Thursday, September 20, 2018

Snapshots from Europe: Life on streets of Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius is picturesque and so are its people. The enchanting buildings are made even more beautiful by the people who inhabit it. Presenting from today, a series of photographs and articles captured during my travel to these wonderful countries and the cities within.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Fruit of Summer

Mamta Chitnis Sen deciphers the popularity of the summer fruit mango, and its distinct cult status in the eastern and western regions of India.
As summer approaches the Indian continent, the first question on everyone’s mind is ‘When are the mangoes coming?” For, every Indian firmly believes that summers are all about mangoes and mangoes
alone. The essence of a perfect Indian summer lies in the number of mangoes consumed!
Every summer, mango markets across the country go on an overdrive, sourcing and selling the fruit to its avid consumers. Although the Alphonso variety tops the list, other commercially bred kinds of mangoes too boast of their own following. Though it is popular knowledge that the Alphonso mango or hapus (as it’s called in Maharashtra) is the king of mangoes, there are also several other varieties of mangoes in the country that too demand equal recognition and respect.
While steering away from controversy over which mango is the best in which state, it would be much easier, for now, to narrow down and make a fair comparison between the fruit in the two opposite regions of the country, namely, the western (the Konkan area of Maharashtra from where the famed Alphonso hails), and the eastern region of Bengal which lays claim to having cultivated the famed Himsagar and Malda mangoes.
To begin with, mangoes bred in both the western and eastern part of India boast of a distinct taste and flavour, each different and unique in its own way.
The tale of Alphonso
We have all heard about the history of the making and the naming of the Alphonso mango after Alfonso De Alburquerque, the Portuguese military general who led sever- al invasions in the 1600s, including that to Goa which was occupied by Portugal for a long time. The fruit first came to Goa and from here travelled further down to the districts of Konkan, Ratnagiri and to various southern parts of India. Interestingly, several parts of the Konkan region now boast of their own Alphonso or hapus, the Devgad hapus, the Sindhudurg hapus, the Ratnagiri hapus etc.
According to a recent news report, the long ongoing battle over acquiring of the Geographical Indication (GI) tag for the Alphonso was put to rest by the Patents Office when the latter convinced the districts of Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri to share the tags between them than fighting over its exclusivi- ty. The GI is a sign that is put on products that originate from a specific region and possesses specific qualities and repute prominent to that region alone. Although the regions have agreed for now, it remains to be seen whether they plan to work together in this effort.
Interestingly in the Konkan region, as per reports published in the media, the market for the Alphonso mango is massive and huge. Reports suggest that annually, the Konkan region which has nearly over a crore of hectares of mango orchards produces mangoes worth ₹30 billion, half of which are exported.
Not many are aware that within the interiors ofKonkan region alone, there are a variety of mangoes being bred by non-commercial horticulturists in their own backyard, which are later on sold in the weekly village markets or beside the national highways to travellers. The figures for the sale of these remains unaccounted for — especially of the sale of varieties of the Rajapuri which is available towards the beginning of the monsoons across the state. The unripe ones are used mostly in sweet pickles.
The eastern story
Interestingly, towards the east of India too, mango remains one of the most sought after fruits in the state after the sweet and pulpy lychee. In West Bengal, the famed Himsagar mango enjoys cult status among other breeds of the fruit. According to authors S.K. Mitra, S. Mitra, B. Ghosh and P.K. Pathak who have penned the book Mango Cultivars and Hybrids Grown in West Bengal’, mango is the most important fruit of West Bengal state, occupying about 80.90 thousand hectares, which is more than 41 per cent of the total area under fruits. Unlike the Alphonso which entered Indian shores only about the 16th century, mangoes in Bengal have found prominence from as early as the seventh century, courtesy the many nawabs and zamindars who ruled here.
The district of Murshidabad is known to have introduced and nurtured over 100 varieties of mangoes, (many grafted) under the eye of the Nawabs who dominated the area until the colonial rule took over. The Nawabs were known to cultivate mango orchards as part of their culture, and even today one can find these mango orchards spread across some of their properties that lie empty and forgotten.
In Murshidabad district alone, mangoes are grown over 26,000 hectares. The ones sold include the commer- cially grown varieties of Langra, Fazli, Champa, Bhabani and many more. The Lakshman Bhog mango which is attractive in colour and having a sweet taste tops the list of the most coveted mangoes in the state. Bengal’s famed Himsagar though is considered to be the most superior of all the fruits, both in terms of taste and the exquisite aroma it generates. Interestingly, Himsagar here is regarded as the king of mangoes.
Devoid of fibre, the pulpy fruit which is golden yellow in colour, has inspired several poets to pen down poetry and dedicate songs to it too. The fruit is known to be ripe and rich for consumption only in the second week of May, till the end of June. It is grown in the districts of Hooghly, Nadia and North and South 24 Parganas, and interestingly, enjoys the GI tag as well.
Similarly, mangoes cultivated in the district of Malda, specially the famed Malda mango, enjoys equal prominence amongst mango lovers. And every summer, local markets in the district are brimming with buyers of the fruit from all corners of the country.
Last but not the least, irrespective of which region the mango hails from, the fact remains that this summer fruit is an integral part of our culture. Without the Indian mango, one surely cannot get through the long and hot Indian summer for sure!

Oh, those summers!
Mamta Chitnis Sen reminisces about the good old days when summer vacations meant visiting relatives, and creating memories for a lifetime.
SUMMER holidays as I recall, were all about tempo- rary migration to the homes of relatives residing faraway. An out-of-town trip to a village or a city, depending on the residence of the host, was on the agenda of every Indian family. Unfortunately, times have changed.
With the slow decline of the joint family system, families today are spending their Indian summers in overpriced and overhyped crowded hill stations in the country and abroad. Today, nuclear families flush with dual incomes, are opting to vacation in exotic destinations. So much so that families prefer showcasing their tailor-made holidays complete with picturesque movie-like locales, on social media.
Interestingly, summer vacation- ing in India has become more of a competitive affair. Vacationing in the homes of your near and dear ones has become passé. Renting out someone else’s home via Airbnb and Homestays appear to be much more fashionable and in demand.
Visiting the ‘native place’
I still recall the time when as children we used to visit the homes of our relatives in the summer holidays to bond
with family members over games, afternoon siestas, and of course enjoying the many seasonal fruits that grew in the
backyard. While I would spend one part of my summer with my maternal family, the remaining would be spent with my
paternal ones. Believe it or not, it was later in life that I realised that these visits unknowingly laid the foundation for my love for travel, good food and good conversation. My summer vacations groomed me, bit by bit, into adulthood. They also helped in understanding life when things often didn’t go as planned.
My strongest memories of my summer vacations remain those spent with two men who influenced my life to a great deal. Gaja (short for Gajanan) mama was a strapping handsome young man in his early forties, who had given up a flourishing career in photography due to an asthma problem that refused to go as he grew older. Gaja mama was in fact my mother’s uncle. The second amongst four siblings (three brothers and a sister), he spent most of his time at home taking care of his siblings who were well into their thirties, which included a visually challenged younger broth- er, and a sister who suffered from minor health issues every
now and then. None of the siblings married and hence found companionship with each other, waltzing happily through life. They lived in a middle-class nondescript neigh- bourhood next to the ruins of the legendary Vasai Fort.
Their home was simple and wasn’t much to look at except for the large balconies at the entrance and the exit. In the summers, when I would visit Gaja mama, I would see him lovingly take care of this home – he cooked, he cleaned, he gardened, he sewed and embroidered the curtains and bedsheets. His place of pride was the garden he nurtured, with different varieties of plants and flowers.
Gaja mama remained a bachelor his whole life, but he took good care of my cousins and I, like a seasoned parent. In the evenings, after treating us to the local delicacy, the golas (ice candies), he took us for walks at the fort. Here he would explain the history behind each and every stone in the ruins that lay around. The desolate fort, against the backdrop of the sunset, and the stories he told, would appear to come to life.
He also made it necessary for us to learn to stitch small handkerchiefs on his old, hand-operated Singer sewing machine. He saw to it that we had our meals on time, and that we made it a point to read every classic English novel before the vacation ended. He introduced me to the art of gardening and the pleasure that comes in seeing the first bud of plant that shoots up to the sky.
Gaja mama who loved his job immensely and had to give it all up at a young age, instead of being bitter with life, tried to find joy in the simple daily rituals of life. He believed that when life pushes you to a corner, you mustn’t
believe it to be the end. There will always be something else to live for and look forward to.
The other man who was a great influence on me during my visits every summer was my father’s younger brother, Ashok, whom we all fondly called Bhaiyya kaka. A banker whose main job was sanctioning loans to farmers, Bhaiyya kaka, bored with the red tape he was subjected to in his line of work, quit his job one fine day, only to retreat into the jungles of the Western Ghats to convert a 26-acre mountain into a paradise.
For someone who had never farmed in his life, he soon began to grow mangoes, cashews, chickoos, jackfruits, lemons and every other fruit and vegetable one could think of, on his farm. Not only did he experiment in creating new varieties of mangoes, but he also tried his hand at landscaping his farm in different hues and designs. It wasn’t long before agriculture experts and students from agriculture colleges began making a beeline to his farm and him to study and witness his magic first hand.
Bhaiyya kaka too cooked, cleaned and gardened. He also took care to see that the many lands left by his ancestors to the family were not encroached upon by anti-social elements. He read voraciously and had an impec- cable taste for music – every morning we were woken up to the mesmerising voice of classical singer Kishori Amonkar. A bachelor till the end, and though he largely lived alone on the huge farm with only his music and books for company, he never seemed lonely. He familiarised me with the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and believe it or not, the songs of pop singer Samantha Fox too.
My time spent each summer with these two single men was an education in itself. Despite not having women by their side, they ran their lives effortlessly, at the same time lending a helping hand to whoever approached them. They did not believe in mediocrity, and excelled in whatever they did. These two men — one young and one old, defied their age and societal norms to live the life the way they wanted to, while not forgetting to pass on the values and experiences they had learnt from the generation before them, to us. Both men passed away in their mid-seventies, and their death left a void in me.
The ravages of time
Meanwhile Bhaiyya kaka’s farm is overgrown and is a jungle again. Ironically a court battle is now raging amongst his heirs for ownership of the land he cultivated his dream on. On the other hand Gaja mama’s Vasai home lies empty, shut and forgotten by the family, surrounded by tall, ugly, concrete skyscrapers.
I finally had a chance to visit Gaja mama’s home with my two teenage daughters this summer, after a gap of decades. Strangely, it wasn’t what I had been describing to them over the years. The house was derelict and falling in places, while the garden, which he had cherished, had long died. The only thing remaining were the memories he had left behind.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mamta Chitnis Sen featured in Les Femmes Folles

Les Femmes Folles


Mamta Chitnis Sen shares with LFF about working as a journalist, her work focusing on the changing rural landscape of India, her exhibition currently on display at Kolkata’s Indian Council for Cultural Relations, feminism and more…

Where are you from? How did you get into creative work and what is your impetus for creating?
I am originally from Mumbai, India and have been a working journalist for most part of my life, writing and covering various political and social events across the country. Although I have been attracted to art since childhood it was only in 2011 that I got myself enrolled into Sir J J School of Art to understand the various nuances of painting and formally began unleashing my creativity on canvas. My works are mostly in oils and acrylics on canvas (using a palette knife) and revolve around documenting the lives of people based in rural India and their slow and disappearing identities.  I have exhibited in various groups shows in India and recently in France as well.
My paintings are concentrated on the changing rural landscape in India.  The works are inspired by women farmers from the region of Sawantwadi, a former princely state in Maharashtra, India—where my ancestral home is based.  These paintings depict women farmers (of all ages and stages in life—single, married, ageing) attending to their daily chores in life in the fields– either alone or with companions, or in conversations with each other with the lush green fields forming the backdrop for their activity.  The blank faces of these women in the paintings are a symbol of how women farmers in India are devoid of their own voice and identity and how they continue to remain merely a minority, neglected and ignored.  The paintings highlight the plight of these women and their circumstances.I have been a journalist and the works are mostly based on my experience of having travelled to these regions and my observation of the same.  I have worked with The Sunday Guardian, Mid Day, Society magazine, Sunday Observor and recently headed Dignity Dialogue, one of India’s foremost national magazines exclusively for the 50 plus age group as its Executive Editor. I am presently handling Media Advocacy for Child Rights and You (CRY)—an organization working for the protection of rights of underprivileged children.   
Tell me about your current/upcoming show/exhibit/book/project and why it’s important to you. What do you hope people get out of your work?
My upcoming show is focused expanding the issue of marriage and the role of the woman in it. The works ‘Silent Brides’ are mostly concentrated on rural women specially from tribal communities in India where women irrespective of age has no say in the choice of her partner—the decision is merely taken as a means to survive just another day devoid of poverty.The first phase of my work is currently on display at Kolkata’s Indian Council for Cultural Relations. I hope to exhibit the entire show at the end of 2016.I believe people get the message that while on one hand women are fighting to empower themselves in all means possible, on the other hand there is a section of society which are struggling to reach this understanding. My paintings of women devoid of any facial features are juxtaposed with the landscapes they work in have been appreciated for their unique style by most and the feedback has been overwhelming. I am proud to say that a few of my works are now in private collections in countries such as South  Africa, France and Morocco. 
Does collaboration play a role in your work—whether with your community, artists or others? How so and how does this impact your work?
 Yes to some extent my travels to see these communities has in fact impacted my work and in my own way I have attempted to highlight their plight which has been very well received in the media as well.
Mamta Chitnis Sen: Off To Work
Do you think your city is a good place for women in art/writing/etc? What do you think is the best thing about your city for artists, and how might it be improved?
 Yes Mumbai is definitely the best place for women to feel motivated to take up art or writing. The city has been the breeding ground for many internationally celebrated artists since the early sixties and has the best of art galleries. The best thing about the city for artists is that it provides a bigger platform for artists irrespective whether they are beginners or established ones. 
Mamta Chitnis Sen: Silent Bride
Artist Wanda Ewing, who curated and titled the original LFF exhibit, examined the perspective of femininity and race in her work, and spoke positively of feminism, saying “yes, it is still relevant” to have exhibits and forums for women in art; does feminism play a role in your work?
 Yes it surely does. Feminism is a very important aspect of my work. My works are largely based on women farmers and how migration by their husbands/fathers has largely affected their social status and condition. This again due to my personal experience with them and having observed that although women can be landowners in absence of their male counterparts they are yet not been given the chances to make their own decisions in terms of the lands that they control.
Mamta Chitnis Sen: Fisherwoman
Ewing’s advice to aspiring artists was “you’ve got to develop the skill of when to listen and when not to;” and “Leave. Gain perspective.”  What is your favorite advice you have received or given?
 The favourite advice which I have received and in return give to others is, “Do not hesitate in believing in yourself and seek who you are. You may be surprised at what you are capable of!”   
See more of Mamta’s work:
Les Femmes Folles is a volunteer organization founded in 2011 with the mission to support and promote women in all forms, styles and levels of art from around the world with the online journal, print annuals, exhibitions and events; originally inspired by artist Wanda Ewing and her curated exhibit by the name Les Femmes Folles (Wild Women). LFF was created and is curated by Sally Deskins.  LFF Books is a micro-feminist press that publishes 1-2 books per year by the creators of Les Femmes Folles including the award-winning Intimates & Fools (Laura Madeline Wiseman, 2014) and The Hunger of the Cheeky Sisters: Ten Tales (Laura Madeline Wiseman/Lauren Rinaldi, 2015). Other titles include Les Femmes Folles: The Women 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 available on, including art, poetry and interview excerpts from women artists.