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My 31st paayesh

Maa has made 31 paayeshs for me, one on each birthday.  And so yesterday was my 31st.  On the morning of every birthday, she patiently stirs the milk mixture forever (actually it’s probably around 45 mins but this is a very long time to stir continuously, although on a positive note it’s probably really great for toning the arms) to make the sweet and silky paayesh.  Obviously, as fitting for any special occasion, the paayesh does not touch my lips until a small portion of it has been offered to god ( in the form of Ganesh in the photo) and until I shower and say a little prayer myself.  I’m not religious at all but this little ritual provides comfort and balances out the other more hedonistic aspects of birthday festivities.  That minute in front of the offering is a quiet moment in which I can reflect on the past year, give thanks to all the good things in my life, and look forward to next year.  It puts everything in perspective.

Maa’s paayesh has that perfect consistency of being a little less thick than condensed milk.  I find it is so uninspiring and spirit-deflating when the paayesh limply spills over the spoon because it is so thin and watery.  Also importantly, Maa’s paayesh has NO RAISINS.  Nothing against raisins as such but we just don’t like them in the paayesh.  Instead she adds flaked almonds which gives it a lovely and different texture.

Ingredients

  • 2 pints full cream milk
  • 2 tbs rice (in UK, Maa uses Basmati but if back in India, she would have used gobindo bhog rice, which is a short-grained, glutinous rice that cooks quickly and has a creamy quality, perfect for paayesh)
  •  2 tbs sugar
  • 2 tbs palm jaggery
  • Handful of flaked almonds

Method

  1. Put the milk in a saucepan and bring to boil.  Stir continuously
  2. Once brought to the boil, add in the rice (wash it first).  Reduce heat a little and stir until the rice is cooked.  This should take about 20 minutes
  3. When the rice is cooked, include the sugar, jaggery and flaked almonds.  Stir until the water from the sugar and jaggery have evaporated and the milk has thickened to the consistency preferred.
  4. Grate a little nutmeg on top (optional)

Can be served warm or cold

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India’s independence day was on the 15th August and friends and family all over replaced their facebook profile pictures with the Indian flag.  It is great to see such patriotism even in the face of our national team’s abysmal performance at the  India-England 2011 test series.

The day itself also made me think of India’s national anthem, ‘Jana Gana Mana’.  Since we left India when I was just six, I was not lucky enough (no sarcasm intended) to have it drilled into me during school assemblies.  And in Sweden, there weren’t many occasions to catch up so as a result, I guiltily confess to not knowing my national anthem.

Luckily with the help of YouTube and Wikipedia, I can hear and understand the complete version of the song (only the first stanza out of the 5 composed by Tagore is sung as the national anthem).

Here is the wiki link to the translation:

But here’s the interesting thing about this song.  Apparently Tagore wrote the song in honor of King George V and the Queen of England when they visited India in 1919.  Is this really true?  If so, I find it highly ironic and sad that our national anthem is sung in praise to our former British rulers.

If someone can set this straight, please do!

Some more Tagore

 

Song of the City, photograph courtesy of Akademi and Southwark Playhouse

In my last blog entry, I admitted that I find Rabindra Sangeet boring and wished it could be set free from its traditional interpretation.  Well, it seems as there are other people who want this as well.  Last night I attended an interesting dance production called ‘Song of the City‘ by Akademi which uses Tagore’s songs in a contemporary way.   The piece is about three characters – Muse, Artist and Man who fall in and out of tune with the city.  The dance blends ballet, bharatnatyam and modern dance while the music mixed stripped back Bengali vocals, pulsating big beats, clarinet ( played by Arun Ghosh who also composed for the production) and an electronica-tinged soundscape.  And then the actual setting.  It was a character in its own right.  Dark, atmosphere and musty vaults underneath London Bridge where the subterranean space was given a golden dirty hue by the naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling.

All in all, quite an interesting production.  I didn’t come away spellbound as some bits worked well, others less so.  However, what was most interesting for me was that the Rabindra Sangeet wasn’t boring to listen to!  No harmonium, no irritating bells, no monotonous singing.  The songs were rendered full of emotion and momentum.  Why?  The accompanying music lifted the lyrics from the doldrums, gave it life and meaning.  Layers of dub, electronica and beats along with the modern dance gave the songs the much needed atmosphere and context that has been sadly lacking in other Tagore dance dramas.  Sacrilege for some, a surprising evening for me.

 

 

 

More Tagore anyone?

Rabindranath Tagore

It’s the 150th anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth this year and so as seems fitting, there have been lots of concerts, talks and events to mark the occasion.  He is a cultural gem for both India and Bengali people.  Having being the only Indian who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the quintessential Indian Renaissance man (he was a poet, novelist, playwright, musician, painter, educationalist…the list goes on), he thoroughly deserves his star on India’s hall of fame.

However, what makes Tagore so unique and unlike other cultural icons is that he is so integral in Bengali family lives.  Virtually every Bengali family I know has a Geetabitan (Tagore’s 2000+ collection of songs) in their house, knows many of his songs by heart and has taken classes in learning Rabindra Sangeet during their adolescence.   It is a rite of passage similar to children in the West learning ballet or joining a scout group.  It is what we do.

My family is no exception.  Didi started singing quite early on.  She initially started singing classical at 5 from a neighbour and then when we moved to Bandra, Ma enrolled her into a well known Rabindra sangeet school called Sahana, not too far from home.  Didi even got the 1st prize in a singing competition at Bandra Saraswati Puja.  Oooh.  So far so normal but interestingly, Ma’s relationship with Rabindra sangeet was less ordinary.  Unlike Didi,  Ma didn’t learn the songs at school or from a singing teacher.  She was entirely self-taught and as a young girl she had no interest in it.  Funnily enough, she opted for dance as an extracurricular activity at school.  Sadly, I have not seen Ma throw shapes on the dance floor. Ever.  As for Rabindra sangeet, she got more into it when the family got a Philips record changer at home and used to play all kinds of vinyls including the aforementioned songs.  They had a full album of the dance drama Chitrangada which she learnt to sing from beginning to end, aided by the trusted Geetabitan from which she could learn the lyrics.

Didi playing the tanpura and I (freshly bathed) attentively watching

As for me, I definitely AM the exception.  While I attentively watched Didi and Ma practice at home in India, I have never learnt to sing, let alone sing Rabindra sangeet.  One of the reasons is that we left India when I was only six so deemed too young to flex my vocal chords.  However, if my skills in crying as a baby is any indication of my potential singing prowess, I would now be wowing audiences worldwide.  Secondly, Stockholm did seem an unlikely place for a Rabindra sangeet school.  Thirdly (and probably most crucially), by the time I had opinions, I decided that Rabindra sangeet was not for me.  I found it (and still do) boring.  There I said it.  Rabindra sangeet is boring.  I can hear the collective sharp intake of breath from every single Bengali mashi and mesho out there.

Let me explain.  The lyrics of the songs are incredible beautiful.  That is not in question.  But as someone whose relationship with the Bengali language is like a shy awkward teenage boy trying to talk to the girl he likes: halting, faltering, uncertain and unable to hold a conversation that goes beyond ‘umm, so like…”  Which basically means that when I listen to the songs, I have no idea what they are about.  And what bugs me is that music and songs should be able to overcome language barriers.  However, here Rabindra sangeet lets me down.  The music which accompanies the lyrics does not do what it is supposed to do.  It does not enhance, complement and reflect the beautiful lyrics.  The music is boring, flat and sound so sad.  As a result, all the songs sound vaguely the same and endless.  If Rabindra sangeet is going to appeal to me and future generations of Bengalis, Indians and just generally human beings from anywhere, it needs to be freed from the strict, traditional chains that imprison it.  I think Tagore would agree.

As I mention in the previous entry, I have only seen a few pictures of Ma and Baba’s wedding, one of which is a photo of Baba wearing a topor, a conical hat made out of paper and shola (a sponge-wood plant). Apparently, the topor was created because Shiva wanted a crown for his wedding but it looks ridiculous and hardly very crown-like.  Indian Hindu weddings can be really sombre (and long!) so I love that the poor groom has to endure such a comedy hat.  I wonder how Baba felt about wearing the topor?

Traditionally, an Indian boy from a middle-class family would be expected to go through an unbroken period of  15-17 years of study; in school, college and a career-linked professional degree or a PhD. I chose to do a combination of both.  Then follows a period of consolidation for the future and moving up the career ladder.  In this period, familiarity and friendships with girls were considered fraught with danger signals and possible distractions from life-goals.

‘Love-match’ as V.S. Naipaul described it so succinctly in his masterpiece ‘A House for Mr Biswas‘ was a rarity. The expected turn of events would to be get married around the fifth year of working, arranged by the family.  I followed the course.  

My wedding preparations were a little more perfunctory than your Ma’s.   My friends and colleagues assumed the roles of advisers. I printed invitation letters for them in English, got myself a custom-made suit, suitable for a Suitable Boy. Working in Hyderabad at the time, I got myself a heavily embroidered silk kurta too. Loaded with these, I took the train home to Silchar.

During those last days of carefree bachelorhood, I witnessed modest preparations at home, streams of relations coming from distant places, canopies for the band-party being put up, guests coming for a little chat, some mishti (Bengali sweets) and tea with my parents while throwing encouraging words at me.  I preferred to spend most of the time with my friends, outside. But my freedom of movement was blocked one day before the date of the marriage. I was strictly home-bound. The hours were filled with a series of rituals of blessings, Sanskrit invocations and tastings of home-made sweets of coconut and milk forced on me by all and sundry, my elders, directly or remotely. Before, I used to look at these home-made delicacies with eager desire but now I really couldn’t look at them.  I was stuffed.  But, I couldn’t say ‘No’. That would be rude.
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Ma and Baba’s wedding.

An intimate retelling of my parents’ Indian wedding nearly 40 years ago in their own words.  The rituals, the food, the clothes and the thoughts running through their minds on the day.

I went to my friend’s English countryside wedding last week.  It was beautiful, simple, romantic and fun.  But it made me think of how different Western and Indian weddings are.  One is like a roast chicken meal, minimal ingredients, not that many steps but oh so satisfying to eat.  The other is akin to a biryani, a sumptuous dish with an army of ingredients and spices, multiple steps in its cooking, waves and waves of exquisite taste but liable to leave you with indigestion.

It also made me think of my parent’s wedding.  I have some scant stories and seen a few pictures but it would be so wonderful to take the time to capture the event through the eyes of Ma and Baba.  What rituals did they have? What were they thinking? How did they feel?  In their own words.  So here’s Ma’s perspective on the occasion and then Baba’s thoughts will follow in the next entry.

Ours was a very traditional arranged marriage with each other’s consent.   Arranged marriages usually conjure a picture of a practical, well planned affair, devoid of any romanctic aspect.  In my experience, far from it.  One constantly think of the distant person.  The element of surprise and anticipation  of falling in love is incredibly romantic.

Before the actual wedding came the the aashisbaad (blessings) where the groom’s side comes to bless the bride usually with  jewellery, sari and gifts including sweets and a whole fish, usually a Rohu.  Bengal being a river-rich state with abundance of varieties of fish this item has become an auspicious symbol  for weddings.  Blessings are usually done with durba ( a variety of three blade fine grass) which symbolizes long life and unhusked rice which means wealth.  After that the usual feasting.  The ceremony really drove home the point that I was really getting married and would be leaving my home which was a part of me for an unknown place. The uppermost feeling was sadness but probably a little excitement as well.

The next part was getting ready for the wedding.   As soon as the word spread, the jewelers, the cooks, the sweets makers, decorators and others flocked to the house.  Jewellery design was chosen ordered, other necessary arrangements were made, e.g making the furniture etc. which was part of the trousseau.  Maa beautifully embroidered and crocheted the bed linens, cheval sets (for dressing table) runners for sideboards, tray-cloths and teacosy covers.  It was absolutely amazing how much she did in such a short time.  Invitation lists were made.  Mejomamu designed a very simple but elegant invitation letter.  After a week or so Badomamu with badimami and Chinoodidi and chhotomamu arrived.  My three brothers helped maa and baba organise everything.  I bought my wedding sari in Kolkata with Suman mami’s help.  It was an elaborate red Benarasi with intricate gold work.
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