Magadi to Masinagudi

Our Deepavalli weekend was beautiful this year. No crackers, no noise, no debris. Just happy dogs and lots of family and friends at Infinite Souls. Sad that Kiara had to stay in the city, but I haven’t as yet figured how to bring her to the farm and not have her freak out. She’s a city girl; used to her roof tops, spiral staircase, garden and full-on Cat Domination.

So there we were, a bunch of us, spread out between the El and both the cottages. Folks began to get in by noon on Saturday and by late Sunday it was full house. The oven had been packed variously with roasts, cinnamon biscuits, rosemary bread, spinach and corn au gratin and maki dhal. (You’ve never had maki dhal till you’ve eaten one that was cooked 12 hours in a woodfire oven)

We walked over to Rame Gowda’s farm to see what the elephants had done. Not a lot actually, they’d been quite discreet. A few broken papaya trees and giant footsteps into one paddy field. In at about 2 am and out soon after. The only sure proof they were there – a few lovely, olive balls of elephant dung. The last time he had elephants was about 15 years ago. Rame Gowda's farm is the prettiest thing around. He takes impeccable care of it and is always there - pottering around, ploughing, sowing, cleaning. It is terraced in small multi-leveled pieces, like a jigsaw cum maze. A large, old Jackfruit tree keeps it shady. And then he has the hills closing in on him on his north-west border. Right now he’s trying lowland paddy, so it’s even lovelier – electric green and soft. He borders the fields with orange kanakambara flowers. It feels like a little jewel tucked away quiety and much loved.

On Saturday night I lit tiny lamps on the verandah and we sat out beneath the stars. Away from the light pollution of the city, the Milky Way was visible, a scarf strewn against the night sky.

On Monday morning while the rest headed back to Bangalore, we set off, with Peter and Ina, to Masinagudi. Peter had given Ina a Canon camera for Christmas, so we were ok for documentation! All the pictures in this blog are thanks to Peter and Ina. They took about 800 pictures in India - from crazy traffic in Bangalore to, well, crazy traffic in Masinagudi :)

We took the gorgeous Savandurga Road between Magadi Road and Ramnagaram and then on to Mysore. There is something about that little 22km stretch past fantastic rock surfaces, ponds, old villages, temples, herds of goats, a barber’s shop, a timber yard, more rocks, forest. It’s worth the drive just to experience it. And leaving from Magadi, made it even better. We made our way to the Metropole in Mysore for lunch. Sat out on cane chairs beneath a slowly turning fan and everything felt just so.

When Zui was little, soon after we passed the little Hanuman temple and entered Bandipur we would say “Keep your eyes peeled” and one time we noticed that she actually did! So that’s now a family ritual except that Zui is now a Jungle Nazi and won’t let anyone breathe once we enter the sanctuary. She and Mark.

Anyway, we headed slowly to self same Mark Davidar’s Cheetal Walk. Passing all the beloved turns and bends. Strangely there were no herds of deer at the Bandipur Tourist Centre and we wondered about that. Mudhumalai, Theppekadu, Masinagudi township, Bokkapuram, Mavanahalla.

It was about 5.45pm when we made Mark’s turn off. The sun was low as we drove in and then lo and behold! There was a massive tusker in front of his verandah. We had heard earlier about his tuskers – Carlos and Rivaldo, but to think one of them was there on arrival! It was a trip. We just stopped and gaped. Then Mark came out and gestured us in. In seconds we were on the verandah and there, about 8-10 feet away was this majestic wild animal. Watching us, aware. It was scary enough to warrant we stayed close to the doors. Except, that is, for Jungle Nazi Zui who sat on a chair and gazed on bliss. “Back Rivaldo”, said Mark in a normal sounding voice, as he was saying “morning Zui”. And then as it got dark, “Go away now, come tomorrow.” And the 9 ½ foot wild Pachyderm turned away and walked towards the side of the house, stopped a moment, looked back and disappeared into the forest. It was an experience like nothing we’ve known, this liminality. Some sort of poignant meeting between two souls, wrought by years of fostering trust and trying a different sort of communion. What must it mean to communicate so subtly? How unspeakably beautiful. And in what contrast to the vulgar crassness of the forest department bus drivers – honking at a Gaur, yelling at others who have stopped. And in what painful contrast to the general traffic on the Sigur Road – speeding, honking non-stop, some Sabarimalai pilgrims holding flags and even yelling out the window.

That night we heard two massive, really massive, roars. A tiger very close by. Peter and Ina were sleeping in the open attic and Ina was terrified. The next day she told us that she seriously considered sleeping in the loo to keep atleast a little concrete between her and the tiger!

The next day, we drove to Vazhaithottam to pick up idlis and Murugan, Mark’s Man Friday. We sat in Basheer's strawberry pink shop waiting for breakfast to be packed.
In the short time it took us to get back to Mark’s verandah, another elephant walked onto the corridor. We couldn’t tell if it was a tusker – but there it was, rusty red in the morning light. Both the waterholes had cheetal by them and there was a large herd crossing the verandah. Sitting on Mark’s verandah was like being at a wild life traffic crossing. There were peacocks and langurs and wild boar. Then the deer. Then sambar. Then a medium herd of Gaur. At one point, a baby elephant stepped out of the shadows towards the water hole – no other elephants followed, just the little one.
We drove up the hill to Ooty and had lunch at Shinkow’s and then got back to the verandah. Around 5.30pm, a mother bear followed by a little cub walked across the corridor. It just went on and on. And I never get tired of cheetal. How pretty they are and how lovely the play of light on them.

But neither Carlos nor Rivaldo came by this day. Then that night, around 11pm, Zui asked Kuki to make sure the door was shut, so he went to the door and looked out on the verandah… In the velvet darkness, there stood Carlos, swaying gently on the sandy floor before the verandah. Not eating, nothing. Just standing close on hand. In a way this was even more beautiful a sighting. Black on black. The shadow of a wild boar near by and this big elephant just there.

Nothing more to add. Back in the city, I’m holding onto that image. An elephant swaying in the darkness, by the chair of a person who has spent 25 years seated there.


Custard Apples

The first time we set eyes on the land, in March/April 2006, the light was perfect. The sun was about to dip and there was that dreamy blue haze that made everything fairy-like. The big Banyan was the Enchanted Tree, Moonface was around somewhere and the light rain could only be the work of Dame Washalot. And what were those tall-ish shrub-trees all over? OMG, they're custard apple trees! Another good omen, this is a sign. So we sat beneath the Tamarind tree and talked about the price with Hanumanthappa and gang. We quoted, they refuted and we agreed and so it was done.
Within a few months, we started getting ripe custard apples off the trees. What does one say about this fruit? Google it and you get nothing. Well, you do get a Wiki description - apparently it's called a bullock's heart, coeur de boeuf... How gross! How unsettling! That such a delicate piece of architecture, requiring both tongue and teeth to work in tandem should be named so. Oh well, new histories shall be created. Let it be known that the custard apple was Pattabhi Rama Reddy's favourite fruit. Let it be known that the botanical name that it goes by is Annona Reticulata. Lovely Annona. Distant cousin, surely, of Ananas. But in temperament, more Melanie than Scarlet. Let it be known that some make an ice cream from custard apples. Let it not be asked how they get the flesh off the seeds.

Oh horror! Elsewhere it is said that the custard apple is generally rated as the mediocre one, the "ugly duckling" of its species... Fie! What a ghastly lack of imagination.

Dig this. A hot afternoon and a perfect custard apple. Firm, not squishy and oh yes, ripe. You open it tenderly not wanting it to fall apart. Behold two halves. You are wearing shorts and a grey tank top. You sit on the steps and stare out wondering if there will be rain in the afternoon. You scoop one lovely section into your mouth. Slowly you seperate seed from flesh, swallow, spit the seeds as far as you can...and so it goes. By the time you've finished it, your mind has wandered past Woody Allen to Allen Shore, Boston Legal, Death by Chocolate at Corner House, swimming in the Bangalore Club pool, potato chips, warm legs, your grandmother, summer holidays, your first cycle, The Big Lebowski, sloth bears, why do people grow up, Ullyses, Mel Brooks...

Not a bad trip, no? So don't diss them custard apples. They're they stuff dreams are made of.


Pond, thou art. And Walden, shalt be

Ok, so my inspiration remains the pond at Afsanah Guest House in Auroville. But I am as far from Afsanah as chalk to cheese. See the thing is, I haven't cracked the whole water plant/ biome thing. Having grown up with a father who has fish tanks, weeds and snails running as far as the eye can see (Madan once stuck his head into a tank, no doubt to catch a better view of a passing Gouramai, and had to be rescued... Who has to be rescued from a fish tank, I ask?) I thought it would be a breeze. Dig a hole, add some plants for green cover and then add the fish. The turtle, I was advised by an online pond friend, was a bad idea. Choose between pretty pond and turtle pond, quoth he.

Anyway, so the pond was dug. Three levels were scientifically carved out so as to simulate the littoral, the limnetic and profundal zones. Next step - plants. Kuki and I stopped by the pond near Taverekere. How hard can it be, ya? We'll just grab a few of those gorgeous white lillies and transplant them into our pond.

I made my way over abandoned Ganeshas and Marigolds at the water's edge....and yanked. Nothing. Not an inch. So then we (note "I" has now become "We" and a crowd is gathering to watch) rescued a Casurina pole from what looked like an old hearse or litter and try to disentangle a lilly bulb. Kuki held onto one end as I dangled dangerously over the other tugging ernestly at weeds. Someone claps when it looks like I might keel right over into the slush....that did it. Let's just buy some water plants from Siddapura instead, I screech. So we do, several hundred rupees of water hyacinth-like plants otherwise seen clogging the lakes at Varthur and Hebbal and surely available free.

These lie around in the pond looking bored before giving up their ghost. A particularly ravishing pink lilly that I buy from a nursery on Sarjapur road actually blooms a few times before it too languishes and fades away.

Up untill this point, Nagaraj (aka Doomsday Donna) has been valiantly cleaning the pond to keep the water clear. No more, declare I. From henceforth we place a moratorium on Clean and encourage, endorse and welcome Grime, Silt and Sediment. Therein lies the answer to prettiness and water-edge fronds and ferns, mossy rocks and lilting lillies.

And what of the fishes, you may well ask? About 50 guppies from The Father's fish tanks were transferred with much optimism. So much optimism that we also bought several hundred rupees more of fish from Russel Market (very hardy, Madam. will only die of old age) for diversity. Word in the bush spread like wildfire. Open Water Body, Captive Catch, no Green Cover. The fish, it hurts me to say, are no more. But we did have a happy Cormorant for a day. And frogs (soon to be extinct due to climatic changes) will be saved (in a Noah's Ark kind of way) because they have made a home of our now grimy pond and have turned Silent Mirror Pond into Mosh Pit Pond.

The last I spoke to Nagaraj, he said we have a couple resident snakes in the Pond. I suppose it will be a bird of prey next. So...water lillies or not, it augers well for the future, biome-wise.


World Guitar Nights: Guitar Clinic

WORLD GUITAR NIGHTS!!! On Nov 8th at Blue Frog, Bombay, Nov 13th & 14th at Jayamahal Palace Hotel, Bangalore - with Don Ross (Canada), Masa Sumide (Japan), Sandor Szabo (Hungary) and Konarak Reddy (India). On Nov 15th - GUITAR MASTER CLASS & CLINIC at Infinite Souls, Bangalore.

Brought to you by Fisheye Media Solutions/Starfish Music and Konarak Reddy, World Guitar Nights hopes to spread the good word about quality guitar playing in India.

On Nov 15th Infinite Souls will be hosting a unique GUITAR CLINIC: With Don Ross, Masa Sumide and Sandor Szabo in Bangalore. Designed to teach and explore special skills such as Finger Style techniques in Jazz & Rock Guitar, Hungarian Gypsy melodies, improvization and harmonies - this Guitar Clinic is a chance to meet, converse, play and hang out with all three guitarists at Infinite Souls - Konarak's rural artists retreat outside Bangalore.

For the convenience of participants, there will be an optional bus pick up from St.Mark's Road, Bangalore and you'll arrive in time for breakfast with the guitarists. Heal your technique and nourish your soul during Music Clinics that begin by 10 am. Lunch will be followed by one-on-one sessions with the musicians till tea. Take your time, learn at leisure, enjoy yourself.
This will be followed by an informal concert for workshop participants. Relax and listen to some of the world's finest guitarists, musicians who have defined a new vocabulary in guitar - up close and intimate - playing, sharing, improvizing. Contact: +91-9845213857 to register. Fees are Rs 4,000/- inclusive of workshop, breakfast and lunch. Rs 200 extra for optional transport.

PS - There'll be home cooked food available for dinner - woodfire pizzas, focaccia, apple crumble etc.

About Don: He is one of today's true innovators of guitar composition and technique. His sense of harmony and groove move him way out of the usual style boundaries associated with acoustic guitar. His is an unclassifiable musical style that borrows from jazz, folk, rock and classical music. When asked, Don usually pigeonholes his music as "Heavy Wood"!

About Masa: Here is what Don Ross says about Masa "50/50" is the funkiest guitar tune I've heard in years...maybe ever!! Excellent work, Masa. Your recording reaffirms my belief that the guitar is capable of more than "guitar music." With an abundant supply of creative energy Masa has continued to release one album every year ever since he put out his first solo guitar album “Treadin’ Easy” in 1999. The latest CD “CAT and MOUSE” is his 11th.

About Sandor: A classical guitarist who forayed into highly skilled improvization, Sandor is known for his compositions. He blends Far-Eastern music with Hungarian folk traditions in an improvised context which makes it very modern. He is presently studying ancient Hungarian Maqams. He is the master of playing 16 string, fretless and baritone guitars. Recently he has begun playing a double neck 24 string koboz (oud).

Cooking at the Farm

Cooking at the farm has become the only way to cook. Definitely one of life's fine pleasures, up there with swimming in the ocean or cycling to Bear Shola or the nights in Masinagudi. As the sun sets, we drag ourselves away from the verandah and those loud mouthed frogs, open a bottle of wine, get the woodfire started in the oven and settle down at the counter to peel garlic, knead rosemary into the bread dough or make up a batch of scones with pinenuts and raisins.

And if we can pick some of our own tomatoes or a nice yellow pumpkin, it totally ups the pleasure ante. It's enough for me to pick an occasional strawberry from the runners that are spreading all over the ground beneath the Tamarind Tree.

The first crop we grew was horsegram (ulluvalu) on advice from Yohan, to give the soil a nice nitroenous foundation. It felt like a good omen because Ulluvalu chaaru was one of Paabi’s favourite things to eat. His sister, Shakuntalamma, would make it in Madanapalle and bring it to Bangalore in little jam jars. Paabi would squish it into hot rice and ghee and just love, love, love it! Ulluvalu chaaru was traditionally made with the soup of the horsegram after the cooked grain was fed to the horses. The soup would be boiled down on a woodfire till it was thick and chcocolate brown, tamarind added and finally seasoned with fried onions, red chillies, curry leaves and cumin.

So when we harvested our first bags of ulluvalu, we got a big kick out of it. We even made little packages of horsegram with a recipe for Ulluvalu chaaru and gave it to the cast of The Wedding Party in January of 2008. Oh yes, we also grew ridge gourd/heerekai that first year.

I’ll never forget how delighted we were to see the first baby heerekai’s on their vines. They looked adorable – all green and fuzzy and sweet. The next year we grew Toor dal and Avarekkai and of course this year has been all about the bananas. Nagaraj was long in the tooth about not using any fertilizer or pesticide and grumbled on a daily basis. He was convinced the crop would suffer and all manner of other depressing stuff. But we kicked our heels in with all the naivete of new farmers, planted the bananas in furrows and fed them with cowdung and water and plenty of sunshine. We’ve had a really pretty crop – about 1 and ½ ton – of voluptuous little yelakki bananas, and have learned how to sell them at Hopcoms which is a pretty fantatsic resource. Straight from our jeep to the Hopcoms yard and then on to the Bangalore Club Hopcoms oftentimes!

I’ve also grown tough grasses and hard rooted herbs like rosemary, lemon grass and khus on my bunds to prevent soil erosion.… Let's see how that goes. But it has ensured easily available flavour and fragrance. We make a really refreshing lemon and rosemary tea. Next, I shall experiment with lemon grass ice cream and creme brulee.

But back to the woodfire oven…Everyone loves pizza and it’s ok to cook for about 20 normal people. But when you have 40 mad children who’re all screaming for pizza and who all want Margeritas and will have nothing to do with Blancos…it’s best to have some pasta and salad on stand by. And apple crumble.

I usually make two sauces – a tomato based sauce with plenty of roast garlic, olive oil and shredded basil that’s been thickened and made quite dense with brown sugar. And then my Rosemary-Onion Marmalade that goes on my Blanco – this, I know from experience, is clearly an adult pizza. A simple yeasty pizza dough and plenty of mozarella is all it needs before popping into the woodfire oven for about 8 minutes. I really don’t think you need toppings if your sauce is lovely and fragrant.

Rosemary-Onion Marmalade
Slice about 8 medium onions
Peel one full pod of garlic
2 tablespoons of fresh rosemary spikes
Olive Oil
Balsamic vingegar or Port

Warm about ¼ cup of olive oil in a deep pan and add the sliced onions and peeled cloves of garlic. Cook slow and long over a medium flame till the onions are starting to brown. Add the rosemary and about 2 tablespoons of sugar. Let it cook further till it’s the consistancy of marmalade. Now add a splash of Balsamic vinegar or Port and cook further. You need to cook the onions for about an hour in all for that perfect flavour. Add salt to taste.


Ay Ombe: Angels and Sambistas

Ay Ombe was our first big international residency at Infinite Souls. It was scheduled for January 2009 and we’d been working like fiends to get the El ready in time for them. December was a blur of curtains, cooking utensils, Fasiullah’s beds, Sohail’s shop in Richard’s Square, sheets and Avenue Road. Chairs, rugs and soap dishes from Dastakaar. What did we do for Christmas? Can’t remember? Oh yeah, Kai and the gang were here. Madan's dense, dark chocolate torte for desert and Midnight Mass at St.Mark's. We didn’t even make it to Nanu’s beach house for the new year, that’s how crazy it was.

And then they arrived. Josefina and her gang of angel-sambistas. Time watched with bated breath. Every evening as the sun went low, we’d sit on the verandah - Anjula, Kuki and I – and think how fortunate we were to witness their delicate and ironic improvizations. Once, a mad improv , using the same cooking utensils that we’d bought from Sohail and one of Fasi's beds that was lying out in the open. Anna and Paulina peering through a cheese grater, while Alejandra lolled on the bed tapping absently with two pans. Feminist resonance? But of course!!! Another time an improv through all the doorways at Infinite Souls. Yet another time, a lyrical movement through the banana grove. Lines of women in white and the green of the banana plants

In the morning they awoke at 3 am and began their day with an hour of silence. Once I opened my eyes a crack and saw a drift of women in the dense 3 am fog, hooded against the cold, making their way to the Round. They came in for a Kalaripayattu session with Mothi straight from the silence, so were imbued with a special buzz. Vitality in white.

Then Meyerhold technique with Josefina or chithaara with Radha or konokol with Kuki. And if ever there was any danger of melancholia, snap! Josefina got everyone dancing. DJ fresh from Harlem, she hit us with Shirley Bassey, Miles Davis, Beyonce. And samba was never far away. Josefina - Caribbean-Indian soul sister, fellow traveller, laugher, lover, dhal-eater - played for us Gilberto, Jobim - tut, tut, tah/ tut, tut, tah...wind it like a clock!

The thing to really dig – Josefina facilitates a process that helps actors develop their own stories in the duration of the workshop, then leave - develop them, perform them, change them, improve them. Ay Ombe members come from a variety of countries – Chile, Cuba, The Netherlands, Germany and meet once a year to renew their practice, take direction, build skills. So the whole process remains alive and dynamic. No office, no administration, no overheads. Each one responsible for one soul, but plenty of sharing and collaborative spirit. Viva la Compagnie!

Building at the Farm

Our brief (to ourselves, largely) was simple - unobstrusive, discreet, tranquil, nothing higher than the trees. We worked with an old friend from CWC & Namma Bhoomi - Nagaraj. So we would decide on what we needed - a cottage and a rehearsal space were top priority. A pizza oven was next! Kuki made the drawings and Nagaraj would execute the same with his team of masons. We used local material - granite, clay tiles, stabilized mud bricks. All the doors and windows were sourced from the gujlis in Shivajinagar and City market. Some were finds; like the two Burma teak doors we use as front doors for our cottage and the watchman's cottage. Some were drab old things that we painted olive, lemon, strawberry and pumpkin - with satin finish enamel.

We'd also bought a nice door and couple windows from Kundapur some years ago, and these we inset in an undulating brick wall that runs along the big banyan tree, marking our cooking and dining area. Beneath the banyan, we created a terraced area with the barbeque, Astra hole, woodfire oven and washing trough on one end. On the high end, the undulating wall ends in the best (great pressure from the shower) and prettiest (just a rock and a honey glass pane to define the space) outdoor shower.
Building the woodfire oven was quite the trip! We asked over farmer/potter friends, Priya and Yohan, to help make it. But that day turned into a party, with a giant pot of minestrone, beer and what not upstaging the oven. So we next consulted with Priya on the telephone about firestone bricks. Then off we went in our trusted Gypsy to load a ton of these seriously heavy bricks as well as some insulating material. We downloaded images from the internet - several really helpful people have posted directions to making a good woodfired oven - and got started. You can imagine how thrilling that first pizza was!

The large rehearsal space, on the other hand, was a breeze. Mothi gave us the dimensions (42 x 21) and we used pillars of rough cut granite, thatch roof and a black cement floor. It's got great vibes and we love rehearsing here. We now have a second rehearsal space which is somewhat like an African rondavel.