Last week seemed like a film festival

Saw four movies last week. Brief thoughts on each one:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: Didn’t live up to the hype. Yup, the acting’s good, the story interesting… but the narrative is a tad slow. The movie has a Forrest Gumpish feel to it — but Forrest had way better and interesting experiences than Benjamin. Of course Benjamin is interesting from the birth itself (you know, since he is born old n all). What I found most thought provoking though is that just as aging ain’t easy (many find it terrifying), growing young too isn’t that different.Taraji Henson’s acting is the best according to me.

Pink Panther 2: Lots of funny sequences held together by a loose script. Great actors like Andy Garcia and Jean Reno completely wasted. Absolutely no mystery in the script. Oh and Aish’s performance is horrible. She anyway doesn’t have much of a role to play and she couldn’t pull that off too.

Pineapple Express: We wanted to see Milk, but couldn’t reach the cinema in time thanks to the traffic. Instead we decided to get together at a colleague’s house and rented a DVD. And the DVD guy’s recommedation Pineapple Express turned out to be great. Starring Seth Rogen and James Franco it is one of the best junkie movie I’ve seen. Lemme not say anything more, but here’s a dialogue in the movie where James Franco (the seller) is describing pineapple express (a type of marijuana) to Seth Rogen (the buyer):

“This is like if that Blue Oyster shit met that African Kush I had – and they had a baby. And then, meanwhile, that crazy Northern Light stuff I had and the Super Red Espresso Snowflake met and had a baby. And by some miracle, those two babies met and fucked – this would the shit that they birthed.”

Milk: How does one act without moving any part of the body… just with eyes? Well, you gotta watch Sean Penn in Milk to find out. His acting is just sublime. Otherwise is film is ok. But watch this one for Sean Penn.


Songs, Dance… Bliss

Ruhaniyat, a two-day Sufi & Mystical music festival took place in Mumbai last weekend. I had been to the dress-rehearsal on behalf of DNA to speak to a few artists.

A small figure sat huddled in a plastic chair sipping something hot. “The artist is not feeling well”, I was informed. On the stage a group from Rajasthan – Kachra Khan and group – was rehearsing. The mike was turned off; the voice and sarangi notes wafted through giving the winter air a mystical tinge.  


Later, I met the group which was just on stage. “All of us are from Barmer and Jaisalmer districts,” informed Manzoor Khan, the dholak player. The group consists two communities – Langas and Mangnyas. In the early days, Langas were patronized by the Mussalmans while Mangnyas were patronized by Rajput leaders.


But the two groups generally play together when they perform outside since differences between the two styles are minimal. Both communities live off their art. “We are called to entertain guests whenever there is a marriage, birthday, or any other festival. This is our profession… our business. We know nothing else,” says Khan.


Kachra Khan & group play Rajasthani Lok Sangeet and Sufiana music. Khan says that in the city they generally stick to popular folk numbers. But at Ruhaniyat, the Sufi & mystical music festival, the group has the license to perform songs written by Sufi saints like Bhulle Shah, Shah Abdul Latif, and Baba Farid. “Old songs have a lot of weight. The words carry a lot of meaning. It is a challenge to sing them.”


Even as we were speaking, the huddled figure got off the chair and came on stage. In one hand was an ektara and in the other a duggi. I couldn’t understand the lyrics, which were in Bengali. But it was not at all important – the melancholy, the joy were conveyed through the modulations in the voice and, of course, dancing – uncomplicated, yet rhythmic dancing. 


“The dance lends more power to the voice,” explained Parvathy. She is part of Baul, a yogic tradition. Baul has different meanings. “It means wind. When you practice it for long hours, you get a special breath. But you could also say we become baul – madness.”


“Telling the words of the masters gives me joy. I am singing and hearing at the same time”, she said. Perhaps that was the reason why the headache and fever had disappeared after the rehearsal.


Parvathy was 16 years old when she started learning the art form. Later, the Bachelor of Fine Arts student at Shantiniketan found it impossible to follow University syllabus. She dropped out and immersed herself in Baul completely.


“Baul is a sort of rebellion by viraktas (detached people) against existing system. In Islam they are called Sufis,” informed Parvathy.


Ten groups will perform at Ruhaniyat this year. Their traditions are different. The instruments used by the groups will differ too… and so will the languages. The one thing they share is a desire to become one with God through song and dance.


As the famous Sufi poet Rumi puts it, “My place is placeless, my trace is traceless. No body, no soul, I am from the soul of souls. I have chased out duality, lived the two worlds as one. One I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call. He is the first, he is the last, he is the outer, he is the inner. Beyond “He” and “He is” I know no other.”

Black Art

The gleaming silver on black of Bidriware has enticed many people. Few know that the art originated in Bidar, a small town in North Karnataka. Here’s a look at the science and people behind Bidri.

Narsappa Nageshwar was a proud man when his elder son, Rajkumar, secured a seat in an engineering college. To his disappointment, Raj dropped out of college in the Second Year and returned to his first love – Bidri. Raj’s grandfather, a master craftsman who had won a state award, perhaps, would have been proud. For Bidri work is an ancestral craft passed from father to son – Raj’s family has now been carrying on the trade for close to hundred years.


Sturdy and almost unbreakable objects in various shapes and sizes, jet black in colour, come alive with dazzling silver inlay work.  This is similar to the Persian art of inlaying Gold and Silver in Copper. In fact, the Persians immigrants  taught the art to locals in Bidar during the Bahmanis’ reign. Though of  Persian origin, down the ages  Bidri work has developed its own unique form and style.  There are about 200 articles which are perennial best sellers. These include  animals, , boxes, idols, flower vases, photo frames, bed lights, jug shaped vessels,, lamps, ashtrays, paper weights and ornaments ,  Though the articles are common for all hoses, subtle variation is introduced in design which will be unique to the products coming out of the house. Though these design changes are not patented, every Bidri craftsman follows the code of honour – no copying of the design from another house.

A bidriware is basically made of zinc and then treated with copper sulphate. Now the designer takes over. He marks the pattern-design using a grooving chisel and hands it over to the next skilled person. The design is chiseled further to make deeper grooves. Silver wire is then inlayed inside these grooves. Buffing smoothens the surface of the unfinished showpiece.

Then starts the process, which gives Bidri work its unique character.  Soil found in the Bidar fort (which has oxidizing properties) and Aluminium Oxide is mixed in water and boiled. The bidriware is then dipped in the boiling solution. The solution affects the Zinc alloy turning it black. The inlayed Silver retains its colour. The black and white bidriware  is cleaned and polished. The product is now ready for the shelves.

Rajkumar displaying his wares

As you can see, Bidri is a labour-intensive, time-consuming process. Adding to the burden is the high cost of raw material. A Bidri work when it is ready usually finds no taker in the town for its cost is prohibitive.  There is no significant sales to tourists either as Bidar isn’t a popular tourist destination. As a result, direct sales form a very small percentage of the revenues – 10% according to Raj. Exporters and city based retailers who place orders as per requirement are the primary customers for the local artisans. These middlemen, however, tend to give the local practitioners less than their fair share of money. After clearing all his bills, Bidriware fetches Raj about Rs. 12,000 – 15,000 a month. He supplements his earnings by selling other less expensive decorative wares popular amongst local people.

In spite of the low returns, the Bidri trade employs close to 400 workers in this small town, earning wages ranging from Rs. 1500 to Rs. 4500. Not every worker involved in this process is illiterate. Most children go to school until Class VII. It’s when the child fails to show an aptitude towards formal education that he drops out and takes up Bidri work.

It’s ironic that school dropouts end up keeping this tradition alive. That doesn’t mean the hunger to do better is any less. Raj can sense the change in the wind outside his small town. More tourists produce credit cards these days. Raj is now trying to find out how safe the transaction through credit card is.  He has also heard about Internet and the advantage of reaching out to consumers, both in India and abroad, directly through the net. First priority is, of course, providing for credit card deals. Meanwhile, he has compiled photographs which explain the Bidri process – ideal to woo the choice-spoilt 21st century tourist. And when he visited Dilli Haat last year, the album went with him on a CD. Raj is doing everything he can to pack that extra punch – he is even planning to print the whole Bidri process on the back of his visiting card.

Narsappa is happy and proud, of course, but still feels that Raj should have finished with his BE and taken up a ‘proper’ job. Raj and his band of dropouts, on the other hand, have put their heads down, learning and adapting in the best way possible to meet the future.

This article was carried  in Spectrum, Deccan Herald on 17th April 2007