The moment I enter St. Thomas’ Cathedral in the Fort area of Mumbai, I am transported to England. Everything about the Cathedral from the cool white-washed interiors to the simple wooden pews to its polished brass memorials and wall plaques, and its many stained glass windows reminds me of the Anglican churches of England.
St. Thomas’ Cathedral is the first Anglican church in Mumbai and is also believed to to the oldest British building in this city. Though construction of the Cathedral of St. Thomas began in 1676, it was abandoned and remained neglected for nearly 40 years, when it was “adopted by an East India Company Chaplain in 1710. It was opened for worship as a church on Christmas Day in 1718″ (for details click here). St. Thomas’ was consecrated as a cathedral in 1837 and was selected for the UNESCO Asia-Pacific heritage conservation award 2004.
I love stained glass windows and spend quite a while admiring the many windows in the Cathedral. But the one window that completely captivates me is one that I almost missed. It is to one side and in a niche: a stained glass window of St. Thomas, flanked by two archangelsSt. Michael and St. Gabriel in a single frame.
The candidness of street photography is something that I admire and appreciate. But it is also something that I feel inhibited to try it out myself as I feel very self-conscious about taking such candid shots. That is perhaps one of the reasons why you will rarely find people in my photographs.
But sometimes, people photo-ops are so compelling that my camera is out and the picture taken in no time. Like this wandering pianist I came across in London.
I did not know what I was getting into when I decided to review Balasaraswati: Her Art & Life by Douglas M. Knight Jr. (Tranquebar Press, 2011). All I was aware of at that time was the fact that I would be reading about a person I “knew”. Let me elaborate here.
Amma (my mother) grew up on a diet of classical music and dance. A student of Carnatic classical music, she was fortunate to watch many musicians and dancers perform, one of whom was Balasaraswati herself. Amma worshipped and idolised her as only a true rasika can. I started attending kacheris (music performances) and dance performances with Amma when I was 5. After each performance there would be a discussion on what we liked or did not like, and we would try sing the pieces we liked. If it was a dance performance that we had attended, the discussion would begin with the dance, then move on to the music, and finally to the inevitable mention of how Balasaraswati would have performed a particular dance item. By the time I was 6 or 7, I knew who Balasaraswati was, what her dance was like, and how she danced—all this without ever having seen her dance. But thanks to Amma’s vivid descriptions, and whenever Amma herself sang, I could and would imagine Balasaraswati dancing to them ! Such was her impact on me.
Once upon a time there existed a magazine which was a “quarterly of inquiry, criticism and ideas” and fittingly enough called Quest. It had very clear-cut guidelines for the content it carried: everything and anything published in the Quest had to have “some relevance to India. It was to be written by Indians for Indians” (p.xix).
It was because of these guidelines that Quest was able to publish highly original writing in English in the form of essays, opinions, book reviews, film reviews, critiques, stories, poems, memoirs, etc. The writers were a mix of the new and the established, academicians and journalists, politicians and poets — Rajni Kothari, Nirad Chaudhuri, Kiran Nagarkar, Ashis Nandy, Khushwant Singh, and Neela D’Souza, to name a few.
Published from Bombay, Quest was born in 1954 with Nissim Ezekiel as its first editor. After Ezekiel, A.S. Ayub and Dilip Chitre took on the role of editors of Quest, and both of them stayed true to the founding vision of publishing works relevant to India. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Quest died an untimely death with the imposition of the Emergency about 20 years later. In the decades that followed, Quest got relegated to the realm of nostalgic memories of people who were associated with it, or in wooden boxes stored in lofts and attics. Some forgot about it and some like me did not even know about the existence of Quest. Till recently, that is.
Last Saturday, I attended a dance performance after many years—”Only Until the Light Fades: Love in Dance and Poetry”, a bharatanatyam performance by noted danseuse Alarmel Valli at the Tata Theatre of the NCPA (National Centre for Performing Arts) in Mumbai. This performance, which was part of the NCPA’s ongoing Nakshatra Dance Festival, was conceptualised in collaboration with the noted poet, Arundhati Subramaniam.
When I set out for the NCPA that evening, all I knew was that I was going for Alarmel Valli’s bharatanatyam performance at my favourite theatre in Mumbai and unaware that I was attending the premiere of a special production. I was also unaware of the fact that this was the first time that Alarmel Valli would be performing to an English poem, or even the fact that the theme of the dance performance was love and poetry!
“Only Until the Light Fades…” explored love through poetry in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit and English from the Sangam Period to the medieval period to contemporary times and through the narration of a teenager, the feelings of a woman desolate in love, the actions of a jealous lover, and through the questioning thoughts of a contemporary Indian poet writing in English.
The dance programme was quite unusual in that there was no bhakti element at all. Alarmel Valli’s opening dance item was an invocation to love, instead of the conventional invocation to Ganesha or Saraswati. And yet it also followed the conventional pattern of a bharatanatyam performance by beginning with an invocation and ending with a tillana.