Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kerala: No coir in the coir land

Coir fibre.

Coir ropes.

A story heard in Kerala recently: A man who had been a coir worker all his life was struggling to maintain his family. There was no work, no money, no food. Finally he gave up all hope and decided to commit suicide.

But there was a problem there.

He couldn’t find a coir rope to hang himself. Only plastic ones were available. Having been a loyal coir man all his life, he didn’t want to finish his misery at the end of a synthetic substitute. And that too in 2009 which has been declared by the UN as the Year of the Natural Fibre!

Jokes apart, the situation of the coir industry in Kerala which used to manufacture 85% of India’s coir products, is in a critical stage. The shortage of coir fibre which is used to manufacture end products like mats and mattings has paralyzed this sector which employs about 400,000 people.

About 50% of the green husks of coconuts available in the coastal areas of Kerala were used for extracting fibre and the balance used as fuel. Traditionally the husks from which the fibre is obtained would be retted for a few months. They were then manually hammered on a block of wood with a thick stick to separate the fibre and pith.

This processing was exclusively the realm of women who form 80% of the industry’s workforce. Till a few decades back, a prominent morning sound in the coastal villages of southern Kerala was the tattoo of retted husks being beaten. That was the heartbeat of the land. The fibre extracted in the morning would be spun into strings in the afternoon. In the evening the women would take the day’s produce to the local bazaar and barter it for provisions.

Through a chain of middlemen, the coir strands would reach the factories of Alleppey which was the hub of the industry. Semi-mechanized coir factories were started in this port town from 1859. The business prospered and that led to destructive trade unionism. The workers resisted modernization of the plants. Finally the factories were forced to close down almost a century later. A new set of entrepreneurs and practice of farming out orders on contract replaced the old system. Whether that benefited the workers is questionable. Businessmen made money anyway.

The shortage for coir fibre was anticipated almost half a century back. In the 1970s the State Government enforced the Husk Control Act. The control of husk trading passed on to cooperative societies and licensed dealers. That does not seem to have helped the coir workers. The quantity of fibre availability did not increase


Actually two more factors affected fibre production adversely. One was the mdite disease that spread to most of the coconut growing areas reducing the yield drastically. The problem was first noticed over a century back but no successful way to tackle it has been discovered.

The second hitch was the objection to retting that arose due to the growing environmental consciousness. The process does pollute the water and pose a serious threat to marine life. That was the end of the traditional channel of coir fibre supply.

The government did come up with a solution. 55 or so mechanical fibre extraction units were started. The idea was sound but the implementation was not. Whoever might have benefited by this project did not include the coir industry. It was not long before these extraction units were closed down.

But alert businessmen took advantage of the situation. Pollachi in Kerala’s neighbouring Tamil Nadu State, soon developed into a major coir fibre supplier. For years now, Kerala’s coir industry has been depending on raw material from Pollachi.

But recently, this applecart has been upset by China which suddenly started buying coir fibre from Tamil Nadu at high prices. The Chinese purchases which totaled 4196 tons till September 2008, suddenly jumped to 19,443 tons this year, almost draining supplies to Kerala. And the cost of coir fibre escalated by 50%.

The economics of these exports to China is not really advantageous to the country. According to one estimate, earnings from an export of 35,000 tons of coir fibre are only Rs.40 crores. If the same quantity is processed in India to make end products, it would provide employment directly and indirectly to about 2 lakh people and earn foreign exchange worth Rs.400 crores. But the coir fibre dealer would rather take the immediate profit than wait for the eventual benefit to the country.

The Kerala Government and the Coir Board are trying to tackle the situation. But are they on the right track? The initial step that is planned is to renovate the old defunct fibre extraction units. One’s immediate reaction is that it would be more money down the drain.

There is heartening news though from the Central Coir Research Institute (CCRI). They seem to have succeeded on two fronts. CCRI has developed a mobile fibre extracting machine that would cost less than Rs.1 lakh against Rs.1 million for the earlier stationary units. Another important claim of the CCRI is that they have discovered a method of considerably reducing the fibre extracting time.

But the question is whether the public sector can deliver the new process to the coir industry efficiently, economically and fast. Or will the new developments go the same way as the earlier fibre extraction units?

(Photos: Dr. Sanjay Parwa. Copyright reserved.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Narayanan and our cribs

Decorating the house for Christmas is over. It looks nice, colourful. I never realized that there are so many ornamental items for beautifying a place. Each year new ones hit the market.

Most of them, I believe, come from China – lights which cost anything from Rs.25 to Rs.1000 each, fireworks ranging from Rs5 to Rs.5000, and so on. Cribs, accessories, Christmas trees are all available in the shops. I wonder how much money flows out of the country on this account each festival season.

During my childhood, there were no Christmas decorations as such in our village. Every year stars used to be made at home with bamboo frame and colour paper. (Was it called China paper? I’m not sure.) Either candles or small kerosene lamps were used to light them. They looked lovely, but if there was breeze, some of them could catch fire. This situation prevailed till 1957 when Olavipe was connected to the power grid.

Only the churches and a few affluent Christian homes used to have cribs in our area. And they were made locally, except the figurines. I think those were imported, but certainly not from China. These cribs were normally crude jobs but nevertheless it was nice to have them.

Enter Narayanan.

He was seven or eight years elder to me and about 18 or so at that time. I think it was Ammachi. who put him on to making cribs. He could easily comprehend the idea – basically simulating the cattle shed where Jesus Christ was born.

Before midnight Narayanan had a beautiful crib ready for the statuettes to be placed.

The way he planned the job was remarkable. First of all he collected some thin reeds that grew along the edges of the rice fields and bamboo stalks. Now came the brilliant part. He looked around and selected a wooden stool that was not too tall, turned it upside down and placed it on the floor.

Presto, the base and the corner pillars of the crib were ready.

Narayanan made the roof with the bamboo sticks and fixed it on the posts. The sides and the top were covered with the reeds. Some hay was placed inside the crib for the cattle shed effect. That completed the job.

Having firsthand knowledge from watching Narayanan, I once tried to make a crib. I was with Ruby Rubber Works at that time and staying at Tiruvalla. I had collected the required materials and sat under a shade tree in the courtyard with a mug of chilled beer. My children were around me, watching with fascination.

Suddenly the elder boy, about four years at that time, vomited. ‘Daddy, he drank your beer’, his elder sister said, rather frightened. I took him inside, cleaned him up with the help of my wife and since he was asleep, put him on a bed.

Then I phoned the family doctor. He listened carefully to me and came out with statement, ‘Let the boy sleep it out. He will be okay.’

That year we didn’t have any crib for Christmas.

Coming back to Narayanan – I don’t know for how many years he went on making the crib exclusively for us. It must be some sort of a record. He is still alive and mobile, but unfortunately his eyesight has been failing for sometime now. His crib-making days are over.

Narayanan’s son Rameshan, a fine chap, is with us. He doesn’t make cribs, but is a driver.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lenin Rajendran going ahead with Raja Ravi Varma movie

Urvashi – Pururavas by Raja Ravi Varma.
(Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.)

Lenin Rajendran, a leading Malayalam director has been churning the idea of a movie based on the Royal Painter, Raja Ravi Varma, for a few years now. Earlier he was planning to cast Suresh Gopi in the lead. (See: Raja Ravi Varma: A movie on the Royal Painter)

Now the mantle has fallen on cinematographer-director Santosh Sivan. The lead female role is to be done by Karthika, daughter of Tamil (also Malayalam) actress Radha. The screenplay, written by the director himself, is ready. Madhu Ambat is to handle the camera. Music is by Ramesh Narayan.

The name of the cinema which is to be made in Malayalam is Makara Manju. Makaram is a winter month in the Malayalam calendar. Manju means snow or mist. Therefore an appropriate translation of the title could be Winter Mist.

While Lenin was fine-tuning his project, another movie on Raja Ravi Varma has been completed, in two languages – ‘Rang Rasiya’ in Hindi and ‘Colours of Passion’ in English. The Ketan Mehta production features Randeep Hooda and Nandana Sen. Some media reviews call it a sensual movie.

There was a proposal for a third project on the same subject, in Hindi, with the title ‘Suryamukhi’. I have not been able to ascertain what its current status is. The well-known Malayalam director Shaji N. Karun was to handle it.

But Lenin Rajendran is planning to tell the story from a different, new, angle. It was the Urvashi and Pururavas painting (see image) by Raja Ravi Varma that inspired the director. The touching tale of the love between Urvashi and King Puruvaras provides the background.

Using that setting, Lenin Rajendran plans to present the emotional parting of the painter and Anjali Bhai, his model for Urvashi. This involves the lead players acting double roles. Santosh Sivan has to play the painter and the king, and Karthika, who might have a different screen name, is to act as Urvashi and Anjali Bhai.

One can safely expect a good product from Lenin Rajendran. But when will the movie be ready for exhibition? The plans for shooting are reportedly ready. The locations include Trivandrum, Cochin, Kabani, and Mumbai.

(Also please see my criticism of the movie Cinema: Makaramanju, Lenin Rajendran presenting Raja Ravi Varma)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kerala tidbits

Police & Astrology: End of the story

The Poochakkal Police Station in my native place is again in the news. In the post Police & Astrology: Cowries tell the story I had described how the policemen were resorting to astrology to ward off problems they were facing.

I had expressed the doubt whether the cops had taken permission from higher authorities for bringing an astrologer to the Station and consulting him. The answer for that is in today’s newspapers.

Under instructions from the Director General of Police, the entire police personnel of the Station including the Sub Inspector, Asst. Sub Inspectors, Head Constables and Constables have been transferred to various other Stations.

Now the question is whether this action is a punishment or a boon to those who have been shifted. After all, what they wanted was to escape the bad times the Station was going through.

Mallus have money in their pockets - Minister

According to the Civil Supplies Minister of Kerala, even if prices of food items increase by a couple of rupees, the Keralites don’t bother. They have plenty of money in their pockets. He does not know where the money comes from, though. The Malayalees go to hotels and eat well and don’t bargain about the prices.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Deluge: The floods of ’99

A few decades back if you asked an uneducated person in Kerala his age, the answer might have been that he was born two years after the flood, or something like that. Events were linked to the flood of ’99. For two generations, that was a reference point in time.

Now, the ’99 refers to 1099 ME (Malayalam Era or Kollavarsham; see Mallus, Happy New Year). That calendar is 825 years behind Christian Era. This year is 1185 ME. There is an overlap between the two calendars.

What perhaps was the worst floods in the recent history of Kerala happened in July, 1924. It is said that heavy floods in the Periyar River or some geophysical phenomena in the Arabian Sea, silted or closed the flourishing Kodungalloor (Muziris) port and opened up Cochin in 1341. That appears to have been a localized occurrence.

But the floods of ‘99 covered the erstwhile Travancore and Cochin States and parts of Malabar. (The present Kerala consists the two former princely states mentioned and Malabar area which was under direct British rule. Most of the land was submerged in the three weeks (one account says nine days) of heavy, incessant rain.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (1912 – 1999), the famous Malayalam novelist (Chemmeen, Coir etc.) has written a beautiful short story titled ‘In the floods’ which describes the havoc. The author was 12 years old at the time of the disaster. The details would have been etched in his memory. The story starts with the words explaining that the highest point in the village was the temple and even the deity was submerged up to the neck.

The catastrophe resulted in heavy loss of life and property. I have not been able to locate the details. The references are to hundreds of people and thousands of animals perishing. Surprisingly, even the High Ranges were flooded. Munnar, the tea country, which is about 6000 feet above sea level, was one of the worst affected areas.

There was a short light railway from Munnar to Top Station that was set up in 1908. The floods caused severe damage to the tracks and the line was subsequently abandoned. The High Range Club lost its newly built library and the golf course and tennis courts were damaged.

But the Club did gain in one way. After the railway became defunct, the First Class compartment was shifted to the Gymkhana grounds as a bar!

Here is a family anecdote: Just before the floods, Appan (my father) went to Palai for pennukanal (ceremony in which a potential bride is visited) in an improvised houseboat.

Our house is on the highest ground in the area. The boat landing is about half a kilometer away. When Appan returned, the boat had to be tied to the pillars of the gatehouse. The land up to the gatehouse had been submerged. The family shifted up to occupy the first floor of the house and all the local people were accommodated in the ground floor.

Appan. and Ammachi. were married an year after the Floods..

Monday, November 16, 2009

The transformation to Bharathanatyam

Bharathanatyam is a fascinating dance form, whether the presentation is by a single performer or in the form of a dance drama by a group. It has beauty and grace and spiritual value. It is a symbol of India and is admired all over the world.

But, say, about 80 years back, there was no Bharathanatyam as such. In its place was a traditional art form called Sadir which was presented exclusively by Devadasis. ‘The art of the temple harlots’, it was called. It was also referred to as Thanjavur Natyam and Dasiaattam. No Brahmin would have any part of it.

But it was destined that two aristocratic South Indian Brahmins would save the dance form, streamline it and make it into a pride of India.

Sadir performances were mainly confined to temples and private salons. The dancers wore baggy pyjamas and a sari over it, and traditional ornaments. The songs had erotic elements in them. The accompaniments were confined to clarinet and bagpipes. The musicians moved on the stage along with the performer. There was crudeness about the presentation but the basics of the dance were intrinsically beautiful.

During the period Serfoji ruled Tanjavur (1798-1832), the Tanjavur Quartet, four brothers named Ponnayya, Chinnayya, Vadivelu and Sivanadam did commendable work to systematize the sadir. Nevertheless, it remained an exclusive domain of the Devadasis.

By the early part of the 20c CE, sadir came under serious threat. A strong demand arose among the public for abolishing the Devadasi system. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the first woman legislator of the Madras Presidency even introduced a Bill in the Assembly to implement this.

The abolition of the Devadasi system finally came about only in 1947. Fortunately, there was one man who saw the writing on the wall and decided to save the sadir which had commendable qualities – E. Krishna Iyer (1897-1968), a lawyer and freedom fighter.

He learned sadir, and formed the Madras Music Academy. He also coined a new name for the dance form – Bharathanatyam. I understand it is an acronym covering bhava (expression), raga (music) and thala (rhythm). Krishna Iyer included a performance of sadir in the 1933 Annual Conference programme of the Academy.

Among the audience was Rukmini Arundale (1904-1986), respectfully referred to as Rukmini Devi. Her father, Neelakanta Sastri, an upper class Brahmin from Trichy was an engineer. He was attracted by the Theosophical movement, and, after retirement, moved to Adyar near the headquarters of the Theosophical Society. It was there that young Rukmini met the Theosophist Dr. George Arundale. They were married in 1920 when she was 16 and he was 40.

Rukmini Devi was captivated by the dance form that she witnessed at the Academy. She referred to it as ‘beautiful and profound art’. Along with Krishna Iyer, she set on an endeavor of renaissance. The first thing she did was to learn sadir. Her teachers were Mylapore Gowri Amma, a prominent Devadasi of that time, and Pandanallur Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, a famous master.

That was only one part of it. The biggest challenge was to infuse subtle changes that would make the dance form more acceptable and attractive. Rukmini Devi introduced devotional aspects in place of erotica in the songs. The musicians were made to sit on the side of the stage. Regular musical instruments were brought in. With the help of some Theosophists, new costumes were designed and appropriate lighting effects and stage settings were introduced.

And, in 1935, Rukmini Devi herself presented the new version of sadir, Bharathanatyam, at the Theosophical Society grounds in Madras (Chennai), before a distinguished audience that included eminent Indians and foreigners. The conservatives were aghast that a Brahmin lady should present the Devadasi ‘aattam’ and that too in public.

But Rukmini Devi’s performance was aesthetic, spiritual, and enchanting. The renowned gathering was highly impressed. A year later, Rukmini Devi established Kalakshetra, an institution devoted to classical dance, music and fine arts.

And thus began the victorious march of Bharathanatyam.

[Photos: Top - Rukmini Devi. Bottom: Rukmini Devi with her husband in Finland in 1936.

From Wikimedia Commons. Click to enlarge.]

Related post:

Dances for the gods.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Photos: Flowers from a Chennai florist

Earlier this month was my birthday. I particularly liked one bouquet received that day.

These are some photos I took of it.

Click to enlarge

Related post

Photos: Olavipe blooms

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Photos: Dusk

Dusk falls over...

A gated community at Cochin
(Photo: Rejo)

Olavipe Lake
(Photo: AT)

All rights reserved.
Click to enlargr.

Related post:

Photos: Clouds over Chennai

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Do some people think the Mallus are dumb?

Yesterday the by-elections to three Kerala State Assembly constituencies, Alleppey, Ernakulam and Kannur, were concluded peacefully.

So what is there to write about?

Well, the Kannur segment attracted national attention. There were accusations of tailored voter list and pro-government bias by officials including the District Collector who is the Election Officer as well. The Congress Party petitioned the Election Commission (EC).

After studying reports from the State the EC replaced the Collector. It also decided to send a contingent of Central paramilitary forces to ensure smooth and fair elections. This is a normal practice in the case of suspected problem constituencies.

Many people were surprised, or even shocked, by the way the Marxist Party reacted to the EC’s action. The Chief Minister himself started the diatribe. According to media reports he said that the Central forces would be confined to the barracks and they would not be able to do anything without the permission of the State police.

The Home Minister, the CPI (M) State General Secretary and other leaders of the party took up the refrain. The EC was also blamed for being partial. The Chief Electoral Officer of The State, an IAS officer of the Kerala cadre promptly issued a clarification that the men in uniform would be deployed at the discretion of the EC. Later the EC also came out with a statement that even the State police would be taking orders from the Election Officer. That is the correct legal position.

The Central forces were posted at the polling booths as decided by the Election Officer. There was record polling in Kannur and no untoward incidents. Many felt that the presence of the paramilitary forces contributed to this. The Left leaders have a contrary view. Their interpretation is that the 'attempt' of the Congress to frighten away voters with gun totting soldiers in the polling booths did not succeed! Politicians are not sensitive to loss of face.

It is difficult to believe that the Chief Minister and the others who attacked the EC were unaware of the established procedure. Then why did they make such apparently wrong statements? Did it amount to taking anticipatory bail for a possible defeat? Or, did they expect to draw more votes with a policy of confrontation with the EC?

If the voters really swallowed the confrontation propaganda one can only say that, contrary to the general belief, they are not really very politically savvy.

We have to wait till Tuesday to get the answer.

Related post:

Kerala: Left with empty granaries

Friday, November 6, 2009

Where have the dragonflies gone?

There are so many amazing things happening around us in nature that we are not aware of. Take the case of dragonflies, the pretty but feeble looking insects.

Have you noticed that some species of dragonflies are found only seasonally? If you are in South India and you ask someone during off season where the insects have gone, don’t laugh if the answer is “Africa”. That is likely to be true.

Now, how do the dragonflies get to Africa? Simple. They fly. Not as stowaway on an aeroplane, but on their own motion. All across the Indian Ocean/Arabian Sea. They cover a distance of 7000-9000 kilometers. They fly across in hordes. Millions of them.

Almost the entire lot of migrant dragonflies is made up of Globe skimmers (Pantala flavescens). A sprinkle of Twisters (Tholymis tillarga), Pale-spotted emperors (Anax guttatus), Blue perchers (Diplacodes trivialis) and Vagrant emperors (A. ephippiger) are also involved

Flocks of dragonflies taking off towards the sea had been observed by many in the past. The general presumption was that it was a kind of mass suicide mission or something of the sort. Only recently their destination was discovered – Africa via Maldives and Seychelles. And they come back to India. Well, at least their descendants.

The credit for this recent discovery goes to Charles Anderson, a biologist attached to the Maldives Marine Research Center. He noticed the seasonal (October-December) arrival of the insects in Maldives, their departure after a few days and their return in April-June. The scientist pursued the matter.

Anderson was able to establish a pattern to the migration. From Maldives the dragonflies mostly went to Seychelles and from there to Africa. He also linked the mass movement to Inter-tropical Convergence Zone, an extraordinary weather system in which there is a seasonal shift in the wind direction. The deduction is that the dragonflies could be taking advantage of this phenomenon.

The migration cycle appears to be linked to the monsoons. The dragonflies reach Maldives and Eastern Africa just ahead of the rains at those places and return to India in time for the monsoon.

Amazing world, isn’t it?

(Note: I don’t think the insect in the photo is the migrating type. Click on photo to enlarge. Copyright reserved.)


Connected posts:

Photos: Dragonflies by KO Isaac

Dragonflies, Onathumpi

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Police & Astrology: Cowries tell the story

The police station in my native place in Kerala is in the news, but not for reasons connected with policing. It is astrology which has pushed the establishment into the headlines.

Let us briefly see what astrology is. It is different from astronomy. In astrology the positions of celestial bodies are studied with the conviction that they influence happenings on earth generally, and influence individuals as well. Many people believe in this.

I have written about the famous astrologer Mithran Namboothiri and his prophecies in this blog (see: Three predictions.).

One cannot blame the cops of my place for resorting to astrology when they felt that their station had fallen on bad times. Apparently there is nothing prescribed in the police manual to combat such situations.

The problems started after a new station building was opened two years back. It is said that bad omens were visible from day one. Then the problems became severe. Two policemen died. Most of the others suffer from some illness or other, a few almost chronic. The sub Inspectors in charge of the station were transferred frequently. And so on.

Finally the policemen decided to do something about it. It is not clear from the reports whether they obtained permission from the higher authorities in the Department for what they planned to do. Anyway they got an astrologer to the police station. After spreading the cowries and studying the planetary positions, the expert summed up the position.

The serpents were angry. Perhaps it was a place of the reptiles once upon a time. There was Brahmin curse as well. The land on which the station building stood belonged to a temple long ago and then to the Brahmins. When the owners were dispossessed, adequate compensation was not paid to them.

The new building of the station was not designed according to Vaastu, the science of construction. Furthermore, it was inaugurated in the inauspicious month of Kanni, the second one in the year according to the Malayalam calendar (see: Mallus, Happy New Year )

But not to worry. According to the astrologer, there were remedies available. Making offerings and conducting special poojas in certain important temples in atonement would appease the powers that were angry and would restore normalcy to the police station.

I wonder if the policemen noticed one positive point. The astrological calculations did not reveal any wrongdoing by them, such as torturing an innocent or taking bribes from a poor man.

Now the cops would be busy organizing the penance for sins in which they personally had no responsibility. Of course, the people of the locality would have to cooperate with them in this venture.