December 29, 2007

In the Madding Crowd

After looking out to sea for long, my camera resting steady in my palm, its strap wound around my forearm, I turned once again to look behind me at the crow, to see what it was upto if it was still around.

But for the crowd thronging the steps that led to where excited passengers boarded arriving boats for the Elephanta caves, craning heads blotting all landscape save the horizon, I might've been busy framing the massive arches of the Gateway of India instead of seeking in a crow, a break from the relentless monotony of the Mumbai weekend crowd.

I thought I was the only one interested in the bird until I turned my head to scan the outcrop running the length of the parapet for the crow, only to find another interested soul doing likewise – a little boy had dropped his hand over the parapet in reaching out to the crow, smile lighting up his face. I was too far away to hear him talk to the crow; moreover the crowd was such that even if I were near I couldn’t have made out much of what he was saying to the bird.

Behind him his parents conversed while his mother lay a light hand on his waist restraining him from leaning any further while a newly married couple to their right looked out to sea, oblivious of the little boy. The crow unaware of the boy peered down the ledge.

The crowd swirled with renewed vigour as a boat approached, excited shouts rending the late afternoon air. Soon the jetty would empty of passengers only to make way for the next lot. Standing there I watched the boy trail his gaze along the outcrop, following the movement of the crow, and I of the boy. In him seeking his temporary world riding a passing moment in the oblivion of the milling throng, I’m reminded of lines from the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Only here he kept it in the midst of the madding crowd!

December 20, 2007

XMAS 2007

Outside Yazdani, a Mumbai bakery. A delicacy for every occasion.
'Apple Pie a day will keep you Happy all Day',
but it takes a 'Rum Plum Cake' to make Christmas a merry Day.

December 09, 2007

Coffee with Coorg

The Sun slants quickly in the Kodagu valley, more so in the winter when days shrink to invite the night to an early evening rendezvous. The temperature follows the Sun, often dropping to below 17 degree centigrade. People who live and work in Coorg, formerly known as Kodagu, say the mercury slides further as December marches ahead, continuing until the end of January. In between, the undulating topography comes alive to a melody of colours that invigorate the air as much with their fragrance as with their form.

For flowers alone Coorg must blip brightly on a traveler’s itinerary along those narrow roads that wind through the mountains, passing houses tucked away from the road behind flowering hedges. I kept my eyes peeled out for bursts of colour in the unwavering green of the vegetation yielding a narrow thread of a road that went up and down for kilometer after kilometer as the bus made its way about Coorg.

In the Kodagu valley early nightfall does not translate to early mornings as one might expect at the onset of winter for, the mountains of the Western Ghats ranges swallow the Sun that much quicker and delay his rising for that much later. So when we set out to Coorg from Bangalore at the all-expenses-paid invitation of Club Mahindra my bag bulged with winter clothing that had idled in a corner of my cupboard. Folks who had heard of Coorg said, ‘Oh, so Coffee huh?’ But I was unprepared for how big coffee really was in Coorg until the front seat in the mini bus yielded one coffee plantation after another along winding roads.

Off Madikeri, the capital of Coorg, punctuated by lush green paddy fields and houses only a few coffee plantations line the narrow, winding road to Club Mahindra in the Kodagu valley. But elsewhere there is little to indicate that Coorg grows anything other than coffee for such is the abundance of these plants that often reach chest high and above. Coffee plants are pruned to facilitate early harvesting long before they can reach their maximum height of 15-20 feet. It suited me fine for from the front seat by the driver, views sweeping in over the tops of plantations unfolded panoramic views as gears shifted up an incline or down a slope, the engine whining in my ears.

Joy’s fulsome itinerary for us fellow travel writers meant most of us struggled to present ourselves at the Club Mahindra’s Coffee Lounge in time to board the mini bus ‘Ganesh’ that would take us on an early morning spin around Coorg. Needless to say there was little time to savour coffee except at the hurried breakfast virtually suspended in the thick of canopies where bird calls often prompted the camera-inclined amongst us to reach for our Digital SLRs. There we were thoroughly spoilt for choices from their kitchen, warranting more than one trip to the buffet, returning with plates heaped with savouries each time we stepped away from the black cane chairs in the extended balcony that served as a dining area while looking out on thick vegetation outside. Breakfast was invariably had to the tune of myriad birdcalls.

The second day saw a particularly hectic sight seeing trip to Bhagamandala and Talacauvery, expertly shepherded by Joy whose patience at disengaging me from my camera subjects while the others waited by the bus had to be seen to be believed. At one point I was told of this exchange Joy had with a fellow traveler. Pointing to me Joy said to her, ‘He is my ambition.’ Intrigued she asked him, ‘Why’. To which Joy answered disarmingly, ‘If he comes, everybody comes. He is last.’

A more warmer and enthusiastic person I’m unlikely to meet.

It was all downhill from Talacauvery (sometimes spelled Thalacauvery). This time the bus groaned from the pressure the slopes exerted on its ‘knees’. Hemmed in between the window and the engine that separated the elderly driver from Bangalore I swung in the backless seat each time we rounded a sharp turn down the mountain, digging my toes into the floor to avoid kneeing Manjunath in the front where he sat on the steps that led out the bus through the front door. Manju was a ‘cleaner’ as assistants to bus and truck drivers are usually known. Typically they start young, eventually graduating to becoming drivers themselves. Until then it is an initiation not for the fainthearted.

So when the bus delivered us at the entrance to Club Mahindra around three in the afternoon weary legs sauntered out the front door, tired from climbing the 365 steps to the top of the Brahmagiri hill at Talacauvery. True to form Joy assembled us at the entrance with a grin and spelt out the post lunch itinerary to Abbey Falls (also spelled Abbi), Omkareshwara temple and Raja’s Seat. Not all hands went up. Those that didn’t planned to retire the afternoon away by the pool to a touch of spirit while the rest of us set out with Joy. On returning there was no sign of the others; we learned later of spirited songs floating freely to the strumming of the guitar. It was while we were waiting for them in the Lobby Lounge to turn up for dinner that we got our first real opportunity to linger by shiny French Pressers and Coffee machines to one side of the lounge.

It was nearing eight in the night as Vipin prepared to hand over duties to his colleague. Shiny Coffee Pressers lay on the counter by two large glass jars of Dakshin (South Indian Filter Coffee) and Sicilian Gold (Espresso blend coffee beans) respectively, and two small glass jars, one bearing Anytime Blend (Freshly Brewed Coffee), the other I have no idea of.

Arabica and Robusta carpet Coorg amidst Cardamom and Pepper, the latter two are spices and are typically grown on trees planted to provide shade to coffee crops besides serving timber requirements. Adequate rainfall and appropriate elevation are primary determinants for coffee success; with Arabica typically grown at altitudes starting at 3,000 feet upwards to 6,000 feet above sea level while Robusta does fine at comparatively lower altitudes. Coffee from higher altitudes is preferred. Unlike Arabica which blooms after five years, Robusta typically takes six years for flowers to bloom. The blooms last only a few days before berries appear 5-6 months later.

Vipin serves over 22 varieties of tea and 9 varieties of coffee in the Lobby Lounge. Turned out in a neat suit a light shade of green, he stands tall under a chandelier suspended from the wooden ceiling supported by wooden ribs running across its length on the shorter side. The chandelier is of similar design to chandeliers that light up old Goan temples. Behind him by the window that looks out on the entrance to the resort, spirits sit in bottles that take on a stained glass feel in the afternoon light, drawing and holding attention when there is time to while and sights to take in. But in the light of the chandelier the bottles blend in, almost invisible in the corner. A magazine rack stands against the wall to the side which reduces to knee level as it runs its length by a seating area that looks out on a patch of vegetation outside. In the late afternoon Magpie Robins frolic in the trees outside. The cane sofas with rust-coloured pillows are placed back to back and give one a faint feel of an Airport Lounge minus the announcer and the noise, pleasant enough for flights of imagination.

Vipin smiles as I turn the coffee jar to read the label. I like the feel of the glass jar in my hand. The green velvet cover under the glass tabletop sets off the glass jars, their corners glinting opaque in the light. The nine varieties of coffee on offer at the counter are a blend of Arabica and Robusta. ”Italians use more of Arabica for Italian coffees like Espresso and Cappuccino,” explains Vipin before continuing, “Espresso is the mother of all Italian coffees, and is typically made with a ratio of 60% Arabica and 40% Robusta.”

I take time to get used to his heavy Malayalam accent. Kerala borders Coorg, among the smallest of Karnataka’s districts and was a state until 1956 when it was incorporated into what was then Mysore State on India redrawing its state boundaries along linguistic lines. Eventually Mysore State came to be known as Karnataka and Coorg one of its districts. To this day Coorg is known by its ancient name, Kodagu, and its original inhabitants, Kodavas.

Club Mahindra draws over fifty of its employees from the local populace, Kodavas; the majority hail from Tamilnadu, Kerala and other parts of Karnataka.

Arabica is stronger of the two with Robusta blended in to make the coffee milder,” Vipin said. He turns to point to a coffee machine behind him before continuing, “It is Italian make and costs over four lakhs. We use it to prepare Espresso, coffee syrup. The machine is used only to prepare Espresso.”

He turns to face us and points to coffee beans holders in the counter table visible through the glass tabletop. “They’re a mix of both, Arabica and Robusta,” he replies when I ask him which is which of the two. He bends to open the drawer and reaches into the coffee holders and brings up a handful of beans in his palm. “Robusta beans are the larger of the two,” he says before preparing to separate them so that I may photograph them separately. “No, that’s alright, you don’t have to separate them,” I interject on watching Vipin and his colleague methodically sift through the mix. I turn up the ISO number and open the aperture to a little under maximum while adjusting the speed to a sixtieth of a second before pressing the shutter. The Nikon D80 does not respond. “What luck,” I say out loud suppressing a disappointing grin, “the battery has run out.” Vipin returns the smile. “I’ll return tomorrow and take fresh pictures,” I tell Vipin. “Sure,” he says, “another of my colleagues might be at the counter tomorrow.” I returned the next day to find Shreejit manning the counter. Shreejit reached into the drawer and brought up a mix of Arabica and Robusta in his palm while I clicked away!

Pointing to the glass jar labeled Dakshin (South Indian Filter Coffee) Vipin explains that unlike Italian Coffee, Indian Coffee is a blend of 50% raw Arabica, 30% Robusta and 20% Chicory (also spelled Chickory). Chicory is a coffee-coloured root “sourced from Gujarat” and is blended in for aroma. “Some people might prefer lesser concentrations of Chicory blended in, typically 10%, others might go in for a higher concentration, upto 30% of Chicory.” Then he reaches out to a small glass jar labeled Chicory on the shelf to his left and passes it to us. I smell the powdered root and instinctively draw back for the aroma flares out ‘thick’ as if its particles are flaring out in a strong breeze, clogging nostrils. For the rest of the evening I nurse a slight twinge of a headache. The stillness of the night begins to throb. Relief was to come with dawn.

Then Vipin reaches for a gleaming French Presser (also known as a Percolator) and explains how he goes about making Indian Filter Coffee. “Half-ground Coffee powder goes in first, followed by three-fourths piping hot water. After 5-10 minutes I press the mixture like this. Coffee dust settles down while the decoction rises up. Then the coffee decoction is added to hot milk for a cup of Filter Coffee. For coffee packs to take home you could try ‘The Shop’ by the pool. They stock freshly ground coffee for our customers. They should have Chicory on sale too.” They did.

I point to dark coloured coffee beans. “Those are roasted coffee beans. Robusta coffee beans are the larger of the two,” Vipin said. “We use Monsoon Malabar, a coffee variety local to Coorg. It is also grown in Mangalore and Chickmangalore among other places in South India. It is just like Wild Coffee, and does not require a blend or anything. It even looks different, tastes different too.”

A distinct variety of the roasted Arabica coffee bean, the Monsoon Malabar is sourced from Kerala’s Malabar region on India's West Coast, and owes its origins to an eventful journey from India to Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. Buffeted by gusting sea winds and humid climate on its months’ long sea journey aboard British Merchant vessels, humidity reduced its acidity, mellowing it considerably while ripening it to a shade of pale gold, acquiring a particularly strong aroma to go with a rich flavour. Europe loved it and a new coffee flavour came into being. Sea journeys don’t last that long anymore so the seasoning process is artificially induced by exposing the beans to the monsoon to effect the desired result, hence the Monsoon Malabar.

The smaller jar of Anytime Blend is even milder, blended with a 50-50 ratio of Arabica and Robusta. “It is not at all strong,” Vipin says. Manjali, his colleague from Kerala, nods. Vipin credits his coffee learning to Hemant and Thimayya (or Thimmiah), the latter a Kodava. Hemant bought into a coffee estate in Coorg twelve years ago.

The late afternoon Sun lights up large leaves in the vicinity. Two Goan families, Angley and Gude, are gathered around small bicycles watching their kids grapple with their cycling helmets. The families drove in all the way from Goa to Coorg. Mr. Angley cannot get over the roads leading into Madikeri, “They made me wonder if it was a good idea to drive down all the way from Goa, we bumped all the way.” We pass the swimming pool and I imagine coffee in the light breeze. The air is beginning to sharpen and my hands seek the warmth of my denim pockets. Then we head for the small in-house coffee plantation.

The Club Mahindra facility in Coorg sources its coffee from neighbouring estates. Its own yard is insufficient to provide for all its needs. From the Lobby Lounge a short flight of steps leads down to the kitchen and a dining area. On the same floor to the right lies Fern Hall, a venue for traditional Kodava cultural programmes and dinners. Another flight of steps deposits the visitor into a small coffee plantation where green coffee berries at eye level line the path. A walking trail circles the plantation, passing an Ayurveda Massage Centre and an Adventure Games facility along the way. Butterflies dodge our steps in the late afternoon Sun.

Further down the trail a narrow path veers off and disappears between overgrown vegetation before ending in a large field where a tethered cow, barely larger than a dot, turns to look in my direction at the sound of crashing vegetation. I take in the stillness before heading back, changing routes on the way to avoid a dog looking fixedly in our direction undecided on whether to bark or bite!

Note: This is Part One of my Coorg Diaries. Read Part Two and Part Three of the series.

November 24, 2007

Aha Zindagi

Stepping out of a Mumbai restaurant one afternoon we hit the road, dodging vehicles before stepping onto the footpath where clear walking stretches beckoned, and getting off where they broke off to let an inside lane connect to another and so on.

I like walking on sidewalks lined by trees, a rare opportunity in Mumbai, often watching leaf patterns that light sneaking through sparse canopies makes on the uneven floor and the road. In watching leaf patterns ‘sweep’ the floor and the road in a lightly stepping breeze my spirit often matches its intent if not its rhythm. And it is not the only reason I avert my eyes to the footpath, sometimes I do it to dodge a homeless man asleep on the sidewalk like the one I passed the other day, muttering ‘Kya Zindagi !’ (What a Life!) under my breath even as I cast a backward glance at him without pausing on my way.

Another place, another time his image might have lingered on in my mind. The three of us walked on, I trailed behind. Approaching a bend in the path an advertisement fixed to a branch of a tree by the sidewalk caught my eye. A few steps and the letters in Hindi stood out clear ‘Aha Zindagi’ (Aha Life), loosely translated ‘Aha Zindagi’ is what I might say to a bloke who stays only ten minutes from where he works, and gets to step out to lunch at home, and whose only experience of Bombay rush-hour trains is from the Amol Palekar starrer Bataon Bataon Mein that he saw with his parents as a kid after promising them he would stay quiet the entire duration of the film – in short ‘Wow, what a life’.

I might have walked on after reading the advertisement if not for a movement in the corner of my eye. Turning my face away from the ‘Aha Zindagi’ in the tree I notice a cat reclining on the ledge of the compound wall to my left, licking itself lazily as if to whet its appetite for the meal of rice and dal that awaited His Majesty on the ledge behind its hind-quarters.

Watching His Majesty stretch out in between all the pampering he was administering himself I flip the camera open and mutter under my breath, ‘Truly ‘Aha Zindagi’”.

To read the board in the tree, click the image to open it enlarged.

November 14, 2007

A Prestige Issue

Each time I raise my head in a Bombay lane to see where I’m going it surprises me to see surroundings I didn’t know existed, more so when I have been that way before. I would have thought that a walk through a lane is good enough to notice everything there is to see along the lane - buildings, names of buildings, shops, names of shops, compound walls, gates, name plates, and any prominent landmarks like temples, and petrol pumps among other things.

Over time I’ve learnt that it is not so simple, at least not in Bombay (renamed Mumbai). One way to look at it is there is something new to see each time you pass that way unless of course you pass that way so frequently that you eventually see everything there is to see and get around to remembering it all.

Thinking of it I believe that unless I were to raise my head at the same spot along the lane each time I take it chances are I’ll notice something new even if it is only for a moment that I raise my head before returning my attention to the footpath. A slight delay in doing so and I run the risk of stepping on a sleeping form on the footpath, bumping into a tree that rises along the edge of the sidewalk, twisting my ankle where the floor has gone missing, stumbling against hawkers’ wares, stepping on dog-droppings or even worse human-droppings. Then there is this continuous stream of folks coming from the opposite direction that I need to dodge to avoid stumbling over.

So, much as I watch with a smile television footage of bumbling personalities of ‘note’ tripping over weak knees wobbly from age but reluctant to let go of levers of power, making a spectacle of themselves while the nation suffers the indignity of parading weak-kneed netas who literally need to be held up on their way to the dais where a speech exhorting the nation to march ahead with its head held high awaits, I would much rather avoid making a spectacle of myself on the footpath even if I’m a nobody. There is nothing graceful in a fall, even if it were an accident.

I’ve noticed people who’ve lost their footing while walking, tumbling to the pavement and on regaining their footing rushing on without meeting sympathetic eyes, driven along as much by embarrassment as by the indignity of it all. A fall is ungainly, an antithesis of all that is dignified, besides looking foolish. A certain fallibility is associated with a fall, any fall else how does one explain ‘he’s fallen in my eyes’, ‘it’s beneath my dignity’, ‘his self-esteem fell’, ‘a fallen woman’, ‘he fell from grace’?

So, when I took an infrequent path one day not far from the Matunga Road station, keeping my head down to avoid the indignity of falling over any of the many reasons ‘inhabiting’ Mumbai footpaths, I raised my head ever so momentarily only to be pleasantly surprised to see this building I had missed noticing earlier.

I smiled before dropping my head and turning my attention to the footpath for, there was little time or for that matter, space, to actually pause on the footpath and look around. To do so would mean suffering the indignity of being stared at by a stranger for blocking their way, or worse still being rudely shouldered aside.

In other words it would mean 'a loss of face', and with it prestige.

As to why it took me another trip that way several days later to notice the other building not far from the first one, well, I would have to start all over again to explain it!

Dignity is after all a prestige issue. So long!

November 01, 2007

October Heat

Off Matunga Road station on the Western Line, certain Mumbai pockets live on in relatively quiet lanes. Occasionally on rounding a bend in a lane buildings and houses with a distinctly early 1900s look grace the sidewalk, typically tracing their origins to the 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s. It is not uncommon to find the year it went up prominently displayed over the entrance. I look out for them when passing by.

Returning by one such lane, I leisurely traced my feet on a sidewalk. It was to escape the heat of the midday Sun that I took to the sidewalk, walking under the shade of trees lining the path. Just as I moved aside to avoid stepping on a middle-aged man taking a nap on a plastic straw mat laid out on the footpath my eyes caught a headline in a page of a newspaper he had placed under his elbow that was jutting out of the mat and onto the pavement.

I didn’t stop to read it lest I stir him awake. I muttered ‘How Apt!’ before continuing on my way.

Later in the evening the skies rumbled before raining! Somebody up there must have read it and thought it appropriate to welcome November.

Welcome, November!

To read the headline, click the image to open it enlarged.

October 30, 2007

Kala Ghoda Diwali Utsav

The Kala Ghoda Association hosted a crafts festival in collaboration with HSBC as a part of its Diwali Utsav celebrations through the weekend, ending Sunday the day before. Though there was little of Diwali in the celebrations there was enough variety to keep the audience in its seats in the open air auditorium between the Bombay Natural History Society’s Hornbill House and the Jahangir Art Gallery. The street came alive with a string of stalls, including those catering to food enthusiasts, and the stage where light, sound, and music stepped it up for the artists. We reached just as the Bharatnatyam exponents took to the stage to entertain the weekend crowd.

Later, Raell Padamsee's band of school-going children revved it up with a spirited performance.

Gary Richardson introducing Brinda Miller to the audience. Brinda Miller is a painter and is actively involved in making the Diwali Utsav happen.

Then Gary Richardson took to the stage with Nisha Harale in two interactive plays. Gary was fluent through the performance and pleasantly energetic but I couldn't help feeling that they picked up themes that didn't sit well with the Utsav, but then scripting plays that do not rely on a bit of hot spice to raise a laugh is never an easy proposition. Another place, another occasion, the same plays might have been perfect!

Alyque Padamsee holds forth from the table, attempting to make the obvious memorable until it was neither.

Max and Harry let the guitar flow to a soothing rendition of Don McLean's 1971 classic 'American Pie' before following up with equally memorable tunes.

The music changed pace again, quickening to the rendering of the Ganesh Vandana as the lights dimmed.

There was little doubt that the evening had something for everyone.

October 22, 2007

A Tight Frame

It was outside the Jahangir Art Gallery that we saw the poster advertising form and re-form, a photography exhibition at the Piramal Gallery in the NCPA complex adjoining Marine Drive, not far from the Air India building.

I paused, rewound ten years, and wondered if it was the same Joginder Singh, the slightly built Sikh lad holding forth on nature and environment while transparencies played out on the wall behind him to an eclectic audience gathered in the gallery at D’Souza Towers in the heart of Panjim for the opening of his first photography exhibition.

When I reminded him yesterday of the Jute frames he had used for his nature photographs back then, Joginder Singh laughed out loud and said, “That’s all I could afford then.” However I suspect it might have had more to do with his inclination towards nature conservation if his theme then was anything to go by, nature patterns close-up. I distinctly remember him telling the audience gathered in the basement gallery that day of an incident in a train where his fellow passengers were chucking their plastic tea cups from the window, littering the tracks in the countryside and the argument it triggered thereafter.

The talk had taken a passionate turn then while his photo slides projected instant stories on the wall behind him. In between he had made mention of Panchkula. I hadn’t heard of Panchkula until then. A news item in the Indian Express soon after reported the trapping of a leopard in Panchkula. I can still summon to my mind the picture of the leopard trapped in a cage. For reasons I cannot quite fathom I came to associate Joginder with Panchkula, Panchkula with the leopard, and the leopard with Chandigarh - a chain of associations that even if not true to their pairings served to file away the memory of that event to the back of my mind. Goa did not afford many opportunities for viewing photography efforts. Moreover it is surprising how passing time stitches fragments of remembered moments into no logical sequence even as it reminds one of the contiguity threading the seemingly random fragments together into a disparate whole.

“Ten years is a long time,’’ Joginder Singh says as we take a round of the gallery. I nod and say, “Yes, it sure is a long time.’’ He hasn’t changed much physically except for his beard. Now he wears it long. I tell him that he talks more freely now. He smiles.

I turn my attention to his exhibits. Each image cuts a distinct identity. I would suppose it is a natural outcome of zeroing in to a form’s architectural essence where lines emerge before running on to a larger interplay of intersecting contexts. Joginder has captured the essence cleanly.

Joginder Singh is a 70’s child. He trained as an Architect before practicing as one in Delhi at the Laurie Baker Building Centre in the mid-nineties before moving to Goa to work with Dean D’ Cruz for a year. “I loved doing the Laurie Baker kind of Architecture. Baker has been an inspiration, an ideal and everything. So when I moved to Goa to work with Dean who was doing similar work but for a different clientele, it involved a different expression but used similar (Laurie Baker's) ideology."

Looking at his photographs uniquely display light as the recurring theme, at times highlighting forms, other times pushing them to the background, I reflect on his use of the term ideology with context to the Laurie Baker style of Architecture and wonder how deeply might such an approach influence his photography as in narrowing his focus to a distinct thread while ‘blanking’ out the tapestry it is a part of. Would it for instance enforce a continuity of thought as an underlying thread stringing together visually disparate elements of what are essentially distinct structures but which when stripped off their larger contexts appear to belong together.

Pictures of Jantar Mantar (Delhi and Jaipur), the Padmanabhapuram Palace and a Ladakh monastery will sit together not merely as distinct eras but equally strongly as distinct emotions, each evoking in its form a completeness that cannot be mistaken for one another. However if you were to zoom into each of the three and settle on an emerging curve or a line form in the structure, the elements now stripped of their eventual contexts lose their larger identities as a Jantar Mantar, a Buddhist monastery or a Padmanabhapuram Palace and stand on their own in unison as if derived from a common architecture.

Elements combine to give a monument its identity and vice versa. To make a structural element stand on its own even when stripped of its overall context is a challenge to a photographer, even more so when exhibited in a series. There is a danger of sameness negating the very mood it seeks to create. However Joginder Singh has ‘harnessed’ light well to break the monotony and it is his use of light in delineating contrasts in his photographs, essentially minimalist in nature, that brings life to the series, casting original forms in a new light, a re-form as Jogi likes to call them.

A lady tourist who’s been going through the exhibits in silence steps up to Joginder and congratulates him on his work, her eyes lighting up. The colours appeal for sure but rendering forms stripped to their bare essentials can make for riveting viewing if cast in an eclectic play of light, where shadows play out in consonance with solid elements.

Talking of forms Joginder says, “Basically it is a process of elimination. Boiling it down to essentials where as a photographer and an architect you’re communicating the form, and you’re seeing that communication happen when things are falling into the frame.” He pauses before continuing. “It is not an analytical or logical manner, not based on any rationale but it’s just that things have fallen in place, visual synchrony I would say.” And sweeping his hand to take in the breath of his exhibits in the hall, he says of them, “Lot of these images are symmetrical.”

Joginder’s graduation from Nature photography to Architectural photography happened with his switch from being a full time architect to ‘wanting to pursue photography as a medium.’ He said, “I was thoroughly enthused with photography even while I was studying Architecture and practicing it. So I realized I could not do justice to photography if I continued as an Architect. I had to choose one.”

After returning to Delhi from Goa in 1998 he left for Himachal Pradesh for two years to help design 24 primary schools across three districts for the District primary Education Program. It was there that he began photographing architecture as a part of the project to help document the architectural heritage of those villages. “It was important to ensure that our designs did not stick out like sore thumbs. We did resource mapping of materials and resources in the village and designed accordingly.”

Joginder’s team once sourced a landslide near the site for rocks to use in construction. “In lower areas we did a bamboo and ferro-cement combination,” he recalls. “For two years I worked intensively on that project. My involvement in the third year reduced but I continued to contribute remotely to the project for a year after returning to Delhi.”

Then he shuttled between Delhi and Trivandrum in Kerala ‘to study Laurie Baker’s work in original’. He attributes his interest in Laurie Baker’s work to a trip he undertook to Kerala with the students of the Goa College of Architecture where he was teaching photography as an elective subject while working with Dean D’Cruz, a Goan Architect. “Until then whatever I knew of Baker’s work was from reading books. So with a little money, a camera and some film rolls I made for Trivandrum and started shooting Baker’s work.”

The Kerala connection bore fruit with the release of the book Glimpses of Architecture in Kerala – Temples and Palaces by Rupa & Co. in 2006. Flipping through its pages I’m struck by his use of light to highlight the temple and palace architecture of Kerala, a heritage so distinct from that of other Indian states as to be striking. Standing there I can only imagine the experience the project must've afforded him, footloose in the beauteous coastal landscape. Ramu Katakam wrote the book while Joginder Singh executed the photography to illustrate the book, a visual treat. It is priced at Rs. 995.

Talking of light and form he says, “Working on commissioned projects where I have to shoot the project in its totality I have to wait for the light, because form has been designed. Form is basically what? It’s an enclosure yaar, right? If you have an entrance to it, you’ve got light into the form or it’s all around the form. It’s eating out something from space and interacting with light. So, light is there and you need to capture that, y’know.”

Then turning to face the wall behind him he points out to one of his exhibits, “If you look at that second picture on the wall from that corner, that was shot on a day when we went to Jantar Mantar and it was extremely cloudy. There was no Sun. If you’re attuned to light then you know that when you’re shooting a picture, somewhere, subconsciously, (though you) might not define it unless you talk about it, you’re trying to capture a certain essence and then you’ve to wait for that certain light to bring that essence out, so whether it's that tight a frame, or that wide or a panorama . . . . .” then he trails off. Some things cannot always be expressed, they've to be understood. I nod.

It’s nearing seven in the evening. Two gallery attendants in white walk in, preparing to close it for the day. As Joginder prepares to put things in 'closing' order he tells me of a play he is scheduled to attend at one of the theatres in the complex later that evening. Just then he gets a call on his cell from a friend. “One wicket down,” he tells the friend at the other end, his voice rising excitedly to the pitch of his hand weaving the air. I smile to myself and wait for him to finish gathering his things on the table by the gallery entrance and reflect on how some idioms need no explaining. Then I open the door and we walk down the steps and into the cool evening air. His cell rings again, and as he speaks with someone else we turn the corner. I wave out to him and he waves back even as speaks into the receiver before the night swallows him on his way to the theatre.

Joginder Singh’s Photography Exhibition form and re-form is on at the Piramal Gallery, NCPA, Nariman Point, Mumbai until the 28th of October, 2007.

October 02, 2007

A Colaba Evening at Piccadilly

I have no idea what is running through Faisal’s mind as he stands leaning against the staircase in the shaft of evening Sun shooting across Piccadilly’s floor in Colaba. It is that kind of an evening I suppose, reflective.

We pick our way across the room dodging chairs as we head to a corner table that looks out on a quiet lane abutting the busy road crowded by roadside vendors selling trinkets and other paraphernalia among baskets of fruits. Old buildings rise from the relative quiet of the street that breaks off and passes by the window where we’re squeezed into two chairs after heaping the third with my rucksack. Two couples sit at their tables carrying on muted conversations. I take to the quiet and scan the menu for something to eat. Outside, a parakeet emerges out of nowhere and lands on the roof of a parked car. I lean out the window to get a better look, and maybe a picture. It is not everyday that I see a parakeet in Bombay. But then in the quiet streets of Old Bombay some descendants live on, offering glimpses of a city that time wore out as footpaths echoed to the urgent beat of arriving migrant feet.

I scan through Iranian and Lebanese menu items before settling for fresh lime soda and garlic bread. Jabrir smiles at us as he takes the order before disappearing out of sight. We’ve picked a corner to stretch out the evening Sun. The nook barely holds a table and two chairs while shielding us from the rest of the restaurant. A steady sheet of pieces of plaster tumble down outside while a worker holding a rope fences off a portion of the road for commuters while another worker balancing on a plank chips away at the plaster on the wall. Old buildings undergo regular maintenance to keep them standing. It hasn’t helped that monsoons stretch over four months, soaking the megapolis to its very bone.

In a building across the lane an elderly lady looks out from her first floor balcony watching a lady exiting the building by the main gate. The gray of the building sets off her wrinkled face, distinct from ethnic Indian faces. Colaba is among the more prominent homes to Parsis of Bombay. When I look up again I find her gone.

Piccadilly sits in Colaba Causeway opposite Electric House, not far from the Taj Hotel on the other side. On our way to the Piccadilly we’d passed a Victoria (Horse Carriage) in the Causeway, parked by the side of the road awaiting customers desirous of a ride on South Bombay streets lined by old buildings. It is only when you look above eye level, at the buildings sporting decidedly British architectural influence and names of its mostly Parsi past that it becomes possible to imagine and derive a sense of the gentle charm they must have lent the city, helping it find its feet as Bombay in the decades following their settlement. The Causeway came into being in 1838 after the British East India Company built it to connect the southernmost islands of Colaba and Old Woman’s island to the main Island of Bombay, now renamed Mumbai. The Causeway runs further on to Regal Circle where we saw workers on their feet, putting finishing touches to the statue of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the former Prime Minister of India, in time for its unveiling.

A building near Regal Circle

Firoze now runs Piccadilly. After migrating from Iran his father, Faredoon Kermanian, teamed up with a business partner to start Piccadilly opposite Electric House over fifty years ago. When Firoze married the business partner’s daughter, Piccadilly became a family affair.

“Piccadilly started off as a typical Irani restaurant serving standard Irani fare, Brun Maska pav, Kheema etc.,” Firoze told me. “Later we converted it to an English restaurant serving English breakfast.” Apparently in the 1970s and the 80s Goa drew moneyed foreign tourists in large numbers. A significant number of these tourists stayed behind the Piccadilly, at the Five Star Taj, looking out on the Gateway of India along Apollo Bunder, its frontage spread regally along the waters of the Arabian sea.

“They stopped over at the Taj hotel on their way to Goa,” Firoze said. “It was then we began serving up English breakfast to suit their tastes. They would walk down from the Taj to Piccadilly for breakfast.” So, the Piccadilly began opening early to serve English breakfast.

“By 8:30 in the morning we’d open for the day,” Firoze recalls. Piccadilly offered tourists a package deal on the breakfast. “Two Omlettes and tea among other items made up the English breakfast. They found spicy food too strong for their tastes, instead preferring salads and cream type of foods,” Firoze explains the change in the Piccadilly menu from the original Irani to English. However Piccadilly was to soon change character, once again.

Fired up by stories of rich tourists with dollars to spend, the late 1980s and all of the 90s saw traders from all over India descend on Goa, bringing with them business ethics and practices unique to their culture and communities but often in variance with local sensibilities and culture, opening up simmering fault lines. But it was only a matter of time before they drew in ready converts from within the local community often in pursuit of lure of the easy lucre and combined with unchecked violation of coastal regulations governing coastal constructions, tourism broke free of its aesthetic constraints formerly governed by ‘sense of place’, reducing Goa’s coasts to a sandy equivalent of a decaying mine, diminishing its charm as an idyllic coastline free of commercialisation. The introduction of direct Charter flights to Goa served further to erode Bombay as a stop over for tourists enroute to Goa though the flights were and still are too few to actually account for the large numbers who began to stay away. The no holds barred commercialization saw Goa fall out of favour with a section of foreign tourists, and the number of Goa-bound foreign tourists walking down to Piccadilly for breakfast fell quickly in the 1990s.

Luckily for Firoze it coincided with the steady influx of Iranians visiting India in the 1990s. In some ways I cannot help wondering if Firoze came a full circle with this development for, Firoze’s ancestors came from Iran, but I detect no hint of the sentiment I was looking for and I was left with little doubt about the lack of it after he said, “My father and mother visited Iran, I never did.” The persecution of the minority Parsi community with the advent of Islam in Iran was horrifying enough for Parsis to undertake perilous sea voyages to escape certain annihilation at the hands of Islamic followers, eventually finding their way to India, and safety. In time they found their way to Bombay never to return to Iran and like they say the rest is history.

“During the reign of the Shah of Iran it (Iran) was good. It was modern, outgoing, discos and all,” Firoze explained. “Once the mullahs took over in 1979, tightening their grip on everyday life, Iranians began to seek freedom elsewhere, and India was an option they exercised, visiting Bombay.” So, Iranian food made its way to the Piccadilly menu, and in time with tourists visiting India from the Middle East, Lebanese food was added as well.

Piccadilly saw an eclectic bunch of visitors. Firoze recalls instances of Iranian footballers stepping into his restaurant for food. “Some of them were looking for jobs and came to India for one. Bobby, a waiter who used to work with us, helped find an Iranian Coach an opening over the Internet. The Coach used to step into Piccadilly for Iranian food and had gotten to know us well.” Hearing Firoze talk of Iranian footballers two names sprint to the surface in my mind, that of Iranian footballers Jamshed Nassiri and Majid Bakshar who went on to play for East Bengal in the 1980s. Mohammedan Sporting responded by including in their ranks two other Iranians, Khabazi and Sanjari. I distinctly remember Jamshed Nassiri featuring regularly in Indian newspaper coverage of the domestic football scene.

“They usually came here with their families and made their way upstairs as they disliked sitting in crowds,” Firoze continues. I try and imagine the scene as he speaks. Looking back now and reflecting on it I believe that if one stays anywhere long enough it becomes home but somewhere in their hearts every migrant or exile seeks his origins if only to experience the culture and language that defined his ethnicity. In time that changes too but a sense of responsibility to their past encourages one to take pride in what made them what they are, for in preserving their culture and mores they’re in effect preserving the memory of their ancestors and their way of life. What can be a greater tribute?

The shaft of sunlight has mellowed somewhat. Faisal walks over to serve a visitor who’s just stepped in before returning to his place at the foot of the stairway to the upper floor. He has an absent look on his face as he stands quietly with his hand in his pocket.