Clowning Around With Tragedy

Great literature guards its secrets. Which means that some of the world’s best stories are also some of the most undemocratic, as they’re told in intimidating language ridden with layers of meaning. Synopses don’t help either: too much gets lost in translation.

“Hamlet The Clown Prince”, therefore, is a spunky approach to unlocking a celebrated tragedy in a way that connects with everyone, ranging right from Shakespeare aficionados to the audience members who believe ‘Iambic pentameter’ would make a great name for a rock band.

This version is really about enabling access. About taking a text that’s relevant to only a section of the public, and pointing out why its compelling story, rife with emotion, is as relevant today as it was in the 1600s when it was written in a completely different social atmosphere and political climate.

It helps that the clowns unapologetically begin the play by dispensing with Shakespearean language. “You say thee, thou, thy — the audience will die!” There are also plenty of nods to familiar popular culture, hilarious when juxtaposed with tragedy. Take the entrance of Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend, in the eerie ghost scene. The clowns sing “Who you gonna call: Horatio” to the Ghostbusters’s tune. Or Hamlet replacing the King’s “How is it that the clouds still hang on you” with the Joker in Batman’s now cult-line — “Why so serious?”

Funny-faced and sad-eyed, these endearing clowns serenely unlock, cheekily re-craft and cheerfully re-tell the story by hand-holding the audience and guiding them into the play’s core. Although the production’s stated to be in gibberish, in reality only chunks of it are. The rest is an impudent melange of choppy English rendered in Italian and French accents.

Director Rajat Kapoor and his cast’s greatest achievement is staying faithful to the play, while upturning the text. Managing to be irreverent without descending into the realm of yet another Shakespeare-inspired spoof.

With very basic props, the focus is on six clowns in appropriately outrageous costumes and makeup. Their over-the-top eccentricities, Chaplinesque slapstick and often melodramatic acting is in sharp contrast to the minimal, but cleverly manipulated lighting and sets, making for heightened drama. Seeing how the production works on edgy contrast, it will probably benefit from a few cuts, since it tends to meander in parts.

The clown troupe simmers with personal emotion swinging erratically between love and hate, often resulting in them forgetting about the play and bickering between themselves. It’s to the credit of the actors that they’re so comfortable in their confusing on-stage skins, considering they’re playing passionate people playing histrionic clowns playing characters in tragic Hamlet.

The lady clown playing Queen Gertrude, for instance, is still sore about having been dumped by Hamlet, who breaks off from a soliloquy to complain “she’s always bringing the bedroom to the stage.” She later gets back at him by sitting on a blameless, and clearly startled, member of the audience, naughtily giving him both her phone number and flaming red garters. The fourth wall is, in fact, breached constantly, as the clowns alternate between picking on the audience and asking them to mediate in their squabbles.

However, what stands out are the unadulterated blasts of pain and dark emotion, which seem starker than ever in contrast to the reckless tomfoolery. Writer Paulo Coelho once said ‘The funniest people are the saddest ones’. “Hamlet The Clown Prince” is funny. It’s also achingly sad.

(“Hamlet The Clown Prince” was staged in Chennai at Museum Theatre as part of Prakriti Foundation’s Hamara Shakespeare Festival.)

Tweet Yourself Thin

Do fudge brownies gobbled with your head in the fridge count? After all, if nobody sees you, it’s okay to discount the calories, right?

Sigh. Not anymore. Thanks to Twitter (the micro-blogging service that’s captivating much of the online world) and the kaleidoscope of imaginative applications it’s inspiring, it’s becoming next to impossible to live your life under a veil of convenient secrecy.

While Twitter might be dramatically revolutionising business, politics and pop culture by changing the way people share information, it’s also creating all kinds of upheavals in the world of food.

One genre of applications are changing the way people cook, dine out and eat by enabling users from the across the world to share pictures and information on their every meal. Since twitter is so democratic, it means that anyone anywhere can post a picture of anything they want anytime. Which — as you can imagine — leaves a lot of room for experimentation, pushing boundaries and plain goofing off.

An application like Nom.ms, for instance, which encourages users to tweet pictures and a couple of lines of text on every thing they eat is fascinating for so many reasons. The most obvious, of course, is that for foodies it’s a fun way to learn about food, ingredients and recipes, by seeing how people around the world eat. User Trendy, for instance, had Angel hair pasta with tomato sauce for dinner. She cooked it with red banana peppers, onions, green beans and shrimp. She’s also addicted to what she calls the ‘Everything but the kitchen sink cookies’ — “My dad gets ‘em from the farmers’ market — they’re amazing. Oatmeal, milk and white chocolate, macadamia nuts, walnuts, raisins…” Talk about getting a real, unbeatably immediate and artlessly evocative slice of life!

Of course there’s the danger of getting overly inspired, and eating your way into an obnoxiously large pair of jeans. Enter TweetWhatYouEat.com (TWYE), an inventive way to keep yourself honest using the convenience of twitter. Which brings us back to you brazenly scoffing fudge brownies with your head in the fridge. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

An online food diary, TWYE, enables you to enter everything you eat instantly, making it extremely difficult to cheat. Alex Ressi, founder and lead developer of the application, says the site has more than 8,000 followers, 30 per cent of whom post regularly. He says that it’s the accessibility of twitter, “being able to post updates from your IM, mobile phone or the web,” that drew him to the platform.

To make calorie counting easier, the application even has a ‘CrowdCal system’. Alex says this is the Internet’s first completely crowd-sourced calorie database. When active, it auto-fills food entries with the appropriate calorie value based on what other users in the community have entered. It’s an ingenious way to cover a huge variety of foods from every country.

Of course, since this is twitter, the biggest impetus comes from the community. People clearly find it easier to diet with a supportive group — even if it consists of people across the world who they’ve never met. The forum is alive with everything from cries of help (“pineapple upside-down cake. Anyone has alternatives?”) to shrieks of despair. (“I’m sorry — but there is NO SUBSTITUTION for McDonald’s Medium French Fries when you’re stressed!”)

“People need to be able to share in their success and lean on others,” says Alex, adding that they’ve had some inspiring weight loss stories. “I’ve had people write in and share stories about 20 pound, 40 pound and the most dramatic — a 70 pound weight loss using the Tweet What You Eat tool and working in conjunction with a nutritionist.”

Besides, it’s encouraging to feel that you’re not the only one with so little self-control. Take “Heyimskye” whose bio states she’s “losin weight one fat cell at a time.” She began yesterday with “salad with romaine lettuce.” A little later comes the entry: “mini muffin you will be the death of me!”

Now where’s that fudge brownie?

Eating Flowers In Kashmir

I’ve been fascinated with Kashmiri food ever since i went to Srinagar earlier this year. After three days of elaborate wedding food, cooked by aged experienced traditional cooks, however, i was convinced it would be next to impossible to replicate. Till i was given Koshur Saal to review. Not only was it a fascinating book, but it actually made me feel like i may be able to recreate some of the food i got addicted to in Srinagar.
First on the list, is creamy Mutton yakhni made with curd and intricately laced with spices in that signature Kashmiri way.

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Kashmiri food is alluringly unfamiliar. Kashmiri food is comfortingly familiar. This contradiction is Koshur Saal’s greatest advantage.
Written by Chandramukhi Ganju – yet another Non Resident Indian cookbook author – Koshur Saal’s a resolute, practical and authoritative attempt to record the culinary culture of her community.
Perhaps the reason so many NRIs write recipe books is because distance brings the necessary perspective to really understand nuances and record processes. After all, the food your mother and grandmother cook might seem ordinary, even boring, as long as you are at home eating it every day. It’s only when you try recreating it in a completely different set-up that you appreciate the techniques, skills and measures necessary for every recipe.
The advantage of having someone like Ganju – who now lives in California – hand-hold you through this book is that she’s familiar with the challenges of creating a reasonably authentic meal in a situation that’s a world away from the recipes’ origins. More importantly, thanks to her popular Koshur Saal website, which draws Kashmiris hankering for a taste of home from across the world, Ganju’s used to explaining processes to amateur as well as seasoned cooks. The book’s precise instructions, therefore, are accompanied by all kinds of tables, photographs and charts, listing everything from the customary glossary of translations (with meanings in Kashmiri, Hindi and English) as well as step-by-step picture guides to help deal with vegetables like the unusual Kohlrabi (vaguely similar to a turnip). You can choose how much, or how little, information you want to use.
For the many Kashmiris who live all over the world, and dream incessantly of creamy Yakhean mutton curry, or pulav interspersed with juicy morel mushrooms, or simple rice bread paired with Kahwa tea fragrant with cinnamon, this a realistic guide, empowering them to make these meals almost anywhere. Ranging from basic omelettes (with chilli, ginger powder and fresh cilantro) to the ever-popular chicken Rogan josh, with its intricate web of aromatic spice, the recipes are fairly simple.
There are alternatives suggested for ingredients that are rare or unique to Kashmir. Such as leafy mallow which can be substituted with spinach. Since this book is geared chiefly towards American NRIs it suggests ingredients easily found in their supermarkets or Korean/Chinese/Indian food stores, which aren’t always available to all Indian readers, which can be annoying. Take lotus root, shiitake mushrooms or Granny Smith apples. Or the directive to replace pacchin, a Kashmiri flying bird, with ‘Cornish hen’. Its high time NRI writers take into account the Indian situation, when they write on Indian food. After all, this is a huge and profitable market.
You really don’t need to be Kashmiri to use and enjoy this book. Its most charming feature is how unwittingly exotic it’s turned out to be. Unlike the many authors who take advantage of ‘exotic India’s’ marketability, Ganju’s relatively naïve approach is refreshingly unstudied.
Of course this has its disadvantages. For instance, she’s helpfully added an entire section on other Indian food, which dilutes the book’s novelty. Pictures are amateur, often unimaginative and sometimes downright unappealing.
Yet, these pictures are functional. Often they’re also endearingly helpful, pointing out what each vegetable looks like and even how some of them should be cleaned.
Clearly, Koshur Saal simply wants to share information, which is why it’s direct, unfussy and unpretentious. No glossy pages, chic layouts or fancy prose. Yet, it’s a compelling read because it’s so unique.
Though this cuisine is known world-over, thanks to the Kashmiri Diaspora, very few people actually know its specifics. There are surprisingly few books available, especially when compared to other popular Indian cuisines. Amazon, for instance has more than a 100 book on Punjabi food, but only lists a handful on this cooking.
The food uses a host of colourful ingredients available in Kashmir. Like green almonds, used to make fish. Also mallow, green cardamom and leafy wupal haak from the forests. Ganju also has recipes using dried vegetables, like brinjal and green squash, which were made in Kashmiri households to tide them through winter.
These ingredients might be next-to-impossible to source, but the recipes certainly make for an interesting read – especially when they’re accompanied by her explanations on their cultural significance.
After all, who can resist vicariously enjoying the image of Pumpkin flower fritters, made with cheery orange petals covered in a crisp golden batter?

Sho-Buzz

October 2009
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