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Flutter by, Melodic Butterflies

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There’s a song in the air !

        There’s a star in the sky !

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I have always found music delightful for relaxation. Lately I had been listening to music either streamed or downloaded from the web where we could find any kind of music we wish for. Unlike the effort to flip through our musical collections of vinyl albums, CDs, cassettes and videos for enjoying music in the conventional way, one needs only to flick some icons on the web, and the music comes pouring into the room. But how can I resist from admitting that I like music on physical formats, especially the tangible experience of holding a vinyl album and admiring the big cover art while it plays with the pops and cracks and imperfections of an old gramophone record.

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A week ago we were sorting out the Christmas albums in the storage shelf where they were waiting for the right time to arrive when we would let them play their joyful melodies – to experience the pleasure they would bring us.

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Waiting for Christmas! The instance reminded me of an old adage which relates that “a test for true love is a rose which has been picked on Midsummers’ Day and put away until Christmas. If it is found still fresh at Christmas, the love of the girl who plucked it and her beau will run true and flourish.” – the kind of love where the boy will kneel down and tell her that she is the sweetest, most charming and ravishing girl in the world and that he would be unable to live one more second without her! I personally know of instances like this.

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But vis-à-vis our present subject, the fact remains that listening to greater part of carols and Christmas songs surely create an effect we aspire to in our house.

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Christmas time is a warm and nostalgic time of a year – and Christmas, winter’s merriest tale, is all about the birth of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly told without music. As it happens, throughout the festive season and often beyond – while we set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, or hang up the stockings and decorations, or prepare the feast, or merry-make in the festive gathering, we play them as background music just for the warmth and joy of those seasonal melodies.

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Those are classical instrumentations by Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc, or sung by choirs, or carol singers or by Earl Grant, Ray Conniff, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, Nina Simone, Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Fernand Gignac, Nana Mouskouri, Celine Dion, Muriel J, Jose Feliciano, Ajejandro Sanz, Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rod Stewart, Boney M and many others.

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Behind those songs were the lyrical and musical talents of folk singers, monks, the clergy, literary and musical luminaries.

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In the movies “The Alamo” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), the viewer might have noticed a versatile actor named Jester Hairston who was also a songwriter/composer/conductor and singer. In 1956, Hairston wrote fresh lyrics for an earlier song he had written titled “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and attuned in calypso rhythm but was never recorded in that form.

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The song with the new lyrics, later characterised as a Christmas carol, was titled “Mary’s Boy Child” and the world first heard of it when Harry Belafonte released it through his album “An Evening with Belafonte” (1956).

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The song was subsequently recorded by music artists such as Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, including a version in 1978 by Boney M which is still popular like most of the Boney M songs released when they were in the prime of their time.

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Christmas carols lend an air to this festive season and over the years have spawned a variety of classics to make good cheer. In England of the olden days, groups went on “Wassailing” for “luck-visits” from house to house at Christmas time – singing carols and sharing the contents of their wassail bowls for which they expected to be rewarded with gifts, food and drinks.

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15They were considered to be the forerunners of modern day carol singers. This practise later evolved into modified versions. Then again, what is true in England is also true in Italy and in our Cochin, or everywhere.

And so, wassailing was enacted in our Cochin also when numerous groups dressed in character of Santa Claus and shepherds and shepherdesses in knee-length, floating skirts as dancers, together with their entourage of singers and musicians. They visited houses, predominantly in Fort Cochin and the coastal belt, to entertain during Christmas time.

Although this practise is slowly dying down, few groups are still active during the Christmas season. The songs which maintain great popularity in their street collection lists are “Jingle Bells”, and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” which tells of the approach of Santa Claus and his pack of reindeers.

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These songs are nice accompaniments to dancing and rather similar to renditions such as “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc.

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20Interspersed in their collection are popular songs from movies or simultaneously, versions in local language which some enlightened ones find not ‘hip’ and very un-English without some English terms peppered in it. But if there is one carol that is generally heard here throughout the Christmas time is the English version of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), a reverential rendition written in German in 1816 by Friar Joseph Mohr of Austria with music added to it by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.

This is said to be one of the main songs (and also ‘Adeste Fideles’) the German and the English soldiers jointly sung on the first Christmas of the First World War, in 1914 when, in a spontaneous and unofficial Christmas truce, their guns fell silent for a brief period and they emerged out of their trenches into no-man’s land in a number of places along the Western Front: to exchange gifts, cigarettes and joyously sing carols and songs to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. They knew that the war was going to last a long time and many would not live through for another Christmas Day or even see their wives back home knitting socks for the soldiers at the Front.

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This chivalry between enemies in the military air to uphold the Christmas spirit is depicted in the films: “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas – 2005/French); Oh, What a Lovely War (1969/UK) (1)

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Many a Christmas carols and songs have played at the chords of the human heart with its angelic fingers: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” covers the 12 days starting with Christmas Day till 6th January (Epiphany); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “In The Bleak Mid-winter”; “Joy to the World”; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”; “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”; “Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful”; “In Excelsis Gloria”, and many many more. Some of these titles are highlighted here.

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The most ancient carols known to us date from the Middle Ages. Historians contend that the word “Carol” passed from French into the English language in about 1300 and was associated with words, music and dance. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century.

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These carols shadow forth the true spirit of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends. In most cases, they were by and large in Latin which was the medium for prayers and chants in the churches in those days. Latin being unversed to most common men of Italy, San Francesco di Assisi presented the carols in his native language – supported by theatrics.

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From there it gathered popularity, and despite occasional hindrances (such as the temporary abolition of Christmas in England in the 17th century), it survived through transitory periods spanning the medieval, the renaissance (rise of music printing and of vocal music performed with instruments), the baroque (invention of opera), the rococo (rise of comic opera and the symphony), the classicism (flowering of instrumental music), the romanticism (rise of the conductor and the golden age of the piano), the post-romanticism (dominance of mammoth orchestra), up to our time. In 1918, carols received the biggest boost when the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, a Christmas Eve service which includes carols and readings from the Bible, were adopted by King’s College Cambridge.

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People vary greatly in their way of responding to music. Tastes have altered. Then again, there is great proliferation of Christmas carols and songs, owing to the creative flair of many contemporary musicians who retain its originality.

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As for us, we treasure each Christmas of our years gone past – its virtues of humility, generosity and love. We admire the splendour of its true traditions: the birth of baby Jesus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas crib, the star, the old decorations of rosemary and bays, the holly and the ivy, the poinsettias (Flores de Noche Buena/Flowers of the Holy Night), the Mistletoe, the greeting cards, exchange of gifts, the banquet which includes plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, Christmas ale, and of course, Santa Claus, dancing and singing….

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Although the Christmas festive season will come only once a year, our steadfast delight in the Christmas carols and songs ensure that those cherished melodies flutter around in our house, like butterflies, whatever the season may be. Enjoy your Christmas holidays! Ho! Ho! Ho!! Jo

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Notes:

  • Christmas Truce: In books: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub; Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy, etc. It is also the theme of Sainsbury’s official Christmas 2014 Advertisement
  • DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred above is available with main dealers of movies.
  • This is dedicated to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI who received Doctorates honoris causa on 04 July 2015 for five contributions to knowledge and culture – which includes his great respect for the musical tradition of the Church and his remarkable sensitivity to the music of faith. May he enjoy blessings of good health.

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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SURVIVING WITH DIGNITY

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The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.

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Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.

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One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available.  “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.

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A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).

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Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.

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These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).

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The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.

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Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.

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Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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12The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.

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The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.

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The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.

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The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.

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Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).

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Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.

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The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.

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21Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.

Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.

Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!

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Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.

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26As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.

Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.

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Now with the three wise women  in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama.  Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.

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Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.

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31As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.

Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo

Notes:

  • In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
  • The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
  • In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
  • The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.

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(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

ORDER A GOOD CHEER

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ORDER A GOOD CHEER

The secret is out. One of my friends, Chef Rasheed Abdulkhader who often surprised us with his mastery in culinary flairs is soon to retire after few decades with the Taj Group of Hotels, one of the top hospitality groups in India, where he had worked up the ladder to become one of the top Executive Chefs of this Group.

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Over the years, Chef Rasheed’s passion and dedication had gotten him to a position where he could deal with the meals of the prominent and reputed guests from different parts of the world – the sheer brilliance of his culinary delights thus earning him the adulation of many. Each of his dishes stood up for itself for its excellence, freshness, taste and simplicity. The culinary menu of many of our own parties were overseen by him and it will be sad to see this shining personality with a never-fading smile take an exit due to “getting on in years.”

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Now first things first. In the olden days, the chef (then locally known as “Kokki” or cook) didn’t triumph in popularity or acquired the kind  of glamour they have today. Back then, a thought about that leader of the kitchen rarely crossed one’s mind when you dined in a hotel. Like the cook in an upscale restaurant or in a smaller establishment like a toddy shop, you are only aware they are there.

In the context of my childhood, they made their personal appearance in your life whenever they were hired to cook for occasions such as a marriage in your house when, following the religious ceremony, a wholesome feast (vivahasadya) of time-honoured family recipes (generally unaltered over the years) were reproduced authentically (keeping the taste firmly on the original version), and served inside the house or in a fabricated marquee (pandal) within the residential compound, enhancing the intensely close-knit personal atmosphere.

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It was an occasion when all the near and dear ones were invited with true open-handedness. And, no doubt,they might all come and attend the feast to celebrate the occasion.

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The cook turns up some days earlier to list the items to be procured for his work and his work will commence mostly by the morning of the previous day of the wedding since there would be dinner to be served on the eve of the wedding day.  The cooking will continue overnight in a temporary outdoor cook-house till the lunch is served following the wedding ceremony.

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Besides couple of his assistants/washers-up, help in the shapes of scores of relatives and neighbours turns up to assist in the progress of the cook’s work and other arrangements. Many would fondly recall the smell of burning wood hanging in the air or hear the sound from the bubbling pans.

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In those times, the caterers with table-ready food service and event managers and pretentious food were unheard of. Relatives and friends had time for manual help and there were collective participation in arrangements: the pandal was erected with sturdy bamboo poles roofed with tarpaulin and decorated with white-painted bamboo trellis panels fencing all around it. Paper decorations adorn the white cloth covering the ceiling.

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The hired trestle tables dressed with plain white cloth (without drape or box-pleat or petticoat) were arranged on the ground covered with tarpaulin. The cooking pots and pans, serving dishes, china, cutlery, moveable water-tank, chairs and even petro-max for artificial emergency lighting were hired.

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Besides ensuring that cultural traditions survive, thoughtful planning by the elders eliminated potential faults. It was a time when family and friends conscripted as servers of food. There was a personal touch everywhere. Everyone participated – ate, drank and later, merrily went away.

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The cook was generously paid and sent away happily and that was the last time you saw him until another occasion turns up when he is needed or you may see him working at another function. Those were simple and affordable, and joyous occasions. Time passed.

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Then came the time when the pomp and middle-persons took over such ceremonies and put a high price tag to everything – well before the specialised food shops appeared throughout the length of the State. Soon common Italian words like Spaghetti Pomodoro, tiramisu, etc were no longer a novelty locally. The haute cuisine is here!

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14Cookery books have come a long way from “The Forme of Cury” (Form of Cooking), the earliest surviving mediaeval cookery guide written by the Chef Maister Cokes (Chief Master Cooks) of young King Richard II of England (Richard of Bordeaux, 6 January 1367 – c. 14 February 1400) in about 1390. Apart from the masses of books and DVDs on cookery, with the advent of TV channels, radio and web shows, movies, foodie bloggers, culinary schools, etc, food and cooking has become two of the most common subjects around, especially on the web – rapidly commercialised and glamourised.

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Concurrently, it also brings about a healthy breeding ground not only for the qualified and dedicated chefs, but also, truth be told, for persons with the slightest inclination in cooking or scant knowledge in qualities of the cooking ingredients or dietary criteria, to gallop their way to recognition on the back of knowledge acquired from cookery books or shows or experience gained through apprenticeship as kitchen assistants or diploma in culinary education in tutorials.

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My paternal grandmother Anna never used a recipe in all her life but the heady aroma from her kitchen could lure a fully fed child back to the dining table. I often try my hand in the cooking department – but mind you, not as a hobby cook who ventures into the home kitchen to tackle culinary talents in the mid-afternoon of a Sunday.

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The upshot of a popular chef is that apart from gaining wealth and fame, their perks could include opportunities to bring out cookery books/DVDs or conduct personal cookery classes/workshops, etc.

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The hostess of a TV cookery show once commented, ‘My Domestic chores? I am all behind like a cow’s tail. Where would I find time to cook when my daily schedule is tightly fitted around films lined up for shooting and other public appearances to be made? How do I keep up with it all day?’ The show is just a piece of cake for her. Owing to her profession, she is unfazed by the lights, camera and cables.

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It is implied that she just needs to turn up in the TV Studio for the shooting of the Cookery episode, gets beautifully attired (in most cases chef’s uniform is avoided), decked with gold ornaments, hair let loose rather than tucked under a Chef’s cap or headscarf. The emphasis is on glamour.

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Good cookery shows do not just happen. Unlike most of today’s presenters who try to put in 100% data of their own for each episode, some amateur celebrity presenters in “cooking partnership” with the studios just follow the script guidelines for the Cookery episode, researched and provided to them by the TV Studio writers for study and possible input. These writers often think visually. They push for the big goal: the show must be exciting and full of drama to hold the audience and entice potential sponsors.

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At the studio, where the presenter is already well acquainted with the many cookware and other aids at hand, he/she just needs to make a mental run-through of the episode, make mental notes for the occasional change of pace if the script calls for it before the final shooting which would be suitably edited later. As the shoot progresses, it would likely trigger impulsive, spur-of-the-moment ideas in the presenter to suit the characterisation being projected. They needn’t be afraid to try something new. After all, it is said that amateurs built the ark. If you enjoy yourself, so will others. That’s the long and short of it.

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Being cheerful and unflustered from the curtain-raiser down to the end of the presentation, they are programmed to come across as culinary specialists, inspired by a deep love of home life, and smitten with the nostalgia of home-cooked cuisine of their childhood. If there is a guest for the show, their pleasing disposition is highlighted through chats with him/her who, in most cases, would be another popular personality who himself gets a shot to showcase himself with a song or dance or other gimmickry – all part of the ingredients of the cookery show.

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Currently, there are some truly amazing cookery programmes dominating the airwaves. To watch the shows of learned and talented chefs, including Michelin Star Chefs, Nutritionists, Hotel Management professionals, wellness experts, expressing valid ideas and tips for healthy and tasty food is always a pleasure and benefits us to learn and discover aspects of cookery, new recipes or smarten up the known ones.

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In fact, we watch the German show “Lafer! Lichter! Lecker!” hosted by Chef Johann Lafer and Horst Lichter. At other times, we enjoy MasterChef Australia, a reputed show co-hosted by Chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, and food critic Matt Preston where the emphasis, besides good cooking, is on drama and competitiveness within a limited time.

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Our intense travel has brought us in contact with many top chef de cuisines in different countries. They have ensured that our appetites are in safe hands. Their skill and enthusiasm in their respective specialties are quite amazing.

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Some of them also possess that special gift of “blessed hand” known locally as “Kaipunyam”. Chef Stefan Trepp of Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok and Chef Joseph of Grand Hotel, Cochin are the owners of such brilliance. Chef Ken Murphy, Chef Nicolas Bourel, ……. it is impossible to name here all of them known to us. Of course, I do not leave out Carina’s skill in German cooking.

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Traditional cuisine of different countries has grown through little change over the years. In Kerala, keeping in line with the massive promotion of tourism, there is a renaissance of traditional dishes. The set-up of the recipes and the vocabulary of cooking sessions remain almost unchanged down to that most commonly and frequently used word in cookery: “….a little bit of …….”

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However, with the growing popular interest in good food, cooking is a process of evolution – subject to amalgamation of spices with different ingredients; mixing of flavours and culture like Chinese/Italian, Indian/Thai, etc.

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Imagination is the highest kite that can fly. Like Chef Rasheed whose thirst for knowledge and willingness to experiment with new ideas had driven him forward, a dedicated chef knows that his/her profession also calls for a very imaginative level of creativity and do-ability.

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During a dinner party we attended in Milan, the guests stayed longer than the proper time. The hostess, a French aristocrat known for her elegance and imagination where hospitality is concerned, was not at all disconcerted. She had a huge dish of Spaghetti Bolognese ready, specially prepared earlier envisaging such a circumstance. When everyone cheered her for her surprise dish, she happily let out her plans for her next party. “Now let me tell you about that other dish I am going to cook next time. What about Saltimbocca?” There you go! I was nailed. Everyone is entitled to hope. Until next time. Jo

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Picture above: Rose of Melon with Capocollo, a speciality of Trattoria Ristorante Il Porcospino, at Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini in Florence, Italy. Owned by our dear friends, Il Porcospino is worth visiting for its fine cuisine.

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Notes:

Many thanks to friends Ms. Suparat Phumrattanaprapin, Ms. Clarissa Lo Cascio and Chef Rasheed Abdulkhader for their hands on support to illustrate this article with their pictures.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

 

StarChoice 23: MRS. ‘ARRIS GOES TO PARIS

a1 a2The day was wet and windy when we learned that an unexpected restriction was rightly slapped on visitors’ entry to the top of Gustave Eiffel’s Tower, the emblem of Paris. For Bianca, a first-time visitor to Paris at that time, the spectacular view from the third inner platform at 276m had to be compensated with a panoramic view from the second inner platform (115m) of the Eiffel Tower which was overcrowded with visitors despite the chilly wind. The night before from the window of our hotel rooms, we had seen the tower fizzes with champagne sparkle (336 600-W projector sodium lamps and 20,000 bulbs for the Sparkling Tower) periodically from sundown to the early hour while the old moon gleamed over it. Why does Paris hold a special place in many hearts? Most visually recognisable in Europe, the city’s beauty is undeniable. From where my wife Carina, Bianca and I stood on the second platform, not in the very distance was the Arc de Triomphe. Our eyes shifted from the Arc and trailed over the tree-lined straight boulevard of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées with its lovely sense of space now obstructed from view by the masses of buildings, to Le Grand Palais with its iron and glass domes. a3 a5Scanning past the city’s oldest monument, Obélisque de Luxor in the vast Place de la Concorde; and the splendid Jardin des Tuileries, we can’t miss architect I M Pei’s pyramid and that honourable house of La Gioconda, Le Musée du Louvre, where I have spent many many days over many years discovering the magnificent genius of our gifted ancestors, each object d’art systematically displayed for global citizens. Further to our right on the eastern half of the natural island, Île de la Cité in the Seine, loomed the 90m Gothic spire of Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, beyond which is Gare de Paris-Bercy from where we would catch the night train to Milan four days later. Gazing at the distance to the left, our eyes fell on the dome of that neo-Romanesque-Byzantine edifice, Sacré-Cœur (Sacred Heart) Basilica on the Montmartre (Mount of Martyrs) hill where we had chosen our hotel for this time to explore the life in Montmartre. Each arrondissement of this legendary metropolis is self-contained for necessities, its treasures, and its secrets. All life is here – in Paris. a6 a4Bianca, our eldest daughter, with her imminent degree in Fashion Design on her mind, had her thinking caps on for ideas and inspirations of the French fashion: Chanel, Dior, Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent,… – all the more reason, this is the age where luxury fashion endeavours to be more accessible to the public. Her eyes were now busy trying to locate the Christian Dior Couture building on Avenue Montaigne which she finally found straight ahead of us, few blocks up the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel where Princess Diana with two others was killed in a car crash on the night of 31 August, 1997. Well, Dior would be our next destination for the day, the first of the haute-couture houses she intended to trail to “catch the fresh French fashion touch.” True to the word: Fashion is followed! a7

Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris   (1992)

Interestingly, renowned American novelist Paul Gallico (Paul William Gallico – July 26, 1897 – July 15, 1976) in his beautiful short novel, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, published in 1958, tells the story about a widowed English working class woman’s visit to Paris to buy a beautiful dress. This book forms part of the four “Mrs. Harris” books Gallico wrote, viz., Mrs. Harris Goes to New York (1959), Mrs. Harris Goes to Parliament (1965, aka: Mrs Harris, M. P), and Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow (1974). Adapted as a TV play with some alterations by John Hawkesworth, “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” was filmed on locations in London, Paris and Budapest. a8 Synopsis: It was the London of 1953. Our protagonist, Mrs. Ada Harris, the charwoman somewhere in her late 50s or early 60s, led a regular-as-clockwork life in Battersea cleaning homes of well-to-dos living in and on the fringes of fashionable Eaton Square and Belgravia – 10 hours a day – 5 ½ days a Week. One morning after she had reported for work at the luxurious home of Lord and Lady Dent, one of her rich clients, Ada was sent to her Ladyship’s bedroom to collect some letters. There, Ada saw an invitation to Lord and Lady Dent to attend Her Majesty’s Coronation Ball at Buckingham Palace on Friday, 5th June 1953. It was then she saw two lovely gowns hanging by the wardrobe – one red and the other in pale blue. Ada had never seen anything so beautiful in her whole life. a9 When Lady Dent found Ada admiring her pale blue gown, she informed Ada that they are from Dior in Paris and the pale blue gown cost a pricey 450 guineas, an astronomical sum in 1953. Lady Dent plans to wear one of the gowns to the Coronation Ball. When Ada was given the chance to select one of the gowns for Lady Dent to wear for the Ball, the blue gown was Ada’s choice since she thought that the pale blue was the best for the Palace. Besides, they say Her Majesty liked pale colours. Lady Dent was apparently impressed by Ada’s selection. a10 In next to no time, Ada was besotted by the desire to own a similar Dior gown, but the cost, of course, was beyond her financial capacity. Having played in the weekly football Pool, Ada won 174 pounds 6 shillings and 4 pence – not much – but it was a good start for her to edge closer to owning a Dior dress. Mrs. Butterfield, her Cockney neighbour and close friend in the same profession was taken aback by Ada’s new interest in getting dressed up. She was all questions: from where will Ada find that kind of money with her low salary? Where will Ada wear the gown after all? Play dress-up in the attic? Ada had her reasons: they may only be charwomen – but they certainly can have their dreams – there is no law against that. As with everything in life, money buys quality. She would work hard enough. She is going to get a Dior gown. Seriously! a11 As a Chinese proverb goes, “To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping”. She “scrimped and saved and slaved” with unwavering determination for three long years until she possessed just sufficient money to see her through her travel to Paris and return, plus the cost to acquire the gown. Perfect! a12 The year would be about 1956 by now when Ada, upon arrival in Paris, was confronted by the reality that obtaining an original couture creation from Christian Dior’s Salon is a challenging task. Then again, at the House of Christian Dior in the Avenue Montaigne, she was lucky enough to have met Mme Colbert, the Chief Vendeuse of Dior who was at that time in the middle of organising a Collection to be shown to a selected audience that afternoon where the guest of honour will be Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, famed for her love for Christian Dior’s creations in the 1950s. a13 a14 As it turned out, with Mme Colbert’s help, Ada ended up sitting in the front row of the show next to a Ministre, Marquis Hippolite, who would soon become fascinated by her charming personality. a15 In a little while, as the Dior show proceeded with the display of magnificent haute couture creations, a young model named Natasha appeared dressed in a most gorgeous dress no: 89 “Temptation” which was the dream of Mrs. Ada Harris. Overwhelmed with admiration for that soft-pink gown, Ada’s incessant clapping was disdainfully stared at by the room full of high-society women in their aura of riches, getting their fashion fix here. a16 Following the show, Mme Colbert was delighted to accept Mrs. Harris’ booking for the gown “Temptation” at the cost of 437,000 francs (£450). Arrangements were swiftly made with the head dressmaker, Monsieur Marcel and his assistant Mme. Claudine who agreed they would spin into overdrive to get her dress done within a week. a17 Accommodation was arranged quickly for Ada’s one-week stay in Paris. However, to get Ada measured and fitted, it was found necessary to evade an antagonist in the form of the pompous director of the House of Dior, Monsieur Armont, who appeared to be an expert in brewing up anxiety in the salon. Mrs. Harris had never thought of that possibility. a18 And so, Ada slips under the protective umbrella of the triad: Mme Colbert, M Marcel and Mme Claudine. Keep the fingers crossed – everything comes to the one who waits. a19 Ada’s forced and unforeseen stay in Paris was not in vain. By the time the week has come to a full circle, she had sown the magical seeds of sure-fire success all around her: to put a bachelor’s house tidier; to bring together two lovers; mend the stormy time between the Marquis, his daughter Mme Louise and granddaughter Claire; and arranged a much needed letter for Mme Colbert from Le General de Gaulle conferring the Order of Croix de Guerre with palm  posthumously on her husband M Michelle Colbert, a member of La Résistance Française who was shot dead 12 years ago during the German occupation of France. a20 As luck would have it, not only M Michelle’s name will be inscribed in the book of the Heroes of the Resistance, but Mme Colbert will also be given the Médaille de la Résistance from the General himself. Wonderful! a21 In spite of this, M Armont still persisted on her neck. However, as in all stories trailing the legend of Cinderella, Ada Harris’ had her saving grace in a friendship to help her through her hurdles and finally finger-point M Armont as the bad leaf on the lettuce. Friendship isn’t a big thing – it is a million little things. a22 Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris is a Canada-United Kingdom-Hungary co-production, and filmed with the production assistance of Air France and Christian Dior. It was produced by Susan Cavan and Andras Hamori and directed by Anthony Shaw (the first son of Angela Lansbury and Peter Shaw). a23 The ensemble of crew consists of: Stanley Myers (music); Laszlo George (Director of Photography); Sidney Wolinsky (Film Editing); Roger Murray-Leach (Production Design); Jane Robinson (Costume Design); Tamas Hornyanszky (Art Director), Virginia Gallico (Creative Consultant), etc. a24 One of the seasoned pros of the past, the performance of British actress Angela Lansbury, CBE (born on 16 October, 1925 in London) as Mrs. Ada Harris, a honest, working-class widow without children, is heart-warming. Out on a long-distance adventure, Angela’s Ada is a delight to watch as she braves the hurdles on the Parisian scenery. a25 Daughter of Irish stage/screen actress Moyna MacGill, and granddaughter of George Lansbury, the British Labour Party leader, the Strawberry blonde Angela had her screen debut in the role of the sly maid in Gaslight (D: George Cukor, 1944) which earned her nomination for Academy Award for best Supporting actress. MGM soon regarded her as a rising young star. Although she had to content with supporting roles owing that she was considered not pretty enough to be a leading lady, film after film she lured the limelight away from the top-billed stars of her movies. a26 Early in her career, she appeared in the post-war colour remake of the costume drama The Three Musketeers (D: George Sidney, 1948) in which Angela portrayed the role of Queen Ann. Next, I saw her in the biblical tale Samson and Delilah (D: Cecil B. DeMille, 1949) as the Philistine Semadar who was romanced by Victor Mature’s young Danite Samson. a27 a28She favoured her appearance in a string of movies: The Red Danube (D: George Sidney, 1949), The Purple Mask (D: Bruce Humberstone, 1955), All Fall Down (D: John Frankenheimer, 1961), The Manchurian Candidate (D: John Frankenheimer, 1962), Harlow (D: Gordon Douglas, 1965), etc. Success in movies drove her further to establish careers on stage and in television shows. She appeared in the long-run stage musical hit Mame (Jerry Herman); in TV productions including Murder, She Wrote, launched in 1984; in the musical Sweeney Todd (D: Stephen Sondheim); in Barry Sandler’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d (D: Guy Hamilton, 1980), etc. It is Angela’s sweet singing voice that we hear when the housekeeper Mrs. Potts sings in Beauty and the Beast (D: Garry Trounsdale & Kirk Wise, 1991) in the scene where the Beast romances Belle with dinner and a dance. a29 a30Egyptian actor Omar Sharif (born Michael Shalhoub) was already a Romantic/sex symbol of the Egyptian cinema before he rose to international stardom with his role as the fierce tribesman in Lawrence of Arabia (D: David Lean, 1962). While Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris was preparing for production, Sharif was already working in Continental Europe acting in two films by French director Henri Verneuil: Mayrig (1991, and later, a TV play in 1993), 588 Rue Paradis (1992), and in Italian director Duccio Tessari’s Beyond Justice (1992). Omar Sharif was contracted as a guest star to portray the wealthy and charming Ministre, Le Marquis Hippolite de Chassagne. Sharif’s physical presence gave character of Marquis more than the film could have acquired from the script alone. a31 a32Diana Rigg (born Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg in Doncaster, England) is the Tracy (Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo) of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969), the only woman 007 James Bond married. Dame Diana had already established her reputation in Shakespeare plays before international fame came her way for her role as the secret agent Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers (1961–1969). The performance of Diana Rigg was first-rate as the brainy and fair Mme Colbert who tries to assert her authority as the in-charge of the sales in the House of Dior, and lock horns with M Armont who threw his weight around and refused to let Mrs. Harris, a commoner, have the gown. a33 a34 Montréal, Québec, Canada actor Lothaire Bluteau (Jesus of Montreal, 1989) is the dignified André Fauvel, the Dior accountant who was shy to reveal his fancy for model Natasha but thought that she deserved better than a “pen-pusher” like him. a35 A talented British actor, whenever John Savident (A Clockwork Orange, 1971) appears as the assertive and aggressive M Armont, it is like watching a snake come out of a basket. a36 Lila Kaye (An American Werewolf in London, 1981) acts as Mrs. Butterfield with the cockney dialect matching Mrs. Harris’, which is at its most distinctive during their journey to their workplaces by the doubledecker London bus no: 19 to Victoria. a37 a38 In her screen debut role, Winnipeg Manitoba, Canada-born Tamara Gorski (Murder at 1600, 1997) is exquisite as the small, fair-haired young Dior model Natasha Petitpierre, truly blessed with the loveliest of natures and the sweetest smile in that part of Paris. a39 Also on the supporting cast are: William Armstrong (M. Marcel), Barbara Barnes (Mme. Claudine), Tamsin Olivier (Mme. Louise), Trudy Weiss, Jenö Pataky, Jason Carter, Alex Knight, György Emõd, Mel Martin, Toby Whithouse, David Sterne, Anna Safranek, Ottó Szokolay, Tibor Medveczky, Kieron Jecchinis, Fruzsina Radnai, amongst others. a40 The film rightly features the period-details of the fairy-tale storyline: the white horse-driven van of Lambs Farm Dairy delivering milk in silver-topped bottles; the street-cleaner with his pulling cart; the old Harrods delivery van; the style of dressing, etc. a41 a42 Complemented by the melodious music of Stanley Myers, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, with competent cast of actors and some interesting plot twists, is a nice and gentle family film,  that lifts our hearts with a positive assurance that things can turn up right if you set your mind to it. Watch it if you can – there is nothing wrong in having a little fantasy now and then to lift the spirits. Jo. a43 Notes: 1.. This illustrated article is an affectionate nosegay to the movie reviewed above. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details. 2.. The DVDs of the movies referred above are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc. 3.. The novel “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (original UK title: Flowers for Mrs. Harris) by Paul Gallico is available with leading book dealers. a44

(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

On the Path of Il Poverello

How we remember, what we remember, and why we remember form the most personal map of our individuality

– writer Christina Baldwin

Pope-1Today March 13, 2014 marks the First Anniversary of the papacy of Pope Francis. Looking back, it brings to mind that Wednesday night of March 13, 2013 when the conclave of 115 cardinal-electors of the Roman Catholic church, gathered inside the Sistine Chapel, elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, (born December 17, 1936) the archbishop of Buenos Aires as the 266th pontiff, due to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on February 28, 2013.

Pope-2We were watching the late night news when the TV Station cut into this news and shifted the focus onto the central balcony called “Loggia della Benedizion” above the main entrance on the façade of the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, from where Cardinal Protodeacon (for the 2013 conclave) Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran would proclaim the newly elected Pope. Soon the announcement came:

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  • * Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum; Habemus Papam: 
  • Eminentissimum ac Reverendissimum Dominum,
  • Dominum Georgium Marium
  • Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem Bergoglio
  • qui sibi nomen imposuit Franciscum

Pope-4WhoBergoglio? As the world waited, the man in white robe finally made his first appearance before the rain-soaked crowds in the vast Piazza San Pietro, to give his solemn blessing “Urbi et Orbi”. Following the prayer for Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, the new Vicar of Peter from almost “the end of the world“, asked the faithful to pray to the Lord that he be blessed by Him – so that he may proceed with the mission as the Lord would wish. The crowd prayed, cheered and waved flags: Francesco! Francesco! A man clad in midnight-blue coveralls, with a look of happiness etched on his face, shouted: Viva il Papa! Viva il Papa!“. The journey Jorge Mario Bergoglio was destined to take has begun.

Pope-5A year has now passed and during this period the bespectacled Holy Father’s days were a continuous thread of revelation about himself; about his thinking on a variety of issues: religion, politics, global issues, lifestyle, … As his pontificate acquired a definite shape, he reasserted himself as a man who had let the potent power of simplicity work in his life – a man who radiated love and charm and concern for the common man.

Pope-6The Argentinian-born Pope who took the name of San Francesco de Assisi, Il Poverello (the little poor one), is currently on a Lenten spiritual of preaching and prayer at a spiritual retreat in the town of Ariccia, in the Alban Hills about 15 miles outside the Vaticano.

Pope-7At this time, in the run-up to the Supreme Pontiff’s first Easter, I could envisage the long days ahead of him in the journey of fraternity, of love, of trust; and his efforts to promote, safeguard and symbolize the unity of the church. May he receive the benefit of our prayers to remain admirably robust and our wishes that all his days will be lit with the brightness of God whom he represents. Jo

Pope-8 Benedict-(2005)* Note: English text of the announcement: “I announce to you, news of great joy: We have a Pope! The most eminent and most reverend Lord, Lord Jorge Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Bergoglio, Who takes for himself the name of Francis.”

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  • Photo credits (from top):
  • 1.. The marble bas-relief “Delivery of the Keys” (Consegna delle chiavi) by Ambrogio Bonvicino (1552-1622) put up in 1614 just below the central balcony called “Loggia della Benedizion” (Loggia of the Benedictions) (May 19, 2010 – Photo by Andrea Lalis Sebastine)
  • 2.. Pope Benedict XVI at Piazza San Pietro. (October 22, 2008, Manningtree Archive)
  • 3.. Basilica di San Pietro, Vaticano (October 22, 2008 – Photo by Bianca Celine Diane)
  • 4.. Pope Francis
  • 5.. March 13, 2013: Pope Francis just after his election at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica (author: Tenan – Source: http://en.wikipedia.org)
  • 6.. San Francesco d’Assisi – painting by Cimabue (part of Frescoes in the Church of San Francesco, Assisi) – (Source: commons.wikimedia.org)
  • 7.. Pope Francis (Source: en.wikinews.org)
  • 8.. Pope Benedict XVI at his window on the third floor of the papal apartments facing Piazza San Pietro. (March, 2005, Manningtree Archive)
  • 9.. Pope Benedict XVI during his weekly general audience in Piazza San Pietro (October 22, 2008 – Photo by Bianca Celine Diane)
  • 10.. Architectural elements on the façade belltowers of Basilica di San Pietro. The Saints on both sides of one of the clocks (designed by Giuseppe Valadier) are S. Thaddeus and S. Matthew (April, 2012, Manningtree Archive)

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(© Manningtree Archive)

MICHELANGELO – IL DIVINO

Painting is good to the extent that it resembles sculpture; sculpture is bad to the extent that it resembles painting” – Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) *

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Pietà (1498–1499) at Basilica di San Pietro, Vaticano

A son was born to Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena and local Podestà, Lodovico di Leonardo Buonarotto Simoni,  on THIS DAY (March 6th) in 1475 (1474 – according to Giorgio Vasari) in the small village of Caprese (today known as Caprese Michelangelo) in the province of Arezzo in Tuscany, Italy.

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Left: Rebellious Slave – Right: Dying Slave (1513–1516) at the Louvre, Paris

Second of five brothers, he will be commonly known as Michelangelo and would go on to create wonders in sculpting, architecture, poetry, and engineering. Besides being an architect in the creation of Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, this Italian High Renaissance artist who painted the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel which includes “The Last Judgement” and created his most famous sculptures, “Pietà” and “David” amongst others; would capture the hearts and imagination of millions all over the world.

McMichelangelo’s original “David” displayed at Galleria dell’Accademia in Firenze

The endless hours spent reading a plethora of sound biographical material on Michelangelo; the hours spent studying his arts displayed at the Louvre in Paris and at various places in Firenze and Roma; the visual documentaries and movies like “The Agony and The Ecstasy” that had flashed past before my eyes – all of these conjure up an image of an extraordinary genius with infinite talent. One this day, we salute this Il Divino (“the divine one“) of Firenze who once walked upon this Earth.  Jo

MdBasilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross), Firenze where Michelangelo’s tomb (designed by Vasari) is located right opposite to the tomb of Galileo Galilei  (designed by Giulio Foggini). The cenotaph of Niccolò Machiavelli is on the same aisle in close vicinity.

PS: Quoted on Page 337 of “In the Arena” The Autobiography of Charlton Heston.

(Photos: © Joseph SébastineManningtree Archive)

KNOCK ON BANGKOK’S DOOR

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I am in no way interested in immortality,  But only in the taste of tea.”

 – Lú Tung (790-835), Tang Dynasty poet

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(Above: The first tea garden in Ootacamund (Udhagamandalam/Ooty), South India, was planted in 1863)

Everybody knows something about Tea. With its distinct flavour and aroma, it is arguably world’s best-loved refreshment. Tea had reached the West from China where it was consumed for more than four thousand years. Last December, just in time when the old year was wrapping up and launching into the Year of the Horse, dressed in the best British heritage and its colonial history, the fragrant cup of green gold finally came knocking on the door of Bangkok.

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Harrods, the globally renowned British Department Store synonymous with quality, luxury and an array of merchandise and with a history that spans over 160 years, has opened their first “Harrods Tea Room” in Bangkok where the equilibrium of “coffee culture” is rapidly tilting to “tea culture” – an aspiring lifestyle.

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A Thai newspaper recently wrote: “Coffee is Out; Tea is In” – a trend that is also catching up in large cities here in India where tea shops are common features in villages. As Carina, who favours coffee, recently quipped, “The moment ‘you’ shifted from Coffee to Tea back in 2008, I knew this is bound to happen!

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Reportedly a project between Harrods and the CEO of LME Co., Ltd (distributor of ready-to-wear fashion brands) in partnership with Thai-MC (Mitsubishi Corporation Japan), Harrods Tea Room is located at Siam Paragon, a trendy luxury shopping mall in the centre of Bangkok.

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There, in Harrods traditional ambiance, we can enjoy not only tea, clipped from plantations in Sri Lanka (earlier Ceylon), India and Kenya (all former British colonies), but a variety of British delicacies.

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Harrods is no stranger to trade in tea. Indeed, the humble beginnings of Harrods is linked to tea since Charles Henry Harrod (1799–1885) moved to Knightsbridge, London in 1849 as a small tea merchant– at a time when tea could be afforded only by the wealthy due to its high price.

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Being one of the English tea traders was advantageous since they had unrivalled access to tea from India and Ceylon due to the involvement of the British East India Company. Tea was also sold as medicine to cure cold, fever, giddiness, headache, stomach-ache, pain in the joints, cleansing the kidneys, for clear eye-sight, to strengthen the memory, to prevent sleepiness, etc.

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Harrods Tea Room has a rather conspicuous statement of no pretences to anything but luxury. You could feel a palpable air of optimism as you walk into it. In addition to the tables set outdoors, the main split-level dining area of about 280 Square metres offers a seating capacity of approximately 80 plus guests.

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Brightly lit, the whole area has the colour-scheme of Harrods green and cream. Clean and convivial, the high ceiling, marble floor, ceiling-to-floor windows, furniture and interior decor characterise a classical British elegant theme, even though some extra unique elements have been added to bring newness.

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Each dining table is set in definite Harrods style with their insignia inscribed on the tableware.

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All of these are calibrated to inspire an authentic Harrods look and feel that would ensure that the clients feel they are at Harrods Knightsbridge Store in London.

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In spite of the present political adversity, Thailand has retained its position as a giant amongst tourist destinations where echo-tourism is encouraged in the right manner. Getting into figures, the revenue from tourist visitation adds up to more than 10 percent of its gross domestic product.

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Located at the centre of Asia, the first European presence in Ayutthaya/Siam came with the arrival of Portuguese in 1511, followed by the Dutch (1605), the British (1612), the Danes (1621) and the French (1662).

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18To this day, Thailand remains a place so welcoming to outsiders. As fond as we are of this lovely country, there are many in romance with Thailand’s culture, traditions, warm weather, interesting sights and places, towns and villages, flora and fauna, stunning beaches and islands, affordable cost of living, business opportunities, good eateries, dynamic nightlife, and most importantly, the pace of life and charm of the people, which entice many to seek a fresh start there.

The Tea Room emphasises the four core elements in equal balance: the cuisine, the wine, the service, and the total ambience.

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The few times we had been to this Harrods Tea Room, we had enjoyed delicious dishes (Harrods Heritage hand-wrapped Beef Wellington, Roast Beef with Yorkshire pudding, etc.) personally prepared and impressively set up for both visual and consumption perspectives by Chef Nicolas Bourel. People eat with their eyes first. Bon appetit.

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21Good cooking starts with the best ingredients. When the heat is on in Harrods’ new kitchen, a succession of British gourmet favourites like Bangers and Mash, Blue Water River Prawn Thermidor, Homemade Shepherd’s Pie, Truffle-poached eggs Benedict with Scottish Smoked Salmon, Fish & Chips (reputed to be the traditional meal of England and the first English take-home dish), Spicy Crab Cakes, Salads, etc., and for the Continental spin, Quiche Lorraine, pasta and risotto, are cooked.

Besides the choice of wine and traditional appetizers, the bold and beautiful Menu offers an extensive range of food which also forms part of their Take-away service.

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The quintessential British Afternoon Tea, a staple in British culture, is regarded as a Pick-me-up. It offers a choice of premium teas from Harrods tea gardens; gourmet coffees with a cloud of milk and chic café sweets and pastries.  We were served special treats of freshly cut finger sandwiches, home-Baked English scones and fine tea pastries.

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Open for all-day dining on every day, swift, efficient and genuinely friendly members of staff greet each customer with much enthusiasm – and most importantly, with smile, the Thai national charm and reality.

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Professionally trained and neatly attired in crisp black and white with ‘Boater’ (hat), they display ‘timeless, sophisticated elegance”, not flamboyance. The energy and grace of these floor attendants is complemented by the optimism and enthusiasm of Ms. Rapeeporn Onsuratoom, the Tea Room Manager.

27aGood staff is the backbone of any successful restaurant and it is amazing what you can achieve if you do not care who gets the credit.

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Closer to the Tea Room is Harrods Boutique displaying a variety of their souvenirs such as bags, cute bears, soft toys, hampers, cookies, chocolates, coffees, teas, etc. Large size dressed teddy bears adorned the Harrods-wing at strategic locations.

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Food is a vast bridge across cultures. Think for a moment about fine dining in Bangkok. It is a world-class city where you can find trendy restaurants with Michelin-starred chefs to street eateries, teeming with diners at any given time of the day.

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According to an expatriate Chef, “Bangkok is now the food centre of Southeast Asia.” Bangkok Thais are aware of their cosmopolitan city’s delightful array of eateries offering culinary options of various countries.

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Speciality restaurants, Coffee houses, Irish pubs, Bistros, Bars abound in the contemporary food culture.

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The globalisation has increased the number of entrants into the domestic market, exerting a strong influence on expectations and options of the customers. They know which eateries hold their faith by keeping the same standards, quality and consistency.

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They are aware of the various global brands, including KFC, McDonald’s, Mister Donut, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Auntie Anne’s, Swensen’s, etc – they are all there and more are entering the increasingly competitive environment of Thai foodie market.

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Like Donq Bakery, the 100-plus year old bakery chain of Japan that opened its first branch in Bangkok at Central World Plaza and the Japanese Restaurant “Tenya” (Tempura Tendon Tenya), more foreign foodservice outlets are establishing their brand-name franchise options.

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No wonder, plans are in progress to open further Harrods outlets there. Complementing these outlets would be Harrods’ Café in Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and “Harrods: The Plantation Rooms” in Ginza Mitsukoshi, Tokyo (Japan).

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The constant queue of clienteles which includes many farangs (Westerners) waiting to savour the Harrods experience affords a clear-eyed perspective about the success of this flagship Tea Room on the Ground Floor (G32) of Siam Paragon.

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It also validates the fact that the City of Angels is an ideal choice for Harrods’ winner business plan to create value and gain competitive advantage in the global market.

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Then again, with all those food lovers coming in, expect the room to erupt into frenzied activity.

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Nothing can substitute experience. When you think of the personalities and principles behind this restaurant, none is short of expectation for a little taste of good living that could possibly become part of all the good times that deserve to be remembered. Enjoy every day.  Jo.

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(© Photos: Carina-Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

VIENNA – A TRYST WITH VERDI

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On July 21st, Philippe Léopold Louis Marie became the seventh king of Belgium when his father King Albert II of Belgium abdicated citing age and failing health. Minutes later, the father and son appeared on the balcony of Palais Royal in Brussels in the presence of Queen Paola, Philippe’s wife Queen Mathilde (d’Udekem d’Acoz), their four children and former Queen Fabiola, while a huge crowd cheered and shouted “Long live the king” from below. The new sovereign vowed to strive for the unity of the nation. Promise is a big word. Promises bind us to each other, and to a common commitment for the future.

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The sight of Palais Royal resurfaced memories of our visit to Belgium few years ago in fulfilment of a promise I made to Carina.  Of the many attractions we saw there – the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and the baroque and gothic guildhalls and Town Hall surrounding it; the Sablon Square (De Zavel or Le Sablon); the Cathedral of St Michael and Saint Gudula; the Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Basilica of Koekelberg); the 1619 bronze fountain statue of a little boy by Jerome Duquesnoy called Mannekin Pis; to name a few, we had also taken time to see the Palais Royal from outside even though it was a wet day.

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6Then again, few years prior to that visit to Belgium, we went to Vienna (Austria) to fulfil yet another promise I made for her birthday – to take her to the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) to enjoy Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata(1).

Now, “La Traviata” initially came to my attention when I purchased the album “Favourite Arias” of Spanish soprano Victoria de Los Ángeles (Victoria Gómez Cima, 1923-2005) back in the late eighties. This re-issue of excerpts from complete operas included Bizet’s “Carmen”, Gounod’s “Faust”, Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and “Madama Butterfly”, among others.

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Classical music was always close to my heart. In a way, all music tends to become classical as time goes on. Although living in Cochin didn’t offer the chance to go to a ballet or opera or jazz concert, European classical music was not inaccessible to me during my teens owing to radio broadcasts of Voice of America, or audio cassettes or gramophone records.

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9Then there were opportunities to listen to it during visits to the friendly houses of a Fernandez or a Rozario or a Ferrero located in the vicinity of the Infant Jesus Church in Cochin or at Fort Cochin where, almost certainly, on my way to the Santa Cruz Cathedral or back on a Sunday morning I could also be elated over the ebullient and melodious classical repertoire wafting from the houses of the Anglo-Indians – pieces of music which I could not identify then, but gave me the impulse and motivation to learn by ear.  All I had to do was open my mind to it.

Although I have not seen as many operas as Carina, we have over the years enjoyed few performances at Teatro La Fenice de Venezia and Teatro alla Scala in Milano where I would have also loved to enjoy some performances by the great Maria Callas (1923 – 1977) during those remarkable years when she sang there.

As for La Traviata, in spite of our many visits to Europe and England, it’s dates had always eluded us until we decided to fly over to Vienna to see director Otto Schenk’s version at the Wiener Staatsoper, reputed to be the house with the largest repertoire performed under the direction of talents of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm, Lorin Maazel and many others.

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Having booked our tickets online through the Vienna Ticket Office, we had opted to collect them from their office at Brucknerstraße, instead of having them send to India or to Room no: 414 of Hilton Vienna Danube where we would be staying or to pick them up at the Box Office at the venue.

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It was my first visit to Austria though I had long association with that country from 1993 onwards owing to my involvement in purchase of ship loads of Austrian Sawn Softwood for delivery at Hodeidah in Yemen where I was working for many years.

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For us, the opportunity to watch an opera at the Wiener Staatsoper (VSO) was a wonderful experience. It is an imposing building in the corner of Kärntnerstraße and Vienna Ringstraße (Opernring 2) in the very heart of cultural Vienna. It was constructed in Renaissance style during the years 1861-1869 to the plans of Viennese architect August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813-68) with interiors designed by Edward van der Nüll (1812-1868) using the Viennese “city expansion fund”.

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How wonderful it must have been to witness the arrival of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) in their phaeton (Mylord) to inaugurate the Imperial Opera House on May 25, 1869 which was followed by the staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. This event had happened 250 years since Aleotti’s Teatro Farnese, claimed as the first proscenium-arch theatre of the Continent, was set up at Parma in 1618 although the first public opera-house was opened only in 1637 at Venice by composer Cavalli.

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Originally called the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Hofoper), it was renamed Vienna State Opera when the Habsburg Monarchy collapsed and Austria emerged as a republic. The VSO guided tour offers the opportunity of an extensive tour of the building including the entrance foyer, central staircase, Marble Hall, Schwind Foyer, Gustav Mahler Hall (formerly “Tapestry Hall”), the auditorium and Tea Salon (formerly the Emperor’s Salon) on the first floor. We can also see the medallions of the original designers, many paintings symbolizing the ballet, the opera and the ceiling painting (“Fortuna, ihre Gaben streuend“) adorning the staircase in addition to the allegorical statues featuring the seven liberal arts: architecture, sculpture, poetry, dance, musical art, drama; etc.

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Apart from the impressive structural aspects of the building and its popularity for being a venue of the Wiener Opernball for many decades and certainly, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; the opera house owes its progress to the artistic influence of its original directors: Franz von Dingelstedt (1867–1870), Johann von Herbeck (1870–1875), Franz von Jauner (1875–1880), Wilhelm Jahn (1881–1897) and Gustav Mahler (1897–1907).

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During World War II, the city suffered fifty-two air raids in which about twelve thousand buildings including St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), the Burg Theatre, etc, were destroyed and nearly eleven thousand inhabitants of Vienna were killed. The ugly reality was the auditorium, stage and almost the entire décor and props for more than 120 operas with around 150,000 costumes were destroyed in the bombings of March, 1945. Given that the theatre occupied a privileged position in Vienna and united public interest on it, the building was rebuilt based on a plan of Erich Boltenstern, the winner of the Opera House’s architectural competition who kept his design similar to the original. Hence, the façade, the entrance hall and the foyer that we see remain in their original style.

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20On November 5, 1955, the Opera House once again opened its doors to the public with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio, conducted by Karl Böhm (1943–1945 and 1954–1956). Over the days in Vienna, we could enjoy glimpses of the grandeur of the building; the two statues of riders on horseback (representing Erato’s two winged horses that are led by “Harmony and the Muse of Poetry”) on the main façade of the loggia; the artistic marble staircase; the numerous statues and figurative embellishments inside and outside including “Die Zauberflöte” series of frescoes on the veranda and in the foyer credited to Schwind; the completely re-built horseshoe-shaped auditorium and the well-protected stage that stretched its entire width; the orchestra pit that could hold about 110 musicians; the ring of built-in ceiling lights made of crystal glass; the seating in traditional colours of red, gold, and ivory; the reinforced concrete side boxes covered with wood for acoustic reasons; and the largest pipe organ with 2,500 pipes – the core centre where Wiener Staatsoper had created a world-wide reputation for its first-class opera performances by nearly all great singers of international rank in the course of the past hundred years.

The Turkish taxi-driver, with a head full of dark wavy hair, who took us to the opera house, appeared to be an eternal sunny optimist – always smiling and cheerful. Right this moment when we went past the Wiener Prater (2 Bezirk), the theme from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” filled the taxi. The one that followed was from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”. Obviously, opera means so much to the people of Vienna and also to those who came and made it their home.

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Indeed, music gives Vienna its core, and that is the beauty of this City of Music. It’s a city truly in love with artists. In its heyday, it had a string of greats such as Hayden, Mozart, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Strauss – enriching it with their contributions. Beethoven owed his first success to his piano-playing in Vienna. Vivaldi died in Vienna (2). A staff of FNAC, Milano once told me that the Viennese operetta is the chief root from which American musical grew. And then, Vienna is the birthplace of waltz. Wherever you go, you hear ‘the sound of music’.

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Although music is the main factor in opera, its effect and success depended on a combination of other arts and factors, namely, literature, poetry, design, costume, stage, painting, sound, lighting; and essentially the singer or the impresario, conductor, orchestra, chorus, etc. Human drama underlined the operas of Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), Verdi’s successor.

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33With a repertoire of about 26 to 28 operas, Giuseppe 25(Fortunino Francesco) Verdi (1813-1901) is undoubtedly the most successful and popular composer admired by audiences, critics and music scholars alike. Following the successful adaptation of French novelist/playwright Alexandre Dumas’ (Dumas fils, 1824-1895) novel “The Lady of the Camelias” (1848 – “La Dame aux Camélias”) as a stage play in 1852, Verdi immediately put music to the libretto (text) by Murano born Francesco Maria Piave (1810 –1876), transforming it into an opera titled “La Traviata” (The Fallen Woman). The female protagonist, Marguerite Gautier (3) (based on Marie Duplessis, (aka Alphonsine Plessis, 1824-1847), the real-life lover of Dumas) was also renamed as Violetta Valéry.

Verdi’s “La Traviata” in three acts features a wonderful poignant story laced with scintillating, tragic music. Since its first appearance on March 6, 1853 at Teatro La Fenice, “La Traviata” has held the stage continuously, just as “Rigoletto” (1851) and “Il Trovatore” (1853). “La Traviata” was not unfamiliar to us owing to a DVD in our collection – the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version (1988) directed by Peter Hall featuring Marie McLaughlin and Walter MacNeil (4). (Images from this version are reproduced under the “Synopsis” mentioned below).

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At the Wiener Staatsoper, the Maestro has by now stepped into the orchestra pit and the theatre reverberated with joyous shrieks and applause of the marvellous Vienna audience. Suddenly he turned to face the orchestra. Hush fell in the theatre as he raised his arms, readying for his electrifying volatile and expressive gesturing. A beat – and the performance began.

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Synopsis: Paris and environs, around 1850. During a glittering party at the reformed courtesan Violetta’s house to celebrate her recovery from an illness, Gastone, the Vicomte de Letorieres, introduced Violetta to a clean-living young bourgeois Alfredo Germont whom she has long admired. Following a fiery drinking song (Brindisi “Libiamo ne’lieti calici”) by Alfredo, having felt dizzy and occasionally caught coughing, Violetta nudged the others, including her ‘protector’, the wealthy Baron Douphol, to proceed to the ballroom next door for dancing.

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Soon Alfredo joined her and confessed his love for her (duet. ‘Un di felice, eterea’’). He had been living with this secret love for some time. Although Violetta wanted them just to remain friends saying that she cannot bear the burden of such heroic love, she nevertheless gave him a camellia which he should bring back to her when it has died. Alfredo realised that it would mean tomorrow. Evidently, his love has taken quick steps towards her heart.

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Once Alfredo had left and the dawn started to appear in the sky, all the others bid her thanks and took their leave. Alone, in the quite of the room, she felt that she can’t outrun the darkness of her life and the tumult of lust and festivities surrounding it, even though she longed to fill it with light from the happiness of pure love which had eluded her till then (E strano! E strano! Ah, fors’è lui che l’anims ……. Sempre libera). Act I ends here.

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Act II opens at Violetta’s country house outside Paris where Alfredo and Violetta were living together for some time. When Alfredo learns from Annina, their servant (De’ miei bollenti spiriti) that Violetta is to sell the property in order to support herself, thereupon, he proceeded to Paris to resolve this issue. Before long, she was visited by Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont who asked her to give up his son since his humiliating relationship with Violetta will adversely affect the reputation of his family and marriage of his daughter (Pura siccone un angelo) who is as pure as an angel.

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Once Germont has left, having persuaded her to renounce her lover (duet ‘Un di, quando le veneri’) due to social disapproval, the heartbroken Violetta wrote two letters – one addressed to Alfredo. She hides the letter for Alfredo when he took her by surprise on his sudden return from Paris. Veiling her feelings behind a passionate embrace for a moment, she broke away from him and she ran out of the room. Her letter was subsequently delivered to Alfredo through a messenger. Heartbroken from learning that she’s leaving him, the depressed Alfredo was consoled by his father who has just arrived. (‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol’) ……..

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What a day that has been! Right up until the end, excitement had thrummed through us even though the performance was not long. The success of Verdi’s operas is resultant to his unique talent to establish character and feeling through melody, which the listener was able to quickly understand and feel. Immensely popular, “La Traviata” is today a staple of the standard operatic repertoire.

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35The Italian version of “La Traviata” we saw was the 248th 36performance in this production and conducted by Hungarian classical conductor Michael Halász who had taken over the post of resident conductor at VSO in 1991. The Chorus was led by Ernst Dunshirn.

Our seats nos: 3 and 4 in the seventh row, right in the front, provided us with a clear view of the performance, the costumes, interior decorations, hand props, modes and manners though this vantage point didn’t allow us to catch some interplay between the conductor and musicians.

The opera music demands more vocal range and techniques. A considerable degree of musicianship is also required of the singers. Albanian soprano Inva Mula, with her beautiful, robust voice that cut through the orchestrations, led the cast as Violetta Valéry, the “Dame aux Camélias” with her self-sacrificing devotion in the face of tragedy.

Although Verdi has given some spectacular music to Alfredo (portrayed here by tenor Roberto Aronica), it is Violetta who dominates the show. The sort of spiritual quality Verdi injects into most of his heroines is also evident in Violetta.

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38I can understand why the character of Violetta, who lived in her tender and morbid world, is a difficult one for any soprano, as some critics have pointed out. As British soprano Josephine Barstow expressed, “You have to sing Verdi with heart.” The brilliant opening act “Sempre Libera” requires great agility just as the other acts which also demand considerable dramatic vigour. Besides, there is the problem of attempting to portray a dying person, without compromising the musical aspect of the role. These are aspects of this opera that allows you to delve into its deeper 39depths. However entertaining an opera was, it would be meaningless if it serves only to entertain but failed to educate and stimulate the brain.

While the costumes were based on designs by Hill Reihs-Gromes, the credit for stage design went to Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The other members of the cast were: Zsuzsanna Szabó (Flora Bervoix), Waltraud Winsauer (Annina), Franco Vassallo (Giorgio Germont), John Wiedecke (Baron Douphol), etc. The main cast jointly appeared during all the three performances of this opera during that season, while Winsauer was almost a constant figure in the role of Annina from 1984 till 2008.

40Like Joseph Losey’s “Don Giovanni” (1979) and Francesco Rosi’s “Carmen” (1984), “La Traviata” has also spawned its film versions. Besides “The Lost One” (1947, original title: “La signora dalle camelie“) in English by director Carmine Gallone starring Nelly Corradi; and the 1968 film musical of Mario Lanfranchi, starring Anna Moffo and Franco Bonisolli; Franco Zefferilli’s production of “La Traviata” came out in 1982 starring Teresa Stratas and Plácido Domingo backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Like millions of feature films, there are good, bad and undistinguished operas. The excellent amongst these provide us with the true satisfaction of what opera is all about. There are millions of connoisseurs of opera, ever-increasing, who care for the arias, duets, ensembles, choruses, marches, ballets, and finales of the operatic spectacles. Its grand and exuberant style, its traditions and culture, its conventions and law have survived and still thrive on with encouragement from millions. Maria Callas reportedly did so much to build interest in this lyric drama.

In spite of the public interest in all things operatic, opera remains unawakened in many countries. It is also viewed with prejudice by some young and adults who would not go to symphony concerts or ballet performances or operas as they get easily stimulated by glossy mass entertainments, for instance, pounding music and the kind of dances that is rather physical exercise, in colourful clothes, for which most kids of today can easily display their forte.

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Expansion of opera into developing countries where opera remains ignored offers great potential. Hindrances due to language have already been bridged in France, Germany, Russia, England, America, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, etc. It also exists in varied forms in Japan, Korea, Thailand, China, ….

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43Like many States of India, Kerala, not unfamiliar to the magic of theatre, has a wealth of traditional ethnic performing art forms featuring ancient, religious and contemporary themes. In addition to Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kalaripayattu, Oottan Thullal, Oppana, etc, there are also other versions of dramas including, the vanishing art, the colourful “Chavuttu Nadakam” (The Stomping Drama) which mainly features European history or Biblical stories, mostly centring on Emperor Charlemagne.

This coastal traditional art of Kerala with elaborate costumes, abrupt body movements to music, which owes its origins to the Christian missionaries who came to Kerala in the 16th century, virtually resembles the opera.

But progress in the field of performing arts like opera face hindrances since, nowadays, concern for culture takes a back seat while certain commercially viable disciplines are favoured in some countries.

As for India, the growth of traditional performing arts like Chavuttu Nadakam, and also opera, ballet, etc, should have had better chance of progress with the entry of corporate bodies into the global show biz. Besides, encouraged by thriving business, entertainment sectors like film industry, music promoters, etc, presently envisage tremendous improvement from global expansion. Yet another contributing factor is the spending power of the growing middle-class of India.

Keeping in tune with this, more avenues of opportunities are emerging as an increased number of TV channels, radio stations and print media are sprouting all over the place, triggering aggressive clamour for news, sensational and exclusive – especially from entertainment shows, celebrity gossip and catchy advertisements to fill the thousands of slots in television/radio and in pages of print media.

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Some of the people I have spoken to here have not seen an opera and are ambiguous of its characteristics. Opportunities to enjoy such arts are not part of the itinerary of travel packages on offer for the vast amount of Indian tourists visiting Europe. Nevertheless, the encouraging part is that they are interested in knowing of it. Maybe those with vibrant operatic culture should more vigorously shoulder the task of making firm footing for global promotion of such traditional performing arts also and create opportunities for people to get acquainted with it – to generate interest in them to understand and enjoy those arts. But forget the disappointments – it is heartening to see that institutions like JT Pac, National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, etc, are trying to bridge this setback.

45Late into that night, in the comfort of Hotel Hilton Vienna Danube, I sat by the window of our room writing down every detail and idea that came my way about our joyful tryst with Verdi, before the performance recedes into memory. As the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said, “Opera is not exclusively for the elite”. Like Luciano Pavarotti, and Mirella Freni, I cannot read music nor do I know how sentences work in Italian. Nevertheless, having seen the DVD and closely studied written materials of this opera and other classics in our possession innumerable times, the hindrances were easily surmounted, though I still find Wagner a bit heavy to stomach. Then again, for an occasional clarification, there was the expert sitting next to me, though her handkerchief was frequently making its short journeys up to her face to wipe away the emotions generated from the show on stage.

Now with our extensive collection of books, DVDs and other audio/video recordings of operas and its excerpts, our operatic adventure is still continuing.

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Hilton Vienna Danube is the only waterfront hotel in Vienna. It has large rooms with all amenities, superb service, and offers stunning views from the right bank of River Danube (Donau), the trade highway stretching from the German Black Forest and snakes through Central and Eastern Europe to touch the Black Sea on the coast of Romania.

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From the window I could see the silhouette of the six-lane Reichsbrücke (Empire Bridge) cutting across the charming Danube to my left. The sight of Danube conjured up excerpts from Johann Strauss II’s “Le beau Danube bleu” in my mind.

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Even in the night, I could see light and heavy boats plying through the river time to time, even though swimmers, rowers and surfers and boats of Hundertwasser Tour or Grand Danube River Cruise were missing now. Beyond the river, I could see a string of lights of an incessant number of aircrafts in the dark sky, possibly somewhere above Pillichsdorf or Aderklaa, following an invisible path to make their U-turn, to position for landing at the Vienna International Airport (Flughafen Wien) to my right, which often induced queries from Carina about how “I am directing the air-traffic from my seat by this window”.

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Tomorrow, despite the threat of rain, our daytrips would cover some ladies shopping at Mariahilfer Straße, and explore the book shops on Wollzeile near Stephansdom, followed by Sacher-Torte and Glühwein at Café Sacher Wien, a delightful place to be in and enjoy the original torte or an apple strudel or their good variety of cakes, coffees, food items, et al, in great ambiance and with friendly service.

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It’s time to call it a day. Perhaps I would stay awake for a while before sleep hits me – as I sometimes do after reading a book or enjoying a movie past the zero hours. But then, I wouldn’t find it a reason to complain. As legend says, when you can’t sleep at night, it’s because you are awake in someone else’s dream. There goes my heart…. Until next time, Servus, Jo

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31)     Wiener Staatsoper is closed from July 1st until August 31st and reopens with a performance of “La Traviata” on September 3rd, 2013.

2)    Other major Composers who died in Vienna and their year of death: Antonio Vivaldi (1741); Christoph Willibald Gluck (1787); Franz Joseph Hayden (1809); Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791); Ludwig van Beethoven (1827); Franz Schubert (1828); Johann Strauss II (1899); Johannes Brahms (1897); Anton Bruckner (1896); Gustav Mahler (1911), etc.

3)    Actresses who had performed on stage in the most coveted role of Marguerite Gautier include Lillian Gish, Tallulah Bankhead, Isabelle Adjani, dancer/Impresario Ida Rubinstein and of course, the great Sarah Bernhardt, who also schooled Ida in this role.

4)    DVDs and other audio/visual media of “La Traviata” including the Glyndebourne Festival Opera version (1988) directed by Peter Hall (from which images are shown under the “Synopsis” above) are available with main dealers such as amazon.com, TCM Shop, etc.

5)    Reproduction of photos credited to “WienTourismus” appearing in this post was made possible through the permission of Vienna Tourist Board, Vienna, Austria.

6)    Photo of “Café Sacher Wien” was reproduced here with the kind permission of Hotel Sacher Wien.

7)    The three uncredited photos of Hilton Vienna Danube: courtesy of Hotel Hilton Vienna Danube.

8)    This illustrated article is meant for the promotion of the opera. Please refer to “About” of this website for more details.

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A glance backward: This article is dedicated to the memory of Maria Callas,

one of the towering figures of opera.

(© Manningtree Archive)

Kerala – Fruits of the Sea

 

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I have good reason to like seafood. From childhood on, a delicacy from the sea would often find its way onto my dining table with occasional reminder from Mom of the true nutritional value of the fish and how it helps to grow strong and wise. I do not dislike other kind of food (except anything that crawls or with feathers) nor do I love all sorts of seafood. Actually, if I wish to be selective, I could do so since my home State of Kerala in the South-western tip of India bounded by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, and a coastal line that stretches more than 360 miles long, has an abundant wealth of seafood.

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Besides the lakes, ponds and paddy fields (where fingerlings are occasionally released), we have 41 west-flowing rivers here in addition to three east-flowing one and a continuous chain of lagoons and backwaters running parallel to the sea-coast. Then there are about 275 varieties of fish in India of which 175 species are reportedly in the coastal and inland waters of Kerala.

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Far into the ancient times, the shores of Kerala saw the arrival of visitors and traders from afar. The sea grew into a decisive factor in the history of Kerala in the wake of the discovery of the monsoon trade wind around the first century A.D when a proper route cutting right across the Arabian Sea was established which enabled the marines to adopt the direct sailing from Aden in Yemen to Muziris in Kerala.

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While a profusion of spices (1) went out in vessels like ‘dhows’; new religions, alien cultures and rulers breezed in. Looking back over the history of this State I note that, the people having come to terms with foreign influence were also remarkably tolerant of other people’s customs and ideas. And all along, this land strived to retain its natural beauty and resources.

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Indian climate may broadly be described as tropical monsoonal climate. The southwest monsoon season of Kerala begins in early June and it coincides with the spawning season of majority of the fishes of the land, particularly shrimp.

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To conserve the marine resources, more specifically, to prevent destruction of fish eggs and young fish from large-scale harvesting by fishing vessels, several studies had recommended that seasonal restriction is essential. Hence, fishing with trawlers or mechanised fishing boats is stopped during the breeding period, an annual feature since 1988 which blanketed 12 nautical miles of the sea from the Kerala coast.

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Even though the ban would contribute to make the price of fish to soar, in an era of depleted oceans and endangered fisheries, the restriction on trawling is an appropriate and a responsible approach, especially when we read this together with reports that under pressure from deforestation, mining and the building of dams of the Western Ghats, an estimated 30 species have been lost over the past 60 years. In view of the welfare of marine resources and the numerous fishermen depending on the connected industry, the Government and state owned enterprises have set up ever-improving activities. Besides, the Church is also playing a good role for the welfare of the fishermen and their families.

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At midnight of June 14 of this year, the annual ban on trawling came into effect which would give a bit of peace to some of those marine species swimming in the vicinity of Kerala. This 47 days break (until July 31) entitles the fishes to breed and groom and have a wonderful peaceful monsoon vacation in cooler waters when the ‘gentler’ Kerala is lashed with heavy rain and isolated thunderstorms.

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As the monsoon drenches the highland, floods the midland and drowns the lowland of Kerala, soaking the thick forests, inundate agricultural fields and luxuriant growth of trees dominated by the coconut groves; the raging sea does its annual business to wreak havoc on the coastal life and encroach onto the sandy soiled shores and grab bits of land from the coastal belt.

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With approximately 5,400 mechanised fishing boats registered in the State (2) now on compulsory holiday, thousands of fishermen, including some of those working in harbours and peeling sheds who lack material and educational advancement, face a period that is unlikely the best days of their lives.

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Although such an annual period is foreseen; some fishermen make use of this period to sort out domestic matters and attend to maintenance of fishing units, while those with dilapidated finances seek temporary jobs elsewhere, all the while, ticking off the days for the ban to end to once again see their silhouettes reflecting off the water, to toil in their boats in the territorial waters – early in the morning, under the scorching sun, sometimes into the middle of the night while their women and children anxiously awaited their return with aches and pain in their heart and mind. Health is a gift those men took for granted – the energy they need for the tasks comes at the right time. It’s a unique personal connection that fishing creates between man and nature.

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For these men, some trips are good, some not. And so, life at the sea is a buzz of many occasions, more smiles, less bitter or vice versa: the thrill of a good catch; the exhilaration when you hit Chakara (3); the extreme oppression of the weather and the strains of the job; the comradeship: its joy and pains; their mastery in the colloquial language laced with Portuguese and Jewish terminologies; their knowledge in the salient features of different kinds of fish and the taste of its roes; the happiness of seeing an occasional rainbow or a comet; of interrupted sleep on board, the constant alertness for warning signals of danger……

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Good timber does not grow in ease –

The stronger the wind, the tougher the trees

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Apart from observing from close quarters in harbours of Cochin, Vizhinjam, and Panaji, as well as from books and visual media, I have never set foot inside a fishing trawler. My cruise on board M/V Bharat Seema to the Lakshadweep Islands (India) and back was an awesome experience, especially to lie on the deck during the night and look up at the intense full moon glaring from the dark sky as the ship rolled from side to side shifting the wide horizon up and down. By far, I have seen the hustle and bustle of many beaches and markets of India including the Lakshadweep Islands, Thailand (Pattaya), Yemen (Hodeidah, Al Mokha and Aden), Italy(Venice), Portugal (Lisbon), Turkey (Istanbul) and few in England.

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The wealth of imagery on some of these beaches is phenomenal. I have savoured the thrill of watching the arrival of fish laden boats to dock; observed the everyday scenes on the beach and the daily lives of the fisher-folks. These are human beings working alongside nature – in harmony with nature.

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Having conversant with many in the field of fishing in Cochin itself, some of the stories they told have captured my imagination. The memories they stored away in their mental scrapbook: some spoke of the rhythms of their daily life as fickle and unpredictable as the sea; of their piscatorial gods of protection; the superstitions and their bravery. Once I heard a fisherman cooking up an anecdote of having seen a ‘stunner’ whale (Thimingalam) as big as the Venduruthy Bridge of Cochin (around 635 mtr); one spoke of an omen of misfortune about the crows while another about good aspects of seagulls believed to contain the souls of dead sailors.

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There are fishermen who would not stop to count the number of fish they caught for fear that they will not catch no more on that day. A naturally right-handed fisherman, considered it unlucky to cast his line with his left hand. But one thing I read in a publication that I didn’t tell them for reasons you could comprehend is, if a fisherman had an (un-staged) quarrel and fight with his wife before going to sea, he can expect a good catch! What an idea!

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In order not to miss the boat when the dark clouds gather under the sun, the seafood export-houses of Kerala do their annual stocking up (especially shrimps, Kerala’s “pink gold” much sought after in U.S.A, Europe and Japan) with the harvest of the sea well in advance to keep up with their regular outflow of exports. However, the dining tables around the State have no reason to panic about the fish factor. To substitute this shortfall due to the ban, Kerala’s good network of backwaters is breeding “nursery” for vast variety of fish, some of which the locals actually prefer more over those caught from the sea.

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Exempt from the blanket coverage of the ban, the artisanal and peasant fishermen on canoes (traditional Vallom), with or without small motor, continue with their fishing activities in these backwaters traditionally rich with fish and clams or even venture out into the generally rough sea during the monsoon months to cast their nets at their own risk – while the trawler workers are saved from dangerous exposure to the rough sea due to the ban. In addition, freshwater fish is sourced from Tamil Nadu and from Aqua farms on the eastern coast of Andhra Pradesh.

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Fresh and dried fish is a regular item on the dining tables in Kerala. With more than 70 edible varieties of sea beauties (4), Oh boy, this is heaven for a connoisseur of fish.

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A preferred variety for many is the Green Chromide (Etroplus suratensis), a species of cichlid fish whose colour is most beautiful during the monsoon (June-September & October-November). A fresh and brackish water fish commonly found in South India and Sri Lanka, it is locally known as Karimeen (Eli-meenu/matak/ersa/erpe/eri menu/kaggalase in Kannada, koral in Bengali, Kundal in Odia), but also bears the name Pearlspot Fish due to the pearl-like white spots on its scales.

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Distributed abundantly in large rivers, lakes, lagoons and estuaries throughout Kerala, especially at Alleppey (Alappuzha), this herbivorous fish has the perfect characteristics for fish-farming/Pisciculture (breeding, rearing, and transplantation of fish by artificial means). Karimeen commonly reaches 20 centimetres (7.9 inches) but the maximum length is twice that, a growth it achieves by feeding on filamentous algae, plant material, small worms/prawns and insects. Breeders are fed with conventional artificial feed prepared with rice bran, groundnut oil cake, etc. Even though fishing methods have continuously evolved and the opportunities for innovation have been especially good in recent decades, gillnets, which impose less impact on the environment, remain more prevalent in the local use to catch Karimeen.

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Available throughout the year, many restaurants in Kerala cater dishes featuring the oval-shaped Karimeen as their star attraction in addition to other authentic dishes that forms part of Kerala cuisine (5).

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One restaurant famous for Kerala cuisine, especially for Karimeen, is the Grand Hotel in Cochin where delicacies of this fish tops their Menu in different flavour and cooking methods (6). While cleaning this fish, after cutting off the gills with kitchen scissors, care has to be taken to not only remove it’s scales but also to remove a film of the skin with a sharp knife which can be done from the tail-end upwards, leaving a gleaming white surface.

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It is served on board traditional tourist boats (Kettuvallams) (7) plying the scenic backwaters (a chain of interconnected rivers, lakes, inlets and canals) since its dishes forms part of an average tourist’s Kerala experience. Even Kerala has elevated Karimeen as the official fish of the State and to boost up its production and facilitate larger exports, observed 2010-11 as “The Year of the Karimeen”.

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The restaurant of Grand Hotel is often filled with tourists resolute with their wish not to leave without savouring the good taste and flavour of this all-time favourite. This is also a preferred haunt of non-resident Keralites, especially those hailing from the Kuttanad region of Alleppey district who reminisce of their childhood at their houses beside palm-fringed rivers and lagoons where their mothers had displayed their culinary skills with this “upper-middle class” fish on their eating plates when it used to cost far less, unlike today when it is still dodging the cooking pots of the common man due to its overpriced cost.

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Tradition and religion have played an important role in Kerala cuisine. Although it has a specialized local character of its own, Portuguese and British rule is evident in the cuisine of minorities like the Christians. In the heart of all this are the spices and every family has their own specialism in its mixture that is passed on from mother to daughter over the years.

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Fish is a creative cook’s dream. Properly prepared, any palate will perk up at the taste of fresh fish. No doubt about it. Most of us have a favourite fish or seafood that is cooked in a certain way. From poaching to steaming to boiling to broiling to smoking to sautéing to grilling to frying, the ways for preparing fish are many.

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With great seafood dishes ranging from appetizers, to soups to salads to pasta to burgers to curry to Sushi, cooking seafood right does require skills – especially when we consider the delicious, nutritious and healthy aspects of the meals.

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Recently I came to know that the great opera tenor (late) Luciano Pavarotti shared a common interest with me. Like me, he loved to cook as well as eat. I learned of it the hard way when I was hitting singles during the last years of my stay in Yemen where fish is abundant but narrow on variety and availability of the right ingredients.

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39Later, the wonderful wealth of cooking techniques so graciously shared to us by some of the brilliant chefs we befriended during our outings enabled me to cook up some impressive dishes whenever I get into the kitchen where life sometimes makes up its mind. But it was Carina who taught me the secret of making a good court-bouillon which I find a fantastic base for lobster. Cooking and enjoying seafood can be quite fun with all the variety and the related ingredients we have here. As long as the fun lasts, we are glad we can make the most of the fish we buy. Until next time. Ciao, Jo

(1)    Spices like pepper (Piper nigrum L/Kurumulaku), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum Maton/Elam), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum/karuvapatta/Elavangam), ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe/Inchi), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans/Jathikka), clove (Syzygium aromaticum/Grambu/Karayambu), turmeric (Curcuma longa L/Manjal), etc.

(2)    Registered boats: Data according to a local newspaper.

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(3)    Chakara: When the temperature of the atmosphere increase, schools of poovalan shrimps living in the bottom of the sea rise up to the surface to enjoy the fresh water and coldness from the new rain. Another common explanation is that, the easterly approach of the south-west monsoon wind conjure up a current running perpendicular to the ebbs and tides forcing the subsurface water to come up with the fish swimming in the bottom. ‘Chakara’ is a rare phenomenon seen only in the coastal waters of Kerala between Kannur and Quilon during the southwest monsoon period. On June 24, 2013, a ‘Chakara’ of Poovalan Shrimps (Metapenaeus Dobson) appeared off the coast of Cochin. Another ‘Chemmen (Shrimps) Chakara’ occurred at Chavakkad, Trichur five days earlier to that when fleet of shrimps appeared a couple of kilometres off the coast.

(4)    There are crustaceans like shrimps, lobsters, crabs; sharks and rays (Elasmobranchii); King fish/Seer fish/Indo-Pacific king mackerel (Scomberomorus guttatus/naimeen/ayakoora/varimeen), Indian Mackerel (Rastrelliger kanagurta/ayala), Indian oil Sardine (Sardinella longiceps/mathi/naichaala), Pomfret Silver/Black (Pampus argenteus/niger/aavoli), Striped Mullet (Mugil cephalus/Thirutha), Malabar blood Snapper (Lutjanus malabaricus/chempalli), Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus/tilapia), Tuna (tunnus albacares/euthynnus affinis/choora) and I don’t forget Dussumier’s ponyfish (Leiognathus dussumieri/mullen), et al.

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(5)    For details on Kerala cuisine: http://www.keralatourism.org

(6)     Karimeen Molly, Karimeen Pollichathu, Karimeen Vevichathu, Karimeen Mappas, Karimeen Varutharachathu, Karimeen Fry, etc.

(7)    Kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges. The present motorised houseboats are made of planks of jack-wood joined together with coir and coated with a caustic black resin prepared from boiled cashew kernels. It has covered accommodation facility with kitchen, built up using bamboo mats, sticks, wood of areca nut tree and coir for roofing and wooden planks with coir mats for flooring.

(8)    Painting: “The King of Cochin riding on an Elephant, attended by his Nairs” by Portuguese traveller Jan Huygen van Linschote (1562-1611)  – Source: Public Domain image in Wikimedia Commons

(9)    Painting: “Overwinningh van de Stadt Cotchin op de Kust van Mallabaer – Victory over Kochi on the coast of Malabar” by Coenraet Decker (1650 circa-1685)  – Source: Public Domain image in it.wikipedia.org

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This article is dedicated to the memory of my late paternal grandparents, Anna and Joseph, great connoisseurs of seafood.

(Photos: © Manningtree Archive)

Backwater-Campaign-Kerala 1

Backwater-Campaign-Kerala 2

Backwater-Campaign-Kerala 3The three images shown above: Photo courtesy: Kerala Tourism

 

Travel All-Inclusive: Tails of Affection

I remember reading somewhere that travel is more than the seeing of sights, it is a change that goes on in the ideas of living. During our visits to Continental Europe and England, apart from our interest in the scenery, cultures, architecture, food, etc…, our admiration and affection was often captured by a species that express more with the tail – the dogs and puppies. Like the monuments and the populace, you are sure to come across them, almost everywhere – once you care to look. If you sit in a public square or at the street-side table of a restaurant or simply walk down the street, you could observe their mannerisms, how they express their emotions with their eyes, ears, and tails, so direct and intense. How they raise their heads to the sea breezes; how they solicit touch by placing their paws on our arm; how they raise one ear to scan for sound….. How curious they live in the present and love to be forgiven.

Toledo, Spain

Social creatures they are, I have seen dogs pause next to one of their own kind as they pass each other on the pavement of the street. I have seen a friend’s dog in Milan switch into a celebratory dance at a set time when she knew that her master will take her out for her regular walk to the same spot every day. Throughout the ages, including mythology and folklore, mankind had rendered attachment to dogs as pets– guard dogs, guide dogs, show dogs…. dogs of every kind and the ties of affection provide a relationship that is full of rewards.

Our beloved HASSO, a real aristocrat in mannerism and stature

who went to “dog heaven” in December 2000

Although we are dog lovers and have had our own dogs, sadly, this privilege is denied to us for the choice of living in a high-rise building where the ground rules prohibit keeping dogs or cats. However, we make up for this by watching, touching or photographing them whenever we chance upon them while in Europe or England where dogs enjoy wide popularity (like in the United States) and take pleasure in their walks with their “best friend” – something which is rarely seen in public places in Cochin (though there are a good number of dog owners/lovers here) unless those roaming around branded as “stray dogs”.

 

Madrid                                                          London

We have heard wonderful stories about the single-minded devotion of dogs and I could go on writing about them, but I would rather leave you with some photographs of our “little buddies” taken during our trips. Enjoy. Ciao, Jo

Switzerland: Our cheeky little Axel, who was the clown of the family

  

Köln/Germany                              London

 

  London                                       Bangkok

 

London                                       Firenze

 

Padova/Italy                                  Köln

 

London                                    Firenze

 

Asia, Firenze                                         Padova

 

Switzerland                                        London

 

London

 

Rome                                        Firenze

 

London

 

London

 

Our Juno, Switzerland

 

Rome                                     Firenze

 

Firenze                                  Venice

 

Firenze

 

Firenze

 

Madrid

 

Madrid

 

Madrid

 

Madrid

 

Firenze

(Photos: © JS-CS/Manningtree Archive)