” Khanna said.

Rituals make us relive, the chef mused, dapper as ever in his American style outfit and his marked Punjabi  accent. “That memory of food – home, brood, clans, lineage and old kitchens- cannot be contained in dishes and modular- interactive  cooking facilities. Rituals are difficult to let go.”

Rituals – those related to food- are usually recreated in groups like a symphony, Khanna asserts, The first world is far behind in rituals. Rituals make a society – and the day society becomes individualistic minus its collective rites, it would collapse. “Once a fellow Punjabi (sardarji) asked me (on a train, I was travelling in New York) where did I learn to bake bread. I said at the Golden Temple. He hugged me. It became a part of a ritual,” Khanna offered yet another insight into the ritual of food.   

Trained  in France, Khanna  opted for Indian food early on in US. Hark it back to nostalgia, homesickness and fierce "nationalism".   “No French, No Italian, but pure and traditional Indian. I have sold my 6 dollar Indian curry at 38,000 dollars in a special platter ‘Vikas’ Magical 20’ . If Indian curries can be sold for 38,000 dollars, how can “you stereotype Indian food”, Khanna questions. There are so many India- so many tastes that make Indian food stand out with the different ‘tadka’ (spice mix) for curries from across the provinces, villages and regions. Each narrates a different India story. 

Khanna has been using the traditional Punjabi religious rite of “langar- community cooking and feasting” – usually practiced in the gurudwara (shrine) to spread the word of peace after the Wisconsin shooting in US. “I can teach Sikhism through a langar – it has every tenet that the religion teaches,” the chef says.

The White House led by President Barack Obama (for whom Vikas Khanna cooked a special Indian platter last year) required a chef to help with post shootout peace campaign, laughed Khanna. “I conducted 121 langars across US. In a 121 sq feet area in Times Square, I made the New Yorkers sit down - told them not to take off their shoes – and eat. I ordered 10,000 DVDs of my book, ‘Holy Kitchens’ and sent them to schools across America.”

Everything is life is in plural, says American anthropologist and philosopher Dennis Tedlock. “Food has always been communal. I went to Harappa and Mohenjo Daro to study ‘bartan (pre-historic pots and pans). There was no individual ‘bartan’. Every pot was communal…” Khanna pointed out, interpreting Tedlock's food consciousness. It was about sharing what was on offer in the kitchen – like in a "food can across geographies along the Indus valley”.  Cuisine became symbolic in the process. 
Khanna is currently writing a cook book for children.

A recipe from “Everyone Can Cook”
Spicy Chicken Corn &Bean Soup
(This soup gives the same nutrition as a whole meal, says chef Khanna)
One teaspoon of olive oil
4 cloves of garlic
I large onion
Half a cup yomato passata
Half a cup of red kidney beans in chilli sauce
Half a cup canned niblets
6 cups of chicken stock
Half a teaspoon of chilli flake
Half cup of shredded and boiled chicken
Half tea spoon of basil
Salt to taste
Heat olive oil in a large heavy saucepan over medium flame. Add onion and garlic and sauté till transparent. Add passata and sauté for 7 minutes. Mix kidney beans in chilli sauce and corn and sauté for another minute.
Stir chicken stock and red chilli flakes . When the soup thickens, mix in chicken, basil, salt and cook for one more minute. Serve with bread rolls.
Book published by Om Books International      

Monday, August 19, 2013

Looking into a colourful cargo hold- Air India masters show opens in Delhi


Air India art
By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

The Maharaja – mascot of India’s official carrier Air India-   has arrived in the national capital with his colourful booty at the National Gallery of Modern Art in an exposition, “Air India Salutes Indian Masters” — a collection of nearly 76 works from the archives of the aviation giant acquired over a period of more than 66 years.   

The collection on display at National Gallery of Modern Art features 66 paintings and 10 sculptures.
Air India’s tryst with modern art is a slice of India’s art history connected to its nationalistic movement post Independence. The aviation leader became one of the largest and the earliest platform for young pioneers like M.F. Husain, N.S. Bendre, Shanti Dave, V.S. Gaitonde, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza and Anjolie Ela Menon, P.V. Janaikram, B. Vithal and several others who were painting a new language of Indian art. It gave Air India a strategic business positioning ground as well.             

The later decades of modernism of the 1960s and 1970s are represented in the collection with the works of Badri Narayan, Harkishan Lall, Ram Keote, Vijay Gupta, Sakti Burman, Jatin Das, Surya Prakash and Kevin Pearsh.        

The works cover a range of styles – from early figurative studies to strong abstractions and landscapes. An oil on sunboard installation by Anjolie Ela Menon — “Nawab With Pegion”— painted on a old window-like panel frame drew attention for its quaint execution and a retro “art deco” chic. Two sunboard art panels by Menon on display at the exposition were especially commissioned by Air India.           
When India became Independent in 1947 and the aviation industry took wings commandeered by pioneer JRD Tata, Air India was in desperate need of a brand icon and a spot of colour to light up the bare walls of its corporate offices and reservation offices so that passengers and clients could unwind. The brand identity, as the bosses echoed, had to be rooted in the tradition of Indian hospitality.

What could be more suitable than art, mused the then director of Air India commercials, Bobby Kooka, the creative whiz who created the aviation giant iconic Maharaja logo with artist Umesh Rao.

Consequently, a few years into operation, Air India began to buy art in the 1950s- coinciding with the era when modern Indian art began to chart its own language fired by the messianic zeal of the Bombay Progressive Group in 1947-1948 – a group of young modern Indian artists who decided to break out of the creative confines of European impressionism and East India Company’s documentary genre of art.

Art market was barely of any consequence – and artists from across social and cultural divides hawked their works for pittance to sustain. Air India’s entry as a corporate buyer of art gave the country the first tangible feel of an art market — with corporate investment in art becoming a nascent reality to be followed vigorously many other behemoths in the decades to come.

The new Air India offices were decked with modern art. The collection made the company’s public relation exercise easier. In the initial years — and in several later- Air India printed art calendars from its collection. The company would present its prized clients with a set of three full size reproductions of the works of M.F. Husain, N.S. Bendre and Shanti Dave. This gesture led to a symbiotic relationship between the Air India and the artists of the time.

The collection reflects the passage of time in Indian art history. When the Indian economy opened to the forces of globalization in 1990s, the country’s art market got a fresh shot in the arm with a “sudden spurt in global demand for Indian contemporary art, experimentations with content and media by younger artists and blending of international styles with local issues”. The 1990s have found place in the collection with a series by new media artist Jitish Kallat and P. Mansaram.        

“The art collection owes much to the marketing genius of Bobby Kooka, the commercial head of Air India and to Homi J. Bhabha – of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (who died in an Air India crash in 1966). They came up with a scheme to decorate all the Air India offices and VIP lounges. In 1980, I was assigned to conceive a new design of the VIP lounges by the then Indira Gandhi-led government for the Non-Aligned Prime Ministers’ Summit. I remember going on an art buying spree,” recalled noted designer, art connoisseur, critic, writer and collector Rajeev Sethi.

He bought “eight huge art works of M.F. Husain for nearly Rs 32 lakh”. Two of the works were on display at NGMA. Sethi said “the works were unique because the artists took great pains to make them”. “Air India wanted to bring in new faces on its roster and It was a privilege for the artists to hang on the walls of Air India offices”.     

Manju Singh, the chairman of the advisory committee of NGMA, said “the collection could be traced to the expansion of Air India’s offices worldwide”. The pieces were beautiful and original. “We are now making an effort to make a comprehensive catalogue of the nearly 500 art works of Air India,” Singh told this writer.

Pankaj Srivastava, executive director (Commercial) of Air India, said “the carrier makes an attempt to nurture, preserve and restore the collection”. “Maintaining such a large collection under Indian climatic conditions is difficult. We employ two artists to keep the collection as good as new,” Srivastava said.

Artist Dhananjay Gopinath Gupte, a graduate of the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, has been tending to the Air India collection for the last 29 years with a colleague. “This collection was supervised by J. Kawaji in 1960s and later by artist Sachin Dabolkar,” Gupte told this writer.

The platinum collection of 35-40 works require “frequent cleaning of the canvas for fungus and touching up for dis-colouration,” Gupte said.

“A restorer has to understand the art practice of individual artist, stylization and have a sound knowledge of art to touch up master’s works,” Gupte said. The in-house restorer has worked with masters like B. Prabha and B. Vithal “to restore paintings”. “I have watched master modernist K.H. Ara at work,” he said

The journey of modern Indian art from its genesis in the 19th century to its current trends in the 21st century – and its ability to include and adapt itself to diversities — is well-plotted in the collection of Air India, director of NGMA Rajiv Lochan explained, pointing out the significance of the collection.   

PS: The exhibition opened on July 17 in New Delhi. \

Madhusree Chatterje 
  New Delhi 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Writer Namita Gokhale looks beyond lit fests with new television book show


Writer and festival director Namita Gokhale ( co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival and Mountain Echoes, Bhutan) is now bringing contemporary Indian literature across languages to Doordarshan with a new interactive weekly capsule, Kitaabnama. Gokhale speaks on how the growth of Indian literature in different genres and tongues is resonating with the soul of a new and changing India that is building on its old literary traditions to craft modern idioms and narratives.  Excerpts:     

Q:  Literature is travelling from bookshops and literary festivals, to reading sessions on Doordarshan with Kitaabnama. How do you account for this and where will this position literature in terms of audience response?

A:   Doordarshan is the national broadcaster, with an enormous footprint. It  has been supporting the arts for a long time, and has been an extremely credible platform for classical dance, music and culture. It had become a somewhat dysfunctional place in the intervening years but now it is renewing its commitment to this legacy. There are many able professionals on Doordarshan, and all sorts of resources, including some invaluable archives. .

I found the process of working on Kitaabnama an enriching and positive experience  and received a huge amount of support from the producers, the cameramen, the editors who have helped shape the programme. And friends like Prasoon Joshi who wrote and composed the title song gratis, and other book lovers who came forward on different fronts. 

Q: What will Kitaabnama be like? What are its prime components?

A: 'Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond ' shall address literary issues of contemporary interest through dialogue and conversation. The show has a simple and uncluttered format and will feature books, readings and encounters with Indian writers from diverse spheres, as well as guest appearances from international names and voices. In recent years, there has been a renaissance in Indian literature, across the national languages. The proliferation of literary festivals, including the success of the Jaipur Literature Festival, has demonstrated the need and desire of audiences to connect to books and writers and to resonate with the world of ideas.        

Q:  Have you started shooting the interviews for Kitaabnama? Was there intellectual chemistry on sets?

 A: We have shot quite a few rounds of conversations and readings for  the show and recorded several interviews and solo encounters. There was a great bonhomie on the sets – a kind of clubby book people feeling when the first episode was being shot. It was a tribute to the late Habib Tanvir, whose memoirs , translated by Mahmood Farooqui, have generated much appreciation. Mahmood and Javed Malick were in conversation with Rupleena Bose. The people slated to participate in the next session - on translation - Gillian Wright, Arunava Sinha and Ira Pande - were listening intently. They broke into spontaneous applause when the shoot ended. Similarly, Paro Anand  did a reading which it left all of us transfixed by its dramatic quality. And then there was an another incredible session  featuring the 'two Indias..'  – which had young, urban English novelist Meenakshi Madhavan Reddy in dialogue Ajay Navaria– a highly articulate, calibrated Hindi Dalit writer, talking from different spaces and examining how they viewed the creative process and the role and responsibility of writers .    

Q: What kind of writers are you looking at for Kitaabnama?  

A: We are looking at range , variety, and value. From pathbreaking Hindi writer Uday Prakash to the incredibly articulate bestselling English novelist Ashwin Sanghi. There are the great established names, to share their wealth of experience , whom we wish to introduce to a new generations of viewers, as well as debut voices raring to be heard. We hope to soon interview doyens like U.R. Ananthamurthy and M.T. Vasudevan Nair to explore literary traditions, movements and the larger legacy of Indian literature. A session on Mahasweta Devi, and a tribute to the late Indira Goswami.  On the other hand, we are looking at writers who are rarely encountered in the mainstream. In one of the early episodes, we are featuring Damayanti Beshra, a Santhali woman writer who made a major impact in the last Jaipur Festival. There is a duty to enable grassroots voices , to give them space and opportunity   - especially to those who are not writing from metropolitan places and lack access. On the other end of the spectrum I have personally interviewed Amish Tripathi, of the game changing Shiva trilogy, at the Mountain Echoes Festival in Thimphu and recorded a very powerful reading by Mahesh Dattani. The orchestration of these very diverse streams of writing is a fascinating enterprise. Doordarshan’s enormous reach – its gigantic footprint  – can be put to meaningful use. I am not ambitious for Kitaabnama, I am not presuming instant success, but seeking sustained relevance and to hoping to slowly create a platform that is open and inclusive.

Q: What kind of cooperation did you get for your programme?

A:  We received incredible cooperation from almost every quarter for the show. I rang up writer-lyricist Prasoon Joshi and asked him to help us out with the title song. I was fascinated by Safdar Hashmi’s inspiring song- Kitabein Karti Hain Batein.. and Prasoon used it as a 'mukhda' to compose a new, very appropriate text, which he hummed and set to very evocative music.. we are truly grateful. Oroon Das designed the striking logo and set, and even sang Prasoon's title song, all at incredibly short notice. 
I know the circle of engagement will only continue to grow, and we will get more book lovers and friends of Kitaabnama to spread the word and help establish a meaningful literary show !

,The show goes on air Saturday and Sunday on Doordarshan 

 Madhusree Chatterjee