Friday, December 23, 2011

Myrta Barvie, Argentine icon of Indian dances

Myrta Barvie believes in Karma. When I asked her what inspired her to the world of Indian classical dances, she took a deep breath and looked at me serenely- like the Gurus do when their disciples ask philosophical questions- and said, ¨ It is the Indian Karma. I was seventeen years old when I was introduced to the legendary Rukmini Devi who visited Argentina on a theosophical mission. I was inspired by her. I realised instantly that India was my Karma. I was so thrilled when Rukmini Devi offered me a scholarship to study in Kalakshetra. I jumped up at the offer and was on the next flight to Chennai. Oh how the time has passed.. It is fifty years¨
Myrta Barvie has dedicated five decades of her life to Indian dances and has become an icon. She has had an illustrious career as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and writer.
Here is Myrta compering the dance programmes at the IV Festival of India in Buenos Aires on 5 December 2011.
Myrta has not only mastered Indian dances but has also become an Indian in spirit and personal life. She says she had two dreams; first to become a dancer and second to know India, the land of ancient culture and spiritual wisdom. She is happy that both her dreams have come true together. She starts her book on Indian dances saying, ¨My relationship with India has always been special. My long stay in India had been beautiful, interesting and profound¨. She has learnt Sanskrit and has read the works of Vivekananda, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharishi and Yogananda, among others. She is a vegetarian and avoids alcohol. She leads a disciplined Indian life in Buenos Aires, the city of distractions. And she has been successful in enforcing with an iron hand a strict discipline on her young Argentine students too. She is very particular about maintaining the purity and sanctity of the traditions of the classical dances of India.
Myrta with her disciples, who tremble in her presence...
Myrta started learning ballet at the age of eight and became a professional dancer in the ballet group of the prestigious Colon Theater of Argentina. She trained in Bharatnatyam in Kalakshetra and did her Arangetram there. Later she learnt Odissi from Guru Keluchara Mohapatra and got a Nritya Visharad degree from Kala Vikash Kendra in Orissa. She went on to learn Kuchipudi at the Kuchipudi Art Academy in Chennai, from Master Vempati Chinnasatyam.
Myrta with Rukmini Devi in Kalakshetra

Myrta has performed Indian classical dances in Argentina and other countries of Latin America as well as in Europe, Asia, Middle East and USA. In India, she has performed, among other places, in the palace of Maharaja of Baroda and in the Rashtrapati Bhavan where she was received by Presidents Radhakrishnan, Zakir Hussain and Zail Singh ( photo below)
Besides introducing and popularising Indian classical dances in Argentina, Myrta has instituitionalised Indian dance tradition by training others. Her disciples Natalia, Silvia, Indira and Leonara have become teachers and established their own schools. They are also devoted and committed to Indian dances, culture and spirituality. There are over thirty Argentines learning Indian classical dances in Buenos Aires. Every month, there is atleast one programme in the city.
Myrta has written a book on Indian classical dances, in spanish language, published by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) in 1996. This is a kind of text book on Indian dances for spanish language speakers. In this, she has covered all the classical Indian dances with details of technical and aesthetic aspects.
Here is the cover of the book with her picture.
Myrta is visiting India, at the invitation of ICCR, to update her book with more research and information. She will be in Chennai for one month from 27 December and in New Delhi for the next two months. While leaving for India, she told me she was ¨going home¨. She was nostalgic about the aroma of jasmine flowers and south Indian filter coffee, the sound of sanskrit mantras and the sight of the big banyan tree of Adyar.
I got carried away in the long conversation with Myrta and made a faux pas when I commented, ¨ Sixty years of dance.. still look young..¨ She gave me a look.. like Durga..For a moment I thought I was going to be burnt and vapourised. But she regained her composure quickly and said with a disarming and charming smile ¨ yes you are right. The long and regular practice of dance has kept me fit and young¨. It reminded me of the reply of an Argentine friend when I asked him the reason for the crisis in Argentina from time to time. He said, ¨ In Argentina, the women do not admit their age and the men do not act their age¨.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

IV Festival of India in Buenos Aires 3 – 13 December 2011

Encouraged by the success of the three previous festivals in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and in response to the popular Argentine request for ¨Once More¨, the Embassy organised this Fourth Festival on a larger scale this year.

Handicrafts Exhibition

Forty Indian companies participated in the Exhibition, organized by the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH). The Exhibition was held at the Borges Cultural Centre, the prestigious venue at the heart of the Buenos Aires city. The Borges Centre looked like Chandni Chowk with thousands of Argentines shopping, trying out the Indian ethnic dress and accessories bargaining with the Indian exporters

Live Demonstration of Handicrafts

Eight artisans from India did live demonstration of handicrafts making in the Borges Centre with works such as textile and glass painting, wood, metal and stone crafts. There was even an Indian astrologer who was using a laptop for predictions.

Tagore´s 150th Birth Anniversary Celebration on 10 December ( separate blog on this)

Rabindra Sangeet

The 4-member Rabindra Sangeet Group led by Ms. Sreyashi Mitra gave concerts at the Borges Centre as well as in other venues.

Bharatnatyam, Odissi and Kuchipudi dances

These dances were performed by Argentines.The performances were held in Borges Centre and other venues.

Open Air Cultural Programme on Sunday 4 December

In collaboration with the City Government of Buenos Aires, an open-air performance of Indian classical dances was held at the historic ´Avenida de Mayo´ (Avenue of May). The traffic at the Avenue was closed and an audience of several thousand attended the event.

The famous Argentine Yoga pop music group ¨Yoga Rave¨ gave a concert.One can see below the Argentines swaying to the music of Yoga Rave.

Open Air Yoga Show on Sunday 4 December at Palermo

A Yoga show was organized with a large group of five hundred at the Planetorium Park at 11 a.m. This was done in collaboration with the various Argentine Yoga Schools and the city government.

Bollywood Dance

This stole the show wherever it was held. This was performed by professional Argentine groups. Manisha Chouhan, one of the teachers is dancing in the picture below..

Manipuri Dance

The Manipuri dance group of Priti Patel performed at the Borges Centre as well as in other venues.


Seminars on Indian culture, literature, Ayurveda and spiritualism were organized in the Borges Centre auditorium during the Festival period. The speakers were all Argentines.

Film Festival

Indian films with Spanish sub-titles was shown everyday during the Festival period in one of the auditoriums of the Borges Centre.

Food Festival

This was organized at the Hotel Sheraton, Buenos Aires. The Ministry of Tourism of India sent two Chefs.

Photo exhibition

Photos on India by five Argentine photographers were exhibited at the Recoleta Cultural Centre.

Golf Tournament on 12 December

There is a separate blog on this.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Copa de la India Golf Tournament in Buenos Aires

This was the Fourth India Cup Golf tournament I had organised (12 December) in Buenos Aires at the prestigious Jockey Club which has two 18-hole courses: Red (Colorada) and Blue (Azul). We played in 9 holes of Red and nine holes of Blue. The Colorada is one of the top five golf courses in the country. The 2010 Argentine Open was held here. It was designed by Alistair Mackenzie, the same golf architect who designed Augusta National of USA, where the Masters is played.

The Golf Tournament was part of the IV Festival of India ( 3-13 December) which concluded yesterday. The India Festival has become a Brand in Buenos Aires. The Borges Cultural Centre where we had the handicrafts exihibition and sale by 40 Indian companies looked like Chandni Chowk of Delhi, with thousands of people bargaining with the smart Indian exporters who quoted prices ...looking at the eager eyes of the Argentines.

The winners were given hand-made trophies made in India by the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts( EPCH). The raffle winners loved the Bronze statues of Ganesh and Nataraja gifted by EPCH.

There were 30 items which were raffled including Dinner coupons at the Indian restaurants, Indian handicrafts and most importantly two return airtickets to India by Qatar Airways. Four more tickets of Qatar were raffled at the India- Latin America seminar and at the Festival Gala on 5 December.

In the cocktail, we served the Chateau Hana wine made by Aziz Abdul ( my blog on him and Biriyani and Indian snacks from Tandoor restaurant. Mahindra Tractors were prominently displayed (among other Indian products) to catch the attention of the club members some of whom own many thousands of hectares of farms. Godrej, which has bought two Argentine companies distributed cosmetic bags with sunscreen lotion and other products. Economic Diplomacy....

The players were wearing proudly the Incredible India caps made (in style) by the India Tourist Office in NewYork.

In my speech, I could not resist the practice of my usual Latino jokes..
There are three kinds of players of golf and sex..
amateurs play 3 times..a week
professionals play 7 times..a week
married guys play 12 times...a year

This is my last Copa de la India in Buenos Aires. The memories of my golf in 65 courses in Argentina and the moments I shared with the Argentine amigos on the fairways and the 19th hole will stay forever. Argentina is the best country for golf in Latin America. Besides having the largest number of golf courses ( about 300) there is an eco system in Argentina which makes the golf experience unique. Firstly there are a number of internationally successful professionals to inspire and lots of low handicap amateurs to compete with. Secondly, the quality of golf courses and the clubs are excellent and elegant. Within 70 km of Buenos Aires there are around 100 golf courses many of which are part of country clubs where the amigos have weekend homes. Thirdly, there are a number of golf companies which organise tournaments throughout the year. The Tuesday edition of La Nacion and Buenos Aires Herald publish a Golf Agenda with the list of tournaments for each week. I have a number of enthusiastic Argentine amigos who are ready to play on any day of the week ending with ¨Y¨.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

celebration of 150th anniversary of Tagore in Buenos Aires

Tagore would have been immensely pleased with the way he was remembered in Buenos Aires on 10 December. There was Rabindra Sangeet by Sreyashi Mishra from Kolkatta, talk on Tagore- Victoria Ocampo by Axel Maimone, the Argentine scholar and recitation of Gitanjali poems by Gustavo of Hastinapur Foundation, Argentina. The setting for the celebration was perfect. It was in the garden of Vila Ocampo, the historic residence of Victoria Ocampo, where Tagore had met her and stayed as her guest for two months in 1924. The magnificent mansion with its beautiful garden, majestic trees and exotic flowers was shining in the golden rays of the evening sun. Even the the birds and insects in the garden joined in the celebration with their excited chirpings and singing.

Gustavo reciting Gitanjali...

In my speech I quoted this Tagore's poem,
Exotic blossom
I whispered again in your ear
what is your language dear
you smiled and shook your head
and the leaves murmurred instead
The audience had the opportunity to listen to the murmurrings of the leaves of the garden to the music of Rabindra Sangeet and the poems of Gitanjali. This splendid house and the fantastic garden filled with flowers had inspired Tagore to write his Purabi poems. The Exotic Blossom which had inspired and rejuvenated Tagore was Victoria herself.
Axel Maimone talking about the romance between Tagore and Ocampo

Victoria had inspired Tagore not only to write the Purabi poems but had also encouraged him to paint. She organised the first exihibition of Tagore's paintings in Paris in 1930 using her own funds and contacts.
Rabindra Sangeet by Sreyashi Mishra.

After the visit in 1924, Tagore and Victoria had exchanged a number of letters. Tagore had addressed Victoria as Vijaya and called her as ¨my bhaloabasa¨. Victoria started her letters with ¨Dear Gurudev¨ and ended with ¨your Vijaya¨. The easy chair which she gifted to Tagore is still in the Shantiniketan museum.
The Tagore- Victoria encounter was not just personal between the great poet and his admirer. It was the beginning of the literary and cultural encounter between India and Latin America. .

More on Tagore and Victoria in my blogs

Ketaki Kushari Dyson has written a book ¨In your blossoming flower garden¨ describing in detail the Tagore- Victoria relationship and reproduced their correspondence.
The Tagore celebration was part of the IV Festival of India 3-13 december, organised by the Embassy of India in Buenos Aires.
Gustavo recitation..

Friday, November 25, 2011

Malu de bicicleta - Brazilian film

I saw this delightful film ( Malu, the cyclist) at the Brazilian Film Festival in Buenos Aires yesterday. It is the story of Luis Mario of Sao Paulo who leads a merry Brazilian bachelor life with lots of affairs and no commitment. His lifestyle is changed when he is hit by a cycle in the Leblon beach in Rio. He falls in love with the Carioca ( inhabitant of Rio) cyclist Malu and wants to marry her. She comes to live with him in Sao Paulo but shuttles to Rio for her job. Malu is the female equivalent of Luis and is into her own adventures and tells him that while she loves him he should allow her privacy. But Luis is jealous and gets angry every time she introduces a handsome guy as her friend. His friends tell him, ¨those who are unfaithful should be prepared to face the same from others.¨ Unable to restrain Malu, Luis goes back to his old ways and casual affairs. He is caught by Malu when he has sex with her best friend. Malu gets back to Rio, only to find Luis on her cycling path again.

It is a typical love-lite Brazilian story reflecting the free spirit of the Brazilians. There is delicious romance and great humour in the backdrop of the spectacular Rio scenery.

Before this film, they showed a short Brazilian film ¨casa de horas ¨ which was also equally interesting. A old lady living alone is crying that her son forgot her birthday and cannot come to greet her. There is a phone call from a pharmacy chain salesman trying to sell her their Card. She tells him to call him the next day at 4 pm. When he calls, she starts telling him about her life. Then she starts calling him every day to talk to him, since no one else calls her and talks to her. When the salesman does not receive the call, she speaks to the other salespeople in the company telling her story. It becomes the talk of the sales team who become afraid of her calls. One day they call her house to be told by her son that she is dead. The sales team goes to the burial ground and cries. The son of the old lady is perplexed and dont know who they are. Cute little story.

I hear from my Brazilian friends that the Brazilian film industry is booming and the Brazilian audience for their films is increasing. Viva Brasil....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Un amor ( one love ) - Argentine film

The film Un amor (one love) released this week, true to its name, is about one love - but involving three people. Lisa the daring adolescent girl initiates friendship with two boys Bruno and Lalo. Her preference is for Lalo but when he does not respond to her fully, she goes to Bruno and has sex with him. Then she resumes sex and deeper contact with Lalo causing heartburn for Bruno. But the two friends Lalo and Bruno do not fight over her and kill each other. They manage to contain their jealousy and get on with life. The three go out together and indulge in adolescent adventures and outings happily.
One day Lisa leaves Argentina with her parents and goes off to live in Brazil, Venezuela and USA. She returns to Buenos Aires for a conference after 30 years and as many lovers and boyfriends. She meets with the two ex-boyfriends, who are settled in life. The arrival of Lisa unsettles them and revives their memories. The three go back to the place where they had played together as adolescents and relive the nostalgic moments. After a few fun and emotion packed days of being together, the three go back to their lives.
It is a film for hopeless romantics.. like me. A simple and delightful two stage story of adolescent love and old age nostalgia. No drama, fights, tragedies or extreme emotions. No eternal love. No Romeo and Juliet. No dialogues of ¨I love you. I need you¨. It is just pragmatic life taking love as it comes along. The mutual feelings are sincere and genuine.
There are no shrinks or psychoanalysis in this story as happens in many Argentine films. The three characters try and adjust according to the circumstances without hurting each other too much, both during their adolscence and in old age. There is no clear line between love and friendship. An undefined love...

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Orillas - Argentine film

This new film Orillas (shores or borders) released yesterday was an eye opener for me and, I guess, for many Argentines and others too.
It connects the traditional culture of West Africa with the cults of modern Argentina. Benin, the west African country and Argentina, considered as the most European country of Latin America are worlds apart from each other. But the film brings out an incredible link between the two. There are two parallel stories of two boys, one in Benin and the other in Argentina. Babarimisa, the boy from the Yoruba community of Benin is sick and needs heart transplantation. Being unable to get proper medical treatment, the poor mother of the boy takes him to the local priest and subjects him to the traditional religious curative practices. In these scenes, there is vivid and fascinating description of the ceremonies and rituals practised in West Africa.

The Argentine boy Shantas lives in Villa Tranquila, a slum in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. He takes to crime, robbery and gangsterism. At the same time, he believes in the cult of a slum priest who practises a mixed worship of virgin and some local and African icons. It is a combination of elements from catholicism and other ideas of the delirious priest who is drunk most of the time. The priest brainwashes Shantas saying that he is a special immortal person chosen by god. After he witnesses the rape of Shanta's girlfriend the priest tells him that she has been punished by god and she has become dirty. The angry youth rejects the girlfriend when she comes crying to him. This enrages the girl who tells her uncle that it was Shantas who raped her. The uncle goes to the slum and shoots the boy. An Argentine voluntary organisation which helps with transplants in Africa gets the injured boy before his death and transports him to Africa and gets his heart transplated to the African boy. The grateful African mother wants to see the body of Argentine boy who has given his heart to her son. She screams in astonishment ¨Ssango¨seeing the tattoo on his chest. It is the figure of the god worshipped in her place. The film ends with this incredible coincidence between Africa and Argentina.
The Argentine boy's story brings out the degeneration of the slums which breed crime, drug addiction, mindless violence and gangsterism. It is similiar to the scenes I saw in the the famous Brazilian film City of God (cidade de deus). The action and style of life of the poor but violent slum kids is shocking but realistic. The scenes in the film are similiar to the real life images caught by police security cameras and shown in the TV channels.
Pablo Cesar, the Argentine Director has a message to convey through the film. He reminds the Argentines the forgotten story of the Africans who were brought to Argentina too as slaves. But the African population, small though, disappeared and their history forgotten. Of course, these were very insignificant in number compared to Brazil and the northern parts of South America.
Pablo Cesar, who worked on this film for three years with a shoestring budget has done a remarkable job in bringing out the amazing coincidence between the cults in modern Argentine slum life and the African traditional life. He has done it with extreme sensitivity respecting the feelings of Africans. For me, this was the first time I saw the West African ceremonies and practices which are so colourful and fascinating. The African characters speak in their own Yoruba language (these are subtitled in spanish)and this gives an authentic feel. It was interesting to see that the West Africans bow like the Japanese while interacting with each other. The African songs and music, especially when the mother is on a boat and in the hospital are so poignant. The African mother Morenike is an unforgettable character.
It is not only the cult which is common to the Argentine slum and the African country. The poor people in both countries share the same poverty, misery and suffering. If you are poor, it does not matter in which country you live. Pablo Cesar's theme transcends Argentina and Africa; It is universal.

Pablo has made an extraordinary film using ordinary people without any famous actors. Diana from the embassy too has appeared in the film as Teresa, the mother of the girlfriend of Shantas. I should also compliment Jeronino Toubes the script writer for some of the memorable dialogues in the film.
Argentines are certainly the leaders in Latin American cinema at this moment. I have seen a number of interesting Argentine films. It is remarkable that the Argentines are able to produce some great films despite their meagre budgets ( the government of Argentina provides subsidies to the film industry) and poor revenues. They have compensated for the lack of funds with admirable creativity. Un Cuento Chino ( a Chines tale) by the famous actor Ricardo Darin is one of my favourite Argentine films. His film ¨El secreto de sus ojos- the secret of your eyes¨won an Oscar last year. I hope Orillas will win the Oscar this year.
Orillas has been selected to be shown at the India International Film festival in Goa later this month. Pablo Cesar has been invited to present his film at this Festival. I am confident that it is going to be a hit there. I have not heard of any Indian films shot in West Africa. The Indian audience will find some of the rituals shown in the film as similiar to the ones practised in India too. As a child, I have seen and been part of such practices myself in my village in the interior of Tamilnadu.
The next project of Pablo Cesar is to make a film on Rabindranath Tagore's visit to Argentina in 1924 and his romance with Victoria Ocampo who took care of Tagore. He has already worked out a great story combining Tagore- Victoria encounter with a parallel story of the contemporary Argentina. I am confident that he will do justice to this film titled as ¨Thinking of him¨ with his exceptional talents and admiration for Indian culture.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Medianeras (sidewalls) - Argentine film

I was one of the seven people in the village cinema of Buenos Aires on Monday to watch this film released last week.
It is about urban loneliness in an Argentine way. The film starts with the buildings of Buenos Aires; some Parisian and others ugly, some planned and others chaotic, some tall and others short, some with wires going all around and others with wireless connections, some with glass and steel and others with plants growing in the walls. It draws the conclusion that the Porteños ( inhabitants of Buenos Aires) are also like the buildings.
The hero Martin, a web designer spends most of his time confined to his apartment and doing everything through his computer; work, playing games, communication, purchases,dating and sex. The only company for him is the dog left by his ex-girlfriend. The heroine Mariana is a failed architect who dresses mannequins in store windows. She also spends most of the time inside her tiny apartment. She becomes so neurotic that she cannot get even orgasm. her mind goes into many things even during sex. Naturally both of them are eminent characters for psychoanalysis, which is the favourite theme of Argentine writers and film makers.
It is a delightful and typically Argentine film.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

El Estudiante ( the student ) - Argentine film

It was a new experience when I went yesterday to see this film which was released last week. In my four years of stay in Argentina, this was the first time I saw the cinema hall was full. What is even more interesting is that this is an independent production without any subsidy from the Argentine film institute.

As the title indicates it is about a student Roque Espinosa from the interior of Argentina who joins the Buenos Aires University. He has no particular trajectory to pursue and drifts around. The only thing he discovers and enjoys is the easy sex with girls from the campus. This changes when he falls in love with a teacher who is a hardcore ideologue. She introduces him to the student union politics. He discovers his political talents of campaigning, mobilising and leading others and becomes a leader in his own right.

The director of the film Santiago Mitre who is also the script writer, has given a vivid portrayal of the university life, youth and politics of Argentina. The hot debates, arguments and fights are realistic.

The success of the film is an inspiration to the other independent film makers of Argentina.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lia Diskin, the Gandhian in Brazil

Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary will be celebrated on 2 October this year for the 30th consecutive year by Lia Diskin and her organisation Palas Atena in Sao Paulo. This is a commemoration with a difference. It is not a one-day affair. It is called as Semana de Gandhi (Gandhi Week) and more often the celebrations go on for two weeks and some times a month. It is not a mere ritual or a show of garlanding the statue, paying eloquent homage in a comfortable hall and forgetting it till the next October. For Lia Diskin, Gandhism is a celebration and commitment throughout the year. It has become her mission in life. Gandhi is not history for Lia. She sees his message as relevant for the future. She believes that Gandhi's ideas and practice of non-violence are preventive remedies for the future of the Brazilian society which is facing serious problems of violence and crime. The criminalisation of young minds in the favelas (slums) is brought out vividly in the famous Brazilian film City of God (cidade de deus) which is based on real life stories. Lia Diskin has the firm conviction that sowing the seeds of Gandhian values among the children and youth will help to prevent the infection of their mind. The focus of the Semana de Gandhi is, therefore, children, youth and education. The venues of the events are schools, prisons, streets and public spaces. The events are organised in collaboration with educationists, intellectuals, government authorities, artists, civil society activists as well as with UNESCO.

Here are the list of their activities during the Gandhi week this year from 30 September to 27 October. ¨ The art of life consists in making of life an art ¨ is the Gandhian quote to inspire this year's celebrations and so there are more artistic activities this time.

- Drum Ensemble by the youth group Rede Beija Flor

-Words from Gandhi – talk by Hamilton Faria, poet and anthropologist

- Sketch: Gandhi receives Kasturbai’s letter in prison – actors Joao Signorelli and Meeta

- Indian Music – by Meeta Ravindra group

- Kathak Dance – by Meeta and Gyaneshree

- Play by actor Joao Signorelli who impersonates Gandhi and leads the audience through his life and ideas.

- Video-dialog by Luiz Goes who shows Gandhi videos and invites discussion

- Talking about Gandhi with mediator Joao Moris

- Poems of Rabindranath Tagore -reading by Joao Moris

- Instrumental and vocal music –by Krucis

- Culture of Peace in Education - Awareness Raising Walk

- Several sessions for treatment of delinquent youth

- Indian classical dance – Silvana Duarte

- Storytelling: An Indian Tale about Shiva – Tininha Calazans

- Sumi-e painting and crafts workshop

- Talk by Egberto de Almeida Penido, a judge

- Children’s Choir

- Floral offering to Gandhi statue. The public is being invited to come by cycle and avoid car.

Lia Diskin believes that non-violence is a practice and a constant educational process. She explains this to me, ¨ Within the culture of violence in which we are steeped, we hardly notice the abuses we commit on a daily basis. Violence is not a destiny. It is a choice. This is why it is important to add in the school curriculum itself Education for Non-Violence and Living Together in harmony with others¨. She is convinced that this education will bring about a change in the mindset of people in the same way as the education on environment has made us conscious of this theme starting especially with the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

Lia Diskin and her educationist collaborators have devised special courses for the government schools and teachers on development of ethics in their curricula and daily routine. Under this project, named as “Priceless Values and Gandhi and Non-Violence” 40,000 teachers have been trained in the state of São Paulo. They have a programme of monthly seminars called as “Values for Coexistence”. Both the projects have institutional support from UNESCO. Palas Athena is also involved in the UN “Human Safety” programme through projects such as “Open Doors” and “Peace Wants Partners”. These have been held in favelas and prisons.

Palas Atena has established Culture of Peace Committees to pursue the goals of UNESCO’s Culture of Peace Decade. This inspired the creation of the Parliamentary Culture of Peace Advisory Boards, active in the São Paulo Assembly, and in several other Brazilian cities, such as Curitiba and Londrina. These boards include representatives of the civil society, religious institutions and non-governmental organizations besides the members of the state or municipal assemblies.

Palas Atena has taken initiatives to apply Gandhian ideas in the health sector too. In partnership with the Municipal Health Department, they have trained over 5000 health professionals of hospitals and basic health units.

More information on Palas Atena in their website:

Lia Diskin with school children, in the picture below:

One of the most memorable projects of Palas Atena in which I had the opportunity (when I was the consul general in Sao Paulo 1996-2000) to collaborate, was with the military police of the state of Sao Paulo. We sent to every one of the 85,000 military police of the state a ten page write-up of Gandhi's message of non-violence in Portuguese. We organised seminars, workshops and essay and poetry competitions for the police personnel. The military police who faced violent criminals and dangerous situations in their daily job found the practice of non-violence by Gandhi as fascinating and inspiring. It provoked them into new ways of thinking and challenged their conventional wisdom. They started looking into the causes of the violence and minds of the criminals going beyond their professional instinct to catch and punish them. They saw possibilities of redemption for the criminal minds with a new Gandhian approach. They poured out their heart in the essays and talked about the difficult and painful situations they had faced in their work. Some of their poems were intensely emotional and moving. The Brazilian public was excited by the entry of Mahatma Gandhi in the mind space of military police. The police department was very happy with the project and its impact on the mindset of the police.

The second project in which I had the privilege to collaborate was the publication of the autobiography of Gandhi in portuguese. Lia had got the book translated in modern Brazilian portuguese by four eminent Brazilian scholars who divided the work among themselves. The SESC Pompeia auditorium, where the launching event was held, was overflowing with more than 400 people. A delegation of Indian Parliamentarians who were visiting Sao Paulo at that time was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the audience inspired by Lia Diskin. They could not believe that the book of Gandhi would attract so much serious interest in the distant land of Brazil. The book has been reprinted several times since then to meet the increase in demand.

The auditorium of Palas Atena is called as Mahatma Gandhi Auditorium, where I had made my first public speech in Portuguese language on Gandhi. Several Gandhian scholars of India have given talk there. The library of Palas Atena has the largest collection of books on Gandhi. They also have a publishing house, with many titles on Gandhi, non-violence,culture and peace. Palas Atena gives regular courses on philosophy and holds cultural and spiritual events, seminars and workshops. Education, art, human rights, environment, ethics and multicultural and religious exchanges are the principal themes of the activities. Yoga, meditation and Indian classical music and dance are also organised in the auditorium. Lia Diskin took the initiative in the establishment of Gandhi Square in Sao Paulo city with a garden and statue of Gandhi, seen in the picture below.

Lia is the author and co-author of many books on education, peace, ethics and culture. Her book, ¨Paz, como se faz? ¨( peace, how to make?) has been adopted by schools in six states of Brazil and has seen sale of 500,000 copies. Another book “Cultura de Paz – de reflexão à ação” (culture of peace- from reflection to action) was published by UNESCO and the Brazilian Ministry of Justice.

Lia Diskin is a true Gandhian in her public and personal life. She pracises what she preaches. Her favourite Gandhi quote is ¨ Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony¨. She has devoted her life completely and selflessly to social service. Like Gandhi, her mind and heart are anchored in profound philosophy, ethics and morality. With an open mind, she has imbibed both western and eastern wisdom and is an admirer of Dalai Lama. At the same time, she applies her principles pragmatically to find practical solutions to social problems. Her child-like smile, kindness, enthusiasm, energy and optimism bring cheer and inspiration to street children, delinquent youth and prisoners.

Born in Argentina, Lia Diskin and her husband Basilio Pawlowicz moved to Sao Paulo in 1972 . They established Palas Atena for social service and study of philosophy. They run an orphanage in Sao Paulo called as Casa de Pandavas (House of Pandavas). The orphans are showered with affection and personal care by Lia and Basilio who do not have their own children. Lia lives a simple and modest life with a strict Gandhian discipline. She is a vegetarian. She is not in the cocktail circuit nor does she use her work for any personal publicity. Her interest in Gandhi started early as a child after she read books on Gandhi. She was inspired by the autobiography of Gandhi and was totally taken by the idea of a person with such commitment to truth. She told me, ¨I never found a philosopher with such earnest desire and serious sustained effort to translate truth into daily life¨.

Lia Diskin was an invitee at the Satyagraha centeneray celebrations in India in 2006. She was one of the dozen global personalities invited in 2007 by India to address the United Nations in New York which declared 2 October as the International Day of Non- Violence. She was given the Jamnalal Bajaj award in January 2011 for her service to people in the Gandhian way.

Here is Lia Diskin with her Jamnalal Bajaj award at the Consulate of India in Sao Paulo

Mahatma Gandhi developed his method of non-violence during his stay in South Africa. Then he took it to India and practised it successfully to get independence for the country and uplift the Indian society. Lia Diskin has brought the Gandhian message to Brazil and made it relevant for Brazilian situation. This triangular Gandhian connection adds another dimension to the IBSA (India- Brazil- South Africa) alliance of the three countries which share democratic values and developmental challenges as well as common agenda and aspirations.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Pondicherry Tamil from Paris, born in Vietnam, producing Argentine wine in Mendoza

¨I am a foreigner in any country¨, This is how Aziz Abdul responded with a smile when I asked him to which country he belonged. ¨What is your mother tongue?¨. He smiled again, greeted me in Tamil, switched to English with heavy French accent and then completed the conversation in fluent Spanish. He was born in South Vietnam where he lived for the first fifteen years. He speaks Vietnamese like a native. His mother is half-Vietnamese and her mother local Vietnamese. His father, a Tamil from Pondicherry. When Saigon fell in 1975, his family lost everything. They went back to Pondicherry and started a new life running "Chez Aziz" a gourmet restaurant . Aziz went to the French school there and improved his Tamil language. He went to Paris for higher education. He studied mathematics and thereafter computer science at the University of Orsay. He fell in love with Najma from Madagascar who was studying Sanskrit in Paris. I raised my eyebrows … With his trade mark smile, he said Najma chose to learn Sanskrit since she wanted to get back to the root of her original country. She is an Ismaili muslim of Gujrati origin and speaks fluent Gujrati. They have two daughters. Aziz has named his wine Chateau Hana, a combination of the initials of his family- H- Hema his first daughter (his wife is a fan of Hemamalini), A- Anjuli, the second daughter, N- Najma, the wife and A for Aziz.

Aziz produces high-end wine which sells for 90 pesos ( 22 US $ ) in the wine shops of Argentina. His wine is served in the upscale hotels such as Park Hyatt and in exclusive restaurants and high-end wine shops in Buenos Aires, Bariloche, Mendoza, Mar del Plata, Cordoba and Rosario. Info on his wine

He is planning to start exports soon. How about exporting to India?, I ask him and he beams with yet another smile. When we served his wine at our embassy receptions, the guests were ecstatic. We told our guests, it is an Argentine Wine made with Indian hands and spirit.

Picture: Aziz in El Paraiso ( paradise ), his house on the left, winery on the right and vineyard behind.

Aziz worked for 20 years in the IT department of the French multinational group Lagardere. But he did not want to end up life staring at the computer screens. He wanted to become his own boss and longed to have a quiet life in countryside. He was saving money to pursue his dream- to own a vineyard and make his own wine.

Aziz Abdul…drinking and making wine? I could not hide my puzzle. Aziz smiled again and started another story. It was his father, a Muslim who enjoyed alcohol and let his son also follow. He was liberal and cosmopolitan and inspired his son too. While studying in Paris, Aziz tried wine and liked it. He was a frequent visitor to the cellar of the home of one of his university friends. He was very excited to drink a 21- years old Morgon on the 21st birthday of his friend. The taste for wine lead him to explore the vineyards in France and beyond. He visited the wineries and got to meet wine makers such as Alexandre Thienpont and Denis Lurton. He studied viticulture and enology.The taste for wine became a passion. As soon as he had the minimum savings he started looking to buy a vineyard. The French and European ones being expensive, he tried India. He visited the wine growing areas of India hoping that he would be able reroot himself to his fatherland. But it did not work out.

Thereafter, Aziz came to Argentina, the fifth largest wine producer in the world. He bought a 15- hectare vineyard on the outskirts of San Rafael city in Mendoza province in 2008. He put up a brand new boutique winery, with a capacity of 85, 000 litres. He is into his fourth crop this year. He grows malbec, cabernet sauvignon and bonarda varietals. He manages the farm himself with the help of a local husband-wife pair who live in the farmhouse. During harvest season, he hires extra help. He takes the help of an Argentine enologist too. He uses certain French practices in the growing of grapes, pruning of the plant and in the making of wines, different from the the local Argentine way of doing things. He enjoys taking care of the plants and the processing with an eye for every detail. Aziz's favourite quotation ¨God had created water, men the wines- Victor Hugo¨.

Aziz has integrated well in the small town San Rafael society. He speaks fluent spanish and has made a number of friends. While he makes upscale wine he himself leads a simple life. He enjoys working with his own hands in the vineyard and the winery. He literally breathes the aroma of his wine every day and night since his house is full of wine cases all around. When he gets time, he plays tennis and goes for skiing in winter. He is connected to his family in Paris by skype. His wife shares her time between the husband in Argentina and the daughters who live in their apartment, a few blocks from Eiffel tower in Paris.

Like Aziz, many foreigners are investing in vineyards in Mendoza for the pleasure and pride of having their own vineyard and boutique winery. Of course, it is a solid investment too, given the constant appreciation of the price of the land and the profitability of wine business. Aziz had bought the vineyard from an American investor. A few retired people also settle down in the farm houses surrounded by their own vineyards or spend a few months every year. The Argentine prices are affordable and vineyards and land are available. There is no restriction on foreign investment. Aziz's own investment in the vineyard and winery is about 500,000 dollars. The cost of living in Mendoza is low while the quality of life is excellent with peaceful atmosphere and friendly local people. The climate is perfect for the grapes with warm days and cold nights and sunshine throughout the year.

The Argentines have started producing and exporting more wine in recent years. Their exports reached 864 million dollars in 2010. The Argentine wines are getting more recognition in international markets. It has overtaken the Chilean wines in the US market. Malbec has become famous around the world as the signature wine of Argentina.

I spent two days last month visiting his vineyard and listening to his stories over many glasses of Chateau Hana wine. After this, I have become an admirer and started calling him as Che Aziz. In Argentina, Che is a colloquial way of saying ¨friend¨, as Che Guevara.

Cheers…Che Aziz…