Friday, 19 January 2018

Tumultous Three Nights That Refuse To Fade Away!

The harvest festival of Pongal is always a time to celebrate all across Tamil Nadu wherein the festivities attached to the glorious occasion transcends religion, caste and creed. Everyone will be in a joyous mood to pay their thanksgiving to the farmers; the bulls and reserve a day to meet with close ones. The city will practically be closed for three days - a sort of ‘standstill’, since all will go to their respective villages to celebrate Pongal with their family members, courtesy the benefit of extended holidays for all.

This year also it was a standstill, not just an ordinary sense.  It will probably go deep down in the history of the nation, as the entire Tamil fraternity stood up for restoring their traditional game of ‘Jalikattu’, without which the festival of Pongal has no real significance.  The silent storm of the student community raised their protest in Alanganallur initially, which snowballed into an unprecedented large scale protest by the entire society all across the state with a sea of humanity standing behind the students and the youth in their fight for Jallikattu.

Social Action of a New Order:
The protest that shook the state of Tamilnadu sent vibrations all across the Tamil speaking community even beyond our country, which resulted in a very positive support from one and all. It was no different in Madurai, which was the spark that resulted in a fire of protest to spread to all corners within no time. The magnetic force that the students managed to generate out of their network and steadfast commitment to stand united till concrete action was seen in black and white was the hallmark of the protest. I must confess this magnetic force could never leave me alone, as I was emotionally bonded with the students for their honest and clear commitment to have their tradition preserved.

As a Social Work Professional, I was oriented to the concept of ‘Social Action’, but honestly what I witnessed in Madurai was something beyond the text book and average practice methods. It was a Social Action of a New Order, which was definitely once in a lifetime chance to witness such a huge response to a voluntary call for protest that was totally self driven without affiliation to any association, caste or religious groups or political parties. It was of the Students, by the students and the youth, for the Society. 

 I wanted to document the action by capturing some photographs of the protest, especially during the nights, so that I could have something unique to preserve. I had one of the significant moments of social consciousness played in front of my eyes, which seemed to be a clear case of History of the State in the new era.  As I walked through the protest area three nights with my camera (Thursday – 19th Jan, Friday -20th Jan and Saturday- 21st Jan), more than the pictures that I my camera captured, it was my heart that absorbed all the emotions that rented the air with valor and courage.

Human Thunder at Thamukam:
The larger than life size protest was unfolding at Thamukkam, the arterial road in the city which is synonymous with many political and social occurrences of the past. I was thrilled to be admist a sea of Humanity with their vociferous slogans, songs and anthems that captured the attention of the protesters. It was no ordinary protest and it needed a super human effort larger than the self to keep the spirits of the volunteers sustained to be heard. Every one synchronized their shouts to form a human thunder at Thamukkam and we could feel the air reverberating with shouts of solidarity that was intended to reach the persons who mattered most to bring back Jallikattu to them.

It was heartbreaking to hear loud shouts from the protesters who never cared for their vocal chords, but wanted to have their traditional umbilical cord preserved with the following slogans …“Meesiya Murku da……Peta vai Viratu da”; “Jal …Jal Jalikattu – Vaa Vaa Mallukattu”; “Tamilan Da…Thanmana Singamada”; “Thadai Sei….Thadai Sei….Peta vai Thadai Sei”; “Vaadi Vasal Thiranthal than….Nangal Veedu Vaasal Poovom”.

The entire place resembled like a new community of likeminded people who never wanted a home to sleep, nor their own favourite food to eat or the best costume to dress. All were sitting on the road, which they would have never imagined even in their wildest dream. But all this suffering and sacrifice was for a social cause, only that was utmost in their minds. I could not only see Students, it was filled with ladies, many with their entire family members, youth, working professionals, media persons, radio  jockeys, rotary members, traders, hawkers, businessmen, educationists, folk artists, musicians and every possible vocation on earth. What was striking was the participation of children even during the nights.

The sound that erupted from the protesters created ripples which stretched from one corner of the road to the other, in the process energizing everyone who braved the biting cold and sleepy nights. To keep them fit, volunteers prepared and served hot food items like mixed rice, iddlies, dosas, which would beat the best of restaurants. There were mini vans stationed at vintage points to prepare hot Oothappams in the middle of the night to keep the protesters going strong. Coffee, Tea, Milk along with biscuits was abundant and it was like a manifold community wedding of many eating at one place with plates in their hands.

I was admiring a young husband and wife who prepared ‘sukku malli coffee’ and served it hot for the cheer leaders so that they could thunder with power. With every passing minute the night seemed to be long and sweet, no one felt a trace of sleep …..May be because the Thunder at Thamukkam was growing bigger and louder.

Taking on a speeding Train:
The protest at Madurai reached a different level hitting the national headlines, when the youth in Sellur braved themselves to run on the railway track on the bridge of river Vaigai to stop the Coimbatore – Madurai Passenger on its tracks bringing the entire southern railway operations to a grinding halt.

I have lived in the railway colony and I know pretty well what it takes to stop a train, and what would be the impact of such an eventuality on the status of the Indian Railway network. The protesters wanted to intensify their stir by hitting the national headlines, which they successfully did. Along with the youth, it were the women around that area who bravely ran on the tracks to stop the train, naturally the videos of the train stoppage went viral. The news of the stoppage of the train in Madurai spread like wild fire and many more incidents followed suit all across the state. 

I was particular to visit the spot and take some photos, so I took on a difficult route to reach the river Vaigai along with my friend SR.Kannan around 2.00am early on Friday morning 19th Jan 2017. It was a sight to behold , since I found teenagers and youth all over the railway tracks sleeping across it boldly and seated all over the engine, which was running till then, hoping that it would be released soon. But that was never to happen, since it remained stopped for five days, something which has never happened before in any part of India.

The train stoppage was a severe blow to the administrators, as they found now way to negotiate with the protesters to end the real life drama on the tracks and to rescue the train. Consequently Madurai remained cut off from the Rail network of the Nation. The commitment of the Youth in wanting to see a tangible and dependable solution for their protest was very evident with them only relenting to release the train on Monday, still with much resistance and a mild latti charge down the river.

Resoluteness even in Rains:

The high impact night for me personally was Saturday night when the crowd grew stringer and bolder, even to the extent of braving the rains. It was raining cats and dogs at Thamukkam, and there no signs of withdrawal of the protest. The people were literally drenched and had no change over clothes, nor any towel to wipe them dry. I guess they preferred to remain wet and shiver in the rains, so that the news of their sufferings could send shivers down to the state, which it eventually did.

The significance of this whole protest was the art of managing any situation with the available resource by the students and youth, ably supported by generous people. Huge flex banners were brought to the ground and the youth held them over the heads, while the ladies who were seated beneath it switched on their mobile phones to keep the place illuminated. This certainly brought not only relief to the suffering students, but honestly tears to my eyes. I mean it!

Imagine the parents who get over protective when their children, particularly young ones gets wet in the rains and comes home drenched. The immediate response would be to wipe them dry and change their clothes so that they are not affected by the rains. It does not stop there; they are then cuddled in a warm blanket and offered some warm food to eat, to keep them warm. 
But in Thamukkam, the women along with their children were seated in the rains with little or no warm clothes. The only saving grace was some umbrellas that kept changing hands and the flex banner that was held up by the students. Care was taken by a few volunteers to sweep the floor to drain out the rain water that was stagnant. One can easily take a cue of disaster management tips from the youth for their appropriate reflexes which seemed so smooth to the eyes and soothing to the soul.

Memories for Eternity:
The show of strength as one may be free to call, the protest by the students, independent of any affiliation would definitely be written in ‘Golden Letters with Bold Fonts’ in the history book of Tamilnadu, if not for the entire nation.

No one can fancy the fact that thousands of young people in vulnerable age groups with volatile emotions can be grafted for an ethically and morally well sounded protest, displaying a high degree of self control of social behavior. The manner in which they managed to draw in common people of all segments was the standout highlight, more importantly they never let anyone take advantage of their power till they had their way in getting an ordinance passed revoking the traditional sport of Jalikattu.

I am sure when the youth of the present generation teach their children about history of Jalikattu or that of Social Action, they would hold their heads high and say with pride..”I was part of that”. I will not hold myself for any consideration in saying with contentment, that “I too was part of it”, as I would be one among the fortunate and lucky ones to have witnessed history in its making.

These three days refuse to fade away from my memory, and I will seriously not try, even to a very tiny extent to forget it…..could I?

-          Nicholas Francis

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Happy Streets of Madurai

When I received a message request from my friend RJ Ramana of Mirchi FM Radio Channel in Madurai to participate in the Happy Street Program in Madurai on 14th May 2017, I never imagined that it would really be a day of unwinding from the hectic professional life. 

It was a certainly a day that residents from Kamarajar Salai came out of their concrete jungle homes and took to the busy arterial road to play games that one could never imagine to play on a normal day. By the way Kamarajar Salai in Madurai connects city to Ramanathapuram Highway and is intricately crowed with shops and establishments which is even more thickly populated with residences since it has close proximity to the famous Meenakshi Amman Temple. 

Happy Street as a novel concept to promote camaraderie among the people and bring about togetherness in coming out for a common cause to refresh and rejoice within their own environment is a welcome step. Kudos to the energetic Commissioner of Madurai Corporation for hitting upon a fantastic idea and implementing it with the support of Corporate Sponsors, Media Houses and the Civic Administration.

The response to the Happy Street Program was enormous from the public as they made use of the space to come out to let their spirits and energy enthusiastically be engaged in an activity of their liking, most importantly something that was far from their mundane daily life. It was heartening to see people of all ages throng the location, which was cordoned off from vehicular traffic and take centre stage to display their talents in various games like Basket ball netting, Shuttle Cock, Table Tennis, Carrom Boards and Skipping. 

Youngsters were excited to display their skills in roller skating, Trampoline Jumping and Archery. The Youth got an opportunity to play Cricket with Tennis Ball on the cement road which was a dream pitch to stroke around. The Cycling Team with their gears were doing synchronized cycling that was a treat to the eyes of the audience and passerby.
Professional Boxers were giving an opportunity for the young to throw a few punched with the boxing gloves on, something that we do not see too often in a place like Madurai. Gymnastics was also part of the game on display, as young persons were seen trying their luck on the pole by scaling it and balancing themselves on the top of it.  Spinning of Tops was a treat to the eyes and a surprise package, since not many know the trick to get it on their palms to spin off.

The Organisers were able to get the crowd to do some on the spot dancing with live bands playing out Western Songs and popular film songs. Certainly ‘Mustaffa ....Mustaffa’ Song from AR Rehaman got the crowd to wave their hands in unison to get a magic effect. Celebrity playback singers also lent their voice by performing hit songs on the stage. An young girl just jumped on stage to do a graceful dance synchronizing with the tune of ‘Alegra....Alegra’ Song which was very well sung on stage. The crowd that swelled around the stage were also doing some graceful moments for each song.

The Radio Jockeys led by RJ Ramana did some fantastic fast paced dances with the crowd pulling in participants from all ages. RJ Jackson Durai and RJ Kalyani too added grace to the dance party. This apart there were choreographers from the Cine World who kept the audience engrossed to their dance movements with various dance groups.

The mobile phones were the busy gadgets since Selfies dominated the day, with every bit of the proceedings getting a gentle click by all. No one was left in the crowd. It was hilarious to witness people sporting coloured hair wigs and taking / posing for selfies on their mobiles. Guess how many mobiles did go dry with batteries burning out of the charge.

The Happy Street was not confined to just Games and Fun, on a serious note there were many social themes on which awareness was spread through to the public. Noticeable among them was Effective Consumption of Water, Environment Protection, Planting of Trees, Organic Food and Healthy Civic Lifestyle etc. A Mobile Blood Donation Van was also stationed at the location to get the public to do donate blood and save life.  Soups and Food items were also part of the package to keep the public attracted.

On a personal note, I felt elated when I had a chance to meet up with some of my family friends like M. Rajesh of Guna Vilas, Sivanath and Nitin Shah from Classic Readymades. My friend Gnanagugan was up with his family for the program and even tried his skill in ‘Stick Fight’. I was able to meet up with Media friends like Edwin, Photographers Selvam Ramasamy and OSD Suresh. Suresh even got me pose for a snap, which was a cute remembrance, so did Deepika who shot me in action.

The thrill to be on a busy road for three hours on a Sunday morning with the public of Madurai was a pleasant opportunity. The mini carnival sort of program would eventually benefit if more colour and content is added in the ensuing editions to represent the cultural advantage that a city like Madurai has. It would be on comparable lines very soon with the carnivals that takes place in many cities around India and abroad.

For now the tagline of the Happy Street program in Madurai “Vanidiya Vaarthu.....Vanthu Vilayadu” (Vehicles will not come.....Come and Play) shall remain as a memorable one!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Capturing the Colourful Chitirai Festival in Madurai

Chitirai Festival is an all encompassing event that brings good cheer to the people wherever it is celebrated coinciding with the full moon day. One could ask why is it all the more special in Madurai, which is also known as the Temple City in Tamil Nadu?

Madurai with the iconic and legendary Sree Meenakshi Amman Temple is probably the all happening place, where one could be immersed in the thickness and richness of colour, tradition, heritage, music, dance and performing arts. The people of the city from far and near places flock in groups not merely by the hundreds, but actually goes beyond the thousands and even surpass the lakhs to participate in what could be termed as a “Mother of All Festivals.

The cultural festivities associated with the Chitirai Festival in Madurai is mindboggling as the entire city comes alive with sound and light, dance and songs, prayers and offerings, divinity and affinity, love and joy etc. There is so much of love and warmth in the air with celebrations taking place in every nook and corner involving all segments of people. One significant reason for this mass celebration can be that two major events like the Meenakshi Thirukalyanam and Lord Kallazhagar's entry into the river Vaigai takes place during the same period.  Both the events have a legendary legacy attributed to it, but yet in modern day times, it is almost getting more significancant due to the large crowds who are emotionally, spiritually and culturally blended to a tradition that is almost owned and expressed by the people of Madurai.

Every year, I used to watch the newspapers for a big size photograph of the Thirukalyanam, Therottam and Alagar's Entry into River Vaigai and then forget about it after a few days. But this year was something special and spectacular, since I got into the thick of the things and ventured into the city to have a feel of what the Chitirai Festival was all about. The other important or rather main reason for me to get into the crowds was my Canon DSLR Camera that I carried to shoot some photographs of the happenings.

I must honestly confess that I was awestruck with the lively energy and electrifying atmosphere around the city during festival. People came wearing their best dress and accessories, children with play items were seen having fun all around. The Women kept pace with the crowd in moving swiftly in waves to have a look at the deity and offer their prayers. The elderly were seen in the crowd sitting on the pavements and on the staircases of the shops and establishments and praying to the lord from a comfortable distance. The Youth were exuberant and making their presence felt in a huge crowd. So much of crowd assembling on their own, staying with the festivities and dispersing peacefully without any issues is something that needs to be appreciated.

The most striking feature of the Chitirai Festival is the procession of Sree Meenakshi Amman along with other deities in various forms along the much famous Chitirai streets in Madurai. The spectacle is truly colourful and soulful when the procession goes past you, as you can witness young Children dressed up like the Lord in appropriate attire with jewels. Meenakshi Amman is the most common dress that children wear, and no surprise you can witness the charm and beauty of Meenakshi Amman through the young children who do not get tired in a grueling route spanning atleast 20 Kms. Children are also dressed up like other god and goddesses and are accompanied by their parents along the entourage. Folk artists break the noise barrier with their thunderous performance of Oiyilattam, Mailyattam, Kollattam, Thappattam, Kaavadi Attam etc. Cartoon Caricatures comes alive with many sporting huge faces of animals and famous historical personalities to draw the attraction of the crowd.

I was completely swept with the colourful pageant that passed across and started to click some fantastic photos, which made me happy. The interesting aspect is that many would come forward and voluntarily ask for a photograph to be taken. On the contrary, I would approach many to take a photo of them as they sing and dance along the procession which is a representation of a rich culture and tradition that is customary with the soil. The photos which were shared through private messages with my friends have got a great response. Many acclaimed that I am an avid photographer and sent their comments in many other ways, much to their choice of words and sentiments.

But honestly, I would very humbly submit that I let my passion out for a walk down the streets of Madurai......what I got in return was a splendid opportunity to capture the colours of Chitirai Festival. I am sure, it would take many days to sink in going by the fabulous feedback that my photos have managed to bring in for me.

Yes .....truly!!!