Khasakkinte Ithihasam: an epic of forgotten dialects

Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like the yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.

“Enthinaanu thambraatti agiranathu? Namma ippo veettilethoolle?”

At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat or the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.

I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.

Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.


Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.

True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.

The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.  What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?

Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.

There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.

Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family, in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi, unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.

What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad, yet dark, hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.

Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.

“Ootareelu Jayettande padau odunundu. Namukku puggua thambraa?”

Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…

If all was well that is.

A stray memory that drifted in.

There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.

Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.

If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.



Visiting The Little Prince in Japan

By Rowena Mondiwa


“All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

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In the little resort town of Hakone, just outside of Tokyo, I visited a part of my literary childhood. The moment I learned that Japan has the only Little Prince Museum in the world, I made a mental note that I had to visit it should I ever visit Japan. That dream came true in June 2017 when I visited Japan for the first time. On hearing my Hakone plans, my friend from Tokyo asked me, “Why are you going to Hakone? Onsen (hotspring)?” Most people do go to Hakone for the hotsprings, to visit  the famous lake, or to see Mount Fuji if the sky is clear. The look of amusement on my friend’s face is one I’ve seen on many non-readers’ faces when I tell them about my literary aspirations, but that has never stopped me from my single-minded bookish pursuits. Fellow bookworms will understand my love of bibliotourism.

A few days after landing in Tokyo I took the Shinkansen to Odawara, and from there I took the bus to Hakone. The lady at the Odawara bus station nodded knowingly when I told her I was going to the Little Prince museum, and with gestures told me to wait until the bus driver calls the stop of Hoshi no Ōjisama Myūjiamu (The Little Prince Museum).

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Bookworms are strange, I’m the first to admit it. I’m compulsive and obsessive when it comes to my literary loves. Having literary experiences ranks higher than a lot of things in my life. With The Little Prince, this book goes back with me a long way; the love runs deep. I was 10 years old when I first encountered it, and I was immediately smitten, probably due to a mixture of the great pictures (to this day I believe that all novels should contain illustrations), the characters, the simple truths. It was also due to being a child, nodding fervently when the prince says, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I totally got that, being a misunderstood child myself. Now as an adult, I believe that book helped me keep my childlike curiosity and heart, and it’s a book that seems to have grown with me, one I have gained a deeper understanding of.

When I stepped off the bus in front of the museum, I realized I had picked the perfect day and season to visit. The sun was shining bright, and the flowers, particularly the roses, were in full bloom. The Little Prince museum was built as a sort of replica of a French village. It was, like I said, a perfect day to visit. The gardens were spectacular. We could explore the book and also the life of de Saint-Exupery

It feels cliché to say this, but I honestly felt like I was walking in the book. Books that really impact us as children, I believe, become a part of our souls. When the mind is still young, naïve and growing, with childlike curiosity and still not fully aware of the world, it is a mind that is malleable and fertile for new ideas and words. The first talking rose you meet you will probably remember, and subsequent talking roses won’t be as strange to you. When you learn that grown-ups only care about numbers, you vow not to be like that. At least I did.

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Rowena and I met in the great world of Twitter, brought together perhaps by a shared love for the written word. It was pure serendipity that she feels the same spiritual connection I have with The Little Prince. Perhaps more, because she travelled all the way to experience it!


When I requested her for an introduction of herself to the readers, she sent me this: “Due to her Third Culture Kid upbringing, Rowena has always been passionate about culture, language, and communication. The arts are her passion and keep her grounded and curious about life. Other hobbies include nature, cooking, travel, and hiking.”

So now I learn that we share much more than a love for the written word! Nature, cooking, travel… And flowers. Isn’t it wonderful that social media enables birds of similar feather to flock together, even when they roost in different ends of the world?


Images courtesy Rowena Mondiwa 

Rowena’s blog: https://lesreveriesderowena.wordpress.com



Indiana Jones & All These Children!


The Hive is buzzing with activity these days.

I teach over the sounds (from the other side of the door) of shrieks and yells and lines uttered at deafening decibel levels by dozens of children, aided and abetted by half-a-dozen well-meaning adults. Every nook, corner and flat surface is filled with props and costumes and what-not . I have to dodge between snakes and skulls and masks and other deadly-looking stuff to make way to the teaching table…

My teenagers – who wait (in simple present, meaning a universal truth) to giggle at the drop of a hat – are now in a perpetual state of hysteria, and getting them back to thinking and writing about mundane topics like Cyber-bullying and Social Media has become a chore.

But everything said and done, I would gladly put up with all that and more. For now, at least. Because the excitement is infectious, and there is a method to the madness: The Hive is preparing for their D-day, June 3, 2016, when they take ‘The Adventures of Indiana’ to The Junction, Al Serkal Avenue, Al Quoz – Dubai. An ambitious venture directed by Jimish Thakkar and Malavika Varadan Sharma, the play is the first of its kind in the city.


A massive cast and crew is getting ready (the details are below), and there’s so much ‘happening’ all around.  And I, with my zero experience in theatre, thought it’s only fair that I do my two bits – share what the directors have to say. So here it is, verbatim:

Indiana Jones is one of cinemas most revered heroes. He’s cool. He’s smart. He’s adventurous. And he has his heart in the right place. Plus, he looks like Harrison Ford and he once came to India.

We’ve loved watching him on screen for decades now (Wow! Aren’t we old) but it wasn’t until one fine Monday evening when we were unwinding after class that Jimish Thakkar uttered those fateful words. “I think we should do Indiana Jones on stage.” He paused. Dramatically….  and added “I mean, why not?”

Everything we have done since that day has followed that same mantra. Why not? Why not cast 56 students over 3 different batches in 33 scenes? Why not throw in 150 light and sound cues and why not get this prop and that prop and 148 more props and this costume and that costume and 97 more costumes. These numbers are not exaggerations.

This is where the journey had to begin. We found the film scripts of the Indiana Jones films, we watched and rewatched the films until every other person around us said “Really? Can we please watch something else now???”

We then combined the best bits – stitched them together with logic, words and mostly will power and created a never before seen script. “The Adventures of Indiana Jones”

Then of course there was casting and auditioning, rehearsing and re-rehearsing , integrating and executing and finally getting HERE.. To this very point. As a wise man once said, “I mean, Why not?”

We do this for one reason, and one reason only. As actors we understand that there is no feeling in the world more powerful than standing onstage, looking out onto the great infinity, the bright light, saying a line and hearing a room full of people react. That feeling is nothing short of divine.

And we know that once you have tasted this addictive feeling, you will be hooked for life.

Doing a play is also about belief. In a difficult world with so many questions and doubts, the one thing we can all do with is a little more belief. We believe that the rock in front of you is real. We believe in the magic of a potion. We believe in that word and this movement and we hope that YOU believe too.

‘Why not?’ seems to be the spirit from which the play has evolved. And – come to think of it – why not, indeed!

P.S. Harrison Ford, where art thou?


Entry is by invitation; if you want to be invited (why does ‘invitated’ sound better?), please contact The Hive: liveathive.ae | (415) 388-5208 | info@liveathive.ae

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

My acquaintance with Bong Connection Dubai (BCD) came about as a happy accident when Sourendra Kumar Das, a friend who eventually left the UAE, introduced me to Sudip Kumar Saha. Sudip and his wife Rupa are among the driving forces of BCD, and along with a group of other expatriates from West Bengal, strive to keep alive the culture and traditions of their homeland here in the UAE. 

The greenroom

This was the second time I had been invited to Hoi Choi, BCD’s annual cultural event. And even with marginal knowledge of the Bengali culture, I was more than happy to attend it. 

For one, the language fascinates me. It had, since my hostel days in Bombay when Deepa, my partner in many a crime (she is a very private person who would be mortified if I used her full name here), introduced me to Satyajit Ray movies in a week-long session that started with Charulata. 

Selfie time!

To me, there is something sensuous, earthy, about the way the Bengali language rolls off the tongue, the manner in which the vowel and consonant sounds behave – with utter disregard for the accepted phonic norms that other Sanskrit-derived languages diligently follow. 

Bengali is also about Rabindranath Tagore, and all that the name implies. With Mini as my given name, need I say more? 

Getting into the skin of the character

So when Sudip informed us that this year’s event was to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, I needed no more urging. Freshly back from Calcutta and Santiniketan with as many memories as could be collected in five days, I’m still under the spell of all things Bengali, you see. 


There is also one other reason I diligently attend Hoi Choi.

The event, unlike the usual ones in the UAE, does not count on star power to gather its audience. There are no celebrities, if you discount the cast of sixty-odd dedicated actors and presenters. All the performances are put together by working people, housewives and students (as young as four) who took out the time to plan, prepare, practice and present. And how!  The aura of celebration, passion and enthusiasm at Hoi Choi was infectious.

Titled Tumi Robe Nirobe, (based on Tagore’s composition) Hoi Choi’s third edition, ‘an ensemble of songs, dance, poetry and short skits from the treasure trove of Tagore’s immortal creations’ was truly the fruit of love’s labour.  

…and on-stage

Ideally, I would have liked to mention the names of all those amazing people whose efforts have gone into the programme. The presenters, for instance. Moving between Bengali and English with ease and grace, they made sure that we, the non-Bengalis, were kept in the loop at all times.

Young Joy Dasgupta was introduced to me by Sudip sometime during the evening, with assurance that there’s no other photographer quite like him, you’ll see! before hurrying away to play the tabla for the next programme. When, later, Joy sent me the photographs of the event, I knew what Sudip meant. My blog is richer for the beautiful moments Joy has captured, on and off stage! 

Once again, my kudos to the BCD team for putting together something as lovely as Hoi Choi. And hoping to be a part of more such events in the future.

Now the problem is, how do I get the song out of my head, the one that has been haunting me for the past ten days? Tumi robe nirobe… (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5OFA6QKLio)


Scenes from various performances: 









All photographs courtesy Joy Dasgupta [joydasgupta@hotmail.com ]

Performing the Goddess

Among other things, I collect stories too. I pick them up from wherever I can. From friends, friends of friends, and strangers on the metro. From the wayside, park bench, and passing conversations. In fact, my box of collectibles – the wooden one with brass inlay – is full to brimming with stories.

I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the flat brown ones with lichen growing on their sides, to those that gleam with opalesque iridescence. There are fairy tales, and fables with and without morals. There are stories of men and women and displaced children; of gods, demigods and goddesses… And among them is the story of a man who is also a woman, and transforms into a goddess by night.

The story of Chapal Bhaduri, once the ‘leading lady’ of the Jatra (literally, ‘travel’), West Bengal’s larger-than-life, theatre-in-the-round form.

That one came to me through a friend – by far the most avid collector of stories I have come across. He doesn’t put them in a box, though – he gives them wings and sets them free. In the hands of Naveen Kishore, Founder and Director of Seagull Books, those stories take the form of beautiful books. Or films. Or photographs. Or —

Well, with him, the possibilities are endless.

And so the story found its way to him, as they tend to. That’s the thing about stories – they’re like the Prince of Persia. They would do anything to get to their listener: cross the seven seas,  slay dragons… Whatever it takes.

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Naveen had first met Chapal Bhaduri while he was interviewing the latter’s older sister, late Ketaki Dutta, who was a commercial stage actresses. Chapal-da, as he is popularly known, was ‘a fleeting presence serving tea and biscuits’. As Jatra was a popular art form while he was growing up, Naveen recognised him and got talking.

“The only work he currently had was to transform into Sitala Devi, the goddess of small pox, for 40-odd nights a year. Roadside performances at the equivalent of a pound a night!” 

Moved by his story, Naveen Kishore shot some black-and-white photographs of the performance, and of him transforming into a woman and a goddess night after night. Those pictures later became part of a Sotheby’s auction, and among other things, a travelling exhibition called ‘Woman/Goddess’.

One day, Chapal-da felt comfortable enough to ask Naveen for a cooking job so he could earn ‘a thousand rupees a month to stay alive’. 

“Here was this ‘star’ with so much to share, and no government or private structure in place to look after him and others like him. I was surrounded, it seemed, by such people. An amazing cameraman who was currently out of work, a puppet-maker in Kerala… All out of sync, all with so much to pass on…”

So instead of giving a cooking job to an artist, Naveen decided to make a ‘talking head’ documentary on him. That was how Performing the Goddess began, as a photo essay about a once-popular female impersonator rendered redundant by the passage of time.

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To call Performing the Goddess a documentary would be misleading. It’s a heart-to-heart between a master performer and his invisible audience of one, punctuated with shots of the make-up process that transforms a man into a woman into a goddess. There is no voiceover adding innuendos to the viewer’s experience, and there is a touching lack of hyperbole to the narration – the drama is strictly reserved for the re-performances of milestone extracts from Chapal-da’s Jatra plays. There is just this intimate conversation that we are privy to. 

Chapal Bhaduri had entered the Jatra scene when it was hugely popular across West Bengal. As women were not allowed to be part of the Jatra, female roles were played by male actors. Chapal-da debuted as Marjina, the female protagonist of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and he fondly recalls the attention he received from male fans, who often courted him as they would a girl. As he animatedly talks, sometimes about his childhood, sometimes about the various roles he had played, we get glimpses of an era gone by, when his art meant everything to him.

Weariness sets in only when he talks about the present. Weariness is perhaps the wrong word here – what one sees is acceptance. Of the inevitable passage of time. Chapal Rani was eased out of the Jatra scene by age, and women taking over the female roles.

I’m no longer in the Jatra because the Jatra no longer has any use for me.

Yes, there is loneliness, the emptiness of being left behind by a world that has decided to move on. But there is no bitterness, no despair.

The condition I was in could’ve driven me to the streets, but here I am in front of the camera, speaking to you…

And he goes on to talk about his role as Sitala Devi, the goddess of diseases, and how it has altered his perceptions, his life.


The documentary should have ended there, in the normal course of things. But some stories have a mind of their own – they wander off on roads untravelled, and there’s nothing the teller can do but follow their course.

“The film had started life as any other exercise in interview-based cultural anthropology. Except that Chapal-da had other ideas. He came to my office 10 days before I was to edit and said he wanted to talk to me. Alone.”

And that was how the rest of the story unfolded.

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There are so many things… I sometimes wonder… Are they natural, normal? You know what I’m talking about.

As he talks about his troubled sexuality, the feminine emotions and biological responses he has experienced all his life, the Chapal Bhaduri we meet is a different man. Hesitant, anxious, and still vaguely haunted by the rights and wrongs of the society.

I really want to talk about this, but…

It is a vulnerable human being who speaks about a ‘certain someone’ with whom he had shared a deep physical and emotional bond for three decades, until he left him for a younger woman. The wounds have healed as well as they could, but traces of that great love still lingers in Chapal-da’s voice, his face, in the smile that is not quite one.

This raw papaya dish that I am making, this is a dish he was fond of, extremely fond of…

And yet there is a quiet dignity to him that transcends his words.

“He wanted his sexuality to be shared like his art—simply, and with amazing dignity. And the fact that the film premiered on a mainstream Bengali channel and got wonderful feedback from everyone proved that his instinct for dignity had worked.”  

With the film receiving much attention, Chapal Bhaduri was once again in demand. The media took an interest in him, as did film-makers like Rituparno Ghosh, who made a feature film based on his life. Performing the Goddess proved to be a new beginning for the old artist.


Chapal Bhaduri’s performance was recently staged as a fitting finale to the two-day conference on “Transgender Embodiments and Experiences: Problems and Possibilities” organised by Department of Sociology – Presidency College, Kolkata, as part of ‘Celebrating 200 Years of Presidency’.

Despite dramatically ascending the stage with cries of ‘Who am I?’, ‘Won’t anyone tell me who I am?’, Chapal Bhaduri did not attempt to address the topic of transgenderism as the representative of a community – neither the Transgender Development Board nor the LGBTIQ+ rights groups are of any significance to him. He spoke for himself, insisting that the world of 1950s and 60s with its homophobic legalities was a much better one for him. He has no slogans to raise, no rights to claim.

After a lifetime spent transcending and transposing genders with ease, Chapal Bhaduri, at 77, is still an artist first. And his sexuality, like his art, remains simple and dignified.

Navin Kishore - Installation

*All photographs courtesy Naveen Kishore, Founder & Director, Seagull Books, Calcutta – India.   (I had to take screenshots of some as WordPress did not accept the high res images. You should have seen the originals!) 

Please send your queries on Performing the Goddess to feedbackatseagullindia.com.

Also read:




Doorways: Saeed Al Maktoum House


I keep looking for history in a nation that is all of 44 years old, and my search invariably takes me to Heritage Village in the Al Shindagha area of Dubai.

One structure I am particularly fond of is Saeed House – a house built in traditional Arabic style, complete with corridors, staircases, wind towers and majlis. This was the residence of the Al Maktoum ruling family till 1958, and is now a museum that houses many interesting artefacts, photographs and documents from an era that preceded the rapid urbanisation the city is currently witnessing.

I am strangely attracted to the spaces in and around Saeed House: and I find the interplay of light and shadows fascinating. Though very different, they remind me of my childhood, and the houses in my neighbourhood.

This is an ode to doorways, for no particular reason except that they speak to me, sometimes. Maybe it’s nostalgia, memories of what was once familiar, that connects one to a space?











Malhaar’s ‘Hayee Akhtari’

Begum Akhtar show painting
Ghazals have always fascinated me, despite the fact that I hardly know much about them. I like them for their poetry, for the enchantment of Urdu words flowing out in exquisite, soulful melody, for the way the verses build up, weaving themselves into narratives that seem deeply personal to the singer, yet reach out and touch the audience. Narratives that speak of  pain, loss, loneliness, longing… personal tragedy by any other name.

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Begum Akthar being felicitated

Yet, I had never heard of Begum Akhtar, or Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, until one evening last week when Shiva and I went to watch Team Malhaar rehearsing for ‘Hayee Akhtari’, a Broadway-styled musical that pays tribute to the musical legacy of  India’s ‘Malika-e-Ghazal’ whose birth centenary celebrations end this October.

It was Jogiraj Sikidar, the person behind the show concept as well as the Founder and Director of Malhaar, who narrated the story of this amazing woman. A true story that is stranger than anything that human imagination could have come up with. (See below.)

Begum Akhtar’s journey is of personal significance to Jogiraj, as he is the disciple of Rita Ganguly, who was tutored by the Ghazal queen herself.

Opening at 7:30 pm on Friday 18th September, 2015 at Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, Malhaar’s Hayee Akhtari is anecdotal, based on the reminiscences of Begum Akhtar’s pupil Rita Ganguli. The musical aims to explore  the many facets of her unique persona, apart from showcasing the vast treasury of music she left behind. 

Malhaar promises to transport the audience to ‘Lucknow’s Nawaabi era with rich and elaborate costumes and spectacular visual effects’, besides treating the senses with the Ghazals, Thumris and Dadras made immortal by the Begum herself. Now that’s what I call a tempting package!PIC_5202

The vision behind Malhaar and the team’s dedication (they are all professionals working in unrelated fields sharing a common passion for the theatre and performance arts) are beyond question, and their ambition to have a wholesome ‘Made in Dubai’ production is commendable in itself. Having watched their beautiful presentation of ‘Draupadi’ last year, I have high hopes on Hayee Akhtari.

Draupadi 02

Besides, I have always had a not-so-secret crush on all things ‘Nawaabi’ since the day I watched ‘Umrao Jaan’ (the Rekha-Farooq Sheikh one, I mean) a few decades ago… Sigh!


Begum Akhtar’s Story, as provided by Malhaar: 

There are many parallels and influences that could predetermine the course of one’s destiny, and yet, every human comes fitted with two divine gifts – that of one’s calling and that of one’s free will. Some discover it early, and some at later date – but be that as it may, this pair of unseen wings chafe at the spirit and flutter away until one dares to embark on a singular quest … on a path riddled with hurdles and hurt … but one that just as often creates gifts that become the wealth of our world.

Begum Akhtar’s immortal songs symbolize her gift to our world and remind one of the poem of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow

“God sent his Singers upon earth 

With songs of sadness and of mirth,
that they might touch the hearts of men,

And bring them back to heaven again.”

On the 7th of October 1914, Bibbi Sayyed and her twin Zohra were born into a wealthy, upper class family with no inclination towards music. Her place of birth was Bada Darwaza, Town Bhadarsa, Bharatkund, Faizabad – the once beautiful capital of the state of Avadh and the city filled with the beautiful buildings and gardens by the fabled Bahu Begum, beloved wife Nawab Shuja ud Daulah!

Her father, Asghar Hussain, a young lawyer who fell in love with her mother Mushtari and made her his second wife, subsequently disowned her and his twin daughters Zohra and Bibbi.

In a biography of Begum Akhtar, “her father abandoned her, her mother and twin sister, a parting that led to a constant search for approval from her father, and one that she never ever got. At the age of 4, the siblings were poisoned and Begum Akhtar survived but her sister died, and a second parting left an indelible mark of sorrow on Akhtari Bai’s soul. Poverty began as did a series of abusive relationships. At age 13, she gave birth to an illegitimate daughter Shamima whom she could never acknowledge as her child and always called her sister!”

These traumas shaped a life full of melancholy that was channeled into the most divine music. 

Her early musical influences included the vocals of touring singer Chandra Bai. Later, she was influenced by Jaddan Bai (the mother of famous actress Nargis). Her partiality to music and particularly to singing was visible even in infancy and so, at a very early age, and at her uncle’s behest, she was sent to study classical music with Ustad Imdad Khan, the renowned sarangi exponent.

As she grew, she travelled with her mother to Kolkata to continue her studies with such great classicists as Mohammad Khan, Abdul Waheed Khan. She finally became the disciple of Ustad Jhande Khan. 

Somewhere along the path of learning, Bibbi Sayyed or Akhtar was christened Akhtari Bai Faizabadi by another of her gurus, thumri and khayal singer Ustad Zamiruddin.

 She was 11 when she had her first performance in Kolkata and with her rendition she simply mesmerized her audience. At this particular concert was another historic debutante – Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan.

She was just about crossing out of her teens and dazzlingly beautiful, when she sang to help raise funds for the victims of the Bihar Earthquake of 1934. It was here that she was greeted with “stunned applause by the audience”, who did not let her leave the stage until she sang four ghazals and five dadras at a stretch.

Among the audience was a titanic figure of the era, Sarojini Naidu, also known as the ‘Nightingale of India’, who not only lavished praise upon this young singer but sent her a khadi sari in appreciation of her performance and that was as momentous as the standing ovation she got at her first concert.

The day after the concert Akhtari was hailed as a prodigy by the newspapers.

As a young artiste, she sang for the Megaphone Record Company, which turned her fortune around. Having grown up in poverty, the monthly salary of Rs 500 which the record company paid her was significant; it got her a house in Kolkata’s Ripon Street and even a car.

She became a much recorded artiste and her beauty and grace had the film producers and directors of the time flocking to her door with opportunities to act in a number of films in which she sang her own songs. One of these films was “Roti” for which director Mehboob Khan approached her.

The music director was Anil Biswas under whose baton she sang six ghazals. The film was released in 1942 and its message and music enthused and impacted one and all.    

Begum Akhtar’s good looks and sensitive voice made her an ideal candidate for a film career in her early years. When she heard great musicians like Gauhar Jaan and Malak Jan, however, she decided to forsake the glamour of the film world for a career in Indian classical music.

Her supreme artistry in light classical music had its moorings in the tradition of pure classicism. She chose her repertoire in primarily classical modes: a variety of raags, ranging from simple to complex.

One of her most ardent fans, Nawab of Rampur Raza Ali Khan owned a seven-stringed necklace of Basra pearls in the Rampur collection, from which hung a large diamond pendant. The Nawab was often heard saying, “If there is anything more lustrous than that diamond, it is the smile of Akhtari.”

 In 1945, Begum Akhtar was married to barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed Abbasi and gave up singing to build a home and family. Several miscarriages and deep depression had her fall ill.

Even her doctors recognized that her only medicine could be music and so, almost five years after her marriage, in 1949, she returned to record at the Lucknow Radio station and sang three Ghazals and a dadra.

Such was her joy that she wept and from that point forward she continued to give public performances and sing in concerts till heaven demanded her presence, in concert.

Begum Akhtar was persuaded by the outstanding music director Madan Mohan, to sing in two movies “Daana Paani” (1953) and “Ehsaan” (1954). The songs “Aye Ishq Mujhe Aur to Kuch Yaad” and “Hamein Dil Mein Basa Bhi Lo” became anthems in popularity.

The last film she acted and sang in was Satyajit Ray’s internationally acclaimed “Jalsa Ghar” released in 1958.

She acted on stage as well. However, the theatre required for her to raise her voice so that she could be heard at the back. Since her voice was adversely affected by it, she had to give up theatre.

Begum Akhtar was often referred to as the Malika-e-Ghazal or Rooh-e-Ghazal – as tribute to her inimitable style of singing and fluid ease of rendition. She has nearly four hundred songs to her credit and would mostly compose her own raag-based ghazals. She also sang in several languages including Gujarati and Bengali. One of my favourites is the enduring Bengali classical song “Jochona Koreche Aari” (জোছনা করেছে আড়ি).

As a person, she was as graceful as she was a free spirit and outright charmer! She had a ready laugh and smoked and drank and had lovers and feared loneliness because it brought back harsh memories and the terrifying melancholy they induced.

There were rumours about her being a Tawaiif – a courtesan – a derogatory, almost humiliating term used for women who sang in public during those times. These rumours appear even in write ups to this day – 41 years after her passing but they follow a line of conjecture based on the conditioning of yore!

Her life is proof enough to rebut this.       

Begum Akhtar performed last in a concert in Ahmedabad on the 26th of October 1974. On that particular day, she was unwell to begin with and felt that her voice was not up to the mark. So she raised her pitch and this put such stress on her that she suffered a heart attack and had to be rushed to the hospital.

She breathed her last on 30th October 1974, leaving her fans dazed and heartbroken. She was buried next to her mother Mushtari Begum in the mango orchard of her home “Pasanda Bagh” in Lucknow. 

Every human comes fitted with two divine gifts – that of one’s calling and that of one’s free will. Some discover it early, and some at later date – but be that as it may, this pair of unseen wings chafe at the spirit and flutter away until one dares to embark on a singular quest … on a path riddled with hurdles and hurt … but one that just as often creates gifts that become the wealth of our world.

Her life inspires, her voice is a constant in the lives of her fans and her influence remains immortal. Indeed, her musical legacy is a glorious part of our inheritance! 

For more information, contact: +97155 1013652 or malhaar.choir@gmail.com

‘Light Show’ at Sharjah Art Foundation

19 September – 5 December 2015, SAF Art Spaces, Sharjah

Opening: 19 September at 6.00 pm

David Batchelor, Magic Hour, 2004/2007. Installation view, Light Show Hayward Gallery, 2013. © David Batchelor 2015. Photo by Marcus J Leith.

Organised by the Hayward Gallery, London in association with Sharjah Art Foundation, Light Show explores the experiential and phenomenal aspects of light by bringing together sculptures and installations that use light to sculpt and shape space in different ways.

The exhibition showcases artworks created from the 1960s to the present day, including immersive environments, free-standing light sculptures and projections. One of the Hayward Gallery’s most popular exhibitions, Light Show was visited by more than 190,000 people in 2013 before travelling to Auckland Art Gallery, New Zealand and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, Australia.

The exhibition was curated by Dr Cliff Lauson, Curator, Hayward Gallery in association with Hoor Al Qasimi, Sharjah Art Foundation. The exhibition will include work by David Batchelor, Jim Campell, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Bill Culbert, Olafur Eliasson, Dan Flavin, Ceal Floyer, Nancy Holt, Jenny Holzer, Ann Veronica Janssens, Brigitte Kowanz, Anthony McCall, François Morellet, Iván Navarro, Katie Paterson, Conrad Shawcross, James Turrell, Leo Villareal and Cerith Wyn Evans.

The opening will be followed  by the screening of the film The Salt of the Earth directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado at 8:30pm at Mirage City Cinema.

The Salt of the Earth

Wim Wenders & Juliano Ribeiro Salgado

During the last forty years, the photographer Sebastião Salgado has been travelling through the continents, in the footsteps of an ever changing humanity. He has witnessed the major events of our recent history ; international conflicts, starvations and exodus… He is now embarking on the discovery of pristine territories, of the wild fauna and flora, of grandiose landscapes : a huge photographic project which is a tribute to the planet’s beauty. Sebastião’s Salgado’s  life and work are revealed to us by his son, Juliano, who went with him during his last journeys, and by Wim Wenders, a photographer himself.

French, Portuguese, English with English and Arabic subtitles

Colour, 110 minutes, 2014

To know more about Sharjah Art Foundation, visit:  http://www.sharjahart.org/home

Discovering an Artist: a Memoir

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A little over a year ago, he was just a name to me. A name uttered with a degree of awe by the members of the art group I was then a part of.

“Mini, we may get the opportunity to exhibit KGS’s works, you know!” I was told one day at the group meeting. I knew from their hushed tones that this was no ordinary artist we were discussing. “We need to work out the details with The Seagull Foundation for the Arts. You’ll take care of it, won’t you?” I nodded, suitably impressed.

As it hardly seemed the ideal moment to reveal my ignorance, I quietly opened the search engine and typed in ‘K.G. Subramanyan artist India’. And Alladin’s cave opened.

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Over the next few weeks, I read up as much as I could on him, pored through the images of his works, and listened to everything everyone said about this phenomenon called K. G. Subramanyan.

I learned that despite being well into his 90s, he still continues to paint for the sheer joy of it. I saw the images of  terracotta and sandblast murals he had worked on, of the lines and brush strokes on every medium from paper and board to fabric, canvas, boards, mylar sheets and glass…

It seemed as if his talent knows no boundaries when it comes to expression. 

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Being a teacher myself, I am acutely aware of the lasting impact a teacher has on a community. Which made me think about KGS the teacher, with his many decades as a faculty with the art departments of India’s top universities… Little wonder then that he is spoken of as ‘one of India’s most engaging and influential artists’.

My encounter with KGS the writer came a little later, while browsing through the pages between the embroidered black velvet covers of Seagull Books publisher’s catalogue. The wisdom, the quiet wit, in his words seemed to be in keeping with the person I had by then conjured up in my mind.

What I felt at that point was profound gratitude: in a very distant way, I too was a minuscule part of his world…


Then, events transpired as they tend to in life. And a couple of irreconcilable differences and much heartbreak later, I stepped out of the art group,  no longer a part of the show that I had so looked forward to.

Soon, some friendly discussions that had been going on in the background solidified into Collage Communications, a partnership entity with a couple of friends.

It was time to move on.


The call came a month or so later.

An unexpected phone call which informed me that the KGS show was called off by both Seagull and the group. The regret in the voice at the other end of the line was palpable – it was one of having unwittingly let down someone you cared for deeply. A sentiment I could understand, given the nature of the relationship between K.G. Subramanyan and Seagull. One built on three decades worth of warmth, love and respect.

Collage Communications stepped in to conduct the KGS show, tentatively at first, and then with increased conviction. And soon, with the support of The Embassy of India in the UAE, Sultan Ali Al Owais Foundation and of course The Seagull Foundation for the Arts, the UAE chapter of Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings by K.G. Subramanyan began to take shape.


Then books started arriving from Seagull: books on KGS, books by him. Beautifully produced, hardbound books that any bibliophile is certain to lust over. I browsed through them all, read randomly through many, and studied a few. At first it was because I had texts to prepare for the media, but the more I read, the more significant his writings became.

I read Tale of the Talking Face, which came packaged as a brilliantly illustrated, deceptively simple fable. Two pages into the book, one became aware of the depth of perception, the profound sadness, it evolved from. Letters, a collection of KGS’ responses to governmental queries, revealed something else: his courage of conviction. Here was a person who did not hesitate to stand up for what he believed in, to voice his opinions without ado or acrimony, regardless of who he was addressing.


Preparing texts on KGS and answering journalists on his behalf then became an honour: it wasn’t everyday that one chanced upon individuals one could look up to, in the real sense of the word. The last one I had met was Atticus Finch in the form of Gregory Peck!

Sketches, Scribbles, Drawings by K.G.Subramanyan opened at India House in Abu Dhabi on April 9, 2015, and Sultan Ali Al Owais Foundation in Dubai on April 15. And for the first time, I got to see for real the ‘magic of making’.  Art that is singularly, beautifully, K.G.Subramanyan’s. Art that, while it draws from the wealth of Indian mythology and the Goddess concept, is as modern in its acceptance of the ‘ways of the world’ as the artist himself. Art that is at once irreverent and profound.

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The event got dream coverage from the media, and great response from the public.  It is a memory I find beyond my ability to describe, one I will cherish for the rest of my life. 

When the suggestion came that perhaps I should meet Manida in person, I was unsure at first. But the more I mulled over it, the more it became a want, then a need, and finally a commitment. Of course I had to meet this person who, without even being aware of it, had set my life on a different track!

Moreover, I had a bunch of newspaper clippings and a certificate I had accepted on his behalf, which I could hand over to him in person.


I reached Baroda on the 9th of June. To my surprise, the hotel I was to stay in accepted me as the house guest because, ‘You are Manida’s guest; so you are our guest’! Everything from food and stay to transport was taken care of, leaving me speechless and humbled.

The next morning, I was dropped inside the gates of Manida’s unassuming home, where he lived with his only daughter Uma Padmanabhan.

I met Manida, finally. Sitting in what seemed like a clearing in a pile of books.

He welcomed me without fuss, his by-then-familiar smile warmly in place. And somehow, the nervousness I had been carrying around for weeks slowly began to dissipate. He could easily have been a much-loved elder in the family I was meeting after a long time.


We talked over coffee, lunch and evening tea. We talked about his childhood in Kerala which he had hardly any memories of, and his trip down memory lane decades later with his daughter. We talked about art and culture, and the commercialism that was impacting it. About women writers delving into their experiences, and the relevance of doing that. About the richness of Tamil language, literature, and the intricacies of its grammar…

His wisdom was profound, regardless of the topic we were discussing.

We talked about people mutually known. I found it charming that he still viewed the care and affection he was given with childlike wonderment. And the fact that he made no effort to hide his appreciation, his gratitude, for it all. 

Then he spoke about the art education scene. And how he felt that there was a dire need for more thorough research and archiving on the arts, particularly in India. “There is hardly any research being done today, and even less when it comes to proper archiving,” he told me. As a teacher he was cognisant of what that meant to the field of art education. He had donated his home in Santiniketan to the university for the purpose, and was now concerned about raising the funds required to employ and sustain a staff body.

At 92, he had his cause.

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In the afternoon, Umaji took me to ‘the room upstairs’ to rest, a room lined with what seemed like a thousand books which belonged to her late mother.  The living room next to it, which used to be Manida’s studio before his movements became curtailed due to a hip replacement surgery, still had an air of anticipation – as if it was waiting for its once-occupant to return.

When I took leave, it was strangely without the usual sense of finality. More of an au revoir than good bye.

I flew back to Dubai the next day. Without regret, richer by a handful of good people and a bunch of warm memories.


Yes. There is a larger world out there, alive and well. A world where idealism and sentiment are not funny words; where trust, affection and instinct still guide decisions. Where individuals have causes they take up with earnestness. A world populated by people like K. G. Subramanyan: artist, teacher, writer, art historian…and above all a human being, in the finest sense of the word.

It’s heartwarming, that knowledge.

The Magic of Making