Saturday 30 September 2017

Indian shops without shopkeepers

Difficult to imagine shops without shopkeepers? Mizoram has had them for years, writes Sanchari Pal on The Better India. Read on: 

Studded with forested hills that roll across for hundreds of miles, dense bamboo groves, lush paddy fields, sheer cliffs and serene waterfalls, the picturesque, far-flung state of Mizoram is unfamiliar to most Indians. This tranquil state, blessed with breathtaking natural beauty, is also the home to one of the humblest and most honest communities in India, the Mizos.

On a highway along Mizoram, shop owners sustain their living more on the integrity and honesty of their customers than on the little forest produce they manage to collect and sell.

Mizo people are renown for their honesty, hospitality and serene approach to life. They even have a Mizo term for it, tlawmngaihna, that means always being kind, hospitable, unselfish and helpful to others.

Mizos have indigenously developed a novel kind of grassroots commerce that is all about goodwill and honesty – the nghah lou dawr.

The nghah lou dawr (shops without shopkeepers) are a unique way to buy and sell harvested produce. It is a common sight to see these shops along the highway in Seling, about 65 kilometers away from its capital Aizawl.

At these shops, vegetables, fruits, flowers and other produce are kept for selling with a rate list and a container into which customers can put the money. People can be seen going through these items nonchalantly and then grabbing whatever they need before putting the money they owe into the containers lying beside the items.

If they don’t have the exact change, customers can also pick up the change from the same container which says pawisa bawm or pawisa dahna. The owners of nghah lou dawr say,

“We run this shop the whole year. We just put the price list near the vegetable or anything we are selling and people simply pick up what ever they like and put the money in the container. If required, they even take the change from the box themselves. We trust them, they have never failed us. Nothing has ever been lost from our shops.”

Every morning these farmer cum shop owners arrange an array of vegetables, fruits, occasional bottles of fruit juice, small dried fish and even freshwater snails (a local delicacy) in the thatched bamboo huts that double up as shops. They then hang small signboards with the names and prices of the wares written on them using, in most cases, charcoal or chalk. After keeping small payment boxes at their shops, the shop owners leaves for their small jhum (shifting cultivation) farms and gardens. All the while they are at the farm, people crossing the area drop in to purchase the wares and put the desired amount into the box.

With farmhands few and expensive, the small farmers of the region can’t afford to spare any member to stay at the hut and mind the wares. Any money that trickles into the cash container is a big bonus for them. Also, though the nghah lou dawr are few in number and may not earn much, what makes the shop owners happy is the fact that their customers never fail them.

For the locals, the trust that is involved in the transactions with nghah lou dawr is enough to make them want to buy from these shops. Proud of the prevalence of such shops, locals say that it has been possible due to the enduring honesty of people.

“We feel great that Mizoram has such kind of vendors and we often buy from them. It makes us happy, like we’ve contributed to something beautiful. This is how it should be,” say the customers of nghah lou dawr.

It’s wonderful to see how small scale farmers in Mizoram are entrusting their business to the honesty of their faceless customers. A longstanding tradition from the time tribes ruled over individual villages in Mizoram, these simple shops show that where the trust is reciprocated, honesty flourishes.

Goans decided to go organic, and grew a mini forest in their backyards!

In Goa, organic farming has caught people’s attention, who want to experience the satisfaction of growing their own food organically, writes Arti Das on The Better India. Read on:

As you walk into the kitchen garden of Peter Fernandes and Rosie Harding in Assagao, Goa, you realise that it’s no less than a forest, where the land is covered with mulch and the 700 square meters of area is covered with perennial greens. This 4-year-old kitchen garden is the perfect place to understand how you can grow your food without using chemicals and by following the permaculture method for farming.

Peter likes to describe it as an edible garden which provides health and nutrition. A few years ago, his garden was no more than a wasteland. Then, both of them worked on the soil fertility to grow their own food. Now, they grow vegetables and fruits, including a variety of spinach, red and green amaranth, a variety of gourd, herbs and beans among others.

“It’s really important that we produce what is safe and rich in nutrition. For us, growing our own food has led to substantial benefits. Given how easy it is to incorporate edible plants into your garden, there’s no reason why all of us can’t do it,” says Peter.

He adds that now they are focusing on perennial plants that are local and mostly considered as weeds.

Peter and Rosie at their farm. Image source: Hemant Parab
They have a total of around 150 species of plants that are edible. Also, in one small patch of land, he has 11 types of citrus fruits that include oranges, 13 varieties of mangoes and nine varieties of guava – like the rare black guava.

For Peter, this is where people can learn about farming and share the knowledge with others. “We started this because we wanted to eat healthy and nutritious food,” he says. He is on a sabbatical from his job of consultancy.

Another interesting aspect of their garden is that they do not sell their produce. “As our garden grew successfully in the past years, we started getting surplus produce. But, we don’t want to sell it. We give it to our friends, neighbours or just compost it,” says Peter, adding, “Some 30 years ago, most people in Goa had kitchen gardens, where they would grow their food – be it chillies, red amaranths, different types of gourds, cucumber and fruits like coconut, bananas, guavas, etc. But, now this concept is fading with time.”

Growing food organically, however, is catching people’s attention. All it needs is time and dedication. There are a lot people, who, in their own capacity, are building their own kitchen garden. Terency Luis from Verna has a garden with more than 60 vegetables, fruits, herbs, spices and medicinal plants. Terency does all the work on the 1,950 sq m property herself. She has also managed to encourage her neighbours to grow organic vegetables.

She makes compost using a tumbling composter that she has assembled.

Terency Luis at her farm in Verna.
Fish waste is dumped into a 200 litre plastic drum, where she mixes sawdust and uses the fish waste as a fertiliser for the plants. A traditional compost pit is also present, where leaves and other waste sit before they are transferred into the banana circle to fully decompose. Terency has created several raised beds using materials like wood, laterite stones, cement posts, bricks etc. Each of these are filled with soil that she makes on the property, using the various methods of composting that she employs.

If space is a problem for you to start a kitchen garden, then the solution is community farming. Abhay Kesarkar from Ponda is involved in community farming in a housing complex in Ponda – a town 30km from Panaji. They started their kitchen garden on a terrace of the building and four families are involved in this activity. They grow around 30 seasonal varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Yogita Mehra, who regularly conducts organic gardening workshops in Goa and Mumbai, has noticed a trend of growing your own food in Goa. They’re mostly urban dwellers who don’t want to compromise on the quality of the food and at the same time want to experience the satisfaction of growing it themselves.

She conducts workshops with her husband, Karan Manral, where they teach how, even a small verandah can be turned into a kitchen garden, provided that it receives at least five hours of sunlight for the plants to grow well.

People also like the idea of composting. Goa experiences an issue of waste management. So it’s great that there are people who compost at homes. A portable composting unit called Khamba, introduced by a Bangalore-based company Daily Dump, is quite popular in Goa. It not only gives the much required compost to the plants, but also solves the regular issue of wet waste (which is around 70 per cent of our total waste generated at home).

The government is also working on promoting organic farming in the state.

Vegetables that can be easily grown in a kitchen garden. Source: Green Essentials
The agriculture department recently launched a state sector scheme, under which, 50 per cent assistance will be given on the cost of organic inputs limited to ₹10,000 per hectare and maximum up to 2 hectares per beneficiary for all categories of farmers. These organic inputs are organic fertilisers, bio-fertilisers, bio-pesticides and bio-control agents. Farmers possessing a valid Krishi card and cultivating a minimum area of 0.1 hectare in the state are eligible for this scheme.

The Botanical Society of Goa started in 1990. Its annual Home Garden Competition began two years later and focused entirely on ornamental plants. In 1996, a component of Kitchen Gardening was introduced and in 1998, a component of composting of kitchen waste and garden clippings was introduced. In the next year, they introduced a component of waste/grey water reuse for irrigation.

In 2011, the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) held its national executive committee meeting in Goa.

The annual Konkan Fruit Fest held in the month of April in Goa
Taking advantage of the organic farming promoters coming to Goa, the Konkan Fruit Fest was pushed to April end and exhibition and sale of organic produce like fruits and vegetables was organised as part of the event. Now, this event is held every year in Goa focusing on a particular fruit or plant.

Another success story is the Chorao Farmers Club which was initiated in the year 2008 with a group of 22 farmers from the island village of Chorao. It was started by a retired school teacher Premanand Mhambre.

Today, it has around 100 members, 50 per cent of whom are women. They sell various produce like coconut oil, cashew nuts, etc., but their most famous products are the salt-tolerant, traditional variety of rice called Corgut, grown without using chemical fertilisers. It has high fibre content, essential oils, digestible protein as well as high levels of vitamin B complex.

They have other products like Mancurad Mango that sell like hot cakes in the month of April and May. All these initiatives in Goa in the last ten years or so, have helped people become more aware towards what they consume, and also become more environment conscious.

Thomas Archer Bata: In his shoes

The fourth-generation scion of the family that owns Bata Shoe Co. on strategies to tackle the challenges in the Indian market, and the confusion created by the same first name, writes Sounak Mitra on the Live Mint. Read on: 

One thing Thomas Archer Bata is unlikely to do is name his son Thomas. The fourth-generation scion of the family that owns Bata Shoe Co. says his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all named Thomas (his great-grandfather’s name was spelt without the “h”) and it has led to enough confusion over the years. “Invitations from embassies addressed to my father used to reach my desk while I was young. Love letters meant for my father used to reach my grandfather,” says the 29-year-old with a wide grin. Between sips of white wine, he adds, “Diversity is good for every family and business, be it in naming people.”

The global chief marketing officer at the Lausanne, Switzerland-based company was in India recently for a Bata event. I met Thomas, who was sporting a Nehru jacket and a pair of Bata shoes, at The Imperial hotel’s Patiala Peg bar in Delhi.

As history goes, Thomas’ great-grandfather Tomáš Bat’a visited India and decided to make and sell shoes in the then British colony. In 1932, Bata started making shoes in Konnagar, on the outskirts of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Within two years, demand grew, and the company moved its factory to a town that is now known as Batanagar. Of its five factories in the country, the Batanagar factory alone produces nearly 12 million pairs of shoes annually.

India is Bata’s second largest market after Italy—it sells 57 million pairs (as of FY17) of shoes in the country annually. Annual global sales are at around 230 million pairs. But though it’s the market leader and a household name here (so much so that many people think of it as a home-grown firm), the company is facing challenges of slowing growth and staying relevant in a hugely competitive market.

After years of growing sales and increasing profit, Bata India (listed on the Bombay Stock Exchange in 1973) started struggling post-liberalization. The company could not deal with wage issues, strikes by workers unions and supply-chain problems—be it sourcing raw material or managing retail stores. It seemed to be stuck in time. The stores looked archaic, the products out-of-fashion, and business suffered so much that the firm reached near-bankruptcy in 2005 after reporting losses for three consecutive years.

At that point, Marcelo Villagran, chief executive officer of Bata Chile, was brought to India to turn things around. Villigran promptly started a cost-cutting exercise. Unprofitable stores were shut, others got a new look, longer business hours, and the company decided to keep its outlets open on Sundays. It worked.

Thomas, who lives in Prague and works in Chile, knows seven languages, including Spanish, Russian and Czech. His favourite holiday destination is Canada (he was born in Toronto). “I absolutely love the mountains in western Canada. If I have time to go anywhere, I’ll go there,” he says. He plays the guitar, likes skiing, and loves to cook on weekends if he’s at home.
Bata India reported a sudden surge (42%) in net profit in 2010, at Rs95 crore, and continued the momentum for the next five years before reporting a decline in both profit and sales in 2016. And though it managed to arrest the decline in sales, profit slipped further in FY17 (Rs159 crore from Rs218 crore previous fiscal).

This time, group chairman and Thomas’ father, Thomas G. Bata, decided to task Thomas with salvaging the flailing Indian market.

Thomas, who completed his master’s in political science and government from the University of Edinburgh in 2011, had joined the family business right after as a flagship manager at a department store in Prague, about 300km from Zlín, a small town in erstwhile Czechoslovakia, where his great-grandfather Tomáš Bat’a, with his two siblings, Anna and Antonín, founded the T & A Baťa Shoe Company on 24 August 1894.

He seems to be the perfect choice for the Indian market. Thomas was instrumental in Bata Chile’s growth, where he joined as general manager in 2012, with focused marketing and aggressive retailing. He was elevated as the group’s global chief marketing officer in 2016.

Not just that. In his own words, Thomas developed a new store concept for Bata in Prague, Czech Republic, that ensured the company’s growth—it has since been emulated in other countries.

India is a new market for him, one he has been looking after for six months. He has set himself a goal—to cross $1 billion (around Rs6,400 crore) in annual sales by 2020, up from the current Rs2,504 crore.

Towards that end, Bata India has brought on board a bunch of young graduates from schools like the National Institute of Fashion Technology (Nift) to design shoes that will be stylish, affordable and suit Indian tastes. There’s also better mapping of consumer behaviour to determine which kind of shoes should be showcased in which store. Bata discontinued its famous 95-paise pricing over a decade ago. But all price tags for Bata shoes still stop at “9” (179, 449, 599, 699, etc.).

This will continue but Thomas says Bata India needs a new set of consumers—the millennials, young working middle-class, and women. It’s now targeting women with a new campaign, including a TV commercial with the tag line: Me. And Comfortable With It. “Our research and insight reveals that the modern Indian woman is comfortable with her choices, her emotions, her femininity, and with challenging gender roles—in essence, ‘comfortable in her own style and shoes’.”

He is clear about why Bata failed to sustain growth. “Stagnation,” he says. “When a company gets into that mode (stagnation), things become bureaucratic and it loses focus, it starts to go into decline. And that’s what happened.”

So though the company still commands India’s estimated Rs55,300-crore footwear market (source: Euromonitor International) with a 6% share, it failed to innovate and stay relevant to even its loyal consumers, says Thomas.

It sold what its factories had been producing for years and did not bother understanding changing consumer preferences. It did not change with time. “That was a mistake. And that’s the big change that we have undertaken. We are going back to our consumers and now we’ll produce what they need or look for. We need the young generation to buy Bata shoes,” says Thomas.

Over the next few years, Bata will add about 100 new outlets a year to the existing 1,265 stores across India. Bata already sells some India-specific brands such as Sandak, Sparx, Scholl, Mocassino, Ambassador, Bata Comfit and Eva-Lite. But Thomas is betting on more India-specific products and marketing strategies. “The potential here is huge. It won’t be easy, but it all depends on how we execute our plans of addressing the needs of each consumer and make the right investments,” he says.

While he is free to change the way the company markets shoes, Thomas usually discusses his plans first with his father—the passionate yet matured business mind, as he prefers to describe him.

Being born into a family with such a rich legacy has its benefits after all. “I never needed any training or formal guidance to know the nuances of selling shoes. It came naturally,” he says, though his first job, albeit an informal one, was when he was in college: at a Japanese restaurant where he started as a help and rose to part-time chef. It is there that he learnt cooking, a skill that has helped him in his personal life.

In business, however, there’s another change in the market that Thomas needs to address—online retail. “It is still low. But this is one area we need to address better and faster. India has just skipped the analogue generation and gone straight to digital. We need to make sure we are ready for that. We need to be ahead of our competitors,” he says. On this front, he will take the help of his sister Charlotte, a communication specialist and style blogger (pairing luxury and fast fashion with Bata shoes on her blogs), who now oversees Bata’s global digital marketing strategy.

If everything goes well, says Thomas, India will become the largest market for Bata globally by 2020, overtaking Italy. “India is a huge market and the country is growing faster than all European markets,” he says.

The elusive $1 billion revenue dream is not new. Thomas’ father had said in 2013 that the company hoped to touch the mark in three-four years. Thomas believes it’s possible by 2020—with strategic investments and good executions of plans, of course. This time, he says, the target can’t be missed.

Friday 29 September 2017

How about farmers and shopkeepers debating over Shakespeare and Kalidas?

In a tiny Karnataka village, farmers and shopkeepers debate over Shakespeare and Kalidas, writes Sanchari Pal on The Better India. Read on: 

In the quiet village of Heggodu in Shimoga, 350 km from Bangalore, it is not uncommon to hear local farmers, cart drivers and shopkeepers rattle off names of literary greats and their theatrical works without batting an eyelid. The astonishing cultural life of this unique village is a result of it being home to the Nilakanteshwara Natyaseva Samgha, a world famous culture institute better known as Ninasam.

Founded in 1949 by the acclaimed Kannada writer, Kuntagodu Vibhuthi Subbanna, Ninasam has made outstanding contributions in the fields of theatre, films and publishing. Ninasam began as an amateur theatre group housed in a small thatched hut in the verdant environment of Heggodu but grew rapidly to become a powerhouse of Kannada culture and intellect. The focus of Ninasam was socio-cultural work and its aim was to build a bridge between rural and urban Karnataka by fusing culture and activism.

In its initial years, Ninasam would conduct theatre and literary workshops and publish theatre-related books. As a result, culture enthusiasts from nearby places started coming together to discuss contemporary issues and events. As the years passed, more people started getting involved in the workings of Ninasam. A full-fledged theatre building (named after Kannada’s literary great Shivarama Karanth) was constructed for its theatre troupe, which started performing plays in other parts of Karnataka as well. Ninasam also began offering residential theatre training programmes soon afterwards.

Ninasam also started one of India’s very few village based film societies. To eliminate the language barrier for the locals, who understood only Kannada, KV Subbana would write entire screenplays of films in Kannada and distribute them to the people before screening. His efforts are evident even today when the villagers talk in depth about Apur Sansar, Rashomon and Seven Samurai when asked about their favourite films.

The flagship event of Ninasam became its much-loved culture course known as the Samskrutik Shibira. The 7-day annual event is a combination of intellectual discourse and aesthetic experience that revolves around a chosen socio-political theme. With an unpretentious and lively atmosphere, the event hosts scholars and young enthusiasts of culture who descend in large numbers every year. Eminent figures of Indian culture such as B V Karanth, U R Ananthmurthy, Sammik Bandhopadhyay, and Shiv Vishwanathan have delivered lectures at this renowned culture course.

Ninasam follows the guru-shishya tradition and is totally run by the staff and students who take turns doing the chores in the institute. Each part of the beautiful campus blends in well with the rustic natural surroundings. The buildings have been constructed using local materials and are decorated with hasechitra or traditional Shimoga motifs. Sharing a symbiotic relationship with the institute, villagers often drop by to lend a helping hand, flitting across from the rehearsal halls and library to the canteen on the institute campus, hoping to hear snatches of dialogue and music from the ongoing rehearsals.

Behind the canteen is a beautiful enclosure that is used for making masks and props and where children from nearby villages are trained for Yakshagana performances.  Yakshagana is a folk theatre form that combines dance, music, dialogue and costumes in a unique theatre that is traditionally presented from dusk to dawn. It is predominantly seen in the coastal districts of Karnataka, especially the Malnad region.

A few yards away, students of Ninasam’s 10-month theatre course practise for their first production under the watchful eyes of the senior alumni of the institute. This course is a nursery for aspiring theatre practitioners who want to learn the art of blending the traditional and the contemporary.

At the institute’s dedicated theatre building, members of Ninasam’s famous theatre troupe, Tirugata, rehearse for their much awaited annual play. Every year, Tirugata recruits a fresh team of artists and travels the length and breadth of the state, putting up shows that are sold out in every place they go.

Days at Ninasam are full of literary discussions and evenings are filled with theatre performances – from drama and dance to classical music. These events have helped the locals acquire a passion for the works of writers ranging from Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy to Kalidasa, Girish Karnad, and Mohan Rakesh.

In six decades, Ninasam has developed into a multi-faceted organisation that has several branches like the Ninasam Theatre Institute, Ninasam Tirugata, Ninasam Foundation, and the Akshara Prakashana Publishing House. The great work done by Ninasam has brought it widespread recognition and several awards, both national and international, in the field of theatre and related arts. Its founder, the late KV Subbanna, was conferred the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Creative Arts, Communication and Journalism in 1991.

Still going strong, Ninasam has not only played a big role in inculcating cultural literacy in every corner of Karnataka, it has also inspired several others in the country by illustrating the multiple uses of theatre. As Girish Karnad, popularly considered the face of Kannada theatre, said in an interview to Quint,

“They (Ninasam) create people who know the vocabulary of theatre.”

Ninasam has indeed changed the lives of all the people who have come in touch with the institution. From literary debates between local residents and shop keepers to lively dialogue exchanges between farmers as they work in the fields, everyone in Heggodu has made literature and theatre a part of their lives. This village, that cares so deeply for art and culture, is a must visit for all theatre and culture enthusiasts.

Get ready for a spectacular display by Red arrows in Qatar tomorrow

Approximately after four years, the residents of Qatar will be able to watch thrilling displays of the United Kingdom’s world-renowned Royal Air Force team, Red Arrows, on September 30 in Doha.

This was disclosed by the British Embassy in Qatar on twitter.

“Are you looking forward to watch @rafredarrows spectacular display in Doha? 30 September is the day to remember. Don’t miss the excitement,” the embassy tweeted.

The Red Arrows are on a five week tour of the region, which will take them to around 8 countries.

The UK Ministry of Defence had earlier  announced on “GOV.UK” that world renowned RAF Red Arrows (nicknamed The Reds) will tour Middle East (including Qatar).

RAF Red Arrows is one of the world’s premier aerobatic display teams. Representing the speed, agility and precision of the RAF, “the team is the public face of the service”.

The Red Arrows thrilled the residents of Qatar in November 2013 with precision formations and colourful smoke trails. At that time, a team comprising seven red BAE Systems Hawk aircraft had performed a series of precision formations and dynamic loops and rolls at the Doha Corniche.

Ministry of Defence UK on its twitter handle @DefenceHQ announced: “DefSec announces @rafredarrows visit to Gulf as a visible demonstration of UK engagement across the globe.”

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said: “This historic Red Arrows tour will be a visible demonstration of UK engagement across the globe, flying the flag to promote Britain in important capitals through the GREAT campaign.”

“The tour (of RAF Red Arrows) will highlight the partnership with the British Armed Forces in each nation visited, as well as demonstrating that the UK is ‘open for business’, committed to peace and security, and a leading player on the global stage,” the Ministry of Defence said.

The news of British aerobatic team’s tour to Qatar has caused excitement among people.

“I was part of the crowd which watched splendid display of aerobatics in 2013 from Doha Corniche and this time I hope there will be a far bigger crowd to enjoy the spectacular show of aerobatics in Qatar,” said Salauddin, an Indian expatriate.

The Ministry of Defence has further said that the Red Arrows tour will allow for further close cooperation with Kuwaiti and regional armed forces and promote opportunities for investment and trade with the UK, encourage government-to-government engagement to develop economic partnership, and showcase the excellence of STEM education with UK universities with displays in Qatar, Kuwait and Oman among other countries.

According to information shared on RAF website, since 1965, and by the end of the 2016 season, the Red Arrows had flown more than 4,800 displays in 57 countries worldwide.

They assist in recruiting to the Armed Forces, act as ambassadors for the United Kingdom and promote the best of British. Flying distinctive Hawk jets, the team is made up of pilots, engineers and essential support staff with frontline, operational experience.

(Source: The Peninsula)

Margate Shell Grotto

Located in Margate, Kent, The Shell Grotto’s walls and roof are covered in mosaics made entirely of seashells, totaling about 2,000 square feet of mosaic, or 4.6 million shells. 

In 1835, James Newlove was digging a duck pond when his shovel broke through the ground into some kind of underground opening. Lowering his son into the cave, he quickly realized that this was more than just a natural underground cavern. (Reports on the discovery vary, and some suggest that Newlove and his children were aware of the grotto for some time before announcing its existence to the world.)

Decorated with thousands of local shells, the designs are reminiscent of Indian and Egyptian designs. The mosaic panels are quite abstract but some appear to represent animals such as a crocodile, owl, or turtle and another is said to look like a skeleton.

The entrance to the Grotto, 1867 

The grotto was opened to the public in 1837 and quickly became a local tourist attraction. Unfortunately the gas lamps used to light the cave in Victorian times have rendered radiocarbon dating almost entirely useless in dating the age of the cave. Other methods have been used in an attempt to date the cave but so far they have proved fruitless, and an investigation into the mortar used to affix the shells to the wall was only able to conclude that it was “fish based.”

Because of this lack of a fixed date of creation and because the designs look vaguely Eastern, speculations over who made this cave have ranged wildly from Phoenicians over Romans, Templars to 18th and 19th century mystics and magicians. Most likely it was created in the 1700s by one of the many Eastern-influenced secret societies of English gentlemen.

The grotto is a small place, and easy to miss, in a neighbourhood that obviously has known better times. At the front of the small entrance building which there is a souvenir shop and cafe, and a museum room telling the history of the grotto leads to a narrow stairway, and a chalk passage, with a few niches decorated in shells.

Once through the new entrance a narrow S-shaped passageway leads to a chamber with a central column, and this is where one can grasp the charm of this man-made cavern. The walls and ceiling have been covered in literally thousands of shells, in intricate patterns which look like trees, flowers, men, and more.

At the end, there is a shaft upwards, letting in the sunlight, and said to function as a solar clock/calendar. A further S-shaped passageway leads to a rectangular room, which had its vaulted ceiling and part of its wall destroyed in the World Wars.

While some have suggested it to be a hoax - even though there is no evidence of excavations at the time - there are some archaeological reports remarking on the similarities with the construction of early tin mines in the region.

(Source: Atlas Obscura)

Thursday 28 September 2017

The unspeakable husband’s name and the tradition of silence

The society has various prescribed traditions for women that they are expected to follow without questioning, sometimes even by force. One such tradition in the institution of marriage is the practice of women not calling their husbands by their name. While at first thought, it may not seem like a very important issue, but delving further into the customary practice for its reasons and given arguments reveals the deep-rooted male domination and chauvinism that lies underneath.

A number of arguments are given in support of this practice – the most common being that the husband traditionally, would be older than the wife, and hence it is in line with the Indian tradition of not calling elders by their name.

This argument might have made sense if and only if, the practice was limited to husbands older in age. In traditional Indian marriages, women are often instructed to not say the name of any of their in-laws, irrespective of the age. The cases of women calling their in-laws of the same generation and age (sometimes even younger) as bhaiya and didi is not rare. It is taken to be an unsaid rule that daughters-in-law are supposed to respect their in-laws simply by virtue of them being her in-laws. No questions asked.

Another common reasoning given in support of this tradition takes root in Indian traditional philosophy. The idea that everything on earth is a part of a duality, and one is never complete without the other extends to marital relationships where the husband and wife are seen as two sides of the same coin.

The roles of visionary-actualiser is a major part of this philosophy, according to which one plays the superior role of the visionary (providing light and guidance) and the other follows through to reach actualization. Even though philosophically, anybody can play the role of the visionary, the role has traditionally been accorded to the husband. The fixed belief of men being the bread winners of the family is taken to be the justification of male superiority. This unquestioning respect that must be bestowed upon husbands is the source of many regressive mindsets where the husband is seen as an absolute superior.

A more dogmatic justification given to this tradition of naming (or rather un-naming) takes route in the Vedic philosophy of the Prana-maya kosh. According to this philosophy, the respect that the wife accords to the husband acts as a rejuvenating force for the male psyche, and helps the male to regularly regain his strength and thus prolong his life. The wife then, by calling the husband by his name, is said to be lessening the lifespan of the husband. Even though a similar form of respect is expected by the husband too, to enhance the nurturing spirit of the wife and thereby her life, the concept is largely lost in the society, and the selective and hypocritical traditions bear witness to it.

It is very similar to the festival of Karva Chauth, where the wife is supposed to fast from sunrise to sunset for the longevity of the husband, but the husband is not expected to do anything such. Whether or not these practices hold scientific validity, the gestures alone are enough to point out the inherent patriarchy in these traditions.

These traditions are so deeply entrenched in our society that they often become internalised as norms that no-one cares to critique. The patriarchal idea of providing a God-like stature to the husband is not unheard of, and women continue to hold on to these beliefs unquestioningly. The practice of never uttering the husband’s name is taken as an obvious fact, because the husband is God-like while the wife is a lesser human. The following video by Video Volunteers shows how this tradition operates not just by force, by also by internalisation.

While adhering to this language conduct is often regarded as an insignificant part of life, that women are told to adhere to and overlook, the repercussions of not following this tradition has had severe punishments for women in many incidents, that makes one realise the importance of considering these issues with all seriousness in daily life.

Take for example the following case from Odisha, where a woman was ostracised from the community for addressing her in-laws by name. Such drastic punishments, for something that cannot even be logically called a mistake shows the obsession of the male dominant society to keep their women under their thumb.

While there is a strong need to address this issue, it is equally important to address it at all levels of the society. Urban areas have started to see a slow departure from this tradition, with some women beginning to address their husbands by their name (this is not to say that the problem has lessened, but only that it can with due effort). Change can only begin with the questioning of tradition, and a refusal to adhere to it when it is exposed to be patriarchal in its construction. Only then can this, and other patriarchal traditions be effectively countered.

(Source: Feminism in India)

Five ferocious feuds that shaped art history

Throughout art history, the quest for remembrance and dominance has led to intense rivalries. Some of these have inspired feats of creative one-upmanship; some have been outright destructive. Either way, they have indelibly defined the stakes of art-making. Below, we list five of the most famous.

Raphael vs. Michelangelo
The youthful artist Raphael burst on the scene in Renaissance Italy in 1504 with an intricate style that was influenced by his predecessors Fra Bartolommeo, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. In 1508, at the age of 26, the young artist was invited by Pope Julius II to paint a fresco in the Pope’s private library in the Vatican Palace. Not only did he beat competitors such as Michelangelo and Leonardo to win the commission, his work gained rapturous reviews.

Even Renaissance chronicler Vasari, who basically viewed Michelangelo as a god and the high point of the Renaissance, acknowledged that Raphael gave the elder artist a run for his money:

Raphael of Urbino had risen into great credit as a painter, and his friends and adherents maintained that his works were more strictly in accordance with the rules of art than Michelangelo, affirming that they were graceful in coloring, of beautiful invention, admirable in expression, and of characteristic design; while those of Michelangelo, it was averred, had none of those qualities with the exception of the design. For these reasons, Raphael was judged, by those who thus opined, to be fully equal, if not superior, to Michelangelo in painting generally, and… decidedly superior to him regarding coloring in particular.

Michelangelo did not take well to the competition. As Robert S. Liebert writes in “Raphael, Michelangelo, Sebastiano: High Renaissance Rivalry,” he “made Raphael bear the brunt of his unrelenting envy, contempt, and anger.”

But Raphael could give as good as he got. For one thing, he famously painted Michelangelo’s features onto the figure of Heraclitus in The School of Athens.

Raphael painted a sulking Michelangelo into one of his frescoes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Immortalizing one’s rival in the form of a pre-Socratic philosopher most famous for saying “you never step in the same river twice” might seem like a strange move, but Ross King clears up the meaning: “[I]t is not this philosophy of universal change that seems to have influenced Raphael to lend him the features of Michelangelo; more likely it was Heraclitus’s legendary sour temper and bitter scorn for all rivals.”

Ingres vs. Delacroix
The rivalry between the two titans of French painting unfolded amid a clash of styles in 19th-century France that saw the traditional neoclassical style favored by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres pitted against the avant-garde Romanticism championed by Eugene Delacroix.

The feud wasn’t just about artistic style; it was about the moral values ascribed to line and color, respectively. “Ingres was the self-appointed protector not only of linearism and classical tradition, but of morality and reason as well…,” writes Walter F. Friedlaender, the author of David to Delacroix. “[L]ine and linear abstraction embodied something moral, lawful, and universal, and every descent into the coloristic and irrational was a heresy and a moral aberration that must be strenuously combated.”

Thus, Delacroix, the most famous colorist, was viewed as not just artistically distinct, but a threat to the morality of French society. “I cannot look at Delacroix,” Ingres once said. “He smells of brimstone.”

Nor did the rivalry always stay in the realm of pure debate. Julian Barnes describes an encounter between the two rivals, who had been accidentally invited to the same party by a banker friend:

After much glowering, Ingres could no longer restrain himself. Cup of coffee in hand, he accosted his rival by a mantelpiece. ‘Sir!’ he declared, ‘Drawing means honesty! Drawing means honour!’ Becoming over-choleric in the face of the cool Delacroix, Ingres upset his coffee down his own shirt and waistcoat, then seized his hat and made for the door, where he turned and repeated, ‘Yes, sir! It is honour! It is honesty!’”

Ingres and Delacroix represented two different schools of painting in 19th century France. Photos: Wikimedia Commons.
Greenberg vs. Rosenberg
These two giants of art criticism and the artists they advocated gave birth to the movement of American Abstract Expressionism and are associated with the US’s rise to artistic prominence. Greenberg gravitated toward the abstraction of Jackson Pollock; his rival, Rosenberg, favored the painting of Willem de Kooning.

Greenberg held strict formalist views, insisting that abstraction was a step in the progression of the tradition of painting, a claim rejected by Rosenberg, whose advocacy of what he termed “Action Painting” led him to proclaim that painting was no longer a picture, but the recording of an event. Anecdotes describe how the two men had to be kept separate at parties—but it was in print where their battle really played out.

Thus, in “How Art Writing Earns Its Bad Name,” Greenberg blasted critics like Rosenberg for “perversions and abortions of discourse: pseudo-description, pseudo-narrative, pseudo-exposition, pseudo-history, pseudo-philosophy, pseudo-psychology, and—worst of all—pseudo-poetry.”

Rosenberg clapped back with this sarcastic passage from “Action Painting: A Decade of Distortion”:

“[T]he will to remove contemporary painting and sculpture into the domain of art-as-art favors the ‘expert’ who purveys to the bewildered. ‘I fail to see anything essential in it [Action Painting],’ writes Clement Greenberg, a tipster on masterpieces, current and future, ‘that cannot be shown to have evolved [presumably through the germ cells in the paint] out of either Cubism or Impressionism, just as I fail to see anything essential in Cubism or Impressionism whose development could not be traced back to Giotto and Masaccio and Giorgione and Titian.’ In this burlesque of art history, artists vanish, and paintings spring from one another with the help of no other generating principle than whatever ‘law of development’ the critic happens to have on hand.


Clement Greenberg [left] vs. Harold Rosenberg .

Matisse vs. Picasso
Though the rivalry between Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso remained on the whole respectful and cordial, the two artists relentlessly spurred each other on creatively. In his book The Art of Rivalry, critic Sebastian Smee describes the competition between the two greats as “a drama unlike any in the story of modern art.”

In his 20s, the relentlessly ambitious Picasso squared off with Matisse, 12 years his senior, unleashing an extraordinary period of growth for both artists. According to Smee, Matisse’s iconic Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra (1907) “forced Picasso to radically rethink what he was doing,” and shaped the creative impetus on what would become Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), one of the Spaniard’s greatest works. When Matisse saw the latter, he lauded the younger Picasso as “an electrifying innovator,” and acknowledged he was a painter to “possibly learn from.”

It’s been argued, though, the status of this classic modernist rivalry, which has sustained scholarship and exhibition-making ever since, was a bit of a PR invention of the poet and avant-garde booster Apollinaire, who wrote a press release for a “Matisse/Picasso” show at Paul Guillaume’s gallery in 1918. To drum up enthusiasm, he depicted the show as a clash of the titans, and the rivalry of Matisse and Picasso as all that mattered for art-lovers, describing them as “the two most famous representatives of the two grand opposing tendencies in great contemporary art.”

Matisse and Picasso’s rivalry resulted in some of the artists’ best work. Photo: Ralph Gatti, George Stroud/Getty Images.

Van Gogh vs. Gauguin
Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin’s rivalry began as a friendship. Van Gogh invited Gauguin to join him in the south of France where he was trying to establish an artist’s commune in the town of Arles. For a brief period, the Post-Impressionist masters fruitfully lived, worked, and collaborated alongside one another in the so-called Yellow House, resulting in a competitive but friendly artistic rivalry from which both benefited.

However, the arrangement soured. Both men were difficult characters. Van Gogh was plagued by mental instability, while Gauguin had a reputation for being a narcissistic and unpleasant person. When Gauguin depicted his friend in The Painter of Sunflowers, van Gogh is said to have recoiled, saying, “It’s me, but it’s me gone mad.” Not exactly helping his case, in a café afterwards, van Gogh hurled a glass of absinthe at Gauguin’s head.

Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh’s friendship turned sour. Photos: Wikimedia Commons.
According to legend, the Dutch painter cut off his ear after a row with Gauguin in 1888, giving the bloody ear to a stunned prostitute at a nearby brothel. Yet, so heated did their relationship become that recently some German art historians have put forward an alternate theory of the ear amputation, in the book In Van Gogh’s Ear: Paul Gauguin and the Pact of Silence. One of the historians, Hans Kaufmann, narrated the supposed actual scene to the Guardian:

Near the brothel, about 300 metres from the Yellow House, there was a final encounter between them: Vincent might have attacked him, Gauguin wanted to defend himself and to get rid of this ‘madman’. He drew his weapon, made some movement in the direction of Vincent and by that cut off his left ear.
Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers (Portrait of Vincent van Gogh) (1888). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Van Gogh experts generally stand by the story of self-mutilation. Kaufmann points to inconsistencies in the two artists’ stories, and at a passage in one of Van Gogh’s letters to Theo that seems to indicate a brutal potential within their rivalry: “Luckily Gauguin… is not yet armed with machine guns and other dangerous war weapons.”

(Source: Artnet)

Nine Soviet hikers who fled their tent one night and died: The mystery of the Dyatlov Pass

The sinister account of the Dyatlov Pass resembles something out of a horror movie. The story of nine Soviet hikers who met their tragic end in the freezing cold of the Ural mountains has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories, and it continues to inspire the imaginations of many, for it has not yet been fully revealed what happened on the night between the 1st and 2nd of February in 1959.

It all started out as an adventure among colleagues from the Urals Polytechnic Institute, based in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), who shared an enthusiasm for skiing and hiking in Russia’s Ural mountain range. On January 27, a group consisting of 10 people (eight men and two women), under the leadership of Igor Dyatlov, was preparing to conquer Mount Otorten, part of the Northern Ural.

The territory was mostly populated by a small ethnic minority called the Mansi people. Otorten, by the way, translates from Mansi as “Don’t go there.” But the warning didn’t deter the students who set out to cross the difficult terrain.

The group left the town of Ivdel by truck, which got them to the small village of Vizhai―the last inhabited settlement on the very edge of the wilderness.

It was here where the group of 10 heard an ancient, spooky story about the Mansi hunters who were mysteriously murdered while passing through what has since become known as the Dead Mountain.

On January 28th, Yuri Yud, a member of the hiking group (and the sole survivor of the incident that followed), became ill from dysentery and was forced to stay in Vizhai while the others decided to continue with the plan. The group of ten was now down to nine.

Location of Dyatlov Pass, Russia. Author: Uwe Dedering CC BY-SA 3.0
What makes this event so haunting is the fact that the Mansi legend featured nine hunters. This bad omen was once again ignored by the group, which rejected any notion of reality in such a superstition. The students were still determined to keep to their planned route toward the Otorten Peak, which led across the Dead Mountain.

On February 1st they were caught by a snowstorm and decided to set up camp, delaying their expedition. What happened during that night remains one of the most bizarre and inexplicable events in Soviet history.

The hikers were suppose to return around February 12th, and confirm to their sports club that they were safe, but due to bad weather, everyone probably assumed they would be running a bit off schedule, so their lateness did not raise an alarm. A few days later, Yuri Yudin, who had stayed in the village, started to become concerned. On February 20th, the families of the students started inquiring with the authorities, demanding a search party be organized.

At first, the Polytechnic Institute sent a team of volunteers to look for their missing colleagues. The situation became grave when the expedition wasn’t found.

The river Auspiya, along which the group traveled.
The search party was joined by police and military personnel. Helicopters and light aircraft were also used, as it became obvious that the group had gone beyond the terrain approachable by normal transport.

On February 26th, the camp was discovered. The searchers first concluded that someone, presumably from the group, had cut the back of the tent from the inside, in order to get out. The camp was found as if it was left in a hurry, for all the equipment, which included skis, food, and warm clothing, was still in the tent. It was already half-covered in snow when it was spotted, and the search party prepared for the worst-case scenario.

A trail of footprints made by eight or nine people was found nearby, which indicated that the hikers were running away from the camp, most likely barefoot, or only wearing socks. The trail streched for about one-third of a mile from the camp. The Northern Ural is infamous for its extremely unforgiving weather conditions. The temperature at the time was -22 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia was the first thought. But there were still pieces not fitting the puzzle.

Photo of the members of the tour group on the monument after the tragedy. Upper row: Doroshenko, Dubinina, Dyatlov; The middle row: Zolotarev, Kolmogorov, Kolevatov; Lower row: Krivonischenko, Slobodin, Thibault Brignoles.
Soon after, the first two bodies were found. Two men, dressed in their underclothes, were found on the edge of the forest, where they had frozen to death. Apparently, they managed to light a small fire, but that didn’t help them survive the night.

Another three bodies, that of Dyatlov, one man, and one woman, were found somewhere between the first two bodies and the tent. They looked if they were trying to return to the camp, perhaps believing that the danger had passed. The accounts left a confusing impression, but the authorities determined that all five hikers had died of hypothermia.

What really baffled everyone was how did a group of relatively experienced mountain climbers manage to succumb to hypothermia and what was it that drove them out of the tent? What about the other four? Did they perhaps survive somehow?

The last question was answered two months later, in May, when the snow began to melt. The bodies of the remaining four hikers, which included three men and one woman, were found with heavy physical injuries, which turned out to be the cause of death. They were much better dressed than the bodies found earlier. The investigation concluded that they must have been outside when the mysterious attacker appeared.

A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on February 26th, 1959: the tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot
The autopsy found traces of radiation on some clothes worn by the victims. The radiation level was twice the normal level, but the authorities refused to comment on this discovery.

Despite all the unanswered questions, the investigation was closed in May 1959. “A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome” was the official conclusion. The area was off limits for the next three years, and the Dyatlov case was labeled confidential.

The case was revisited in 1993, when an avalanche of conspiracy theories broke out, each claiming some supernatural or highly unorthodox scenario. Given that no one had really been able to provide a proper explanation of the event that included nine mysterious deaths, a top secret label, and an abnormal level of radioactivity, this came as no surprise.

The group’s tomb at the Mikhajlov Cemetery in Yekaterinburg
Today there are numerous websites, articles, books, feature films, and documentaries about the Dyatlov Pass incident, but no substantial evidence for any of the claims. The theories revolve around secret government experiments, aliens landing on the Ural, U.S. secret service covering their tracks (not particularly well if that was the case!), etc. One theory even suggests that they fell victims to the Russian equivalent of a Yeti, called Menk.

The government suggested theories such as an attack by a wild bear, an avalanche, or that they were assaulted by local Mansi raiders, but they too failed to provide enough evidence to support their explanations. Perhaps we will never know what happened that night, but that doesn’t stop us from guessing.

(Source: The Vintage News)

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Sex work is common among models: Yrsa Daley-Ward

She has a lot to say… about sexuality, relationships and mental health. But how did Lancashire’s Yrsa Daley-Ward become the toast of Los Angeles? Eve Barlow from the Guardian meets the poet, feminist, model and LGBTQ activist spelling out some hard truths. Read on:

If you’re afraid to write it, that’s a good sign. I suppose you know you’re writing the truth when you’re terrified.” These words in black type on a white background make up one of poet Yrsa Daley-Ward’s Instagram posts. This monochrome snapshot of her innermost thoughts has more than 5,200 “likes”. That’s more than double the number she gets for any pictures. Daley-Ward spent her late teens and early 20s as a model struggling to pay her rent in London, working for brands such as Apple, Topshop, Estée Lauder and Nike. She still models today. Ironically, however, it was the image-obsessed medium of Instagram that enabled her to pursue the written word.

“I always was a writer,” she explains today in a thick Lancashire accent, sitting in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant close to where she lives. “But I was depressed [in London] and that made me choke. Modelling is an interesting profession because it teaches you so much about here…” She points a finger at her face. “But not here…” she sighs and points at her heart. “You become introverted, you disappear into yourself.”

Daley-Ward’s debut collection of poetry, Bone, is anything but introverted. Aptly titled, it’s a visceral read candidly documenting her religious upbringing, sexuality and mental-health battles. It flew out of her in three months, as she chronicled her bad love affairs, sense of isolation and feelings of inadequacy – an uncomfortable, uninhibited read. Daley-Ward is a self-confessed firestarter and has a colourful past. She doesn’t watch TV and prefers to go to the pub to drink Guinness and “chat to old men about their lives”. When asked to give her age, she refuses. “Men don’t get asked,” she barks.

‘As a model you disappear into yourself’: Ysra Daley-Ward. Photograph: Platon for the Observer

She finds the notion of being objectified irksome. In a bodycon dress today, she tells me she’s been cat-called “seven times” en route here. “Why the fuck? Look at the patriarchy, look at rape culture. I don’t need to be subjected to what men think.” With her poems she cuts through that, deep into the parts of herself that she feels have been overseen by superficial, homogenous norms.

Bone was initially released in 2014 through Amazon’s self-publishing arm. It’s since been expanded for reissue via Penguin. Daley-Ward’s 116,000 and growing Instagram fanbase was key to that. Having followers like pop star Florence & the Machine and Hollywood actor Ellen Page also helps.

Daley-Ward read everything she could get her hands on as a kid: Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan, Shakespeare. As a young, black, LGBTQ female, she’s often said that she feels “invisible”in the literary world and maintains that poetry has a long way to go to diversify itself.

“Have I seen change? Yes and no,” she says. “There’s a lot more to do. If it wasn’t for the internet how would I have got the book out? How would I have got a publisher? If I went to a publisher armed with Bone and zero internet following…” She tapers off, suggesting they’d have looked right past her. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just persevered.”

Alongside the African-American poet Nayyirah Waheed, Zimbabwean bard Tapiwa Mugabe and Nigerian writer Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Daley-Ward, who is of West Indian and West African descent, is part of a small, elite community of black writers who are breaking down barriers. “It’s lovely to see women of colour poets,” she says. “Old poetry can be so inaccessible. Not just for people of colour but for people who aren’t super erudite, who don’t read, don’t love Shakespeare. Some people just want to connect with feelings.”

‘The queer space is varied and intricate. Every story I have is a story a friend has’: Ysra Daley-Ward.
Photograph: Platon for the Observer

The melting pot of Downtown LA is a far cry from home in Chorley. She was born in the northern town after her Jamaican mother (a nurse) had an extra-marital affair with a Nigerian man who came to the UK to study, leaving his wife and children behind. He died before Daley-Ward was old enough to meet him.

From the age of seven to 11 she was sent, with her younger brother, to live with her grandparents. They were Seventh Day Adventists. Daley-Ward describes them as “strict religious fundamentalists”. “From sunset on Friday we couldn’t do anything until sunset on Saturday,” she recalls. “During the week everything was monitored. We didn’t go outside except to see my cousins.”

Growing up fast, she was ingrained with certain gender expectations; rules that existed to be broken. “They’d tell me that a girl should be able to run a house. Every Sunday my grandma and I would be on our knees handwashing all the clothes. I learned how to clean, sew and cook. I never make my bed now.”

At the time, Daley-Ward bottled up her frustrations. When she returned to live with her mother, she was left to raise her brother while her mum worked night shifts. “Things changed completely,” she remembers. “There was all the freedom where we once had no freedom.”

As well as the liberation that came with her own sexual awakening, she gained a more rounded perspective on a woman’s place in the world. Her mum’s boyfriends weren’t always the most desirable choices. “She was the one with the money, working hard. She never received help from men, ever.” That gave birth to a sense of staunch independence in her, combined with a streak of disruption. “I’m a quiet, introverted person, but I was very internally rebellious.”

Conflict continued to bubble up inside her; she was acutely aware of not fitting in in Chorley. “I was a black girl living in a market town, alien to everything. There were so many things I wanted to be other than what I was. I wanted to be white, have different hair, have parents who were home, know my father, not be religious. When I watched TV, everything from Disney to Coronation Street, there was never a representation of me.” She would write to disappear into different realities.

‘When I was 20, I was in knots. There’s no cage now’: Ysra Daley-Ward.
Photograph: Platon for the Observer

Soon enough, however, she didn’t need prose to whisk her away. There was a man – an older music teacher. He was married. He left his wife for her. “It was a torrid, crazy time,” she recalls, awkwardly avoiding the conversation.

She left Chorley and moved to Manchester en route to London, as the pull of big multicultural cities became exhilarating to her. “I was going out dancing to reggae and African music, buying jollof rice made by someone other than my grandma.” The honeymoon period was short, though. She lost her mother in 2007. (She doesn’t say how she died but implies that her lack of quality of life contributed.) Working as a jobbing actor and model, struggling to makes ends meet, she fell into depression. Writing was unimportant when there were bills to pay. “The grind got to me. I was lonely and had no real support in the world. None. I felt awful every day. I didn’t want to get out of bed.”

The discrimination she experienced in the fashion industry made matters worse. Repeatedly she’d fail to get jobs she was more than qualified for. “This is not a face that sells in England,” she says. “They say that black models sell fewer clothes than white models. That’s stupid. Fashion just doesn’t want to be diverse.” To survive, she had to find other avenues. “I was a very enterprising young woman,” she says coyly. “Learning what to use to get by.”

I ask if she’s alluding to sex work. She laughs. “It’s the most common thing in the modelling industry, especially at high levels. I’m not talking about standing on street corners. You have a boyfriend for two months who’s a millionaire. In that situation you’re safe, eating caviar, drinking champagne. There are other situations that are considerably less safe and less consensual. It’s a reality for so many women in the entertainment industry and we’re told not to talk about it.”

In desperate need of salvation and in search of more secure modelling jobs, she moved to Cape Town where there was, she says, a guaranteed market for black models. She was 24 years old with £200 in her pocket. The experience made her rich in a way she’d never have anticipated. While there, she came across a spoken-word evening. The task was to write a poem about family discord. “I thought: easy!” she smiles. Her performance brought rapturous applause. She went again and again. Every week the audience grew.

“In acting and modelling I was so busy expressing what somebody else wanted that I’d completely shut down my own voice,” she says. “I didn’t have any mirrors. When I was 20, I was in knots. I couldn’t speak my reality to anybody. There’s no cage now. Lots of people are afraid to tell the truth. But I don’t care. It’s fucking boring otherwise.”

Ysra Daley-Ward as a toddler with her mother and brother. She says her mum ‘never received help from men, ever’. Photograph: @yrsadaleyward

Today, Daley-Ward lives between LA and London. Her audience has grown far beyond Cape Town. One poem, Mental Health, has made fans of people who have never given a thought to poetry. During a reading in south London, a man came up to her in tears. “He asked me to send it to him. I thought nobody was listening,” she says. She’s also become a poster child for the undermined, particularly the LGBTQ community. Despite writing about her relationships with women, she refuses to make her sexuality a big deal, insisting that her poems relate to people of all sexual preferences.

“I’m writing about common experience,” she says. “The LGBT community are my friends. The queer space is varied and intricate. Every story I have is a story a friend has. When I talk about a woman that you can’t get out of your head even though you know she’s going to fuck you over… Hello?! That represents 10 people I know.”

In an age of technology, the fact that Daley-Ward has built a platform for literature out of social media is perhaps her biggest act of rebellion. Next, she’ll release a memoir. “There’s nothing left unsaid,” she laughs. Titled The Terrible, it’s “The truest thing I’ll maybe ever write.” Where it will take her remains to be seen. “I move through the world at an alarming rate. Next time we speak I might be in New York,” she says. “I’m in the midst of a change. I keep dreaming about it. Something’s about to happen.”

17 ‘must watch’ Indian films that were way ahead of their times!

Indian cinema, from its inception, through some of its iconic films, has also served as a mirror to the stark reality of the world, writes Jovita Aranha on The Better India. Read on:

Most consider cinema to be a source of entertainment for the masses that help them escape to a world of fantasy. But Indian cinema, from its inception, through some of its iconic films, has also served as a mirror to the stark reality of the world.

Hop onto this journey, as we look as some of the most exemplary films that were way ahead of their times and continue to stand the test of time.

1. Fire (1996)
Sita and Radha are young women whose husbands choose celibacy or mistresses over them, leading them to explore an intimate, passionate relationship in a traditional orthodox society.

A 1996 Indian-Canadian romantic drama film, it starred Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das and was directed by Deepa Mehta. Loosely based on Ismat Chughtai’s 1942 story, Lihaaf (The Quilt), it was one of the first mainstream Bollywood films to explicitly show homosexual relations. It triggered protests and opened debates around homosexuality and freedom of speech in 1998, after its release in India.

2. Filhaal (2002)
Rewa (Tabu) and Dhruv (Sanjay Suri) are devastated after a miscarriage and find out they cannot conceive on their own. It is at the time that Rewa’s best friend Sia (Sushmita Sen) offers to be a surrogate mother, much to the fury of her long-term boyfriend Sahil (Palash Sen). Released in 2002, the film was one of the firsts to bring surrogacy onscreen and was critically acclaimed.

3. Kya Kehna (2000)
A 2000 family drama, the film shows how Priya, a young feisty teenager gets pregnant, and the father of the child, Rahul (Saif Ali Khan) abandons her. Struggling with acceptance from family and society at large, her best friend Ajay (Chandrachur Singh) helps her fight odds and win her family back.

It was one of the first mainstream films, apart from Julie, that dealt with premarital pregnancy.

4. My Brother Nikhil (2005)
A 2005 film set in Goa and based on the life of Dominic D’Souza, it was directed by Onir. The movie portrays the life of Nikhil (Sanjay Suri), a bright young swimmer, whose life keeps falling apart after getting diagnosed with HIV.

Ostracised by society, he finds solace in his only sister, Anamika (Juhi Chawla), and her boyfriend, Nigel. It is set between 1987 and 1994, when AIDS awareness in India was extremely low and was treated as a major taboo.

5. Chandni Bar (2001)
The 2001 film depicts the story of a young orphan woman moving to Mumbai and accepting work as a bar dancer to survive. Directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, it shed light on the unexplored side of Mumbai underworld, intergenerational prostitution, dance bar girls, prison abuse, and gun crime. The film stars Tabu and Atul Kulkarni in lead roles.

6. Aastha (1997)
Struggling to make ends meet with her husband, Mansi (Rekha) is trapped into sex work by her friend. She continues to engage in prostitution to help provide for her school-going daughter.

A 1997 drama, it was one of the first few films to show a woman’s extramarital sexual relations and explicit sex scenes.Rekha’s controversial role was severely criticized by the audience. But she held her head high saying, “After ‘Aastha,’ people had a lot to say about my role of a wife who moonlights as a prostitute. I don’t have problems playing anything. I’ve reached a stage where I could do justice to any role that came my way.”

7. Salaam Bombay! (1988)
Salaam Bombay! is a 1988 Hindi film directed by Mira Nair, and screenwritten by Sooni Taraporevala. The film depicts the daily lives of street kids in Bombay. It found its rightful place among The New York Times’ ‘The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made’ and explored the life of a revengeful Krishna, who, after destroying his brother’s motorbike, is thrown out of the comfort of his mother to earn INR 500 to repair it. It eventually lands him in a slum of Mumbai.

8. Chameli (2004)
A 2004 film starring Kareena Kapoor and Rahul Bose, it shows a rainy night encounter between a distressed wealthy banker and a prostitute at a railway station. From shaming her to understanding and respecting her after delving into her life story, the film chronicles how one encounter changes his life.

9. Mandi (1983)
Once patronised by princes, Rukminibai runs a brothel that is losing its charm and fame. An 1983 film starring Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil, it is deemed a satirical comedy on politics and prostitution. Loosely based on the classic Urdu short story Aanandi by Ghulam Abbas, the film narrates the story of a brothel, in the heart of a city, which powerful politicians want to encroach.

10. Monsoon Wedding (2001)
A 2001 drama film directed by Mira Nair, the film apart from depicting the chaos of a big fat Punjabi wedding, touches upon social issues of cheating, betrayal and child sexual abuse.

Considered ‘parallel’ cinema back then, it depicted romance, family bonds, moving away from the past and dealing with child sexual abuse within family in the Indian context.

11. Taare Zameen Par (2007)
The film explores the life and imagination of an 8-year-old Ishaan. Deemed a day-dreamer who can’t seem to get anything right at his boarding school, the entry of an unconventional new art teacher, Ram Shankar Nikumbh, helps the dyslexic student discover his true identity.

12. Masoom (1983)
A family man’s world turns topsy turvy when he discovers that he has an illegitimate child from a past affair. Following the death of his birth mother, the child is sent to live with his father’s family.

A 1983 Indian drama film, it is an adaptation of the book, Man, Woman and Child, 1980 by Erich Segal and starred Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi in lead roles along with Jugal Hansraj, Aradhana and Urmila Matondkar as child actors.

13. Mathrubhoomi (2003)
A 2003 film by Manish Jha, the film is a future dystopia in an Indian village overpopulated exclusively by males due to female infanticide/foeticide over the years. It shows the aggressive young men, desperate for wives, release their frustration through group screenings of imported pornographic films, cross-dressed dance performances, and even bestiality, which are handled sensitively.

It chronicles the fate of a woman bought by Ramcharan, a wealthy father, to fulfil his and his five sons’ sexual desires.The film sheds light on the consequences of female foeticide, female infanticide, gender balance, fraternal polyandry and bride buying.

14. Lajja (2001)
The films depicts how the stories of four different women, victims of male chauvinism, come together and refuse to get abused, deciding to fight for their rights. A 2001 film, it mocks society which worships goddesses but refuses to honour its own women.

The protagonists’ names Maithili, Janki, Ramdulaari, and Vaidehi are all different names for Sita. The film starred Manisha Koirala, Madhuri Dixit, Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Mahima Chaudhury, Rekha,Sharman Joshi and Ajay Devgn.

15. Khamosh (1985)
Mysterious murders that takes place on the sets of a Bollywood movie. The film has no songs and actors played themselves. This film was Bollywood’s attempt to reinvent itself as early as the 80s and demanded viewers get out of their comfort zone.

Directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the film starred Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Amol Palekar, Soni Razdan, Pankaj Kapoor and others.

16. Manthan (1976)
A 1976 film by Shyam Benegal, the story was inspired by the White revolution of Dr Verghese Kurien. It depicts how a veterinarian, Dr. Rao, makes a visit to a village, to start a co-operative society dairy for the betterment of the rural people.

The film was a major success, and was entirely crowdfunded by 500,000 farmers who donated Rs. 2 each. The title song Mero gaam kathaparey was later used as the soundtrack for the television commercial for Amul.

17. Dil Se (1998)
When Journalist Amar (Sharukh) falls for a mysterious woman, Moina (Manisha Koirala) on an assignment, she does not reciprocate his feelings.When he is about to get married to another girl, played by Preity Zinta, Moina shows up at his doorstep.

A 1998 romantic thriller set during the insurgency in Northeast India, it is directed by Mani Ratnam. The final scene showing Amar expressing his love, and pleading Moina to live with him, but exploding to death after Moina’s suicide bomber vest explodes made several people cry.