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Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ganesha Habba, 8th cross and the festive spirit

This article was written on the eve of Ganesha Chathurthi Festival on 19th September 2012  

Photo: flower vendor. She gave a long talk about how at least 4 to 5 people come and take her video and picture.

Last night I went to India Cash and Carry to buy Ganesha idol. Since the Ganesha festival was coming up in two days, the place was filled with people wanting to buy pooja material, along with vegetables and other ingredients needed to celebrate the festival. There was a table with Ganesha idols of various types and sizes. There were Ganeshas with a nama and with vibuthi stripes. There were standing, sitting and even dancing Ganeshas. I picked a Ganesha and brought it home. I was driving with Ganesha in the passenger seat next to me. At that moment a lot of memories from my childhood days came back to me.

In those days in order to immere oneself in the festive spirit one only needed to go to the venerable Malleshwaram 8th cross, which is nothing short of being one of the cultural hubs of the city. (I would have said 'The cultural nucleus of Bangalore', but I do not want our friends from Gandhi bazaar to pick a fight with me). On the day before the festival my father would come back from work in the evening and then I would walk with him to Malleswaram 8th cross. The whole street would be bustling with people in a 'standing room only' situation. The joke was that people just had to stand and they would be moved around by the flow of people. This street is lined with shops that sell anything from a nail in a hardware store to high end Saree Palaces selling silk Sarees, But what added color were the vendors on the street side, selling flowers, fruits and vegetables. The day before festival would bring other special items. These included mavina soppu (mango leaves), baale kandhu (banana plants) and banana leaves. The street would be filled with noises of vendors attracting customers and customers haggling with the vendors. During the Ganesha festival I would find one special guy who would call out from somewhere in the crowd "belli nagara, belli nagara, belli naaagra". Both my father and I were attracted to the sing song way he would keep repeating that at frequent intervals with his voice emanating from different directions. But, till now I am not sure what belli naagara is and what it is used for.

The crowd, especially women, young and old, dressed in all sorts of traditional and modern clothes walking around with excitement enhanced the festive spirit and would bring out a sense of community and collective joy. Occasionally we would meet friends and relatives there and chat for a new minutes.

My father would indulge in ceremonial haggling just so as to not feel ripped off. But the vendors never went down a bit and would instead say "habbada timeu. kammi baralla".(It is the festival season. No discount). After shopping with the street vendors and in the 8th cross market, we would join the many people who were walking back home with bags filled with vegetables, fruits and flowers and a pair of banana plants and mango leaves.

A few days before the festival my father would take me and my brother to buy the Ganesha idol. Bringing it home was itself a ceremony. He would carry it on a plate with rice in it. My brother and I would walk next to him shaking the hand bell. We would do this starting from the shops all the way home. My mother and grandmother would be there to receive lord Ganesha.

On the eve of the festival we had to decorate the mantapa for Ganesha. My father had an idea for this. We had a stool which he would invert and keep it on another tepoy. The inverted stool provided a frame to tie the Baale Kandhu and mango leaf torana around it. We would also bring colorful ornaments and crafts made from paper which we hung around the mantapa. Some people would get very fancy and made things that kept rotating behind Ganesha providing a mechanical halo. Oh who can forget the 'serial set' - the string of lights which would go on and off in a pattern.

Large flowers like lotuses or roses would be pinned to the stem of the banana plant. The priest's refrain was "you can keep these flowers for alankara (decoration) only. but you cannot use them for worship because they are not fit for divine consumption."

On the day of the festival we would wake up early and get busy with preparations. It was my job to string mango leaves together and hang them on the doors. My father would do the poooje and I and my brother were assistants. All three of us would wear the traditional panche and moguta after taking bath. My mother and grandmother were busy preparing the special meal and dishes for the day. The pooje ceremony would start when the priest came home. The priest would come early say by 8 only if you had made a 14 advance reservation. Instead if you had made a last minute reservation you had to wait till the priest was done with his services at other houses. Sometime it would take as late as 1.00 pm. Being on empty stomach was required until pooja was over. But owing to a loop hole in this requirement, my father was allowed to have coffee since it was not food by strict definition. My brother and I would get an exemption since we came under the children category and we were allowed to have breakfast - mostly avalakki which was easy to make. My grandmother would make both kaara avalakki and sweet avalakki with jaggery and grated coconut .

Once the priest arrived we would start performing the pooja. My father was the performer-in-chief. The two of us brothers were allowed to worship lord Ganesha at a reduced level. For instance, if my father offered a coconut to the god, we offered a pair of bananas. (The coconut has a higher status in the hierarchy of offerings to the lord)

After the pooja was over, we would feast on the special lunch of the day which included karigadubu and gasagase payasa. This meant that the next program of the adults was to take a nap. Starting at 3:00 groups of kids would start coming asking "ganesha kunDrisideera?" (Do you have Ganesha in your home). They would not wait for the answer but would just enter and hurl a handful of manthrakshate (holy rice) in the direction of the idol, much to the chagrin of my grandmother who was taking a nap right beside ganesha. At around 6:00 pm my friends would congregate near my house and we would go around our area looking at the various public Ganeshas. The evening program would be to invite neighbors and friends for another round of pooje called mangalaarathi. The best part of this was 'usli' a spicy dish made from garbanzo beans. That was then followed by dinner.

After dinner a touch of sadness would creep in since all the excitement was over. More over we had to go to our schools the next day. That was when we would all sigh and say "Oh well the anticipation of the festival was more exciting than the festival itself."

(photos of area around Malleswaram 8th cross)

Movie Review: Baran (Iran)

Just finished watching 'Baran' (Iran 2001) one of the most beautiful movies I have seen in recent times. It is a very poignant story of immigrant workers and their daily struggles. In the dust and grind of a construction site, emerges a story which discovers kindness, love and humanity among the workers, their boss, Iranian locals and refugee Afghans who have fled their country to Iran, in the wake of the Russian Occupation towards the end of the 70s decade.

If you have had any stereotypical notions about Iranians, Afghans or their lives, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. It is very likely that the outside world especially the western countries have no patience or interest in seeing the humane side of that part of the world. The Iranian city in this movie is beautiful - replete with heavy snow covered tall trees, quaint idyllic villages and a city skyline signifying the urbanization of this country. I could not help thinking that it looks a lot like Russia.

This movie has superb photography and editing. I say that because it captures the expanses of the construction site and the camera captures the movements so smoothly that one feels that the viewer is right there watching from above.

This movie is directed by famed Iranian director Majid Majidi. This is my first film of his. I think I started of with a really good movie of his. My favorite character in the movie was the construction site boss. His character could have been made to be a flat character - instead he is a very likable character capable of a lot of humane emotions.

I will give this movie 8/10. 

Movie Review: Django - Unchained

Django Unchained, like all Tarantino movies does not disappoint his ardent followers. I was quite impressed with this movie except I could not get into the hero's emotions. This has a lot to do with Jamie Foxx's uninspiring performance as the hero Django. On the other hand Christoph Waltz with his beautiful German accented speech, steals the show in this movie. He rightfully won the Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars. I think he should have been nominated for the Best Actor Role because he has as much a hero's role as Jamie Foxx.

Another stellar performance is by Samuel L Jackson. He plays Stephen who is a house slave but one who enjoys better treatment by his master because he controls the remaining slaves. Stephen hates his own people and is a co-racist with his white master. Jackson's acting brings out this feeling superbly. Leonardo Di Caprio as the master Mr. Candy has a devilishly delicious role and he plays it with abandon. Some of the best scenes in the movie involve Leo and Jackson especially the dinner table scene.

The movie has the characteristic elements one sees in a Tarantino movie. There is a lot violence, blood, swearing and bad language. There is also wacky humor - especially the scene involving the KKK members conducting a ride. There is good music too.

I felt that some parts of the movie were a bit dry - especially the scenes involving Django. The movie could have been a bit shorter. The script is fantastic - full marks to Tarantino. Overall it is a good movie.

I will rate it a 7 on 10.

Movie: Elite Squad - The Enemy within

When it comes to making movies about drug and gang wars, I think South America gets top honors. All the movies I have seen with such hemes are extremely engrossing. The City of God, Sin Nombre, Cronos, Miss Bala are some of the grittiest crime movies I have seen.

The Brazilian movie 'Elite Squad - The Enemy within' is a top notch crime thriller in the same genre. It addresses a combination of real and persistent problems in the country - drug wars, gang violence and corrupt law enforcement officials. Col. Nascimento is a hardened veteran of Rio De Jeniero's drug wars. He heads the elite crime fighting unit BOPE (Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais). In his attempt to rid the city of drug lords and gangs he realizes that the corrupt police are no less criminals. When Nascimento successfully eliminates most of the gangs the corrupt police take their spot and start making money through extortion. Using this story the movie weaves a dense web consisting of criminals, the police and politicians on one side and BOPE on the other.

There are some very interesting characters in this movie. The left wing human rights activist Fraga and a politician who has an animated TV show are a treat to watch. Wagnor Moura who plays Col. Nascimento gives a natural performance. The movie shows realistic view of life in Brazil including a stark picture of slum and drug lords who use the slum. The gun fights are a thrill to watch.
My rating for this movie is 8 out of 10.

Fast and furious - neat but ridiculous.

For the first time I watched a movie in the Fast and Furious double trilogy (version 6). The movie bristles with action in almost every frame. It has been shot adeptly. One would expect the zippy car chases, the fire fights and fist fights would make for exciting viewing. But unfortunately the movie situations are so far fetched it is hard to take it seriously. Some of the stunts are so incredulous that it made me groan. And the entire movie is standing on the strength of the action sequences. In the absence of some suspense or intrigue the action scenes become tiresome. But one has to hand it to the film makers for being able to create the illusion of car chases and other high voltage drama.

Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and a few other good guys take on highly resourceful and clever villain. There is nothing much to write about acting or the script. The movie is an attempt to capture the summer block buster market. It may find audience in the teenage crowd.The photography is great.

Unless you are ardent fan of Vin Diesel you can skip it.
My rating for the movie is 5 out of 10

The Complex nature of the Syrian conflict

Today on NPR's Fresh Air I listened to an interview with Robert Malley (Arab-Isreali affairs expert) in which he explained the complexity of the conflict in Syria and America's reaction to it.

Here is the summary.

The current regime of Assad is very repressive. The oppressed Sunni majority is fighting Assad. Many fighters from around the world are landing in Syria to fight on the side of the oppressed people. Since Assad belongs to the Shiite sect, Shiite countries Iran, Iraq and Lebanon are providing support to Assad. In response to this, Sunnis from around the region and now Al Qaeda and other fundamentalists are congregating in Syria to support their fellow Sunnis. Thus, what started out as a fight between the oppressed and the oppressor is now sectarian - Sunni v/s Shiite.

What should Israel, a neighbor, do? Since Israel's arch enemies Iran and Lebanon are behind Assad, one would think Israel will support the opposiion. But it is self defeating because what comes in place of Assad will be non state actors like Syrian Islamists and terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda. With Egypt, Libya and Tunisia already under the control of Islamists, Israel does not want to support the opposition in Syria. So Israel is tacitly supporting Assad leaving us with the irony of Israel being on the same side as Lebanon and Iran, two countries whose agenda is to not let Israel survive as a nation.

Now comes USA's conundrum.
Should it support the democracy-seeking Syrian opposition? But that means it will be helping a group which has terrorists on its side.
So should it support Assad to prevent Syria from falling into the hands of a group with fundamentalist agenda ?(incidentally its ally Israel is also tacitly supporting him). But that means it will be on the same side as Iran which has an antagonistic relationship with USA.

I think USA has to choose between a rock and a hard place. The republicans would want to go in and eliminate Assad a la Saddam Hussein. Such an action may bring in political mileage in the immediate future. How ever it will only draw USA into a conflict where it has no clear favorites. It will get mired in another never ending civil war.

That may explain why the Obama administration has chosen not to strike against Assad, in spite of the conflict raging for close to 2 years and even after more than 80000 deaths.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Movie: Papillon

Watched Papillon. What a magnificent movie! I was totally sucked into it and enjoyed every moment of this well crafted movie. I knew this was a movie about prisoners but I was expecting a world war film . I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I realized at the beginning that this was not a prisoner of war movie. But the disappointment soon gave way to awe and I was fully absorbed into the movie. While it was bad to see the predicament of the prisoners the setting was simply exotic. The movie takes place on a beautiful tropical island in French Guiana. Steve McQueen is the heart of the movie and gives a solid performance. Dustin Hoffman is equally good. What I liked about this movie was the grit of the characters, the feeling that I was watching one of the movies from 70s when they made big screen adventures, breathtakingly beautiful locales and the twists and turns the movie takes. I will give it a 8 on 10. I feel it surely qualifies to be called a classic.