Varma & the Milkmaid

Ravivarma’s pantings have always fascinated me. I remember many a print on the walls of our house & various relative’s houses, especially the Pooja rooms. His paintings mostly reminds one of buxom healthy women and various Indian epics… I had seen many originals in the Shree Chitra Gallery in Trivandrum, but they were when I was not old enough to appreciate art. Since then I read about his interesting life. My interest has not waned, like his paintings have not either, in the public mind.

My favorite – the Milkmaid watercolor

Obviously this picture has a huge fan following and two of them apparently are Sunil Babu (Cine art director) & Santhosh Sivan (the famed cine photographer). They got Kavya Madhavan to pose like the original in the song 'Pinakkamano' for the movie Anathabhadram - a song which portrays five or so of Ravi Varma’s famous paintings.

But, who is that girl (as the Madonna song goes)? The model above is said to be Sugunabai, a lady of Goan Marathi background - Ravi Varma’s muse. They had a fascinating relationship, probably way beyond platonic. The story is classic,

and two filmmakers are already fighting over who brings it to screen first. One of them has Shaji Karun involved (Madhuri is not acting in it though – Ajay Devgan is probably the one playing Ravi Varma). The Mumbaikar’s in those days, went up in arms against Ravi Varma over his picturisation of Suguna, especially those undraped paintings depicting various goddesses, and a case was filed in the Bombay courts against Varma. As no barrister would fight the case, Varma had to fight the case himself and, believe it or not, he won… But tragedy struck, Suguna, they say, left him, where, how…etc I do not know. Hopefully the movie research will bring the story out correctly without too many embellishments, of the times Ravi Varma spent in Maharashtra (Ghatkopar & Malavli) – between 1890 -1901 & the Chitrashala press..Finally he sold it all to his German technician Schleizer for Rs 25,000/- and went back to Kilimanoor.

Nevertheless, Suguna’s picture as the milkmaid remain in many a heart…Just look at her eyes!! Kavya in contrast presents a beauty with slight bitterness in her eyes, not longing & sorrow.
As it seems, after Suguna left Varma, he never painted a goddess again.

For those who want a quick look at Ravi Varma’s paintings, check this site out.

However this site (covering Oleo’s & Lithographs only) seems to be a treasure trove. You can even pick up some of the old calendars that we have in Kerala houses.

Guys & gals - Blogger tells me that this is my 100-th post - Hope I have not bored you all with all this lengthy prose during in the last 10 months ......

The Delectable Dosa

You know how the world is today. If in doubt, enter the word on the Google search bar and hit enter. Imagine the horror of an American teenager trying to find out what his new Indian (ABCD perhaps) origin girlfriend meant when she said ‘I ate dosa’ i.e. when he lands up on one of the first results - that the dosa is a Korean dog (actually called Tosa)…and well, in Korea they did eat dogs..

Some other hits - Hanina Ben Dosa was a Jewsih healer much before Christ (1st century) But for management & IT professionals it means something totally different, it is an
acronym that stands for Discussion-Oriented Organizational Self-Assessment. Or it turns out to be a designer clothier. While these dosa specialists have dosa sessions of the verbose kind, we South Indians believe in the culinary kind of dosa session. As for me, I can call myself a dosa connoisseur and am pretty adept at making them.

There are dosa places everywhere today, preparing open dosa, closed dosa, paper dosa, ghee roast, masala dosa, rava dosa, godambu dosa, the various thicker utappam varieties… or the paruppu variety . Then there is the Konkan neer dosai or the Malayali Velleppam…The list will go on and on, if you also consider the 100 or so varieties you can get at certain specialist hotels in the Majestic area of Bangalore.

I don’t like the huge/long paper varieties (I have seen pictures of dosas carried by two persons to the astonished/embarrassed patron); I like the softer ghee dosa. Some of the best I have eaten are at Ashoka Bhavan in Sultanpet – Palakkad, Ananda Bhavan Bombay, a small hotel across the station in Baroda, Madras Dosai in Eastham London and of course, lest I forget, the famous street cafĂ© at Matunga – a place where even the Don- Varadaraja Mudaliar used to come and eat in public!!

Making a good dosa is another matter altogether. Everything has to fall in place like the stars and the horoscopes, in an arranged marriage. The rice has to be right, the proportion with urad daaal has to be right, the exact amount of fenugreek and salt have to be added, the grinding should not go on an on heating the batter and destroying the bacteria…the temperature and fermentation has to go well..and finally the consistency has to be ‘Jhusht puuurfeect’.

Once all that is OK, you need a good cast iron Dosa kallu, Idayam nallennai and a stainless steel Kayil. After a few hundred of dosa experiments, you would have perfected the thickness and size. Some don’t turn it over, but I do…. and never put ghee on the dosa while at home, the next ones made with plain oil will tend to stick up a bit, ruining the evening..

Check out
Wikimedia if you want to see a video of the ‘making of a dosa’ with sound, and all.

But watch it made by bare bodied, sweaty experts in South Indian hotels and you may balk a bit. They have this huge cast iron plate with gas fires burning underneath and the oil is spread using a Broom!! With those contraptions you can have a tava evenly hot ending up with dosa’s crisp on the outside and naram on the inside (as they say in the Gits ‘zimpli made it with gitzu’ ad!!)

Now that the dosa is done, the options to go with it are many. The most traditional being the white chutney and sambhar…Variations include red chutney, green chutney, onion chutney (ulli chammandhi as we say in Palakkad), mulaka podi (so many versions of it – I like the 777 variety). And finally one polishes it all off with a great glass of Filter coffee attified in a dovarah…lots of paalpatha on top…

While the dosa can be folded and filled with potato bhaji (or other veg / non veg combinations) to make the masala dosa, the dosa cousins are eaten differently. Aapam/neerdosa goes with all kinds of non veg curries and Ihstu. Parippu dosa goes with katti chatni or dollops of butter. In Palakkad, at least in our house, Parippu dosa (Pesarattu) is called varadi. Upon further investigation I found that the word comes from the Maharashtrian Varadi cusine which probably was where the dish originated!! But I am not so sure about all this. It could be Varattiya dosa as well, since it is served crisp. And there is the uthappam which is our rice pizza of sorts. These days, they put all kids of stuff - veg & non veg and give them fancy names Tandoori oothappam for example…

well times change, the dosa will, too….but

Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it crisp, some like it soft
Some like it plain, some like it filled
Some like it open, some like it shut
Some like it thin, some like it thick
Some like it turned over, some like it unturned
Some like it brown, some like it white
Some like it oiled, some like it dry
Some like it with oil, some like it with ghee
Some like it with more methi, some like it with less
Some like it with more urad, some like it with less
Ah! so many options to make this a great dish….

Only in India - You are my masala dosa," went the line of a Bappida song from the mid-90s(Rock dancer – you are my chicken fry----) . Like somebody said, maybe great food can inspire such music. On the other hand, Can you imagine John Lennon making a song equating a girl to pizza or pasta?

Some interesting dosa links
Frozen dosa,004100180001.htm

Oh! our beloved SM street

My mother in law was surprised at our ignorance of world happenings – she is like many others in Kerala, one who do not start the day without digesting every word in the newspaper they subscribe to - she asked my wife – are you telling me you did not hear about the fire in SM street (Sweet meat street in Calicut)? Well, in the remote reaches of California, a place like Calicut (the biryani capital for malayalis) is quite an unheard part of the world. But the news was not good and we quickly checked out the details on the web, with great sadness. It was big fire on MP road actually, a road that runs perpendicular to SM Street. There is talk of sabotage, rising numbers of terrorist elements in the area and short circuits.. Sajitha K also has a nice & heartfelt blog up, about the tragedy.
And like an idiot I made a wisecrack to my wife, ‘at least now they will rebuild SM Street’ effectively destroying the rest of the evening’s joys with a sulking partner glowering at me. You see, Kozhikodans are quite possessive about their town. But then, I was actually making a serious comment, remembering the famous ex collector of Calicut (Amitab Kant) who beautified the beach and Manachira maidan and the Zamorins pond….and one who wanted to modernize the SM street, but never succeeded..

So why is it called Sweet meat street? Meat was never sold there, nor were butchers allowed. It was because the trading foreigners equated Calicut
halwas – a sweet brown red delicacy to Sweet meat. Man, these meat eaters from the west…how could they do this - anyway the name stuck for the next few centuries. Incidentally Halwa must have come from Turkey to India via the silk route, you do see Halwa in the Middle East & Turkey, but it is quite different. Only the Turkish Delight or Lokum is similar in texture (though not in taste) to our Calicut Halwa.

Ask anybody from Calicut – even though many women complain about gropers & bumpers in that busy & congested street, they say the ambience while shopping there is second to none – the energy of the shoppers and the shopkeepers, the shopkeepers being the friendliest in Kerala. My son for example remembers the sport shop there, from where we picked up sports gear and I remember so much– Maharaj Halwa, Topform restaurant, Queens restaurant, Bata, and so much more – even the shuttered out
Parsi temple next to the Bata store. Not much has changed over the ages, except for a couple of new buildings opposite the Bata area where new textile shops abound. Let us take a detailed look…

Starting near the old Kidsons restaurant, with Kalanthan’s famous Sharjah (mixed fruit cocktail)juice & faluda centre, the street stretches half a mile bordering the LIC office, the Hantex handloom shop, the taxi stand…the Queens restaurant, a couple of shops selling this and that, a few sweetmeat shops, including Maharaj’s…a sports shop and a number of clothes shops, till you reach the fork with Radha theatre on one side and the road towards the tracks on the other…then comes the Parsi temple, the Bata shop and the WITCO centre…the other side has developed somewhat, some utensil shops and the arcade for clothes…further on to the railway tracks is the Topform restaurant – phew! you get the best Porotta and Mutta Kurma there. So much more to say, but non Kozhikodan’s won’t have the faintest clue…

MP road had the Oasis restaurant - a slightly up-market hotel in the old days, but now I guess it is gone with the fire. Somewhere in between is the famous
Purdah house, about which much is said. The good thing is that only the MP road part has been damaged and the shop owners are simply not agreeing for a large scale modernization!! Hurrah!

Calicut, the centre for sweet meat, I remember my early school & college days there, and we go there every year where I still enjoy the walks around town - dhoti clad with a kalan umbrella (u need one in Jul-Aug) – people who know me ask, entha muftiyil?I enjoy that anonymity, walking around without a care…Calicut - The place where VK Krishna Menon grew up- the place that instilled the fervor & statesmanship in him, also the home town of stalwarts like MS Baburaj, Mamukoya, KPK Menon, Abdul Khader, Urub, SK Pottekat, and the place where the Sagar restaurant is located – I doubt if anybody would ever forget the Sagar biryani and the poricha koyi…Park restaurant (demolished long ago) which served the best coffee and faluda’s, Queen’s restaurant that claimed to be run by unemployed post graduates, which also proudly exhibited the wares of Michiko and Sumiko, the fabled cabaret dancers..

SM street is the nerve centre of that town – and when something happens to SM street, it upsets the very rhythm of the throbbing town and every optimist persona of Calicut – as I could readily feel from the words of my Mil and wife…

Kozhikode halwa seller photo – skasuga
A lovely
column by Anita Nair.The burning street photos by Ajilan – Varthamanam daily


Quality time and mushrooms

As you settle down to live in places like the US or UK, you start hearing people mention about a commodity called ‘quality time’. It took me a while to figure it out. I had initially thought that it meant, as Americans put it, Jackshit (if u did not know what it meant, it is – bowel movement of a donkey). You hear guys say, I am gonna take a vacation and spend some quality time with my children, or I am taking off with my wife and we will spend some quality time together. There is even a nice definition to it in Wikipedia.

Here I am, sitting in the departure concourse for Southwest airlines at the Las Vegas Mc Carren international airport (LAS) waiting for the boarding call and I wondered, so in all these great economies, over 90% of your time spent everyday is not quality time? What kind of a life is this when we spend all our time for our employers? As I ruminated on all this, I remembered a friend who lives in Switzerland and spends some of his quality time together with his Swiss pals, all dressed up in typical Swiss garb (Boots, long red socks upto to the knees, long tight lederhosen shorts and the cap – like Raj kapoor wears, with the feather on it) …no! no! my friend who may read this is going to clobber me, he does not wear all that, but he is very serious about all this, well, he goes mushroom picking on particular days in the autumn. It is a big thing in that part of the world and there are very strict rules about it. Not only that, it is a thrilling endeavor (so they say!) as one could die (~30 die in France, every year!) from eating the wrongly picked one. Switzerland is the Mushroom Mecca of the world, with 6000 species and over 700 mushrooming groups!! They even have Mycorama, an international center for mycology research.
In France - Article 547 of the Code Civil stipulates that mushrooms belong to the owner of the land where they grow. Each commune has the right to decide whether mushroom picking is allowed, can say what quantities can be picked, can charge a fee or can totally forbid mushroom picking in the surrounding forests and the rules are

· Mushrooms must be a certain size before being picked so that they have a chance to release their spores
· Tools of any sort are forbidden with the exception of knives
· A knife must be used to cut the stipe so as not to damage the mycelia
· Mushrooms must be carried in a wicker basket to let the spores fall out and help propagation

The world is quite funny, actually. An Indian won’t understand what this is all about. You try telling somebody in Pallavur that you spend a holiday and quality time picking mushrooms; they will tell you that you are downright crazy and recommend a visit to Kuthiravattom in Calicut, where the nearest mental hospital is located. In most houses out in Palakkad, even watching TV is considered wasting time and dreamers are losers. Unless you are studying, working, toiling in the farm or reading, you are wasting your life away. A nap after lunch or a loiter around the temple is the only pastime allowed. If you are in Delhi, acceptable pastimes include kitty parties, watching TV, wandering around Palika bazaar, Chandni chowk or ……. In Bombay, watching TV and ogling opposite sex is about the only things you actually find time for. If you are in the UK though, it is a lot different, everything takes a new meaning and they appreciate it if you have time to reach back into history – going to places like oxford, London, Nottingham, reading books and so on. But well, for youngsters & middle aged in UK, the favorite pastime is goofing around drunk, that is their definition of quality time. A few are into games and computers, but by and far there are many who have nothing to do. Pubbing is a national hobby; see what it got Andrew Flintoff into last month.

Well, in Switzerland & back to my friend, they think otherwise and spend hours worrying quite seriously about nature, global warming etc. They talk about rising water levels, rising ozone levels, the end of the world and so on, sitting at altitudes like 3,000-10,000 mts or walking up the hill shepherding, where neither pollution nor rising water levels will affect them, unlike the poor people of Bangladesh & Calcutta who are soon going to seriously take up swimming classes to stay afloat (remember Kevin Costner in Waterworld?). But when the Swiss don’t while away time worrying, they will still have quality pastimes like mushroom picking….

Ah well, it is time to board the plane now – so let me digress.

Southwest airlines is interesting, they have no seat numbers, it is free seating and as soon as you pass the gate, the guy takes away your boarding pass, that was a first time for me, in a plane without the stub of the boarding pass. Aha, an interesting announcement. Know what, these Americans can be quite funny even if they don’t mean to be – the announcement says – For William Buck “your brother won’t be available to pick you up at Ontario. He can’t get the car started and wants you to bum a ride with somebody to Corona. If not you should start walking and he is very sorry about this”. We all laughed, what else to do, you see, it is 15 miles from Ontario airport to Corona, the man is going to have a tough long long walk in the 750F temperature. There are no buses from Ontario to Corona!!

Know what, after parking the car and starting the walk to the terminal in Ontario, I was pleasantly shocked when a lady came by in a rickshaw (no roof cover though, like in India) and asked me if I wanted a lift to the terminal. She was chatty for the 5 minutes the ride took, covering subjects like the flight security, the weather etc…when I was getting ready to alight at the terminal, she abruptly terminated the chat & said “Sir I work for tips, so tips are appreciated”…This incidentally is called a PEDICAB service,
read more about the service, here.

Time to get back to Temecula…Vegas seems to have had a good effect on me.

Sorry, my mushroom picking friend in zwitzerland, no offence meant with the mushrooms and global warming comments, I hope you will take this lightly and continue with all your environment friendly activities.