Friday, 14 June 2013

From Daughter Manonmani to Dr. Manonmani

Had Karia Gounder, a rich landlord at Ambalur, a village in Vellore district, not been a man of progressive ideas, Coimbatore would have lost its reputation in having a US- educated doctor as the city’s first paediatrician. Thanks to Gounder, who wanted his daughter Manonmani to be ‘Doctor’ Manonmani, even before seven decades.

“When I had hesitations to study medicine, my father drove out my fears and encouraged me to pursue medical education” recalls Dr. Manonmani, who is 87 years old now.   

Due to his close association with progressive thinkers and Justice Party leaders like Raja of Bobbili, P. T. Rajan, R. K. Shanmugam Chettiyar, A. T. Paneerselvam and Periyar E. V. Ramasamy,  Karia Gounder  practised equality and treated all his Dalit servants with due respect at his village Ambalur.

“ My father used to call our farm worker Periya Appu as ‘ Anna’, though he was a Dalit. Hence, we too would appropriately call him ( Periya Appu) ‘Periayappa’” writes Manonmani, in her autobiography Ambaluriliruthu America Varai- Oru Gramaththu Pennin Suysarithai (From Ambalur to America – A Village girl’s autobiography), which was released in the city recently.

“During the British rule, only 3 percent of the people in India were literates and that too in the urban areas. Worse still, women could never think of getting educated during those days. But, Manonmani, who was born at Ambalur, a village on the banks of river Palar in Vellore District, rose to the heights of fame by successfully studying medicine in the US” writes Pollachi N Mahalingam, well-known Tamil scholar  philanthropist, in his preface to the book.

After taking her MBBS from Christian Medical College, Vellore in the early 1940s, Manonmani pursued her higher studies in American Board of Pediatrics and later got employed as a paediatrician in Bob’s Robert Baby Care Hospital in the US. Later, starting her practice as the first paediatrician of Coimbatore in 1958, Manonmani has, so far, treated around 10 lakh children.  
 “In those days, Coimbatore was a small, beautiful town with rich green cover. I still remember the traffic-free Good-shed Road, through which I regularly drove my Fiat to the Government Hospital” she reminisces.    
On writing her autobiography, Manonmani says:

“I always  loved to read Mahatma Gandhi’s The story of My Experiments with Truth and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. Their recollections of personal life in the books inspired me to write my autobiography”

When asked about her passion for Tamil literature, Manonmani says that her mother Thiruvammal, who had studied only up to class V, introduced her to the works of great Tamil poets like Avvayar, Ottakoothar and Pugazhenthi Pulavar.

“Moreover, I cannot forget the Tamil classes taken by my teacher, Mu. Va. Alias  Mu. Varadarasanar, an erudite Tamil scholar and well-known author “avers Manonmani.  

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Enacting Issues on Streets

Street play artiste Prabakaran

A man is seen hurrying with an empty bucket along the street. Many think that he is heading towards a public tap to fetch water. But, the scene unfolds that he is proceeding to a ration shop, where with commodities like rice and wheat, water is  being sold !.
The scene also portrays incidents of smugglers stealing tanker lorries that transport  ‘PDS water’

In his street play III World War Prabakaran, a 34 year old drama artiste, points out sarcastically how water would be so precious in future.
Heading Vidiyal Veedhi Nadaka Kuzhu, an organization for conducting street plays in the city, Prabakaran says:

“Street play is an effective medium for carrying messages of social interest to the masses directly”
Prabakaran, who is working as a contract staff in the District Water shed Development Agency, spends his weekends with his drama troupe, staging street plays at important spots of the city.

Being also a singer of folk songs, Prabakaran can move a listener to tears by singing his favourite folk number Ethanai Murai Vetkapaduva Engal Akka, on how one’s elder sister is unable to get married due to demands of huge dowry.

“The evil practice of demanding dowry still persists in our society. Dowry, if not in the form of jewels these days, is demanded as valuable consumables, vehicles and immovable properties like plots and houses” rues Prabakaran. 

A performing artiste of Tamil folk dance forms, Prabakaran has trained hundreds of college students in the city in Parayattam,Oyilattam  and Kummiyattam..

“When I was a student, I used to sing folk songs on occasions like school annual days, temple festivals and even in funerals” recalls Prabakaran, who hails from Kattapettu, a village near Kotagiri.

Prabakaran informs that he learnt the art of staging street plays at his age of 13 from Suresh Sharma and Francis, who were the students of the famed Indian dramatist Badhal Sircar. He also underwent training in staging street plays under popular Tamil playwright Professor M. Ramasamy, Department of Dramas, Tamil University, Thanjavur.

Born to the parents, who were tea estate labourers in Kotagiri, Prabakaran says that he mostly chooses the issues of the working class as themes for his street plays. Also, his dramas campaign for the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Differentiating the features of street play from those of cinema, Prabakaran says:

“Cinema, with its commercial goal, draws the masses to the theatre and entertains them for about two hours. But a street play, which is very short, not only delights the spectators but makes them alive to the problems in the society”

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Friday, 7 June 2013

Reintroducing Kovai’s Traditional Houseware

Dr Thirumagal addressing on traditional Kongu utensils

Sitting nearly for an hour, a woman of modern day Coimbatore does not have to make batter labouring hard at the Aattangal (Stone mortar). Nor does she need to crush the ingredients for Kulambu (curry) or Rasam (pepper water) manually on an Ammikal (Grinding stone), as she readily has an electric mixer-grinder, which can do it for her (If there is power supply at the time!).

With rapid development in science and technology replacing man’s physical activity by machines, people, who are just nearing forty, have myriad bodily complaints like back pains and joint pains. But, how was it, our ancestors could live disease-free even in their eighties or nineties?

“When you work at the Ammikal regularly crushing the ingredients for food, your muscles and bones get strengthened” says Professor Thirumagal.

Dr Thirumagal is a professor of Tamil in Arulmigu Palaniandavar Arts College for women, Palani. She was in the city to address in the exhibition “Kovai Vattara Puzhangu Porutkal (Traditional housewares of Coimbatore region) organized by The Vanavarayar Foundation as part of ‘Coimbatore Vizha 13’ recently. 

Addressing the gathering, Thirumagal pointed out that hard labour on earth in the absence of science and technology kept our ancestors disease-free even in their old age.

Displaying various traditional housewares in her slide show, she noted that all house hold items of the yesteryear Coimbatore were identified with the meaning of human life in the Kongu region.
“The Ammikal which our ancestors used to crush ingredients like pepper, garlic and cumin for making traditional dishes, was an object of reverence that sitting on it was considered to be a sacrilege” she said.

Also the broom, which is called Seemar in the Kongu dialect, would not be in the list of the bride’s Strithan ( Seethanam), as her  parents believed it would ‘sweep’ away their wealth !

When Thirumagal displayed the picture of a Virakaduppu (Oven functioning in firewood) it was a rare spectacle to the viewers, who are used to the modern day LPG or electric ovens.

“The Kottaduppu, a smaller oven, was of great use to the people of the then Coimbatore, as once they kept on it a Sundachatti containing Kuzhambu ( curry) the previous night, the light warmth of the oven would condense and convert it into a mouth-watering dish for the next morning”  recollected Thirumagal.

The little earthen utensil Sundachatti was named so, as it was used for condensing the curry.

Thirumagal also displayed some agricultural equipment like Kalappai (plough), Kadaparai (crowbars),Mammutti (shovels) and so on.

“The Savari Vandi (A bullock cart exclusively meant for journey in villages of Coimbatore) was, indeed a vehicle for luxury travels those days. Sitting on a cushion of hay, people would love to travel in it. The vehicle would also have a small ‘box-like’ section for keeping the footwear, as the inmates would like to sit bare-footed and relax during the journey

B. Meenakshi Sundaram

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

A Tea Master, Who Brews Haikus

A Glass of Tea with Tasty Haikus

Inside thatched huts
The Poor live…
At ‘Selva’puram – N. Muthu

Customers browsing through news paper while sipping tea from glass tumblers is not an uncommon sight at the road side tea stalls in Coimbatore. But, is it possible at any tea stall to sip the hot beverage, supplemented by beautiful haiku Tamil poems?  Yes it is… when you have tea at the stall run by Tamil poet N. Muthu in Ponni Nagar near Papanaickenpalayam.

“I love to share my poems with the customers visiting my tea stall, if they are interested to listen to me” says the 34 year old Muthu, who is an author of two books of poems Edai Kuraivaai and Irukku.

Muthu, who appeared in the Kaviarangams conducted by literary organizations in the city like Vasantha Vasal Kavi Mandram and Tamil Nadu Murpokku Ezhuthalar Sangam in the mid 1990s, used to receive rapturous applause from the audience, as he read out his sharp haiku poems lampooning the follies in politics and society.

“I observed the paradoxes even in common things we come across in life. This interested me to write funny short poems on them” recalls Muthu.

 Born to  
 The staff of ration shop …
An under weight baby

Muthu parodies a staff of a ration shop on his practice of distributing commodities in lesser quantities to the consumers in order to hoard much for him.

“I draw inspirations from the ordinary lives of commoners, who experience injustices like caste discrimination, unemployment and poverty” avers Muthu.

Muthu’s poems are rich in symbols. Comparing the bonds of a sheep with the freedom of a butterfly he writes:

Towards a direction at its choice
Flies above a herd of sheep

Answering a question on his views about writing poetry, Muthu says:

“Poetry is not a craft but a discovery from everyday human life. And, a poet writes the discovery in his language.”

Muthu discloses that he learnt writing poetry while he was an activist in the CPM and a street play actor in the party’s literary wing Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artistes Association. 

“I could understand the plight of the people, only after I had taken part in protests and demonstrations against civic issues like poor water supply, lack of drainage facilities and so on in our locality. And I have registered such hardships of the residents in many of my poems” he says.

When asked whether formal academic education is required for writing poetry, Muthu notes:

“Poetry is a creative art and borne out of understanding the society. And, I don’t think academic education has anything to do with it.

On a question about his educational qualification, the poet says:

“I discontinued from school after studying two years in grade VIII, getting detained in the class”. 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Saturday, 1 June 2013

In Search of a Dirty, Divine Mystic

Azhukku Swamigal

In the Kongu dialect of yesteryear Coimbatore, there was an interesting figure of speech, which a mother would use to chide her mischievous little boy, who was much interested in playing but more reluctant to take bath as ‘Azhukku Saamiar’ (A dirty monk). But, it is true that a Siddha by the name Azhukku Swamigal once lived here nearly a century ago and the phrase could have crept into the language after the mystic.

Azhukku Swamigal lived inside the deep forests of Vellingiri Hills and believed to have mastered Tantra, Alchemy and Yoga inside the woods. When eminent Tamil scholar Ku. Natesa Gounder’s father visited the Vellingiri Hills in the dawn of the 20th century, he met the mystic there and brought him to the city.

Though he got his name as Azhukku Swamigal after his habit of not taking bath, the mystic is believed to have possessed supernatural powers and tricks. He would hold the spectators spell-bound by his unbelievable performances like coming out of a locked house, making food appear inside an empty utensil, showing his appearance suddenly in a distant land and lighting a lamp with water as fuel! The mystic would also stand unaffected even after the bite of a venomous snake.

Despite his tit for tat for the people, who made fun of him at his appearance, the mystic played Good Samaritan to the hard-working poor.

“The thick woods of Coimbatore were once havens for mystics. And the remarkable  one, who lived at Vellingiri Hills about a century ago, is Azhukku Swamigal” says Prof. I. K Subramaniam, Assistant Editor of the Universal Tamil Encyclopedia.

Later, Azhukku Swamigal settled at one Ramu Mudaliar’s house in Vettaikaranpudur near Pollachi. During his stay, he requested Mudaliar’s wife Alamelu to plant saplings of trees like Vilvam (Bael), Vembu (Neem), Vanni (Indian mesquit) and a plant of Mandharai(Bauhinia purpurea) at a spot on the banks of river Upparu.

Planning to bid adieu to the world, he reduced his consumption of food and passed away within twelve days at Ramu Mudaliar’s home. In the meanwhile, he had asked Alamelu to bury him at the spot, where she planted the trees. The place, where he was buried, has now become a temple and being called as Azhukku Swamigal Kovil.

“Rangasamy, the chief minister of Pondicherry, who regularly visits the Azhukku Swamigal Kovil, is a pious devotee of the departed mystic” says Sirpi Balasubramaniam, Sahitya Akademy award winning poet and former Tamil professor, Bharathiyar University.

Elders recall that though Azhukku Swamigal had no habit of bathing, he could produce captivating fragrance around him all by his divine power.

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Compiled by: B. Meenakshi Sundaram

Source: Azhukku Swamigal – an article by Sirpi Balasubramaniam, Kongu Kalanjiyam - Vol 1.