Thursday, 17 June 2010

Book lovers' paradise

Books, books and books... Wherever you glance your eyes are met with heaps of books.
Welcome to the famous Sunday Kitab Bazar or Sunday book market of Daryaganj in Delhi. Every Sunday, over 250 book sellers set their stalls on the pavements or the patio of shops which remain closed on this day.
If one is on the lookout for rare titles then this is the place to be in. Hundreds of thousands of titles from all over the world on all subjects under the earth can be found here. From current magazines and bestsellers to old, hardbound, priceless books which have gone out of print can be spotted here.
One can buy books here at 1/10th of the original price in standard bookshops. The latest issue of Time magazine or The Economist can be bought for Rs10 and Rs20 respectively. From classics, novels, biographies, autobiographies, to books on medicine, history, travel, law, IT, engineering, architecture, interior and fashion designing and text books, you name it, all are available here.
So, it’s worth taking a trip to the market and rummaging through the heaps of books to chance upon a treasure trove.
Arun Laxmanam, 37, has been coming to this market since he was 17. He says he is passionate about books. “I can find here books on all subjects and in one place. It’s fun to discover new books. Sometimes the books I buy here turn out to be so interesting that I end up ordering their entire series at full price,” says Laxmanam.
Like him, Rohit Khatri, 18, was seen squatting and browsing through a pile of books. A Delhi University undergraduate student, he has been especially coming here to look for text books which he needs to prepare for his civil service exams. “I have been looking for some books which have run out of print and not available anywhere else,” says Khatri. The day was successful for him as he found most of the books he wanted.
The market is always chock-a-block with students, parents and book lovers in spite of scorching heat or bitter cold. While parents can be seen selecting story or rhyme books from a vast range for their young ones, students particularly come here to buy text books for pittance. The market suits students perfectly as they live on a very tight budget.
Sudha Ranjan, 60, from Delhi’s neighbouring city Noida, has her bag full with bestselling novels that will last her a month. “I come here every month to take my stock,” confesses Ranjan who was checking out each stall.

Amidst the din of sellers calling passengers to their stalls, some buyers could be seen haggling for a further price reduction, while a few others visibly surprised after seeing a rare book at as low a price as Rs20. “Are you sure you are selling it for Rs 20?, asked a youth to make it sure after chancing upon a book in a heap. “Yes, pick any, all are for Rs 20,” said the seller indifferently. Clutching his favourite find the buyer made a happy exit.
Apart from Hindi and English, books are also available in Arabic, German, Chinese, Urdu and French.
Ramlal, 35, has been selling books at the market for the past 18 years. He says he doesn’t make much money through retail selling though. But when customers buy in bulk from him about 300- 400 books together then he makes some profit.
Ramlal sources his books from publishers and distributors. Most of the books sold here are second hand books but not all of them.
“The sellers get books at a very cheap rate from publishers who are not able to sell old editions. Some other sellers get books from customs as well which remain unclaimed. These books are bought at dirt cheap rate,” says Malik Singh, 54.
Singh sells only international magazines in 1/10th of their original price. How is he able to sell them so cheap and still make money?
“I get these magazines from the International Airport. Everyday hundreds of magazines come with international flights. Once a plane lands at the airport, the magazines are also binned while cleaning up the aircraft. These magazines are not reused. So I go there and buy in bulk as if I was buying potatoes in kilograms,” says Singh.
He has been selling books at Daryaganj for eight years now after leaving his odd job. By selling magazine at the Sunday market he earns enough to support his family. “One of my daughters has just landed a job with a MNC after completing her engineering in electronics. I paid her fees and other expense by selling magazines here,” says Singh with a proud smile.
Three decades on the market still exudes old days charm. Tourists coming to Delhi bookmark this place on their planner. And, for booklovers it’s an assured haven to find their “best friend”.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Playing footsie with football

As the world is gripped by FIFA fever, cricket-crazy Indians are playing footsie with football . Though cricket is the first love of the nation, sexed-up soccer is catching on with a selected but a growing fraternity of fans.
The mother of all games, the 19th 2010 World Cup, has sent football fanatics on a psychedelic trip that will last till month end.
Bars, pubs and restaurants are in full swing to recreate soccer frenzy, thousands of miles away from South Africa, here in capital New Delhi-- All in an effort to tap the sentiment for business gains.
Giant screens beaming high voltage matches, rounds of beer to wash down dishes that have been named after soccer players or their countries are helping those to live and breathe excitement of 2010 World Cup live who have missed to be in South Africa around this time.
Blues pub at Connaught Place is among many that has literally turned into a mini stadium. As the sun goes down, football enthusiasts start pouring into the pub for a ‘kick’ on a 12x10 giant screen.
Flags of all the participating countries, nets, and footballs are either hanging from ceiling beams or on walls. You name your favourite player and chances are you would get a dish and a drink named after him. So punters are not only enjoying their favourite stars playing but are also relishing chewing on their names too!
There is a variety of meals to choose from the menu. To name a few, order from Messi’s delight grilled chicken fried or vegetables patty, Rooney’s fish and chips or Zamrota’s golden extravaganza pizza with grilled chicken, salami, bell peppers, black olives and wash them down with abundant beer, Kaka’s Kick Vodka or John Terry’s Banana Kick of Bacardi and Blue Cerecao.
But what seems to be tickling the punter’s taste buds is the sizzler. Waiters with Ts of their favourite teams are serving piping hot platters on almost every table and replenishing beer glasses. As the momentum picks up, more and more orders of drinks are ordered in the backdrop of the loud music that is helping to build the atmosphere. People edgy on their seats with eyes glued on TV watch the next second-by-second action while mechanically gulping down drinks.
There are gasps as a goal is missed by their favourite teams, some resort to swearing even and some just sigh. Immersed in the live action, spectators just become oblivious of their surroundings and enjoy each and every action followed by their verbal exclamations.
“If you look closely Fifa matches reflect human characteristics—the good and the ugly, ruthless, selfish, team spirit, you just have to observe it. One can identify himself with the game and the players,” says one football enthusiast who has grown up watching the world cup for three decades.
Referring to the punters at the bar, he says, “these are the loyal football fans no matter what they would come here to catch the frenzy.”
But its weekends when the bar is chock-a-block with people. “On the first day of the match on June 11, our bar was jam-packed. Over 200 people came on that day,” said Naveen Kumar, manager of Blues. Saturday and Sunday were no different too. And the sale went up by about 25 per cent.
The ecstasy of the sport carnival seems to remain in the air till the winning team lifts the trophy. Meanwhile, people will love to flock to a place where they can soak in and share football mania with their mates. Most importantly, “to watch good game irrespective of which team they support,” says another football enthusiast.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Bhopal Gas tragedy, a lesson for Nuclear Liability Bill

The recent verdict on the world’s worst industrial disaster, Bhopal gas leak tragedy, which handed out a meager penalty to the convicts, is casting a shadow on the American hope of the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill from being passed in Indian Parliament.
India’s main opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for the first time asked the government to withdraw the Bill in the wake of the Bhopal gas fiasco verdict. 'We are opposing this (Bill) in parliament,' said BJP spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain. The bill is facing opposition across main political parties.
A trial court in Bhopal, capital of India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh, sentenced seven officials of former US-based Union Carbide Corporation to two years’ imprisonment for criminal negligence in the gas leak. However, they were immediately granted bail. They were also imposed a meager fine of Rs100,000.
Anti-nuclear activists and environmentalists are drawing clear parallels with the gas tragedy. They have been criticising the nature of the bill and accusing it of “protecting the American interest” and ignoring “Indians’ rights”.
The absence of stringent laws in the country enabled former Union Carbide Company escape criminal liability after the gas leak on December 2-3 1984 killed thousands of lives immediately and in years to follow.
Activists fear the same absence of criminal liability in the bill will let suppliers of nuclear technology and equipment in the US go scratch free in case of a nuclear disaster which would be much bigger and dangerous than the gas leak tragedy.
“The present nuclear agreement with the US is contentious. It ignores the welfare of the nation and overtly protects the suppliers of the technology,” accuses Kruna Raina, from Greenpeace Foundation.

Uday Kumar, coordinator, National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM), says, the Bill will help the supplier companies to reap the profits from nuclear commerce and investment in India but if there is an accident they would not be liable to pay any compensation to the victims.
“According to this legislation, if there is an accident in a nuclear power facility, the onus for paying the damages will be on the operator of the facility. In this case on Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL), the operator of the nuclear facilities in the country,” says Kumar.
The NPCL, which is a public company, will use the taxpayers money for compensation whereas foreign suppliers will just pocket the profit and pay nothing.
Another contention anti-nuclear activists have is that the Bill provides a cap of Rs 2,400 crores by way of damages which is not enough. They say the liability clause is not stringent enough as the Bill does not have the criminal liability clause
“Even 25 years after the Bhopal tragedy, people are not fully compensated. In case of a nuclear disaster there would be many more people, who will be wiped out, suffer from radiation and wait for treatment for many years,” says Kumar.
On June 20, NAAM will protest the bill in the light of the Bhopal Gas tragedy verdict at Koodankulam nuclear power construction site built with the help of Russia in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The organisation will also conduct a nationwide Nuclear Prohibition Tour on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary.
Kumar says the very argument that nuclear energy needed to match the fast growth of the country is a sham. It’s benefiting a tiny per cent of rich in India.
“Real people in India are committing suicide and dying of hunger. To empower people at the grassroots level and to provide energy for growth, energy should be reproduced at a local level. It should be decentralised. Producing electricity at a local level will be more meaningful instead of importing technology and centralising its production,” says Kumar.
He says India does not need nuclear power and says the country has enough resources like solar, wind, hydro to generate clean energy.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Children of captitalism nurse a social cause

They are young, single highly educated and well-heeled MNC employees. The upwardly mobile young brigade in Gurgaon, a neighbouring town of Delhi, works in swanky offices through the week.

Deep in their heart, away from the glitz and glamour of capitalism, they nurse a social cause — to do their bit for those who have been left behind in the race of modernity.

Come weekend, they teach in schools and scout through slums — mushrooming on the fringe of high-rise apartments and outskirts of the city — to persuade rag pickers or daily wage labourers to send their kids to school.

It’s their efforts that today many slum children are able to experience the classroom environment and are able to read and write.

These professionals are volunteers of AID India Gurgaon Chapter. Every Saturday and some Sundays they teach the children in three schools — Prerna, Disha and Unnati.

The pupils of these schools eagerly wait for Saturdays to be with these volunteers who play with them and make them laugh while teaching them basic Mathematics, Hindi and English. Kids love the non-conventional method of learning while playing. Their enthusiasm for learning is apparent as all of them try to outdo each other in answering questions.

Chamara, who doesn’t know his age but looks about 6-7-year-old, says he likes the volunteers. “They love us, make us laugh and sometimes get us goodies too,” says Chamara who studies at Prerna.

These schools were started by some of the volunteers at a small level. Unnati was the first to start in January 2007. Nishank, 27, a research analyst, along with a few friends started the weekend school for rag pickers’ kids.

“There was a slum area between my house and office. I wanted to do something for them. So, one day I visited them and started teaching kids under a tree. And, Unnati was born,” says Nishank, who was joined in by more volunteers.

But the kids wanted to study everyday instead of just on weekends. Four months later, collaboration with Literacy India got them a paid teacher who would teach kids five days a week and now in a classroom at Jharsa village adjoining the Gurgaon city.

Gradually more kids from other slums were brought in. They would be taught in two shifts for two hours in the morning. And volunteers would continue meeting and teaching them on weekends.

Two years later, Disha was opened, a few blocks away from Unnati. “Fifty kids joined on the first day on January 26, 2009. All of them were children of rag pickers,” says Munish Duvedi, 26, a clinical researcher, who coordinates activities of the three schools run with the help of Aid India Gurgaon Chapter volunteers.

The one-hall classroom was donated by the village council is neat and lively with drawings and paintings done by pupils. Colourful furniture, book racks, teaching boards and a statue of a Hindu Goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, in a corner do make it look like an abode of learning.

At present, there are 32 kids enrolled at Disha. “The kids are very sharp and pick up very fast,” says Poonam Saini, the teacher at the school, adding that some pupils still go back to rag picking in the evening after attending the class.

The main aim is to introduce these kids to the joys of reading and writing and finally graduate them into mainstream schools.

Moffidul, 11, is now in class II at Vivek High School. He likes his new school as he is being taught new things. But he still loves coming to Disha where he first learnt alphabets of Hindi and English.

“I come here to meet my teacher. I like her a lot,” says Moffidul with a smile. He is the youngest in his family and says, “Munish ‘Sir’ enrolled me at Disha”.

“Before coming to Disha I never went to any school. I used to pick rag. But now I put all my attention on studies,” says he.

He understands education can open a new world to him where he won’t have to pick rag and live in a shanty house anymore. “When I grow up I want to become a teacher. My father says I’m proud of you. He now doesn’t force me into rag picking,” says Moffidul with a smile.

But if need be, Moffidul still helps in cooking food and cleaning his house.

Papiya, 9, a classmate of Moffidul, has also come along with him to meet the teacher. Daughter of a migrant labourer from Bengal, she had to leave school when she moved to Delhi with her father.

“At our new school (Vivek High School) they teach us more. Earlier I knew very little but I think I now know quite a lot,” quips Papiya.

Mofuddil and Papiya are among 25 pupils from the three centres who have been inducted into formal schools. But their progress is still being monitored by the volunteers who also collect money to pay for their fees.

About 10 minutes drive from Disha and Unnati is Prerna. Forty kids come to the makeshift school everyday. A paid teacher gives lessons to kids during the week. And volunteers take care of weekends.

Most of the kids don’t know their age but all of them now know the value of education.

Puja says, “I don’t want to remain illiterate like our parents. I want to do something better than them. I want to become an engineer.” Another girl, Pushpa, wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

“The pupils have learnt some classroom etiquettes and keep themselves neat and tidy to an extent,” says their teacher.

The school was a result of Manish Kumar, 24, an IT Engineer, and his friend, Kunal, who wanted to do something meaningful on their weekends instead of just watching movies or shopping week after weeks.

Thus began Prerna in a tent on Children’s Day, November 14, in 2009 amidst a slum of sculptors. However, retaining kids was still a challenge. “On the first day there were 50 kids, curiosity brought 80 kids to the classroom the second day but the third day it came crashing to just 20 as part of the slums was evacuated and partly parents were not bothered to send the kids to school,” says Manish. So with it came another task of motivating parents to send their kids to the school.

Soon they lost their temporary school as well. “Luckily, Brigadier AS Yadav let us use his land to build a makeshift school and today the strength of pupils is 40 with equal number of girls,” says Manish.

The volunteers raise money and Aid finances additional expenses. While these kids benefit from the well-educated volunteers, the volunteers say kids help them to evolve as better persons.

Dillip Kumar, 29, a banker, says, “After coming in touch with these kids I have learned to be patient and listen to people. I have learnt how to smile even in adverse condition without cribbing about harsh life.”

All volunteers eagerly wait for a Saturday to come. This is the time to break from office environment and be with fellow volunteers who are full of beans and a bunch of hilarious people. One cannot stop but laugh while being with them.

Mansi Jain, 24, a software engineer, has been teaching kids since November last year and doesn’t want to miss any weekend to be with them. “I have made quite a few friends after joining Disha. I love coming here. The atmosphere is jovial here. We have some nice time in teaching and learning with kids,” says she with a smile.

Anjali Mehta, 23, who is pursuing BA in social work through distance education, comes to Disha and Unnati everyday to teach and take care of administration and on Sundays she goes to slums to motivate parents to send their kids to school. She is glad what she is doing because “this is what I always wanted to do this,” says she.

The volunteers want their strength to grow manifold as it would mean making a difference in more disadvantaged children’s life.

Super 30s 's Super Success

Super-30 has got yet another feather in its cap. The US based 'Time' magazine has included it in its ‘Best of Asia 2010’ list.

The Super-30 coaching centre’s ticket to fame is 100% success rate of its students in cracking India’s toughest exam to secure a place at the premier Institute of Information Technology (IIT) for three consecutive years since 2008.

The centre was founded by Anand Kumar, 37, in India’s eastern state of Bihar’s capital Patna in 2002. The news of this latest international honour has brought cheers to Kumar and his students.

“We are very happy to hear this. We are happy for the students. Our students from all over the world are calling up and congratulating us,” says Kumar excitedly over the phone.

However, “what makes that feat even more remarkable is that these (its) students are the poorest of the poor who would otherwise never be able to afford full-time coaching," says the magazine.

Kumar along with his coaching staff scouts through the least developed pockets of the state and handpicks 30 bright students from financially and socially backward strata of society.

Once selected, these students are provided free food, lodging and coaching for IIT’s examination test. The one-year coaching is intensive.

The centre provides the students with one single lifetime opportunity that can potentially transform their life. These children of rickshaw pullers, fruit and vegetable hawkers, daily wage labourers, auto drivers, kiln workers, marginal farmers know it’s an opportunity to swim or drown. If they seize this one chance it can drive them out from their destitution.

This single hope motivates them to do their very best. During one year at the centre, the students completely cut themselves off from the world. “They don’t watch TV or movies, read newspapers or magazines. They don’t visit their parents during festivals either. They just immerse themselves in studies with a single goal— to find a place in IIT,” reveals Kumar.

The students are coached in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics for four hours, five days a week. However, Mathematics is the main thrust area. To sustain the interest of students, the teaching staff makes learning interesting and simple.

“We explain them in depth and in an interactive way, clarify various concepts and their applications in various problems,” says Kumar.

Apart from teaching, the Super-30 teachers have a task without which coaching wouldn’t yield desired results. That is to boost the morale and self respect of these students.

“Somewhere they are conscious about their background. When they first come to the centre they are shy and nervous about the challenge of getting through the IIT test. The fear has to be removed from their mind and heart. So we condition them psychologically that they can do it,” says Kumar.

Apart from the rigorous coaching, the students have to write two tests on weekends. According to Kumar, the tests comprise challenging questions.

The weekly brain racking tests through the year make students so thorough in their subjects that writing an IIT test becomes a cakewalk for them.

According to Kumar, the students are self motivated and study for 16 hours a day. They discuss various problems and solve it among themselves. Since all of them have high IQ level they are almost at the same wavelength while discussing problems.

However, girls are in minority in Super-30. To increase girl students’ intake, the coaching centre gives them relaxation in marks. “Still we don’t get more than two girls each year on an average. Unfortunately, their parents don’t encourage them as they think they will be married.”

It was Kumar’s own experience that inspired him to give free education to economically weak but talented students. A Mathematics wizard, Kumar got his papers in the subject published in Indian and foreign journals while he was still doing his BA in 1993. He says he could not afford to go to bigger universities in Delhi or Mumbai because he did not have enough money. This was the very reason why he could not join Cambridge either in October 1994 after securing a place in post graduation Mathematics study. His father’s death just before his departure for England ended his last hope of pursuing higher education. He had to stay on in Patna to help his family earn a living.

“While in college I already used to go out on my bicycle to sell ‘papad’ (paper thin lentil crisps which needs to be roasted or fried) which my mother used to make at home. This was the only source of our livelihood,” recalls Kumar.

However, while living in a hand-to-mouth situation, he kept his passion for numbers alive. He used to solve Mathematics questions with his friends in Ramanujan School of Mathematics which he had formed in 1992 in college. In his spare time he used to teach poor kids for free.

In 1995, he seriously thought about teaching Mathematics regularly and making it a source of his income. His friends Amit Kumar, Praveen Kumar and Neeraj Pratap Singh suggested him to teach Mathematics while they would teach Physics and Chemistry to students. So along with his friends he started offering tuitions to students while continuing his free education for the needy children.

It continued till 2000 and by then Ramanujan School had already become famous for its teaching standards. At that time he used to charge Rs500 each student to be able to fund poor students’ education.

Poverty all around him inspired him to do more each time he saw some talented but helpless student. In 2001, Kumar met a potato farmer’s talented son and realised that he had no money to pay for his fee, rent or food if he shifted to Patna from his village. Kumar did not let go such a talent waste.

He designed a project where he would provide free food, lodging and coaching to talented but needy students. It was supported by his family and fellow colleagues at the centre.

“My mother got ready to cook for them, my brother, Pranav Kumar, a violinist in Mumbai, said he would help me and my colleagues were ready to teach them Physics and Chemistry for free and I took care of Mathematics,” says Kumar.

Thus began Super-30 with conviction in 2002. And since then it has sent 212 students of the 240 to IITs. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, all 30 students of Super-30 made it to IIT with flying colours.

To support a batch of 30 students, tuitions are given to 400 students for Rs6,000 each per year. However, most of his time is dedicated to the Super-30 centre. When he is not giving tuitions in the evening, he spends time with his two-year-old baby and wife. Even while at home he devotes four hours every day to prepare new questions for weekly tests. He says it’s possible because of the cooperation of his “loving wife”.

This year, Kumar wants to increase the Super-30's strength to 60 students and employ additional teachers and other staff members. To support the coaching centre, he will have to give tuitions to 100 more students.

At the moment, hunt for Super-30 students is on in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The classes will begin in July.

According to Kumar, super-30 has given him a new aim in life. “It has changed my life. When I could not go to Cambridge, I was disappointed. I always wanted to be a Mathematics teacher in Cambridge, Yale or IIT. I could not go there but I’m able to send my students there,” says Kumar proudly.

Recalling the proudest moment in his life, he says, “One day a kiln worker’s son Suresh Kumar came to us. We had taught him for two years as he needed extra coaching. And now he had cleared IIT. His father did not know what IIT was but he knew his son had achieved something big. The father and son got us some sweets and both of them could not stop but crying with happiness.”

Suresh Kumar and the likes of him would remain thankful to Super-30 for making a difference in the lives of those who could otherwise never think of making it to IIT.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The saint of earthen pot

Matka Peer or the Saint of earthen pot is a well-known name in Delhi. True to the name, his shrine is quite a sight.

It is almost camouflaged with earthen pots resting on tree boughs and stumps, rooftops, parapets, you name it. Everyday, Summer or Winter, Spring, Autumn or Monsoon, people come to the mausoleum of the 12th century Muslim Sufi Saint to pray or to make a wish. When their prayers are answered, they thank by offering an earthen pot along with 1.25 kilogrmme each of black gram, jaggery (thickened sugarcane juice) and milk. By the number of earthen pots, one can gauge the number of people visiting the shrine to express their gratitude once their wishes are fulfilled.

People come in hundreds throughout the week but on Thursday and Fridays it increases manifolds. “This will give you an idea about the faith people have in the Saint Matka Peer who helps to answer their prayers,” says Shakeel Ahmed, Secretary, Matka Peer Dargah (mausoleum) Welfare Society.

The Sufi (mystic) Saint’s name was Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi Haidri Kalandari. Abu Bakr hailed from Iran’s Tusi district and belonged to the Kalandari family. “He had travelled to India in the 12th century to spread the message of peace and Islam,” says Ahmed.

The site of present mausoleum, then a thick forest, is where he lived and prayed to Allah away from humanity. “Legend has it that once the saint saw a man from a nearby village, Indrapath, was going to commit suicide by jumping into the Yamuna River. He was frail and depressed. He wanted to end his life to get rid of his suffering caused by an incurable disease.

“The saint intervened and calmed him down. Upon hearing his story, he gave him some water from his earthen pot. His health started improving. Lo and behold, he crossed the deadline beyond which the doctor had claimed he would not survive. He was a healthy man again and could earn a living for his family. He came back to the saint along with his family to express his gratitude for giving him another chance to live,” narrates Ahmed.

The resurrected man shared his story with fellow villagers and soon the word spread like a wild fire. When the then ruling Sultan of Delhi, Giyasuddin Balban, heard this he tried to test the Saint’s mystical power and sent a platter of black grams made of iron and jaggery made of clay. The royal platter caused curiosity and awe among the saint’s followers but when the cover was removed they got angry with the audacity of the Sultan.

“The Matka Peer sensed that the Sultan wanted to test him. So he pacified his followers, prayed to Allah and the platter of iron grams turned into edible roasted black grams and clay turned into jaggery. The saint ordered milk from the village, added jaggery in it to make a sweet drink and distributed it among people along with the grams.

“At that time he made an announcement that whosoever will go to him and if his wishes are fulfilled he should offer an earthen pot, black grams and jaggery,” says Ahmed.
The tradition continued.

Centuries later, the faith of people in him is intact. People irrespective of their religious backgrounds come here to pray and thank the saint in form of earthen pots. Praying here is quite democratic, anyone from anywhere belonging to any faith can come here any day to see the mausoleum and pray. Atop the mausoleum of the saint stands a structure erected by Balban in white marble stone, which has Islamic carvings, designs, architecture and couplets from the Quran engraved on the wall of the room. A photo of Mecca is also hanging on the wall.

Hindus, Muslims Christians, Buddhists all come here and pray in their own way without disturbing the peace and sanctity of place. While Muslims can be seen with opens hands asking for ‘dua’ or blessings and praying, Hindus and other faith followers can bee seen praying with folded hands.

Outside on the compound, oil lamps are lit and incenses are burnt the way Hindus and others would do in their temples. The things offered at the mausoleum represent elements of different faiths like an Islamic sheet with Quranic verses on it, Hindus way of offering flowers, red thread and some edibles sweet balls. Nothing clashes here with anything.

“Sufism shows its way of humanity. The philosophy preaches that whichever religion you belong to you should put humanity and harmony first,” said Ahmed whose family has been looking after the management of the mausoleum for 150 years. Part of his family resides on campus.

The Matka Peer’s mausoleum is perched on a hillock surrounded by an expanse of greenery. The quiet of this little corner in the midst of central Delhi is punctuated with the birds’ twitters or singers’ qawali (mystic songs in praise of God and the saint) and beats of drums.

There is some energy in the atmosphere which has a cathartic on quite a few. While they pray sitting by the ‘mazar’ or mausoleum, tears start rolling down their cheeks and their sobbing continues for a while after they finish their prayers. Perhaps, it has done some cleansing of soul and mind and has made their heart light. Their demeanor now looks calm and composed. It seems a day well invested in soul searching.

For many, coming here is the last hope to find answers and solutions to their problems and sufferings. Some seek the divine intervention to bring happiness in their lonely world. Babu Khan, 55, has traveled overnight from India’s northern city of Lucknow to make a wish for a family. He has lost all his family members to various diseases. He is poor and single. Stubbles cover his cheeks and despair cast gloom in his eyes.

“I have put an application in the ‘darbar’, mausoleum. I hope Matka Peer blesses me. All I want is a wife from a well-to-do family and some money to come in my bank account,” says Babu Khan with a hope.

Babu Khan will have to wait before he sees some miracle happening in his life but Naushar Ranee, 20, is happy. She along with her toddler son and family members has come here from a village on the outskirts of Delhi. She spread a sheet on the mausoleum and presented an earthen pot and other must-offer things, while a cleric chanted some Quranic verses and sought blessings for her.

“I’m very happy. One of my wishes has been fulfilled,” says Nausheer. She will not give a hint about her wish because “wishes are not meant to be shared”. “I’m still waiting for my one more wish to be fulfilled,” says she with a smile while hurrying her folks to leave as dusk descended on the hillock.

People from far and near come here to visit the shrine. It has an important place on Delhi’s map. During the Commonwealth Games, the shrine will be especially shown to visitors as the cultural and spiritual heritage of Delhi.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Potter marries Gandhian and Tagorean values, creates art

He hero worshipped Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He photographed their last meeting for posterity. The picture of Gandhi and Tagore sitting together with students at Santiniketan is now a rare treasure.

Devi Prasad, 90, then a young photographer and an aspiring art student at Santiniketan, now Viswa Bharati University, took that photograph just before Tagore died. Since then it’s been reproduced and reused numerous times. But he never exercised any copyright on this photograph. Perhaps he wanted the world to see these iconic personalities as much as possible.

Tagore and Gandhi tremendously influenced Devi Prasad, his personality and what he was going to become in the future — An artist, a photographer, but foremost a studio potter.

A retrospective of ‘The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman’ is currently on at Lalit Kala Akademi (Academy of Fine Arts) in New Delhi. The exhibition showcases 300 works of Prasad who created them in 65 years of his artistic life -- from his earliest paintings in Santiniketan to his last pottery he made in his Delhi studio in 2003-04.

Prasad’s work spans the entire latter half of the 20th century at a moment in the history of Indian art and design which brings India into the modern era,” said Naman Ahuja, a curator.

The exhibition, which is on till May 21, gives a sense of how he with “the act of making art” furthered Gandhian philosophy of ‘swawlamban’ or self reliance and pacifism with the help of Tagorean philosophy of seeking beauty of life through art and literature. He successfully complemented Gandhi’s utilitarian view of life with
Tagore’s spiritual perspective of the world. However, striking a balance between the two philosophies did not come easily.

Prasad came to Santiniketan, founded by Tagore, to be an artist. While here, between 1938 and 1944, he was drawn to Tagore’s philosophy to seek truth and beauty through art. He was trained under master of Bengal School of Art Nandlal Bose and “imbibed many different painting styles, including Modern Art, stills, Bombay School of Art, Bengal School of Painting, Malwa and Rajput Schools of Art,” said Ahuja.

While here, he painted outdoors, countryside in water colours, drew sketches and “made self portraits to define himself”. One of his self-portraits shows him lying on a cot with a notebook by his side. “It conveys that he was contemplating about his future and what he wanted to become”. Another painting on display “depicts a female boar and her tensed body before she was going to give birth in a stormy day.

The picture is quite symbolic of his tension just before he was going to be graduated,” says Ahuja.

His six years at Santiniketan groomed him to be an artist—a painter, a sketcher and a photographer. As an artist he wanted to capture beauty on his canvas. But when he joined Gandhi’s Sevagram centre in 1944, his idea of becoming an art teacher came crashing when he received a letter from Gandhi:

“Bread comes first and adornment afterwards…but since you are here, do whatever you conveniently can. Learn here what true art is. The art teacher should first take up some work which would enable him to earn his livelihood. Later on he may paint and teach painting. Such artist alone will teach true art. You will remember what I had said about the broom. Sweeping is a great art. Where to keep the broom, how to handle it, should there be one broom or different brooms for different jobs, should one raise dust or sprinkle water before sweeping, does one sweep the corners by paying attention to the walls or roof — all these questions should occur to an artist. Only then will he finally find beauty in sweeping.”

Gandhi’s reply to a letter from Prasad showed the significance of utilitarianism and self-sufficiency in art.

After reading the letter he was “devastated and went back to Santiniketan to Nandlal Bose who sent him back with a drawing of two wheels representing two different philosophies of Tagore and Gandhi. Bose asked him if he could use them to chart a new direction for himself,” said Ahuja.

For the next 18 years he stayed on in Sevagram. While here, he imbibed Gandhi’s mantra of self sufficiency or “swawlamban” a key element of “Nai Talim” (new or alternative education) to transform society by educating children.

Prasad’s quote on a panel reads that by ‘talim’ Gandhi meant “getting the best out of a child… and it could be only possible by teaching handicraft to him.” According to him, Gandhi believed that the “act of making” would make people self-dependent in making what they needed, instill self pride and respect for labour, create jobs locally and eventually stop migration from the village to the city.

At Sevagram, Prasad built Kalabhawan (building for art and craft). While here, he took to pottery after reading ‘A Potter’s Book’ by Bernard Leach. To drill in Gandhi’s sense of self-sufficiency, he built a kiln at Kalabhawan and redesigned pottery wheels. He taught his students to make their own pottery for everyday use.

To guide potters he wrote “Potters make your own tools and equipment”.
His activism of self reliance drew him into national movements like the Quit India movement, and in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement (exhorting landlords to give land to the landless).

During this period, he pursued photography actively and recorded various events. One of his photographs that finds special place in the exhibition is of a farmer walking into oblivion near Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum at Rajghat. It was taken two years after Gandhi was assassinated.

“The picture is quite symbolic. After the death of Gandhi, there was no one left to take up the cause of farmers, poor and the hapless so vigorously,” says Ahuja.
But even after his death, Gandhi’s followers continued to practise his teachings of peace.

It was for this cause, Prasad left for England in 1962 to join the London-based pacifist organisation, War Resisters’ International, and later became its chairman. During this time he could not paint, sketch or do pottery. When he left, his colleagues gifted him a kiln and a wheel. While here in London, he tried his hands with porcelain and stoneware and painted on them. His art of pottery evolved to a greater standard but he was always conscious that his pottery should never be overpriced.

Twenty years later when he finally returned to India in 1983, he continued making pottery until 2004. He set up his first pottery studio in Delhi in 1985 and began teaching pottery apart from building gas kilns, wheels, and designing tools to suit Indian conditions. He always emphasized on achieving precise measurement and spot on quality of pottery which could be mastered only after a thorough practice.

Today, he is known as one of the top studio potters in India. Patterns on his pottery, faces and other drawings on platters and plates show his grip on both brush and wheel. His contribution to art won him Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna award in 2007 and the Desikottama from Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, in 2008. However, he maintained a low profile throughout his career.

His genius lies in ‘drawing’ his own artistic course, in creating beautiful art to instill humane values by synthesizing Tagorean and Gandhian philosophies.