November 29, 2011

Barka Photo Essay: Doors and Broken Mirrors

Oman has been receiving unusual amounts of rain, lately and the good weather, as we find ourselves describing it in this part of the world, has happened to coincide with the Eid and Oman's National Day holidays, leading to spontaneous day-trips.

A day following a rather energetic rain-shower, we decided to visit the coastal town of Barka, which is about an hour's drive from Muscat, and located on the Batinah coast. Apart from the requisite picturesque beach, it also has a quirky small Omani town personality of its own and which I lately both enjoy experiencing and photographing.

Strangely enough, even though I walked for quite a while on the beach, I neglected to take any photos of the sea; what I instead chose to photograph were vignette-shots of life in Barka. However, if someone were to attempt to make some sense of Barka from my images alone, they would be forgiven for assuming that it is not in the vicinity of the sea as I seem to have entirely discounted it altogether from the narrative of my images.

Returning to my Barka explorations, I seem to have an affinity for abandoned houses for I discovered yet another one, its turquoise blue walls still glimmering amid the ruin and decline, shattered mirrors, discarded purple sofas, and indulged in door-spotting: the ancient, grand, portal of Barka Fort, which had closed by the time I arrived there, and doors of the non-descript homes dotting the beach. Incidentally, while I was photographing the latter, an Omani youth wandered by and curiously asked as to what I was photographing. When I gestured towards the door, his shrug eloquently articulated one word: 'why?' I couldn't answer then - and if you ask me now, here, I would still be hard-pressed to precisely pinpoint what it is that fascinates me about doors. It's probably due to the fact that doors are interesting intersection points of contact: they welcome...and yet, they simultaneously forbid entry into that intimate, interior space that lies beyond. In a sense, the doors are reflectors of those interiors, acting as visual windows of sorts into that world.

As we had visited Barka on a Friday, the fish and vegetable market had wound up by the afternoon but we found a cheerful Omani gentleman standing in the shadow of the fort, selling Yemeni pomegrenates, pears, and newly grown tomatoes, bits of mud still clinging to their naturally glossy red skin. The tomatoes retained their lustre and freshness even after days...and even if for nothing else, a trip to Barka is certainly due to partake of those tomatoes once again!

Here are some images of the visit - the one thing that strikes me is the abundance of blue in most of the photographs, whether its the walls or the brilliant sky.

An abandoned house finds me once again: what are the endings to these unfinished stories?


Death of a mirror: is it the sky that lives in whatever remains of the mirror's once shiny skin?

Winter tree: growing in the compound of the abandoned house, its stark branches reminded me of denuded winter trees and their skeletal shadows

Gutted sofa: loved no more, discarded and now bearing the wrath of the natural elements

Age: the grand Barka fort portal bids us farewell

Domestic door: unassuming...and yet, filled with so much character

November 19, 2011

Hearing the Maganiyars

Busyness has been my week so far! I am just dropping by to say hello and post this article of mine about the Maganiyars, which was published a few days ago. Back with original posts next week, fingers crossed:)

Here is where the article appeared...


Speaking over a crackling phone line from his native village, Keraliya near Pokhran, 80 km from Jaisalmer, Manganiyar musician and conductor of the acclaimed show The Manganiyar Seduction, which presents 43 Manganiyar musicians in an utterly modern avatar, Daevo Khan explains the universe of Manganiyar musical traditions.

“The Manganiyar community has been singing songs since the time of Lord Krishna,” Daevo Khan begins, speaking in a mixture of Marwari, Hindi, and English. In those times, he explains, they were known as Gandharvas, and they were then referred to as Mir during Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign. However, they acquired their present moniker, Manganiyar, when princely states began to rule what is now Rajasthan; their name denotes the term ‘to beg’. Although the Manganiyars are now a folk musical community spread out in Rajasthan’s Jaisalmer and Barmer areas performing a rich repertoire of ballads for their aristocratic Rajput patrons, they once “played to appease the goddesses and it is said that when we performed, even [the goddesses] stopped in their celestial chariots above to listen” says Khan, adding that if goddesses themselves are happy with the music that the Manganiyars create, it is their hope that ordinary mortals down on earth too will be satisfied. Such statements reflect their syncretic religious identity; the Manganiyars are Sufi Muslims and yet sing songs in praise of Hindu deities with much fervor.

Daevo Khan wields the responsibility of being the conductor of The Manganiyar Seduction, directed by the acclaimed Indian director, Royston Abel, who has produced and directed award-winning productions such as Othello in Black and White. Daevo initially met Abel in Delhi while working on Jiyo, a play dealing with out of work street performers; when travelling with the production in Segovia in 2006, Abel once again met Daevo, who along with another Manganiyar artiste presented a new folk song every day for two weeks. “It was an absolutely intense encounter,” says Abel. “Their music took me to a different place altogether, it was one of the most amazing experiences that I ever had.” Abel was so inspired by their music that upon his return to India he requested funding to initiate a project; he then went on to Jaisalmer where he selected 43 artistes from the 300-400 odd who had auditioned and, in two weeks, created an initial version of what was going to become The Manganiyar Seduction which he presented in Delhi as the opening act of Osian’s Cine Festival 2006, which showcased a range of Asian cinema. The show was received very well, enabling him to garner more funding; he then spent a year and half structuring the show which is now known as The Maganiyar Seduction.

Combining the startling visual pyrotechnics of the Amsterdam red-light area and the Hawa Mahal of Jaipur along with the Manganiyar performers’ haunting music, the show has been described as a sensory feast. “We haven’t done a show till date where we have not received a standing ovation,” says Abel who has presented the show all over the world. “I describe the show as a virtual whirlwind of sorts, working in spirals and completely immersing the audience into the Maganiyars’ music; in other words, they experience what I did [so] in those two weeks [in Spain],” he says, referring to his introduction to Maganiyar music. Abel is now working on a future project, The Maganiyar Longing, which will open in 2012. “The success of The Maganiyar Seduction has become a parameter for me,” he says.

Describing his métier as that of working with traditional performers in a contemporary style, creating theatre in their music, Abel says that collaborating with the Maganiyars has been a memorable journey and that Daevo was the essential bridge between himself and them. “Apart from being the one who introduced me to the Maganiyars in the first place and being the best khartal [traditional Maganiyar instrument] player in the country, he also possessed a hunger in him to challenge himself,” says Abel to explain his decision to make Daevo the conductor of the show. He elaborates that Daevo was also crucially in alignment with Abel’s vision in addition to significantly being able to communicate it to his fellow Maganiyars, thus facilitating its execution.

Such innovative representation of folk and classical music performances is essential towards attracting those who may otherwise not gravitate towards such music. “Folk maa hai, classical beta hain; folk se hi classical niklegaclassical ultimately originated from folk music says Daevo Khan, who has performed with many Indian classical musicians. “I performed alongside artistes such as Anindo Chatterjee on tabla and Ustad Shujat Khan on sitar,” says Daevo, who has also played along with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain. “I enjoy such moments a lot, I get inner peace while doing so.”

Having created and conducted many shows, busy even as we speak finalising his travel arrangements to France, where he and a troupe will be performing shortly, Daevo describes a show in Madras in which he performed a jugal bandi [fusion] with Kathak artistes. “They would pose a question through a dance performance and we would respond to it through our music. After we finished, there was a rapturous response, demanding an encore and we performed in reverse,” he says, adding the show became extremely popular. 

Daevo describes the Manganiyars’ musical legacies as a gift of god which the community has nurtured and sustained over the centuries. “When we visited America, [scholars] asked us how is it that even a small child is so easily able to pick up the musical traditions. I said that when a pregnant woman sings, the child absorbs it through the womb and thus [the child] arrives in the world, crying in tune,” he says. His eleven year old son is already an accomplished artiste and performed twice abroad. Manganiyar women also sing, and two of them participate in The Manganiyar Seduction.

Daevo is presently absorbed in creating a new show, Folk Rajasthan, which will use traditional folk percussion instruments as its basis. Another project that he’s contemplating performing is to do with Virh or the pathos of separation, the performance striving to conveying the intensity of the emotion through music. Apart from time devoted to conceptualizing shows and performances, Daevo Khan has also established Swaroop Musical Institute in the premises of his own home in Keraliya where he teaches orphaned children showing inclination for learning music from his and surrounding villages.

“I am dedicated towards ensuring that our music remains traditional and uncorrupted; I have heard ten generations worth of music and would like to preserve it,” he says in oblique reference to many folk numbers who have migrated to Bollywood.


Image courtesy Roysten Abel

November 12, 2011

Illusion: 'A Tale of Four Cities'

Here is a literary (or creative, if you please) non fiction piece, Illusion on my shopping experiences in Dubai which was published in the newly launched online literary magazine, A Tale of Four Cities. Chronicling narratives from the cities of New York, London, Mumbai, and Dubai, the magazine is looking forward to receiving submissions from writers, especially those writing about Mumbai and Dubai. 

I, for one, both enjoyed reading the different vignettes from each city and also, writing about Dubai. In general, when it comes to my creative writing pieces, I usually find it difficult to write about the Gulf Middle East, which has been my home for much of my life. However, perhaps due to a few posts I have written for this blog and pieces such as these, my resistance to writing about my current homeland is gradually crumbling and I am finding it easier to respond to and  represent it in my writing. In fact, I am also currently working on a short story which captures much of the atmosphere of the early days of shopping in Dubai.

And here is the link to the piece as it appeared in the magazine...


For some odd reason, the only photographs that I happen to have of Dubai in my possession are ones featuring my family and me in its streets, markets, and malls over the decades. Take this one: my toddler brother and I awkwardly stand amid the sun-bleached chaos of Deira. In another, taken just before I began university, I playfully wreathe my face with a patently faux vine of creepers; the same trip also witnesses me warily standing by a mannequin. Yet, where is Dubai amid it all? Are these shopping-centric photographs testimony to the fact that shopping is the only and ultimate way to define my relationship with Dubai?

Having lived in Muscat, Oman for most of my childhood and adult life and thus, in relatively close proximity to Dubai, I have always largely associated Dubai with a simultaneous sense of holiday and familiarity. While Muscat was content in remaining a backwater, Dubai patently did not exercise similar aspirations and accordingly gained an exciting hold for us Muscat denizens. During Eid and Oman’s National Day holidays, Muscat would witness a virtual mass exodus of its population to Dubai; it was common to find Dubai roads crowded with Oman’s distinctive mustard-yellow license plated cars or bumping into one’s colleagues and classmates at shopping malls.

Dubai was that veritable Aladdin’s Cave of shopping: ombre-hued chiffon saris from Meena Bazaar, blankets from wholesale markets where Persians sold them in floppy, transparent plastic suitcases, and Lladro figurines from Al Ghurair Shopping Centre. Once, when Ramadan fell during January, we walked the entire length of Al Fahidi Street one cold night before reluctantly calling it a night at 2am.

During summer Dubai trips, in the brief pockets of time spent outside when flitting between shops and taxis, we would smell an exclusively Gulf urban scent: petrol fumes and roasting shwarma converging with dry, intense heat. Lunching in Indian restaurants with oilcloth-covered tables and plastic vases containing faux yellow roses, we would consume thali while watching Zee TV’s then most famous soap, Tara on 27-inch TVs. 

In little market squares studding Deira and Bur Dubai, we would transit from one textile store to another, the majority virtually indistinguishable from one another: the harsh, unflattering overhead white tube-lights, bolts of cloth in every pattern, color, texture, and fabric imaginable, and the glass-topped counters barricading us from the fabric. I would murder boredom by peering at what lay beneath the glass: catalogue pictures of statue-faced models wearing latest salwar-kameez designs or rummaging through cardboard boxes stuffed with freshly sheared scraps of cloth, which made excellent temporary scarves or blind-folds. Outside, in the lank, heavy air, we would walk past electronic stores, where crowds had gathered to watch India play one-day cricket matches on multiple, differently-sized TV-screens. 

I was unable to visit Dubai between 2001 and 2007 due to various reasons; however, it had been impossible in the interim to be unaware of the massive transformation that Dubai had undergone during those years and indeed, when I arrived in August 2007, the city seemed to be at the apogee of its extravagant reinvention. There was an overt sense of Dubai being prettily packaged for display which resultantly made it somewhat inaccessible and unattainable. 

Fresco at Mercato Mall

In this new, picture-perfect Dubai, I felt as if I was gradually losing my moorings altogether when migrating from one mall to another. Had it not been more or less reduced to that: city of malls, those palaces of illusions? At the Mall of Emirates, I peered at visitors reveling in the pleasure of encountering snow in Dubai of all places. At our next stop, at the Mercato mall, we examined quasi Italian-frescos and mock pastel façades while sunlight generously drizzled through the glass skylight into the crisp-autumn air cool interiors.

Dome at Ibn Battuta mall

Finally, in Ibn Battuta mall, which had brought together myriad worlds under one roof while depicting the journey of the eponymous 14th century traveler, Ibn Battuta, they had even defiantly turned day into night. I felt as if I was in a movie set what with the faux buildings, streets, and the stars studding a mauve evening sky; the harsh daylight bleaching the world almost white seen through the entrance door seemed incidental. Which one of those worlds was real and ersatz respectively? Did it even matter? 

Faux evening at Ibn Battuta mall

 Like the accidental, incidental beam of sunlight, shopping seemed to have become irrelevant to our Dubai experience. When we strayed beyond the city perimeters and encountered the blank dun dunes, I wondered how long it would be before they would be transformed into yet another faux universe. Dubai was a work of progress then, the canvas constantly being re-painted, and improvisation being the name of the game. 

For some reason, once again, years have elapsed since my last Dubai visit and the gap has been sufficient enough to subsume the last visit into the many visits undertaken to Dubai over the years. So, even now, I cannot help but experience that feeling of ‘going to Dubai’: a sensation that has not quite yet evaporated from my childhood, which tastes of excitement and newness and acquisition. 

Going to Dubai involves the ritual of crossing the border, through the mountains, past the enormous rust-hued dunes at Hatta, and finally glimpsing the billboards: those gateways to the kingdom of shopping. By the time we approach the city outskirts, the skyline, citadels of that kingdom, deigns to appear in the distance: an unique mirage which becomes more and more solid the nearer you approach it. 

What we thought was illusion was real, after all; such is the thin line between illusion and reality. 


November 8, 2011

Portrait of a Stormy Sea

Every now and then, I find myself falling into a low creative energy phase, where I find myself mechanically producing work or worse, becoming exhausted of fresh ideas and novel perspectives. In an earlier post about visiting the mountain, Jabal Shams, I had wondered whether I was a beach or a mountain person - however, following several recent beach visits, having taken advantage of Oman's increasingly pleasant weather, I can now safely declare that a trip to the beach revitalises and re-energises me in a way quite unlike other.

It happened to rain today in Muscat; considering the fact that it only rained a handful of times last year in Oman, for instance, rain over here is definitely a statement event, so to speak. During my childhood, the mere darkening of the sky and large drops of rain polka-dotting the ground would be enough to turn any day into a holiday; we would happily get drenched in the rain, the rain-soaked world having become our playground. In fact, it was only after I moved to UK for my higher studies and having to encounter grim gray skies and vapid cold rain day after day that I learnt to call it bad weather. Yet, over here, the sight of a sky graduated in all hues of gray still imbues the day with a sense of play and relaxation, a welcome departure from the daily monotony of cerulean blue skies and sunshine.

I impulsively visited a nearby beach after the rain had finally petered down to a drizzle and it struck me that it was one of the few times I had visited a post-storm beach. The sea was mercurial and slate-blue,  the waves contemplatively and authoritatively arriving upon the shore while the dusk sky above was a quietly dramatic melange of colors. Lightning would splinter the sky at sporadic intervals, causing the sea and beach to be dramatically lit up, the light picking out the gleaming wet pebbles and sand. Furthermore, due to the rain, the beach was more or less desolate apart from assorted objects that the sea had hurled towards the shore; while walking down the beach, I would meet the occasional jogger or a father and his young daughter- yet,  we would swiftly pass by each other, too immersed in our own thoughts and worlds. Suffice to say, it was an unique beach experience, walking in the waves while rain drizzled upon my head and the lightning spotlighting the world, as if photographing it.

Here are some pictures of the beach at twilight that I was able to capture via my phone; apologies for the pictures' quality in advance...

Aftermath: the storm sky

Mercurial sky and sea...and Muscat lights gleaming in the distance

The storm draws to a close...and the night begins

November 5, 2011

The Kingdom of Music: The Dewarists

Now, here's a post label that I never thought would find its way over here: music! I have often remarked (and indeed, it is pretty much the reason behind the name of this blog) that I have never particularly been a connoisseur of music - it is something that I can entirely do without and not particularly feel its absence in my life. Yet, I have been lately thinking that it is quite a blanket statement to declare so: after all, am I really that immune to music? There have been several periods/occasions in my life where music has been a solace and had the ability to take me out of myself and my thoughts and transplant me elsewhere, that kingdom of music. 

Sakar Khan, National Award winning Maganiyar artiste, playing upon the traditional Maganiyar instrument, khamaycha

During the Jaisalmer trip, I had to interview few members of Rajasthani hereditary folk musicians, the Maganiyars in their native village, Hameera, about 15km from Jaisalmer; we reached their home just before lunch and they aptly enough chose to answer my questions through an impromptu concert, first performing the  traditional Rajasthani song of welcome, 'Kesariya Balam' before playing a host of melodies. If it were not for the fact that we had to return to Jodhpur that day itself, we could have remained there the whole day, well into the evening, becoming completely immersed in the soul of their music. These particular Maganiyar musicians had been performing centuries-old musical legacies for many decades and within India and abroad and had been feted for their art: yet, in that moment, we were their exclusive audience and we in turn were captive, oblivious to all that surrounded us. 

                                                Maganiyar artistes performing in the show,
                                                        The Maganiyar Seduction

As we drove away from Hameera, the music still remained within the orbit of my thoughts, playing on loop in my head. What struck me that day was that the musicians and their musical heritage had literally woven the haunting, piercing notes of the desert winds into the fabric of their compositions...and even now, whenever I happen to listen to their music, I feel that I am in a desert of sorts, their music providing the most welcome antidote to any desolation I may potentially experience there.

Nevertheless, while the experience awakened an awareness within me as to what sort of music I gravitate to, it was the newly launched music-travel show, The Dewarists which reminded me that perhaps, the presence of visuals or a strong visual narrative and context nevertheless makes music much more accessible to me, strangely enough. In this particular episode, music-composer, Shantanu Moitra, who has composed for films such as Parineeta, and lyricist, Swanand Kirkire collaborate with Pakistan's first female pop band, Zeb and Haniya  in Bombay (incidentally, digressing unabashedly, the episode features them visiting  Bombay's Chor Bazaar and rummaging through vintage Hindi film posters - I was super envious as it's one place in Bombay which I am dying to visit).

For me, I significantly enjoyed witnessing the process of creating music: meshing of ideas, musicians jamming together, assembling lyrics, musical notes floating in the air, and the eventual streamlining of these disparate creative clusters into music. As a writer, I am accustomed to viewing creation and creativity as being an entirely solitary process and it was fascinating to see this journey of  creative collaboration. Yet, nonetheless, as I mentioned above, I still found it amusing that I found myself more thoroughly accessing and appreciating the music through a visual medium; for example, there is a lovely visual nugget in which Zeb and Swanand are writing lyrics, the visual juxtaposition of the Hindi and Urdu script. The performance and the song itself shot in the atmospheric Royal Opera House is arresting enough, its haunting notes long lingering with me...and yet, having been aware of how it was assembled, so to speak, made the journey even more beautiful.

Then, I happened to chance upon this:

                                                         Zeb and Haniya: Chal Diye

While the song is indescribably lovely, melange of the music and the incredible art, most likely, having taken inspiration from miniature art, was what made the song especially alive for me. Hearing the song, the words wing me elsewhere into a different space - and yet, as I see the song, I become aware of alternative interpretations and worlds it can belong to - and this multiplicity of interpretations is what makes this particular junction of visual and sound so exciting.

I guess, in the end, I am just a visual person, after all;)

Do you recollect a music video that particularly impacted your response to a particular song? It would be great to hear/see examples...!