Archive for the 'Arts & Culture' Category

Happy Pongal

Wish You Happy Pongal

Inset of kolam featuring clay pongal pot and deepam

Pongal Tableau

Another inset of Kolam featuring the over-flowing pongal

A more linear tableau: sugar cane, pongal being cooked to over-flowing over a wood fire, the sun, and a plate of offerings

A few of the Pongal kolams drawn on two streets in Kuruchikuppam, Pondicherry

Amazing Laughter

Are you smiling yet?  Coming upon this installation in Morton Park (Triangle) near English Bay Beach in the West End district of Vancouver is like, as visiting friend Smita Patel says, coming upon a laughter club in a Delhi park – you can’t help but be happy, if for a moment.

A-maze-ing Laughter” is part of the Vancouver Biennale 2009-2011, one of 28 sculptures based on the theme “in-TRANSIT-ion” installed along walking and biking routes, the new Canada Line and other mass transportation lines, and at the Vancouver International Airport.

Artist Yue Minjun uses his own face in a state of hysterical laughter as a signature trademark.  Additional photos by Dan Fairchild, the official photographer of the Vancouver Biennale, can be seen on the Biennale Blog, which also gives more information on the sculpture and the sculptor, including this historical context of the artist’s work in China:

Yue Minjun was a leading figure in what became to be known in the 1990’s as Cynical Realism, an artistic movement that emerged in China after the 1989 student demonstrations in Tiananmen and the suppression of artistic expression.  Humor, cynicism, repetition and an emphasis on the individual are common characteristics of this artistic movement.  Yue Minjun was one of the first artists to translate this new ironic view of contemporary life, one that is expressed in the nihilistic hilarity at a time when little was funny.

In Vancouver, the irony is not apparent.

Postcards to a Stranger

On select Fridays, the Vancouver Art Gallery throws a museum-wide party, called FUSE, with music and other live performances taking place in (literally) every nook and cranny of the heritage building.  Past parties have included make-up artists turning patrons into ghouls or other damaged creatures, bhangra dancers, live online chat displays, projected images on external building surfaces, and lots of live music.

One of the activities for the March 12 FUSE was “Postcards to a Stranger.”  At one station, you filled out your name and address on a label.  At another, you wrote out a postcard which would be matched by volunteers with a previously addressed label.  A few days ago, Mark and I received our postcards.

Mine said:

I’m standing right behind you.  Don’t look! Kapon


Hey You – it’s me!

You are a truly gorgeous creature.  I hope you know & feel that.  Inside & out. I’m honoured to write to you.  I mean who still actually ‘writes’ these days… it’s becoming a lost art to send hand-written words.  Whenever you receive this, know that I was thinking of you when I sat quietly in the Art Gallery wondering who you are.  And knowing you are great & mystifying.  May this bring a little love & sunshine to you today.  You deserve it. Love Danae

Well Kapon and Danae – thank you!  It was indeed a treat to receive these cards in the mail. I hope the recipients of our cards were equally thrilled, if for a moment.

Ayudha Puja in Pondicherry

Ayudha puja at Renaissance Workshop

Ayudha puja at Renaissance Workshop

The people of Pondicherry celebrated Ayudha Puja on 8 October 2008, the 9th day of Navaratri (30 September to 9 October this year).  Durga puja is called Ayudha puja in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Ayudha puja is “worship of the weapons” – which in common terms is translated into implements and tools.

Father and daughter washing a scooter

Father and daughter washing a scooter

People clean their houses and wash all the implements and tools of their trade, including their vehicles.

Doorway decorated with palm and banana fronds

Doorway decorated with palm and banana fronds

People decorate their homes, offices and other places of work as well as their vehicles with palm and banana leaves.  The youngest palm fronds are cut and shaped into decorations. Unfortunately, most people now also use “modern” decorations, including colored crepe paper.

Mark and I were invited to two puja celebrations – one at the carpentry and furniture refinishing workshop of a friend (where we had the best food we have had to date in Pondicherry – the carpenters/cooks were from Bihar) and the other at the Shuddham office.

Snigda Marries Bapoorau

Bapoorau and Snigda in full regalia

Bapoorau and Snigda in full regalia

On the morning of 3 October 2008, Snigda married Bapoorau at the Sivakami Amman temple, off the Sivaganga tank, of the famous Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu.

Snigda, pre ceremony

Snigda, pre ceremony

Getting changed at the Sivakami Amman temple

Getting changed at the Sivakami Amman temple

During the ceremony; Bapoorau shows off his well-inked arms

During the ceremony; Bapoorau shows off his well-inked arms

Non-traditional mauling of the bride

Non-traditional mauling of the bride

By the temple tank

By the temple tank

Toe-ringed - it's offical now

Toe-ringed - it's official now!

Bike Valet

Bike Parking at Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Bike Parking at Vancouver Folk Music Festival

As preparations were underway for the Vancouver Folk Music Festival that took place this past weekend in nearby Jericho Beach Park, I wondered at the rows of metal barriers set up at the entrance to the Park on West 4th Avenue.  Were they meant to funnel festival goers through ticket lines?  On the afternoon of the 18th, it all became clear – the barriers were set up for supervised bicycle parking.  How wonderful!  If last year’s travel patterns are indicative of this year’s 10,000 daily festival attendees, 32% will have walked, ridden bikes, or been passengers in automobiles. (Last year, 17% took the bus, and 51% drove.)

Celebration of Light - Canada

Celebration of Light - Canada

Yesterday, I learned of Bike Valet, a secure bicycle parking service being offered free at several festivals and special events in Vancouver this summer by BEST (Better Environmentally Sound Transport).  This year, BEST is providing Bike Valet at a total of six events and festivals in Vancouver, including at two viewing locations for the Celebration of Light, a fireworks competition that takes place in Vancouver every year.

Celebration of Light - Canada

Celebration of Light - Canada

This year’s competitors for the Celebration of Light are Canada, the U.S. and China.  Yesterday, Canada started off with a spectacular display based on the theme:  Attack, with Godzilla featuring prominently in the beginning of the show.

Laksha Deepam at Sendrakillai, Tamil Nadu

Laksha Deepam

8 February 2008

There is a tropical dry evergreen forest (TDEF) in the village of Sendrakillai (in the state of Tamil Nadu), 60 kilometers south of Pondicherry, that serves as a sacred grove for the 2,000 people of the village. There are five temples in the sacred grove, and this grove, unlike the two TDEF in Pondicherry, is protected and used in a sustainable manner by the villagers.


Niranjan Kumar and a fellow student were the first people to study this ecosystem in December 2006 in their final year at the Salim Ali School of Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University. They categorized 54 species of trees and 48 species of liana (woody climbers) in the 12 hectares grove. The forest is the main source of medicinal plants and trees, edible fruits and tubers and firewood for the village. There is a family of nadivaithyam (traditional healers) that treat the villagers using plant extracts from the forest. (There is no hospital in or around the village.)

Entrance to Main Temple
Entrance to main temple in the sacred grove

There are two horses and guards that lead to the main temple of the sacred grove. The temple portico is flanked by two dogs. The villagers believe that if you whisper your prayers into the ears of the horses or dogs, your prayers will come true within the week. (Before he left the village, Niranjan prayed for a good job in an NGO and he landed up at Shuddham!)

Filling the deepam Boys filling deepam 62nd year 62nd year - lit

On the last Friday of the month of thai (the harvest month which begins with the Pongal festivities), Tamilians celebrate Laksha Deepam – one lakh (a hundred thousand) lamps. (This is the 62nd year that this village has celebrated Laksha Deepam.) The deepam are filled with a mixture of five different oils: nallennai (sunflower), pinnaennai, vilakuennai (neem), malataennai (groundnut or peanut), and thengaennai (coconut).  (One of the oils prevents the wicks from being blown out by the wind.)  20 years ago, one family sponsored the entire festival. Now, they collect donations from the village and surrounding areas for the celebration.

Lighting the deepam

Families participate in both the filling and the lighting of the deepam as the sun begins to fade. As the figure of the god is brought along the path from the village into the sacred grove, accompanied by a drummer, firecrackers light the sky and assault the eardrums (some of the firecrackers only produce noise).

Vendors set up their wares in a carnival atmosphere (with mobile rides – mini ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds and games – balloon shooting and ring tosses) and families come from neighboring villages by bus, trucks, and on foot to offer their prayers and to celebrate  into the night.

Kolam Competition

 Krishna and Radha
Kolam #79 on Beach Road in Pondicherry 13 January 2008 

13 January 2008

There was a kolam competition early this morning on Beach Road in Pondicherry.  Over 500 women (mother-daughter teams, friends, colleagues) participated in this annual event the day before the start of the 4-day Pongal festival.  By the time I got to Beach Road in the late afternoon, most of the kolams had been destroyed by passing traffic, so all the pictures shown here (with permission) were taken by Policarpio (Tony) Soberanis, who was also too late to capture more than 230 of the 500 entries.

Flower Kolam   Fruit Kolam   Grain Kolam   Mixed Kolam   Mixed Flower Kolam

Most of the kolams were fairly traditional, with flower and geometric themes.  Some competitors added a twist by using chopped flowers, fruits and vegetables, and grains in addition to or instead of the white and colored rice powder.

Peacock Kolam1   Peacock Kolam2   Peacock Kolam3   Peacock Kolam4   Peacock Kolam5

The second most popular theme was the peacock – the national bird of India.

Kids Kolam   Baby Krishna   Menorah Kolam

These three also caught my eye.  Is that a menorah in the middle of kolam # 206?

American ’60s Pop Culture and the Pondicherry College Student

“Ma’am, the Flintstones.”  Does everyone know about the Flintstones?  “Yes ma’am.” “Tom and Jerry, ma’am.”  “WWF” (World Wrestling Federation, now World Wrestling Entertainment).

I am stunned as other suggestions, such as “Father Christmas”  are proposed by the 20 (Hindu) students of Tagore Arts College. Eventually, the suggestions turn to South Indian film stars (Rajnikant and Ajith), and Indian cricketers (all men). And I begin to feel a little easier.

We had gathered on a Saturday morning to engage the Tagore Arts College student members of the NSS (National Service Scheme) in an awareness campaign to stop littering on Beach Road in Pondicherry. We (the members of Shuddham and two visiting students from the University of Iowa) were hoping to pump up these first 20 NSS students to start a “Beautiful Pondicherry” movement, first at their school, then on Beach Road, then throughout Pondicherry.  They accepted a very tight deadline to start the first “action” on Beach Road the next Saturday evening.

Tony, one of the University of Iowa volunteers, suggested that the students dress up as characters to engage the public in a fun, funny way to stop littering.  Tony and his sister had worked with their mom (Mr. Neat and Clean, a clown) in Belize in a successful campaign against littering.   Kyle, the other University of Iowa volunteer suggested a character called the “Green Guru”. So, while the Americans and members of Shuddham suggested characters such as Mr. Clean, Mr. Toilet, Mr. Water, or “No Paper”, “No Plastic”, “No Bottles”, etc. who would be under the leadership of “No Trash” the NSS students were suggesting cartoon characters created in Hollywood in the 1950s and ’60s. (Everyone here knows the Flintstones?!?)

These students, most of whom are first generation college students, are part of the Indian juggernaut hurtling towards progress a la the U.S. in the ’50s, consuming sanitized U.S. pop culture (no one mentioned Itchy & Scratchy), material goods (the latest cell phones), and mineral resources.

The students left completely jazzed, discussing among themselves how they could get their entire college clean before our next meeting on Wednesday. (During our visit to the principal last week, we observed piles of trash everywhere.)  We settled on them dressing up as the Indian cricket team (uniforms are easy to get anywhere), but with capes emblazoned with “Beautiful Pondicherry”, some in English and some in Tamil. Dress rehearsal is on Friday.  The performance on Saturday.

Live (Free) Webcast of Pop!Tech – 17-20 October 2007

Pop!Tech is the annual thought leadership summit convening next week in Camden Maine from October 17 to 20, 2007.

“Each year, this four day summit explores the deep forces shaping our collective future, the social impact of new scientific insights and emerging technologies, and the new approaches humanity is taking to address national and global problems. It draws together world-leading speakers and 550 attendees that include some of the highest ranks of science, technology, business, the arts, culture, law and the press; the participants include Nobel Prize winners, MacArthur ‘genius’ award winners, and uncategorizable thought leaders who come together to look collectively at the future of the world.” Andrew Zolli, Curator of Pop!Tech

This year, the entire Pop!Tech conference will be webcast LIVE AND FOR FREE at between 9am and 6.30pm, October 17-20, 2007. You can even submit questions to the stage live by emailing The 2007 Pop!Tech program and speakers are online.

Pop!Tech is a nonprofit with the mission to accelerate the impact of world-changing people and ideas. They’ve invested *heavily* to give their content away to the world for free – please “tune” in and spread the word.

The partial list of confirmed speakers is amazing:

* Ted Ames, the Macarthur-Award-Winning ecologist and Maine lobsterman, will share his work creating sustainable approaches to our management of the oceans.

* Tom Barnett, the geopolitical and military strategist and best-selling author, who will explore America’s strategic challenges in the next 25 years.

* Sam Barondes, the renowned neuropsychiatrist who will discuss the essence of human personality – what it is, where it comes from, and how it makes us who we are.

* Robert Boroffice, head of Nigeria’s space agency, NASRDA, who will speak about how satellite technology can connect Africa.

* Adrian Bowyer, creator of low-cost, open-source fabrication technologies will speak about how this breakthrough technology can be used to empower ordinary citizens around the world.

* Louann Brizendine, neuropsychiatrist and expert on gender differences in the brain, will share her provocative work on how men and women truly do think differently.

* Mustapha Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia and leading Islamic thinker, will speak about global peace.

* Caleb Chung, legendary toy designer and inventor of the Furby, will share his latest “artificially alive,” animatronic creation.

* Krista Dong, MD, a front-lines AIDS worker in South Africa, will speak about an inspiring new initiative to help HIV+ people in the poorest communities.

* Alan Dugatkin, an expert in animal behavior will share his insights into the biological underpinnings of human goodness.

* Nathan Eagle, the mobility expert from the MIT Media Lab, will share his research on the use of mobiles as a tool for social development.

* John Esposito, the preeminent Islamic-studies scholar, will lead a discussion on the history and future of Islam.

* Jeff Fisher, the healthcare psychologist will share his work on a promising new software tool in the fight in the fight against HIV.

* Cary Fowler, the world’s seed banker and director of the Global Seed Diversity Trust, will share his efforts to create a “global seed vault” deep in a mountain in Norway.

* Vanessa German, the urban slam poet will inspire us.

* Dan Gilbert, the psychologist and best-selling author, will discuss human happiness and why we rarely hold on to it.

* Jessica Hagy, superbly comic blogger will share her hilarious illustrations.

* Victoria Hale, founder of the world’s first non-profit drug company, will share her work on fighting malaria and other illnesses.

* Jonathan Harris, the mind-blowing interactive design star, will share his breathtaking work.

* Carl Honoré, celebrated journalist and chronicler of the Slow Food movement, will speak about the new dynamics of human culture.

* Nina Jablonski, the renowned anthropologist, will share her work studying the biology and meaning of human skin.

* Jessica Jackley Flannery, Internet microfinance pioneer, will discuss the future of ‘bottom up’ solutions to poverty.

* Van Jones, inner-city eco-activist, will speak about his work on a new “green collar” revolution in America’s inner cities.

* Chris Jordan, the celebrated photographer, will share his breathtaking photographs which document of the human impact.

* Sarah Joseph, the founder of Emel magazine, Britain’s leading Muslim lifestyle publication, will discuss emerging dialogues within the Islamic community.

* Jay Keasling, one of the founding fathers of synthetic biology, will share his path-breaking work on new health and energy technologies.

* Zoë Keating, the mesmerizing techno-cellist, will perform for us.

* Sheila Kennedy, the architect and product designer, will relate her work on breakthrough new lighting technologies designed for the developing world.

* Daoud Kuttab, the pioneering Palestinian journalist and new media expert, will share his thoughts on the impact of new media in the Middle East.

* John Legend, the Grammy Award-winning R&B artist, will perform and share his work on global poverty alleviation.

* Joe McCarthy, global mobility researcher, will share his insights into how mobile devices are empowering people around the world.

* Christian Nold, a technology artist, will demonstrate his work on “emotional mapping” technologies that show how people react to places.

* Claire Nouvian, the noted deep-sea conservationist, will share some of her breathtaking work documents the deepest layers of the biosphere.

* Kelly Joe Phelps, the mesmerizing blues guitarist, will perform.

* Dan Pink, the noted journalist will share his thoughts on the rise of the creative economy.

* Steven Pinker, the preeminent cognitive scientist and New York Times-best-selling author will speak on the nature and essence of human thought.

* Paul Polak, founding father of market-based solutions to poverty and development, will speak about his efforts to built ultra-low-cost products for the bottom of the global pyramid.

* Davy Rothbart, the founder of Found magazine, will share some his hilarious findings.

* Enric Sala, the rising star of marine ecology, will share his work documenting the human impact on the oceans.

* Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International, will share lessons from her efforts helping women in post-conflict regions.

* Bill Shannon, the indescribably talented street dancer will speak and perform.

* John Shearer, technology entrepreneur, will share his potentially breakthrough ways of distributing electricity.

* Paul Shuper, psychologist and HIV behavioral researcher, will share his work on a promising new software tool in the fight in the fight against HIV.

* Elizabeth Streb, the award-winning choreographer will share her visions.

* Charles Swift, the Navy lawyer charged with defending terrorists at Guantanamo, will share lessons on balancing human rights with security in the post 9/11 world.

* Zinhle Thabethe, the front-line AIDS worker from KwaZulu Natal province, South Africa, will return to Pop!Tech to announce a significant new initiative to fight the epidemic in her home country.

* Katrin Verclas, mobile activism researcher, will share her research on the many ways mobiles are being used a tool for social change.


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