Friday, September 28, 2007

Ancient India Rocks!

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Excuse that pun, I was referring to some images we produced a couple of months back of Ajanta & Ellora. I had vague memories of visiting these cave shrines as a kid and it saddened me that I didn’t remember their magnificence. I was viewing the images in high resolution and the detail left me flabbergasted.

Ajanta & Ellora are the definition of the term ‘cave shrines’. Located near the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, India, these caves have been hand carved and built as far back as 200 B.C. These caves comprise of two sets, Ajanta caves and Ellora caves. Both are equally significant due to their history, architecture and message. The caves were discovered as early as the 19th century during a hunting expedition. All these centuries they lay hidden under the rocky landscape of the Sahyadri hills. They are called ‘cave shrines’ because they are essentially temples. Hand carved temples in man made caves, the sheer task seems enormous and near impossible for the era of their supposed construction. The granite these hills constitute of are still considered a construction nightmare but the faith involved in the Ajanta & Ellora caves seems to be the driving force behind this Herculean task. The rock is considered ‘living rock’ because the formations are a still in a process of development. The structures are prayers halls and monasteries where monks could meditate and pray in complete seclusion. These structures are also a symbol of religious tolerance and harmony. Here Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism co-exist and share their teachings. All three religions were founded in India and this is the only place in the world where their history conjoins. The Jain and Buddhist caves are places of peace and quiet while the Hindu caves exude more energy and divinity. The three construction styles found here are Stupas, Chaityas and Viharas. ‘Stupas’ are generally built of stones or bricks to commemorate important events or mark important places associated with Buddhism or to house important relics of Buddha. ‘Chaitya’s’ are meditation or prayer halls built out of rock and brick and ‘Vihara’s’ are monasteries usually made in excavated rocks to provide a haven away from the rest of the world.

The Ajanta caves are a set of 29 caves, hand carved tediously by Buddhist monks. Presumably the only tools available to these hermetic people had to have been hammers and chisels. The figurines depict the tales of ‘Jataka’, ancient text of Buddhists which tell stories about the various incarnations of the Buddha. The craft is definitely impressive but the physical effort involved enhances the beauty of the carvings. It is no wonder that the Ajanta is chosen as a ‘World Heritage Site'.

The Ellora caves are 34 in number. They are more ornately carved and the structures are more adorned. There are magnificent facades and examples of Indian temple architecture. These caves are carved in the basaltic sides of the hills. The most amazing feat in these caves is the ancient ‘Kailasa temple’, devoted to Mount Kailash which is the seat of Lord Shiva. This temple is carved out of solid rock and is a free standing structure comprising of pillars, podiums and spires, all intricately carved by hand. A website about World Mysteries has listed this temple under ‘mystic places’ because “it is the largest monolithic structure in the world, carved top-down from a single rock. It contains the largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world.”

The best time to visit Ajanta & Ellora caves is from October to March, although the monsoon months of July-August are also highly recommended for the heightened scenic beauty of the area. Indian tourism offer a lot of excursion trips and tourists can engage tour guides locally at Ajanta and Ellora as well as from Mumbai, the closest metro to the caves.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

I'm not superstitious, but ...

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We made good friends with this one model we worked with last year. Very lovely young lady, she was nice enough to keep in touch way after she received her images shot by us. We got a call from her last month saying she has a bunch of friends in town and they were all very keen to be professionally photographed. We were already riding high on our 6,000 sq. ft. studio so we asked the whole load of them to come in for auditions. So here we were sitting around waiting for everyone’s headshots to be assessed, when Manav suggested they all make a trip and shoot that. The motley mix of post-teens started discussing every possible drivable location from Delhi. They were all foreigners and from different countries too. This discussion didn’t take long to finalize into an overnight trip to Agra. The home of the Taj, the land of love and loss, the haven of a lovesick king’s biggest accomplishment. Some had seen it with their parents on a day trip, some hadn’t at all. The excitement was electric. The final list read, an Indian girl from LA, a Persian girl from Florida, an all American girl, a Scottish boy, an Estonian boy and finally a Zimbabwean boy. What an awesome bunch they made. So many nationalities and cultures of the world in this group of six. The only thing they shared in common was the age and the generation and that was glue enough to start this trip off very well.

The story I am about to tell you only goes to reinforce my crazy obsession with Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’. In my Utopian fairyland I believe that we can live without religion, without possessions and without countries, we can live like brothers and like thinking human beings. Ultimately we are all the same. I read an article by the photographer who shot the famous portrait of ‘the Afghan girl’, Steve McCurry he said to the effect that a farmer in Afghanistan is no different from a farmer in the US. I guess he meant that as people they are the same, their environments and scenarios are different but they share the same worries, the same ambitions and the same dependency on nature. Anyway, back to the story. These guys were on the road with our Art Director (part Portuguese, part Iranian), Photographer (All from the state of Bengal), Make-up Assistant (state of Punjab) and Studio Hand (I would assume Bihar). They stopped at a harmless looking vegetarian ‘dhaba’ (typical Indian roadside diner, usually very rustic). They ordered heartily and sat back and waited. Suddenly the girls started noticing dragon flies, not one, more like one million. So one of the girls got up from the table and crouched on the floor screaming for one of the knights to save her. The lovely Scottish boy got up, swatted away the dragon flies and stepped over her head to get back to the table. She shot up and said “step back over me”! That’s all she said. One by one each person on the table said “ya, my mom says you have to step back over the person if you stepped over them once.” The tempo got louder and everyone, every different person there knew that they had all heard and participated in one of the oldest ‘old wives tales’ ever. Across the cultures and borders they all grew up hearing this one ‘superstition’. The biggest deal wasn’t that they had all been told the same tale by their Scottish, Estonian, Indian, Persian, Zimbabwean mothers, it was how they all suddenly related on another level. This highly infused gene pool of people sat there, ages 19 – 35 years and said in unison – “coz then you won’t grow tall”. Across most of the globe, covering 4 continents, all these people were told the same reason too! When I heard this story, it stirred me in many ways. Are we all essentially the same? Just people. People with stories, lives, joys, pains, fun, work, family, passions, traditions, the list goes on and it goes on for all of us.

The Nirula's Story

I spent a considerable number of years hearing about the ‘great consumer experience’ that could only be ‘experienced’ abroad. Anywhere abroad, I asked? The spectrum for ‘abroad’ for most Indian’s was restricted to the US and the UK. Would I find the same costumer experience in Dhaka or Mogadishu? I seriously wondered! These lamentations have come into my mind since a friend of mine visited ‘Nirula’s’ the other day. Ah! ‘Nirula’s’ for those of you that haven’t had this baptism of fudge, ‘Nirula’s’ was India’s only fast food joint till almost a decade ago. There were several in New Delhi and one in Kathmandu. Yes, I have eaten there as well. There is a different novelty in finding a home grown brand ‘abroad’ … Nepal is pretty ‘abroad’ in my opinion! See that’s my take on home grown, the guy behind the counter is ‘uncle’ and he will remember you the next time you come and your friends will think ‘Nirula’s’ is your haunt, that’s the perfect life for a 12 year old. ‘Nirula’s’ also holds the symbolic title of ‘the place of many firsts’ … it was the place I saw a film star for the first time, I found my first ‘crush’, I got my ‘board exam’ results, I got 20 bucks extra as change, I got high on food (before you jump to conclusions, it was one of those innocent highs, that only food can produce).

The food wasn’t something to write home about but this was the only place where one could order, burger and fries with a milkshake on the side and feel on top of the world, teleported all the way to the home of junk food, the US. Looking back I must reiterate that Nirula’s meant just a handful of yummy things to most people. There were the footlong fiends, the veg. burger lovers, the ice cream soda devotees but the ultimate followers of ‘Nirula’s’ were those that swore by the hot chocolate fudge.

That’s where this whole rant began. Manav, my friend decided to relive the joy by visiting the newly acquired ‘Nirula’s’ last week. ‘Nirula’s’ was a traditional family owned restaurant, run by the grand old man Mr. Nirula, I imagine. He must have been a regal old man with a mighty ‘Punjabi’ heart and appetite, also ‘Punjabi’s’ (those that hail from the state of Punjab in India) had great taste and western exposure. So I could understand his need to supply North India with much needed fast food! After competition like McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Dominos hit Indian shores, it shook the foundation ‘Nirula’s’ stood upon. They didn’t have hand tossed pizza’s, their fries were insipid and they didn’t have the omnipresent ‘thali’ back then, so no fallback option. What they had in their favour was ice cream. It was good and cheaper than Baskin Robbins. So there was Manav, looking forward to his hot chocolate fudge at the newly acquired ‘Nirula’s’. In June 2006, Navis Capital Partners a Malaysia based company acquired the Nirula's Group of Companies. He was to realize when he took the order that he had been served a hot butterscotch sundae instead. He says he may have made a mistake in ordering which I find worthy of mention simply because the same benefit of doubt cannot be bestowed upon ‘Nirula’s’. They vehemently refused to address his quandary. Imagine an old customer, as old as he is today, ordering an all time favourite dessert, ready to pay the difference for even a dollop of fudge on his sundae, is told a simple ‘no’! Now I wonder if the foreign acquisition made a difference in this ‘customer experience’. Our childhood haunts are becoming commercial trash and we are treated like it. The ‘home’ feeling is totally absent and not even a smile will make matters better. I feel sorry that Manav’s history with ‘Nirula’s’ will end this way and end it will because we now have over 5 varieties of commercial ice creams available, we have Hershey’s chocolate syrup and who can’t dry roast few peanuts at home. This is a lesson for ‘Nirula’s’, the recipe for hot chocolate fudge given above doesn’t mention the ‘Nirula’s’ touch because I don’t think it exists anymore.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Take it to the Limit

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I don’t think it’s wrong to term “College Life in India” as the ‘ultimate freedom’. Drawing from personal experience I can safely say that whether it was a convent or a co-educational school, the claustrophobia was the same. Even the senior years were ruled by uniforms, punishments and a constant ‘big brotherly’ presence. I don’t know how it is today but back in the day, hair had to be neatly trimmed, nails had to be bitten down, socks couldn’t be rolled to the ankles and that awful perennial neck tie, it was hell. The only consolation was ‘friends’. Some of you reading this may have been super achievers, teacher’s darlings and the like but most of us just drudged through school only to get to the big, bad world of College. Thank God!

As luck would have it, I went to out of my hometown to study and the first thing to hit me was – I can wear what I want! For youngsters all over the world, the feeling of self expression is of utmost importance. The whole feeling of being ‘me’ comes from a style statement. It could well be just a bag, a braid or a BMW but we all want to stand out. I didn’t have any of those things but I did have a tool that surpassed all, attitude, and a healthy one! This is the high point of what I see in the campus life of today. The boys and girls are so confident and so chic. I don’t feel shallow in admitting that my most poignant moment in college was the day I left my hair open; after all it won’t be clich├ęd to say ‘college is the time to let your hair down”. Pardon the pun, I couldn’t help myself.

Student life in India is actually more than that. The residual guilt from school tends to stay on, so even though you can ‘bunk’ classes and you do ‘bunk’ classes, it just doesn’t feel right. Indian students are conditioned to work hard from day 1. There are no open book tests, no lockers to ease the load and by no means is there a provision to choose subjects before ‘high school’. This has long term repercussions that are very positive. Indian students know rote learning (not always a good thing), they respect their teachers (well at least they stand up and greet them before each class), they know how to burn the midnight oil and they know how important the values of school are to cope later in life. So it may not always be about fun and games, big deal, life isn’t all about fun and games either. This may be a good time for international students to check out courses available in India, may as well learn a whole new culture while you’re at it. Manipal University has superb Medical and Engineering courses and right here in Delhi University you can do your Bachelor’s and Master’s in any subject, language or stream. The world is an ocean for these young men and women and college is ‘lifeguard’ training!