Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sion Fort

Sion Fort
History, for some reason, has always been associated with north India. In fact, a constant grouse voiced by those who come to visit Mumbai as tourists from that part of the country is that "there isn't much to see here." True, we are nowhere close to competing with the legends of the North Indian plains and their long list of rulers and heritage sites or with the artistic temples of the South. But spread across the city are lesser known and some completely unheard of forts which are sure to keep the history buff in you satiated. 

The Sion Fort is one such fort which is located within the immediate suburbs of Mumbai. The original name of Sion in Marathi is "Shinva" (शिनवा), which is also known as "Sheev" (शीव ), which means a boundary or an entrance to a city or a village. Sion is one of the seven islands of Bombay and formed the boundary between Bombay and Salsette Islands. Due to its strategic location at the absolute end of the Bombay islands, the area was fortified to act as an outpost and lookout point. 

It is located at the summit of a conical hillock and hence the Sion Fort was provided with a small watchtower and one breastwork with 9 to 10 guns, 60 soldiers and 1 captain. Old Gazette records say at the borders of Sion, there was a large gate with a police station. This gate was closed once the cannon was fired at eight pm in the night and the gate was opened when the cannon was heard in the morning. At the mid level, a large fresh water tank was provided which acted as a catchment area of water from the hill top thereby supplying water to the soldiers stationed at the fort. This tank is now dry and overrun with vegetation and can be accessed by means of a flight of steps. There are several small chambers to provide respite from the harsh climate with pitched roofs with country tiles and barge details, similar to the ones which are often found in the Goan-Portuguese house below the main tower. 

The fort commanded the passage from Bombay to the neighbouring island of Salsette and was of importance while the Marathas possessed the island, but it now only serves to beautify the scene. An alternative panoramic view from the vantage of Sion Fort, the view opens out to the island of Mahim. In this scene, the walls of the fort dominate the foreground, with the curving line of ramparts and imposing cannons mounted in the battlement wall. The rising staircase and buildings behind the gun carriage are surmounted by a flagstaff asserting British sovereignty over the island. Now, you get a good view of the refineries and salt pans on the east and an aerial view of the Eastern Express Highway. 

The rock-like bastion at Rewa Fort
The fort was built by the Portuguese and occupied by the Marathas and then handed over to the British under the Treaty of Salbai in May 1782, who retained it for a century. The fort was subsequently strengthened by Sir George Oxiden, the Governor of Bombay in 1668 and then by Gerald Aungier who supplied the forts of Mazgaon, Mahim and Sion with cannons. Two of these cannons still exist at the base of the hillock. 

The Sion Fort has two ramparts: the Rewa Fort and the Sion Tank. Traditionally, the Rewa Fort has been considered as part of the Salsette islands. Salsette originally consisted of dozens of smaller islands--its local name in Marathi, "Shashti" means "66 villages" which were separated by swampland. The places where the sea entered are between Rewa Fort and Mahim, Worli and Mahim Woods and between Breach Candy and Love Grove. At its Northern Extremity, the Bombay island is joined to that of Salsette by the Sion Causeway and the railway line parallel to it and by Lady Jamshedji's causeway to Bandra. A causeway from Mahim Fort at the Northwest extremity is continued eastwards past Rewa via Sion. The fusion of Salsette into Bombay was brought about through massive land reclamation projects which began in the 18th century and by the early 1900s, they had become one single island, divided from the mainland on the North by the Vasai creek and on the East by the Thane creek. Presently, the Rewa Fort has been ravaged due to the forces of nature leaving behind just a large rock-like bastion. The land that houses the Rewa Fort has been taken over by the Sion Ayurvedic College which now has a garden where medicinal plants and herbs grow as these are prescribed in the syllabus taught by the college. Hence, access to the Rewa Fort has been blocked completely in order to preserve the sanctity of the garden and the plants. 

The Sion Tank is also a partial part of the Sion Fort. The tank is surrounded by a Bhavani Shankar temple and a tiny orange coloured idol of Lord Brahma. Most Shiva temples in India have a water body either in the form of a tank, river, pond or lake. According to mythology, it is believed that having a water body in the premises of the temple helps cool down Lord Shiva who is otherwise known for His destructive anger when in the form of Rudra. Before the Eastern Express Highway cut through this sacred land, this was one continuous spiritual place which had seven ponds around it of which only one survives today. 

The Sion Fort is located at a walking distance from Sion station and you need to walk eastwards towards the Sion Flyover to reach the fort. The way up to the fort is like walking in a park and has an easy level climb up. The fort is in a dilapidated condition with broken steps, scattered walls and ruins, overrun by trees and excessive ground cover and is marked with lots of graffiti. Despite this, it makes for an ideal location especially for photographers looking for a view of the Eastern Express Highway. 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Movie Review: Water

The 2005 Canadian film "Water" directed by Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is set in the temple town of Varanasi known as Benares in 1938. Child marriages were a common occurrence then. The film depicts the hardships faced by Hindu widows of that time. Much of the story is told through the innocent eyes of eight year old Chuyia (Sarala). 

The Indian text "Manusmriti" defines the life of a woman as someone who is perceived as a natural extension of her husband. It says if her husband dies, a woman has three choices: a) she is considered as half dead and therefore has the right to jump into the funeral pyre, b) she can marry his brother or c) live in complete isolation. If she decides to live her life in isolation, the ascetic part, she enters an ashram for the widows, tonsures her head and adopts white clothes as the colour of mourning.

The eight year old Chuyia is recently widowed and her parents bring her to this ashram where widows across all age groups stay together. In this ashram, her head is tonsured and she is made to embrace white and is made to sleep on thin mats on the floors. The widows struggle to even earn their livelihood by begging for alms and by singing religious hymns on the ghats. Chuyia does not understand what has happened to her and often asks the question why she cannot stay with her parents. 

Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) realizes Chuyia's plight and takes her under her wings. The film introduces to a foul-mouthed Patiraji whose fondest memory is eating sweets as a child, we then meet Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a young and attractive widow who is forced into prostitution by the ashram head (Manorama). The eunuch Gulabi (Raghubir Yadav) supports the matron's stand and takes Kalyani to the house of the rich men in lure of money. In a very different way, we are shown how Kalyani befriends Chuyia and invites her to play with her dog Kaalu on the second floor. Next, we meet a good-looking Narayan (John Abraham), a law student and a supporter of the "Civil Disobedience Movement". Narayan yearns for a lover which is met through Kalyani. Their romance plays out on the banks of the Ganges, in the narrow and winding ghats, amid rains etc. 

As a film, Water marks the end of the Elements trilogy of Deepa Mehta (the previous two being Fire and 1947 Earth). It is a bi-lingual film shot both in English and Hindi with some fine music by AR Rahman though I missed his background score. As a film, it depicts the damage caused to human spirit which happens when texts like Manusmriti are treated as timeless. The film exposes how dignity and basic human rights are concealed and denied under the garb of religion. 

Summing up, the story is deftly woven and the film is a beautiful structured narrative aligned with some stunning cinematography. The way the actors have acted in the film add an extraordinary richness and lend the film a deep complexity. 

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Movie Review: Do Aankhen Barah Haath

The 1957 Hindi film "Do Aankhen Barah Haath" is constructed on the basis of the saying by Mahatma Gandhi: "An eye for an eye will make the world" and is based on Gandhian philosophy. The film is a fine example of middle cinema. It begins with 12 blood-stained hands being pasted on the prison walls. The film follows the tale of 12 prisoners and one jail superintendent Adinath (V. Shantaram). The jail superintendent Adinath is in the process of reforming the 12 criminals. These criminals are charged with brutal crimes and this film focusses on the human aspect of the criminals who feel they are nothing less than born jailors.

The twelve jailors are taken to a dilapidated country farm where they are assigned the task of converting barren land into a piece of cultivable land in order to rehabilitate themselves through hardwork and kindly guidance. He is faced with lot of opposition from senior employees but it is his faith in the human spirit that encourages him to rehabilitate them. A majority of his mission is accomplished when the criminals become successful in converting a barren patch of land into cultivable land by growing fruits and vegetables. 

The movie has a very serious tone to it and hence the only female lead is Champa (Sandhya). Sandhya is a toy-seller and when she appears on the screen, there is music or dance providing some respite from the serious tone prevailing through the film. Considering that the film has 12 male characters, she is often a victim of eve-teasing by the criminals. Despite the general practice of having a love interest, Sandhya is not depicted as having any emotions for Adinath. The film does not have any dull moments due to its intense and deep storytelling structure. 

The film focusses extensively on the two eyes of Adinath which are taken in long shots. The symbolism of the two eyes and twelve hands is brought out wonderfully. It is the superintendent's eyes that the twelve hands fear the most. There is this exceptional scene in the movie when the criminals run away but they return back only because of the fear of the two eyes of Adinath which bring them back. The faith that they place in him is so immense that they would dare not betray him. 

The film is a well-rounded classic despite the film lacking in technology and being in black-and-white. It is a very revolutionary film based on a premise and a message which it conveys through the course of the film which is hailed as modern even today. The message about reform of criminals and addressing the humanitarian side of criminals. "Do Aankhen Barah Haath" is a true epic though it addresses the conflict of good v/s bad. Its storytelling and the moralistic tone makes it pathbreaking. The film was inspired by Italian neo-realistic cinema movement and is a deeply dramatic, sensitive and artistic film.