We’re about 15 km southeast of downtown Trivandrum, staying at a training centre operated by S.E.W.A. (the Self-employed Women’s Association of Trivandrum.) The buildings are very beautiful – designed by an English architect, Laurie Baker, who was asked by Gandhi to use his skills to help the poor. He married a Malayalam woman (from Kerala), so much of his fine work is found here. The curved brick walls merge into the landscape – and the sloped roofs enhance the organic feel of the place. One of the walls inside our building is natural rock – or more truthfully was – but when poisonous krait snakes were continuously found emerging from the wall, the holes were sealed up with cement. Just a little too natural I guess, though our friend Nandu thinks it’s a shame as the krait is a very gentle creature.
Next door to us, there is another cluster of Laurie Baker buildings. They were the eminent architect’s last project prior to his death about 5 years ago, and they are very beautiful! The buildings are a retreat centre where arts courses for children have been run but which will soon be used for a Laurie Baker College of Architecture. As well, there is a forest that Nandu was involved in restoring with all sorts of indigenous plants. We enjoyed visiting the owner, Keith (who is originally from Karnataka but lived in Canada for about 15 years). He described Laurie’s process of getting to know his clients and how, at 87 years old, Laurie still climbed up to the rafters to help the builders follow his vision of creating undulating curves on the roof.
Here at SEWA, the auditorium where training courses take place is an airy circular room – no courses have been run while we’ve been here. We enjoyed a tour of the paper-making facilities –SEWA works to get contracts to provide handmade paper gift bags and file folders to conferences. As well, they sell gift cards and other items made from their paper – we spent a morning helping make some. Most of the paper is made from a combination of cotton rag and recycled fine papers, but they are also experimenting with banana leaf and other plant materials. There is an organic garden here – Nadia helped water the plants one morning but since Pradeep who was with her doesn’t know the English name for many vegetables, we only know for certain that they grow tapioca, ginger, pineapples and black pepper here. There are also coconut, banana, papaya, jackfruit and cashew trees on the property. All rather exotic to us!
There is a small biogas plant here, and SEWA has been involved in installing similar plants in people’s homes. They are currently refining a model where the methane produced can be directly piped into the kitchen (rather than into tire tubes where, with another model, it is first stored.) Christian’s been happy to learn how biogas plants are constructed here – he has plans to try to install one in our home. The plants here process only vegetable waste – at Deenabandhu we were told that it would be very taboo to try to use human waste. Childhaven seems to have overcome the taboo (perhaps children are more open-minded than adults!) as their biogas plant processes waste from the dorm toilets.
Unfortunately, though we’ve been here 8 days, we missed meeting the very dynamic director of this place. Guess we’ll have to come back! On top of setting up and running this place, she has been instrumental in keeping a nuclear power plant out of Kerala, in the restoration of mangrove swamps and much else.
On the other hand, we’ve been very happy to make the acquaintance of Vinod, an ayurvedic doctor who works out of the centre. Ayurvedic medicine dates back a couple thousand of years, using a combination of massage, herbal remedies and I’m not sure what else. We wish we had an ailment he could have helped us with so we could have learned more (just kidding! We’re very grateful for our health!) Vinod is the resident doctor for SEWA members, and has many other clientele, including visiting Europeans. While we’ve been here, there have also been 6 patients from France staying here (got to practice my rather rusty French on them!!) It’s a good thing for the centre – the more people who stay here, the more work there is for the women. Except for Pradeep, all the employees here are women who have had difficulties at home – most likely trouble with drunken husbands.
We’ve been told that alcoholism is rampant in Kerala – a huge number of men end their days with the bottle and perhaps a little wife beating thrown in for good measure. Toddy or palm wine is the traditional drink, but apparently these days ethanol is often added to the mix, which of course makes drinking far more dangerous. Nandu thinks the alcoholism rate has a lot to do with the free education system - people are very frustrated. Bus conductors are often university grads unable to find work in their field. Even many day labourers are well educated. An education system that focused more on nutrition, sanitation, traditional arts and healing might make a happier population. But what a difficult question that is! But the problem is likely more complex than a faulty education system – the mass media portrays images of lifestyles few can attain… and television is every where. In Tamil Nadu we were told that gifts of televisions have often been given during election campaigns. And thus even those in palm huts have a blue glow emanating from the cracks in the thatch, depicting glamorous otherworldly lives. On the other hand, we have very rarely seen any drunken behaviour and perhaps I’m completely naive, but in Tamil Nadu I marveled at how little alcohol abuse there seems to be there.
While we’ve been here, the annual Nishagandhi Festival that celebrates classical music and dance has been on, and entrance is free! I’ve been thrilled to sample some Kathakali and the even older Kottayatam – two forms of storytelling through dance. Prior to performing, the dancers spend hours doing their intricate make-up, and they are very open about it. Two evenings Emil and I spent a good half hour back stage watching the process of preparation, where pigment is ground and mixed with water or egg white before being applied to the face. Everyone else was too shy, or perhaps too busy talking to young men who were also partaking in the festival. :D
The dance itself is extremely slow paced. For the most part, subtle face and hand gestures tell the story… but every now and then the story takes off with the appearance of a demon. The second evening I learned before the performance that the story they were performing was the portion of the Ramayana where Ravana first tries to seduce Sita in his garden and Hanuman eventually rescues her. Knowing the story made it far more enjoyable! Other audience members seemed to catch all sorts of humor and some sang along with the songs. Obviously, it’s an art form a person grows to appreciate as they understand it better.
Christian and the children preferred some of the other offerings: classical Indian dance, tribal dances and music, ghazals and other music performances and perhaps best of all some contemporary dance that draws on classical dance, yoga and kalarippayat (a Keralan martial art).
We all enjoyed the opportunity to see a local Kalarippayat group. The students who ranged in age from about 7 – 22 did a demonstration for us in the front yard of the master’s home (right here in the village of Vilpillasala). It’s very dramatic! Cartwheels, flips, flexible swords, big knives, short and long wooden batons are some of the arsenal. I couldn’t help but gasp several times through-out. It was extra amazing to see them leaping and flipping on the hard bare ground, and not seeming to notice when they stepped on a stray rock. I can’t imagine kalarippayat classes in Canada! First of all, it would be done on mats… and secondly, they’d probably have to use rubber knives and foam sticks. I don’t know what we’d use for the scary coils of steels that formed the flexible swords. Apparently Kalarippayat originated in the royal courts as a sort of ritualized warfare where the fighters rarely got hurt, but the winners might be rewarded with tracts of land. Despite its dangers, it was great to see a skilled group of children and young adults who are developing great pride in their culture.