Sunday, January 26, 2014

You might know the "300", but have you heard about the "21"?

Today is India's 65'th Republic Day.

After watching a video shared by my friend Deepak Sharma on Facebook several months ago (I think it was on Independence Day on how the brave Sikhs beheaded their own women (sisters, daughters and mothers) to avoid being captured and persecuted by the marauding Muslims) I don't think it is fair to delay any longer the publishing of this post.

This year the viewers of the Hollwood film "300" are eagerly awaiting the release of its sequel. For those of you who have seen "300" you may recall that it was a landmark film in the history of films for the depiction of "Graphical Violence". Inspired by a comic written by Frank Miller, the film extolls and eulogizes the Spartan King Leonidas and his men, a total of 300 warriors for their bravery in resisting Xerxes and his army and in the process, all get killed.

As many of you might know 300 was based on Miller's graphic novel and the makers of the film have agreed that the purpose was to glamorize and fantasize the event and not adhere strictly to the historic facts. What the movie does not mention is the fact that some 700 Thespians also laid down their lives after pledging their alliance to Leonidas. Some others Helots and Thebans also died for Leonidas although a good number of Thebans deserted him and defected to Xerses in the final moments of the battle.

I clearly remember "Leonidas" and the Battle of Thermopylae was the first lesson in my History text book at school (don't know which class though) but what many Indians don't know is that one of the greatest or probably the greatest of the "Last Stands" involved 21 Sikh soldiers, of the 36'th Sikh Regiment, who then as part of the British Raj fought 10,000 Afghan and Orakzai tribesmen in a relatively unknown and unpopular battle called the The Battle of Saragarhi. The battle was fought in the North West Frontier Province, now in Pakistan, when it was part of British India.

The ratio of the Sikh soldier versus the adversary  was 1:476.  All of the 21 soldiers fought till their dying breaths.  All were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, equivalent to the Victoria Cross and the Param Vir Chakra. Fortunately, the complete story of their heroic and tragic battle can be viewed online on Wikipedia. You can find it at the link below.

One of the most hardy and enterprising people I have known, and of whom India can be proud of are the Sardars. In 1996, when I first stepped outside India to Singapore, I was surprised to see in the local newspaper, "The Straits Times", the picture of the Businessmen of the Year, a couple of Sardars (I recall their last name was Takral) in all their turbans and beards and gait that they are most popular for. I even recall the gatekeeper at Singapore's popular Raffles City Hotel, dressed regally, was a tall well-built Sardar. Even in the seven cities I lived in the U.S, and Toronto, Canada, there wasn't a place where I couldn't find a Punjabi-Daba, or restaurant run by a Sardarji. Only the ubiquitous Malayalee comes close. Even in a small town such as Cypress (on the outskirts of Houston, Texas) I found a restaurant run by a Sardarji and his wife. He was friendly but talkative and he would also tell me how one of his sons was a self-made millionaire in the U.S. I wasn't surprised.

In India anyone would tell you that the entire city of Ludhiana was built with the hands of these able Sardars. Two of the biggest industries that require manual labour, the Automobile and the Argriculture industries thrive there.

When I was in school I cannot tell you how many of the brave Sikhs were my heroes. Thanks to Amar Chitra Katha, Ranjit Singhji, Hari Singh Nalwa, the Sikh Gurus - Guru Nanak, Guru Tegh Bahadur, Guru Gobind Singh, and my favorites Bandha Bahadur and Satwant Kaur were stories I would read over and over again. Years later when I read an abridged version of Amrita Pritam's novel "Pinjar", I actually thought it was the story of  Satwant Kaur. And of course, the stories of Sikh bravery and sacrifice during the Partition is legendary.

Back to the Battle of Sragarhi, The Indian Army has been trying hard to get this story of courage into the History Text books in Indian schools but in vain. This post is just a tiny effort of mine to spread the awareness of this historic battle.

Quoting from the Wikipedia, Saragarhi Day, is a Sikh military commemoration day celebrated on 12 September every year to commemorate The Battle of Saragarhi. Sikh military personnel and Sikh non-military people commemorate the battle around the World every year on 12'th, September. All units of the Sikh Regiment celebrate Saragarhi Day every year as the Regimental Battle Honours Day. The Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara (temple) was built in memory of the 21 Sikh soldiers that fought at The Battle of Saragarhi

So next time someone tells you that silly Sardarji joke you may just have the best reason to brush it aside or better still think of those "21" and say a prayer for them for laying down their lives in probably the greatest "last stand" in History.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

ISKCON Jagannath Rath Yathra in Chennai

I was there last Monday on January the 13'th and it was indeed an experience participating in my first ever Jagannath Rath Yathra.

For the folks at ISKCON who have been conducting the rath yathra for several years it was yet another event, efficiently handled. They had conveniently picked a day when the traffic on the roads was dull, the next day being the holiday for Pongal. There were traffic jams but these were resolved efficiently with the help of the Traffic Police and the regular cops who were assigned duty that day. On two occasions I did watch the devotes cutting branches of trees that were obtrusive to the rath's "Gopuram" and was also wondering if that was ethical or right. Even as per ISKCON's beliefs isn't God present in the tree too.  Even a simple gesture of worshipping the tree before cutting its branches or saying some "shlokas" would have made a big difference to me.

I have to admit, the enthusiasm of the devotees was something that deserved to be mentioned, several of them, singing and dancing (sometimes frenzied) throughout the 4 hour journey of the "rath" and these include ladies and small children. Not to forget devotees and volunteers controlling the pulling of the "rath" and managing traffic, singing, chanting and distributing "Prasad" to passers by and people on the roads, in autos, buses and cars. And talking of "Prasad" which was copiously overflowing not only during the rath's journey but at the halls of the destination (Kuchalambal Kalyana Mandapam, Chetpet) also makes me believe that all this is possible only with the hand of God. The expenditure must have been staggering.

Enroute I was even wondering what if there was some emergency as rushing someone in a critical state to the hospital, wouldn't the procession be a hindrance? Fortunately I did not witness any such untoward incidents for the two hours I spent on the journey. And when I am wondering if such "Rath Yathras" are necessary I am only reminded of Swami Vivekananda's message on charity when he said that the greatest gift that one can give away in charity is the dissemination of spiritual knowledge. Srila Prabupada, the founder of ISKCON also advocates the same.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Meeting a legend

I have one more Saarang (used to be Mardi Gras) related post before the cultural fest begins at IIT Madras in another couple of weeks.

Before I begin to write about it, I hope you all had a wonderful New Year. I pray all your wishes come true this year.

And so it was Mardi Gras in 1983. I was in the Xth Std at school and for the pro-show, Ananda Shankar and his troupe comprising his wife Tanusree Shankar and company were to perform. I went there with my brother, sister and parents and till date I can say that is was probably the best pro-show I had ever watched at the O.A.T, IIT Madras. The dances were unbelievable. I didn't know that there was someone (credit actually goes to Ananda's parents Uday Shankar and Amala Shankar) who could take all the dance forms of India and present the amalgamation in such a colourful, beautiful and delightful manner. For the first time in my life that I fell in love with Indian dance. To top it all was Ananda's incredible sitar-meets-rock fusion music that never lacked melody or that classical classical touch. For the first half of the show, dances were accompanied to music being played in the background. This probably went on for an hour or an hour and a half. There was a break and what we treated to for the second half was even more unbelievable. Ananda Shankar and his entire band were on stage, with the dancers performing in front of the band. The lighting was incredible for a show staged way back in 1983. Ananda and Tanusree would come a second time in the 90's but this time their music was more modern but there was no band on stage, nevertheless the dances were spectacular.

After the passing away of Ananda Shankar in 1999 I was even told that the troupe's days were over. It was heart-breaking to hear from some folks who had been living in Calcutta too but that was far from the truth. Tanusree Shankar has only taken Ananda's dance company ever forward. On Monday I was fortunate to witness a short but lovely performance (not on the scale of the previous performances with Ananda) at the Kalakshetra in Chennai. It was also a privilege to have had the opportunity to have interacted with the legend herself and her dancers after the show. I did mention to her about the 1983 show and she was so excited to talk about it and about the green campus of IIT Madras. Tanusree choreographs most of the dances and also takes part in some of them. I actually couldn't help admiring her English too. I was given her card and will be writing to her. In fact one of the first albums I reviewed on my website was Ananda's classic debut album. The link to the review is here.

After taking her blessings I requested for a picture to which she gladly obliged.

While leaving Kalakshetra I was only wondering what a nice beginning it was to 2014 when I have also planned my first trip to Mayapur via Kolkota. Will I get a chance to visit Tanusree and Ananda Shankar's dance Company? Let me see.