Saturday, October 31, 2015

Aligarh movie review

When I read about Aligarh, I had no recollection of having read about the case of Prof Siras. For all it's all-pervading nature, the media is usually making so much of a big deal out of everything, that sometimes, you tend to overlook something you shouldn't have.

Aligarh is based on the incidents that happened in the life of Aligarh University  professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. A sting operation, his suspension from the university, the fight against it and the unsettling end. The great thing is that this is a story about the human psyche, the ideas of morality and the tussle between liberty and social conformity.The fact that it is about homosexuality is only incidental. 

The greatest strength of the film is the way it develops the character of the Linguistics professor and the way Manoj Bajpai has portrayed it. A learned man, a poet, a man who loves what he does, enjoys music to the depth of his soul- a regular old man who has no time or space for anything revolutionary. Bajpai fills the frame on many occasions and completely captivates you as he speaks with every inch of his body. Complementing and almost matching him is Rajkumar Rao, playing the journalist who comes to Aligarh for the story but ends up forging a friendship with Siras. Their conversations are some of the best moments of the film- the older man's exasperation at the younger generation's fixation with 'labels', the way he explains how poetry lies between the lines- and how his face lights up as he speaks about poetry. Ashish Vidyarthi does justice to the role of the lawyer representing Siras.

Throughout the film, the director's vision shines through.The irony of social conditioning-as society is conditioned about sexual orientation, the protagonist is conditioned about sanctity of food in relation to caste- is expressed in a seemingly casual lunch scene. The close succession of two scenes of intimacy challenge the viewer's perception of 'normal'. The camera work and mise en scene work beautifully. Delightful touches like the professor using a towel on top of his pillow add to the feel. The end makes you restless, raises many a question; about the society we live in and our systems of law enforcement and justice.

Yes, there are a few flaws, although the great outweighs the not-so-great by a huge margin.There is inconsistency in the professor's accent. Whereas he utters the typical Urdu sounds like the epiglottal 'kha' very naturally, he's made to say 'ijjat' instead of 'izzat' to underline his Maharashtrian roots. Despite having lived in Aligarh for decades, he says 'bas, bas' (Marathi for 'sit') when urging someone to sit down. Also, I felt the film contradicts its own statement that not all people who stand for gay rights are gay. When the lawyer's assistant take the professor to a gay party, he says, 'These are the people who signed the petition in your support'.

But as I said, the positives absolutely outweigh the flaws. Hats off to Hansal Mehta for choosing to make this film, and making it so well. Watch it and it'll occupy space in your mind for a few days. And probably, Manoj Bajpai will be your new favourite 'hero'. 

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Droplets of light

Life is like the moon. It has phases-illusions, that seem real to the observer. It's easy to see the brighter side of things on a full moon night, isn't it? It's the darker phases that are a challenge. 

But then there are myriads of sparks around us, waiting for our miraculous gaze to raise them above their commonness, waiting to tell us that divinity exists despite our doubts, waiting to light up our moonless nights. Or may be it's their very ordinariness that makes them beautiful.

If you've traveled by Mumbai local trains, you'd know what a melting pot of human beings- hot, irritated, packed together too close-they are. Add to it filthy surroundings and the abject poverty of the beggars and vendors. Yet, the twinkling eyes and toothy grin of an unwashed urchin is sometimes enough to bring a smile to your face. The women's compartments have the advantage of attracting flower sellers. The jasmine gajras pale in front of the golden champaks. I can smell them from far and their lasting, intoxicating fragrance is something I just can't resist. I end up buying a few which the lady wraps in a leaf. I cross the Thane Creek at Vashi to go to work everyday. Flamingoes-those living fossils-feed so close to the train tracks along the water that it's the closest I've seen them from , though without the advantage of binoculars. Arriving in Mumbai by the end of winter, and staying throughout summer, most of these are lesser flamingoes, with greater flamingoes making an occasional appearance. What a joy it is to watch these pink beauties filter-feed with their teapot-like beaks!


Chavar/Wild arrowroot-Hitchenia caulina
Sonki-Senecio grahamii

And if you're overcome with monsoon blues, all you have to do is step out and look around, as nature is literally bursting out into magical shapes and colours from unimaginable places. Grasses, mosses and fiddleheads of ferns soothe the eye and a great variety of flowers, sizes varying from teeny to huge add colour to nature's canvas.
It is quite unbelievable how so many plants that lie dormant throughout the year sprout up while conditions are favourable, and delight us so in the process. The otherwise rugged Sahyadris get adorned -flowers of wild arrowroot, sonki, various ground orchids, and many many more.
Sonki carpet

To my great surprise, as I was once returning from Pune on a monday morning in August, I saw a flaming Glory Lily among the bushes by the roadside near the signal on the Vashi highway. A lone flower that had bloomed stubbornly by a crowded junction full of honking, smoke spewing vehicles.

Glory Lily- Gloriosa superba
So, here I am, enjoying yet another blessed evening and pondering about life. I'm sipping ginger tea sitting in my terrace, overlooking mangroves and the sea. I've been scouring the skies to see if the Peregrine Falcon is flying around today, but no sight of the helmeted-fighter pilot. It sure is a special bird- the only 'interesting' raptor that you can see around the year in Mumbai, and of course the fastest bird of prey on earth! The post monsoon sky is changing from pink to purple against a flock of black-headed ibises flying past me. The fruit bats will start heading east soon; my cue to go inside the house.

Photo credit: The flamingoes and Glory Lily have been shot by Mayur. Special thanks to Mr. Prashant Awale for the beautiful pictures of Sonki and Chavar.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Rome-The Vatican Museums on a rainy day, April 2015.

Mayur called me from Munich on a busy working day- March is a crazy time at work. ‘I’ve something to tell you’, he said. ‘We’re going to Rome!’ Wow! He had actually picked the destination and booked the flight tickets for the Easter weekend!! I immediately started a hunt for a Bed and Breakfast and confirmed our booking at a place called Beltramelli BnB. We were set for Rome!
It was going to be my first weekend in Europe, and in all the travelling for work till the last day, and hurried shopping and packing, I’d forgotten to ask Claudia from the BnB precise directions from the suburban train station of Roma Tiburtina. To top it all, Mayur’s cell phone network abandoned us in Italy. We spent half an hour of our precious time in asking directions,and getting  animated replies in Italian and broken English. A kind gentleman actually used Google maps on his cell phone to help us, and finally we even called the BnB from a public phone booth. Finally, we reached the cute  BnB in a residential, suburban area of Rome.

After a quick bite, we set out to the city center by train to see the Vatican museums. It was Good Friday, and the St. Peter Basilica was closed that day, and the Vatican museums would be closed the next day, so there was this humongous queue outside the museum gate. Our lack of preparation also meant that we hadn’t bought tickets online.So standing in the queue in the rain and cold, hoping to get in before closing time while bravely resisting the crude ‘skip-the line' offers was all we could do. And we did get in, just in the nick of time! That feeling was a heady concoction of relief, triumph,happiness, and great anticipation!!

The museums were chamber after chamber of Renaissance gems that made us forget all our tiredness (we’d taken an early morning flight), and even hunger! Not only are the walls and ceilings bedecked with jewels, but even the floors have beautiful mosaics.

The huge and intricate Flemish tapestries were quite remarkable. Copied from drawings by Raphael's pupils, these were made in Brussels in the 16th c.


When we reached the Sobieski room, both of us wanted to linger on, take in some more. The room derives its name from the enormous wall to wall painting of the Polish king Sobieski by Jean Matejko. It depicts the Polish victory over Turks in the 17th century. Apparently, Sobieski prevented the Turks from overrunning Europe.The detail, the expression of arrogance on the king’s face, the tragedy of war: what an exceptional painting!

Martyrs of Gorkum

Another striking painting in that room describing the tragic scene of a mass hanging, is the Martyrs of Gorkum by Cesare Fracassini. These 19 Dutch Catholics were put to death by the Calvinists during the 16th century religious wars. All paintings in this room date back to the 19th century.
And then of course, the renowned masters. The Raphael’s rooms, which are the public part of the papal apartments, were decorated by Raphael and his students, in the 16th century. Since perspective was what set Renaissance art aside from medieval art, these frescoes, for me, epitomise Renaissance art in how they depict beautiful three-dimensional scenes like ‘The School of Athens’, ‘The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple’ and ‘Fire in the Borgo’, to name a few. Each of the rooms has a theme: Victory of Christianity over Paganism (with the ceiling fresco showing a broken statue in front of a crucifix), The heavenly protection granted by Christ to the Church, The harmony between Christian and Greek philosphies, and the Fire in the Borgo.
Room of immaculate conception

Ancestors of Christ

And then, the pièce de résistance. The Sistine Chapel: the site of the papal conclave to elect a new pope. There was much more security in here, and we were constantly being told to maintain silence and not take photographs/videos. Three walls of the chapel are covered with beautiful frescoes by a team of Renaissance artists who created frescoes such as ‘The Last Supper’ by Cosimo Rosselli and ‘The trials of Moses’ by Sandro Boticelli. It’s hard to believe that the  trompe l'oeil drapery on the walls is painted, and not real. Michaelangelo was commissioned to (re)paint the ceiling and the entire wall behind the altar. Interestingly, he was overwhelmed by the job as he considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter. He created his own wooden platform, as no architect could do a satisfactory job, and painted the ceiling from a standing position(contrary to common belief). The lowest part of the ceilings have beautiful figures of the ancestors of Christ, and most of them are shown studying from a  book or scroll. On the highest ceiling are painted stories from the book of Genesis, including the brilliant ‘Creation of Adam’. The altar wall, painted many years after completing the ceiling,  depicts ‘The Last judgement’ in great, glorious detail. Incidentally, Michaelangelo had depicted only nude figures, which caused great controversy and were later ‘covered up’ by another artist, after Michaelangelo’s death!
Sistine Chapel Ceiling-a sneak peek

From the Gallery of maps

After the Sistine Chapel, you think it must be the end of the tour. What can you show us after that? But a lovely surprise is in store. The gallery of maps! The perfect antidote to the overdose of all the beautiful yet almost exclusively sacral art!! It has a series of pretty accurate maps of Italy and was created in the 16th century based on the drawings of the geographer Danti. It has a few old globes too. One of them had constellations painted on it. On locating India on one of them, I saw ‘Moltan’ marked somewhere in modern day Uttar Pradesh. Well, decent accuracy for the times, I’d say.
Gallery of maps ceiling-St. Michael in Monte Gargano
Of course, the museums have a great collection of sculpture- Roman, Greek, Egyptian; and other curious objects.

Satyr with Dionysus as a child

Chariot room
The famous Belvedere torso  which is the fragment of a nude male statue is dated to about 1st century BC and is said to have inspired Michaelangelo.
There’s a gallery of ancient  animal statues. Then there’s the Sala Rotunda, with a giant stone bath carved from a single stone at its centre, beautiful sculptures all around and an exquisite mosaic covering the floor.

With the double helical staircase at the exit (that keeps ascending people away from those who are descending) providing the last bit of drama, we hopped out of the museums like happy children, eager to find a sumptuous meal.

We found a family run restaurant with the elderly patriarch greeting us with a a smile. Fresh orange juice (red in colour! Made from Sicilian or ‘blood’ oranges), spaghetti with bacon in red sauce and ravioli with spinach and ricotta cheese were polished off pretty quickly. We finished the meal with the most gorgeous tiramisu which the owner's wife had herself made! Divine finish to a heavenly day!! :)

P.S: The photos are basically record shots taken with a Panasonic Lumix GX-7 + 7-14 F4.0 hand held in low light. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Kaziranga and Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, March 2014.

The excitement had been building for weeks. After all it was going to be our first sojourn in the North-East. Kaziranga and Hoollongapar with Nature India! Wow!! After an alarm mix-up and a scramble to leave home in time, we finally  got on the early morning flight to Guwahati. The flight has an added bonus of offering a beautiful view of the Himalayas. Three and a half hours later we were at Guwahati. Mandar and Adesh were there as expected to pick us from the airport.We set out on our 6-7 hour journey by road to Kaziranga National Park with the rest of the group. It was a long ride, but the picturesque Assamese countryside kept me captivated. Many village houses are still made of bamboo and often plastered with mud/cow dung, with a pretty bamboo fence around them.  Most women in the countryside still wear the Mekhla-Chador, the beautiful Assamese drape. The farm animals are interesting too! They are all much smaller and sort of stockier than the ones that I've usually seen: cattle, goats and even dogs. For lunch, our table placed a 'safe' order of chilly-chicken and fried rice while the next table decided to get adventurous with pigeon curry! We had a close sighting of a Grey-headed fish eagle on the way and had our first look at Rhinos against a picturesque landscape  a couple of kms before the park gate. What a welcome! The light was fading; dusk falls pretty early in the North-East; but it sure gave us a glimpse of things to come. We checked into this very pretty property of the Assam Tourism Development Board called Jupuri Ghar. They have nice, clean huts, great service and good food with an interesting variety. (The bamboo-shoot chutney is kind of an acquired taste though. It smells like elephants!) It happened to be Holi that day, and we were pleasantly surprised with homemade 'Puran-Polis' sent by Adesh's mom, complete with Ghee! The next morning, we set out on our first safari into the National Park. 

We went to the Eastern Zone, called Agartoli, which is about 20 km from the Central Zone gate. It is exceptional, with a lovely mix of tropical evergreen forest- vegetation filling up all its possible niches, grasslands and a number of water bodies. 


Blue-throated and lineated barbets seemed to be dominating alternate patches of the forest, their repetitive calls lending character to the feel of the jungle. The more than six-feet high termite hills were the largest I've ever seen. And then, we saw the astonishing heaps of dung. It seems, each rhino defecates in only a particular place to mark its territory! Fun fact, but unfortunately a convenient pointer for poachers as well. 

The sightings of that day started with the photo-op specialist, the spotted owlet. Another lovely owl, the Asian Barred Owlet decided to play hard-to-get for the photographers. Then the forever 'middle-aged and balding' Lesser Adjutant Stork obliged us on a great perch. These jungles are teeming with Lesser Adjutant Storks and Eurasian Openbills. 

We were startled by the shrill metallic calls and bright contrasting colors of the Hill Myna. The otherwise rare Pallas's fish eagle gave us our first of its many sightings in the park. Not to be left out, a Grey-headed Fish Eagle and an Osprey showed up too. 

An Oriental Pied Hornbill flew into a nearby canopy. Next to delight us was a lifer, the Northern Lapwing. What a regal crest it has! Unbelievable!!

A humongous Asiatic Water Buffalo was too busy relaxing to be bothered by our presence.

All this morning excitement made us hungry and so we stopped at a nearby watch-tower overlooking a pond, for a sumptuous breakfast of (over-)stuffed cheese sandwiches, boiled eggs, fruit, and a cool drink.
Food and wildlife, the perfect combination! 

Black-necked storks, Bar-headed and Greylag Geese and many ducks*, waders** and herons*** were busy feeding in and around the water. Our next lifer of the day was the Spot-Billed Pelican. A flock of them was fishing: Flapping their wings and trapping the fish before lapping them up. (Poetic!) An elephant mother and calf ambling along provided us with some excellent shots in the soft morning light. 

And then a beautiful large raptor, mobbed by eastern jungle crows, landed near the pond. Initially we thought it to be a Pallas' Fish eagle, but on close scrutiny it turned out to be a juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle (which also went on to have its breakfast later), the heavy streaking clearly visible through the spotting scope. These eagles are fairly uncommon in these parts. The widely found Indian roller is much darker here, and is actually a different subspecies, the Black-billed roller(Coracias benghalensis). 

A little ahead, we suddenly heard a gun-shot which the driver said was sometimes fired by the armed guards into the air in case an animal charges at a vehicle. Anyway, it was the mating season of the beautifully colored red-breasted parakeets, and they were all around the place. Imperial Green Pigeons had a strong presence along with Spotted and Red collared-doves. 
Then we had a couple of close sightings of the Indian One-horned Rhino, often followed closely and even ridden by the Common myna, Jungle myna or the North-East resident, the White-vented myna. The glorious animal really looks like a battle tank! One of them looked old and battle-weary: scars on its flanks and a half-broken horn, thanks to either a fight or parasites. Then was the turn of the majestic beauty, the Great Pied Hornbill. I was enchanted by the great whoosh of its wings as it took flight. Magical! I'd never seen otters before and was really looking forward to sighting these interesting mammals. Especially after reading in a Jim Corbett book that they are one of the few animals that kill for sport! We saw a bevy of Asian Short-clawed Otters on an island, rolling in the dust. Nice! A short while later, the gypsy in front of us had kind of close encounter with an elephant.

He sort of broke into a little jog towards them, but eventually stomped into the jungle. Next, we saw a terrifically camouflaged Indian Monitor Lizard peering at us from a tree hole.  More rhinos and water-buffaloes, along with a lone Black Redstart followed. The park has a good population of darter birds too. There are many hog deer and swamp deer (soft ground Barasingha) in Kaziranga. We saw the gorgeous but shy male and female Khaleej pheasants in the bush. A Spangled Drongo showed up next, showing off its blue-black sheen. The Eastern range had been very rewarding indeed! 

The afternoon safari that day was in the Central (Kohora) range. It is more grassland than forest. The forest department had set fire to the grass in many places. The logic that our driver gave us was that it ensures that the forest doesn't take over the grassland, thus maintaining the rhino habitat. We were greeted by Slender -billed vultures and Himalayan Griffons near the gate. There were Grey-headed lapwings in the grass slightly ahead. 

Next we saw lots of Assam roofed-turtles and Indian tent turtles on fallen tree branches in the water. 

Suddenly, we saw a cloud of dust and we realized that a Rhino had (mock-)charged at the vehicle ahead of us that Mandar was leading!Phew!! The light had begun to fade, and we  stopped at a lovely watch tower that offered serene shots of a Rhino mum and calf. 

On our way back, we saw another watch-tower filled chock-a-block with people. They'd spotted a tiger! It was very far, but we did get a look through our binoculars, and well, we'd sighted a tiger in Kaziranga!! The next day started with a brilliant session in the forest behind our resort with Adesh. We were literally surrounded by the calls of various winged-beauties! Grey treepie, Striped Tit Babbler, Crimson-backed flower pecker, White-throated bulbul, Black-crested bulbul, Green-billed malkoha, Dollar bird; and the more widespread Emerald dove, Common Hoopoe and Yellow-footed Green Pigeon. The Grey-headed Woodpecker with its dark moustachial stripe seemed to have a perpetual smile! The striking yet reticent Yellow-Vented Flowerpecker emerged for a very short while from the leaves. What an exciting time we had! Another trip to the Central Zone followed and we saw most of the species from day one, and some more. There were Blue-bearded, Blue-tailed, and Green bee-eaters, Oriental Honey Buzzard and Crested Serpent Eagle. The fiery Greater Flameback brightened up our eyes. We also saw the Large Cuckoo Shrike and Black Storks in flight. The highlight of this safari was undoubtedly the rare Swamp Francolin though, who graced us with a nice long sighting. The surroundings of the resort provided more birding opportunities between safaris. Alexandine Parakeet, Long-tailed minivet, Rosy minivet, Ashy woodswallow, Barn swallows kept  us on the toes. Our stay at Kaziranga had come to an end. Some souveneir shopping and another visit to the backyard forest later, we'd bid farewell to Kaziranga and set out for Jorhat.


The hotel at Jorhat, the Earl Grey, was a typical town hotel, very different from the lovely Jupuri huts. It was a base for us to visit The Hoollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. We set out the next morning, and we stopped en-route near a swamp to have a dekko at some Purple swamp-hens, Common moorhens, Painted snipes, and so on.  

There was widespread apprehension about possible leech encounters, and we'd set out armed with leech socks and pain-killer sprays. However, it turned out to be quite a dry day, and no bloody battles ensued.

We reached in under an hour, and I was simply captivated by the beauty of the forest. The tall hoollong trees, with their bunny-ear like seeds that spiral down in the most charming manner, dominate the upper canopy of the forest, while the Nahar (Naag-Keshar) commands the middle canopy.This forest is like an island:there are tea-estates all around it. It is also home to seven species of primates.

Capped langurs, Pig-tailed macaques and Malayan Giant Squirrels played host near the park gate.The park is rich in insects, and pretty little butterflies were flying all around us throughout our stay here.

Malayan giant squirrels were oblivious of all human presence and came pretty close to the human settlements huts to feed without any fear. They gave all photographers ample photo opportunities at close distances.

An interesting spider called the horned spider was something that we never imagined to exist. It had a beautiful red strawberry exterior and looked absolutely fabulous. There were huge wood spiders everywhere waiting in their nets for some unsuspecting victim to fall prey.

Butterflies, insects, spiders of all shapes, sizes and colors were seen and the truly the biodiversity of this forest is absolutely mind boggling. 

The highlight of the day was, without a doubt, the Hoolock Gibbon. We were lucky enough to see an entire family thanks to Shri Deben Bora, who has done a lot of valuable work around the Hoollock Gibbons. He led us to a family of four, which probably recognizes him! And how amazing they look! The extra long arms, the unusual eyebrows, their acrobatic movements, and the little baby stuck fast to its mum, I just couldn't stop grinning! 

After we'd seen them to our heart's content, we went on to spend more time on the birds and were rewarded with sightings of the Red-headed Trogon, Sultan Tit and the Abbott's Babbler! Whoa!!

And of course, the perfect accompaniment to these wonderful sightings was the delicious meal the local cooks and our drivers prepared for us. They made some five extremely tasty vegetable dishes along with dal, rice and a mouth-watering chutney. Fabulous! Luckily, the rain came pouring only after we'd wound up an extremely satisfying day. Our end-of-the-trip heavy hearts and aching feet were treated to some retail therapy on the way  back to Jorhat as we shopped for some fragrant local rice and woven bamboo products. 

At the hotel, we found that the papers had reported an incident of rhino poaching in Kaziranga from a couple of days before. Oh no. That gunshot we'd heard...was it really the forest guards...? An entire day of travel to Guwahati and then to Mumbai lay ahead the next day. It was sweetened in part en-route by the most amazing coconut water that I've ever had. As I bid adieu, I felt a deep yearning to stay back longer in this magnificent land, and I promised that I'd be back. 

*Ducks: Ruddy Shelduck, Spot-billed Duck, Lesser Whistling Duck, Mallard, Red-crested Pochard 

**Waders: Common redshank, Wood sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit, Ruff, etc. 
***Herons : Pond heron, Purple heron, Grey heron. 

P.S: Photos are courtesy Mayur Shinde. I'm certain that I haven't covered all the species that I saw. I hereby solemnly swear  to carry a notebook on the next trip!