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Wood-carving Statues for the Devout in Lent

By Jayashree Lengade-Shetty

Wood-carver Mingleshwar Sequeira, 39, deftly brushes red colour to depict blood on the bruised sculpted body of Jesus Christ while his younger brother Benzoni, 34, skillfully touches gild on the rim of a violet robe draped on another life-size statue in their workshop, located in the idyllic suburb of Vasai, in northwest Mumbai.

For the Sequeira brothers, trained sculptors and, their father Ronald and uncle Roque, conventional wood-carvers, the months before and during the ongoing 40-day Lent period is as busy as ever with orders to create full-size idols depicting episodes from the “Passion of Christ” leading to the epoch event of being crucified on Mount Calvary.

The Sequeira workshop thick with the scent of wood mingling with oil paint and turpentine, bustles with carpenters and artisans working from dawn to dusk engaged in cutting, chipping or scraping wood. Some are busy carving out fine ornate work on tables, doors, windows, chairs and making solid furniture for churches. Others assist in painting busts and statues, which bear chiseled faces and appear almost real with glistening eyes.

For the devout and the faithful Christian it is that time of the year to dedicate oneself for penance and sacrifice for about six weeks that lead to Good Friday (April 6, 2012), when Christ was crucified, followed by resurrection being celebrated on Easter Sunday (April 8, 2012).

“They are sad episodes. One has to really concentrate while working. The emotion has to look real,” said Benzoni as he vividly explained the season’s different idols sculpted in light beige colour wood belonging to the ‘sewan’ variety, specially used for being flexible and durable.

The huge sculptures poignantly portray Christ in events that include: after the arrest standing with hands tied in front, being dragged, tied with face to a pillar and hands wound in front, bruised body after being lashed and tortured and tied to a cross. There is also one of Mother Mary for Palm Sunday.

“It’s very spiritual,” he said of the varied work orders that have poured from all over the country. Once completed they are transported and installed in churches across India for prayers planned during the Lent period. Apart from tall statues there are several demands by families for smaller idols to mount them in homes.

Sequeiras’ forte, that also includes a large part of their work, is making exquisite religious statues, intricately carved altars, pulpits, plaques recounting Biblical scenes from religious texts; as also crowns, veils and ornaments gilded with genuine gold tint.

One of their most challenging and acclaimed work that bestowed them with a UNESCO award was gilding Mumbai’s Bhai Daji Lad Museum, built during the British colonial rule, which had undertaken restoration work in 2001.

—————————————————————————————————————————Photos: courtesy Sequeira brothers

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US ‘Bad Boys’ make Mumbai street kids dance to their tune

They jostled for space, pushed each other, nudged, at times stomped on one another’s feet, gasped for breath, wiped their sweaty brows, shared laughs and also giggled – all this as the kids shook their legs with much aplomb.

More than two dozen street children danced their hearts out for nearly two hours at a workshop in a school, in Mumbai’s north-west suburb Bandra, by the internationally acclaimed dance troupe from the US the ‘Bad Boys of Dance’ while they were touring India in the last fortnight.

“They need to express themselves. Dancing helps them to release their pent-up emotions,” said Joseph, brother-in-charge at the Home for underprivileged children at St. Catherine School of Siena.

The Bad Boys of Dance, founded by dance superstar Rasta Thomas in 2007, have performed on Broadway, featured in films, given over 150 shows and have performed for over 500,000 fans worldwide. Adored by millions on hit television shows like “Dancing with the Stars” the troupe is best known to be athletic, entertaining and fun. Crisscrossing the country, a part of their world tour, they were enthralling their fans with hit shows such as “Rock the Ballet” and “Tap Stars”.

“If their energies are not utilised in the right direction street children resort to street fights and brawls,” Brother Joseph added.

The street kids, comprising over 25 boys and girls aged between nine and 22 years, have been training in dance lessons as part of the school’s initiative to groom underprivileged children in the performing arts.

The workshop with the American dance troupe, organised by the US Consulate, Mumbai and well-known Bollywood dance choreographer Terence Lewis’s contemporary dance company ‘Happy Feet’, was one in a series of their training sessions.

According to UNICEF there are about 18 million street children in the country, of which a large number are in Mumbai city who live in the open without a roof above their heads sleeping on pavements, railway platforms or hutments. They are left alone to fend for themselves at a very young age because they are either orphans, have very poor parents who cannot afford to feed them or they have run away from their families in the villages to the city as a result of physical exploitation and poverty.

Homeless and no one to call their own they are the most vulnerable section in society falling prey to crime, prostitution and drug addiction. Girls especially are subjected to sexual abuse according to a survey by the department of women and child development in India.

Globally the country may be seen as making rapid strides in economic growth, however, gaunt and hungry street children are a common sight begging at traffic signals, picking trash by the roadside, and sleeping on pavements and railway platforms.

Despite all odds their energy to jig and the desire to learn makes them for some of the best performers.

A life-size poster of the King of Pop Michael Jackson stared down from the wall as the young boys and girls already familiar with some dance forms such as Indian classical, folk, hip-hop and contemporary took to the floor instantly as the music blared to high decibels.

The kids put their best foot forward emulating the three instructors —  David Lorenzo, started with a brief introduction, Henry Rivera, took off with a series of warm-up exercises essential before dancing, and Michael Keefe got them grooving with some robust moves.

“Look straight, hands keep them strong, kick the leg…” Keefe called out.  Further demonstrating he said: “Turn and turn and raise your hand… your leg pointing ahead… Clap. Put your hands down, snap your fingers and stop…”

Tiny tots in the front row watched their steps in the reflection of the wall-sized mirrors facing them nimbly imitated the Bad Boys as they fused bits of jazz, ballet and contemporary styles to make a wonderful piece of performance. Sweating and gasping for breath they would run near the air-conditioner for a brief breeze of cool air and run back to the floor to throw their hands up and kick their legs as the dance room resounded with popular music in the background.

“It’s wonderful. I’m enjoying…”, said Devita, a young dancer in her teens, brimming with enthusiasm as she stopped to wipe off sweat dripping from her face during the dancing session.

The rest turned, twisted, thumped their foot in tune with Rivera’s footwork and Lorenzo’s new steps – he taught them to strike a ballet pose with absolute élan.

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Photos courtesy: The US Consulate, Mumbai. _____________________________________________________________________________

INDIA’S EUNUCHS SEEK FREEDOM FROM ‘BONDAGE’

By Jayashree

As the soft sea breeze blows, Chandrakala’s masculine hands try to hold back the fluttering synthetic saree resting on her shoulder like a shawl while her large palm coyly tucks the ends into her waistline. For a eunuch or a transgender, someone who is neither accepted by society as ‘he’ nor ‘she’, wearing the traditional Indian attire is akin to making a forceful statement of recognition — that she is a woman and not a man as popularly perceived.

But it seems like cross dressing or behaving like women is not the way out for eunuchs like Chandrakala whose need for self emancipation is greater.

Neglected over decades and often ridiculed by the mainstream society for their queer traits, eunuchs, nearly two million in India, lead an isolated existence in secluded groups run by elderly brethren. Illiterate and poor, young eunuchs feel obliged to their group heads, who give them shelter and food, and meekly submit themselves to slave for their seniors or gurus by begging and prostitution.

“I want to lead a free life. To do what I please. Take up work, learn something, perhaps opt for a career…”, said Chandrakala in a gruff voice. Her vocal chords amply reflecting a dilemma that stems from an innate dichotomy of being born with physical attributes of a male, but wants to feel like a woman.

“I want to stop begging,” she stressed, to break the stupor.

Perhaps for the first time a group of young eunuchs with help from a Mumbai-based social group called Salvation of Oppressed Eunuchs (SOOE) has filed a petition in the Mumbai High Court to seek a way out of being bonded like slaves – a system that has evolved out of a sheer desperation to survive in a society that treats them as misfits and has ostracized them over the years.

This may, however, not augur well for their gurus who in old age are unable to beg or do anything to earn a living except manage groups like their fiefdoms. Part of solving this problem lies in rehabilitating gurus along with young eunuchs like the SOOE is trying to train them in vocational courses. For now, if a harassed eunuch expresses her wish to leave the group to join another, she loans money from her new guru to pay the old one as a levy, which usually is a hefty amount and runs into thousands.

Being runaways or abandoned by families at a young age, eunuchs, much like bonded labourers, have to partake their earnings to their guru who has provided food and shelter under her roof. Failing to pay, calls for harsh punishment and torture at the hands of seniors. It’s a vicious circle in a ruthless system of give and take unknown to the outside world – the guru too in her heydays was subjected to a similar fate. Hence when begging does not sustain them, the harsh reality of economic sustenance drives them into prostitution for quick money.

Usually a gregarious lot, eunuchs dress in bright-coloured sarees, trinkets around the neck, ears and hair decorated in flowers they draw attention with loud claps. While begging alms they mock, curse and even throw a few expletives when people refuse to oblige.

At the same time they reciprocate kindness by profusely showering blessings, especially, when they get to sing and dance at Hindu weddings and baby-naming ceremonies, events that supplement their income. Historically, they were known to be dancers or as trusted harem attendants to royals.

Chandrakala and her fellow mates live in a colony of eunuchs in a downtrodden area of the city’s northern suburb, Virar, under the tutelage of a guru. While she wished she had been a doctor, she expressed her desire to work in a related field to help ailing people. “Perhaps a nurse,” she opined. Her fellow mates voiced their options for working in the areas of grooming in beauty salons, masseurs in spas or simply learn to speak the English language hoping to find some job.

Rehabilitation is a huge task. Deprived of basic documents such as a birth certificate because most eunuchs have severed ties with families or are school dropouts, procuring a proof of identification is difficult. A bank account or a passport is a far cry. They are rechristened with female names, some take fancy to Bollywood film stars’ sobriquets; and follow the faith, usually Islam, practiced by the guru.

Apart from surmounting such hurdles the SOOE in the petition has also requested changes in the Indian Penal Code’s Section 375 dealing with rape so that the law would protect them against sexual assault and have sought protection under The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 so that anyone using derogatory language against eunuchs on the basis of gender is punished.

“This would give them the right to approach police and register a first information report when they are subjected to abuse or harassment,” said Dr Piyush Saxena, president of SOOE, who is pursuing the petition in the court. He has also written a detailed book titled “Life of A Eunuch” on social and psychological factors responsible for their alienation.

The book compiles their quaint traditions and lifestyle in India and exposes covert and crude methods employed by quacks to castrate eunuchs. Castration, referred to as ‘nirvana’ or liberation, “…gives eunuchs higher status in their community and this is the primary reason behind their decision to undergo the procedure,” writes Dr. Saxena in the book.

In reality the mention of this surgical process leaves people frightened and bewildered. Because of which: “They threaten to lift their clothes if you don’t oblige to pay (money),” said Ajay Rao, an adman, explaining his encounter at traffic signals when he is waiting with his family in a car for the lights to turn green. “I feel harassed and embarrassed.”

But according to Vinay Vast, President of Social Activities Integration, a social group that helps in providing free medical care and support to commercial sex workers and eunuchs, problems multiply owing to bad communication. Eunuchs are unable to express in a civil manner and society makes no effort to understand. They are deprived of everything be it education or healthcare, he opined.

The SOOE is presently creating awareness through a short film named ‘…Aur Neha Nahin Bik Payee’ (…And Neha Could Not be Sold). The film poignantly traces the story of a traumatised young lad who runs away from home after being repeatedly beaten by his father shamed at having borne a transgender. The misery of eunuchs is quite like the film’s protagonist who finds succor in a group of like-minded people only to realise that it was to be the beginning of another sordid saga – a life of a bonded labour.

“They die slow deaths, a little everyday…hiding their tears and misery behind their mock smiles,” Dr. Saxena added.

————————————————————————————————————————— Accompanying photos taken from the short film titled “…Aur Neha Nahin Bik Payee” produced by SOOE.

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A LOT TO CROW ABOUT

By Jayashree

Hanging on electrical wires, balancing on window panes, chasing red-coloured city buses, sitting atop buildings or travelling on black and yellow cabs, crows are distinctively seen almost everywhere in the city of Mumbai.

Even in the caricatures of India’s renowned cartoonist R.K. Laxman they are somewhere in the picture pecking into food or relishing the fresh catch from a fisherwomen’s basket.

The city’s skyline is dotted with millions of crows, a ubiquitous bird that is woven in Indian folklore, beliefs and superstitions. Many believe that an incessant cawing of a crow at your window signals arrival of guests or heralds good tidings.

That explains 66-year-old, Trikamji Thakker’s daily ritual of lighting a lamp and incense sticks to a crow’s photo before he starts work. This small prayer of the Mumbai-based real estate agent is an act of obeisance he pays to his forefathers and all departed souls from his family.

At the crack of dawn it is not unusual to catch a glimpse of a crow perched on Thakker’s head as he sets out  in north-western suburb, Mulund, to feed his black-winged ‘friends’. It makes for quite a picture on the busy road amid vehicles plying and early risers walking the path occasionally glancing at the familiar sight. Dozens swoop down and around him and several flock behind him clamoring, cawing and eating spicy snacks and savories as he drops them on the pathway, while some literally eat out of his palms!

“I feel a sense of extreme satisfaction when I feed them (crows),” explained Thakker after feeding a drove of crows, a ritual he follows at least four or five times a day. “My mind is always at peace,” he said adding that cooked rice, yogurt and black sesame were also part of the menu.

The practice started some 20 years ago when one morning a crow fortuitously sat on his head. Thakker recounts he felt the weight a bit heavy, but he tried to balance his head and instead of shooing away he fed the bird with food. It did not take long for word to spread around in the building area. Suspicious people in the building area expressed doubts and dismissed the act as an inauspicious phenomenon.

The unassuming middle-class businessman started feeding crows every morning as work of charity. Soon all kinds of birds like pigeons and parakeets joined the party and the troop got only bigger as some stray dogs and cats too found their way into Thakker’s generous offerings that cost him as much as Rs 10,000 per month.

Furious neighbours complained about the aimless presence of crows hovering around the building premises, their constant cawing and bird dropping stained parked cars. The “Kavvawala“ or Crow-man, as he came to be known, felt his devotion could not be disturbed and so offered to pay to clean all dirtied vehicles.

People now attribute his good fortune to compassion for birds and animals.  Thakker and his wife Sushila cannot thank enough for being blessed with fine health and for timely financial support they received during the wedding of their children – three daughters and a son.

Often people join him in the morning walk tucked with food and water in the hope they might unshackle some of their sins. College students capture in their mobile phones that rare picture of a crow sitting on his head.

Feeding crows has a deep-rooted belief in Hindusim, which believes that giving away the first morsel to the bird is akin to paying homage to ancestors and if they are propitiated satisfactorily then good luck was in store for the individual. A bereaved family usually offers the staple rice to crows before collecting the deceased person’s ashes from the crematorium for immersion.

Ornithologists opine that crows are intelligent and opportunists just like the proverbial crow dropping pebbles to drink water from the bottom of a pot.  “Their sense of adaptability has been their success,” explained Isaac Kehimkar, naturalist of the Bombay Natural History Society, of their ever-growing numbers. They are seen as predators that kill eggs of other birds and thrive on garbage – found openly strewn on Mumbai’s roads.

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