Tag Archive | Kerala

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 high and reputed guests from different parts of the world – the sheer brilliance of his culinary delights earning the adulation of many. Each of his dishes stood up for itself for its excellence, freshness, taste and simplicity. The culinary aspects 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 known as “Kokki” or cook) didn’t triumph in the popularity and acquired glamour they have today. Back then, the 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 aware they are there. In the context of my childhood, they made their personal appearance in your life 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 (unaltered over the years) reproduced authentically keeping the taste firmly on the original version, was 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 they might all come and attend the feast to celebrate with lavish experience.

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

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Besides a couple of his assistants/washers-up, help in the shapes of scores of relatives and neighbours assist the progress of the cook’s work and other arrangements. Many would fondly recall the smell of the wood smoke 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 was 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 while 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 tarpaulin laid down on the ground. 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. Reliable relatives and family friends were 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 sent away happily and that was the last time you saw him until another occasion turns up when he is needed or you see him working at another function. Those were simple and affordable, and joyous occasions. Time passes.

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Then came the time when the pomp and middle-persons took over and put a high price tag to everything – much before 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, many of which are beautifully accomplished, with the advent of TV channels, radio and web shows, movies, foodie bloggers, culinary schools, etc, (and surely many more to come), food and cooking has become two of the most common subjects around, especially on the web – rapidly commercialised and glamourised.

Such medium are good tools to inspire us to try new recipes or to learn the techniques involved to mete out our expertise on the dining plates.

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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. Not all that glitters is gold.

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My paternal grandmother 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 or on a holiday or on one of those perennial local fun-days at home: hartal.

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Just like the innumerable budding actors finding exposure on the vast ever-growing entertainment scene, anyone linguistically proficient with common-sense approach and some knowledge/confidence in cooking can grow into a good cooking presenter on TV and web cookery demonstrations.

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The upshot 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 for the shooting of the episode, gets beautifully attired (in most cases chef’s uniform is avoided), decked with gold ornaments all over the body, hair let loose rather than tucked under a Chef’s cap or headscarf. The emphasis for such hosts is on glamour. In one’s hankering for ostentation and attention, one tends to forget that one actually has more lustre than gold.

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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 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 exiting and full of drama to hold the audience and entice 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. 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 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 find pastime in 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. However, we keep away from another franchise show where some contestants sport an inborn addiction to mouth bad language while cooking good things.

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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, 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. Il Porcospino is worth visiting for its fine cuisine.

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Notes:

1.. 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.

2.. For more details on Kerala cuisine: http://www.keralatourism.org

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

 

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FORT COCHIN – Pepper, Souls and Restless Waves

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This is dedicated to the memory of my beloved maternal grandfather, Abraham – “silver in his hair and gold in his heart”

2In nomine Patris, I baptise thee Jo……...” the priest had pronounced during that ceremony held many years ago at Santa Cruz Cathedral (Basilica) at Fort Cochin (Kerala, South India). When those words were quoted to me by my maternal grandfather Abraham eight years later, it was decisive in arousing in me a curiosity for that cathedral and its origins that stretched back to the arrival of the Portuguese.

It is a place where I had witnessed many similar functions and weddings – including some of the festivals that dotted its annual calendar. Living on the mainland of Cochin (earlier Cocym, Cochym, Cochim,.… now, Kochi), those occasions were opportunities for me to hop over to Fort Cochin and be with my maternal grandparents.

Until the age of nine, the Cochin that existed before 14th century was rather shrouded in obscurity to me. My earliest knowledge of Fort Cochin at that time was fixated on an event said to have occurred in 1341 which occasioned it’s emergence as a prominent village consequent to the great flood of the River Periyar – during which a natural harbour was formed when the sea mouth of the Vembanad estuary opened up, and eventually ushered in trade and colonialism.

It is generally held that, it was due to this natural calamity that, Mahodayapuram (Mahodaya Pattanam) and its ancient port of Muziris (Kodungallur), which had silted up, lost their importance.

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History has taught us that Fort Cochin had seen the presence of the Arabs, then the Chinese before the Portuguese came along, followed by the Dutch and finally, the British. The fact remains that during the second half of the fifteenth century the intercourse between China and Malabar has waned, until at last it ceased altogether, leaving some tangible symbols in the form of Chinese Nets, pagoda-style roofs, palm-woven, broad-brimmed hats of the fishermen, Chinese style porcelain, clay pots (Cheena chatti), etc.

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And when the Portuguese came to India in 1498, suffering losses by shipwreck, disease and hunger, in due course they realized that, they were not conquering some kind of uncivilized and uncultured people – indeed, they were confronted by a civilization different from theirs, superior in some and inferior in many respects.

6I have often thought that it is my privilege to have been born in Fort Cochin reaped with legends and vibrant history. Primarily, I was fortunate to be the grandson of Abraham, once a teacher with Santa Cruz School (less than 200 meters from his house), who, with his useful and reliable knowledge about the East and the West, had sowed the first seeds of fascination in me for geography and history, especially about Fort Cochin. He had told me of names I haven’t heard before, …..  Zheng He (Cheng Ho – 1371–1433), Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), Ibn Battuta (1304– 1368/1369), Dom Vasco da Gama (c. 1460/9–1524), Dom Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467/68–c. 1520), Dom Afonso de Albuquerque (c. 1453–1515), Dom Francisco de Almeida (ca. 1450-1510), etc…

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Over the years, it was from him that I first learned of Fort Cochin being the fundamental reference point for many firsts in Kerala, even in India. It was the first place of European settlement in India; the first place where a foreign Fort was built; the first place in India where European food was served; cake and hot bread was baked; wine fermentation was tried; vindaloo (derived from the Portuguese dish “carne de vinha d’alhos”) made its first appearance in its original form using wine instead of vinegar.

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Most likely, it is the place where tobacco, potato, cauliflower, and new species of fruits such as pineapple, papaya, cashew, guava, custard apple, etc., were initially introduced. The chillies came from the West Indies and revolutionized the palates of locals. I savoured all this in small doses whenever I was in Fort Cochin until 1970, sitting before him, during long balmy evenings that stretched into the late hours.

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In the course of time, further readings led me to complement my list with more firsts: It is certainly the birthplace of Cochin Creole Portuguese, the language that came into existence with the contact of Portuguese language with the local languages and developed hand-in-hand with the formation of Catholic and Indo-Portuguese households. Since the Portuguese occupied Goa only by 1510, Fort Cochin, a citadel of peaceful coexistence, could probably be the first place where the concept of Mestiços or Luso-Indians (people of mixed and Portuguese descent through Indian women or even, órfãs del rei/young orphan Portuguese girls) emerged – the forerunners to Anglo-Indians who, imbibed in the European way of living, can be called the first moderns of India.

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No doubt, the true success of Kerala would remain in its ability to maintain religious harmony. Even though dress codes sometimes marked out the religious identities of the different groups, not prone to the extremes of communal disturbance or religious chauvinism, the natives dressed in mundu, chatta, and neriyathum; sari and blouse; pattu pavadai; ghagra cholis; pardah, Muslim cap, green belt and lungi; Western-style skirts and trousers – all existed side by side in perfect harmony.

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Once, my grandfather’s talk had diverged into the subject of another ritual that was said to have taken place some 489 years ago at less than 100 meters from Santa Cruz Cathedral – at the Church of San Francesco (now called St. Francis CSI Church). When that event took place, the place was known as the Church of Santo António (Igreja de Santo António), dedicated to the Saint who would subsequently capture the reverence and affection of Kerala devotees irrespective of their caste and creed.

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The occasion was the funeral of the Portuguese explorer Dom Vasco da Gama in late 1524. At the time of his death, the retired and ageing Dom Gama, by then “Conde da Vidigueira” (Count of Vidigueira) and the second Viceroy of India, was on his third visit to India when he fell ill and death stole him on Christmas Eve.

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14Years later, I would discover a written account of that event only in the writings of Gaspar Corrêa, (the Secretary of Albuquerque) in Lendas da India (a) which covered the history of the Portuguese from 1497 to 1549. According to Corrêa, Dom Gama was suffering from “great pains in the neck for some days, which had got awry, and some boils came to the surface at the nape of the neck.” In spite of remedies, it got worse to such an extent that the pains deprived him of speech. Having realised that his death was imminent, they shifted him from the fortress to the houses (perhaps this could be the Vasco House) of a Diogo Pereira close by to the church of Santo Antonio. Dom Gama was a great devotee of the Santo António, who himself is not unfamiliar to the perils of the sea. After Dom Gama’s testament was prepared and orders issued to subordinates that included his wish to convey his bone to the kingdom, as a basic preparation for death, Dom Gama made his confession and holy sacraments were administered to him. His life departed him in the night of Christmas, 1524, at three o’clock after midnight.

Corrêa relates: “The body, dressed in silk clothes, and over them a mantle of the Order of Christ, with a sword and gilded belt, and gilt spurs fixed upon dark buskins and on its head a dark round barret-cap, was placed in the hall, in the bier of the brotherhood of Mercy, uncovered; and the gentlemen, clothed in the mantles of their order, bore it on their shoulders, with many tapers, and followed by all the people. It was carried to the monastery of St. Antony, and buried in the principal chapel; and upon the tomb was a square grating surrounding the grave, of the height of a span, lined with black velvet, and a black and white fringe, placed upon a velvet cloth, which covered all the grave. There the next day a great service was performed”.

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Having discovered the ocean route from Europe round the Cape of Good Hope to India, the tough and fearless navigator Dom Gama, and his hard-bitten crew with seafaring capability had landed at Kappad near Calicut (renamed Kozhikode) on May 20, 1498 which culminated in the diversion of the profitable spice trade that passed through Syria and Alexandria into a new route – consequently destroying the monopoly of Venice and elevating Lisbon as the great spice-market of Europe. It was a time when much of the traffic in the Indian Ocean was dominated by the vessels of Muslim merchants who for centuries had controlled the trade routes with the support of powerful local rulers.

Although historians know little about why Dom Gama was chosen to command the expedition to India, the three objectives of Dom Gama’s feat to the southeast coast of India is well understood: conquest, commerce, and conversion. His success in breaking the maritime domination of the others had set the stage for him to not only earn a place in history by the side of Fernão de Magalhães and Cristóbal Colón but also established a link connecting the source of his family fortune to India.

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Favours such as the territorial title of “Dom”, “Admiral of India”, an annual pension of 1,000 cruzados, title of annual hereditary pension of 300,000 reis, right to send money to India, were granted to him. His return in a blaze of triumph to Lisbon after the first journey to India had also brought him a privileged marriage to prominent nobleman Álvaro de Ataíde’s daughter Dona Catharina de Ataíde just months before he set sail for his second journey to India in 1502 with the object of securing a permanent foothold on the Indian coast.

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Consequent to Dom Gama’s discovery, more adventurers like Pedro Álvares Cabral and the energetic commander Afonso de Albuquerque, the first European since Alexander the Great who dreamed of establishing an empire in India, or rather Asia, followed.

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When the Portuguese arrived in India, Cochin was in vassalage to Zamorin of Calicut. But the Raja’s surface appearances were out of step with inner truths. Irritated under the dominance of Calicut, Unni Goda Varma Koyil (Unni Raman Koyil I (? – 1503)) (b), the Raja of Cochin, was exploring ways to break away. He saw the arrival of Portuguese as a chance to assert his independence. No sooner they earned the goodwill and permission of the Raja to engage in trade and built a factory in Cochin, Cabral established the first Portuguese trading post in India, which the Portuguese called “Estado da India” (State of India). Besides their trade in pepper, they also popularised other spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, etc, in the European countries.

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The Portuguese victory in fending off the invading armies of the Zamorin and vassal Malabari states in the Battle of Cochin (the first siege was in mid-1503 and the Second Siege of Cochin was during March-July 1504) which took place on land and sea not only thwarted Zamorin’s attempt to conquer Cochin but also helped in reinstating the Raja of Cochin on the throne. This facilitated the Portuguese to secure their continued presence and strengthen commercial and missionary relations. The initial siege had proven that protection could not be achieved by unassertive means. In order to lay the foundation of the shore defences and to defend the local Portuguese factory, they acquired permission from Raja Unni Raman Koyil II (1503-1537) to build a Fort on the southside of the entrance of the river leading into the backwater using the Raja’s workers and material.

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21The foundation stone of this Fort was laid by the newcomer Albuquerque on September 27, 1503. Completed within a few months, the Fort would finally have seven large bastions, with the first bastion directly facing the sea. Named Fort Manuel de Cochim (Manuel/Emmanuel Kotta) after Manuel I the Fortunate (c) (English: Emmanuel I – 1469-1521), the 14th King of Portugal and Algarves, the area became known as Fort Cochin (d).

The Portuguese built their settlement in India behind Fort Manuel. They were acclimatised by birth to a hot climate. As they did in other Portuguese trading posts/colonies along the coastal districts where their power made itself felt, a wooden Catholic chapel was constructed in the neighbourhood in 1503 by five Franciscan friars who had accompanied the Portuguese expedition.

Dedicated to São Bartolomeu, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, the Chapel merits the honour of being the oldest European church in India and went on to garner great historical significance as a mute witness to the European power struggle in India.

A house to the left towards the rear of this chapel (in Rose Street) (e) with typical European glass pane windows and balcony-cum-veranda, considered to be one of the oldest Portuguese houses in India, is supposed to be the place where Dom Gama lived. Today it is known as Vasco House. The close proximity of this house and Dom Gama’s devoted attachment to this Chapel could be one of the criteria for his burial in this chapel.

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Great builders and promoters of architecture than any other form of fine art, the Portuguese apparently caught the admiration of the Raja of Cochin who was tolerant of other religions. The Raja granted permission to the first Portuguese viceroy (appointed in 1505), Dom Francisco de Almedia (1450–1510), a nobleman of illustrious rank and first cousin of Dom Gama’s wife Catarina de Ataide, to construct buildings using stone and masonry work. At the same time as Fort San Angelo (Kannur Fort/Kotta) was being built by the Portuguese with brilliantly red laterite stone at Cannanore, the foundation stone of Santa Cruz Cathedral was laid at Fort Cochin on May 3, 1505, on the old Feast Day of the “Invention of the Holy Cross”, the instrument of salvation. Hence, the church was called “Santa Cruz”. As we can observe, almost always in the early European explorations, religious and commercial motives were intertwined.

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In 1506, the wooden Chapel of São Bartolomeu by the side of the 4-acre Parade Ground (formerly Barrack Ground) was pulled down and reconstructed into a permanent structure with gabled timber-framed roof covered with tiles.

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While the façade of the Church in typical Portuguese style is flanked on both sides by a stepped pinnacle, the windows and doors displayed semi-circular arches.

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The bell turret is divided into three compartments and must have been visible to the European sailors from afar during their arrival and departure. In 1516, the newly consecrated church was dedicated to Santo António, the patron saint of Lisbon. The original title deeds written on palm leaf (Ola) pertaining to the land gifted by the Raja of Cochin to construct this church is still kept in the church. It was here Dom Gama was buried with honours in 1524, bestowing the church with historic significance.

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The method of construction using stone and masonry work for church edifices was unheard of during that period since construction of such imposing structures were solely limited to royal palaces or temples. Although this church does not have any architectural merits, it was during this period, when ornate monumentality of the European churches was introduced to India, which initiated the synthesis of Church art and architecture of an alien nation and religion to indigenous forms and techniques of Kerala’s artistic and architectural traditions.

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With the Raja of Cochin residing at Mattancherry, the peninsula became a fusion of traditional folk art forms and culture of Kerala as well as the West, although, till today, the peninsula retains the predominance of Malayali identity, its spiritual and traditional values.

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Europeans visiting Mattancherry “to pay their respects” to the Raja could not only watch the Raja’s numerous elephants with good features (Lakshanams), sometimes richly caparisoned, but also now and then enjoy performing arts like Sinkari Melam, Theyyam, Ottanthullal, Padayani, Maritheyyam, Peelikavadi, Karakattam, Kurathiyattam, Kathakali, Thiruvathirakali, Bharathanatyam, Pulikali, Margam Kali, kolkali, etc., – moments that were decisive in formulating a fusion of new and vital forms of literature and drama like “Chavittunadakam” (Stomping Drama) (f), etc.

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Having spent months out on the rough seas with sea-hardened sailors and listening occasionally to their bawdy sea shanties, these occasions must have appeared so refreshingly fresh and unique to the Europeans.

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Here they sometimes listened to discussions on the merits of Ayurvadic treatments, astrology, Vastu Shastra (Feng Shui), and about the delicious vegetarian food such as Sambar, Rasam, Puliserry, Aviyal, Thoran, Inji Curry, Kalan, Olan, Parippu curry, Kootu curry, Theeyal, Pachadi, Kichadi, Injithairu, Achaar, Pappadam, Payasam, etc, and mentally compared them to those of Europe such as fresh bread, beef stew, grilled sardines, cinnamon rolls, sauces, etc, cooked in their settlement in Fort Cochin. The world has become very small.

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During the time of Raja Veera Kerala Varma (aka. Gangadhara Veera Keralan – 1537-65) in 1538, fourteen years after the death of Dom Gama, his mortal remains were removed from the Church of Santo António to Portugal.

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However, the original gravestone of Dom Gama’s empty tomb can still be seen today on the ground floor near to the Southern sidewall (g).

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The southernwall marks the gravestones of Dutch personnel while those of the Portuguese are fixed on the northern sidewall – shifted from the floor of the nave in 1886.

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39Closely following the maritime accomplishments of the Portuguese, the Dutch were determined to take part in the valuable spice trade and establish their monopoly in pepper.

Cochin’s existence as a long-time Portuguese protectorate since 1503 finally came to an end when the Dutch laid siege to Fort Manuel and captured Cochin in 1663, almost a hundred years after the Jews of Kerala constructed their Paradesi (Cochin Jewish) Synagogue in 1568 (h) under the reign of Raja Kesava (Kesara) Rama Varma II (1565-1601) in the neighbouring Mattancherry.

Since the Portuguese posed a threat to the island of Ceylon which the Dutch had conquered not long ago, their conquest of the Malabar region was initially only on account of Cochin’s strategic importance. However, so as to make it easier to defend and maintain their settlement, they would reduce the size of Fort Manuel, and also demolish several houses to make the settlement narrower.

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Soon Protestantism gained influence and the control of the Church of Santo António shifted from the Order of Franciscans. Having decided to rid of all Portuguese influence, all European Catholic priests were ordered to quit the territory. The Dutch demolished all Catholic convents and churches except the Church of Santo António (The contents of a placard before the church include the sentence: “From 1510 AD to 1663 AD the Portuguese officially called St. Francis Church as the conventional church of the order of St. Francis of Assisi”), and the Santa Cruz Cathedral, which they used as their arms storehouse (i).

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Successively, when some of the Catholics practising their faith at the Church of Santo António/San Francesco shifted to the Roman Catholic Church of the Our Lady of Hope (Nossa Senhora de Esperanca) in Vypeen, the existing pulpit and some screens of the Church of Santo António were also shifted with them. In their place, a new communion table and the rostrum furniture were installed.

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According to a report, on January 8, 1664, the Dutch celebrated the first service with a parade of all arms commemorating their initial entry into the city after capturing Fort Manuel in January, 1663. Likewise, a tablet just above the main entrance relates to some restoration works the Dutch made in 1779.

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During the time of the Dutch, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) served as the Governor of Cochin (1670-1677). In 1674 he began working on his book Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar), a pioneering compilation of 740 plants of economic and medical value in the Malabar Coast and published its first volume in 1678 (j). The book is also reputed to have the first printed words in Malayalam.

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The British captured Cochin after occupying Fort Manuel in October of 1795. In spite of their supremacy, the British were lenient enough to let the Dutch, who had controlled Fort Cochin for 132 years, to retain possession of the Church of Santo António/Cochin/San Francesco.

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Eight years later after the British took over, Fort Manuel was blown up by the British East India Company in compliant with the orders to destroy all fortifications and public buildings and the leading Dutch families who resided there with every degree of splendour started to desert the place.

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In 1804, after the Dutch had voluntarily handed over the Church of Santo António to the Anglican Communion it was rededicated to San Francesco. It was eventually placed under the Ecclesiastical Department of the Government of India.

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Some more renovations took place during the 19th century as confirmed by a tablet indicating that “Repaired by The Government of Madras. Anno 1887. Being the Fiftieth Year of the Reign of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India”.

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According to the “Imperial Gazettee of India – Volume IV”, “the facade of the church was surmounted by an ornamented bronze cross and a weathercock, 6 feet high, which could be distinctly perceived some 10 miles off at sea; but in 1865 these were pulled down.”

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Since 1923, the church is treated as a protected monument of national importance under the Archaeological Survey of India and now remains under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 although it is owned by the Church of South India (CSI), the successor of the Church of England in India, that came into existence by a union of Anglican and Protestant churches in South India.

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One symbol of British days which can still be seen today is the continued use of manually operated large swinging cloth fans on frames called “Pankhas” suspended above the congregation.

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But history lovers would also love to have a peek at the “Doop Boek(k) of the church. It is the old Baptism and Marriage Register of the diocese covering the period 1751-1804, the most authentic record of the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC or more colloquially as The Seventeen) and others who strode on the turf of the history of Fort Cochin.

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I understand that the original of that Het doop-en trouwboek is in the department of the India Office Records forming part of the VOC archives of the British Library in London, the very repository of the archives of the British East India Company (EIC).

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63In the aura of the colonial past stands a cenotaph before the church, erected on October 21, 1920, in memory of the residents of Cochin who fell in World War I. You can also see a clock that was set up on the façade on November 13, 1923 in memory of Hal Harrison Jones, a former Managing Director of Aspinwall & Co., Ltd, who died at Cochin.

The land before the church is now occupied by constructions including some colonial bungalows situated amidst landscaped grounds forming part of a club which commenced operation in early 1900s with admission privileges restricted to the British and men only (presently Cochin Club).

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What there is left of the beach that has had many cultural influences on these colonial powers exist on the west beyond the club grounds – its past glory diminished like the Fort Manuel, the remnants of which can be seen along the beach, like the symbol of a bygone era steeped in its historic significance and heritage value.

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The few occasions we had to interact with the locals during our visit to Portugal in 2006 had offered me the understanding that the bygone grand era is looked back by them with pride though they are at wonder about how they had managed to attain it.

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Even so, the fact remains that history should be seen in the context of its time – to the moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed during that time – as much as it is due to the farsightedness and pro-activeness of the illustrious explorers and adventurers; it is not unconventional to be aware that greed and brutality also played its roles to sustain this achievement, until more smarter and more able European powers appeared on the horizon and took over.

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The changes that took place by stages in the colonial period had greater impact on Fort Cochin. In point of fact, the spirit and character of Fort Cochin is largely defined by its unique history and heritage. While it is no longer fashionable to think of history in terms of kings and captains, we cannot ignore the truth about the past communities of colonial times and even the one that predates the Western conquerors. The cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that still raise their heads are a tangible signpost to that period.

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I recently attended a seminar on the heritage of Fort Cochin. There prevailed a sense of anticipation in the air – like a promise that something positive would eventually come out of it. Given that heads of historical monuments, prominent historians, archaeological experts, local populace and enthusiasts are roped in to participate, such seminars and activities of organisations are positive steps to regenerate and conserve the eco-cultural landscape of the area, its historical monuments, etc., and to watch out and curtail all actions that wipe out traces of the ancient civilisation.

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The active involvement of dedicated personalities like Dr. Charles Dias, MP and Dominic Presentation, MLA, and official departments like the Department of Tourism, etc, is commendable. Of the various protective measures being considered, languages like Cochin Creole Portuguese which has originated during the colonial times, and other kinds of intangible cultural heritage that are becoming extinct must also be given due attention.

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While the golden sands of the beach, still a distant dream, has to be definitely rejuvenated and there can be merit in establishing a community swimming pool – a public facility to enable visitors, especially low-budget travellers, etc, who like to swim safely in the ambiance of the beach and the Arabian Sea.

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Understanding is a two-way street. Following that Seminar, a short walk I took around the old Fort area provided me with the opportunity to examine how much of its character and quality has been preserved. Sure enough, one of Fort Cochin’s blessings is its partial isolation and you can stroll at a leisure pace in the quiet streets. That cool and quite ambiance is what makes this “sweet spot” so charming and endearing.

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Even now, you will not miss its charisma displayed so prominently on the doorways, walls and facades of the Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings from colonial periods lining the streets. Regrettably, many from the public, the tourists and heritage enthusiasts are still left unaware of several salient features of Fort Cochin’s history and monuments.

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Through awareness programmes and encouraging research, many ambiguities can be clarified and questions answered: Where were the real boundaries of the Fort Manuel, or where each of the seven bastions, renamed by Dutch as Groningen, Friesland, Utrecht, Zeeland, Holland, Gelderland, Stroomburg (names of Dutch provinces) was situated? Where was the smaller bastion called Overijssel or riverside entrances to the fort – Water-Gate, Bay-Gate, and New-Gate, located? Where is the Loafer’s Corner? Why is it that there are hardly any Dutch surnames compared to those of Portuguese; etc.

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The vestiges of three former European colonial powers that line the Burger Street (Burgerstraat), the Princess Street (Prinsesstraat); the remnants of the Fort; the huge, shady trees lining the lanes; the garden bungalows with large rooms, high ceilings and verandas, arched doorways, carved doors, colonial windows; the few edifices such as the Old Harbour House, Koder House, Vasco House, David Hall, the Bishop’s House (once the residence of the Portuguese Governor), Thakur House (Kunal or Hill Bungalow); the playgrounds, etc, – all extend their roots to a bygone era.

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As the spice race is long over, it is the tourism that had opened its door to Fort Cochin’s history. As the tourism industry in Fort Cochin encompasses many different areas, any tendency to cash in on its tourist potentiality by overpricing on services would have a negative impact on Fort Cochin and deter the tourists from returning. Besides, certain visible “not so goody-goody” problems that have cropped up with the encroachers, illegal shack vendors, the dumping of garbage, etc., are aspects that are being addressed.

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Although there are isolated incidents connected with the sale of drugs and abuse towards the visitors, the police have shown exemplary effort to curb these unsocial elements which are a menace in any part of the world.

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Development is part and parcel of a society whose requirements and demands change when society changes. Nevertheless, I would say without fear of contradiction, that development must not ignore the past, socio-economic attitude of the people and their culture. No doubt, it’s a blessing that the restrictions and lack of opportunities for haphazard development has preserved this area to a remarkable degree even though intrusiveness can be seen popping its head up in some places. It reminded me of the policies implemented at places of historical importance like Assisi, Siena, Firenze, Toledo, to name a few, where preservation is given the highest priority to maintain the connection the present has with the past.

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More than aides-mémoires of the collective past, historic place like Fort Cochin has social, economic, educational, and other values. I hope the renewed interest in this area would not only provide an incentive to our efforts for the welfare and protection of Fort Cochin and its surroundings but also bring in the essential cultural pride. Until next time. Ciao, Jo

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PS:

84a)   It seems that Gaspar Corrêa’s (1496-1563) Lendas da India, an indispensible contemporary source on India’s history or the story of Portuguese expansion, was not published until the 19th century.

b)   The names of Rajas vary in different publications.

c)   Dom Manuel was called “the Fortunate” because of the great wealth he earned from Portugal’s maritime discoveries.

d)  The second part of the name Cochin might have derived from kochazhi which in local language Malayalam stands for “small estuary”.  

e)   Dom Manuel I was bestowed with a Golden Rose by Pope Julius II in 1506. By receiving a second Golden Rose from Pope Leo X in 1514, Manuel became the first individual to receive more than one Golden Rose, which is a gold ornament traditionally blessed by the popes annually and conferred as a token of reverence or affection.  The street must have been named “Rose Street” by the Portuguese as a mark of respect to their king during the above mentioned period.

f)   Chavittunatakam: The first documentation and publication of this art form is planned by South Zone Culture Centre and Kerala Folklore Academy.

g)   In the writings of Gaspar Corrêa also, it is mentioned that Dom Gama was buried in the principal chapel of the monastery of St. Antony while in some writings it is referred as Monastery of St. Francis, Cathedral of Cochym . In an article of the Boletim do Governo, Goa, December 21, 1858, on the subject of Dom Gama’s tomb, he was buried in the principal chapel of the church of the Franciscan monastery of Cochym.

85h)   According to Cochin State Manual by C. Achyutha Menon, the first synagogue was established at Muziris but it does not exist today.

i)    This arms storehouse of the Dutch fell into the hands of the British who demolished it when they took over Cochin in 1795 under the rule of Rama Varma (Sakthan Thampuran – 1790-1805).

j)    Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India” (Conversations on Indian Herbs and Drugs) was published in Goa on April 10, 1563 by Portuguese Jewish physician/naturalist Garcia da Orta, a pioneer of tropical medicine, nearly a hundred years earlier to the publication of “Hortus Malabaricus”.

k)   The Doop Boek was maintained for 40 years and was sent to London in 1932 for repairs. Having rebound in the original style, it is unavailable for public scrutiny although a Photostat copy of the original book is, I understand, available to satisfy their curiosity.

l)    For more details on Kerala: http://www.keralatourism.org

m) A special thanks to Ms. Pearl Prakash.

n) This article presents only sign posts from the history of Fort Cochin. The excuse for its appearance at this time is my attempt to summarise these events at this juncture when much discussion on Fort Cochin’s importance and protection are progressing.  Although certain proposals are mentioned here, I have not included all the various proposals and implementations currently being addressed by the Government, other institutions and enthusiasts.

(© 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)