About: the world this week, 16 January to 22 January 2022, Volcanoes, Hostage-Taking, Indian Classical Dance, and the flames of India’s War Memorial.


Volcanoes Erupting

Tonga, officially called the Kingdom of Tonga, is a Polynesian country in the South Pacific Ocean: an archipelago consisting of about 169 islands, many of which are uninhabited. It is 1800 km from New Zealand’s North Island. Tonga has a population of about 104500, with 70% living on the main island, Tongatapu.

Most of the islands have white beaches, coral reefs, and are covered with tropical rainforest. Tongatapu, is protected by lagoons and limestone cliffs. It’s home to the rural capital of Nuku’alofa, as well as beach resorts, plantations and the ‘Ha’amonga’a Maui’, a monumental stone coral gate trilithon-an ancient structure consisting of two large vertical stones supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top-called the Stonehenge of the Pacific.

Last Saturday, an undersea volcano, called, ‘Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai’, which was in deep-sleep for the past seven years, woke-up and erupted in what is believed to be the biggest on Planet Earth in the past 30 years. It triggered a tsunami, which waves flooded Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa. The volcano spewed volcanic ash blanketing the country’s islands, posing a serious health risk, and contaminating water supplies. The fury of the volcano left the country reeling under the impact.

Tonga has experienced a succession of natural disasters, in recent years. In 2018 Cyclone Gita-a Category-5 tropical storm-ripped through the islands; in 2020 Cyclone Harold severely disrupted normal life, and now this. Thankfully, loss of human life was a minimum.

Tonga is a very devout nation, with most Tongans belonging to a Christian Church. They need to get their prayers together to shake the might of God above. If faith can move mountains, surely it can stop an undersea volcano in its fiery, reckless track!

Hostage Taking

On 17 January, this week, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, a British National strolled in to the Beth Israel Congregation in Colleyville, Texas, United States(US), as it live-streamed its Sabbath morning service on Facebook and Zoom, at around 11 am. Using a fire-arm he took four people, including the Rabbi, as hostages, disrupting the religious service. And began a ranting standoff with police for more than 10 hours. He released one man, unharmed, at about 5pm. Then an FBI Hostage Rescue Team swung in to action, entered the building, and killed the hostage-taker, safely rescuing all hostages.

Malik Faisal Akram demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86 year sentence at a nearby facility in Texas. She was convicted in 2010 on seven charges, including attempted murder and armed assault on US officers in Afghanistan.

Aafia Siddiqui is a Pakistani scientist who graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, and obtained a doctorate from Brandeis University. She was taken into custody, for questioning, by the Afghan National Police in 2008, who said they found handwritten notes referring to potential targets of a ‘mass casualty attack’. When a group of Americans attempted to speak to her, she grabbed a US soldier’s rifle and opened fire on the interrogation team. However, no one was hit.

A jury in the United States found her guilty, leading to the 86 years prison sentence. Over several years, there has been many protests for her release, one argument being that she was framed.

Malik Faisal Akram was given to believe that an attack on Jews would stir the US into releasing Aafia Siddiqui, as he was convinced that Jews pulled the strings in Government. Experts say truly believing various anti-Semitic tropes could have led to the situation, and we need to continually call out various kinds of damaging slurs anytime we hear them.

Indian Classical Dancing

In India, when you mention ‘Kathak’ the name that immediately springs forth and dances in your mind is, Birju Maharaj.

Kathak is one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance. The term Kathak is derived from the Vedic Sanskrit word ‘Katha’, which means ‘story’. Kathak dancers tell various stories through their hands and extensive body movements, but most importantly through facial expressions. It also calls for nimble footwork.

Kathak is one of the most difficult classical dances of India. The Sangeet Natak Academy – India’s doyen and apex body which promotes the arts – recognizes eight classical Indian dances: Bharatanatyam, Kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Kathakali, Sattriya, Manipuri, and Mohiniyattam.

The music that accompanies a Kathak performance is, by traditional Indian instruments such as Sarangi, Sitar, Manjira, Tabla, and Harmonium. Kathak is found in three distinct forms, called ‘Gharanas’, named after the cities where the Kathak dance tradition evolved: Jaipur, Benaras, and Lucknow. While the Jaipur gharana focuses more on the foot movements, the Benaras and Lucknow Gharanas focus more on facial expressions and graceful hand movements. That’s Kathak for you!

Pandit Birju Maharaj, India’s finest exponent of the classical Kathak dance died of a heart attack in Delhi this 17th January, at the age of 83. He was the torchbearer of the Kalka-Bindadin Gharana of the Lucknow style of Kathak dance, and was also a composer, singer, and choreographer. Initially, his name was ‘Dukh Haran’, which was later changed to ‘Brijmohan’, a synonym of Krishna. Along the way, Brijmohan Nath Misra was shortened as ‘Birju’.

He also revelled as a singer, poet, orator, painter, and an outstanding drummer – playing the Tabla and the Naal. He played the Sitar, Sarod, Violin, and Sarangi with no formal training. Beyond all this, he was a master story-teller.

A man of his calibre has to be crowned with numerous awards, and Pandit Birju Maharaj was no exception. He was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award at the age of 28 (one of the youngest to receive the award), and received the Kalidas Samman, Nritya Choodamani, Andhra Ratna, Nritya Vilas, Adharshila Shikhar Samman, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Shiromani Samman, and the Rajiv Gandhi Peace Award, apart from an honorary doctorate from Benaras Hindu University. He was also awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian order.

The world of Indian cinema turned to this genius whenever it required authentic Kathak dance to carry forward its storyline.

Pandit Birju Maharaj choreographed exquisite sequences in iconic Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’: one featuring Amjad Khan-the Gabbar Singh of Indian blockbuster, Sholay fame – as Nawab Wajid Ali Shah surrounded by his queens. The other featuring a solo by Saswati Sen – a senior disciple of the Pandit. He also choreographed Bollywood Actress Madhuri Dixit twice, once in ‘Dil Toh Paagal Hai’, and again in ‘Devdas’ – Kaahe chhed. A song, ‘Aan Milo Sajana, sequence in the Hindi film ‘Gadar: Ek Prem Katha’ was also guided by him.

Pandit Birju Maharaj won a National Film Award for Best Choreography in 2012, for the song ‘Unnai Kaanaathu Naan’ in the Tamil film Vishwaroopam where he taught Actor Kamal Hassan-a talented dancer himself-Kathak steps. Following through, he won the Award again for the song, ‘Mohe Rang Do Laal’ in the Ranveer Singh-Deepika Padukone starrer, ‘Bajirao Mastani’.

For the Pandit, dance was like connecting with the Almighty and he preferred to stay away from rauchy songs. Kamal Hassan was the only male actor he has ever choreographed for.

Pandit Birju Maharaj had a passion for cars and gadgets. He would have become a superb mechanic if not for the heavenly pull of Kathak. He could effortlessly knock down Televisions and Mobile Phones and assembly them back with the ease of a dance movement. He was a big fan of Hollywood movies, with Jackie Chan and Sylvester Stallone being his favourites.

The Pandit stayed active on Stage and ran a Dance School, ‘Kalashram’, until his death. He leaves behind five children- two sons and three daughters, and five grandchildren -on the last count. His wife passed away, 15 years ago. Sons Deepak, Jai Kishan, and daughter Mamta are prominent Kathak dancers. Girls are not permitted in to the Kathak family tradition but Mamta danced firm, was persistent and relentless and carries forward the tradition in her own way.

The Flames of a War Memorial

The landmark, India Gate in New Delhi was built by the British in 1931, when they colonised India, as a War Memorial for British Indian soldiers-90,000 in total-who died between 1914 and 1921 in the First World War, in France, Mesopotamia, Persia, East Africa and elsewhere, and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The names of 13,300 servicemen including some soldiers and officers from the British Army, are inscribed on the walls of the gate.

After independence in 1947 and following the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1972, a structure consisting of a black marble plinth with a reversed rifle, capped by a war helmet and bounded by four eternal flames, was built beneath the archway. This structure, called Amar Jawan Jyoti-Flame of the Immortal Soldier-has since 1971, served as India’s tomb of the unknown soldier. On normal days one of the four burners are kept alive, but on important days like the Republic Day, all four burners are fired. This flame is called the Eternal Flame, and has never been extinguished.

In 2019, India built The National War Memorial near the India Gate as a national monument to honour and remember soldiers of the Indian military who fought in armed conflicts of independent India. The names of 25,942 armed forces personnel killed during the armed conflicts with Pakistan and China as well as the 1961 War in Goa, Operation Pawan, and other operations are inscribed on granite tablets in golden letters and an eternal flame was lighted here to honour them.

This Friday, India merged the Amar Jyothi flame with the Eternal Flame at the National War memorial. This because the names of all Indian martyrs, from all the wars, including 1971, and wars before and after it are housed at the National War Memorial. Hence, it is only fitting to have the flame paying true tribute to martyrs at one unique place. One Sun is great, imagine having two Suns?

More classic, flaming stories coming up in the weeks ahead. Sing and dance with World Inthavaaram.


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