Sunday, November 23, 2014

Deepanjana Pal - The Painter

I recently got an opportunity to watch the Ketan Mehta film Rang Rasiya. The film is based on the life of Raja Ravi Varma, the famous painter. Since I was impressed by the stunning visuals and the film in general, I wrote a blogpost about it. But then, when one of my friends, Pamir Harvey, raised a question about the film’s plot, I realised I’d written nothing about the plot as such.

Even as I was watching the film, I was wondering about the veracity of its story. I realised I knew next to nothing about the subject. In fact, I did not even know that Raja Ravi Varma belonged to Kerala. I suspected some elements of the movie’s plot were highly fictionalised. I therefore set out to read the book the movie was based on. Raja Ravi Varma, by Ranjit Desai.

As the book was being downloaded on my Kindle, I noticed The Painter by Deepanjana Pal being offered as a reading option by Amazon. As things turned out, I ended up buying this book as well. I wasn’t sure it was about Raja Ravi Varma, so I started reading a bit of it. The first chapter itself gripped me so much, that I found myself hooked to it, and reading it in all the spare time I could find. Which, as such, is not much.

The book starts with the birth of Ravi Varma in Kilimanoor in Travancore district of Kerala. We are carefully painted a picture (pun unintended) of the background of those times. The way families functioned in Kerala, the basis of the matrilineal society prevalent in Kerala of those days. Details about the way children were brought up, the importance of each family member – these are all put out for us to better understand the times that Ravi Varma grew up in.

The background of his family makes us understand how Ravi Varma, born in a little village, had good grounding in the arts. His mother was a poet and wrote operas. His father loved reciting Sanskrit poems that spoke about tales from Mahabharata and Ramayana. He was fluent in Sanskrit and Malyalam.

It was his uncle who recognised the talent in him and encouraged him to learn more. He took him to the Thiruvananthapuram court and gave him wings. The rest was up to the boy himself. Ravi was taken to the court of the Raja to be a consort for the Princess. The Raja dismissed his candidature on the ground that Ravi was 'too dark'. But the Raja did ask the boy to stay in the court and learn painting to his heart's content.

It was not an easy task to learn, the boy soon found out. There were other painters who guarded their craft jealously. More than that, the boy wanted to learn more about oil painting, a medium that fascinated him. Oil painting was brought to India by British painters who had followed the British presence in India. But they too, guarded their secrets jealously. Ravi Varma had to bribe an assistant to the court painter to teach him the secrets of mixing oil paints to get the right color he wanted.

Like Eklavya, he watched, learned and perfected his art. His chance to show his craft came soon when Theodore Jenson visited Thiruvananthapuram in 1868. He was loath (like other painters) to allow a gifted painter to watch him work and learn from his techniques. But the Raja was a fond mentor to Ravi, and he pressurised Jenson into letting Ravi watch him paint. Along with Jenson, Ravi also painted a picture of the King and his beautiful wife, Nagercoil Ammachi. 

This was the starting point for Ravi Varma. After a pilgrimage to a nearby temple, Ravi Varma decided to become a professional artist. From there, his life was a series of commissions and untold success.

All through the book, Deepanjana Pal describes the political and social scenario of the times. This helps us to see the man, Ravi Varma, as he was. He was a pioneer in his field. He learned and honed his craft on his own. He had to find ways and means to get further in his profession. His uncle, Raja Raja Varma had grounded him well in how to handle the political situation around him to his advantage. 

India was still nothing but a whole lot of kingdoms ruled by major, or minor, Kings. They had the means to make or break an artist. On top of this, Ravi Varma had to deal with the British who ruled India. 

Ravi Varma was known as a gregarious person. He loved recounting stories, going to concerts, attending parties. He was well loved by his friends and they did as much as they could to further his career.

Deepanjana Pal is also a seasoned art critic, and she discusses the major paintings that Ravi Varma
painted at various points in his career. She gives us a fair criticism of the background, strengths and shortcomings of his art. She discusses the effect his art had on people. At no time does she get too involved in the life of Ravi Varma. She keeps herself at a distance and stays non-judgmental. Yet she never makes any excuses for him.

Ravi Varma's wife, Bhagirathi, is a woman in the shadows. There is little to know about her. The couple had five children, two sons and three daughters. As was the custom, Bhagirathi lived in her maternal home, of Mavelikara, while Ravi Varma visited her. Deepanjana surmises what the life of his wife must have been like. Maybe Bhagirathi was a shy, retiring sort of a woman. Maybe she was content to stay in her little cocoon, happy with the visits of her husband, not too bothered to see him going away.

She steers clear of going into Ravi Varma's indiscretions. He did use prostitutes as models, and was supposed to be close to one of them, Anjanabai Malpekar. He was supposed to have had affairs with his
models. She admits that, and moves on.

In the book, we learn all we can about the place art was in, at the time. We learn all about the state of society. We learn the key political events of the time. We learn, of course, all about the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma.

Deepanjana Pal keeps her style very documentary and matter of fact. She has tried to weave in bits of fiction at times, but that is just to give us a better idea of the happenings, to illustrate the event that is happening.
It is a lovely book that any lover of art, fiction, history, society and politics should read. It is a book that gives us a comprehensive look at the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Banana Yashimoto - Kitchen


KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book I had wanted to read for a long long time. The price of the book was rather steep and that deterred me from ordering it right away.

I looked for the book in libraries and second hand book shops without any success. Until one fine day I chanced upon an e-book version.

The book came highly recommended and it lived up to the expectations I had built up around it.

Mikage is a young girl who lost her parents very early and lived with her grandmother. When her grandmother also dies, she falls into a sea of despondency. She breaks up with her boyfriend and struggles to pass her days. She finds succor in spending time in a Kitchen. Cooking food, eating and cleaning help her keep her sanity.

Her friend Yuichi helps her by taking her to live with him. He stays with his mother Eriko. Eriko is actually Yuichi's father who is a transgender and prefers to be known as Eriko's mother.

Soon Mikage will have to console Yuichi through very dark times.

The novel is about coping with loss. It is not a cheerful topic. Yet we do not fall into despair while reading the book. The novel works with the idea of dealing with loss instead of falling into darkness, hence it gives us hope, that soon things will be better for Mikage and Yuichi.

The language is beautiful. The story moves lyrically and we are carried along on waves of a beautifully told story.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Arkady Gaidar - Chuck and Geck


Chuck and GeckChuck and Geck by Arkady Gaidar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We know little of world literature. It is not entirely our fault. Very few of the books written in other languages are translated or distributed. One of the offshoots of Communism was the availability of Russian literature. Beautifully produced and translated books in Russian were available at subsidised rates to us. Through one such agency that specialised in Russian Literature - Punjab Book Centre - I read many wonderful books by Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dosteovsky, Maxim Gorky. We may have heard of Tolstoy, but not the others, I am sure, were it not for the 'propaganda' literature distributed far and wide by the Russians.

Among the books scattered around my house, I found this book about two naughty little boys who throw away a telegram by their father. As a result of this, they find themselves in an abandoned camp in Siberia at the end of a very long train journey. The book remained in my mind, a sweet story about two energetic young children and their young mother.

I tried to look for the book, not an easy task when you do not remember either the name of the book, or of the author. On an impulse, a few days ago, I typed the theme of the book into google in an attempt to locate something about the book.

This time, I hit paydirt, and found not only the name of the book and the author, but also a pdf file of the story. I was thrilled. And of course, I read the story through. It was such a sweet little tale of two little boys and their adventures in Siberia.

The book was written by Arkady Gaidar, who wrote several books and was a notable member of the Bolshevik party. He died young, serving his country. From this book, I gauge he was an excellent writer as well.

The story goes like this. Chuck and Geck live in Moscow with their mother. Their father is a Geologist who is away in Siberia. The father wants them to visit him for Christmas and New Year. A few days later he sends a telegram which the children lose.

When they reach the remote camp after days of travel, they find it abandoned. Luckily there is a watchman present. He is a grumpy old man, not pleased by this sudden intrusion. He leaves them at the camp in his hut, with a few provisions and some wood for the fire and goes on a mission.

In his absence the young mother has to work hard to keep herself and the boys warm and fed. They have some adventures too which could turn very serious.

It is a beautifully written book and something all children should read. Alas, it is not a book that we will find on bookshelves of our neighbourhood stores, not any more.

I see that this was made into a film as well. Now my next mission is take a look at the movie as well.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ravi Subramanian - God is a Gamer


God is a GamerGod is a Gamer by Ravi Subramanian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I got this book as a review copy from Vivek Tejuja, though the book is signed by Ravi Subramanian himself. I must confess that Indian writers disappoint me more often than not. Hence I approached the book with trepidation.

It started well. The book was well written. The language was clear and simple. There was no attempt to be 'witty' or 'smart'. This was a relief. Many a good book has been ruined for me because the writer tried to be funny in every sentence. Big Mistake! Not everyone can pull off a P G Wodehouse style.

The story is about three friends, Aditya, Sundeep and Swami. They started their career together at NYIB (New York International Bank). Swami is still with the bank, hoping for the top slot. Sundeep and Aditya have a financial services firm, having left the bank long back.

They find themselves embroiled in a financial scandal of international proportions. There are murders, heists and intrigues that are way over their heads. In fact, the facts are not known completely to anyone.

The story criss-crosses between USA, India and some other countries. There is a cast of characters that include the USA President, Finance Minister of India, FBI, CBI and our 3 friends and their families.

The story goes at a good pace. You are kept turning pages. The explanations are clear and the financial intrigues are understandable to lay readers (for instance, Me!)

Too much information was stuffed into the last chapter. But it did make the story fall into place.

Here is a very very decent thriller by a writer from our own country. We are familiar with many American authors doling out such books. There was a time when I read many of these. But that was when Arthur Hailey and such like ruled the roost. I am not sure who the current hottie is - Lee Child? James Patterson? Some time back I read the "Millennium trilogy" by Steig Larsson. This book falls in the same category.

Bravo! Ravi Subramanian. Keep writing and may you meet great success.

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Saturday, October 04, 2014

Anna Elliott - Pemberley to Waterloo - The Pride and Prejudice chronicles


Pemberley to Waterloo (Pride & Prejudice Chronicles, #2)Pemberley to Waterloo by Anna Elliott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Anna Elliott's Georgiana Darcy's diary. It was among the first books I downloaded on kindle. It was a fun look into the world of Jane Austen.

We look further into the lives of the other characters of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy are happy together. Elizabeth is expecting her first child, Jane Bingley has a daughter and is happy in her home.

Caroline is still haughty and aloof, but visits Pemberley from time to time. Georgiana is engaged to Col. Edward Fitzwilliam. They are happy to be together and are looking forward to getting married. But then, Napolean happens. Edward gets called away to serve as the aide-de-camp of the Duke of Wellington.

There is a lot of action and romance in the book. Georgiana takes on the role of Emma at times, playing matchmaker. At times she turns into Florence Nightingale. At times she is just a worried girl pining and worrying for her Fiance.

This book is even more fast paced and action packed than the earlier Georgiana Darchy's diary. The only thing that rankled was how she converts the previously perceived as 'bad' characters into 'good' ones. Spare us the sugar Anna! Give us some spice. We like mean girls.

I found it fun to take a peek again into the world of the beloved characters of Pride and Prejudice and see what's up with them. Next up is Kitty Bennett's diary, where she tries to find a match for Mary. Fun!

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Charlaine Harris - Dead Until Dark - Sookie Stackhouse

Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse, #1)Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had long wanted to read a Sookie Stackhouse book. A fellow blogger, Priya, was a great fan of Vampire fiction. She would often come out with lovely reviews of several series of Vamp Fiction, and I would go 'meh'. (In a nice way - I loved Priya's reviews but could not warm up (irony?) to Vamp fiction.)

Priya had recommended Sookie Stackhouse to me as a good way to get initiated into Vamp Fiction. I spent years searching for the book on various library shelves. Now that I have a kindle, it was breeze to download the book.

I was not able to read much through September. But yet, I managed to finish the book.

It is possibly a good introduction into the world of VF. Sookie is an engaging character. She is rich, but chooses to live in a small town of Bon Temps in Northern Louisiana and works in a bar as a cocktail waitress. She is pretty, but finds it hard to date. She is put off because she can hear the thoughts of all around her. And listening constantly to her date thinking about her does not appeal to her.

This is a world where Vampires roam freely among Humans, trying to 'mainstream', blend in. They drink synthetic blood or feed on consenting Humans. Not killing them, but just take a sip or two of their blood. And the reverse is possible too, drinking Vampire blood can make Humans strong. There are Humans who do not tolerate Vampires and vice versa.

Against this backdrop, a lot of cocktail waitresses are getting murdered. The Vampire that Sookie is sweet on, Bill, is suspected of the killings, as all the waitresses were involved with Vampires. Jason, Sookie's brother was also involved with all the dead girls. Jason is a bit of a philanderer, but not a killer, or is he? Sookie finds she has to act to discover who is behind the killings.

The book is good for a quick read. It is very well written. The story is fast paced. But of course, you have to be curious about Vampire fiction to do it. If you are crazy about it, chances are you have already read these books.

I am pretty sure the rest of the books in the series are equally good. I suppose I shall be reading them from time to time.

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