Monday, 24 May 2010

The saint of earthen pot

Matka Peer or the Saint of earthen pot is a well-known name in Delhi. True to the name, his shrine is quite a sight.

It is almost camouflaged with earthen pots resting on tree boughs and stumps, rooftops, parapets, you name it. Everyday, Summer or Winter, Spring, Autumn or Monsoon, people come to the mausoleum of the 12th century Muslim Sufi Saint to pray or to make a wish. When their prayers are answered, they thank by offering an earthen pot along with 1.25 kilogrmme each of black gram, jaggery (thickened sugarcane juice) and milk. By the number of earthen pots, one can gauge the number of people visiting the shrine to express their gratitude once their wishes are fulfilled.

People come in hundreds throughout the week but on Thursday and Fridays it increases manifolds. “This will give you an idea about the faith people have in the Saint Matka Peer who helps to answer their prayers,” says Shakeel Ahmed, Secretary, Matka Peer Dargah (mausoleum) Welfare Society.

The Sufi (mystic) Saint’s name was Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi Haidri Kalandari. Abu Bakr hailed from Iran’s Tusi district and belonged to the Kalandari family. “He had travelled to India in the 12th century to spread the message of peace and Islam,” says Ahmed.

The site of present mausoleum, then a thick forest, is where he lived and prayed to Allah away from humanity. “Legend has it that once the saint saw a man from a nearby village, Indrapath, was going to commit suicide by jumping into the Yamuna River. He was frail and depressed. He wanted to end his life to get rid of his suffering caused by an incurable disease.

“The saint intervened and calmed him down. Upon hearing his story, he gave him some water from his earthen pot. His health started improving. Lo and behold, he crossed the deadline beyond which the doctor had claimed he would not survive. He was a healthy man again and could earn a living for his family. He came back to the saint along with his family to express his gratitude for giving him another chance to live,” narrates Ahmed.

The resurrected man shared his story with fellow villagers and soon the word spread like a wild fire. When the then ruling Sultan of Delhi, Giyasuddin Balban, heard this he tried to test the Saint’s mystical power and sent a platter of black grams made of iron and jaggery made of clay. The royal platter caused curiosity and awe among the saint’s followers but when the cover was removed they got angry with the audacity of the Sultan.

“The Matka Peer sensed that the Sultan wanted to test him. So he pacified his followers, prayed to Allah and the platter of iron grams turned into edible roasted black grams and clay turned into jaggery. The saint ordered milk from the village, added jaggery in it to make a sweet drink and distributed it among people along with the grams.

“At that time he made an announcement that whosoever will go to him and if his wishes are fulfilled he should offer an earthen pot, black grams and jaggery,” says Ahmed.
The tradition continued.

Centuries later, the faith of people in him is intact. People irrespective of their religious backgrounds come here to pray and thank the saint in form of earthen pots. Praying here is quite democratic, anyone from anywhere belonging to any faith can come here any day to see the mausoleum and pray. Atop the mausoleum of the saint stands a structure erected by Balban in white marble stone, which has Islamic carvings, designs, architecture and couplets from the Quran engraved on the wall of the room. A photo of Mecca is also hanging on the wall.

Hindus, Muslims Christians, Buddhists all come here and pray in their own way without disturbing the peace and sanctity of place. While Muslims can be seen with opens hands asking for ‘dua’ or blessings and praying, Hindus and other faith followers can bee seen praying with folded hands.

Outside on the compound, oil lamps are lit and incenses are burnt the way Hindus and others would do in their temples. The things offered at the mausoleum represent elements of different faiths like an Islamic sheet with Quranic verses on it, Hindus way of offering flowers, red thread and some edibles sweet balls. Nothing clashes here with anything.

“Sufism shows its way of humanity. The philosophy preaches that whichever religion you belong to you should put humanity and harmony first,” said Ahmed whose family has been looking after the management of the mausoleum for 150 years. Part of his family resides on campus.

The Matka Peer’s mausoleum is perched on a hillock surrounded by an expanse of greenery. The quiet of this little corner in the midst of central Delhi is punctuated with the birds’ twitters or singers’ qawali (mystic songs in praise of God and the saint) and beats of drums.

There is some energy in the atmosphere which has a cathartic on quite a few. While they pray sitting by the ‘mazar’ or mausoleum, tears start rolling down their cheeks and their sobbing continues for a while after they finish their prayers. Perhaps, it has done some cleansing of soul and mind and has made their heart light. Their demeanor now looks calm and composed. It seems a day well invested in soul searching.

For many, coming here is the last hope to find answers and solutions to their problems and sufferings. Some seek the divine intervention to bring happiness in their lonely world. Babu Khan, 55, has traveled overnight from India’s northern city of Lucknow to make a wish for a family. He has lost all his family members to various diseases. He is poor and single. Stubbles cover his cheeks and despair cast gloom in his eyes.

“I have put an application in the ‘darbar’, mausoleum. I hope Matka Peer blesses me. All I want is a wife from a well-to-do family and some money to come in my bank account,” says Babu Khan with a hope.

Babu Khan will have to wait before he sees some miracle happening in his life but Naushar Ranee, 20, is happy. She along with her toddler son and family members has come here from a village on the outskirts of Delhi. She spread a sheet on the mausoleum and presented an earthen pot and other must-offer things, while a cleric chanted some Quranic verses and sought blessings for her.

“I’m very happy. One of my wishes has been fulfilled,” says Nausheer. She will not give a hint about her wish because “wishes are not meant to be shared”. “I’m still waiting for my one more wish to be fulfilled,” says she with a smile while hurrying her folks to leave as dusk descended on the hillock.

People from far and near come here to visit the shrine. It has an important place on Delhi’s map. During the Commonwealth Games, the shrine will be especially shown to visitors as the cultural and spiritual heritage of Delhi.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Potter marries Gandhian and Tagorean values, creates art

He hero worshipped Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He photographed their last meeting for posterity. The picture of Gandhi and Tagore sitting together with students at Santiniketan is now a rare treasure.

Devi Prasad, 90, then a young photographer and an aspiring art student at Santiniketan, now Viswa Bharati University, took that photograph just before Tagore died. Since then it’s been reproduced and reused numerous times. But he never exercised any copyright on this photograph. Perhaps he wanted the world to see these iconic personalities as much as possible.

Tagore and Gandhi tremendously influenced Devi Prasad, his personality and what he was going to become in the future — An artist, a photographer, but foremost a studio potter.

A retrospective of ‘The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman’ is currently on at Lalit Kala Akademi (Academy of Fine Arts) in New Delhi. The exhibition showcases 300 works of Prasad who created them in 65 years of his artistic life -- from his earliest paintings in Santiniketan to his last pottery he made in his Delhi studio in 2003-04.

Prasad’s work spans the entire latter half of the 20th century at a moment in the history of Indian art and design which brings India into the modern era,” said Naman Ahuja, a curator.

The exhibition, which is on till May 21, gives a sense of how he with “the act of making art” furthered Gandhian philosophy of ‘swawlamban’ or self reliance and pacifism with the help of Tagorean philosophy of seeking beauty of life through art and literature. He successfully complemented Gandhi’s utilitarian view of life with
Tagore’s spiritual perspective of the world. However, striking a balance between the two philosophies did not come easily.

Prasad came to Santiniketan, founded by Tagore, to be an artist. While here, between 1938 and 1944, he was drawn to Tagore’s philosophy to seek truth and beauty through art. He was trained under master of Bengal School of Art Nandlal Bose and “imbibed many different painting styles, including Modern Art, stills, Bombay School of Art, Bengal School of Painting, Malwa and Rajput Schools of Art,” said Ahuja.

While here, he painted outdoors, countryside in water colours, drew sketches and “made self portraits to define himself”. One of his self-portraits shows him lying on a cot with a notebook by his side. “It conveys that he was contemplating about his future and what he wanted to become”. Another painting on display “depicts a female boar and her tensed body before she was going to give birth in a stormy day.

The picture is quite symbolic of his tension just before he was going to be graduated,” says Ahuja.

His six years at Santiniketan groomed him to be an artist—a painter, a sketcher and a photographer. As an artist he wanted to capture beauty on his canvas. But when he joined Gandhi’s Sevagram centre in 1944, his idea of becoming an art teacher came crashing when he received a letter from Gandhi:

“Bread comes first and adornment afterwards…but since you are here, do whatever you conveniently can. Learn here what true art is. The art teacher should first take up some work which would enable him to earn his livelihood. Later on he may paint and teach painting. Such artist alone will teach true art. You will remember what I had said about the broom. Sweeping is a great art. Where to keep the broom, how to handle it, should there be one broom or different brooms for different jobs, should one raise dust or sprinkle water before sweeping, does one sweep the corners by paying attention to the walls or roof — all these questions should occur to an artist. Only then will he finally find beauty in sweeping.”

Gandhi’s reply to a letter from Prasad showed the significance of utilitarianism and self-sufficiency in art.

After reading the letter he was “devastated and went back to Santiniketan to Nandlal Bose who sent him back with a drawing of two wheels representing two different philosophies of Tagore and Gandhi. Bose asked him if he could use them to chart a new direction for himself,” said Ahuja.

For the next 18 years he stayed on in Sevagram. While here, he imbibed Gandhi’s mantra of self sufficiency or “swawlamban” a key element of “Nai Talim” (new or alternative education) to transform society by educating children.

Prasad’s quote on a panel reads that by ‘talim’ Gandhi meant “getting the best out of a child… and it could be only possible by teaching handicraft to him.” According to him, Gandhi believed that the “act of making” would make people self-dependent in making what they needed, instill self pride and respect for labour, create jobs locally and eventually stop migration from the village to the city.

At Sevagram, Prasad built Kalabhawan (building for art and craft). While here, he took to pottery after reading ‘A Potter’s Book’ by Bernard Leach. To drill in Gandhi’s sense of self-sufficiency, he built a kiln at Kalabhawan and redesigned pottery wheels. He taught his students to make their own pottery for everyday use.

To guide potters he wrote “Potters make your own tools and equipment”.
His activism of self reliance drew him into national movements like the Quit India movement, and in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement (exhorting landlords to give land to the landless).

During this period, he pursued photography actively and recorded various events. One of his photographs that finds special place in the exhibition is of a farmer walking into oblivion near Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum at Rajghat. It was taken two years after Gandhi was assassinated.

“The picture is quite symbolic. After the death of Gandhi, there was no one left to take up the cause of farmers, poor and the hapless so vigorously,” says Ahuja.
But even after his death, Gandhi’s followers continued to practise his teachings of peace.

It was for this cause, Prasad left for England in 1962 to join the London-based pacifist organisation, War Resisters’ International, and later became its chairman. During this time he could not paint, sketch or do pottery. When he left, his colleagues gifted him a kiln and a wheel. While here in London, he tried his hands with porcelain and stoneware and painted on them. His art of pottery evolved to a greater standard but he was always conscious that his pottery should never be overpriced.

Twenty years later when he finally returned to India in 1983, he continued making pottery until 2004. He set up his first pottery studio in Delhi in 1985 and began teaching pottery apart from building gas kilns, wheels, and designing tools to suit Indian conditions. He always emphasized on achieving precise measurement and spot on quality of pottery which could be mastered only after a thorough practice.

Today, he is known as one of the top studio potters in India. Patterns on his pottery, faces and other drawings on platters and plates show his grip on both brush and wheel. His contribution to art won him Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna award in 2007 and the Desikottama from Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, in 2008. However, he maintained a low profile throughout his career.

His genius lies in ‘drawing’ his own artistic course, in creating beautiful art to instill humane values by synthesizing Tagorean and Gandhian philosophies.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Tongawallahs of Delhi

Clip clop, Clip clop… The sound of the horse’s hooves of a tonga or a horse-drawn two-wheeled cart has been ringing on old Delhi roads for centuries but may not be heard anymore.

From the Mughal period through the British Raj, tongas were the mode of transportation in Delhi. In this new age, they are still used as effective and quick mode of alternative transportation in certain pockets like Sadar Bazar and Turkman Gate in old city of Delhi.

However, as the tick tock of the time clocks forward that too familiar sound of History—clip clop-- may cease forever. If the civic agency, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), has its way it will stop all tongawallahas from running on the road in Old Delhi from May 31 in the ‘pretext’ of safety and controlling chaos and traffic jams on the road, especially during the Commonwealth Games. However, this is not going down well with the tongawallahs. They are angry with the decision and at the same time anxious about their future if this does happen.

There are about 232 licenced tongawallahs in Delhi who have been engaged with this traditional profession. A few more, who don’t own a tonga, are also dependent on this trade as they have taken tongas on rent.

Babu Ram, 40, says he is quite “sad” and says this decision will make him die hungry. “I have known no other work since my childhood. I have been riding tongas since my childhood to earn my livelihood,” says he.

With seven children and a wife to support, he opposes this move and says, “tongawallahs are not bothering anyone, we don’t pose any health hazard to anyone and we are environmental friendly. Foreigners love to take a ride on our tongas. Why are we being singled out whereas hundreds of rickshaws and auto-rickshaws continue to ply on the road?” he questions.

People visiting the Sadar Bazar just hop on a tonga which can carry 4-5 people at one time, pay Rs5 each person and hop off at the market, do the necessary shopping and take a tonga back.

Mohammed Yasmin, 79, has been engaged in the profession since 1982 after retiring from his government job. At the moment, he doesn’t own a tonga nor does he run one. He is the president of Tonga Association in Sadar Bazar and oversees its affairs. The Association represents 20 tongawallahs running in this area.

“I pray to God that these tongawallahs continue to work. I’m old and shall die soon. My children have settled down. But these people still have their families to support,” says Yasmin.

Moreover, he says that these tongas are running in the area which doesn’t interfere with the routes of the Commonwealth Games on which pretext they are being phased out.

“The Games will be there just for 10-15 days and for that why snatch bread and butter of so many people,” complaints he.

Residents of old Delhi are also not happy with this move. Iqbal, 80, who grew up in this quarter says tonga was the only mode of transportation in earlier days. “We used to go to the market and other areas on tonga. There are memories associated with it. It’s part of our history. But if government is hell-bent on doing away with them then no one can do anything about it,” rues Iqbal.

The irony, however, is that the tongawallahs have no other skills to survive if they go out of work. Most of them are poor and have large families to support.

For instance, Pappu, 45, has been in this trade for nearly 30 years. He has a family of eight to support. He fears if his traditional trade is taken away from him he won’t have anything to fall back on. “At my age no one will hire me to do dishes even. If I lose my work then other tongawallahas like me will be forced into theft or other anti-social activities to feed ourselves. The government won’t look after us or support to get us other work,” fears Pappu.

The government has so far allotted plots in Shastri Nagar area of East Delhi to those who have a proof of having a tonga and a licence. The tongawallahas say the allotted places are far too less and far away from this market where they live and are not conducive for doing any business.

“Those allotted spaces are open. They don’t have any roof on them. We have no idea what we can do with that space or what kind of business we can run there. We have been told to carry all our stuff to the shop everyday and bring it back with us in the evening. Moreover, for commuting back and forth, we will have to pay a lot for tickets. And if we don’t do any business on a day then god help us,” rues Babualal.

MCD has rehabilitated some tongawallahs operating in other parts of the capital like Moti Nagar and Kashmiri Gate. The civic agency plans to eventually phase out all the tongawallahs but has kept May 31 deadline for those running in Old Delhi.

With the move not only the tongawallahs but those associated with it indirectly will also be affected. Yasmin says on an average one tonga supports families of those who make the cart, paint it, decorate it, horse feed and grain dealer, hoof career, not to mention the tongawallaha himself.

Pappu says buying a tonga cost him Rs40,000 but he will not get the same amount if he were to sell it. The cart will go to the scrap yard and the horse will either be abandoned or sold in a much lesser price.

The Tonga Association in Sadar along with other association operating in other parts of Delhi has appealed in High Court against the move. For now, they are waiting for its decision on Monday, May 17, to know whether their tongas will continue to clip clop or will fade into history.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A brush with Tagore

Not many people know Rabindranath Tagore as a painter. He is rather known to the world for his literary Renaissance — as a philosopher, poet, song composer, essayist and a playwright. His contributions were acknowledged worldwide when he was awarded with Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.

But he had a streak for brush and paint as well. He discovered it much later in his life, when he was well into 60 and continued painting until his death in 1941. The very subjects which earlier found their manifestations through his literary works later found another medium. His fascination for Nature, people and their surroundings were now also being expressed through colour strokes on canvas.

The sheer joy of creating something pictorial started catching on him. This is evident in a letter he wrote to Romain Rollan in 1930.

“Words are too conscious; lines are not. Ideas have their form and colour, which wait for their incarnation in pictorial art. Just now painting has become a mania with me. My morning began with songs and poems; now, in the evening of my life, my mind is filled with forms and colours.”

In the last 17 years of his life, Tagore made more than 3,000 paintings and drawings. He drew and sketched with ink and pen, painted with pastels on silk or paper canvas.

To shows his this side of creative genius, “The Master’s Strokes: Art of Rabindranath Tagore” exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. This is part of the celebrations which have begun to mark his 150th birth anniversary next year.

Among the displayed works, most of them show his fascination for faces either done with colour or with ink and pen. Graphic-like faces in ‘geometrical shapes, pointed triangles and protruding mouth and nose and even caricature look grotesque and serious.

According to some critics “his faces are said to bring out Tagore’s inner sense of discomfort against people whom he thought were tragic like authoritarians and hypocrites” reads a panel at the exhibition.

Some of his other displayed works formed landscapes, head studies and figures. His art was ‘versatile’ though he had had no training in it.

“Yet through his own efforts, he developed a highly imaginative and spontaneous visual vocabulary. His work displayed a superb sense of rhythm and vitality and his techniques matched his highly developed and refined creative expression,” said India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who inaugurated the exhibition on May 9.

While creating these works, Tagore was guided by a sense of rhythm which he had learnt about in his early days. According to Tagore, his understanding of rhythm of sound helped him to create lines and then forms and pictures.

In one of his letters to Rani Mahalanobis he wrote, “the only training which I had from my younger days was training in rhythm in thought, the rhythm in sound. I had come to know that rhythm gives reality to which is desultory, insignificant itself.”

To gauge a sense of his genius in finding beauty in ordinary things and to know how a person can be so versatile and yet grounded, visitors are trickling in to the gallery to catch a slice of his creativity.

Deepak Vadhera was one such curious visitor. He said more than the paintings he had especially come to discover the man who created them.

“I’m more interested in discovering the man he was. He was into writing poetry, dramas, prose, you name it. At the same time, he took part in Indian politics and freedom struggle. He travelled widely on five continents and couple of dozens countries. How and when he found time to do paintings? What a strength he must had had to do all with such great standards. Hats off to him,” said Vadhera.

He must had had had inner strength to do it all. But at the same time, he kept his strength and interest rolling with the excitement of discovering new phenomenon within himself.

“When I started painting I noticed a great change in myself. I started seeing in trees, branch and leaf images of strange creatures of various kinds. I had never seen them before; I had only seen that the spring is here, the flowers are breaking out on every branch, things of this sort. This wealth of vision is spread all around man. When you exclaim ‘ah’ on seeing a thing, it is not in response to its beauty but its sheer visual presence. That is why there is so much joy in seeing itself. It is this vision found in painting,” reads a panel using Tagore’s quote.

Parisians were the first ones to see his exhibition publicly in May 1930. After that, it traveled to other European cities before returning to his own city of Calcutta the next year.

But for the time being, it’s Delhiites who are enjoying a visual delight of Gurudev’s cultural legacy.
(Picture courtesy National Gallery of Modern Art)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Remembering Tagore

Melodious renditions of Rabindrasangeet or songs of Rabindranath Tagore echoed in the air. Glowing in dim ochre light was the bronze bust of ‘Gurudev’ perched upon a pillar under a sprawling green tree. Oil-lit earthen lamps dotting the stage periphery of the open air theatre were adding to the effects of the warm starry evening on Sunday the May 9.

It had some inkling with the open outdoor university of Shantiniketan founded by Tagore in West Bengal but the scene was set in the heart of New Delhi’s Meghdoot theatre at Rabindra Bhawan.

The occasion was special — to give a tribute to Tagore on his 149th birthday. The three day-birthday celebrations, which began on May 7, has also ushered in year-long festivities to mark his 150th birth anniversary next year.

Tagore is the most prominent Indian poet and writer known abroad. He was the first Asian to win Nobel Prize for his collection of poems ‘Geetanjali’ in 1913. The poems written in Bengali have been translated in most of the world languages.

An iconic writer, legendary poet, novelist and educator, Tagore had become an institution in himself and his songs became part of every Bengali household music.

Those who grew up reading Tagore’s literature, the celebration was a chance to express their appreciation for the legend and to celebrate the life of the philosopher. People from different walks of life and different lingual communities had converged on the Meghdoot theatre to see modern musical interpretations of Tagore’s songs.

The cultural evening began with the Panchanjali or offerings of five elements-- air, water, earth space and fire-- each represented respectively by the blowing of conch shells, offering of water, flowers, burning incense and the lighting of lamps in front of the Gurudev’s bust in the backdrop of Rabindrasangeet.

Tagore’s works were represented through various classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and Chhau or through non-classical dance performances.

The first dance, presented by three lady dancers draped in famous Bengali white saris with red borders, celebrated rain. Monsoon was Tagore’s favourite season and he expressed its various flavours through his songs. Monsoon winds, pitter patter of raindrops and their soothing effect after scorching heat, clouds, swaying of trees everything associated with the season found vivid mention in his works

While Tagore is known best for his contributions to literature and his philosophy of life, less is known about his contributions to political and freedom movement of India. His “image of a sage and a mystique has persisted even in 21st century,” said Pranab Mukherjee, India’s Finance Minister, who was present on the occasion, adding he was a reformer and a great advocate of “gender equality and individual freedom which he expressed through his poems, prose and literature.”

Tagore had a great influence on Mahatma Gandhi and India’s freedom movement. He is best known for his literary genius but he was conscious of his social surroundings and was a critic of colonialism.

In 1905 Bengal’s partition caused him much pain and it found an expression in his lyrics “Omador Jatra hole shuru” meaning our journey has begun and expressed his desire to shake off the yoke with the help of God as “karnadhar” or a helmsman.

Manipuri artistes represented the song by enacting as voyagers who began their journey in high wind. They invoked god as the helmsman to help not to deter from their path and also redress the problems of their countrymen suffering under the British Raj.

His growing discontent with the British rule led him to surrender the knighthood in 1919 four years after he received it as a “protest against the Massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed some 400 Indian demonstrators”.

The evening facilitated reorientation with some of Tagore’s ageless songs. Born in an affluent family, Tagore completed most of his education at home as he could not adjust himself to the formal system of school.

Later, he went to England for his law degree but left it halfway to return to India to pursue his literary aspirations and to be with his people. He wrote about “3,000 songs, thousands of poems, and hundreds of short stories, novels, plays and essays, apart from painting thousands of pictures in his later years.

In spite of his rich background he remained rooted and involved with the common person’s cause. He influenced many youth. “Tagore had a great influence on me. I was brought up on Rabindranath’s works. The second best book in my life was his ‘Sahaj Path’,” said A Chatterjee, an editor with a publishing house.

As the days proceed there will be more events to remember Gurudev and his genius to capture various aspects of life and create magic through words and music. He revolutionized Bengali art, literature and music and opened its treasures to the world to experience.

Striking a chord with Life

STORY: Two years ago three year-old Rishi Bhanushali was extremely anemic. He was suffering from Beta Thalassemia major, a genetic blood disorder. He had to undergo blood transfusion every month since he was four months old.

But now it’s a different case. The cheerful tot, from Bilimora in South Gujarat, runs around, plays and eats well. He has grown taller by few inches and put on some weight as well.

He will not have to go through the ordeal of regular blood transfusion anymore for the rest of his life. Thanks to cord blood banking. Preserved stem cells extracted from umbilical cord blood and placenta saved Rishi’s life.

“We bought exact 6/6 match of Rishi’s stem cells from Reliance Life Sciences (RLS). Dr Sandip Shah transplanted the cells in him at Gujarat Cancer Research Hospital in Ahmedabad,” says Rishi’s grandfather Bhimji Bhai Bhanushali over the phone.

Rishi was hospitalised for about one and half months and for the remaining nearly two years the Bhanushalis had to remain in Ahmedabad “for the child’s regular check up.”
The entire treatment cost the Bhanushalis Rs15 lakhs (US$35,000) including Rs2.5 lakhs (US$5,672) for buying stem cells. But they say “it is worth it” to have their “child back as normal”.

For two-year-old Harshil Nanda, stem cells transplant is a “gift of life”. It’s been eight months since he got the transplant to cure Beta Thalassemia. “For six months we haven’t had the need to transfuse blood in him,” said Ravi Nanda, Rishi’s uncle when contacted through a phone. The Nandas, who have come from Jamnagar to Ahmedabad for treatment, also bought 6/6 stem cells match from RLS.

In both cases getting stem cells from bone marrow was difficult to cure the disease as it’s rare to find 100 per cent match of bone marrow stem cells between the donor and the receiver, which is not the case with cord stem cells.

The chance of finding matching bone marrow stem cells is just one per cent in 11,00,000, says Aasim Ghazi, marketing head, Cryobanks India Private Limited, New Delhi.

The difficulty in finding an exact match of bone marrow stem cells is making the usage of cord blood stem cells an attractive and effective alternative.

Umbilical cord until recently was considered a medical waste which used to be thrown away once the baby was born. But various researches establish that umbilical cord and placenta could supply “the same kind of blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells as a bone marrow donor”.

Stem cells are master cells from the donor which are transplanted into the child who is ill and these cells manufacture new healthy blood cells and enhance the child’s blood-producing and immune system capability. These cells have far lower chances of rejection by the receiving body.

Cord blood cells are useful in curing diseases like leukemia, thalassemia, blood cancer, anemia, lymphoma, immune deficiency and other disease which can not be treated with medicines alone. And research is on whether these cells can be used in treating Alzheimer's Disease, Cardiac Disease, Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease etc.

Seeing the increasing use of this ‘medical waste’ more and more parents to-be are opting for cord blood banking.

Jyoti Kaul in New Delhi is one such parent who has banked her son’s cord blood cells with Cryobanks. “We don’t know whether we will need it or not. It’s a medical insurance we may need. It’s a future investment in health. This medical waste can save someone’s life. It’s not only that we will use it for us, god forbid. We can also donate it,” reasons Jyoti for opting cord blood banking.

Today she propagates it to other would-be-parents even though it’s an added expenditure. Another strong reason for her to go for it was the expensive lifestyle which discourages having a second child.

“So when we are more or less one-child oriented, it’s important that we do such kind of medical investments. In today’s time there are so many life-threatening diseases and one can’t become mother everyday. And to secure your child’s future health if this is one option I would go for it,” says she, adding that the way medical science is growing stem cell securing will be a common thing.

“If we collect residual blood and extract stem cells from the umbilical cord, they are 100 per cent match to the donor and 75 per cent match to the relatives.” says Aasim.

The main reason of banking newborn’s cord blood is that parents have a child or a close relative with a family medical history of diseases “that can be treated with bone marrow transplants.”

There are rare chances of needing the cord blood for a child in a family without history of diseases. But parents can still donate it as it would add to the pool of stem cells which can help any person in the world to find a suitable match.

Cord blood banking can especially benefit India as it is “home to the highest number of Thalassemic patients in the world. Treating them through cord blood cells can be an easy answer as the country with the highest population has the highest number of deliveries,” says Aasim.

One can get cord blood banked for a period of 21 years and for a price
tag ranging from Rs59,900 to Rs1,19,000 depending on the scheme and
the bank one is opting for. To make payment easy, these banks have
introduced installment schemes.

Seeing the potential of stem cells in curing prevalent diseases in India, cord blood banks are increasing their operations in the country.
“According to analysts, Indian stem cell banking market will reach $540 million by 2010, contributing 17% of the world market. It is reported that there are about 10 players in the Indian market who have been increasing their storage capacity since 2007 to meet the increasing demand,” says KV Subramaniam, President and CEO, Reliance Life Sciences, Mumbai.

Mumbai-based RLS, New Delhi-based Cryobanks India Private Limited, Chennai-based LifeCell International Pvt. Ltd and Kolkata-based Cordlife Sciences are among other cord blood banks in India which are seeing a steady growth in their operations.
In India, the concept is now picking up pace. “In just five years LifeCell have close to 25,000 clients, while the overall market penetration is growing almost at around 50% growth year on year,” says V. Ravi Shankar, General Manager, Corporate Communications & Marketing,LifeCell International, Chennai.

LifeCell with over 60 centres across India has around 25,000 samples preserved with its lab. However, it has a capacity of preserve up to 1,00,000 samples. Ten clients from LifeCell have used their babies’ stem cells for treatment.

The US-based Cryobanks with 85 branches across the country, has 15,000 parents storing their children’s cord blood cells with the bank.

“There are more than 5,000 cryopreserved cord blood units in the RLS cord blood repository in Navi Mumbai.” RLS says it has set adequate storage capacity to deal with the rising demand for cord blood banking services in the near future.

To enhance awareness, RLS conducts programmes on cord blood banking and gives free counselling sessions to parents-to-be, which includes a tour of the cord blood repository. Parents can register for these programs online at
Apart from India, RLS has set up operations in the Middle East and parts of South East Asia. Cryobanks too will be available in these countries.

Cord blood is not collected from “mothers-to-be whose deliveries are associated with certain neonatal and/or maternal complications. Also when the expecting mother is tested positive /reactive for any infectious disease marker cord blood collections are avoided,” says Sbramanaiam.

Cord blood stem cells, which can be preserved life long, are proving life saving panacea—an attractive alternative to bone marrow cells.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Chamba Rumal

A handkerchief is a handkerchief. But it’s much more than that for people in Chamba town of India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state. It’s Chamba Rumal (handkerchief) —
an integral part of local heritage and art and craft.

Once patronised by the rulers of Chamba, embroidering famous squares and rectangles of 2 to 4 square feet with ‘do-rukhi’ or double satin stitch was at its zenith. The ‘do-rukhi’ technique “ensured exact duplication of the image on the reverse”. Noble or upper class women with their adept fingers would embroider muslin, malmal or plain cotton cloth with intricate motifs, designs of nature, wild animals, hunting or mainly Hindu deity Krishna and his dance with milkmaids with impeccable finish.

These ‘rumals’ were used to cover platters as gifts for auspicious occasions, offering to a deity or to exchange them as a token of goodwill during weddings.
As kings were gone, so were the patrons of the art. With no available market to sell these pieces of art, artisans turned to other professions or did it only when occasions arose. In free India common public was neither much aware of the uniqueness of the art nor had interest in paying big amounts for the craftsmanship.

Rumals were still ubiquitous but they lost their artistic fineness and, as a result, appeal. They were now cheap pieces of cloth with low standards of colourful patterns on them. The art of doing Chamba rumal was dying a gradual death until Delhi Council of Craft (DCCC) stepped in.

The DCC began a regeneration project in the late 1990s. One good thing while reviving the art was that people still knew how to do the ‘do-rukhi’ stitches. All it required was to retrain artisans, raise the quality of embroidery to acceptable standards and improvise patterns to make it once again a signature art of Chamba.

“Thus, the DCC first collected masterpieces of Chamba ‘rumal’ and reproduced 16 of them. For that the centre traced local women embroiders, retrained them and worked on patterns and their colour schemes to enhance their standards to be able to be sold in the market,” said Poornima Rai of the DCC.

Chamba ‘rumal’ embroidery was unique as it would need to replicate or draw pahari miniature paintings on a piece of fine cotton cloth first then embroider upon them with silk floss dyed in natural colours.

“It was an amalgamation of painting, thread and the technique of the needle,” added Rai. It was this sense of uniqueness which had to be put into the context in order to popularise this exceptional art.

The revival process graduated to opening a centre, Charu, in Chamba in 2001.Women would come here to train, build on their skill and make Chamba ‘rumal’ on order.
Over a decade long efforts have seen the dying art springing back to life. New Delhi is getting a taste of it as the DCC has put up an exhibition at Indira Gandhi Centre For Arts.

The exhibition called ‘The Chamba Rumal: Life to a dying art’ has on display recreated masterpieces, each one unique in its art composition and colour combination and of course to the artiste. Yet, most of them have a similar base of unbleached muslin cloth and the theme based on the legends of Krishna.

“These artistes have combined beauty with everyday life. I really liked the painting of animals. They have used vibrant colours and created a joyful life. It’s a feast to eyes,” said Prabha Chand, who had come to visit the exhibition

Commending the efforts, Padmini Vipin, a visitor said, “It’s outstanding to revive the art. This is an exemplary work. I think all it needs is to be marketed really well.”

Five women embroiders and a miniature painting artist of Charu have also come down to Delhi from Chamba to show what it takes to make a ‘rumal’. Masto Devi, 40, a state award winner, has been associated with the revival project for 15 years. She was among 29 craftsperson who were retrained. The trainees would get a stipend of Rs500 each.
“Later, I was appointed as a teacher at the centre. I now teach and make Chamba ‘rumal’,” says she. The project is also directly helping women to earn their living through this traditional art.

Masto joined the centre when her husband passed away and had three little kids to look after.
“Initially I used to work in my spare time from home. I used to earn Rs1,000 a month to begin with then it gradually increased to Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 a month. Now my children are grown up. I get my salary of a teacher at the centre and apart from that I’m paid for whatever individual ‘rumal’ I make. So in a way I earn Rs10,000 a month on an average,” said Masto Devi while putting her needle through a handkerchief.

For Indu Sharma,28, opening of Charu was a blessing in disguise. She joined the centre in 2002 as a trainee when the responsibility of looking after her family fell on her after the demise of her father.

“I was the eldest among my five siblings. I thought if I take training I can support my family as I would get stipend. Later, I started earning Rs1,500 to Rs2,000 a month as I was very slow in embroidering. But later I started earning Rs 4,000 a month,” says Indu who is still associated with the project after getting married and having a son.

Parikshit Sharma, a miniature paining artist, skillfully draws on fine handspun and hand woven unbleached muslin for women to embroider upon those ‘compositions using untwisted coloured silk floss’.

While here in Delhi they are willingly imparting their skills to anyone who is interested in the art. Arudhana Jain is one such who is learning the long and short of the stitches. She has already got paintings drawn on a piece of cloth she has got with her.

“I like this style of embroidery very much. I’m learning the basics of the embroidery,” says she but wonders if she’d be able to finish her handkerchief in a year or so?

But those seasoned artisans who are quick to complete a ‘rumal’ in two-three days time are waiting for a bigger and specialised market to reach the connoisseurs of Chamba ‘rumals’ known as “paintings in embroidery”.