Sunday, 21 March 2010

Lively Russian Winter

Long spell of grey winters may be another name of ‘gloom and doom’. But for ages Russians know how to turn adverse conditions in their favour. They know “Russian Winter” is the name of the game.

Winter or no winter, life never ceases to be interesting to them. They know the art of celebrating life in spite of snowy, icy and frosty wintry months.

Who else but artists can mirror this spirit on their canvas and preserve it for posterity to see. A painting exhibition illustrating the very vibrant spirit of the Russians of the bygone era is on in New Delhi.

Over two dozen paintings, from 19-20 century, at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in New Delhi are giving a peek into their unique way of life.

“Skiers”, painted by Sergei Luchishkin in 1926, shows a park chock-a-block with people on skis excitingly navigating their way through snowy carpet. Their palpable exuberance seems to be defying the biting chill of the weather.

Severe cold might have laced trees with snow and shed their leaves but could not dampen the spirit of enthusiasts from coming out of their houses. It’s evident through one 150-year-old painting ‘Winter-Petersburg View’, 1859, by Nikolai Abutkov. The painting gives a slice of life around that time in Saint Petersburg Square--Security men guarding the square, men fetching water from a well drilled through the ice-bed, a woman pulling her load of household things on a sledge, a shopkeeper waiting for customers to come, people sitting on benches and a ship anchored on one end.

Another art work “Winter Shrovetide Celebration”, 1919, by Boris Kustodiev depicts perhaps a market scene where people with happy faces and dressed in their best dresses, are moving about. Some women sitting and catching up with each other, families are going out on decorated horse carts, children are running in merry abandon and hawkers are selling things. It sets the tone of a festival and gives a sense of tradition that prevailed in those times.

Winter is the time that hosts main festivals, including Xmas, Shrovetide.

While snowy winters was the backdrop of simple joys of life for Russians at home, the snow of the Himalayas became the very source of spiritual enlightenment to renowned Russian painter Nicholas Roerich.

Known as Maha Guru and Himalaya’s son, Roerich made India his home in later years of life.
He devoted 1000 canvases/cardboard to lofty mountain range. He drew inspirations from the Himalaya and captured its grandeur and different shades through the day in radiant and clear pink, blue and yellow colours.

An exhibition of his 75 works is on at Jaipur House in National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.

The exhibitions were especially organized to commemorate the state visit of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ti India and strengthen both countries ties.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Yamuna clean-up drive

Flashing two notes of Rs 100 each, 40-year-old Aziz was very happy with himself. For he, a diver by profession, doesn’t get this much money everyday. He was rewarded in cash for joining hundreds of volunteers in the clean-up drive of the Yamuna in India’s national capital Delhi.

An eight-day campaign, beginning from March 17, is on to clean up the Yamuna which is literally on its deathbed.

Hundreds of volunteers with gloves and face masks are cleaning filth from eight jetties of the river. The dirty dark river water emanates foul small and its banks are generally littered with garbage and plastic bags.

Originating from the Himalayas, it’s one of the holiest rivers according to the Hindu mythology and runs through 1,370 kilometres. But its 22 kilomteres course through Delhi turns it into a rotting water canal. This mere two per cent of its catchment area is responsible for the river’s 80 per cent pollution load.

The moment the river enters the capital its contour changes—it shrinks into a narrow waterway. A large amount of Yamuna water is stored in an upstream dam by Haryana state and only a trickle of it is released into Delhi.

As it flows down it is joined by 17 big sewage canals emptying their waste into the river, apart from other industrial poisonous waste.

By the time the river reaches the heart of the city it’s already dark slush, poisonous enough to bathe animal and wash vegetables forget about drinking it.

Yet, poor divers make their living out of the river. Everyday, two odd dozens of divers come to the Yamuna River to swim across it, search its bottom for valuable items, gold or pennies dropped by Hindu devotees into the river who worship it as a goddess.

“We look for valuable things which we can sell but at the same time we are useful in saving people who drown or try to commit suicide. We have also fished out many dead bodies and handed them over to police. But our services are never acknowledged by anyone,” says Aziz, 40, who now looks as dark as the river water by years of diving and tanning in harsh Delhi sun.

Aziz like many other divers grew up in shanties by the river and learnt swimming as a traditional trade.

“The only time we are considered useful is at the time of annual cleaning of the river following the Hindu festival of ‘Chaath’ when devotees throw a lot of things including flowers, coins, cloths and other rubbish into the river,” says 29-year-old Latman who depends on the Yamuna to raise his family.

The campaign has been organised by Art of Living Foundation along with other government and private sectors participation. The educational and humanitarian group was founded in 1982 by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Whether the drive will be able to make any long lasting impact in restoring the past glory of Yamuna is hard to say but it has surely brought some smiles on these divers’ faces as they are being paid money for the cleaning up of the river.

Twenty-year old Nasser said he can hope for some money for these eight days. “After this we will have to fend for ourselves depending on what we get from the water.”

Nasser found the campaign a mere hoopla. “Those who wanted publicity came to show their face, splashed their smiles in front of cameras and took credit for the campaign. I’m sure the campaign involves a lot of money, though we got only a little. The river won’t get cleaned by such short campaigns. It needs 24x7 efforts,” said Nasser.

Billions of rupees have been spent on the cleaning of the river but of no avail. It still remains a lethal risk to public health.

Dr Murarilal, an environmentalist and ex director of Horticultural Department in Delhi, says cleaning the river once in a year is no solution. There should be more realistic and sustained efforts to stop the river from decaying further.

He says “all the raw sewage and industrial waste should be treated properly before releasing it into the river but many of our treatment plant don’t function properly.”

Moreover he says the city garbage can be turned into gold if a proper planning is followed.

“Delhi alone generates about 700 metric tonnes of garbage everyday. If that garbage is processed scientifically, it will fulfill the need of 20 million tonnes of organic manure. And we won’t have to entirely depend on the import of chemical fertilizers. It’s a very simple thing to do. But the million dollar question is who will do it?” asks Murarilal.

Dance of bumblebee

As an artiste glided swaying on a spacious thatched-roof stage with her light nimble footsteps akin to the pleasant evening breeze of mid-March under the starry sky with a crescent moon in the horizon, it almost felt being in Bali here in the heart of Indian capital New Delhi.

Dressed in traditional Balinese fineries of sarong, long scarves hanging from her waists and a typical elongated crown on head, the artiste was enacting lady Bumblebee. With the soft sweeping movements of her hands and body, tremble of her fingers and flutter of lashes and changing facial moods accompanying the music of drum and xylophone, she was waiting to be joined by her lover.

The courtship dance, known as Oleg, began in full rhythm as soon as she was joined by her male partner.

They danced in circle, chasing, cajoling and flirting with each other. Oleg was all about depicting various emotions--being in love, celebrating companionship and in the end bearing the fate of separation.

“It was the display of strong chemistry between the Bumblebees,” said 48-year-old Myomana Sedana, the male Oleg dancer. A Professor in School of Performing Arts in Bali, he was joined by his wife Seniashi in the duet. “I felt very good. My wife (lady Bumblebee) responded very well to my moves on stage. It was in a way a replay of our love story-- My wooing of her and eventually falling in love.”

Unlike the end of Oleg, theirs is a happy story which moved on with marriage and three grown-up children.

Sedana is here to participate in a four-day festival to mark intercultural dialogue between North East India and South East Asia, starting from March 17. Like Sedana, over 29 artistes from Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand have come to showcase the best of their countries cultural performances.

People can enjoy watching Indonesian dance of ‘Laras-leres (a dance of invoking gods), Sekar Pudyastuti (Welcome dance by the lady host in honour of guests), Cambodian dance of Monosanchetana (Romance of the Lovers) at Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA).

The foreign artistes have been joined by about 180 performers, artisans, painters and scholars from India’s north-eastern states. They have brought with them the best of north-eastern food, handicraft, furniture and nick-knacks to sell. An exhibition of photography, painting, textile, utensil and musical instruments is giving an insight into the way of life of northeast India.

Symposiums are other attractions of the festival where scholars and academics are delving into topics exploring various similarities these regions share, including historical links, physical features, lingual, cultural and food similarities.

The festival is a culmination of the month-long event that started in Guwahati, capital of Assam, on February 21. It later moved on to other northeastern states of Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland and Manipur before finally reaching Delhi.
Conceptualised, supported and funded by IGNCA, this is the first time that such an event has been hosted by India.

“The idea of holding such an event was to explore our common roots. It’s known that there are a lot of similarities as we are neigbouring states. And people to people exchange of dialogue and culture will help in exploring and enhancing our ties,” said Hekali Zhimomi, Director of North East Zone Cultural Centre.

She is optimistic that such events will help in having a “better understanding of the region, in forging friendship and perhaps in embarking on a common journey of understanding each other’s culture and common roots.”

Friday, 12 March 2010

From Pain to Power

From brothels to mainstream, it’s a journey of transformation captured through the lens. This is the journey of 126 girls who were rescued from the red light areas in India’s eastern city of Kolkata and were rehabilitated into the mainstream.

Their metamorphosis from ‘pain to power’ has been captured by acclaimed photographer Achinto Bhadra. These girls have portrayed themselves in characters they can identify with. Fifty portraits out of 126 are being shown in the ongoing exhibition at Alliance Francaise in New Delhi.

Each portrait fascinates with its striking composition, colour, costume, make-up and expressions and comes with a moving caption. It is now for the world to experience their agony, their angst and their vulnerability at the hands of abusers through these pictures. The exhibition is on till March 13.

But for most, the photography exhibition “Another Me” is about the girls successful reintegration into society, their determination to start life afresh, their newly gained independence and how they see themselves and what they identify with.

The photography documentation project was first started about five years ago by Sanlaap, a non-government organisation (NGO) in Kolkata with the support of Terre Des Hommes Foundation (Switzerland). At that time, most of the girls were minors and were being cared for, counselled psychologically, imparted life saving skills to be on their own financially at Sanlaap’s shelters houses.

Sanlaap works against the trafficking of women and children for commercial sexual exploitation.
The aim of the project was to create awareness about how the hydra-headed monster of trafficking and prostitution preys those girls who become vulnerable due to domestic violence, early marriages, poverty. And highlights how they are exploited by relatives, friends or by those who dupe them by promising hope.

Most of the photographs are powerful manifestations of their dreams, how they see themselves and what they want to become post their rehabilitation. However, it was not easy for the girls to be part of this project and face the camera. There was fear of revealing their identity and to relive their past life.

But a lot of counselling at Sanlaap helped the girls to come out with their own stories though their identities have been safeguarded with the help of masks and make-up. It meant sharing their past experiences how they reached brothels and how it affected them without dwelling on what happened to them in those brothels. It also helped them to decide what they want to be in future.

Twenty-three-year-old Reena who now works as a youth motivator with an NGO in Kolkata says she was confused when she was asked to think of a character.

“It took me a day to decide it. But when I saw a fish swimming across a pond, I could immediately identify with it. I thought how a fish swims across despite all the troubles, I too would like fight all odds in my life and start living once again,” said Reena.

Aloka, 28, has portrayed herself as a bright yellow flower. “I wanted myself to be like a flower so that I can spread fragrance not only in my life and in others as well.”

After her rehabilitation she got married last year and runs a grocery shop along with her husband.

For Shikha, 20, her struggle doesn’t end with her reintegration into society. Today, she works as a life skill trainer with an NGO and trains girls how to improve their listening and communication skills.
This has made her all the more determined to raise her voice against women trafficking.

“I have done the character of a protesting girl. It’s a fight against the issue. So, I think myself as one who never gives up and who continuously fights for herself and others,” says Shikha who recently got married.

Her past experiences has made 23-year-old Saraswati cautious, alert and to an extent sceptic. Working as a self defence trainer, she is a third year student in college. She chose wasp to showcase her character. “I had many ideas but decided wasp was the best to suit my personality. Like a wasp I will keep up my defence and protect myself from exploitation.”

Taking part in the project had a cathartic experience on them. “Talking about my experiences during counselling and expressing myself in front of the camera was heart-wrenching. It made my heart heavy and filled my eyes with tears but in the end it made me feel lighter as if I was done with my past,” recalled Saraswati.

Only four participants could manage to attend this exhibition that was being held in India for the first time. This was the first time the girls took part in the photography exhibition that has travelled many countries, including UK, US, Spain France, Germany, Cambodia and Nepal.

They are more than happy to see themselves in the exhibition and to share their experiences to make it a success.

Today they have moved on in life leaving behind their turbulent past which they don’t want to discuss. What they do want to talk about is their future, their aspirations.

All these girls have a common link-- they smile while talking and have a strong desire to protect other girls from becoming victim of trafficking and help them to come out of their trauma.

Today they are a happy lot but what still hurts them is “to see new girl victims and hearing how their protectors turned into abusers. When we look at their pain our own pain feels very less,” says Shikha. “It hurts a lot,” they chorus.

Monday, 8 March 2010

'Virgin' obsession of Iran

The sixth Asian Women’s Film Festival 2010 in the Indian capital New Delhi gave a unique peek into women’s world.

The films directed and produced by women gave their take on life, highlighted the issues affecting them or just showed how they see the world around them.

“We have been holding the festival around the International Women’s Day for the past six years. The festival celebrates the creative aspects of women and shows a range of work done by them. It’s an opportunity to see the world through their eyes and witness the events around them,” says Jai Chandiram, Festival Director

About 18 films from India, China, Malaysia, Iran, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Bangladesh were screened in the three-day festival which began on Saturday (March 6). While some of the films tickled funny bones, others were compelling and brought out the harsh reality of life in various societies.

“Virgin” by Taahereh Hassanzadeh draws attention to a conservative convention in Iran which requires women to produce a certificate of virginity before marriage. The certificate has to be issued by a qualified doctor after medically examining the girl.

Hassanzadeh, a film maker in Tehran, highlights the age-old ‘painful’ cultural/religious norm at length through women who are facing legal battles over the accusation of not being virgin before marriage.

It deals with the women and their families’ ordeal, the social stigma attached with it and how it isolates them, ruins their self prestige and virtually makes them socially ‘redundant’.

The documentary-film gives versions of the men and their families who accuse their wives or fianc├ęs of not being virgin or disregarding the medical certificates produced by them as fake.

She questions the need of having such a certificate in modern society, asks why women only should be subjected to this humiliating experience and quizzes why no questions are asked to men who have a fling of affairs before marriage but still want a much younger and a virgin girl.

This is a sensitive subject in Iran and daring to speak on it is quite bold.

Critics applauded Hassanzadeh’s efforts to bring up the issue and start a debate on it. “I liked it very much. To talk about such an issue in a conservative society is quite bold. It really holds your attention. It’s well shot and well edited,” says Aruna Vasudevan, a veteran film critique.

The film opens with a silhouette of the flutter of burqa (veil) and abaya (long cloak worn by ladies), involves interviews of families engaged in ‘virgin’ disputes, government officers hearing the cases, opinions of lawyers and clerics and views of young boys and girls on the topic.

“It’s a bit verbose. People are talking all through the film with no breathers at all. But I guess, she had no choice,” says film critic BB Nagpal, adding, “It needs a lot of guts to take up such an issue in Iran. I think it’s brave of families to come up in front of the camera and speak up.”

While Iran seems to be virgin-manic, the issue is irrelevant in many societies.

Judy Frater, producer of the film ‘Tankko Bole Chee (The Stitches Speak) says “I never knew the issue could be so important to the level of absurdity in a society. I’m glad someone tried to bring it out.”

Today was the last day of the festival, which for the first time has opened up to the film entries made by non-Asians but deals with Asian topics.

The lives of two women in India.

In a country where its head of state, speaker of Parliament’s Lower House and president of the main ruling party are women, India's fairer sex seems to be on top.

While Pratibha Devisingh Patil, the first lady President of the country, is the supreme commander of Indian armed forces and Speaker Meira Kumar controls politicians in the Lower House of Parliament, Sonia Gandhi steers India’s main ruling coalition party, the Congress-I.

Indian women have gone out to become international beauty pageant queens in forms of Aishwarya Rai and Sushmita Sen, PepsiCo CEO like Indra Nooyi or astronaut like Kalpana Chawala.

The urban middle-class women too have joined the ranks! With professional degrees in hand, these highly educated women are ambitious, financially independent, aware of their rights and know how to take charge of their life.

The economic growth of the country has gradually created various job opportunities for women.

However, the development has mainly taken place in metro cities. Those who hope to work in multi-national companies, corporate houses, media, and in high profile jobs must come to cities. Living in small towns means limited career choices with lesser salaries.

The search for better job prospects has created a migratory culture in the country-- moving from one state to the other, from town to metropolitan cities.

For example, 25-year-old Moakala Longchar, who works for a news agency in National capital New Delhi moved out from Dimapur in the north-eastern state of Nagaland to pursue higher education and for better job prospects.
“I did my secondary and higher studies from Bangalore (southern city). Later, I came to New Delhi to find work in media. Since Delhi is the hub of news and media centres, I thought it would be the best place to look for work and get exposure. Obviously, I would not have grown professionally and achieved so much if I would have stayed back home,” says Longchar.

Doris Dey, 27, she is a successful freelance writer and a creative director in India’s film city of Mumbai.

She chose New Delhi to pursue her graduation before moving on to Mumbai to find her dream work in TV production houses.

“Studying in Delhi can give you exposure. You can take part in extra curricular activities. You can study and work at the same time and by the time you graduate you already have a lot of work experience. I took lot of work experience by working for event management companies and got a job instantly after my graduation,” recalls Dey.
She is proud of her decision of moving to Mumbai and says, “If I had not left Guwahati I would not have made this soon.”

“Moving to Mumbai helped. It’s a safe and comfortable place for single people. You come with nothing and you make something. It’s not happening only with me but with a lot of other people as well who work hard. Coming here gives you bang on exposure to work.”

The educated, financially independent and upwardly mobile women are just one side of the coin. Its flip side is still a stark contrast. Marginalised rural and unskilled urban women continue to live on the fringes.

Roopmati, a daily wage earner, gets Rs150 (about $3) a day by carrying mortar and bricks on her head in building construction sites.

After a hard day at work she cooks meal for her family, tends to household chores, looks after her four children without any assistance from her husband. All he does is watch TV and smoke tobacco. The money both of them earn is mostly spent on raising the family.

She never went to school but hopes her children get basic education.

Most of rural and urban semi/unskilled women are like second-class citizens who are not given priority in education, health care, nutrition and property rights.

Indian female literacy rate is 54.16%, against 75% male literacy rate, according to 2001 Census. And only 46% of rural women are literate.

According to National Literacy Mission of India, the main reasons for low literacy level of women are “gender based inequality, social discrimination and economic exploitation, occupation of girl child in domestic chores, low enrolment of girls in schools and low retention rate and high dropout rate.”

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his address to a woman’s conference in Delhi on Saturday (March 6) said participation of girls in schools has improved over the last few years but their retention in schools continues to be a matter of concern.
Life of rural women is still ruled by males in the family. Unlike urban women they mostly have little or no say in decision making and have no financial control.

She is a mere puppet, perfect for all household chores and farm work. Even the choice whether to become a mother or not or the number of children she should have is not hers.

A woman is forced to continue to give birth until a baby boy is born leading to high maternal mortality rate. This takes a toll on her health which is already poor due to malnutrition.

Her life is further restricted by rigid social and cultural norms. She is way too much dependent and subjugated.

Untill women are economically independent not much can be expected to improve their status. The Constitution gives them equal rights but discriminations against them continue-- socially, culturally and traditionally in a male dominated society.

Government has launched many programmes to educate, empower and enhance women’s health and social status in the country to help them become equal partners with men.

Whether they have made significant changes in their life is yet to be seen.

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all” stresses the need to do more to empower women to be equal partners with men.