Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Shadow play - Wayang Kulit

I daresay  it was a treat so rare to have had a professor in dentistry, former VC of Universiti Malaya ( 2003-2006), now VC of IUNC ( International Univesity College of Nursing) as our esteemed  Tok Dalang ( master puppeter and storyteller) in early December at the Museum of Asian Arts for a special performance. Indeed it was an extraordinary morning with Dato Prof Hashim Yaacob. In my humble opinion, he's had his fair share of awarding marks to all his students under his wings. But that morning  it was our turn  to give him top marks for an entertaining lecture on the history of wayang kulit in Kelantan. And  for being the dalang as  he carried an admirable performance  in 'Sir Isaac Newton and The Fallen Apple'.

Oops! an apple on Sir Isaac Newton's head!

Sitting  cross -legged on the floor,behind a white screen cloth, Prof  Hashim  and his gamelan musicians were in full synergy. Prof Hashim held court - he narrated, he was the 'action man'  with the puppets  manipulating them accordingly and sweeping  his characters across the face of the screen. He breathed life into the plot and there were many hilarious moments at the surprise turn of events.

Head of the orchestra demonstrating the different musical instruments - serunai, gong, drums, cymbals

Tree of life  is always shown before the start of any wayang kulit theatre - to remind us mortals of our connection with the earth.

Salutation by way of silat before the play
In the moment - mesmerizing the audience

 Players more than tickled, enjoying themselves too

Curtain call - a thunderous applause

The shadows cast by the light source, which in this case is an electric bulb (oil lamp in the old days), make silhouettes. The story entitled Sir Isaac Newton and The Fallen Apple was specially commissioned a decade ago when science syllabus was taught in English. Plonk! fell the apple on Sir Isaac's head.And a magical journey began when  Sir Isaac Newton travelled  to the Malay Archipelago  to consult a well known Malayan scientist  on the puzzling phenomenon of falling apples. The trusty friend helped formulate the famous theory of gravity. But they were threatened by 2 monsters. Much drama ensued. With luck on their side, the heroes survived. Good triumphed over evil and Sir Isaac stayed in Malaysia to help teach English!

Traditionally the wayang kulit depicts scenes from  the Hindu epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata but there are also Kelantan folklore with elements from the Ramayana. The most popular shadow play is wayang kulit Siam also known as wayang kulit Kelantan.Invariably  the play climaxes with good triumphing over evil.

The stark reality is  that there are only 5 dalangs  in Malaysia. The well known dalang, Merah passed away last year. I can't recall when I saw a wayang kulit performance. Was it when I was  a young girl?? Looks like urbanization and modern entertainment have shoved this cultural entertainment out of people's lives. In the days of yore, the wayang kulit  was a social occupier during weddings, births, circumcisions, homages to teachers etc. People gamely connected and looked forward to spending  the evenings following epic stories as the dalang mesmerized them with his telling. What a twist of fate for the wayang kulit too. In 1990, there was a ban imposed on this theatre  in the heartland of wayang kulit  - the state of Kelantan! Some sense has prevailed for the ban  has since  been lifted. Hopefully  this theatre will  pick itself out of the doldrums  with some serious practioners around to revive the glory days of the shadow play.

Smaller puppets as souvenirs were snapped up

My friend Grace , up close with a huge Hanuman  puppet

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Coir rope making - Kerala

What caught my attention were 2 Indian women each with a big pouch  hugging  their waists. In it was filled with coir. Curious and interested to find out more about this activity, I walked closer to the women.  First I watched as these ladies proudly displayed their skill for all to see and participate on the lawn at Kumarakom Lake Resort. One of the ladies in  a blue sari was eveready to show. It's a 'delicate' art to 'feed' the rope and let it go. Any jerky movements and  heavy handedness will cut off the continuity of the rope. Needless to say I broke it! Then came the repair which was nicely joined by my teacher.

Think of all the coir ropes you have seen and used. It is highly probable that some would have come from India as coir rope making is an important  thriving cottage industry especially in the coastal region of Kerala. Womenfolk support this industry

Say ' Coconut' when in Kerala!  You'll love the tall sway of the trees. In almost every home, coconuts are grown. Even before the plane landed in Bangalore, the palms are beckoning a warm tropical welcome down below ! The clime suits this versatile plant and has blessed  Kerala with so many spin -offs. Coir is one of the by - products of this plant. It is a natural fibre extracted from the husk between the hard internal shell and the outer coat of a coconut. One hundred per cent natural, eco- friendly and water absorbent without weakening its strength, the coir is used for numerous products e.g.door mats, floor mats, mattresses, brushes, etc.

Joey! I thought but Kerala women have different ideas

A lesson in the light touch -' feed' the rope from the tangled coir  and it will lengthen

One of the ladies spins the wheel. 
In the background, a huge pile of fibres.

Two ladies making the length of the rope. The women walk backwards several  hundreds of times a  day!

Patiently she sits and spins.  Coconut fibres are attached to hooks.
The wheel is turned by hand.  In the process the coir is twisted. 

The lady approaches the wheel with a block of wood which brings the 2 ropes together. It is then unhooked and ready for the pile.
2 strings entwined as one rope  - a strong rope is ready for use. Job accomplished.

All in a day's work

 Lighter than carrying a baby !

 The pouch(basket really!) is  a piece of cloth wrapped round the lower part of the body.
One of the ends is  brought up to be a basket to hold the fibres.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Life by the backwaters of Kerala

Kettuvallom/ Kerala houseboat

.We nearly missed it but thankfully we didn't! Tourists have a once in a lifetime experience on Kerala backwaters and return home with memories to last a lifetime. December being a peak season for tourists, the houseboats were fully booked. Luckily, the General Manager of the Kumarokam Lake Resort  got us a  country boat to enjoy a 2 hour ride. That satiated our longing for a taste of the backwaters though the real experience in a full fledged houseboat to pamper your body and soul  will be something really special .

The backwaters of Kerala is a chain of brackish lagoons, rivers canals  and lakes lying parallel to the Malabar coast of Kerala state. This extensive network of waterways provides livelihood for the locals and its natural charm has brought tourists flocking to Kerala.

The boatman took charge of the 6 seater country boat. Being smaller than the big houseboats, it can traverse the narrower canals.

We left Kumarakom Lake Resort situated on the shores of Lake Vembanad. Sitting in the boat, Lake Vembanad looks like a vast sheet of glassy water, serene and tranquil.  The big houseboats, small and large ( 6 rooms and other amenities to boot) were already 'skimming' the surface and going to the  backwaters of Alleppy and the numerous canals. These Kettuvalloms are really traditional grain and spice barges that have been converted to houseboats. A tourist from USA told us she wasn't sure how to cope with the idea of 3 attendants for the 3 days she was the sole person staying on the  houseboat. It seemed so sinfully luxurious  to her. Well, we both agreed that while it lasted, just yourself enjoy before reality hits !

 Before long we were in the backwaters. I plonked myself on the front wicker chair, eager to catch the view and the sun ! We drifted along. A new world opened before our eyes and thoughts of sailing on the Mekong some years  flashed through my mind. The waters lapped as the boatman took us on easy, slow ride.  Nothing comes closer than  this  - having  clear images of  the engaging rustic life of  the people who live on the banks. We passed through  rural settlements sited on narrow strips of land between waterways. 'Hello, world!' - the hive of activity with villagers going about their daily lives is a reminder of the importance of waterways in civilisations gone by and the present.

The lush greenery greeted us everywhere. Swaying coconut trees, mangrove swamps, palms, bananas,  pandanus, leafy plants hug the banks and  mango trees already laden  with flowers, so many familiar plants that remind us of our own tropical vegetation back home. 'This Kerala) is India at its greenest and no other state can beat it', my husband hastened to add .Water hyacinths bobbed  and  floated effortlessly  in thick clusters  here and there.

Bird life is plentiful and without binoculars, we could seen their plumage as their hovered and flew above our heads.

There's also a place called home in these boats  
Think you can float effortlessly on this glassy  Vembanad Lake?

Lush greenery on either banks of the canals. The coconut trees lend such elegance to the scenery. Beyond lie paddy fields resting before the next cultivation. 
We watched as he rowed, into the hyacinths which parted as he meandered to his destination

Women power by the banks

A wedding

In flight , the white heron is part of the avian population. As we passed by in mid morning birds were aplenty flying past. The famed Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary is nearby.

Rub-a dub- dub - the best view from his 'private' spot !

The daily chores go on. Men  transport goods from one village to another in their low slung dug out canoes. 

The boat almost disappearing due to the heavy rocks being transported to build an embankment

A smile bridges people, a bridge, life

The children are naturally happy to see visitors

Vivid orange, green, pink, blue buildings seem to be popular colours that dot the lush landscape. 

Fishermen preparing their nets for their catch. Fish is plentiful in Kerala and eaten daily. 

Such infectious laughter, welcome as kids know best

Very much part and parcel of Kerala life, the elephant adds extra interest to passers-by on houseboats

The steps leading down to the waterways where daily activities take place. A school in the background.

Recyclables - waste not, want not  

Astounding  varieties of architecture in the numerous churches  in Kerala. None are the same!!

Wouldn't  I want to be in one of these when I visit again!

Comorants perch and watch keenly for their feed

The country boat that took us to the backwaters

Sailing away from Kumarakom Lake Resort where we stayed for 2 nights. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Morning in Kovalam Beach,Kerala

Bringing in the cords

We skipped a lie-in to catch the buzz in Kovalam Beach. And we were amply rewarded.

At 7 in the morning the beach was slowly waking from its slumber to another day's call of activities. We strolled the soft sandy beach to look around and snap some pictures.The shops that were colourful with lights the night before were not open.

Luckily we did not miss the colourful scene of the local fishermen on the beach. This will be my best memories of Kovalam Beach, 13 km from Trivandrum where we left our cousin and family to head south. During our entire stay in Kerala, we did not tire of the many delectable varieties of fish which is a staple diet. It was lovely meen for lunch and dinner. Kerala with a long coastline facing the Arabian Sea has a strong fishing population. Fishing is one of the main sources of income for its people. Just to name a few varieties : seer/king fish, seabral (resembling halibut), pearl fish, black pomfret, tuna, indian salmon, pink perch, sardines.

We left Kovalam with loads of lovely images of men at work, resilient and ever -responding to the call of the sea. Definitely seeing their haul ,hopefully the next time round, will complete the picture.

Paddling away to the outer waters in hopes of a good catch

At the ready - all 20 men and more turbaned and in colourful sarong

High energy to get the boat into the water. Years of expertise make it look simple

All together - now! It was a lovely sight to see the fishermen in motion, chanting as they pushed and swayed

Tough act to follow. As they earn their livelihood these hardy, harworking fishermen provide shutterbugs with wonderful images of their sea faring activities.

All strong men, all team mates face the elements

Heave ho! A chain of men , all well - tanned pulling the cords for the catch to land on the beach. We watched with much interest as they synchronised the pulling and tugging. Unfortunately we couldn't stay longer to watch the haul . We had to head for Cape Comerin. Travelling takes time in Kerala as roads can be pretty bad in many stretches.

Tending to repairs

Tidying the nets before putting them in the boat to cast them in the sea

Rocky outpost to shout out when a good fishing spot is spotted.

Ahoy, who'll take me out to sea?

A tourist from New Delhi talking to the fishermen and translating Hindi to English for me.

Huge stacks of nets under thatched covers here and there on the beach

Open for business

Here's where we stayed - Hotel Sea Face - fronting the beach. We arrived just in time to see the sun setting.

Some housekeeping to do

To keep the tourists well-watered!

Getting ready the sun decks for the beach baskers

Life is a balancing act - much depends on tourist business

A child in a world of his own, enjoying the soft sand

Smiles are everywhere and people are friendly. Local womenfolk watching the fishermen at work

We had our lovely dinner of fish and Kerala curries at this outlet. Many attractive shops line the beach.

Life jackets ready for tourists who want to go for speed boat rides

Fuel to go somewhere!

Waves swishing, lapping at her feet

From where we sat, looking out onto the beach, eating breakfast of masala thosai, idli, poori and sambar, omelette, pineapple juice and Kerala coffee.