Monday, December 2, 2019

A Piece of India in Manila!!: A Spectacular Night of Classical Dance, Music, and Food!

- November 10, 2019, Sunday.

- It is always a delight whenever I get to attend Indian events all around Metro Manila, since I feel that I am getting in touch with my past life, at least, if you believe in that sort of thing. Kidding aside, these events give me more chances to interact with the cultures of India and of course, the members of the Indian community as well. This time, I was once again invited by Natya Mandala to attend a solo Bharatanatyam dance performance, held in RCBC Plaza.

- Natya Mandala is the premier and currently the only Indian classical dance school in the Philippines. Its founder and teacher, Mrs. Shanti Sreedhar, is an award-winning Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dancer. Bharatanatyam is one of India's oldest dances, dating a few thousand years young, and is known for its extensive dance vocabulary expressed mainly through its hand gestures or mudras. Though originating in South India, the Bharatanatyam is well-loved by many Indians outside the region, and is studied by Indians in and out of India, as well as other non-Indian enthusiasts.

Mrs. Shubra Chatterjee, our emcee for the night.
Opening the event by lighting the candles/lamps.
The statue bears the image of Shiva Nataraja, which is Shiva's incarnation as the "Lord of the Dance."
H.E. Jaideep Mazumdar, the ambassador of India to the Philippines.
- This particular solo dance performance featured young Somya Duggal, the 22nd student of Natya Mandala to perform an "Arangetram" in the dance school's history. This was my second time to witness an Arangetram, and it was such an honor to be part of Natya Mandala's and Somya's milestone. I wrote about my first Arangetram last year (click here); allow me to lift a few lines from my previous Arangetram post to explain what an Arangetram is: "[a]n "Arangetram," which means "ascending the stage," is a kind of rite of passage ceremony in the world of Indian classical dance. It is a debut solo performance by a disciple; think of it as the solo performances students of music conservatories do, or solo exhibits that art students organize before they graduate [...] Once the student or disciple has successfully done this performance, the student "graduates" a level and can actually perform by themselves. However, in order for them to professionally teach or choreograph, they have to continue learning and understanding other principles and nuances of the dance form. They must learn other forms of "margams," or the traditional path of the Bharatanatyam repertoire; it is a course or a set in which several Bharatanatyam numbers are arranged in a particular way." For Somya, it took 9-10 long years of hard work, dedication, and perseverance, with a dash of color, a pinch of radiance, and heaps of spirit before being able to have her own Arangetram!!

- As an Arangetram being staged in the Philippines is also an honor of the Indian community, the performance was attended by important people from the Indian community and friends of India, such as H.E. Jaideep Mazumdar (the ambassador of the Republic of India to the Philippines), Dr. Ramon Acoymo (Program Director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines National Music Competition for Young Artists (NAMCYA); and Member and Chair of the Philippine Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Technical Panel for Music,) and Mr. Diwakar Gupta (Vice-President of the Private Sector Operations and Public-Private Partnerships of the Asian Development Bank). Indian performing arts rarely have their share of the spotlight in the Philippines; by supporting schools like Natya Mandala and encouraging students like Somya, future generations of the Indian community may be encouraged to be torchbearers of culture and pass it down to even younger generations.

A pose from the Mallari, or invocation dance.

Mrs. Sreedhar sits on a small stool at the side of the stage, and plays the beat of the song.
Incredible balance!
- The set of the stage was quite simple - a statue of the Nataraja on one side, and a small stool on the other side, where Mrs. Sreedhar would sit and play the rhythm of the songs. The backdrop, however, was what wowed the audience: Somya's family brought in (an giant image of) the rainbow-painted Meenakshi Amman Temple to RCBC! The Meenaksi Amman Temple is a 13th-century Hindu temple located in Tamil Nadu, the birth state of Bharatanataym. This temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, the fish-eyed incarnation of Parvati, the wife of Shiva.

Larger than life image of the Meenakshi Amman Temple.

Portraying Kali, Parvati's wrathful incarnation. Look at her facial expression!!
A pose from her Jathiswaram number, which is an abstract dance form.
- As per tradition, most of Somya's dances were drawn from Hindu mythology. Those who are familiar with characters and gods from Hindu mythology may be able to recognize certain poses as they portray certain items (ex. flute, trident, big ears, lotus, etc.) or attributes (ex. wrath, playfulness, etc.) closely linked to these characters. I always enjoy watching the Hindu tales I know come alive on stage, especially through the talent of a well-trained artist!

Bharatanatyam costumes always fancy me. Just look at the details front and back, top to bottom!!
Teacher and student.
Shiva Nataraja pose.
What a kick!!
Invoking the divine. This is exactly what I look like when I need divine intervention in my life haha.
Lord Krishna, who is always shown with his flute.
I love the lighting here.
- Apart from the Hindu nature of most dances, and the abstract nature of some, it was interesting to know that the dances chosen for an Arangetram usually have something to do with the background of the teacher or the student. The dance numbers performed by the student may be dance routines taught by the teacher's mentor (as a tribute to the mentor of the mentor,) dances with characters or movements that reflect the nature or characteristics of the student, perhaps a certain god followed by the teacher or student, and so on. Sometimes, dances may also be inspired from certain temples and the sculptures found in those ancient temples.

Another Shiva Nataraja pose.
Presenting a token of gratitude to Mrs. Sreedhar.
Paying respects.
The "Thillana," a dance with fast footwork and sculpted poses.
To be a Bharatanatyam dancer, one must be able to show plenty of emotion through the face, apart from movements.

A simple stage with a world created by the dancer.
- After the performance, Somya was given her certificate, and all were invited to have a sumptuous vegetarian Indian dinner at the reception hall. I was able to catch up with my former Hindi teacher, and my former student. The best moment of all? Meeting Somya herself!! I was starstrucked, probably because it was my first time to see a Bharatanatyam dancer up close (with costume and all)!! The funny thing was, when she sat down to have dinner at my table and started talking to her family members and companions, it reminded me that despite the impressive emotional maturity shown on stage, Somya was still a regular kid, one who could do big things.

Awarding! That's Somya's family, with Mrs. Sreedhar and Mrs. Chatterjee. 
Lighting was bad huhu, but this was my attempt to have my photo taken with the image of the Meenakshi Amman Temple.
With my amazing Hindi teacher, Mrs. Goswami!!
With Somya!
With my former student Sparsha.
And of course, none of this would be possible without Mrs. Shanti Sreedhar of Natya Mandala!
- Although the Bharatanatyam performance was the last of a string of activities that I had to attend that Sunday, the Arangetram awakened my tired soul and inspired me to not stop pursuing the arts. I hope that there will be more performances like this and other Indian cultural activities, so the Philippines can get to know India a bit better. After all, both countries are celebrating the 70th anniversary of Philippine-Indian bilateral relations this year, though Philippine and Indian linkages have been around for centuries!!

Friday, November 15, 2019

(Part 4) Zamboanga's Zest and Best!!: Zamboanga's "Latin" City Center

- Nov. 2, 2019, Saturday, All Souls' Day.

- There are surely lots of things to see and do in Zamboanga City, and despite the reputation of the city and the whole region of Mindanao, Zamboanga is surprisingly safe! After all that I've seen and done in the past three days in Zamboanga, there was one place that I had not been to; this is probably one of the most important landmarks of Zamboanga City, not only for its appearance but for its function. How could the city function well without - the city hall!!

- The city hall was built in Zamboanga in 1907 and was used as a city hall since 1937. Though it was built during the American colonial era, its appearance was inspired by hispanic colonial architecture. Normally, it might be possible to go inside the city hall to take a look, but it was a holiday when I went there so I wasn't able to go inside.

- I was still able to take nice photos of the city hall's facade from the small Rizal Park across the city hall. (No, this is not Rizal Park/Luneta, in Manila, but yes, it is one of the many parks in the country named after the national hero, Jose Rizal.) The park is normally closed, but I was able to talk to the gardener who happened to be there, and he told me that I could perhaps ask permission from the guards at the city hall, especially since I was alone. Fortunately, the people at the city hall were nice, so I was able to take perfectly-angled photos of the city hall.

It's decorated with vinta sails.
I tried to wear something Filipiniana-like to match the colors of the city hall.
Rizal Park.
Rizal is on top.
Another photo, taken near the Rizal statue.

A closer view of the city hall's "tower."
The seal of Zamboanga shows various aspects of its society: the religious harmony between Muslims and Christians, the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of the Pillar (Nuestra Senora del Pilar,) the City Hall itself, the vinta, and of course, tuna.
- Feeling hungry, I had my breakfast at the McDonald's across the city hall. Although eating at McDonald's is nothing special per se, the building that houses this particular McDonald's is. Built in 1928, it used to be the building of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia, and China.

The old Chartered Bank building, repurposed. They do this a lot in other countries like Europe or even in India or Japan.
It's right across the city hall.
- After finishing my photoshoot and my breakfast, I walked back to my hotel, passing by Plaza Pershing which is located right behind Rizal Park. Plaza Pershing was named after Gen. John Pershing, an American general who took part in the Philippine-American War. Although the plaza looks like a regular park or city square, it was built as early as 1915! While it is known today as a park with fancy gazebos and fountains, it used to be the place where illegal trade and prostitution took place before the park was renovated and rehabilitated in 2012. Who would have thought that a place shrouded with darkness and sketchiness is now a family-friendly park!

Plaza Pershing.
One if its gazebos.
- I went back to my hotel and rested before one final visit to the Canelar Barter Center, the top place to go in Zamboanga to buy souvenirs not only from Zamboanga, but even Malaysia and Indonesia. Although I had a slightly traumatic encounter during my first day (click here for Part 1) as I sort of "caused" a fight and a commotion in the trade center, I had a rather funny encounter on my last visit. It was the second time I bought from this young Muslim lady, who was covered from head to toe except her eyes, and she was so happy that I decided to buy from her again. She told me that I should say hello to her when I see her in the streets (I didn't tell her I was leaving Zamboanga that day,) but I pointed out, kindly, that I wouldn't be able to do that since I can only see her eyes and I might say hello to another Muslim lady by mistake. She realized that it would be nearly impossible for me to do that, so she said that she can say hello to me instead - or maybe I can recognize her voice! You know, Muslims, like many people, can be funny too. They don't always have to be the stereotypical "terrorist" that most people think of when they hear the word "Muslim." Anyone, regardless of religion can do bad things if they decide to, and likewise, there are many people - Muslims included - who just want to smile, laugh, and enjoy life as any regular joe! (The words "Islam" and "Muslim," by the way, come from "salam," meaning peace, making Islam, supposedly, a religion of peace, and Muslims being peace-loving people.)

Many many many many things to buy!!
The reason why my my travel funds were drained. HAHA.
- To cap of my stay in Zamboanga, what better way than to have another must-experience dish. A popular breakfast dish, but definitely can be enjoyed all day, the "satti" is a common comfort food for the Zamboanguenos. "Satti" is related to the Malaysian word "satay," and refers to meat skewers, usually chicken or beef. In Zamboanga and surrounding regions, these skewers are served with a thick sweet-spicy gravy and puso' broken into little pieces (puso' refers to rice cooked inside woven palm leaves usually taking the shape of a cube, diamond, or pyramid; the rice takes the shape of the woven palm leaves.) Satti is best eaten in a satti place, which normally appear as simple no frills neighborhood restaurants. They usually open early in the morning (around 3 or 4AM) to cater to working people, especially fisherman. According to my Zamboangueno friends, the best place to eat satti is at Jimmy's Satti Haus along Pilar Street - which fortunately was just a few small blocks away from my hotel! It has been serving good satti since 1998. I ordered a chicken satti and some sticks of beef satti. The sauce/gravy and the puso' pieces were, of course, part of the meal. Satti places are also quite popular since their food is more often than not affordable. I think my meal was just 90PHP!!

Doesn't look too appetizing but wait until you taste it!!
No frills.
The white stuff inside the bowls are the little pieces of rice from the puso'. Puso' normally looks like the the ones the red basket to the left of the photo. Those woven leaves have cooked rice inside. They get the cooked rice inside, and throw the leaves in the blue container below the table.
Chicken satti (with some sticks of beef satti above.)
Since 1998.
- I finally said goodbye to Zamboanga after lunch when I got my things from the hotel lobby and rode a tricycle to the airport. My face was bright pink from being sunburnt, and I coincidentally wore a bright pink polo shirt that matched my skin tone. I looked like Peppa Pig at the airport. However, I can say that the tired body, the sunburnt face and arms, as well as the heavy hand carry luggage + my check-in baggage that grew twice its weight when I came to Zamboanga (but did not go overweight!!) were all worth it! Zamboanga City is one of the farthest places in the Philippines that I have been to and I was more than happy that I got to explore it, even for a few days. However, I normally tell people that I refuse to go back to Zamboanga for two main reasons: the food is so great that I get fatter every 10 minutes, and the shopping is great that my wallet becomes empty after 10 minutes!! I hope you'll consider Zamboanga City the next time you plan to go somewhere within the country (for my Filipino friends,) or the next time you visit the Philippines (for my foreign friends)!!

- Don't forget to read about my other adventures in Zamboanga City!!

Part 1, Food Coma, Shopping Coma, and a Bit of History: here

Part 2, Zamboanga's History, Society, and Culture: here

Part 3, The Pink Sand and Colorful Vintas of Santa Cruz Island: here