India’s Culture Calendar for 2014

Here is a list of unmissable festivals through the year in India, dedicated to arts and culture, local colour and just pure fun. Roll up your sleeves and join in the celebrations.

1. Jaipur Literature Festival
Where: Jaipur, Rajasthan
When: Friday to January 21

This month, all roads lead to Jaipur. Held at the Diggi Palace in the Rajasthani capital, the Jaipur Literature Festival is now in its ninth year and bills itself as “the world’s largest free literary event”. In the past, the festival has attracted celebrities ranging from the Dalai Lama to Oprah Winfrey. This year, the best-selling author Amish Tripathi (of the Shiva trilogy) and the Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri are likely to attract large crowds. Free entrance on registration on the website.

2. Kala Ghoda Arts Festival
Where: Mumbai, Maharashtra
When: February 1-9

KGAF

Now in its 15th year, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is drawing bigger crowds than ever to its myriad cultural performances, literary workshops, rows of street-food stalls and theatre events. It also includes children’s events, film screenings and heritage walks (Mumbai boasts dozens of colonial-era structures), all within the Kala Ghoda art precinct in south Mumbai’s commercial hub. Entrance is free.

3. Khajuraho Dance Festival
Where: Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh
When: February 20-26

Khajuraho
(image via)

Every year, classical dancers from all over India converge on Khajuraho, which is renowned for its cluster of temples from the 10th century. The week-long festival is simultaneously an ode to spring and to the subcontinent’s rich tradition of dance. Apart from traditional dance styles such as Odissi, kathak, Bharatanatyam and mohiniattam, recent years have included recitals with a contemporary twist.

4. Goa Carnival
Where: Goa
When: March 1-4

Goa
(image via)

Goa hosts India’s biggest street carnival early on in the year – a legacy from its days under the Portuguese. The music, dance, partying and merrymaking go on for three days just before the beginning of Lent. The highlights are the colourful parades in four cities: the capital Panaji, Margao, Vasco and Mapusa. Entrance is free.

5. Nehru Trophy Boat Race
Where: Alleppey, Kerala
When: August 9

Alleppey

The lazy backwaters of Alleppey in Kerala come alive during this regatta, introduced in 1952 and held on the second Saturday of August. Go early to grab a spot on the banks of Punnamada Lake, from where you can watch the thrilling contest among the long, narrow “snake boats”, each with more than 100 men at the oars and four at the helm. Ticket prices are usually announced later in the year (from about 60 rupees for standing space on makeshift bamboo decks to about 1,540 rupees for VIP access).

6. Ladakh Festival

Where: Leh, Jammu & Kashmir
When: September 1-15

Go as much for the stunning destination as for this festival itself. During this time, Ladakh (from La-dags, meaning the land of high passes) reveals its best secrets to visitors. Celebrations include ritual dances at the Buddhist monasteries, polo matches, archery contests, exhibitions of rare thangka (paintings on silk with embroidery) and music concerts. Entrance is free.

7. Prithvi Theatre Festival
Where: Mumbai, Maharashtra
When: Early November

Prithvi Theatre, originally set up by the Bollywood thespian Prithviraj Kapoor, celebrates the best of the performing arts during its annual event. It is usually held every November. Between performances, browse through the bookshop or sip chai at the cafe within the theatre complex. Tickets for the plays can be bought online.

8. Pushkar Mela
Where: Pushkar, Rajasthan
When: October 30 – November 6

Pushkar

With camel trading at the centre of all activities, the large fairground in Pushkar comes alive with makeshift food stalls, handicraft shops, fun rides and astrology booths. Don’t miss the quirky competitions – turban tying, the longest moustache and, of course, the camel races. Entrance is free.

9. Hornbill Festival
Where: Kohima, Nagaland
When: First week of December

If you haven’t visited India’s north-east yet, then attend the Hornbill Festival. The unique culture of Nagaland – one of the seven states in the region – is showcased in the form of music and dance performances, art exhibitions and sporting events. And if you have it in you, enter in the Naga King Chilli-Eating Competition. But be warned: trying to eat bhut jolokia (ghost pepper), one of the hottest chillis in the world, is not for the faint of heart. Entrance is 10 rupees.

10. Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Where: Kochi, Kerala
When: Mid-December

Biennale

There is already a buzz about the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale and there are high expectations of the newly named curator, the Indian artist Jitish Kallat. Not surprising in the least, given that Muziris gave India its first biennale (December 2012 to January 2013), for contemporary art, showcasing the work of 94 artists from more than 20 countries. Tickets cost 50 rupees.

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This was published in The National on January 14, 2014 as 10 Ways to Celebrate India.

Iftar fasting and feasting

Mhd Ali Road

As the sun sets on Mumbai and the muezzin’s call for the evening prayer rings out, signifying the end of the day’s fast, the party begins at Mohammed Ali Road. During the Ramadan, for both residents and visitors, all roads lead to this part of South Mumbai. Quiet throughout year, the entire length of the street comes alive with sights, smells and sounds during the month.

At Mohammed Ali Road, the colours of the food and the women’s glittering clothes contrast with the dazzle of the spotless white kurta, a long tunic worn by most of the men. The fragrance of ittar on hundreds of wrists competes with the smells of roasting meats and sugar-and-milk sweets.

The noise is overwhelming: hawkers selling food, vendors peddling cheap baubles, the clang of metal cooking pots, the crying of children and the voices of excited visitors. But just in front of Minara Masjid, under its twinkling lights, where the old men sporting white beards and solemn looks sit on benches collecting money from the devout, it is strangely quiet, even peaceful.

Small shops sell prayer caps with intricate patterns from Maharashtra, chikan (a style of embroidery) tunics from Lucknow, perfumes and ittar from Hyderabad. A young boy stands in front of a shop selling designer burkas, inviting customers in.

Shopping

ittar

If the men are there to socialise and eat, the women are there to shop for kohl, henna and glass bangles,as well as dates that come from Saudi Arabia. Traders from all over India set up shop along the street for the month, vanishing with the last rays of the sun on Eid.

But during Ramadan, the area is primarily about food. It is possible – indeed, enjoyable – to have a three-course meal here amid the noise and the crowd, starting with bread and soup and ending with sinful dessert, with meat and more bread in between. The narrow street is packed on both sides with food stalls, many of them so nondescript that identifying them would be difficult. The general advice from the residents is to follow your nose: you will never go wrong.

Mohammad Ali Road

meat

As with Alice in Wonderland, it is best to begin at the beginning – in this case, the tricolour kebabs at Azad’s Stall in the lane opposite the famous Suleiman sweet shop as you enter the road. It is not just about the colours – each variety is made with a different combination of spices. Known for its seekh kebab is Al Madina fast food, in the same lane as Minara Masjid.

Another eatery near the mosque is Chinese n’ Grill, a name as odd as it is misleading, given that it is known for its grilled chicken and nalli nihari (a thick stew with succulent mutton shank). There are also a few shops selling khichda(not to be missed, say ardent foodies), a dish similar to haleem, consisting of broken wheat, lentils and shredded beef, cooked in milk and subtly flavoured with onion.

Grab dessert on your way out from the famous Suleiman Usman Mithaiwala. The phirni (pudding made with ground rice) here comes in different colours and flavours such as mango and kesar (saffron). The malpua (fried pancakes), dripping with syrup, are particularly good. In fact, just watching the malpua being made is an experience in itself – the cook, with skill and lightning speed, pours the batter into the hot ghee to form perfectly rounded pancakes; once cooked, they are soaked in sugar syrup. Suleiman’s is also known to attract celebrities during this season – in the past, Hindi film stars descended on the sweet shop in droves. Legend has it there’s a kebab named after Salman Khan, though the stall vendors laugh when I ask.

rabdi

malpua

I remember reading that Suleiman’s had introduced low-calorie sweets during Ramadan for diabetics – but this is not the time or place to think of such unpleasant things as calories and cholesterol. Whenat Mohammed Ali Road, surrender to your senses.

Read my story on iftar at Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road

Battle of the beverages

It’s early evening, still a couple of hours to go before the sun sets. In a roadside stall, a blackened pan sits on a single stove, a brown sludgy mixture of milk, tea, and sugar brewing in it since morning. And in front of the stall, a dozen men of all ages exchanging the day’s news and gossip, the steam rising out from the tall glasses of chai in their hands. It’s a scene from any place, any time in India.

India has been a tea drinking nation for centuries, with a strong cultural connection to the beverage. Apart from the public social bonding ritual, tea is what is offered to guests at home, even strangers. The shifty peon at a government office will ask you not for a bribe directly but something for his chai-paani (literally, tea and water). In a lot of advertising in India, a cup of tea denotes the housewife’s “me time,” that time of the day when she finishes her domestic chores and puts up her feet for a few moments of quiet.

And why not? In India, tea is the cheapest drink after water and affordable to everyone. It can be had “spiced” (the way Indians like their food and drink) with a range of condiments – ginger, cardamom, pepper – and consumed as masala chai. A 2008 study on beverage consumption patterns in India (by ORG) shows that 83 per cent of all households consume tea.

But is that set to change? Starbucks, that enormous coffee conglomerate, has opened its first shop in India, in Mumbai. The brand, with outlets all over the world, had been eyeing the Indian market for years, finally joining hands with Tata Global Beverages earlier this year. It promises to use only locally sourced and ground espresso, and the company believes India has huge potential since coffee consumption at present is low; 100 gms per person per year as compared to 4.5 kg per person in the USA. Although Starbucks does sell a homegrown version of Indian tea called the Chai Latte, the focus is bound to be on the coffee business. The company also has plans to open more stores in Mumbai this year and New Delhi next year.

And just earlier this year, another storm has broken out inside the proverbial tea cup, with an announcement by the Planning Commission that tea was to be declared India’s national drink by April of next year. This is to mark the 212th birth anniversary of India’s first tea planter from the North Eastern state of Assam, Maniram Dewan, who also played an active role in the 1857 revolt against the British.

When this was announced by the Deputy Chairman Mr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, protests erupted everywhere, with different communities clamouring for the spotlight on their own drink. Milk!, said the co-operatives like AMUL from Gujarat in Western India, while Punjab up North voted for lassi (thick buttermilk, either salted or sweetened). In all this, the irony of the situation has not gone unnoticed; a country which cannot reach a consensus on a national language was attempting to force a national drink down the throats of its people. At present, the government has gone silent (some media reports say biding their time) on this whole national drink business. And the battle is still on, the Tea Board clamouring for exalted status, with others crying it down with their own choice of beverage, including coconut water and sugarcane juice.

Coffee on the other hand, was a not-so-common drink, expensive and consumed mainly in the southern states (locally called kapi), closer to the coffee plantation areas. It was this way till the first coffee shop Café Coffee Day opened in 1996, an exciting novelty. Suddenly coffee was hip and the preferred drink of young people everywhere in India. And tea, not so much anymore. With its various avatars, served hot and cold, with additions like chocolate sauce, cinnamon powder and even ice cream, coffee became all the rage despite high prices (starting from Rs. 80 or Dh5.5 for a cup). And the Barista chain followed soon, with outlets stocking newspapers and magazines, guitars and board games.

And it was not just the coffee that got in the young – the high spenders in this category – in droves. These cafes served a strong need gap, a place where people could linger all day over just a cup of coffee, book or laptop in hand. Coffee shops became the cool place to “hang out” with friends, conduct business meetings and even acted as venues for the traditional boy meeting girl for an arranged match. Today, Café Coffee Day (or CCD, as it is referred to) has over 1,200 outlets all over the country and is opening a new outlet almost every week.

As opposed to that, tea is mostly seen as the beverage made and consumed every morning at home or found in small roadside shops where people stop for a quick cuppa. It is also possible that Indian consumers have not developed a taste for flavoured teas / tisanes and still equate it with chai (brewed with milk and sugar). So what tea is floundering against now is not just another beverage but the young, peppy image that coffee has created for itself.

However, tea industry experts are not all that pessimistic. Sandeep Subramani, founder of Tranquilitea plantations and resort says, “We see a lot of people particularly in the age group of 15 to 35 moving over to coffee not just for the beverage but also the overall experience. However it does seem that a lot of them return to tea in their mid thirties. Perhaps this is when when people get more health conscious and are also looking to improve their wellbeing and quality of life. So the pattern of tea drinking in the country in the long term would remain steady and may even grow in the future. A major driving force for this is definitely the undeniable fact that tea is good for health.”

So in the midst of all the brouhaha over coffee, national drink or not, tea has been slowly making its way back into the consciousness of the young and affluent. And this has not been in a role it used to play in the past, that of a cheap stimulant beverage. There is a willingness to experiment with flavours and strength. The British tea company, Twinings, has recently come into India, beginning their launch with workshops to explain the finer nuances of teas, pairing each with different food flavours, much like wine.

There have also been several tea cafes and lounges that have mushroomed in the larger cities. They provide short eats along with a range of teas, and, unlike coffee shops, attract a slightly older, professional customer base. And tea estates are offering plantation holidays in places like Darjeeling in the East and Ooty in the South.

Tea is certainly not new to India. There are varying accounts of when and where tea was first cultivated here but most sources agree that it has been growing in the wild in the North Eastern areas since the 12th century. Although it was used for medicinal purposes by locals, this plant went largely unnoticed otherwise.

It was only in 1833 that Scotsman Charles Bruce discovered that the tea from India was of high quality, worthy enough to be exported back to the UK. And so began tea cultivation in India, managed entirely by the British. In the early 1890s, tea slowly began to get popular among locals too and when the railways came, consumption only increased accordingly, thanks to stalls in every station large or small.

When the British left, Indians took over the industry with ease and, since 1947, the tea production in India has increased by 250 per cent. After China, India is today the largest producer of tea with a cultivation of almost 990 million kilograms in 2011. Of this, roughly 20 per cent is exported and the rest consumed within India. This industry employs more than 2 million people in the plantations and factories, most of them in Assam and Darjeeling in the East/North East and in the Nilgiris in the South.

At present, there is tea on one hand, slowly brewing and dipping its way back into the popularity stakes and on the other, coffee that is getting more and more expensive but still popular among big spender groups like teenagers. And so, the battle of the beverages goes on.

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Published in The National – October 30, 2012 as Battle of the beverages

Also read: It’s time for tea

Vienna: My Kind Of Place

Why Vienna

Palace

Vienna consistently tops surveys as the best city to live in (most recently the Mercer 2010 “Quality of Living” survey of 215 cities). Vienna also keeps you guessing: classical or modern? Eastern Europe or unabashedly western? The glorious past or the vibrant present? The answer lies in the way Vienna has embraced all these avatars with ease and created its own identity as a world-class city.

With more than a hundred museums and palaces, it is hard not to be impressed by all the grandeur on display. Yet all this history and heritage sits lightly on Vienna. There is no better proof of this than the quirky Hundertwasserhaus, an explosion of curves and colours. Set in a quiet lane away from the buzz of the city centre in the Landstrasse area, this apartment building designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser seems to be Vienna’s way of thumbing its nose at the world that once thought of it as stuffy and boring.

A comfortable bed

Stay in style at the new Ring Hotel (+43 1 22122), which echoes Vienna’s current vibe of “casual luxury” perfectly. The hotel’s At Eight restaurant offers something called “aroma cuisine” that promises the experience of fresh, discernable and yet subtle flavours. Double rooms start from €219 euros (Dh1,142) including taxes.

Or indulge yourself with a room at the venerable Sacher Hotel (+43 1 51 4560). The Sacher checks all boxes: luxury, location, service. And food, of course. Even if you cannot afford to stay here (double rooms start from €395 [Dh2,060] including taxes), drop by the Sacher Café for a meal, or at the least for coffee and Vienna’s famous Sachertorte, a sinful concoction involving huge quantities of chocolate and apricot jam.

sachertorte

Finding your feet

The best way to see Vienna is on foot, since the city that visitors seek is enclosed within the compact ring of the Innerstadt (central district). Begin with the Hapsburg Palace and make your way from the rear exit through the maze of pedestrian streets. Walk on till you find the tall towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral looking benevolently down on Stephensplatz, the busy square that marks the centre of the town.

There are other ways of doing this too – the expensive choice (€40; Dh209 for a half-hour ride) is to clip-clop your way through the tourist sights in a horse carriage, with your driver doubling up as tourist guide. Or hop on to the yellow ring-tram that takes you on a round trip along the inner ring (€7; Dh37 for a single tour lasting 25 minutes or €9; Dh47 for a 24-hour pass) so you can mark spots that you find interesting to visit later. In the summer months there are cruises on the Danube, even going all the way to Budapest and back if you are up to it – but do not expect to see the Blue Danube: inside the city, dull brown is more like it.

The tourist information centre is behind the State Opera House, at the corner of Albertinaplatz, and has several counters with friendly and helpful staff.

Clip clop

Meet the locals

There is no question about this – head to a cafe, pick up a newspaper (you can ask for an English one if you don’t find it on the stand), order Melange mit Schlagobers (coffee with that mound of cream that screams calories and decadence) and watch the world come and go. Vienna is the original home of cafe culture – though Parisians would hotly contest this statement. Café Central at Herrengasse is where the movers and shakers of Vienna once used to hang out – and discerning locals still do.

A little German goes a long way in Vienna – so brush up on your basics.

Cafe Central

Book a table

The Le Ciel (+43 1515 809100) on the top floor of the Grand Hotel is known for its Austrian and French cuisine and comes highly recommended. A standard three-course evening meal would cost €48 (Dh 240).

However, the fashionable place-to-be-seen in Vienna is Fabios (+43 15322222) which is said to have brought “Italian chic” to the city. Its signature pasta dishes are between €16 and €20 (Dh 80 to 100) while their dish-of-the-day recommendations (stir-fried carpaccio of beef filet, for example) start from 25 euros (Dh125).

Shopper’s paradise

The long stretch of Mariahilferstrasse houses all the big brands and labels. Not surprisingly, it is one of the most crowded streets in Vienna. To see where and how locals shop, head to the 500-year old Naschmarkt (closed on Sundays) near Karlsplatz. It began life as a market for fresh fruit and vegetables and is now the place to buy cheeses, breads, olives, herbs and goodies from all over the world. When tired, rest your feet at one of the trendy restaurants and cafes inside the covered market for some authentic home cooking – Italian, Turkish, Indian, Japanese and local dishes. Also make sure to nip into Demel’s on the Kohlmarkt road to take home a box of Viennese chocolates.

Shopping

Naschmarkt

What to avoid

Concert tickets sold on the street by people dressed in Mozart costume – you can imagine the quality of the music peddled in fancy dress at bargain prices.

Don’t miss

Instead, go to the opera. The best thing is that you do not need to know anything about opera – just go for the experience or even simply to gawk at the opulence of the Royal Opera House. Locals book seats in advance (at the State Opera, tickets begin at 50 euros [Dh 250] and go all the way to 300 euros [Dh 1,500] and above) and dress up for the occasion while tourists have the option of walking in with jeans to buy inexpensive standing tickets for as little as five euros (Dh25) just a couple of hours before a performance.

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Read more here… Vienna: My Kind of Place in The National, July 02, 2011