Category Archives: Art & Craft

A souvenir from Rajahmundry- Ratnam pen

This was a part of our family’s five state road trip covering Chhattisgarh – Odisha – Andhra – Telangana – Karnataka in Dec’20.

They say a pen is mightier than a sword. A good writer can win a great battle. I guess it has been all the more true in the Gen-Z era. Although the pen has been replaced with keypads, the social media warriors have continuously upped the war of words 😛 But for a few old-school goers like me, nothing can replace the joy of holding a pen between the fingers and scribbling on paper. The thought instantly takes me back to the earliest days of life when I graduated from a chalk and slate to a pencil and paper. When we reached middle-school, I was a proud owner of my first pen. Writing with a pen was a symbol of growing up; we flaunted it around with those younger than us in school. “Don’t use a ball-point pen, it will spoil your handwriting“, was an instruction given by a teacher to all of us. Filling ink into the fountain pens was a mandatory part of our daily chores. On days that we either wrote more or forgot to fill inks, we would barter drops of ink with our classmates. Although ball-point pens made their way and stayed in the comp-boxes of my pals by the time we reached high-school, I somehow carried the instructions of my teacher with myself for a little longer. I switched over to a ball-point pen only after I graduated from college. But my love for fountain pens and writing on paper still lives on. This is the long story in short, about my connection with fountain pens.

Rajahmundry is a big city in Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the largest exporters of textiles, rice and horticultural products in India. But ignoring all that, my need for exploring the congested bustling streets of the city was to find a fountain pen. With the help of Google maps, I walked through the narrow lanes of the busy shopping area to locate an old graceful house dating back to pre-independence era and surrounded by tall modern buildings. The house was an elegant traditional structure built and maintained in its original form with clay tiled roof and a large open central courtyard. That morning, I had come there to buy an art piece – ‘The Ratnam Pen’.

Ratnam Pens- Manufacturing and Sales Outlet

‘Ratnam pen works’ is a heritage fountain pen maker who has been one of the earliest in this business when Mahatma Gandhi largely promoted ‘Make in India’ concept through his ‘Swadeshi’ movement. These pens have been used by some of the famous personalities from across the country and the world. Ratnam pens are a delight for every pen collector. A framed paper on the wall is a prized possession of this craftsman. It is the original copy of a handwritten letter by Gandhiji to the owner of this place in appreciation of his contribution towards the swadeshi movement.

A copy of Gandhiji’s letter, a fountain pen case and the lathe machine at Ratnam pens workshop

Apart from being the shelter to the owner’s family, this house of ‘Ratnam pens’ is a workshop where the mightier pens take form. These famous fountain pens are made and sold only here to which people come down from across the globe. Although these pens are unavailable for online purchases, “Anyone interested to buy them or want spares and service for existing products can do so by calling me directly on my phone”, the owner says. I was more than excited to lay my hands on this new addition to my collection of pens. A happy me was then set on continuing my travel towards another noteworthy village nearby- Details on my next post 

This is my humble attempt at promoting domestic tourism and local artisans. I urge my readers to support small businesses by buying locally produced substitutes for imported goods.

What is that one favourite souvenir you have bought from your travels? What are your memories from school? Please do share your thoughts on this post with me. I would love to hear them.

A Tour of Indian Foundries- Investment Casting

In this post today, I like to discuss a technical subject by standing in the shoes of a traveler. During my student life, I have never been in a race to become a top-scorer. However, it was Professor Mukunda’s enthusiastic teaching method, that ‘Material science and Metallurgy’ has been one subject that I topped the department (I like to show-off a bit, with those dark glasses emoticon). With an in-hand admission letter to one of the top universities to pursue a post-graduation in the subject, the lostlander deviated along the way, only to become a professional ‘Metallurgical Failure Mode Analyst’ much later in her career. If not for Prof.Mukunda, a seed of interest in the subject would have never been sown and I wouldn’t be writing about such an unconventional travel post, it seems.

Metallurgy is a science in which India has mastered from even before the world could imagine. The Vedas have a devoted section to teach these techniques. Prof.Mukunda’s favorite topic was ‘Metal casting with the lost wax technique’. His face beamed in joy every time he mentioned the intricacies that were achieved in the metal art thus created. “No two pieces that are exact replicas of each other can ever be created”, he stressed. We had foundry visits as part of our curriculum but that’s where we could only see sand, centrifugal and other forms of metal casting. Without having easy access, investment casting, also called as the ‘lost wax technique’ of metal casting was only left to our imagination. Many years after my graduation, I have been fortunate that I have been able to visit some of the amazing and traditional foundries in my country that practice the lost wax technique. These places have got them their individual ‘GI’ tags. Here is a walk through my foundry visits which I believe I should share with my fellow readers.

Idols of Swamimalai:

Swamimalai translates to the ‘Hill of the Lord’ that is named after an important temple in Tamil culture dedicated to Lord Murugan. This little town is famous beyond just this holy abode. One doesn’t need explanation at the mention of the bronze idols of the Cholas era. Apart from several of these antiques being prized possessions at museums across the globe, these treasures are among the highly traded commodities in the black market. These are ALL brought to form in Swamimalai. It is believed that the artisans of Swamimalai are a group of skilled men called as the Stapathis who have passed on their heritage of metal idol making, since the 12th century. The precision of composition and the measurements of these metal idols, mostly bronze are followed as per the ‘Agama Shastras’. This holy land of the alchemists was a part of my weeklong backpacking with my brother, back in Year-2015.

Work-in-progress at a foundry that makes Aranmula Kannadi
Clockwise from top left: 1. Raw material for mould making with the furnace and blower 2. The mould 3. Furnace 4. Metal sheet after moulding ready to be polished

Aranmula Kannadi:

An extremely important part of malayalee culture, this handcrafted mirror is a quintessential part of Kerala. I was told that on the day of ‘Vishu’ festival, after waking up in the morning- he/she should first see themselves in an Aranmula Kannadi placed alongside the ‘Canacona flowers and a lit oil lamp’ before anything else. ‘What is it about a mirror?’ a person unknown to the traditions of this land might ask. ‘These mirrors are not glass!’ These mirrors are super-polished metal surfaces that are capable of reflecting real images. A glass always reflects a secondary image (you can notice that there is a distance from the reflecting surface to the image formed) whereas, the metal surface reflects primary images (There is no additional distance between the object and the image).

Two images that give the comparison of reflection in a glass and a metal mirror (Aranmula kannadi)
Top: The secondary reflection in a glass mirror; Below: The primary reflection in a metal ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ mirror

These manually polished mirrors are created through investment casting whose composition remains to be a secret that is passed down through generations of just 1 family. The small group of these master craftsmen who are protecting their secret recipe of the Malayalee culture all reside around the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple in the state of Pathanamthitta. I had the esteemed opportunity of visiting one of these foundries when I sneaked out after working hours on one of my business trips in Year-2019.

Video of my visit to the mirror making foundry at Aranmula

Dokra art of Bastar:

This non-ferrous metal art is created by the forest dwelling tribes of Chhattisgarh. Historians believe that this art has evolved from what was used by the primitive tribes to create figurines of their local deities for worship and for jewellery purposes. The metals used were earlier collected directly from earth in the mineral rich area of Bastar, then smelted to separate the desired elements and mixed in intended proportions to form the final material for casting. This is an undocumented tribal technique that has been passed down through several centuries. Today, it is widely used for commercial purposes of decoration and gifting. It is now revered as a part of the tribal culture that represents the state of Chhattisgarh. I had an opportunity to visit one of these foundries and observed keenly the lifeless metal take form into art during my family’s five states’ road trip in Year-2020.

Work-in-progress at a foundry that makes Dokra art in Bastar
Dokra art at various stages of metal casting

Kola masks of Karkala:

Talking about all these foundries, I cannot be leaving my homestate behind. Although the folk art of metal mask making is slowly dying, these masks are an extremely important part of the culture of the Tulunad region. These bell metal masks are used in the spiritual performance of the ‘Bhoota Kola‘. Today, the art is used beyond mask making and can be seen in idols, lamps, bowls, utensils among other things used and sold extensively in Udupi district of Karnataka.

The lamps and idols of Nagamangala:

The contribution of the Hoysalas to the art and heritage of Karnataka cannot be justified with any number of words. Their intricacies and detailing in their work can be seen not only in the stone sculptures of their temples but also in their metal crafts. A few of the practitioners of the Hoysala style of metal casting have saved and passed on their knowledge to a few artisans who have made the town of Nagamangala their home. This thriving art can be seen in the traditional bronze lamps widely used across Karnataka and in the idols of various deities in this region. Although bronze is believed to be a godly material, other metals like tin, copper etc. too are cast into various articles using this technique.

This post is my small attempt towards promoting local art. I look forward to influence at least a few of my readers to learn more about the rich heritage of India and encourage local artisans in various ways possible. Do share your thoughts with me through the comments below.

Art and Crafts of Bastar

Bastar is an area soaked in rich culture. And art is an integral and unique part of this indigenous culture. It is safe to say that Kondagaon district is the art hub where there are entire villages dedicated to each of these handicrafts, with households registered with the ministry of culture & art. Several of these artisans are National award winners and visiting faculty at universities across the world. During my week long stay at Bastar, I managed to find time to visit some of these villages and interact with the artisans.

Blame it on me being an experienced professional in materials, manufacturing and heat-treatment processes, I have this weird fancy for everything that involves these aspects. One would not want to seize a travel opportunity from me when there is an element of art and engineering in it…. On similar lines, is the first part of this post.

The major and famous handicrafts of Bastar can be listed as below:

Wrought iron artefacts:

Chhattisgarh is a state blessed with a mineral rich geography. Until a few decades ago, the tribes inhabiting the region used to collect raw iron ore from the naturally available soil or portions of earth, heat it in a furnace and separate the molten iron to make wrought iron. Today, wrought iron is directly purchased from the market. This is then melted and beaten into sheets. The sheets are then formed into various patterns and welded into beautiful artefacts. Although the traditional designs are based on the local tribal culture and represent aspects of daily life in Bastar like animals, hunting, the tribal folk, tribal deities, etc., modern adaptations have been inspired by the Indian epics among many other things. But still, each piece is handmade and unique with no two pieces being exactly the same.

Demonstration of making wrought iron craft by an artisan

Dokra art:

Bell-metal is an alloy prepared locally and cast into various patterns through a technique called as ‘lost-wax technique’ of metal casting. Although this technique was primarily used by the indigenous tribes to mold their traditional jewelry back in the time, it has slowly evolved into making idols and other home décor items. These indigenous metal cast items are collectively called as Dokra art.

Dhokra art at various stages of metal casting

Terracotta pottery:

A special type of clay is dug from the vast paddy farms and is then crafted into various artefacts. The specialty of the art here in Bastar is that very large and real-life sized objects are crafted completely with clay. After the potter assembles the product piece by piece, he then burns it as a whole unit to give it the required strength and rigidity. Well, there’s an entire village of potters / Terracotta artisans in Kondagaon.

Terracotta art at Bastar’s pottery village

Wooden carvings & Carpentry:

With the abundance of forest cover and timber availability, wood craft is a major part of the handicraft culture here. Large tree trunks and roots are given the form of beautiful figurines, animals, etc. by very skilled artisans. This can also be seen in the rich carvings on doors and friezes of various old and traditional structures across the region.

Stone sculpture:

With the mineral rich earth of the region, various types of soil and stone are available. Several of these earthy materials are used to make beautiful sculptures.

Mural Paintings:

With a somewhat influence of the Patachitra art from the neighboring state of Odisha, the local Gondi artform and several other influences, the indigenous wall and fabric painting has evolved. Beautiful pictures of tribal deities, everyday life etc. can be seen being depicted through these paintings.

Handloom:

A small portion of the local tribes are involved in collection of the naturally available cotton and Kosa silk from the forests and weaving them into traditional textiles.

Jewelry:

Each of the tribes who inhabit the remote jungles of Chhattisgarh have their own unique pieces of jewelry. Anything that ranges from silver, fabric, plant fiber, shells or animal bones, the locally available materials from the wild are adapted into their culture in the form of traditional jewelry.

The heritage of paintings- a list from all Indian states

Art is an integral part of human life. Paintings are yet another form of expressing imaginations. The history of paintings in India dates to pre-historic times where there are several rock and cave paintings scattered across the sub-continent. Painted pottery on terracotta and ceramic too have been excavated at several sites. Eventually, it became an attempt to bring the storytelling of the Indian epics to a visual form, each one using the material available locally for colour and canvas. Some forms were patronized by the kingdoms that ruled India and yet a few, used by the local tribes to decorate their dwellings. The use of natural colours on naturally available surfaces has evolved with the generations, picking up influences from various events, people along the way.

This is the land of great artists like Nainsukh, Raja Ravi Varma. Bright and rich colours are now an inseparable part of vibrant culture and lifestyle of being Indian. Here is my attempt to enlist the traditional and folk paintings from all the states of India that can help you as a ready reckoner while you are out travelling in this beautiful land. A few, I would like to crowdsource the details wherever I failed.

These paintings can be strategically used in our daily life that will help revive, sustain and promote these ancient art and rural economy.

Andhra Pradesh:

  1. Deccani paintings– are miniatures which predominantly feature palm trees, men & women. The art has a significant influence by the Deccan sultanates who ruled around this area.
  2. Nirmal art– is where the artisans have developed their own canvas using cardboard and luppam. The striking designs in the form of creepers, flowers etc. have evolved on furniture today.
  3. Savara paintings– This wall art is practiced by the Savaras tribe around Vishakhapatnam. The wall is readied with a mixture of red soil and paper. The painting is done with brush prepared by chewing tender bamboo into various thickness. White colour is derived from rice powder and black colour is derived with a mixture of coconut ash & castor oil.
  4. Kalamkari– This is a fabric painting form popular in the rural parts around Machilipatnam. Primarily human faces are block printed using vegetable colours.
  5. Tholu Bommalaata– This is an art of making leather puppets that are hand painted using vegetable colours, mainly found in the region around Adilabad.

Arunachal Pradesh:

  1. Kuthang strolls– These are intricate religious paintings of the Buddhists. These are derived from the Tangkha paintings that are auspicious symbols hung in every monastery and houses.

Assam:

  1. Khanikar art– These are religious paintings that adorn the monasteries & Satras around the state.
  2. Assamese silk scrolls– Traditional colours of Hangool & Haital are used to draw representations from Ramayana and Mahabharata on silk strolls. This is practiced in the upper Assam region.

Bihar:

  1. Mithila or Madhubani– These are originally intricate wall paintings that depict Ramayana & Mahabharata adorning walls across the rural parts of Mithila region and have now become synonymous with the state.
  2. Patna Kalam– this is also another art form largely patronised during the Gupta era. Several paintings have been found in the Nalanda excavations.

Chhattisgarh:

  1. Godna– This is a primitive art form that has been largely in practice as body tattoos by the women folk in the Jamgula and Bastar region. It has found acceptance in the form of motifs on textile with natural colours mixed with acrylic paints.

Goa:

  1. Kaavi mural paintings– is largely popular in the Konkan region. As the colour says, Kaavi is a single colour- red pigment derived from laterite soil. Several structures, churches and temples are coloured with red paint on a white background.

Gujarat:

This state is sort of a mélange with vibrant colours used across a range of art forms.

  1. Pithora– These are wall paintings practiced by the Rathwa & Bhilala tribes
  2. Miniature paintings– This art has been used to depict epics and large stories under the Jain patronage in 11th century.
  3. Glass painting– It is believed that the earliest form of painting on glass (Belgium glass) originated in Gujarat.
  4. Kalampari art– This is a fabric painting technique practiced by the Chitara community.
  5. With many tribal communities living around the Kutch area, each tribe have their own unique art, patterns and colourations used in their daily life like walls, huts, attire, jewellery, pottery etc. It is an endless list but here are some of them from the Rann of Kutch.
  6. Rogan painting
  7. Terracotta paintings like Kavda pottery is believed to have techniques dating back to the Indus Valley civilization.

Haryana:

This is probably the only Indian state that doesn’t have a native art form. With several dynasties and rulers who came and went in this region, there has never been any specific art style that found patrons among who were always busy in fighting battles.

Himachal Pradesh:

  1. Kangra & Chamba miniature painting– Although largely spread across all the Himalayan states and largely coming under the Pahari paintings umbrella, the region of Kangra gave its name to the paintings that was largely promoted and patronised by the Rajputs. However, each ruler gave the art form its own twist and called it a different name.

Jammu & Kashmir:

  1. Basohli miniatures– Again a part of the Pahari painting, the famous artist Nainsukh is believed to have moved from Chamba and have settled in this region during his last days. Thus, giving its name to the bold and intense form of painting the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Hence, Basohli is the first school of Pahari paintings.

Jharkhand:

  1. Paitkar scrolls– Ramayana & Mahabharata stories are depicted on paper with colour made from vermillion. Fine brush is made using goat hair.
  2. Jadopatia scrolls– This form of paintings is used for story telling which are believed to have healing effects on people.
  3. Sohrai, Kohver, Ganju, Rana, Teli, Prajapati, Kurmi, Mundas, Turi, Birhor & Bhuiya, Ghatwal- these are mural paintings used to decorate the walls of the tribal houses. Each, representing a tribe and have their own style. The common factor between all these styles are that the designs comprise of animals & plants depictions thus indicating the connection of nature and the tribe.

Karnataka:

  1. Mysore Royal painting– influenced by the Vijayanagar school of painting, this art flourished under the Mysore Wodeyars. Bright natural colours obtained from vegetables, organic, minerals were painted using natural brushes. Squirrel hair was used for finer strokes and brushes made with a specific grass was used for various thickness and strokes.

Kerala:

  1. Kalam– This is a short name for Kalamezhuthu, a rural art of painting.
  2. Face painting– with various traditional dance forms and ritualistic prayers, face painting is an essential part of art in Kerala. Largely seen in its vibrant designs and patterns during Theyyams, Kathakali etc.
  3. Oil paintings– These murals are very elaborate piece of portraits largely practiced in the Northern part of Kerala.

Madhya Pradesh:

  1. Gond art– A painting style that is used by the Gond tribes. This largely comprises of finely drawn lines in a picture that encompasses animals and plants.
  2. Pithora wall paintings– this form of art is inspired by various myths and is used by the Bhilala tribe to keep away evils. You can often see walls and both sides of the doors painted with patterns that are believed to protect them.
  3. Malwa painting– This folk art can be found on floors and walls and practiced by the Chitera community. Chalk powder blended with turmeric & saffron for suitable shades of the colour is used in doing these paintings.
  4. Mandana paintings– This art is used to depict special occasions and festivals and used only during specific events.

Maharashtra:

  1. Warli– Used to adorn walls by the tribe, this painting uses patterns like triangles and circles to represent community living, human being, trees, animals and everything in general.
  2. Chitrakathi paper paintings– as the name suggests, Chitra (picture) + Katha (story)- These are single sheet paintings used by a specific migrating community of Thakkar tribe for storytelling. Local version of Ramayana & Mahabharata and other myths are painted using colours made from stones. These are also called as Paithani paintings.
Warli paintings used in modern gifts
Compliments cards for gifts with Warli art

Manipur:

**Need help**

Meghalaya:

**Need help**

Mizoram:

**Need help**

Nagaland:

  1. Naga cloth painting– Several Naga tribes reside in Nagaland and each have their own designs in their houses, dresses and morungs. However, the Lotha, Ao and Rengma tribes have their traditional designs painted on fabric. Fine bamboo brushes are used to transfer colours that are made by mixing tree sap, leaf ash and local beer.

Odisha:

  1. Patachitra– These are traditional cloth-based scroll painting from rural parts of eastern Odisha. It is inspired by Mythic elements like Lord Jagannath and is derived from ancient Bengali art which is used for narration in the visual form when a song is performed.
Pattachitra paintings in modern gifts
A Patachitra scroll based envelope- for giving wedding compliments

Punjab:

  1. Sikh miniature painting– This an influence of the Kangra paintings and is used as a narrative of various stories from the life of Guru Nanak. Hence, has a vital role in Sikhism.

Rajasthan:

The list of painting related art forms from this state is endless. Here is a small compilation of the same.

  1. Phad cloth scrolls– These paintings are based on stories from Ramayana & Mahabharata. They have influences of both religious and folk performances by the local priests.
  2. Rajasthani miniature paintings– When the Mughal artisans dispersed from the Northern India, they were sheltered and patronised by various Rajput kings. Individual ruler had his influence on the style, and it evolved into individual styles, largely coming under a common umbrella called as Rajasthani school of paintings.
  3. Wall & ground paintings– Various styles like Devra, Pathwari, Sanjhi, Mandav etc. can be seen based on the individual communities.
  4. Cloth paintings– like Pat, Picchwai, Phad scrolls etc.
  5. Paane paper paintings.
  6. Kavad wooden paintings.
  7. Body paintings– various designs are drawn on human skin using natural colours like Mehendi & Godana
  8. Thape paintings– This is a wall & door painting style that is used to invoke deities. Natural colours like turmeric, henna, vermillion is used.
  9. Badaley paintings– These are either cloth or leather paintings that are used to cover metal utensils. It is prominent around Jodhpur.
  10. Thewa art– This is a form of painting small pieces of glass with gold. It is a famous art around Pratapgarh in Bhilwara region.

Sikkim:

  1. Thangka painting– These are religious strolls that depict important lessons from Buddhism. This uses organic colours and even gold dust and adorns walls, roof and mural in Buddhist houses and monasteries.
Tibetan art in modern gifts
Envelopes with compliments & paintings from Buddhism

Tamil Nadu:

  1. Tanjavur paintings– This is a classical art form that has a 3-D effect with embellished with precious stones, glass pieces & pearls. It has been largely patronized by the Cholas and then have influences from the Marathas and others who ruled the region.

Telangana:

  1. Cherial scroll painting– This is a folk art on very long cloths used for story telling that can sometimes run into several meters. It is painted specifically by the Kako Padagollu community.

Tripura:

**Need help**

Uttar Pradesh:

  1. Mughal/ Persian painting style– The Mughals got artisans from Persia and used their designs and patterns in all their structures across. Art flourished especially during the reign of Jehangir.

Uttarakhand:

  1. Garhwal painting– Again, something that has been a part of the Pahari school, this form largely uses characters that depict romance.

West Bengal:

  1. Patua art– This is a traditional narrative cloth scroll painting style done by a community called the Patuas. An entire story is depicted on a single scroll with several panels for each chapter. The speciality of the art is its people who are mainly Muslim and paint Hindu religious figures in their artwork. These are same as Odisha Pata paintings in theme selection but entirely different in their style and composition.
  2. Kalighat painting– This started as paintings in items that were taken as offerings to Kali temple at Kalighat and has now become a specific form of painting. This is also a form of scroll painting but main difference is that this is done on paper.
  3. Tribal paintings– This is primarily popular among the ‘Santhal tribes’ around the areas of Purulia, Birbung and Barbura.
Continue reading The heritage of paintings- a list from all Indian states

The traditional fire making of the Nagas

One of the earliest science lessons we learnt in school is that friction causes fire. We all have grown past reading how the early cavemen generated fire by rubbing two stones together and eventually how this accidental discovery lead to a massive turnaround in the evolution of mankind.

Leaving the past behind, the modern man uses a matchstick or a lighter to create fire, all based on the same science of friction. But, there in Nagaland, the culture still exits where albeit the formal education and access to matchboxes and lighters, the tribes continue to use their indigenous methods of lighting a fire. In order to keep this tradition alive, there are competitions conducted among the various tribes of the state to see who ignites the fire faster. I witnessed one such event during the hornbill festival-2019 in Nagaland.

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The nine other participating Naga tribes at the fire making competition

The traditional method of fire making is done by using wooden log and fiber. Wooden saw dust is placed between small crevices made in the log around which the long fiber is then rapidly pulled along, to create friction. The log and the fiber are the two surfaces creating friction and the saw dust is the fuel/ catalyst. It was a very distinct way of lighting fire to watch. The person who first lights a candle using the fire ignited by him in this traditional method gets to take home the trophy.

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The winner of the contest (Naga fire making)

Here is a video to see how this fire is made in the indigenous Naga way.

The Folk Musical Instruments of Nagaland

It is that traveling exposes one to a multitude of cultures and people. The diverse geography of India is home to some of the most unheard traditions and untold folklores. During my 10 day stint of backpacking in Nagaland, I was introduced to so many of it all, as this little Indian state, tucked in the far North-east is home to more than 17 tribal sects and sub-tribes; each having their own culture, language, traditions and cuisine. Here, is a small list of indigenous musical instruments used in the folk culture of the Nagas.

Mrabung:

Mrabung is an indigenous musical instrument of the Zeliang Nagas. It is a single stringed instrument that is crafted with a hollow/ cured bottle gourd and a fretless wooden neck of about 12 inches long. It is played with hair string bow (Usually a cluster of horse tail tightly tied together to two ends of a thin wooden stick). This bow is used to strike the chords (like a violin) with one hand and the string along the neck is pressed down with the other hand at appropriate places to get the required tune and legato of the song. It is played during merry making in social gatherings and festivals where men and women congregate. I was narrated with a popular folklore of the Nagas wherein, a singer called Arum played the Mrabung. His music captivated the farmers so much that everyone working on the field left their work undone and sat around Arum listening to his songs. Arum had to be barred from playing any songs further just so the people went back to work on their farms. Click below to see an artisan playing the Mrabung.

Atutu:

The Atutu is a handcrafted bamboo trumpet used by the Pochury tribes of Meluri. A particular variety of bamboo is used in making the varied components that are fitted together to make this crafted trumpet. It is played to mark special occasions. For example, blowing of this trumpet towards the end of February means to herald and announce the advent of the Nazhu festival. Also, the male members of the tribe play it in their morungs in the evenings throughout the festival. Apart from this, the trumpet sound is used to ward off birds and animals from the rice fields and prevent from crop damage. In earlier days, trumpeting was a way to alert the collective habitat or a village of a possible enemy attack or as a signal of declaration of a war.

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The Atutu: The bamboo trumpet

Dholak:

This common musical instrument has its own version and avatar in every region of India. Be it weddings or festivals, it is the most common and almost an essential part of any merry making in Indian celebrations. Similarly, each tribe in Nagaland has its own version of the dholaks or the Indian hand drums. Made with an outer casing of wood, laced tightly with cotton strings and the drumming surfaces made with the locally available materials, more often animal hide. Here are samples of the dholaks used by the Garos (Long slender shaped, narrowing at the ends), the Mech Kacharis (fatter and shorter than the Garos) and the Aao tribes (Shorter and fatter than the previous two types and Uniform sized throughout its length) of Nagaland. (Click the below link to watch the ceremonial dances of the Naga tribes with their dholaks)

This is my humble attempt at documenting some unique musical instruments that are lesser known to the world outside North-east India. These have been listed based on my actual experiences and interactions with the Nagas during the hornbill festival-2020. If you know any such unique musical instruments, please do share in the comments section below. I would be happy to learn it from you 🙂

Smitten by the Ajanta of the Himalayas- Tabo

So, have you read the story from my previous stop? (Click here to read) If yes, then this post is starting from Hurling, where I had alighted last. It was cold and I was the only non-localite at a small dhaba from where I was hoping to get a ride uphill to Tabo. The person making parathas at the dhaba instantly recognized me telling he had seen me at the wedding last evening. Although I found it very sweet of him, I felt embarrassed about not recognizing him and apologized to him telling that everyone looked same to me with their caps and mufflers. Not only did he refuse to take money from me for the cup of chai I had there, he ensured he got me a ride in the car of a fellow customer at his dhaba. This drive is indeed close to my heart, even today… So, what made it special?

Of course, the road beyond and the views as we drove further up was INCREDIBLE! And hey, there were unicorn farms enroute and we saw a few of them straying on the highway. But let me not deviate from my story… There were 3 occupants including the driver in this Alto car. The rear seat was reserved entirely for one of them. He had a plaster of Paris on his right leg which he rested on the seat. They were on the way back from Peo to their home in Kaza. The nearest hospital to get the guy’s broken leg fixed was at Peo. It took them a one-way travel of nearly 3 days, given the roadblocks on their way down the valley. Peo being THE one stop trading destination for the whole of Lahaul and Spiti region, all you can expect from anyone traveling there, is to have their vehicles stuffed with as many goods as possible. It was the same case with this car which spared no space other than the seats. So how did I manage my drive? The person driving shotgun made place for himself in the rear seat asking the patient to manage with his leg for a while. Not just that, he forcibly grabbed my big backpack so that I was comfortable in the front seat. He carried my bag on his lap all the way. I must tell you, it was a super cramped car already and they pushed themselves into great lengths just to ensure that I had a comfortable drive! I was an absolute stranger to them until that moment and I would have considered myself fortunate if I had just got myself dropped. But, just based on a localite’s (Dhabawala) recommendation, they ensured my safety and comfort till I had reached my destination. Before taking my leave, they also handed me their phone number to call them if I had any trouble finding a place to stay at Tabo. No, these are NOT the people one gets to see in the urban place where I call home.Bidding a warm bye to them, I walked down the road to the Tabo monastery. It was not too far as I reached the monastery and the old guest house run by the monastery. This is where I wanted to stay for all that I had heard about it. As I opened the main door leading to the staircase, I felt like I was climbing up a dreamland. The entire guesthouse is built in a traditional style with only mud and wood that is unique to Tabo. The staircase, walkways, balconies and the roof bars are all wood. And it is all naturally lit with glass sheets placed between the wooden beams through which I could see the mountains and the blue skies. The place had so much positivity. Since it was off season, I was the only traveler living in the guesthouse where it is usually very hard to get a room during the peak tourist season.

The corridor inside the Tabo monastery run guesthouse

After freshening up in my room, I was supposed to head out to the monastery’s lunch hall. Talk about a matter of few minutes… by the time I came out of the guesthouse, it was snowing outside. At first, I couldn’t understand what it was. within seconds, I started to scream with joy… It was least expected and right there, I was experiencing my first ever snowfall in ages. The last and the only other time I felt snow was at the top of Kardungla, way back in 2014. The muddy walls and the red apples I saw in the orchard right in front of my door, just minutes ago were all disappearing behind a blanket of snow. I clapped hands, I didn’t know whom to share it with. Damn the network, damn me travelling solo, I felt. That was one moment I missed home, deeply. The kid in me was dancing like no one was watching…

The view in front of the guesthouse- Before and during snowfall

I watched the snowfall for a while before heading to the lunch hall. Believe me when I say, that was a simple meal, yet the most sumptuous ever! I spent the rest of the afternoon inside the old monastery. I was finally at where my entire backpack was set for, since the time I left home, almost 10 days ago. The oldest running Buddhist monastery in the world- ‘The Ajanta of the Himalayas!’ The old monastery has nine temples, each lit up naturally, depending on the sun’s position at different time of the day. The head priest took me around the central prayer hall and explained the story behind each of the painting that adorned the wall. As there was no one else dropping in, we both had a long conversation that involved everything ranging from religion, politics, art restoration, environmental conservation, sustainable travel et all. He asked me to return the next morning when the sun lit up a different portion of the hall. It was time for the last prayer of the day and I sat down there, sinking in the aura of another level. The Buddhist chants have always transported me to a different world (since the time I was a child who first visited the monastery that is closer back home in South Karnataka). In here, that infinite silence and soothing ambience that smelled of juniper within an enclosure of mud walls, the holy chants in a dimly lit room, I was clearly experiencing the vastness of outer space. After the priest got ready to close the doors, I headed towards the guesthouse to find my resting place, quite literally! Post dinner, I only remember sneaking inside and snuggling inside the warm quilts provided in my room until I woke up the next morning.

Next morning, late by the mountain standards, I came out of my room and looked out of the glass ceiling in the corridor. I felt like the mountains had suddenly moved closer to my room. It took me a few seconds to realize that it had snowed all night and the entire village was now painted white. When I stepped out, it was still snowing. I was silently enjoying my snow affair as I walked up the distance to the kitchen. After breakfast, I headed out for a walk to explore the snow laden streets of Tabo. The backyard of the monastery, the helipad and the famous apple trees of Tabo looked so alien and picturesque with snow all over them. I strolled across the by lanes, the apple mandi, through the farms and finally settled down by the bank of river Spiti.

After sometime, I hiked up the hill to see the meditating caves and grab a view of the entire village from the top. As I walked through the village, every random person whom I came across greeted me with an apple. Some wouldn’t know how to make a conversation with me and would simply handover an apple with a huge smile. Oh my god! Those apples were the juiciest in the entire universe and all the love from the mountain people added to its sweetness. By the time I reached back to my room, I had removed my jacket just so that I could hold all the collected apples in it. They would feel bad if I rejected what they gave me and my intention was never that. But yeah, I had no idea as to what to do with so many apples.

That said, I had lunch and went towards the monastery. A couple had lit up a bonfire on the monastery’s portico to warm themselves from the snow and I joined them for a warm conversation. The couple went home after a while and I walked into the monastery to have a look at the paintings which I couldn’t see the previous day. The priest then walked me through explaining more details on the history and art of this beautiful place. The monastery is home to probably the only manuscript that is written on gold. This monastery is a treasure vault!

Watch the video of the monastery: Before and After snowfall

It is a daily custom to light a lamp in all the nine temples of the monastery and I got a rare opportunity to seem them all, which is otherwise closed for visitors. There is a statue of Buddha inside each temple, from small to large that I hadn’t expected in a small looking monastery like that. All the walls and roofs are adorned with various frescoes, Thangpa paintings, murals etc. depicting various events in the life of the Buddha. An earthquake in the late 90s has caused immense damage to the monastery and its clay walls making them lean on support. He handed me the prasad (read apples) from the main sanctum before he shut the final doors of the old monastery. He then walked me into the new monastery where he lit the last lamp of the day. I know my article doesn’t talk much about my day in the monastery today, but let me summarize it in one sentence. “I consider myself to be the most fortunate tourist ever to get a peek into so much art, so much tradition and history of Tabo.” I’m in no wonder when the 14th Dalai Llama declared that if only there was an option for him to retire from service, he would choose this UNESCO world heritage site!

I had started to fall in love with this place and wanted to stay here for the rest of my holidays that I had in hand. But It had been snowing without a break since last night and I had to ensure that I was heading out of this valley before I got stuck there for many more days. Yeah, my story does not end here though… If you want to read further, you will have to wait for my book 😉 I’m working on it….

Summary:

Must eat/drink:
• The sea buckthorn juice also is a must try (locally known as Drilbu or Chharma juice).
• The Tsirku tea made from the dried peels of sea buckthorn berries
• Don’t forget- A box full of handpicked Tabo apples for home!!

Must buy:
• A prayer Mandala can be bought from the souvenir shop at the monastery. This is to be hung at the entrance of your house that wards off evil
• Thangpa paintings and few other knick-knacks also can be bought from the monasteries for a more authentic gift.

Other things you should know:

  • Photography, torches and any other form of artificial lights are strictly prohibited inside d monastery. You need to deposit it before entering.
  • There is a library inside the guesthouse if you wish to stay and Tabo lake is nearby for a short trek or a drive.

How travel can help your country’s economy?

Indian economy is in a downturn. Everyone is complaining..

The automobile sector is seeing its worst crisis in 2 decades. If automobiles don’t sell, it not only puts my job at a car manufacturing OEM at risk, but has a cascading effect to hundreds of related industries. The steel, the large chain of vendors and sub-suppliers, sales, marketing, advertising agents, dealers to local garages, accessories, insurances, the indirectly dependant canteen, cleaners, gardeners, drivers, IT, so much so that even fuel station workers will lose their jobs. Why am I telling you this? I am no economist, I am no business man, I am no social activist…. I am a Travel blogger and influencer. So why this rant???, one may ask! It is because I want all of you to travel! Explore! Contribute your tiny bit to help our country’s economy.. by TRAVELLING!

It was a casual conversation with a colleague when we discussed about a meeting of his, with one of the top management members of a vendor company, a septuagenerian with over 40 years of experience in the automobile industry.. 4 decades..!! From the day of tariff commissioning to, date where it is more about survival than competition in the industry, he’s probably seen the entire cycle of the “Auto revolution” in India.. His experience and insights were commendable! Most of his qualms with the strategies to boost the sector was to do with the Indian mindset in general. Here is a brief of his insights into what can be done and further elaboration with my own thoughts based on my experience of Thai culture during my maiden trip outside of India!

We Indians have been raised with a mindset to save money. Stash up either in cash or in gold. By doing so, we are pausing the currency from circulation. A country needs monetary circulation for the economy to sustain. There should be buying and selling, both. One way to do that is, to travel.

Ofcourse, there is an endless list of intangible benefits of travelling. From strengthening existing relationships to creating newer contacts, from exposing newer cultures and landscapes to trying new food and meeting new people, travel teaches newer lessons everytime you step out. But the tangible benefit it reflects is that by helping the economy.

Let us start from planning your trip. You browse! So many people out there make up the content on the internet, develop softwares, manage them.. Agents for all your booking needs.. There is a whole lot of people working behind the scenes.

Okay, now you have a plan sorted and are stepping outside your house. You either drive your own car or use public transport. You are in the process, using your automobile.
1. This automobile would need to run. So, you go to a fuel station.
2. Either before, during or after the travel, this mode of transport would need a checkup- you visit a service station.
3. You get some funky accessories for your car/bike if you are using your own mode of transport, or the owner/driver does this incase of a public transport.

Now, you decide to take a pitstop on your journey. You have a cup of chai and some biscuits or let us say hot pakoras by the roadside. You just helped a small business flourish! Oh wait, not one business. He in turn buys the biscuits, milk and the ingredients for the pakoras from several other vendors!

Then, assume you have reached destination ‘X’. You dine at a local restaurant. You stay in a hotel or a homestay. You buy souvenirs. You pay entry fees to so many places of visits. Voila! You helped so businesses  survive during your trip. Do you see how many others depend on him for indirect employment?

Now, you tell me, you are not in a mood to travel to a different place. It’s okay! Take your family out for a dinner. Or even better, go shopping. Go to a spa. Go for a walk and eat Pani-puri. Sign up for a course, buy a book, watch a movie. Don’t stash up the money by staying indoors. Go out and do something! Your contribution to the economy is pretty much explained already.

The Thai people are probably the only ones in the world, who spend so much time with family or friends outside their houses. For most of the household don’t even have a functional kitchen. They mostly have food outside,  because not only does that allow them to explore newer restaurants, it also saves them the time spent on cooking and money on setting up and managing a kitchen. Their personal life is healthier than we Indians. Even a country as small as Bhutan, measures not the GDP(Gross Domestic Product) but the GNH (Gross National Happiness) index for the country’s progress.

When there is consumption, there is demand and supply! With that, the currency flows, in and out. Businesses start, grow, flourish and sustain. This empowers them with money. Money allows them to buy an automobile of their own. They start travelling. And one fine day, the poor vehicle grows old. What do you do? You buy a new one. The cycle continues… In the process helping the sustenance of hundreds of jobs and stabilizing the country’s economy at large.

By stepping outside your four walls, you only grow, you learn, you evolve. I make it a point to spend atleast 30% of my earnings on my travel needs. I feel rejuvenated, more confident and mentally sound every time I get NEW air away from home.

What is your take on this view point?

 

Land where Art is Divine- Pathanamthitta

Dense canopy of trees, swaying coconut palms, houseboats cruising through the pristine backwaters, wooden canoes of the locals fishing in narrow canals- Well, does this paint a picture of Gods own country? When opportunity struck, I decided to give the usual things a miss and explore a region that is least spoken about in a typical tourist circuit in Kerala. I wanted to explore the land where art is considered divine and celebrated in all its form. I was heading towards Pathanamthitta.

My Itinerary:

Day 1: Leave from Bangalore to Kochi (by Flight); Drive from Kochi to Pathanamthitta. Visit Aranmula Parthasarthy temple (take a local foundry tour); Visit Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple (Watch a Kathakali performance in the temple);
Day 2: Gavi or Konni elephant camp, Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls, Kalloppara church, Paliakkara church and Niranam church. Return to Bengaluru.

The details:

First thing I did while approaching Pathanamthitta was lowering all the windows of my car, to breathe in some clean air. With almost two third of the district comprising of forest cover, it is no wonder that Pathanamthitta is the least polluted city in India. The remaining one third is a combination of the city and plantations. We were heading to the homestay we had booked, not very far from the city centre. It was nestled in what the locals call as a residential area that was far from imagination of a city soul. The narrow roads were flanked by rubber, tapioca and banana plantations for most stretch and marsh lands for the rest. Bunches of jackfruits hung down from tall trees among several other tropical trees like litchi, rambutan etc. that had the fruit lover in me all drooling. My stay was at a traditional Kerala house nestled amidst a huge garden. Its wooden portico with clay tiled roof had me fancy struck.

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Enroute to the homestay

Surprisingly for me, Pathanamthitta hosts some of the largest annual religious congregations in the world. The Sabarimala yatra and Maramon convention are next only to the Haj. Giving a pass to the famous backwaters of Kerala, I had driven this far to explore its vibrant and divine culture and art. My plan for the first day was to visit two of the 108 Divyadesams, both located in Pathanamthitta. I had arrived at the Aranmula Parthasarthy temple, particularly for a tour of a foundry that makes the historical ‘Aranmula Kannadi’ (Click to watch the video).

This GI tagged handicraft is culturally important in the state of Kerala. The know-how of making it is endemic to Aranmula and limited to the descendants of only one family who now live around this temple. Unlike the familiar glass mirrors, these are finely polished metal sheets. Watching these men toiling in their workshop to bring an alloy to life, which is integral in all Malayali celebrations was like living a dream for me.

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Left: moulded metal sheet before polishing; Right: Polished & finished mirror

A short drive away from there was my next destination: Thiruvalla Srivallabha temple. With its ancient wooden architecture, this beautiful temple sprawls on a huge area. Here, the prayers are offered five times a day and the last prayer was specifically that interested me the most to visit here. Kathakali is performed inside the temple premises everyday as a form of prayer to put the deity to sleep. I was like a little child in wonderland who lost track of time watching this performance that went late into the night.

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A traditional Kathakali setup at the Kochi international airport

An early morning drive to Gavi or Konni elephant camp is what I was recommended for finding a piece of nature. Charalkunnu, Kakki reservoir, Perunthenaruvi waterfalls are few of the other nearby places that tourists usually visit. But I decided against it all and while away some time exploring the neighbourhood of my homestay before checkout. It was as calm and peaceful as anywhere else. While sipping a cup of Kattan chai, I was reminded of my previous trip to Alleppey. Hundreds of wooden canoes measuring over 100 feet, long enough to be called snake boats, gather from across Kerala to compete for the coveted title. Each boat carries at least hundred oarsmen, all singing the Vanchipattu in chorus. Breathing the heavy air filled with anxiety of the spectators, it was a lifetime experience. Like Alleppey, Aranmula too hosts one of the largest boat races in Kerala. The Aranmula race is held on the last day of Onam as a celebration of Lord Krishna crossing river Pampa.

Boat Race finals (22)
The oarsmen ‘”Women” from Alleppey

I had planned my return route to Kochi such that I could cover some of the interesting landmarks along the way. The first stop was at Kalloppara, where an ancient Hindu inscription exists inside a church. I had read about how two faiths co-exist under the same roof that houses a Bhagavati temple and a Mary’s church. But my drive through the streets of a residential area ended at a bridge that connected Kalloppara. It had collapsed during the floods that ravaged Kerala last year. Having three rivers flowing through it, Pathanamthitta was one of the worst affected.

I hit the main road again and headed to Thiruvalla. Since it was dark the previous night, I was there again to have a look at the famed mural paintings on the altar of the Paliakkara Church. The church at Paliakkara and Niranam (my next destination) both have their history dating back to the arrival of St.Thomas in India in 54.A.D. This trip was all about an amalgamation of art and tradition. Be it wildlife, religion, architecture, history, art or culture, I believe Pathanamthitta has something for everyone.

(P.S.: I’m against the idea of taking photos inside any place of worship, as a form of respect to its sanctity. Hence, I do not have any pictures from the interiors of any place of worship)

Fact File:

  • How to reach: The nearest airports are at Kochi and Trivandrum. Kottayam and Alleppey are the nearest Railway stations. KSRTC buses and taxis are available from these places to reach Pathanamthitta by road.
  • Get around: local buses are quite frequent; Taxis can be easily availed.
  • Best time to visit: September to May (Anytime apart from monsoon)
  • Stay: Luxury hotels are sparse. Cheap and Budget hotels are available in plenty considering the pilgrims who come here for Sabarimala yatra. Homestays are available to experience the true essence of Kerala.
  • Must do: Attend a Kathakali performance, visit a mirror foundry, Bathe elephants at Konni.

A timeless souvenir from Bangalore

Travelling to a new place? What do you carry back as souvenirs to friends and family? This is a common scenario that all of us are put into almost everytime. While there are regional specific things that you can pick up, there are common dilemmas associated with each of them.

  • Traditional clothes- might not fit well or the design and the colour might not be liked by the receiver.
  • Local delicacies and sweets- It may not be a good idea if the receiver is dealing with some health conditions or certain diet restrictions. And then, food items also have a shelf life that would not stay fresh until you reach back.
  • Local handicrafts- Again, needs to suit the choice and budget of the giver and the receiver.

Check out these offbeat things to do in Bengaluru

Well.. The reasons and dilemmas may be several but it is easy to find options when travelling anywhere regional. But, the metro cities have usually evolved as an amalgamation of several influences. Be it culture, traditions, craft, food, lifestyle etc., they represent variety. Hence, what you might pick up as a souvenir may actually be something that represents a larger region or something very generic.

If you are someone travelling to Bangalore, it is very likely that you will pickup a souvenir that is a part of a larger region (Karnataka). If you are someone looking to take back something that is an authentic piece of Old Bengaluru, then here is my pick. This souvenir is exclusive to Bangalore and does not have influence from any other regions of Karnataka. While several local products can be bought even at a crafts fair at your very own city/town of stay, this is something that can be bought ONLY in Bangalore. These are something which are sold only at authorized showrooms located in this city alone. Gift these souvenirs and you will be loved!

HMT watches: In 1969, it was a subsidiary started by the Government run ‘Hindustan Machine Tools’ with technical collaboration with ‘the Citizen watches co. Japan’. Soon, these watches created some kind of a time revolution (literally) with the HMT watches being mostly recognised as a possession of pride. HMT clocks adorned all major clock towers and railway stations across the country and can be seen ticking in good health even till date. HMT’s seven signature clocks like the tower clock, solar clock, population clock, master slave clock, display clock, the International clock and the floral clock that are symbols of innovation, are placed at different places across the nation. Although HMT watches’ connection with Bangalore is strong because its factory was located here, these timepieces are a representation of a bygone era of not just Bangalore but of an India of the yore. These are masterpieces of Indian craftsmanship and something that was fondly called as the ‘Timekeeper of India’. This iconic factory was shutdown in 2016 due to severe financial and political reasons.

Although the manufacture of the clocks has become obsolete, the last few pieces of their wrist watches are being assembled in a small room above their showroom in Jalahalli. These are valued as prized possesions by several watch collectors and can be bought from a range of handwound mechanical watches, quartz jeweled watches, skeletal watches, automatic and chronographs ranging in the price bracket of Rs.500 to Rs.15000. While these watches are on their way to go out of production (they will be produced only until the stocks of childparts last), they can be a truly meaningful souvenir to take back that could be handed over to the next generation who might never have an opportunity to live through the real era of HMT watches.

Do you agree this is a nice gifting idea? What other things do you think represent Bangalore aptly?

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Above: The seven signature clocks of HMT placed across different cities in India Below: Floral clock at Lal Bagh, Bangalore