Thursday, 14 June 2012

Books: Jan Nordstrom's photo essays ~ Every breath we take


A book is a book is a book, did you say? I thought my definition of a book were formed enough, until the postman rang my doorbell some weeks ago  ~ and four books by the Swedish photographer-painter- poet Jan Nordstrom waltzed into my life, making me redefine what books are all about.  I’m still trying to figure out all that makes his books special. 

Jan’s books have his poems, and his photographs. But they are not glossy, touch-with-care coffee table books. Nor are they standard-sized volumes that you pick off a bookstore shelf, scan, then toss away.
For there’s a certain fine-tuned sensibility underlying his books that blew me away. Completely. This includes the brilliant photography, the edgy design, the focused intent, the subtle paintings, even the text in translation. It all comes together in undeniable harmony.

Take my favourite of the four, to begin with.


Frihet (Freedom) teases me with its cover blurb in English translation: “The story of Erik, Mona and Ruben. For those who live close. About the people who nurse and help. For those who carry hope as an inner world.” 

I open the book. And I stumble upon Eric, just 10, in a wheelchair. He’s at Kalmar country hospital with his mother Marina and his baby brother Axel in a pram.  This is a poetic, pictorial document of his life from 2002-2004.
Eric has been battling leukaemia.  He has been through chemotherapy. He dreams, one day, of playing football with his friends again.  And so he does.

A few pages later, I enter the world of Mona.  A sweet, smiling couple dance in a living room.  Who are they?

In Jan’s words: “Tuesday, November 19, 2002./ The living room./ Dance for a while./ Love each other. / Mona Iveby, 59, and her beloved Bengt Ohlsson, 64./ Mona has neoplasm./ It can no longer be cured./ Only curbed./ Love and the will to live carry them now…”

Through sensitive, gentle pictures Jan makes us look through lenses we have never tried. We follow Mona’s journey. As a nurse helps Mona with a shot of morphine to tackle her pain. As Mona dabs on lipstick, a gesture of self-healing. As she paints every Wednesday, for little things gain great meaning as dusk comes knocking at life.  As the couple drive away to a fairytale island cottage on Oland. By 2003, Mona and Bengt fly away to a cottage in Madeira. It almost makes you believe in miracles in real time.

With courage, with infinite grace, Mona says, “I believe that you need to take risks if you want to live life to its utmost.”

And then there’s 79-year-old Ruben who, post-surgery, realizes, “So little is needed to make someone happy. A smile…”

Jan’s images speak even more eloquently than his text.  An unforgettable hug between Mona and her Bengt, their first in two years, his eyes closed in remembrance.  A part-portrait of Ruben rowing, the deep blue of the sky backdrop in sync with his eyes and his shirt. Eric, back with his peers, his infinity smile a promise of sunshine days to come.

This is a moving testimony to the human spirit ~ and to trained caregivers who heal with their gentle touch, their presence, their ability to understand.

I can understand the impetus for this book only because I’ve met Jan Nordstrom. Way back in the fall of 1999, at Kalmar in southeast Sweden, by the Baltic Sea, where he lives and swims in the icy waters at dawn. The city has a population of over 36,000.

We met when 20 of us from Asia, Africa and Latin America were chosen to participate in a seminar on ‘Women in Journalism’ in the idyllic small town.  Jan was the official photographer and course assistant  ~ and we returned home with portraits that we still look back on with wonder and tenderness.


Karlekheten (Loveness) left me just as wonderstruck. For, through poetry, photographs and paintings, Jan evokes l-o-v-e.

I catch my breath over a semi –blurred, full-cheeked, soft-lashed baby in profile in the right-hand corner of a double-spread. He draws my eye in, as gently as a caress. On the blank page opposite, ant-like words crawl into the stillness:  “life cannot be put on hold.”

An image from 'Loveness'
 Jan’s books are as much about his personal talent, as they are about what we’ve come to associate with a Scandinavian sensibility: teasing minimalism, deliberate restraint, evocative layouts that enhance.

What illustrates this in Karlekheten?   

~ A faceless, dramatic black-and-white painting, with the words: ‘you touch my inner being/ in the dreams I have hidden.’

~  A hand emerging from a shirtsleeve, its fingers touching gnarled bark: ‘what do we leave behind?’

~ The love story of Astrid, 84, and Sven, 95, immortalized in a photo-essay, through arms wrapped protectively around each other as they lie side by side, through the tangible love in their eyes as his hand touches her cheek.

It is in the unspoken, the unwritten, the internally visualized that come to life through Jan’s visual and verbal prompts. Each enriches us in intangible ways. That’s what makes this book so precious, priceless beyond counting.


Glod (Glow) visually shares Kalmar’s luminous past, its glassmaking traditions. As Jan couches it, “So I returned/ Back to the land of glass./ To the knights and wizards of my childhood./ To those who blow life into glass./ To the pride in their eyes. / To the glow./ To the treasure of glass.”

The accompanying visuals are stunning. Black at the centre across a doublespread; to the left, a figure enters the building; to the right is a slatted gate in front of an orange wall, a street lamp lights all. A hand in focus between two fiery panels, as the molten glass is gathered.  Lush green leaves; in the top corner of the frame, a man in a red shirt sips from a glass. In the last quarter of a pitch dark frame, Michael blows the slender beginnings of a vase.

Each frame in this mainly non-textual book is lyrical, even painterly, culled with tenderness. This photo-essay truly glows from within with imagination and insight.  


In Jan’s fourth book, “Tillsammansheten” (Together), I did not have the benefit of an English text. Over its pages, he follows Kalmar FF’s A-league footballers through the season of 2010-11. Being a football fan like him, I was enchanted by it.

For not a single frame would fit into a sports magazine or football reports in a daily. Dagens Nyheter , Sweden’s biggest morning paper, chose it as one of the best books of 2011. 

 Here’s a teaser trailer of what we see on his pages:

Black, hazy figures jumping in the air against a fogged skyline and skeletal trees…

A huddle of red-kitted heads with a pearl grey backdrop…

The toss onfield, viewed through a sea of football-boots with long socks on…

A tantalizing double frame: half a male face in profile looks in from the right edge; facing him is a smudgy maybe-face at the edge of the left. ..

A feathery blue sky; at its base is a tiny player in red; two balls bounce  ~ one above his head, one behind him…

The drama of the locker room, the nitty-gritty of coaching sessions…

The beautiful game comes alive in a million aspects through this poetic, singing tribute from Jan. The power. The joy. The glory. And the sadness of its flipside alike.

Until these books arrived at my door from Kalmar, I knew Jan Nordstrom as a gentle, caring soul, a fine photographer. But the sheer span of his undeniable talent has swept me off my feet.

Now I know for sure that a book is a book is a book, often predictable and recognizable, but not when couched through the eyes of Jan Nordstrom.

Skol to you, my friend Jan!

 *        *        *

More information on Jan’s books, mainly in Swedish:

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Travel: Jodhpur ~ Shades of royalty

Umaid Bhavan palace

(I wrote this piece in 2001)

Jodhpur claims it has a direct line to the legendary Lord Rama. In what way? This imperial capital of the former Marwar State in Rajasthan was founded by Rao Jodha, chief of the Rathore clan of Rajputs, in 1459 A.D. And the Rathores claim to be direct descendants of the epic hero. 

The city, which is currently the second-largest in Rajasthan, became a major trade centre in the 16th century. Situated at the edge of the Thar desert, it resonates with tales of antiquity and royalty.

Rajput lore surrounds us at the majestic 15th-century Mehrangarh fort that soars 125 metres above the city on a rocky hill. The 5-km long, apparently impregnable structure was built by Rao Jodha at the heart of his city. Stolidly invincible from the e xterior, long and winding roads lead to Mehrangarh's four gates. In tune with the fortress mentality, Jodhpur is encompassed by a high wall -- 10 km long with eight gates -- and innumerable bastions.

Within Mehrangarh's battlements, we come across an array of palaces, each with an evocative name -- Moti Mahal, Phool Mahal, Sheesh Mahal, Sileh Khana and Daulat Khana. Collectively they showcase fabulous trappings of Indian royalty, including palanquins, elephant howdahs, miniature paintings, musical instruments, costumes and furniture. 

The blue city at the base of Mehrangarh fort

After a steep climb up stairs worn smooth by antiquity, we catch our breath with wonder. Before us is an array of magnificent outfits, apparently made for generous royal girths. The angarkhan-style kurtas in the display case seem fit for a regal giant. Beautifully ornamented with zardosi work or tailored from Banarasi brocades, these garments transport us to imaginary durbars.

As we wind through another sun-lit passage en route to an assemblage of palanquins, we come to a dead halt. In a cranny between two ancient doors sits a dignified elderly man with a fierce moustache, surrounded by relics of a bygone age. On his lap rests a sword sheathed in red silk, while an elaborately embellished shield rests on the wall behind him. As he puffs at the hookah by his elbow, the mid-day sun glints off his safa or turban of burnt gold.

We edge into a conversation in broken Hindi, when he ushers us to a priceless view of Jodhpur below from a stone-latticed window. ``Look,'' he says, twirling the tip of his moustache, ``ours is a blue city.'' Why, we ask. ``To keep the houses warm in w inter and cool in summer,'' he confides.

We reluctantly leave Mehrangarh, passing by an exquisite palanquin edged with gold, its lacquered finish dulled by the desert sun.

As we gaze entranced, it's easy to imagine a dazzling princess in an elaborate silk poshaak or outfit crouched within its confines, her face hidden by a deeply drawn veil.

Close by, we stop to listen to an exquisite flute melody from a white-clad musician perched within the ramparts, his orange sash hinting at the bandhini that adorns his safa. He plays on, unmindful of the gaggle of tourists who stop to listen, in tune with flautists in ancient Mehrangarh.

His tune lingers on as we drive to Jaswant Thada, a cluster of royal cenotaphs in white marble built in memory of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II in 1899. At the entrance, we come across an enchanting sight -- a family of itinerant musicians playing folk tunes. The father plays with zest on the ravanahatta, a traditional stringed instrument, while his tiny sons -- clad in rustic outfits -- literally dance to his tune. They are aware that spirited steps add to the family coffers , evident from the 10-rupee notes tucked into the rims of their tiny turbans.

Within the main cenotaph of Jaswant Thada is a hall filled with portraits of Jodhpur rulers. Along the railings are fluttering flags, which turn out to be handkerchiefs, paper towels and even baggage-tags tied by believers in search of a boon!

The regal route next takes us north to Mandore, the former capital of Marwar. This popular picnic spot, 8 km from Jodhpur, contains royal cenotaphs. But its main attraction is undoubtedly the Hall of Heroes, which has 15 Hindu deities carved on to a soaring rock face.

Back to contemporary times, our last stop is Umaid Bhavan Palace. Partly converted into a Welcomgroup hotel, the palace is still inhabited by the royal scions -- Gaj Singh and his family. The sprawling palace, with its magnificent gardens, is based on an intense human story. It is the only 20th-century palace built under the Government's famine relief project over 16 years to help victims survive. Maharaja Umaid Singh's opulent sandstone edifice houses an unusual museum with limited access. A wing of the palace, manned by handsome Rajput personnel, houses relics of the family -- gold-edged Dresden and Wedgewood dinner sets, an unbelievable range of clocks, intricate writing tables and classic pens to match and even samples of the family crest on crockery, uniforms, shields and other items. 

Dal bati churma
 Finally, we decide to round off the flavours of Jodhpur by sampling traditional local fare. So we dip into steaming bati, which is atta kneaded with ghee and roasted over embers after the fragrant dal has simmered for hours. To accompany the dal-bati, we have churma, made from the same dough which is sweetened and crumbled.

Though Jodhpur is now a distant memory, its royal relics remain richly alive, as alive as the taste of dal-bati-churma -- food for rich and poor alike -- on our tongue, especially on winter days.

(The Hindu Business Line 2001)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Books: Harry Potter, hype and hoopla

(I wrote about the hoopla surrounding the fifth Harry Potter book in Bangalore in 2003)

"The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive. ...The only person left outside was a teenage boy who was lying flat on his back in a flowerbed outside number four... ."

ANY CLUE what that passage portends? None at all? Then, you've probably missed out on a date with history, hype, and hoopla that attended the embargoed global release of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on June 21. Its attendant wide-eyed screams, squeals, and chatter, was followed by book-bound silence — as evinced in as far apart as Ukraine and Lagos, London and New York, Mumbai, and Bangalore.

Gangarams Book Bureau opened at an unusual 8 a.m. Within minutes, Aditya, 11, of the National Public School (NPS), Rajajinagar, had picked up the third copy from the just-arrived stocks. "I'd like to be like Potter," he smiles. Sriniketh Vijayraghavan, 11, who attends the Indiranagar NPS, adds: "Last year, I didn't do well at our school's Harry Potter quiz. Since then, I've been reading Rowling every night."

In their wake comes K.K. Ranga, retired general manager of Hyderabad-based Bharat Dynamics. He's all set to courier the promised book to his Pune-based grandchildren Krittika, 9, and Rohan Ram, 7, following a 7 a.m. telephonic reminder. Rohit Sudarshan, 14, from Cincinnati, is visiting his grandparents here. "I love sci-fi, but Rowling is much more fascinating," he avers.

At Strand Book Store, the pace is as frenetic, with 9-11 a.m. sales touching 300 copies. Nikhil Ravichander, 12, of Bishop Cotton Boys' School, practically ushered proprieter Vidya Virkar in. "I'm not really into reading," he admits, glued to the first 17 pages by the time he reached the door, "but Rowling's books have captured my imagination. I'm willing to skip lunch for this." Anant Ramaswamy, 13, of the Aditi Mallya International School, adds: "I've read the earlier four titles at least three times each. I love Harry's world of wizardry. So does most of my class."

Even at Premier Bookshop, Chris, a I PUC student from Mt. Carmel's, was buying herself a copy at 9.30 a.m.. "I love Rowling's parallel magical world. It helps us to get away from our daily problems," she believes.

What's the spell that the 768-page, one-kilo hardbound has cast over the Muggle or non-magical world? Thousands of children here are entranced by the publishing phenomenon spelt Harry Potter. In their book, neither pizza nor tattoos, neither frayed jeans nor branded backpacks can compete with the boy wizard's adventures at Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

That explains why, at an estimated $450 million in earnings, Rowling, 37, is richer than Queen Elizabeth II today. Or why a record-breaking 13 million copies of the fifth Potter book were in print aeons before June 21. The embargoed title soared to the top of the bestseller list at the online bookstore, even at $.29.95 a copy, leaving Scholastic Children's Books in the U.S. and U.K.'s Bloomsbury Publishers laughing all the way to the bank.

Potter is 15 in the new book. He was 11 in the first volume, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, published in 1997. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban followed over the next two years, and the fourth, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, appeared in July 2000.

Rowling's first four titles of the projected seven-book saga sold an estimated 200 million copies across 200 countries, in over 55 languages, including Braille. The new volume is being released with two jackets, one for adults, the other for children.

The Potter books — sans illustrations, sans comic book vividness — have served as rebuttals to those who predicted the death of reading. The first two books have been adapted into hit movies, but kids swear they are not a patch on the plain text version. Global branding has been over the top — computer games, key chains, clothes, stationery, what-have-you!

News snippets hyped June 21 beyond any marketing blitz in history, including a tantalising bit of info that Rowling cried as she had to bump off a character. An entire truckload of over a thousand copies of the Potter novel, valued at a phenomenal $1.7 million, was stolen near Liverpool on June 17. A first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was recently auctioned for £1,400 in the U.K..

If the director Chris Columbus's second cinematic adaptation, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets didn't exactly set Bangalore's screens on fire in April-May, there's a reason for it. "When I read the books, I imagined how it all looked," recalls Meghna, 11, of Shishu Griha. "After I saw the first movie last year, all I could imagine was scenes from the movie. I don't really like that."

Local distributors and booksellers matched the market mood. Satish Sundaram of East-West Books, one of the four Potter distributors, estimates an all-India sales figure of between 75,000 to 1 lakh copies, with a June 21 release of about 10,000 copies in Bangalore. Strand offered the Rs. 795 book at a magical price of Rs. 555. Jayanagar's Nagashri Book House lopped Rs. 195 off the first 500 early orders. Such sales are unprecedented, remarks Prakash Gangaram, lauding the impeccable global release coordination. Gangaram's, incidentally, offers no discount.

That sets Potter in a class apart from other best-selling children's writers like Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Jacqueline Wilson, Eva Ibbotson, Philip Pullman and, closer home, Ruskin Bond, Sigrun Srivastav, and Subhadra Sen Gupta.

Pramita Prasad of Wordplay in Indiranagar, who doubles as a reading consultant at Vidya Niketan school, notes: "Even Std. 1 kids, who can't cope with Ladybird Level I, chirp up about Harry Potter because it's `in.' That's impossible!" Ms. Virkar stresses: "If children develop reading stamina through complex plots like these, they're certain to come back for more."

Why does Rowling spell word magic? Shanta Chandran, vice-principal and English teacher at Indiranagar's NPS, answers: "Even at 40-plus, I could relate the Potter fantasy to, say, Hanuman lifting the mountain in our epics." 

Brinda Amritraj, a clinical psychologist, feels: "Rowling creates a mystical, magical fantasy world that holds our interest through five books, unlike Enid Blyton's real-life adventures." 

Kalpana Krishnamurti, an IT professional and Meghna's mother, remarks: "I sneaked the books out to read while she slept. Rowling may have taken elements from Blyton and C.S. Lewis, but she's still a superb storyteller."

Popular author Poile Sengupta half-jests: "Imagine books being in the news, apart from Beckham. I've always fantasised about books being stolen from a library! It's the first time since Alice in Wonderland that children and adults are equally excited... "

Some genuine customer feedback? Preeti, 11, declares: "I don't know why Rowling wasted three years. She didn't have to marry that Scottish doctor (anaesthetist Neil Murray, 31) and have a baby between books. She could have hurried up with the fifth one instead."

My sentiments, exactly. Spellbound like Preeti, I reach for a copy. Which of the key characters will die between its covers? How will the 15-year-old orphaned wizard cope with his first love? Can I reach the end before I've read the first word? At this moment, I believe in magic. Just like Harry Potter. 

(The Hindu Metroplus 2003)

Issues: Putting exams to the test

(I wrote this in 2002)

When Manish and Harish, both class III students from Delhi, fled to Bangalore by train recently, they dramatically spotlighted the most debated aspect of the Indian education system — examinations. Can apprehension of final assessment drive two nine-year-olds to flee their homes and the safety of the familiar? Apparently, yes. For, to them, the unknown loomed as a lesser fear than the horror of examinations.

To what extent can examinations traumatise children? Dr. Brinda Amritraj, a clinical psychologist, shares the case of an exceptional standard X student, on whose shoulders the dreams of her parents and teachers rested. Faced with the preparatory exams, she suffered a panic attack and blanked out. "To think a child like that could not perform!" observes Brinda. "She felt: `I can't bear it that I have come down in my own eyes.' That's difficult. If it's only a question of others' expectations, it's easier to allocate the blame."

Through Zeitgeist (that is German for the `spirit of the times'), Dr. Brinda has been enhancing the realisation of individual potential for years. She adds: "Yet, in some ways, the pressures of our system enhance productivity and teach survival skills. Almost all children who go abroad from India are classified as gifted students. It's only when they come back that they have problems settling in."

The impact of this testing device on tender psyches emerges from conversations with a range of City-based schoolgoers, most currently in the throes of exam fever. "I like exams because I get to remember what I have learnt so far,'' says Tara Kumar, a fourth standard student of the Sacred Hearts Girls' Primary School, whose favourite subjects are Arithmetic, Moral Science, and Grammar. ''The only time I dislike an exam is when it is tough or boring." Her sister, Aditi, who's 11, seconds that with, "I don't mind exams. They are fine, but basically I don't like studying."

Prateeti Prasad, 14, of Vidya Niketan, has been subjected to exams since class V. "Why do they have exams just once a year, instead of seeing how we have done the whole year? We have only 20 marks for internal assessment, but 80 for the exams," she says.

Ten-year-old Akash Sharma, who topped the national-level under-10 chess tournament at Sangli, studies at the Kendriya Vidyalaya. He feels: "Exams are nothing very special, except that we have to spend time preparing for them." However, Akash has an interesting point, which comes as a surprise from someone of his age. He feels that the less courageous ones can be unnerved by the sheer thought of an exam. It is mostly the fear of failure, he observes.

How do parents gauge the examination syndrome? Abha Sharma, Akash's mother and the director of a software company, stresses: "Exams are given too much of importance, which is unwarranted. But I wouldn't take a drastic stance against exams. In our competitive world, how else can we assess how our children measure up? I don't think children would bother too much about exams if their parents' anxieties were not communicated to them."

Assessing today's schooling, Ms. Sharma notes: "These days, Maths Olympiads and Talent Search exams enter a child's life as early as standard IV or VI. If the child is not well or feeling off-mood during the two to three hours of an exam, is it fair for him or her to be judged not for intelligence but for failure to deliver?" she asks. "I feel sad that parents consider extra reading of so little value. Often, the child faces remarks such as `Why are you wasting time reading that book? It won't come in your exam!'" Anand Kumar, a scientist and father of Tara and Aditi, says: "I'd like my children to know their lessons in the normal course, not just for their exams. Their music and art classes are just as important as their studies. I'll never expect them to get up early in the morning to study for an exam."

Prateeti's father Guruprasad says: "We have been very relaxed parents. We don't force Prateeti to study, apart from an occasional pep talk. But she knows these are the three most important years of her school life if she wants to have her pick of college options. She's free to watch TV even during her exams."

Max Mueller Bhavan librarian, Maureen Gonsalves, whose nine-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are at The Valley School, where examinations are introduced only at the Standard IX level, shares a different angle: "I'm not against exams per se. But I find the kind of exams we have objectionable because they only test memory or how fast a child writes. I have watched even a first standard child being tutored at home, his tennis classes and other extra-curricular activities stopped, because it is so important for parents that their child should top the class. The current board exams are both formidable and traumatic."

What are the alternatives to our exam-centric system? M. Srinivas, founder of the five-year-old Gifted Education Research (Gear) Foundation, offers another perspective. "Our exams are almost always about incapacitating the child's mind. Children emerge from them with the feeling that they have not done well. Instead, creative exams should give teachers a chance to spot a child's abilities and motivate him/ her to do better."

The Gear system, with its stress on multiple intelligence (MI), identifies and nurtures each child's special talent. Armed with a master's degree in Gifted and Talented Education from Connecticut, USA, Mr. Srinivas stresses: "We have to join hands with parents, schools, the Department of Education, and policy-makers to develop creative exams. How does it help us if fear psychosis incapacitates the child, instead of accelerating learning? We have to evolve a system that will test the child's abilities, not just memory. What do these tests prove about problem-solving or creative thinking?" Ms. Gonsalves adds in the light of her recent online exam in library science: "Open book or online exams that test understanding or application make much better sense." 

Teacher and writer Poile Sengupta, who loves children, says: "I don't like exams, but what other system of evaluation do we have for standards of information? When children sit at a desk with exam papers, their intelligence is being tested, not expressed. If only every school had a viable and equally-powerful non-testing system through which the children could express themselves, that would counteract and neutralise exams."

As the pros and cons of the debate rage unabated, Mr. Srinivas suggests: "The major problem is that our system does not provide an opportunity for feedback or discussion on the child's responses. What do these grades prove about a child's potential abilities? I would prefer a system of national descriptive evaluations instead of marks, which can be interpreted equally by all. Our system is totally irrelevant to life. If Indian education has to change, our exams have to change."

How? "If a child can express himself better through pictures than words, why can't we ask him to draw a car that might exist 50 years from now?'' Mr. Srinivas queries.

Perhaps the final word rests temporarily with Akash. "The free time we get after our exams compensates for them." Prateeti concurs: "The best part of exams is that they finally get over!"

When will policy-makers, educators, and parents take children into confidence to resolve the examination riddle, so that Manish and Harish no longer have to flee the system?

Their time starts now.

(The Hindu Metroplus, 2002)