Category Archives: People

Book launch: Ramachandra Guha’s ‘Makers of Modern India’


Photo: R. Ravindran


The launch of historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha’s latest anthology, Makers of Modern India in the city was as much about what he’d included in the book as what he’d left out.

Makers of Modern India, edited and introduced by Guha, features fascinating excerpts of the writings of 19 influential Indian political thinker-activists whom he has chosen not just for how they shaped the formation of our republic, but also for how original their ideas were, and how accessible and relevant their words remain to this day.

“This is one of Penguin India’s most important non-fiction books of the year, and it comes, fittingly, at the end of a year of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Indian Republic,” said Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India, introducing the book to the packed audience at the Ballroom at Vivanta by Taj, Connemara.

The book begins with the writings of Raja Rammohan Roy, whom Guha calls ‘The First Liberal’, and then proceeds chronologically to cover the works of great thinkers up into the 1960s, some well-known, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar, some almost forgotten, such as Kalmadevi Chattopadhyay, Tarabai Shinde and Jotirao Phule, and some rather controversial, such as Jinnah and M.S. Golwalkar.

At various points during his lively, nearly hour-long speech, Guha defended and explained his choices, whether it was the controversial inclusions: “These men shaped India; for good or bad, you have to decide. I have to keep my ideological biases apart, that’s my job as a scholar”, or apparently glaring exclusions: “I left out people such as Subhas Chandra Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel or even Indira Gandhi because they haven’t left behind a legacy of original written work. They were actors, not thinkers.”

In response to other omissions brought up by the crowd, such as those of Kamaraj or Annadurai, he welcomed other scholars to do follow up volumes to this 500-odd page work. “I hope to spark many more volumes on other thinkers – the history of ideas has been very neglected by Indian historians,” he said. “I’ve given a mere glimpse, and it’s a fat book already! This is an attempt to start a debate, not close it.”

The other running theme of the evening was encapsulated in a witty yet poignant and at times downright poetic speech by former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who launched the book. “The book betokens a very real sense of loss… we had him and him and her too – where are they now?” he said. “How truly they cautioned us, admonished us and put steel into our spines. Whither have they gone?”

Guha addressed this loss in his own direct, energetic and no-nonsense style (which he, in a characteristic cricket metaphor likened to the ‘orthodoxy of Gambhir’ after the ‘sparkle of Sehwag’ in Gandhi’s speech). “Yes, no politician or social reformer writes or thinks like this anymore, but we have this remarkable resource available to us, in the form of their writings,” he said. “What we should worry about is that so many of us are ignorant of this legacy.”

These works, he pointed out, were not just of archival interest but just as relevant today. This hit home powerfully in the few passages he read out – a chillingly prophetic essay by the relatively obscure Marathi scholar Hamid Dalwai, in which he foreshadows the Ayodhya and Babri Masjid issue, to a pithy piece by E. V. Ramaswami about religious gurus in the 1920s that could have been written today.

The question and answer session that followed was typically Guha – covering a number of subjects, from NCERT’s new history text books to L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, and at all times spirited, well-informed and highly opinionated. And, judging by the strongly-worded suggestions from members of the audience, it may spawn a sequel or two to Makers of Modern India.


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Interview with… Ashok Amritraj

Photo: R. Ragu

Ashok Amritraj has had a rather good year. His productions in 2010 have met with critical and commercial success. He’s all set for his first 3D movie. And Variety hosted a swanky do at the Cannes Film Festival this year to celebrate his achievement of 100 films completed in Hollywood.

“They did a huge star-studded party for me on the beach at Cannes, and everybody from Jean Claude Van Damme, who did my first big film, to Eva Longoria and Bruce Willis was there,” he said, looking relaxed and, as always, debonair, as he lounged in his Chennai home. “It was very special.”

He was in the city for his customary year-end trip, before heading to Romania and Turkey to the sets of Ghost Rider 2, the sequel to the 2007 superhero flick starring Nicolas Cage as the motorcycle-riding, skull-flaming titular character.

“It’s very much the same Marvel Comics character, with the bike on fire, the skull on fire and so on, but in 3D,” said Amritraj with a laugh. “So the fire’s really going to come at you. It’s very fun.”

It will also be Hyde Park Entertainment’s (Amritraj’s company) first foray into 3D films, which he believes are here to stay. “The technology has given our industry quite a boost because of the ticket prices, to be honest,” he said candidly. “The price of tickets for 3D movies is 40 per cent higher in the U.S. and the U.K.”

The big tipping point, he said, is when the technology makes it into the average family’s home. “My kids already have 3D glasses to watch movies at home. I think there will soon come a time when we won’t need glasses at all, and then the technology will really take off.”

In the meantime, though, Hyde Park Entertainment is doing pretty well. Its September 2010 release, the hyper-violent, tongue-in-cheek, exploitation-style flick Machete by Robert Rodriguez (starring Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba and “Steven Segal resurrected from the dead”), received largely positive reviews and was a surprise summer hit. And the upcoming December release Blue Valentine (Amritraj has partnered with Harvey Weinstein for its distribution) is already receiving Oscar buzz for performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Which brings us to that inevitable question — any plans of an Indian production next? “I’ve had meetings with a couple of writers and directors to see if there’s any potential — it’s something I’d like to do since I haven’t done one since Jeans,” he said. “Whether it’ll be a fully Indian production or Indo-U.S. or Indo-Chinese, I don’t know.”

What he’d also like to see, though, is more Indians coming to Hollywood. “The second generation Indian-American kids are doing quite well, but I’m surprised that more people from India haven’t given it a shot,” he said. “I suppose if you have success here, you don’t want to go knocking on doors in Hollywood. But I hope to see a few new players soon; it just takes commitment, because finally, the colour of our skin doesn’t stand in the way of being a Hollywood movie star.”

He remembers when his friend Sidney Poitier led the African-American revolution in Hollywood, and again when another good friend, Antonio Banderas did the same for Latinos. “The Chinese have done a decent job as well, with people such as Jet Li, Jackie Chan and John Woo making a mark,” he said. “I think it’s India’s turn; we certainly have enough talent!”

If anyone knows about making it in Hollywood, of course, it’s this Amritraj brother, who is surprised at his own longevity in the industry. “There are maybe just four others in all of Hollywood history who’ve done 100 films. And my movies have altogether grossed $1.5 billion,” he said with a smile. “So I really am quite proud.”

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Book launch: “Another Chance” and “Urban Shots”

Chennai’s book lovers got a neat little two-for-the-price-of-one deal at a recent book launch at Landmark. You could even call it a three-for-the-price-of-one deal.

Two books – a romance novel and a collection of short stories were launched — and three authors were on hand to discuss the books with the audience that valiantly filled the seats in spite of the rain.

The books in question were ‘Another Chance’, Ahmed Faiyaz’s take on the rather complicated love lives of urban, upwardly-mobile yuppies in India, and ‘Urban Shots’, an engaging collection of 29 short stories by 13 Indian writers on life in our metros.

Both had Faiyaz in common – he’s contributed to three short stories in ‘Urban Shots’, and is the founding member of Grey Oak Publishers, which brought out both books. Their themes are similar too, with a focus on the urban experience in India.

“’Another Chance’ is reflective of our generation, where people are in a relationship but external and internal factors cause friction between them,” said Faiyaz, in conversation with Chennai-based writer Vibha Bhatra. “Careers make them move from city to city, they choose to go back to those they were in relationships with before, and so on.”

The story, then, sets up a love triangle (or should it be quadrangle?) between four beautiful, globe-trotting desi urbanites who’re trying to figure out what they’re looking for in life and love. “My greatest challenge was writing from a woman’s perspective this time, to bring out her point-of-view,” said Faiyaz, whose first novel, ‘Life, Love and All that Jazz…’ came out earlier this year.

‘Urban Shots’ (edited by Paritosh Uttam) touches upon relationships as well, dealing with themes of romance and infidelity. But it also takes on a whole lot else, from the loss of the child to domestic abuse, often with a great deal of sensitivity. Two of the contributors to the collection, Chennai-based freelance writer Malathi Jaikumar and journalist and author of travelogue ‘Chai, Chai’, Bishwanath Ghosh, were present at the launch and discussed why it was an important book.

“It’s very relevant as more and more people move to urban areas today,” said Jaikumar. “There are a lot of conveniences and chances for success, but also a lot of loneliness and depression. Anyone who reads these stories can identify with these situations, and feel like they’re not alone.”

Ghosh described the writers of ‘Urban Shots’ as spanning generations and providing different perspectives. “The youngest writer is 20 and the emotions one undergoes at 20, 25, 35 or 45 are different,” he said. “’Urban Shots’ is really many books in one book.”

This was a coming-out party of sorts for Grey Oak, set up earlier this year. These are its first two books and Faiyaz called ‘Urban Shots’ its “first big step.” “We thought why not make a statement by bringing young writes and noted writers together for a collection, and show our support for Indian writing,” he said.

The question and answer session that followed was a tad lackadaisical, punctuated by a series of mini blackouts. Still, there was time for a fairly in-depth discussion on short story writing and its evolution, and even a profound exchange on Somerset Maugham’s final book. Not a bad deal for the audience, overall.

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Interview with… Ashish Rajpal

Every year Ashish Rajpal teaches science for fourth or fifth standard students at a school in Delhi. Not exactly business as usual for an MBA and the managing director of a company. But then teaching is Rajpal’s business at iDiscoveri and it was a similar stint of teaching fourth graders that laid the foundations of his popular XSEED programme a few years ago.

“I came back after doing my M.Ed at Harvard University eight years ago, with this crazy mission to change education in India,” says Rajpal, an MBA from XLRI. “Given that we have six million poorly trained teachers in India, I dove right into teacher training, but found that in itself did not change classroom practice or help the children ultimately.”

That’s when Rajpal himself started teaching science at a Delhi school. “And I found it’s incredibly tough to teach 45 children in a crowded classroom!” he says. “I realised that all this theoretical nonsense we’d been feeding the teachers meant nothing in a real-world situation. We needed something that worked in the classroom.”

The result was that iDiscoveri began to create minute-by-minute plans for the teacher to follow in class, including group work, experiments and other forms of experiential learning. And so XSEED was born. “Today we’ve created over 8000 lesson plans across all subjects for nursery to seventh standard, and XSEED reaches 450 schools across the country,” says Rajpal. “We’re hoping that number will reach 1000 by next summer.”

About a hundred of those schools are right here in Tamil Nadu, which is one of XSEED’s flagship states. “Although we stared in 2002 in Delhi, we found that the South was far more receptive to our ideas,” he says. “So we decided to focus on Southern states, and picked Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.”

Rajpal describes the programme as going inside the schools like ‘Intel Inside’ and doing not just lesson plans, but also teacher training, creating work books and doing quarterly assessments of students (“sort of like a stock market report”). Somewhat strange MBA-esque metaphors to use for an educational enterprise, but then that’s Rajpal for you – a mixture of starry-eyed idealism and businesslike pragmatism.

“I am an idealist at heart – I’d have to have been, to give up my well-paying corporate job in Paris, uproot my family and go do my M.Ed at the age of 31,” he says. “But my corporate experience for 10 years has also shaped me. Ideas aren’t enough – you have to make it work.”

He recalls how he applied in secret to Harvard, inspired by the birth of his children. And once there, he was “like a greedy hog”, making the most of the opportunities before him. “Intellectually, those were the best years of my life – I was getting to hang out with legends such as Howard Gardner and David Perkins,’ he says.

To ensure these ideals aren’t lost, iDiscoveri launched The School of Tomorrow conference here in Chennai last year, with the second, bigger edition around the corner (see box). Then there’s the leadership programme for young adults he’s working on, along with supplementary programmes to meet different needs of students and a national network of XSEED centres. Oh, and he’s considering diversifying to teaching English as well. It’s all in a day’s work for this educational entrepreneur.

BOX: The School of Tomorrow conference
The second annual edition of iDiscoveri’s The School of Tomorrow conference will be held on December 7, 2010 simultaneously in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad, using Internet and videoconferencing technology.

It will feature several high-profile speakers, including writer and columnist Gurucharan Das, who will give the India Education Address, and leading American educationists Peter Senge of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and David Perkins of Harvard University, who will present the International Keynote Address.

In addition, there will be a micro-panel of educationists discussing issues of classroom and school practices and a macro-panel of leaders from the corporate sector discussing society’s expectations from education.

For details call 044-42658585 or log on to

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Interview with… D.J.K. Cornelius

D.J.K. Cornelius has designed so many machines and workstations for people with special needs in the last forty years that he’s lost count.

None of them have anything to do with his regular job as an industrial engineer. And he’s never patented any of his designs. But they’ve made a life-changing difference to hundreds of mentally challenged young people across the nation. And they’ve certainly given Cornelius himself more satisfaction than any designing he’s done on the job.

“It’s far more rewarding than what I was trained for professionally,” says Cornelius, founder of the Navajyothi Trust, which completed 40 years in 2009. “Others may say creating an industrial conveyor belt is more complex engineering, but changing people’s lives this way is much more satisfying.”

His specially crafted workstations are based on a simple principle – that modifying the working environment to suit the needs of the mentally challenged allows them to maximise their potential. “Rather than focussing on what they can’t do, you look at what they can, and find innovative ways to make the most of their abilities,” he says.

This means that youngsters at his institute (with IQs measured at 50 and below) today perform highly precise and complex tasks for companies such as Delphi TVS and Brakes India Ltd., creating diesel pumps for cars, perhaps, or bicycle or motorcycle chains, and earn a respectable salary.

“They aren’t given these jobs out of charity,” he stresses. “This is a business agreement, and the companies’ requirements are rigid.  At Navajyothi, every person is a social contributor, and they can hold their heads high.”

His journey began back in 1968, when he helped diagnose two children of close friends as being mentally challenged (he was a consultant for the Industrial Therapy Centre at the Institute of Mental Health in Kilpauk at the time). An engineer with a love for medicine, he’d spent long hours reading his doctor father’s books on mental disability, and later in Presidency College, had worked with the psychology department, helping design equipment for experimental psychology.

“They came to me for assistance because they’d been running from pillar to post and hadn’t gotten a diagnosis,” he recalls with emotion. “When I broke it to them gently, they were shattered.”

Moved by the impact it had on the children and their families, he dedicated himself thereafter to the cause of mental disability.

“What I found sorely lacking was post school-age programmes, so that 16 year olds emerging from special schools were just left high and dry,” he says. “Employment facilities were more occupational than vocational – their income was a pittance and their products were just not marketable.”

And so he established the Navajyothi Trust in 1969, with a grand total of Rs. 3000 as the corpus of the trust (“A couple of friends pooled in Rs. 1000 each”) and designed his first workstation shortly after (“the more sophisticated the task it assisted them in, the more they’d earn” was his mantra).

Unfortunately, this project found no support in Chennai, and he began work instead in Bangalore under the aegis of NIMHANS, in a small rented residence with just three students, training them and introducing them to his workstations. Soon people began to hear about his work – a National Award came the trust’s way in 1981, and visiting dignitaries urged him to take his work across the country.

“They’d never seen anything like it before, and said it should reach more people,” he says.

That’s how he came to develop the Diploma in Vocational Training & Employment (DVTE ) to teach instructors to train the mentally challenged in his techniques. It became the first such course in India to be licensed by the Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), and is today taught (in a modified form) at several institutes across the country, from Chandigarh to Thiruvananthapuram. In time, the little centre he started morphed into a full-fledged institute – training, creating research modules and publishing works, and of course, designing and developing his workstations. And in 2000, it finally shifted to Chennai entirely, after the trust was gifted land in Ambattur by the Tamil Nadu state government.

In these four decades, Cornelius has seen a lot change. “There’s greater awareness about disability today, and plenty of work has been done on the legal side, with a lot of rights being legislated,” says the 79-year-old, who is also one of the founding members of The Spastics Society of Tamil Nadu, was associated with the National Institute for the Mentally Handicapped, and has served on several expert committees for government ministries. “But there’s still a need to infuse more science and technology into the fight.”

He adds with a smile: “I would like to spread my work into other areas of disability as well; I only hope I have enough time.”

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Interview with… Andrew Logan

Photo: R. Raghu

The hotel room is all muted tones of olive green and cream, and I’m worried. It doesn’t seem like the right backdrop in which to photograph the famously colourful designer, sculptor and painter Andrew Logan.

Then he emerges, resplendent in a bright pink, orange and green pant-suit (with sunny yellow socks and bejewelled black shoes) and a glowing piece of his signature mirrored jewellery at his neck. “You don’t need to worry about colour,” he says with a twinkle.

That’s all right, then.

An interview with Logan is a fascinating journey through four decades of fabulous art and fashion, and even more fabulous friends and parties. A distinctive figure in the world of British art, Logan has spent the time since he finished qualifying as an architect at Oxford in the 1960s being ‘determinedly alternative’.

“In the U.K., there’s a system within the art world,” Logan says, adding wryly, “I’m not part of that system.”

His objective from the beginning has been very simple – to infuse a little magic and happiness into people’s lives. “My work is about celebrating life and making people smile, if even for just a little while,” he says. “You’ll find very few artists doing that; it’s such as simple message, yet so little used.”

So his quirky, one-of-a-kind jewellery pieces, for instance, are all bright colour and glittering pieces of mirror and glass, with, more often than not, a smiley face worked in. Even the vast art installation project he’s currently working on in Chennai for the new Hyatt hotel on Anna Salai is cheerfully, colourfully avant-garde, based on bees and flowers and the theme of interdependence.

And his ‘Alternative Miss World’ event – which has been around since the 1970s and is the subject of a recent documentary film – is all about imagination, transformation and a lot of crazy, wonderful fun, where people (a colourful cast of characters over the years) turn out in outrageous costumes.

“I call it a surreal art event for all-round family entertainment,” he smiles. “I carry on with it because it’s all in fun – there’s no huge money involved or sponsorship. People don’t enter to win; they just want to be part of the event. And I’ve always loved giving parties, ever since I was 10 years old!”

That’s also the reason his museum – The Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture– was opened in Wales, in 1991, making Logan the first living UK artist to have his own museum. “My sculptures are just there, to be looked after and to be enjoyed, without all the implications of exhibiting at a gallery,” says the artist, who grew up in the Cotswolds.

While these otherworldly sculptures and installations reflect his love of the fantastic and the magical (the Cosmic Egg, displayed at the American Museum of Visionary Art, Baltimore, and his Pegasus series, for example), his larger-than-life abstract portraits of friends and family, the famous and the infamous reflect his love for people and their eccentricities (many are displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, London).

And all his works reflect his obsession with mirrors – specifically broken mirrors. “People tell me, ‘Oh, you must have so much bad luck!’. I say, if you remake the broken mirrors into the most fabulous thing ever seen, how could it be bad luck?” says Logan with a grin. “I just love how broken mirrors fracture images – it’s like looking through a hole and seeing another world!”

Over the years, he’s become a well-known figure in a number of worlds – fashion, fine arts and performing arts — though he is frequently accused of not being a ‘serious artist’. “They say, ‘You can’t possibly be an artist because you like to dress up and show off’,” he says casually.

But fans of his work aren’t complaining – they’re just glad to be part of his ‘Worldwide Happy Club’. And Logan is clearly not troubled. He just lives in his – what else – fabulous glass house, with its sunshine yellow walls, along with his better half, Mike Davis in London. He conducts workshops at the Jaipur festival every year and spends every winter in a 250-year-old palace in the middle of a coconut grove in Goa.

“February in London is dark, cold and just miserable, and I’ve had enough of those,” he says, smiling. “For the rest of my life, I’ve decided to spend it somewhere lovely and warm.”

It’s all quite as magical as his art, really.

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Article: His Master’s Voice

The Hindu

The relationship between K. Balachander and Kamal Haasan defies categorisation. Director –actor, mentor – protégé, father – son… all those lines have been blurred in the 40 years that they’ve known each other, creating a bond that’s unique and unconditional.

So when the veteran filmmaker couldn’t make it to Trivandrum to speak at the felicitation function of his protégé due to ill health recently, he grew upset. But his lovingly crafted speech reached Kamal Haasan nonetheless, one more in the series of touchingly genuine letters Balachander has sent to the actor over the years.

“Here are his earlier letters to me, that I’ve framed,” says Kamal when we meet in his office, displaying the neatly preserved pieces of paper. “I call them ‘my degrees’.”

They span the four decades that the two have known each other, beginning with the first one sent in 1977 after Balachander saw 16 Vayathinile. “I receive them only when he thinks I deserve it – I have to work for them!” says Kamal with a smile.

This particular occasion was Kerala state government’s felicitation of Kamal Haasan for 50 remarkable years in cinema. In the letter, Balachander says, “From babyhood to childhood, from adolescence to youth, from manhood to middle age, I have been part of this magician’s life… Kamal has evolved into everything that I have dreamt he would be. Indeed, I should never be surprised by anything he achieves, yet I am constantly amazed.”

It is high praise, so much so that Kamal himself was quite overwhelmed. “I had to read it out to my sister, who was witness to my early dark days, when my mother was afraid would happen to me,” he says. “But I knew I couldn’t without choking up, so I asked Gautami to read it out for me.”

It is, he says, everything he always wanted to hear from Balachander, his guru, the man he thinks of as a father figure. “I use the word ‘guru’ for him in the mythological sense – all other educationists ask for payment for knowledge imparted; this gentleman paid me and taught me. What a journey it was for me, after I met him at the age of 17 and a half.”

In the letter, Balachander describes this journey as one of mutual learning. “I did not teach him everything he knows. He just absorbed everything I knew. The rest he discovered himself by asking, probing, begging, watching, observing, reading, demanding, investigating, improvising, experimenting, experiencing, learning and not being afraid of stretching himself beyond his own limits,” he writes. “I only gave him the platform and the opportunity to discover himself. In the process, I was blessed enough to discover myself.”

For all their mutual regard, however, Kamal describes their relationship as having remained respectfully formal. “I prepare even for a conversation with him – I never want to say too little or too much. And I never disturb him except when I feel I’ve done something worthwhile,” he says. “It’s a rare relationship – unconditional and professional.”

The depth of the relationship is evident in Balachander’s letter. “I have long since lost the taste, appetite and hunger for personal applause. All I wish for now is to hear the applause, the cheers, the trumpets and the music singing [praises of] Kamal Haasan’s genius,” he writes. “No one has staked his reputation, repertoire and resources for the cause of cinema as much as he has. It is not mere pursuit of fame and fortune. In fact, he has lost more than he has gained. It goes beyond that.”

As this special relationship turns 40 next year, it seems certain to continue to mature like fine wine. “To have won a place in his heart among all those he has mentored and created itself is a distinction,” says Kamal.

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Article: Memories of Maria

A photograph published in MetroPlus results in the coming together of nine surviving students of Italian educationist Maria Montessori for a unique reunion after seven decades.

Photo: N. Sridharan

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon, and a group of elderly gentlemen and women sits patiently under the trees at Kalakshetra Foundation, waiting for the event to begin.

It seems like any ordinary meeting, except it’s not — it’s a reunion of a most remarkable sort.

These nine men and women are the surviving students of the great Italian educationist Maria Montessori herself, and they’ve come together for a reunion — for the first time — nearly 70 years after they were classmates in her schoolroom.

When a group of adorable current-day Montessori students joins us the for the prayer song, the mood is truly set, and we rewind to the time when these septuagenarians were four or five years old themselves — memories of Maria and her adopted son Mario, of Easter eggs and biscuits, and all those things one tends to treasure as a child.

“I still remember the party Maria gave soon after the school was inaugurated — there were cakes, sweets, candles and gifts to be given to us kids,” says K.V.S. Krishna, who was instrumental in putting together the event after the idea was sparked off by a photograph that appeared in The Hindu (see box). “I was always hungry, and I grabbed as much as I could!”

The year was 1939, and Maria had fled to India with Mario, after being exiled by Mussolini during the Second World War. Invited to Madras by G.S. Arundale, she arrived that November, and set up her school at the beautiful old Olcott Garden bungalow on the Theosophical Society grounds.

“Our classes would be held in the ground floor of the bungalow, and we’d have a session of biscuits afterwards,” recalls A.Y. Nithiananda. “I remember, Madam Montessori would be wearing a kunguma pottu just like I am now.”

Some of the memories that surface at the reunion are poignant, such as P.K. Prabhakar’s recollection of the only time he ever saw Madam Maria cry — when she went to see Mario at Pallavaram, where he was interned as a prisoner of war.

When Maria wept

“By the good graces of Mr. Arundale, she could go visit him twice a year, and one of those times, Mario asked her to bring me along — he used to be very fond of me and would call me ‘Paiyya’,” says Prabhakar, the senior-most at the reunion. “When I saw Mario, I rushed to him, and extended my hand, and the sergeant in charge hit me with a baton. And, Maria started crying, saying: ‘No one should hit a child’.”

When they returned to the bungalow, Prabhakar says, she gave him chocolate and made him a promise — she would ensure no one hurt him like that again. “She taught me that one’s love for others is more important than all the education in the world,” he says.

Other anecdotes are in a lighter vein, such as R. Sivakami’s, at being asked to garland Maria on her birthday (“I was so proud to be chosen out of the 22!” she laughs), and a touching email from Sivakami’s brother S. Padmanabhan in Germany, whose aptitude for engineering Maria predicted back then (he ended up becoming one of the earliest staff members of the IIT Madras mechanical engineering department).

Plenty of chocolates

“She would always ruffle my hair and call me ‘bambino’,” writes Padmanabhan. “And, around Easter, there were always plenty of chocolate eggs!”

The picture that emerges is one of a remarkably warm woman who loved children and loved being with them. Sivakami remembers how Maria would often just sit and watch them at work: “Some days she would be on a dais, watching what we were doing, and some days, she would come and sit right by us and observe us.”

As the afternoon wears on, it also becomes obvious that there’s a strong sense of kinship amongst the people present. They’re more than just old classmates — they all seem to know each other’s relatives and friends, and they tease each other and squabble as if they’re family. Which is what they are, says Prabhakar. “Most of us come from a Theosophical Society background, so we, virtually, are all one family,” he laughs.

The sultry afternoon turns into a rain-splattered evening, and the remarkable reunion is at an end. The group disperses and slowly shuffles away, but Maria’s legacy remains, in the hearts and memories of her former students, the ones who could make it to the meet and the ones who couldn’t.

Box: How it all happened

It all began with a photograph. In the MetroPlus column Memories of Madras of September 9, 2009, titled ‘A Bridge with a View’ we carried a black-and-white picture of six students with Maria Montessori at Olcott bungalow.

When Gabriele Binder, executive director of the Montessori Society, Baden Württemberg, Germany, who has been studying Maria’s days in India for the last six years saw the picture, she immediately contacted K.V.S. Krishna, a former student of Maria’s whom she was told could help her.

“I was already in touch with 12 or 13 of the former students who were in Chennai,” says Krishna. “After Gabriele contacted me, we traced 16 of them, and then 19 all over India and abroad. Best of all, we’ve now identified four of the six children in the picture!”

Soon, plans were made for the grand reunion. Naturally, Binder was present, recording the interviews of the students. She had just one thing left to say at the end: “I’m glad you published that article!”


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Article: Grigoryan Brothers interview and concert review (uncut version)

Photo: R. Ravindran

Brothers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan hardly spent time together growing up. Slava, older by nine years, left for London when he was just 18 to make his mark as a solo guitarist, and Leonard stayed behind in Australia, practicing hard so he could one day play with his big brother.

That day came a few years later when Slava returned home and found that his brother, then 14, had turned into a ‘fantastic musician’. “At the same time, I’d gotten quite tired of always being on the road by myself – being a solo guitarist is a very lonely existence,” says Slava. “We started developing a repertoire for both of us, and we’ve never really looked back.”

In the eight years since, the Grigoryan Brothers, as they’re known, have made a name for themselves as the finest guitar duo in Australia, and have toured across the world, from Russia to Japan, Austria to South Africa, to universal acclaim.

And along the way, they’ve more than made up for all those years spent apart. “We’re kind of discovering each other now, later in life, without all the baggage other siblings carry with them,” says Slava. “We’re brothers, of course, but we feel more like friends,” says Leonard.

Playing together has also opened up a whole new world to them musically. “We arrange a lot of music, we commission a lot of composers to write for us – the solo guitar repertoire, in comparison, is much more traditional,” says Slava.  “What you can do as a soloist is more limited as well – when you add a guitar, the range and the possibilities are endless,” says Leonard.

That range, with these two immensely talented guitarists, is quite mind-boggling. Trained in the Western classical style by their father (both their parents are violinists), the brothers were encouraged to explore a variety of influences from early on, whether it was contemporary jazz, flamenco, rock or even Indian fusion. “One of the very first concerts we were ever taken to – I was 12 and Len must have been three! – featured John Mclaughlin, Kai Eckhardt and Trilok Gurtu,” recalls Slava. “And my first band in school played Jimi Hendrix.”

Today, their music is such an eclectic mix of styles – classical, jazz, Latin guitars and more – that the brothers don’t even try to categorise it. “For us, there has to be a showcase of all the different possibilities on the guitar,” says Slava. “Playing beautiful, lyrical ballads is just as meaningful as playing technically demanding classical pieces.”

And they revel in its international flavour. “As a guitarist, you feel like you have a very international ownership – we’re from a Russian background [their parents emigrated from Kazakhstan], we grew up in Australia learning classical guitar, and yet we feel very close to Spanish and Brazilian music!” says Slava.

Plus, they’ve done an album on French Impressionistic music, are planning one on Russian piano music, and every now and again, they take a break from being the ‘Grigoryan Brothers ‘ to team up with another pair of musical siblings from Egypt (who play the Oud and the Req) and perform as the ‘Band of Brothers.’

“We bring contemporary guitar influences into their world, and see what happens,” he says with a smile. “It’s a lot of fun – we were recently in China with them for the World Expo, and our album will be out next year.”

When they’re not travelling around the world or extensively touring across Australia (their last tour had 45 concerts), Slava and Leonard are… well, they’re hanging out with each other. “We have the same non-musical interests – we play golf together, we love food and wine and cooking…” says Slava. “So even when we’re not playing, we end up seeing each several times a week,” says Leonard.

“And after all these years, we’re not sick of each other at all!” says Slava, laughing.


A standing ovation and two encores later, the packed audience at the Taj Coromandel Ballroom were still loath to let the Grigoryan Brothers leave the stage. That’s the sort of impact the guitar duo had in their first-ever performance in the city.

The music was gorgeous right from the get-go. They opened the concert (presented by the Australian high Commission, Delhi) with the incredibly soulful ‘Distance’ from their 2009 album of the same name, a melodic piece (full of delicate strumming and harmonies) that defied categorisation. This was followed by two movements from the more traditionally classical ‘Suite Bergmasque’ by the French composer Debussy (adapted for guitar by their father) – first the lively, playful “Minuet”, and then the sweetly evocative “Clair de lune”.

The variety in their repertoire was on ample display as they performed two whimsical and quirky contemporary compositions by Ralph Towner, and then the infectiously high-energy ‘Jongo’ by Brazilian composer Paolo Bellinati. Every note was perfect, their synchronisation impeccable even in the most frenetic interludes, and when they stopped to beat out a complex rhythm on their guitars during ‘Jongo’, it was, of course, to perfect time.

By the time they played their own version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’, it was no longer a surprise that they’d added so many unique flourishes and variations that the original seemed almost staid by comparison. Really, can you blame the crowd for bringing them back not once, but twice?

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Article: Voices for all Seasons (profile of the Madras Musical Association choir)

They’ve sung before the Pope and at the Pantheon in Rome; they’ve sung at the Coventry Cathedral in England and on the BBC Radio; they sang at the Sydney Opera House ahead of the 2000 Olympics, and come 2012, they’ll be part of the pre-Olympics cultural celebrations once again, this time at the Alexandra Palace on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames.

We’re talking, of course, about Chennai’s own choir-that-could, the 117-year-old, 80-voice Madras Musical Association choir. Formed in 1893 by a group of Europeans who came together often to sing, the choir has never been disbanded or defunct during the entire period of its existence, though there was a brief lull in the late 80s, says Dr. Ravi Santosham, president of MMA for the last 20 years.

“From about 1985 to 1990, the support we had from the consulates fell away, there was hardly any activity, and we lost a lot of voices – we thought there wouldn’t be an MMA choir anymore,” he says. “But a handful of us continued to meet once a week, we started having membership drives, and we’ve just gone from strength to strength since then.”

That would be an understatement. Composed of 80 Chennai-ites from various walks of life (high school and college students, IT professionals and engineers, doctors and nurses, playback singers and homemakers… the list is endless), the choir today is the largest it has ever been, in terms of size, and perhaps the most accomplished, holding its own with choirs across the world.

“At least 75 per cent of our repertoire today is international standard – these are not simple compositions,” says MMA’s current conductor, Augustine Paul. “We are an amateur choir, yet we do pieces performed by paid, professional choirs at the Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall.”

No wonder then that the choir received an invitation from the International Church Music Festival to perform in England in 1998 – its first such international invitation. “I got an email asking if the MMA would be interested in performing at the Coventry Cathedral for a massed music concert,” recalls Santosham. “I couldn’t believe it and neither could the choir!”

But perform they did – the only choir from Asia to do so – and they impressed acclaimed conductor Sir David Wilcox so much that they were invited back in 2000, and again for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the festival in Rome in 2009 (where they did a one-minute performance before the Pope).

Along the way, they were invited by World Voices Australia (“maybe they heard us performing on BBC Radio,” says Santosham) to be part of the cultural activities ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now, the men of MMA are gearing up to be part of a 1000-voice all-male choir that will perform at the Alexandra Palace six days before the 2012 Olympics open in London.

“We’ll be taking the ladies along too, because there will be a concert tour all over England for the participating choirs after the event,” says the president.

The choir, of course, also does two or three full concerts in Chennai every year, in addition to its well-known annual Christmas show, ‘Carols by Candlelight.’ The remarkable thing is that all of this is accomplished with the choir meeting just once a week (on Monday evenings), for a two-hour rehearsal.

“We’re now geared to do a concert with just three months preparation, with up to 80 per cent new music, which is very good by Indian standards,” comments Paul. “We have a blend of youngsters who bring tremendous energy, and seniors who have a thorough knowledge of the music.”

The practices are intense – each constitutes one-twelfth the preparation for a concert, after all – but they’re also a space for fun and friendship.

Husband and wife pair Revi and Lalitha Thomas, for instance, never miss a practice session and have missed just one concert in the two decades they’ve been part of MMA. “We love the music, of course, but also our fellowship with the other members – some of our closest friends are from the choir,” says Lalitha.

And Roshin Abraham, a 27-year-old psychologist, loves the fact that rehearsals are on a Monday: “It’s the perfect way to beat the Monday Blues,” she laughs. “There’s a lot of energy and a lot of variety in the music we sing.”

Today, the choir’s repertoire includes everything from Broadway musical numbers and jazz to ABBA and Michael Jackson, enabling the MMA to reach out to a wider audience. But the oratorios that were a staple of the past remain – both in its music library (“The MMA has one of the best Western classical music libraries in India, left behind by the British,” says Paul), and in its repertoire (the choir recently performed the immensely challenging ‘Israel in Egypt’ for the first time in nearly a century).

An amalgam of the past and the present, the young and the old, the classical and the modern – that’s MMA for you, a unique and integral part of Chennai’s rich cultural tapestry.


You can catch the Madras Musical Association choir’s next performance in Chennai on August 27 and 28, 2010. The classical music concert will be held at the Museum Theatre, in aid of the Hindustan Bible Institute’s social service activities. For details on passes call 98400-85531 / 98844-99456.

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